President El-Sisi in New York and beyond

Dina Ezzat, Saturday 27 Sep 2014

President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is "considerably satisfied" with his reception at the UN General Assembly, with associates saying he returns to Egypt with added confidence that may change his style of rule

El -Sisi
Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, President of Egypt, speaks during the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014. (AP Photo)

In around two weeks or so, authorities are expected to issue the division of electoral districts to kick start the final run-up to overdue legislative elections set to return a parliament by spring 2015, according to official and political sources.

The division of electoral districts will be based on an electoral law widely rejected by political forces for allegedly opening the door to the influence of money over politics, as it envisages large districts that would require generous campaign budgets unaffordable for most new political faces, as opposed to the old guard associated with ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

“The divisions will try to somehow accommodate the concerns of political forces,” said one official.

President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has shrugged repeated and firm appeals made by concerned political forces, including those who supported his presidential nomination, to reconsider the electoral law.

According to a presidential source, the reason El-Sisi declined to accommodate these appeals is inspired by his “firm conviction that we cannot as a nation keep arguing about everything. He believes that things have to move on and get adjusted further down the road.”

This is not the assessment in most political parties where there is strong sentiment that the objective of the electoral law is to ensure that those who make it to parliament are from the notables and old political hands known to be firmly in line with the ruling regime.

It is expected, according to most sources, both official and political, that the next parliament will see a considerable reemergence of key members of the National Democratic Party (NDP) — the Mubarak-led party that was dissolved following the January 25 Revolution.

Return of the NDP?

Associates of President El-Sisi say that the rehabilitation of NDP figures is not something he takes exception to. “What he wants is a sympathetic parliament that would not make his life hard as he tries to issue, for example, economic laws to attract large foreign investment,” said one associate.

In parallel step to preparing legislative elections, which should have taken place before the presidential elections according to the roadmap announced by El-Sisi himself, then defence minister, upon the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, El-Sisi is planning to move on with filling the post of national security advisor, to help build a vision on crucial national security matters both at home and abroad.

“The president has someone in mind, someone with considerable political and institutional influence, and he is hoping that [this person] would help offer a vision to attend to pressing crises, including everything from relations with the US to relations between the regime and the opposition,” said a closely informed political source. He added that this might be followed by consultations on the formation of a presidential advisory board.

“But I am not so sure whether he would still want to have this board if he has a national security board with a national security advisor. But he is moving on with what we could globally say the establishment of the political strata of the regime that he is trying to assemble still,” the source said.

He added that putting "the house in order" is the priority that El-Sisi has now “especially after having secured his international position during his participation in the UN General Assembly.”

El-Sisi at the UN

Yesterday (Friday), El-Sisi came back to Egypt after a five-day trip to New York where he headed the Egyptian delegation to the highest diplomatic event of the year — the UN General Assembly.

In New York, El-Sisi managed to achieve three objectives, according to aides and associates: he eliminated all question marks about his stature as the “democratically elected president,” thereby “closing once and for all debate over the complicated political context in which he ascended to power”; he offered Egypt as a serious partner for the West in its attack on radical Muslim groups, even though he failed to secure the sympathy of the West for his narrative that lumps together his political adversaries — the Muslim Brotherhood — with ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant); he sent a message to supporters and opposition in Egypt that his presidency is no longer contested and that his most critical regional and international foes are not in a position to isolate him.

“He is done with the phase of an insecure president. He is now officially acknowledged by the international community as the head of the executive in Egypt and he has no reason to make too many concessions anymore,” said a government source.

What concessions El-Sisi has or has not given is largely debatable. Supporters insist that he has expressed good intentions to "those who wish to move on" and that he is in no position to offer more to "those who insist to be his adversaries no matter what."

The opposition argue that El-Sisi has made no concessions at any point and that he is forcing his parameters — where security takes precedence over freedom — on national political life, according to the narrative of the most understanding quarters of the opposition.

Western diplomats of capitals whose leaders conferred with El-Sisi on the fringes of the UN General Assembly insist that their leaders were “uncompromising” and “very forceful” in calling on El-Sisi to move forward with "inclusive democracy" and to be more observing of "freedoms, especially the freedom of expression."

According to one of them, beyond the smiling photo-ops that “were widely featured in the Egyptian state-run and pro-Sisi private media,” there was hard-talk on the state of freedoms in Egypt.

“We basically told him, if you want us to help you to move on with your country we are willing to do it, but you have to reduce the volume of coercion,” the source said.

Shedding inhibitions in rule

According to this same diplomat, El-Sisi was neither committed nor dismissive of such “appeals" for rule observant of human rights and inclusive democracy.

“He kept talking about the wish of the Egyptian people to see their country stable and about his responsibility to spare Egyptians from the fate of other countries in the region that are having a hard time, like Libya or Syria,” said another diplomat informed on the talks that El-Sisi had in New York with several key Western leaders, including the presidents of the US and France and the British prime minister.

He added that given the “keen wish of El-Sisi” to have considerable foreign presence in an economic conference that he is planning to host before the spring of 2015, El-Sisi “might accommodate some of the demands made on human rights and democracy” — even if reluctantly, “because he did not come across” as someone who really values the principles of democracy and human rights.

The same diplomat argued that one thing the president “surely“ heard from every Western leader he met on the fringes of the New York meetings is that no matter how keenly the West wants to have Egypt on board with the war on ISIL, there are certain violations of human rights that the West would not be willing to accept, even in return for support in the war on Islamic radicals.

So human rights and democracy will not be eliminated from the agenda of the president who is said by his associates to be "considerably satisfied" with the results of his trip to New York, "despite the fact that he was apprehensive to be met with a cold international community."

“He is firmly convinced that the people did not vote for him because they want more freedoms, but because they want more jobs and better security, and he thinks that by prioritising these objectives he is not just being consistent with his ideas but essentially observing the wish of the largest mass of the population,” said an informed political associate.

However, he suggested that there is "room to improve the ticket as written by El-Sisi." "In his speech before the UN General Assembly, El-Sisi offered a vision for a country where development and democracy could walk hand in hand. Now this is what everyone should tell him he needs to stick to. I know that this is what some of the top political advisors he listens to have been suggesting to him, but I think there should be more voices asserting this line, now that the trip to New York helped him overcome his initial inhibitions in ruling.”

Officials and non-officials who have been around El-Sisi during his New York visit say that he is coming back with a clear sense of confidence and security. For some, this will make him more open and more accommodating to ideas outside the mainstream; for others, it is the kind of confidence that would make him less compromising than he already is.

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