Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has issued a surprising decree prohibiting the Prime Minister and his deputies, the heads of independent, supervisory and security bodies, and senior state officials from travelling on work-related business without first asking his permission in his capacity of head of state. Al-Sisi also added the Sheikh of Al-Azhar University to the list, as well as the defence, interior and justice ministers and their deputies. This is the first decree of its kind by this or any other Egyptian President.
Why these ministers in particular? And why the Sheikh of Al-Azhar even though he heads an independent, and ancient, institution? Why wasn’t the Coptic Pope put on the list? What does Al-Sisi fear from the travel of these officials?
The fact is that Al-Sisi apparently no longer trusts anyone and is living in fear of everyone around him. Last year, he dismissed the commander in chief of the army, who is also his son-in-law. This relationship was not enough to allay any fears. He also dismissed the defence minister, his partner in the Rabaa Al-Adawiyya and Al-Nahda Square massacres, and in doing so violated the constitution, as the defence minister is protected and cannot be dismissed. However, Al-Sisi no longer cares about constitutions or laws and disregards them so that he can stay in power for life. Anyone who stands in his way is detained, such as Sami Anan, or put under house arrest, like Ahmed Shafik.
Ever since Al-Sisi violated the oath that he took in front of elected President Mohamed Morsi by staging a coup against him, he has been afraid that someone else will stage a coup against himself. That is why he chops and changes the army and intelligence leaders. He cannot abide any opposition voices and has pushed away all of his past partners, who are now his perceived enemies even though they provided the civilian cover for his bloody coup and delivered the presidency to him on a plate. Al-Sisi repaid their efforts by detaining them. Despite this, he still lives in a state of fear and intimidation, which is how all traitors live for the rest of their lives.
All of Egypt is, in fact, just like one giant prison and, in order to tighten his grip on the country, Al-Sisi wants to change the constitution to extend his presidential term to six years instead of four. Furthermore, he wants to have an unlimited number of terms instead of the current maximum of two. He has prompted his ghost writer who conveys his thoughts to the world — journalist Yasser Rizk, chief editor of Al-Akhbar— to float this idea in an article in the newspaper.
It is clear that Al-Sisi wants to remain at the top in Egypt, at a higher level than any future president. If the proposed constitutional amendment goes ahead, the role of president will become Al-Sisi’s puppet and he, not the president, whoever it is, will be the de facto leader of the republic. He is trying to build himself an empire that not even the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser created for himself, even though he was the founder of military rule in Egypt.
Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi believes that by clipping the Egyptian army’s wings, through the regular dismissal of its senior officers and appointing new ones, he is protecting himself and ensuring that the new leadership is loyal to him. Thus, he believes, he will be in power for life.
I must stress that the army is one of the most important institutions in Egypt; it is the country’s protective shield and should ensure the integrity of political life, especially in the event that it leans towards tyranny. This is how and when the radical separation between military rule and the state executive comes into play; it represents the main safety valve for the government and so we must distinguish between the army’s natural role as an arm of the civilian-led state tasked with protecting the country from external and domestic threats and ensuring that political life progresses smoothly, based on the constitution and rule of law.
The army also ensures the sovereignty of the people’s will. As such, military rule is unnatural as it turns the army into the servant of the generals and other senior officers. It is then used to force the people to submit to the top general’s desires, decrees and judgement even though he may be lacking in political experience.
History confirms the overall decline suffered during any era of military rule, even if there were some relatively minor achievements. Such rule always ends in collapse because of the failure of the military establishment to implement civilian guidelines for the government based on democracy, social justice and equality. The principles behind such guidelines tend to contradict the nature of a militarised society and relationships within it. Hence, all of the developments and progress made by Muhammad Ali in early modern Egypt ended with a sea of debt and the occupation of Egypt by Britain in 1882 not least because of the marginalisation of the people who were not represented under any military rule. This also occurred after Abdel Nasser’s death, as he did not establish a democratic base that would protect his government’s achievements, thus leading to the collapse of the Egyptian state. This was followed by measures towards dependency on Israel because the people had no role in his government.
We all appreciate and respect the army, but there is a difference between those who view the army as an institution that protects and preserves the country, defends the people and preserves their dignity and honour, and those who view the army as a personal tool used by the leader to serve his own interests and keep him in power. Al-Sisi trusts nobody. That’s why even his ministers must seek his permission to travel.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.