Rattled by Shafiq, Sisi's regime is far from stable

Rattled by Shafiq, Sisi's regime shows it is far from stable
7 min read
04 Dec, 2017
Comment: President Sisi's rule may not be on the brink of collapse, but its recent handling of Ahmed Shafiq shows the foundations are cracking, writes Sam Hamad.
Shafiq represented what might be considered as the first and failed attempt at counter-revolution [AFP]
It was once remarked about Egyptian politics that "truth" is a process of elimination - you must eliminate all the lies before you can even begin to determine what's truly happening. 

The country, reeling from the tragedy of the massacre at al-Rawdah mosque in the Sinai not even two weeks ago, has now been forced to witness the farce of the return of former air force general Ahmed Shafiq to Cairo, after years of living in the UAE. 

Shafiq initially returned with the intent of running against Sisi in next year's presidential elections, but, as ever with Egypt, everything has become somewhat obscured. 

To foreign observers, Shafiq is perhaps best known as the man who former tyrant Hosni Mubarak hastily made prime minister before his overthrow following the January 25 revolution. Egyptians knew him as Mubarak's aviation minister and one of his potential successors - he was one of the key managers of Egypt's kleptocracy under Mubarak. 

It was a shrewd attempt by the regime to ensure Shafiq's place not merely as Mubarak's successor, but as the veritable continuation-by-proxy of his 30-year rule.

Unfortunately for the regime, the Egyptian people had other ideas, opting to vote instead for Mohamed Morsi, of the FJP, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. 

Given all that's happened since that momentous day when Tahrir Square - and what seemed like all of Egypt - exploded with joy as the news came through that Morsi had beaten Shafiq in the presidential race, it's easy to forget that Shafiq represented what might be considered as the first and failed attempt at counter-revolution. 

Ahmed Shafiq was the 'chosen one' among the Egyptian feloul long before Sisi became the successful instigator and figurehead of counter-revolution in Egypt

His campaign promised "brute force" against those who had overthrown his "role model" Mubarak, while he accused Egypt's first democratically elected parliament, dominated by the FJP, of harbouring militias to undermine the state and paving the way for an Islamist takeover of the country. 

His rhetoric during the election was essentially a blueprint for the brutal counter-revolution Sisi put into practice one year later. Ahmed Shafiq was the "chosen one" among the Egyptian feloul long before Sisi became the successful instigator and figurehead of counter-revolution in Egypt. 

So why then is there such intrigue and controversy among the regime about this self-confessed counter-revolutionary's return to Egypt? He's not supportive of the Brotherhood and not a potential reformer - the Morsi government had, as with many other former regime types, initiated investigations into corruption against him. 

To protect himself and his looted wealth, he fled to the safe-haven of the UAE, but it was only after the overthrow of Morsi that he was, in line with Sisi's will to completely reverse any damage done to Egypt's kleptocrats, acquitted of the charges of corruption. 

Shafiq is remembered by many in Egypt as a remnant 
of the country's old regime [Getty]

It's only now, citing Egypt's wrecked economy, as well as its ravaged public services and its dire fiscal situation, that Shafiq saw fit to come home and challenge Sisi, declaring "a change of blood might be what is called for". 

It's ironic that Shafiq should cite the above as his motivations, given he was a major part of the regime that oversaw Egypt's looting that lead particularly to the social disintegration he cites, but two things ought to be of great interest concerning the fractious nature of the Egyptian establishment.

Firstly, the very fact that Shafiq sensed an opportunity to run for president hints that Sisi's alleged iron fist has somewhat rusted over the past four years, while, secondly, the reaction of the Sisi regime and its backers the UAE, has demonstrated that they too were wary of Shafiq undermining Egypt's equilibrium.

According to Shafiq, the UAE, perhaps taking the lead from Saudi Arabia with Saad Hariri, at first would not let him leave the country. 

Shafiq adeptly made as much noise as possible about this travel ban, including giving an exclusive video message to Al Jazeera, where he called on 'UAE leaders to order the lifting of any restrictions on my ability to travel'. 

It's very possible that Sisi and the UAE initially conspired to keep him in the country, but the fact they deported him is also of much interest: Sisi, rocked by unprecedented criticism of his rule following the al-Rawdah massacre, as well as the deterioration of the Egyptian economy and the further hollowing out of public services, perhaps realised that taking a heavy-handed approach with one of his own, might have a contrary effect. 

The threat to Sisi comes from external and internal opposition

Though the internal dynamics of Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) are extremely hard to extrapolate, it is known that they are not unanimously uncritical when it comes to Sisi's presidential rule.

It just might be that Shafiq, who once garnered so much support from the same elites who now support Sisi, could truly shake things up for Sisi were he to stand against him.

Even if the vote is fixed - as Shafiq famously admitted regarding the presidential election in 2014 that saw Sisi win 97 percent of the vote - Shafiq could put a strain on the already cracking foundations of Egypt's establishment. 

One potential fault line is that Shafiq might represent a wing of the Egyptian ruling class who aren't so keen on the extent to which Sisi has ceded so much sovereignty to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. One of Sisi's most fraught times in power was the controversy over Egypt giving the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia.  

Read more: The Egypt Report: Looking for Ahmed Shafiq

Not only did Sisi face widespread criticism from the public over this, but, for the first time since he seized power, he faced public criticism from ruling class loyalists. This was followed by more criticism from within the establishment after the assassination of 16 high-ranking police officers in el-Bahariya. 

In both cases, one of the loudest critics was none other than Ahmed Shafiq, who tied the island issue to what he called "bad events in recent times under Sisi's rule, as well as accusing Sisi of "betrayal".

But it seems that if this was his intent, it's unlikely to happen. From the first minute Shafiq arrived in Egypt, he was immediately detained by the Egyptian security forces.

His own daughter said that she considered his detention to be 'kidnapping'. However merely a day later, Shafiq gave an interview to the staunchly pro-Sisi media channel Dream 2, in which he denied that he had been detained or kidnapped, but there was one major, apparently sudden change: He said he had now reconsidered his decision to run for president, though didn't entirely rule it out.

It's almost certain that he was threatened - either with imprisonment, or perhaps the regime might make those corruption charges reappear. 

One potential fault line is that Shafiq might represent a wing of the Egyptian ruling class who aren't so keen on the extent to which Sisi has ceded so much sovereignty to Saudi Arabia and the UAE

But Shafiq, despite his rhetoric where he poses as a reborn bastion of human rights and liberty, would scarcely be much different than Sisi as far as the repression of the actual opposition is concerned. 

However, whatever the truth behind all this intrigue, it proves that Sisi is far from stable.

While he might tolerate no-hopers like Khaled Ali running - as he did with Sabahi in 2014 - he clearly sees people like Shafiq as a real threat, namely because Shafiq comes from the same world as Sisi. 

It was in this spirit that the regime recently arrested the army colonel Ahmed Konsowa after he released a video declaring his intent to stand against Sisi, criticising Egypt's extensive human rights abuses. The threat to Sisi comes from external and internal opposition. 

Sisi's rule is far from the brink of collapse, but as time goes on, the cracks at its foundations widen, and Egyptians who support liberty and justice ought to support this, even if it comes in the contradictory form of old feloul crooks, such as Ahmed Shafiq.  

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.