EGYPT’S parliament has been shut for three years, leaving President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi to function as a one-man legislature. He’s invited his 90 million constituents to e-mail him with their concerns.
Citizens can submit their “inquiries about Egyptian affairs,” and Sisi will address them during his monthly televised speech to the nation, the presidency said in a statement last month.
With so much power centered in the former general, there aren’t many other avenues open to Egyptians. The two main nationwide political groups have been swept away in four years of upheaval. No date has been set for elections to replace the legislature closed down by courts in 2012, and it’s not clear which of Egypt’s 100 or so parties will be contenders.
“The current model of government rests entirely on the president’s personal charisma, military background and hyper- nationalist rhetoric,” said Yasser El-Shimy, a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“Virtually all executive and legislative powers are exercised by the president’s office without a modicum of power-sharing, accountability or oversight.”
Major parties banned
Hosni Mubarak’s ruling party was banned after the 2011 uprising, when protesters torched its offices. Two years later, a similar fate befell the Muslim Brotherhood. The broadest opposition group during Mubarak’s three-decade rule, it briefly held power after his fall but was then labeled a terrorist group and driven underground when al-Sisi led an army takeover.
The president’s e-mail hotline is part of a “wider strategy to enhance public dialogue” and isn’t meant to “substitute the role of the parliament,” his spokesman Alaa Youssef said. Sisi is committed to holding elections for the legislature “as soon as possible, and definitely before the end of the year.”
Sisi has presided over a steadying of Egypt’s economy after the worst slump in decades, and a rebound on its financial markets: the benchmark stock index is up about 80% since June 2013 and Eurobond yields have dropped more than half. Still, a wave of militant violence suggests that political stability remains elusive.
The president has received 15,000 e-mails in the first week, many of which were employment requests, state-run Al-Ahram newspaper reported last week. Nearly a third were from citizens expressing their appreciation of al-Sisi while 19% were ideas on how to develop the Suez Canal, eliminate bureaucracy or boost renewable energy. Fourteen percent were complaints.
‘Forced to moderate’
Sticking with one-man rule for too long will deepen the problems, said Ahmed Abd Rabou, a political science professor at Cairo University. In that scenario, “the regime will be able to survive but at the expense of the public, of security, of economic stability,” Abd Rabou said.
The alternative, he said, is that Sisi will recognise that he can’t run the country alone and will be “forced to moderate and open up, step by step, out of pressure.”
After leading the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, Sisi won 97% of votes in last year’s presidential election. Local media permit little criticism of the new regime’s figurehead.
The media “stigmatises” anyone speaking against Sisi, Abd Rabou said. They are “hysterical, and they inject their hysteria into the public. You are either with us or against us.”
That has been the backdrop for a crackdown against the Brotherhood, which quickly widened to include non-Islamist activists. Morsi has been sentenced to death along with many other Brotherhood leaders. A law banning protests without police approval has put dozens behind bars. Activist Shaimaa El-Sabbagh was shot dead in January as she took part in a peaceful protest intended to lay wreaths at the nearby Tahrir Square, the center of protests since 2011.
Presidential spokesman Youssef said that in Egypt “no one is banned from expressing his or her beliefs within the bounds of a civil society.” He said that “all countries enforce laws governing the peaceful and safe expression of dissent through mass gatherings in public spaces.”
While the first post-Morsi cabinet contained members of political parties, including the premier and his deputy, Sisi’s current government is mostly comprised of technocrats who don’t have other political loyalties.
Meanwhile, in the absence of a legislature, Sisi has issued laws in areas from investment and mining to counter- terrorism. He also authorised the Egyptian army to participate in the Saudi-led military operation against rebels in Yemen.
Under the constitution, all legislation enacted by the president is due to be reviewed by a new parliament in the first 15 days after it’s elected.
Voting was planned in March, but has been postponed indefinitely after courts overturned electoral laws.
The delay suggests that “the government was not in a hurry to have a parliament,” said Mohamed Anwar El-Sadat, a former lawmaker and head of the Reform and Development Party said.
“They wanted the freedom to take quick decisions and issue legislation.”
Sadat, the nephew of former President Anwar Sadat, has been supportive of Sisi but has recently criticized the “political vacuum” in Egypt. The president currently enjoys “the popularity of a hero at a certain moment, for a certain incident,” he said.
“For his support to last, he has to become a statesman with a political vision for the country.”
While Sisi can afford to lose some support for now, Abd Rabou said he will eventually have to engage in “the same politics that Hosni Mubarak used: giving some space to the opposition, and cutting deals.”
Sisi can be reached at [email protected]