Geopolitics

Al-Sisi And Egypt's False Hopes For Stability

Even if General Al-Sisi is elected president because people want a return to the past, he can't pick up where Mubarak left off. The revolution has changed things forever. For better or worse.

A reassuring face
A reassuring face
Moritz Mihatsch

CAIRO — Over the last three years, many political decisions were driven by the idea of stability. Saying “yes” in constitutional referenda was necessary to regain stability. And now with Abdel Fattah al-Sisi running for presidency, a race he is widely expected to win, most of the people who will vote for him will do so because they want stability.

Some from the revolution seem surprised by this, believing that this makes Egypt exceptional and different. But seeking stability makes Egyptians normal. People all over the world seek stability and are adverse to change, and the older they are, the stronger this character trait becomes. When change and the unknown are seen as dangerous, the known and tried solutions seem preferable, even if they are not perfect.

The problem at this point is that no short-term decision will magically produce stability, neither a new constitution, nor voting for Sisi. Why is that? The short answer is because of the revolution. The revolution shook all the different parts of society and it will take time for everything to recalibrate.

Basic services

The state institutions are now all vying for more influence and power. The regime of former President Hosni Mubarak had a fine-tuned equilibrium among the army, the police and the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). As the constitution writing process has demonstrated, all different institutions are trying to mark their claims, including the army, police, judiciary, parliament and presidency. Even if none of these institutions challenges the presidency directly, they will fight turf wars among each other, and you know what that means for the rest of us.

The state bureaucracy was functional — more or less — under Mubarak. Since the Jan. 25 uprising, however, some ministries have seen a very fast turnover of ministers. Every minister has changed key staff, and the new staffers have surely brought in some of their own people.

This all means that whoever will be the new president cannot simply pick things up where Mubarak left off. By now, the routines of many ministries have been disrupted in a manner that distorted their accumulated institutional and technical knowledge. Getting the ministries to work as well as they did under Mubarak — despite the grave inefficiencies then — will be a challenge. The ministries’ inability to provide essential public services and maintain infrastructure directly affects stability.

The political parties might be one of the weaker forces in Egypt, but it is still important that the next president will not have an NDP equivalent — at least not yet — to rely on in Parliament. Most likely a coalition of parties will form the government and even if all of these parties swear allegiance to the president, they will compete with each other, which will bring volatility and problems into the government.

Something has changed — Photo: Jbarta

The Islamists will automatically be a source of instability. Yes, under Mubarak they were somehow extra-legal. But the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists had an established strong leadership. And the Brotherhood leadership had some sort of mutual arrangement with Mubarak that he would more or less let them be, and they would not rock the boat. That was good for Mubarak because it secured stability and it was good for the Islamist leaders because it ensured they remained in control. With all the developments since, the Muslim Brotherhood does not only have to restructure its own internal leadership, which surely will lead to internal struggles and will ripple into society as a whole, but additionally more militant groups will get increased support.

Macro and micro

In macroeconomic terms, the challenges are huge. For now, the government is able to hide that by covering the budget deficit with cash from the Gulf, but it is unlikely that Gulf governments will bankroll Egypt indefinitely. Two things will result from this economic debacle: The Egyptian pound will lose value against the dollar and the government will be forced to restructure subsidies and increase taxes. Considering that poverty levels have gone up since 2011, it is likely that any attempt to implement such policies will be complicated. After all, when then-President Mohamed Morsi attempted to implement even a minor increase of the metro ticket prices, an immediate uproar prompted him to retract the plan the same evening.

On the microeconomic level, Egypt is doing surprisingly well, which most likely has to do with the odd structure of the domestic economy. As a result, so far very few companies and factories have closed completely. But prolonging this state of instability will lead to more companies eventually shutting down. When a factory moves abroad, it does not come back when the situation calms down because of the costs of moving. And when a company closes, it is usually shuttered for good. Fewer operational companies and factories mean fewer jobs, which means more unhappy people, which means more trouble.

Additionally, Egypt is undergoing major social and demographic changes. The age group, which was between 14 and 20 in 2011, has a socio-political understanding that is shaped by the revolution. Their way of thinking about everything, from family issues to the state, is radically different than even their siblings who are five years older. As the continued problems in the universities demonstrate, just upping security on the campus is not actually having much impact.

Should Sisi become the next president, he will have to deal with all these factors simultaneously, but for now he seems to be surprisingly successful at uniting different social factions. This might very well be because, for now, Sisi is an “imagined” president. We can project on him whatever we want. Once Sisi becomes the president, some of the groups currently supporting him are going to be disappointed. Some will react with demonstrations and strikes; shooting or arresting everyone who dares to disagree is not really a solution that will stabilize the country.

So stability is not on the menu. Whether you think Sisi is a good man, or if you believe the total opposite, it does not really matter. Sisi will not bring stability, simply because he cannot. And neither could anyone else. No matter what the next president does, things will remain volatile — and probably violent at times, too.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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