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Egypt campaign to reject Sisi's power grab gains traction

A campaign to reject constitutional amendments that would extend President Sisi's term has led to an unlikely alignment between Egypt's Islamists and secular activists.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi arrives at the airport in Amman, Jordan, January 13, 2019. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed - RC18822E9AF0

In recent days, Egyptian activists have called via social media for Egypt to unite in the face of the current "constitutional crisis," as some describe it. The appeals come following parliament's overwhelming — and rather swift — approval of controversial amendments that would allow President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to extend his rule, potentially by 12 additional years after his current term ends in 2022. More than 80% of lawmakers voted in favor of the constitutional changes on Feb. 14, paving the way for Sisi's power grab and for further entrenchment of the military in politics.

"The power of rejection is formidable. Close ranks and unite. We shall win," tweeted Amr Waked, an actor and activist who has been a vocal critic of Sisi's policies. Using the hashtag #NoToConstitutionalAmendments, Waked urged his followers to reject the proposed amendments and to wear black on the day of a planned referendum "to prevent the vote from being rigged." By wearing the same color, voters opposed to the amendments will be immediately recognizable and thus able to fight the government's claims that Egyptians are overwhelmingly in favor of the changes.

Former diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei, meanwhile, urged Sisi to reject the "unconstitutional amendments" and to remain true to his pledge of allowing a transfer of power. He reminded Sisi of his earlier statements that "the days of dictatorship are behind us," which ElBaradei described as one of the gains of the revolution. "Living up to these promises is important in order to avert deeper divisions in the country," he tweeted.

In November 2017, Sisi promised to honor the constitution and to not seek a third term in office. "I will not stay one more day as president if it is against the will of the Egyptian people," he said.

Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University, tweeted on Feb. 15: "I am convinced that the majority of Egyptians reject the amendments and view them not only as unconstitutional but also as insulting, because they deprive the people of their right to live in freedom and dignity."

He added, "Those who oppose the amendments should set aside their differences and fight to ensure they are voted down in the referendum."

In another mobilizing tweet, Nafaa wrote, "The proposed constitutional amendments can be defeated through peaceful means — via the ballot box — despite all the difficulties. It is important to prioritize this issue and for the concerned parties to coordinate their stances and stop the blame game so that we can rekindle the hopes of Egypt's frustrated youth."

Ironically, members of the Muslim Brotherhood share Nafaa's view, a sign, perhaps, of a possible thaw in relations between the Islamist group and the country's secular elites. The Brotherhood, which was labeled a terrorist group by Egypt in 2013, made similar appeals to Egyptians to forge a united front to foil "a conspiracy against the nation."

Mohamed Mahsoob, who served as minister of parliamentary affairs under the Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mohammed Morsi, reminded Egyptians of what they have achieved when they stood united as one people. 

"On Feb. 11, the people toppled a dictator — an incredible feat that no one would have believed possible," he tweeted on the day commemorating Hosni Mubarak's downfall. "That should serve as a lesson of what we are capable of achieving when we close our ranks and speak in one voice."

During the 18 days of the January 25, 2011 Revolution, Egyptians stood united and toppled Mubarak. But after the autocrat stepped down, cracks appeared among the various political groups. Each group had its own vision of the new Egypt. The divisions deepened under President Morsi, whom critics accuse of "polarizing the country." The young left-leaning activists who led the uprising against Mubarak initially threw their weight behind Morsi during the 2012 elections. Some saw him as the lesser of two evils, since the rival candidate, Gen. Ahmed Shafiq, was a "felool," or a remnant of the Mubarak regime.

It did not take long, however, for Morsi to fall out of favor with the revolutionary youths who helped propel him to power. Just a few short weeks into his presidency, which he won with a narrow margin of 52%, discontent surfaced. Liberals complained they felt "alienated" and accused Morsi of acting in the interest of the Muslim Brotherhood. His divisive language and his placing Brotherhood sympathizers in key positions in the government were among a series of blunders that eventually led to his downfall. A faltering economy further fueled disgruntlement with his rule.

But it was a controversial decree issued by Morsi in November 2012, giving himself extensive powers, that ultimately sealed his fate. The decree, denounced by critics as a power grab, had been intended to push through an Islamist constitution and "avert attempts by the old regime to derail the democratic process," Morsi had told confidants at the time. Instead, the "constitutional coup" sparked riots that quickly evolved into clashes between supporters and opponents.

After Sisi took power in 2014, the pro-government media further fueled the divisions by vilifying the Muslim Brotherhood. Tens of thousands of political opponents have been imprisoned as part of an ongoing security crackdown, which has also targeted liberal activists, journalists, members of the LGBTQ community and artists.

The Egyptian opposition is now attempting to save what little is left of the gains of the 2011 revolution. In a rare show of defiance, liberal political parties, civil society, activists and public figures have launched an online campaign rejecting the disputed amendments. By Feb. 18, 23,000 opponents had signed the petition, including the leaders of 10 left-leaning political parties, former Cabinet ministers and representatives of the so-called Constitutional Committee, which was tasked with amending the suspended 2012 constitution. Also among the signatories are members of the Kefaya movement, which planted the first seeds of dissent during the Mubarak era, and representatives of the now-disbanded April 6 youth group, which mobilized the mass protests against Mubarak. While 23,000 is a small number in a country of 100 million, its symbolic meaning cannot be overlooked: Some Egyptian activists still refuse to be silenced despite the regime's fear mongering.

Hisham Kassem, a publisher and analyst, is still skeptical of what the campaign can actually achieve. "It is gaining momentum for sure, but how far will it go and how effective will it be?" he said. "The only thing that's certain is that Sisi keeps tightening his grip on the country by the day, and in so doing, creates more enemies for himself."

He continued, "The silencing of the media makes it more and more difficult for [Sisi] to realize that he is moving from push to shove and practicing political brinksmanship."

While reconciliation between Islamists and secular elites is highly unlikely — at least for the time being — Egyptians in both camps are increasingly realizing that divisions have come at a hefty price. For now, they share a common goal: hold on to the last vestige of a wasted revolution.

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