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Worse Than Mubarak

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is bringing a new form of totalitarianism to Egypt.

Consumed by domestic politics, exhausted by the Middle East, and complacent about the stability of Arab allies, Washington has stopped paying close attention to Egypt. But something alarming is happening in the most populous Arab country and a key U.S. security partner: President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is moving Egypt closer toward totalitarianism than strongman Hosni Mubarak ever did and, in the process, laying the groundwork for more instability in a region that has already seen too much of it.

Soon after Sisi, a former military chief, became president following his 2013 overthrow of a freely elected but illiberal Muslim Brotherhood government, Egypt adopted a constitution with some formal guarantees on rights and modest checks on presidential authority. It was a sign, Sisi and his most ardent supporters claimed, that he was restoring democracy. But Sisi has spent the last few years ignoring that constitution, amassing power, and cracking down brutally on his Islamist adversaries and anyone else who questions his rule.

Now, in a power grab that recalls the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sisi is leading Egypt into even more dangerous territory by ramming through constitutional changes that will formally codify a personalist dictatorship. 

This is bad news for Egyptians, of course, but it is also dangerous for the region and world. Although authoritarian systems that concentrate power in a single potentate may look durable—especially when that figure is backed by the military like Sisi is—they are more vulnerable to a chaotic collapse than other types of regimes.

The amendments that Sisi wants made to his 2014 constitution would significantly bolster his authority in three main ways. First, they would do away with the current requirement that he leave office in 2022, after eight years, and enable him to stay in power until 2034. This change would abrogate Sisi’s pledge to respect the sole remaining win from the 2011 uprising against Mubarak’s three-decade dictatorship: restricting presidents to two four-year terms. Moreover, there is no popular demand to extend Sisi’s presidency—to the contrary, there are growing signs of fatigue with his oppressive rule.

Second, the constitutional changes would hand Sisi direct control over the judiciary’s top appointments and even its budget. That would destroy the last shreds of independence in a judicial system that, although much weakened in recent years, still contains a few brave judges willing to push for the rule of law.

Finally, the amendments would grant the Egyptian Armed Forces the prerogative to intervene in domestic politics to “maintain the constitution and democracy” and “safeguard the basic components of the state.” At first blush, such a clause might seem to bolster the military’s ability to constrain the president. But because Sisi—using economic perks, intimidation, and firings—appears to have consolidated control over the armed forces in the last year, the amendment would actually build a praetorian guard that is constitutionally empowered to defend Sisi against any and all dissent.

To be sure, even without the constitutional changes, Sisi already has vast authority through a slew of laws enacted since 2013. But he sees himself as a divinely ordained leader, Egypt’s only savior, who requires near-totalitarian control to prevent state collapse. By enshrining his overwhelming dominance in Egypt’s paramount governing document, Sisi wants to make successful legal or political challenges to his rule all but impossible—even as his dictatorship maintains a patina of constitutional legitimacy before credulous Western audiences.

For Sisi, the timing of these amendments is particularly important. Most likely, he wants to lock in his new powers before ordering additional painful economic reforms, such as another currency devaluation and more subsidy cuts, later this year. Such measures will deepen economic hardship for an already struggling population—and compound discontent with his regime. Sisi may also want to make his move while the United States is amenable. He particularly wants to secure a full-throated endorsement from his most important champion, U.S. President Donald Trump, while the U.S. leader is still in office.

Those familiar with Egypt’s modern history of nearly uninterrupted authoritarianism may ask how much these latest amendments even matter. But the new constitutional changes do signal something troubling. They would mark a crucial step in the institutionalization of Sisi’s new political system—one that is closer to totalitarianism than Mubarak’s ever was. The repression of the Mubarak era should not be whitewashed, but the former leader did at least delegate certain decisions, allow a bit of space for civilian institutions and independent civil society groups, and build a somewhat diverse constituency for his regime. His semi-authoritarian system helped him stay in power for 30 years before his repression and corruption finally caught up with him.

By contrast, Sisi is creating a regime that is more dictatorial, more stifling, narrower in its base of support—and ultimately more fragile. Viewing Mubarak as too lenient, Sisi has put civilian bodies such as the parliamentand universities under the full control of security agencies that have filled them with pliant loyalists. He has crushed all independent political activity, eviscerated the rule of law, and severely punished anyone who dares step out of line. Having dispensed with Mubarak’s relatively wider patronage network of ruling party apparatchiks, local notables, and business elites, Sisi rules through a tiny coterie of military and intelligence sycophants (reportedly including his own sons). His penchant for military-style control—he even recently issued a decree stipulating the paint colors for buildings—exceeds Mubarak’s own zeal for micromanagement.

Sisi’s constitutional amendments would make this bad situation even worse by insulating his immense personal authority from any potential legal challenge and closing off the possibility for a peaceful transfer of power, let alone for pluralistic politics and independent state institutions. Yet this concentration of power, which is designed to shore up his regime, may make it more vulnerable over time. Political science scholarship—and real-life examples in Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—has shown that personalist regimes are substantially more likely to end in violence than other forms of authoritarian governance. These regimes rest on hollow institutions and a very narrow popular base. With their overly centralized and corrupt and dysfunctional governance, exclusion of all those not completely beholden to the leader, and denial of any political safety valves and peaceful pathways to change, these systems are a recipe for large numbers of disaffected and vengeful citizens.

This is a pivotal moment for Egypt—and for U.S. policy. Although Egypt’s importance to the United States has diminished somewhat in recent decades, the country’s 100 million-strong population, strategic location, and receipt of tens of billions of dollars in U.S. aid and weapons give it enduring relevance. Washington has already been far too quiet in the face of Egypt’s rising authoritarianism. But the United States cannot afford to ignore Sisi’s pursuit of absolute power and the risks it poses to Egyptian and regional stability.

Sisi likes to brush off outside criticism of his repression as foreign meddling in Egyptian affairs that will not be tolerated, but the reality is that his regime is highly dependent on international financing, diplomatic support, and security assistance. Washington, still Cairo’s most powerful foreign partner, has influence. Sisi tuned out former President Barack Obama, but Trump, with whom he has a better relationship, enjoys some leverage. So do U.S. lawmakers, who control Egypt’s annual $1.3 billion military aid package. The White House and Congress should make clear that they recognize Sisi’s brazen power play for what it is and will refuse to give him political cover or unconditional support if he proceeds. There is obviously no guarantee that the United States can deter Sisi from manipulating the constitution to give himself unchecked power. But given the stakes, future U.S. policymakers are likely to look back on a failure to try as both a missed opportunity and a grave mistake.

This piece was originally published in Foreign Policy.