Egypt’s authoritarian president attempts to strengthen powers with rigged referendum

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (photo: Creative Commons)

Egypt’s authoritarian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has attempted to strengthen his powers with a rigged referendum campaign lasting 72 hours! The tame Parliament approved his proposals – 485 MPs out of 596 voting for them – after which the referendum was held.

The National Election Authority announced an 88 per cent ‘Yes’ vote on a 44 per cent turnout. The turnout figure has been greeted with widespread scepticism. Voters from poor parts of Cairo were bussed to polling stations and given food parcels containing rice, pasta, sugar and oil, after voting. Some employers laid on buses to take their workers to vote. “People are poor and we need anything that can support us,” one woman told the Guardian (London). “A lot of people I know went to the polls in order to get a bag of food, because Ramadan is around the corner and prices are very high these days.”

Forty-four per cent of registered voters represents 27 million people, equivalent to an average of 69 voters, an hour, at each of the 10,878 polling stations. Reports suggest the actual figure was considerably smaller. Boosting the turnout figure makes the result appear more legitimate, aiming to further strengthen al-Sisi’s position.

Repressive powers

Fourteen amendments to the 2014 constitution were made. Al-Sisi’s current term of office is extended from four to six years and he can then stand for a third term, meaning he could remain president until 2030 (restricting presidents to two terms of office was a gain from the 2011 uprising.) A new upper house of parliament is to be formed, with the president appointing one-third of its members and also appointing the senior judiciary. The lower house will be reduced to 450 members, with 25 per cent of seats for women.

New rights are given to the military to intervene in government. Military trials will increase while over 15,000 civilians, including juveniles, have already been tried in military courts over the past three years, according to Human Rights Watch.

During the 2018 presidential election, all opposition candidates were either debarred from standing, arrested, exiled or withdrew. The only candidate, apart from al-Sisi himself, was publicly supporting him until hurriedly drafted in, just before nominations closed, to give the appearance of a contested election. To no one’s surprise, al-Sisi was declared winner with 97.8 per cent of the vote.

Opposition to these constitutional changes was also stifled. Over 120 activists were arrested campaigning for a ‘No’ vote. With three days between the referendum being called and taking place, there was no time to organise a real campaign. All the main media – controlled by the government or its wealthy supporters – supported the changes. A reported 34,000 websites were blocked in an attempt to stop the Batel (‘Void’) website gathering signatures against the changes. Despite this, 250,000 managed to sign.

The military-backed regime that took power in 2013, two years after the mighty uprising that swept former president Hosni Mubarak from power, is trying to strengthen its position. It still has some support, particularly as the civil war in Syria and now again in Libya, leads to fear that similar horrors could arise in Egypt. Al-Sisi portrays himself as representing stability to prevent this. But the regime fears opposition will grow, particularly among the working class and poor. Rising prices and continuing unemployment, poor housing, education and health care are building opposition, beneath the surface at present.

Despite widespread jailing and torture of opposition activists, crushing of trade union rights and suppression of opposition voices in the media, some protests have taken place. In January, more than 30 people were arrested after demonstrations against the demolition of homes in what could be a prime real estate neighbourhood overlooking the Giza pyramids.

In February and March, thousands of Warraq Island residents demonstrated to stop the landing of construction machinery belonging to the Armed Forces Engineering Authority and the Arab Contractors Company. The government has been trying to redevelop this Nile island in Cairo for luxury tourism, backed by money from the Gulf States. The 100,000 residents have been resisting this for the past two years, despite violent clashes with security forces and arrests of several campaign leaders.

As in China, protests over land use may be an early sign that workplace struggles will break out again, at some point. Egyptian capitalism cannot provide living wages, decent working conditions and secure jobs for workers.

Algeria and Sudan protests

The recent huge and courageous movements in Algeria and Sudan have again shown Egypt’s ruling clique that even the strongest military and police forces cannot guarantee a regime’s survival. The trigger for the Algerian uprising was the regime’s attempt to extend President Bouteflika’s term of office. Al-Sisi has moved to extend his before his support is eroded so deeply.

Workers and youth will rebuild movements in opposition to the regime. The lessons from the 2011 uprising show even the strongest military and police forces cannot guarantee a regime’s survival. Mass movements determined to see change can lead to sections of the state’s forces wavering in support, or even passing over to support the masses. But unless this is followed by a replacement of the capitalist state machine with democratic workers’ government, with a programme of socialist change, including nationalisation of banks and major companies and an international appeal across North Africa and the Middle East for solidarity action, temporary gains are soon lost.

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