Like countries in Africa, Egypt is at onset of electoral autocracy

Last week’s constitutional referendum, here in Egypt, coincided with the 64th session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights which started at Sharm el Sheikh. Sessions are ordinarily preceded by a civil society forum, which serves as a preparatory platform for continental activists. Activists come together to share experiences, review developments in their countries since the previous commission session, and to develop a common agenda to bring to the attention of the commission. A number of commissioners attend the civil society forum, resulting in a mutually-rewarding exchange of views.

The vibrancy of the commission session and the preceding civil society forum was greatly affected when participants from a large number of African countries were denied visas to enter Egypt. Also, Egyptian NGOs did not attend the forum. While visa denials affected countries as far-flung as Ghana and Uganda, those most affected were activists from Arab countries, leading to the impression that Egypt is nervous about an interaction between its citizens and those from its Arab neighbours. As an exception, some activists from the Sudan, currently embroiled in a power struggle with their military, having already deposed longstanding ruler Omar el Bashir, took time off their on-going street duties in Khartoum to travel to Egypt. Amid denial that there was an official policy to suppress participation of the commission session, there was strong criticism of Egypt from, among others, two UN special rapporteurs, over its visas restrictions.

Egypt’s referendum was much like Kenya’s repeat presidential election in 2017, whose results were rendered a foregone conclusion after the opposition leader, Raila Odinga, withdrew participation. Rushed through after the legislature had approved the intended constitutional changes only the previous week, the Egyptian referendum also became a foregone conclusion whose only source of credibility would have been in the voter turnout. Even after the government had allowed voting for three days, and also provided food hand-outs as an incentive to increase turnout, only 44 per cent of voters participated. The nearly 90 per cent approval of the constitutional changes further mirrored the Kenyan electoral victory in the election.

The amendments approved by the referendum include the lengthening of the four-year presidential term to six years, from which President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, now serving his second and last term of office will benefit. Re-elected only last year, Sisi can also run for an exceptional third term lasting six years, potentially keeping him in office until 2030. The constitutional amendment also increases presidential control over the judiciary and now also formalises the role of military “to preserve democracy and the constitution,” code for secularism in politics.

Besides visa problems, the venue of the commission session, the tourist resort town of Sharm el Sheikh 500km south east of the capital Cairo, served as an additional deterrence for participants. Remarkably, there was no media coverage of the session and almost no participation from Egyptian human rights organisations. Egyptian organisations have had a difficult relationship with their government, including an unrelenting crackdown in which they have been accused of supporting terrorism. Egyptian security forces maintained presence in the commission and the Egyptian government took charge of the registration of participants, normally a role reserved for the secretariat of the commission. In that role, there were complaints that Egyptian officials were making arbitrary decisions about the registration of delegates and were even accused of assaulting two female delegates. There were complaints about privacy because Egyptian nationals in the room kept making intrusive demands about the identity details of delegates, leading to accusations of spying.

Resulting from all this was a sense of fear among participants, a feeling they were being watched and that speaking out was risky. Hotels in the neighbourhood of the commission session declined requests for space to host side meetings, or put a prohibitive cost as a way of discouraging requests. This led to accusations that hotels were under official not to host side meetings. The UN rapporteurs specifically noted this issue in their remarks during the session, and remarked that cost should not be used to limit the freedom of assembly.

Like many countries in Africa, Egypt is now at the onset of electoral authoritarianism. Sisi won the elections last year by an improbable 97 per cent, and has now broken constitutional term limits, with the possibility of a life presidency. In the circumstances, hosting the Africa Commission is a major propaganda coup for the Egyptian government, one that allows it to continue displaying a commitment to accountability, if only in form.

The opening statements in the general debate in the commission session regretted the dire situation resulting from conflict – imposed displacement of populations across the continent. While electoral accountability is a major reason for those conflicts, the irony that Egypt is laying the foundations for a possible future conflict did not seem apparent.

- The writer is the Executive Director at KHRC. [email protected]