A major international investment conference in the Egyptian Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh concluded March 15. According to Egypt's official Middle East News Agency, the conference resulted in the signing of 40 agreements and memorandums of understanding involving investments of $38.2 billion. The conference occurred within days of key decisions by Egypt's judiciary. The first was a Supreme Court ruling declaring an article in a law defining voting districts unconstitutional. After this ruling, the Administrative Court suspended parliamentary polls set for March 22. The second ruling came from the country's Court for Urgent Matters and designated the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas a terrorist organization.
These three developments come as al-Sisi is trying to move through a difficult domestic and international climate. At home, he needs to finish building a new political structure following the 2013 coup he staged that toppled the presidency of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi. The parliamentary elections are a critical component of this process. They were expected to produce a pliant legislature, considering that both the Islamist and secularist political camps are internally divided.
Al-Sisi needs the elections to maintain domestic political support, but a sense of normalization is also essential for his plans to secure the investments pledged at the Sharm el-Sheikh conference. The delayed elections prevent Egypt from getting new U.S. military aid, though Egypt is trying to compensate by striking deals with Russia.
In order to move forward on his domestic and foreign policy agenda he needs all parts of the government to be functioning in lockstep with one another. Already public concerns stemming from poor economic conditions are being amplified by the heavy-handed tactics of the internal security forces that provide the day-to-day security of the country. These court rulings add to the uncertainty of the domestic political landscape.
The Supreme Court ruling delays the formation of a parliament — a body that has not existed since the 2012 Supreme Court ruling to dissolve the parliament that was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and its principal rival, the Salafist al-Nour Party. The ruling also indicates the deep fragmentation in the Egyptian government, with differences on policy matters existing across government institutions and in pro-government civil groups.
Various institutions feel the need to reassert themselves after the collapse of the democratic experiment. The Interior Ministry and the judiciary especially are happy to see the military in charge again but are concerned that the kind of order that existed during Hosni Mubarak's presidency has not returned. Moreover, al-Sisi is caught between his old institution, the armed forces (which is trying to maintain as much control as possible over the economy), and the need to cultivate a civilian business class.
Egypt's bureaucratic machinery does not want a new parliament to undermine the state of its affairs. The bureaucrats know they cannot prevent the establishment of a legislature, which is why they would like to severely limit the effectiveness of the parliament. In contrast with al-Sisi, these forces do not feel that the divided political and ideological landscape will necessarily produce a sufficiently pliant legislature. Forcing changes in the constituency law is a way for the bureaucracy to ensure that a future parliament will not be able to threaten its interests. It also allows these elements to try to force concessions from al-Sisi that would protect their institutions.
The judiciary and the security establishment realize that the president is an elected official who must cater to the public mood, making him willing to act in favor of popular policies that do not necessarily serve the interests of the Egyptian political establishment. Indeed, in his speech on the closing day of the investment conference, al-Sisi said he would step down if Egyptians asked him to. The president also knows there is not much time before the tide of popular opinion turns against him. In the same speech, he said proposed projects must be completed soon and urged his fellow Egyptians to work "a thousand times more" with each other and on the projects agreed upon at the conference.
Clearly al-Sisi is concerned about a resurgence of public angst and needs to be able to show progress. He also knows that turning the situation around on the economic front will take time. For this reason, he needs to show that the public is connected with the state, and a parliament is the key to achieving this end.
By delaying the formation of a legislature and pushing for changes to electoral laws, Egypt's establishment wants to make sure it does not lose ground as the president attempts to stay in power. To reach this goal, it needs to make sure the parliament cannot act coherently and is not strong enough to undermine its authority. Security forces do not want to be subject to the popular will via the legislature, and the judiciary does not want the parliament to engage in lawmaking to the extent that it curtails the courts' power. The Supreme Court's objection to the constituency law has delayed the formation of a legislature, and even if the president addresses the objection other issues could arise.
Tension Between al-Sisi and the Judiciary
The law that brought about the Supreme Court ruling created 567 parliamentary seats, of which 420 would be contested by individual candidates, 120 allocated according to party lists and 27 assigned by the president. Al-Sisi was quick to respond to the ruling in a statement by ordering that the law be modified as soon as the reason for its unconstitutionality becomes clear. The statement also said a new law would be drafted within a month and emphasized the importance of carrying out the next phase of the post-coup political roadmap — the parliamentary elections.
Though the al-Sisi government would like to overcome this hurdle quickly, drafting a new law could take several months as the presidency and the judiciary try to reach an understanding over how electoral districts should be drawn. There is also the possibility that the revised law could face legal challenges. The give-and-take could take time. In addition, the creation of new districts means more time will be needed to allow candidates to emerge and apply to be on the ballot.
Of course, al-Sisi holds influence over the judiciary. However, the judiciary has had considerable autonomy, even during the Mubarak era. The November 2014 ruling acquitting Mubarak, his sons and former associates of charges of murder and corruption did not serve al-Sisi's interest in showing that his coming to power is not a return to the old order. The collapse of that order has only forced the courts to assert themselves, driven by the fear of what their status could be in a new government. The judges also know that al-Sisi and the military need them and will have to negotiate with them. Al-Sisi wants to complete the process of legal indemnification, given that he came to power through a coup (albeit a popular one) that toppled Egypt's first democratically elected president. This intervention from the nation's highest court is a setback.
Al-Sisi also needs to move quickly to concentrate on improving Egypt's economic conditions — something he cannot do if government legitimacy is questionable. Though the Muslim Brotherhood is contained for now, should he fail to normalize the political economy, the Islamist movement could take advantage of potential social unrest down the road. Al-Sisi knows he cannot proceed toward reconciliation without weakening his own position. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood is not interested in negotiating with the president, and Egypt's security establishment and other sectors of the civil bureaucracy would not agree to negotiations. The only path forward is to ensure that a parliament comes into existence.
Until the Supreme Court ruling disrupted the process, al-Sisi was on his way to getting a parliament. In fact, the next parliament was expected to have representation from both secularists and Islamists, giving it at least the veneer of legitimacy. It is unclear how soon al-Sisi can finalize the political process and end up with the desired legislature, and he is in a race against time.
The domestic political economy is not the only front that is a cause of concern for him. Al-Sisi also faces foreign policy predicaments. A Feb. 28 court ruling declaring Hamas a terrorist organization came within weeks of the Palestinian Islamist movement's armed wing, Izz al-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, being deemed a terrorist group. Egypt's State Lawsuits Authority filed an appeal on March 11 with the Court for Urgent Matters to review the court's designation of Hamas as a terrorist organization, another indication of the differences within the Egyptian government.
At a time when Cairo faces a serious jihadist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, the potential for attacks in the mainland and the fear of the Islamic State in Libya, it does not need to open a new front in Gaza with Hamas. However, hawkish elements within the Egyptian state seeking to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood appear to have reversed the decades-old policy of working with Hamas while confronting the Muslim Brotherhood. These hard-liners, referred to by some observers as "the eradicator camp," seek to neutralize all Islamists and have an interest in lumping together the Islamist parties and insurrectionist factions, especially the Islamic State. These forces wish to see the al-Nour Party outlawed as well, even though it is closely aligned with the president.
Pragmatists, meanwhile, do not agree with the new policy toward Hamas because they feel the Sinai problem will worsen if the main Palestinian Islamist movement weakens. Jihadists would have more space on Egypt's eastern flank just as Cairo struggles to make sure that similar conditions on its western frontier do not get aggravated. For many within the government, Hamas itself is not the problem; they see the group as a way for Turkey and Qatar to exercise influence in Egypt and thus have an interest in calling Hamas a terrorist organization, which makes it difficult for Ankara and Doha to work with the group.
The designation of Hamas as a terrorist group also comes shortly after the new Saudi monarch ascended to the throne. Saudi King Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa has no interest in waging war against the Muslim Brotherhood and reportedly has encouraged al-Sisi to reconcile with the group (along with the other Gulf Cooperation Council states, which provide Egypt with financial aid). So far, there is nothing to suggest that Riyadh is pushing hard on this matter, especially because Saudi Arabia is trying to balance between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates on the issue of the Muslim Brotherhood. It also is not clear how far the Egyptian leader is willing to go down this path. Given the differences within the Egyptian government, it is unlikely that he would get far. This lack of progress could create problems between Cairo and Riyadh and aggravate disagreements within both the Egyptian and Saudi governments.
The court judgments on Hamas and the parliamentary elections show that before he can tackle key domestic and foreign policy challenges, al-Sisi needs the government's institution to be more coherent. Otherwise, different forces with different interests and perspectives will undermine his efforts to stabilize Egypt.