Could al-Sisi’s conditional opposition materialise and why now?

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In a rare conversation about the opposition, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi set two conditions for what he called the “correct opposition” in his country, the first of which is that they aim to improve people’s situations. The second is that the opposition are familiar with what he says.

While inaugurating some medical projects east of Cairo, al-Sisi said: “People have the right to express their opinion and object, and we have a valid opposition, but the goal, in the end, whether by expressing opinion or opposition, is to improve people’s conditions and lives.”

Al-Sisi also demanded that “the opponent understand and study what he says,” adding that the goal is not to be the opposition only for the sake of the opposition. In recent years, al-Sisi’s regime has accused the opposition of wanting to sabotage the country and waste his government’s achievements. He warned more than once that what happened during the 25 January 2011 revolution, a change of the regime, will not be repeated during his reign.

Al-Sisi’s conditions brought back to mind the incident of his emotion against parliamentarian Abu al-Maati Mustafa, who demanded in 2017 to postpone some economic reform measures, such as increasing the prices of fuel and electricity, until the minimum wage was raised to EGP 3,000. The media reported live on air al-Sisi saying: “Are you studying this subject before you speak?”

Activists and observers linked al-Sisi’s statements about the opposition to attempts to forge a relationship with the new US President, Joe Biden. They considered it an effort to create a domesticated opposition that matches the regime’s whim.

The regime’s media arms received the statements, as usual, with drumming, promotion, and justification. Lamis al-Hadidi said, “Al-Sisi talks about the state of revolutions caused by dissatisfaction among Egyptians,” and said that “the opposition must work with the government to improve people’s lives.” Nashat al-Daihi also attacked the opposition and said, “If you want to be an opponent, you should seriously oppose, but those people say they are the opposition, but they do not understand anything.”

Returning to the two conditions, former politician and parliamentarian Mohi Issa described al-Sisi’s speech about the opposition, saying that he “wants a custom-fit opposition, as is the habit of despotic rulers.” He added, “al-Sisi wants an opposition that sees what he sees and does not pose any danger to him.” Issa noted that “what prompted al-Sisi to talk about the opposition these days is the presence of a new American administration that confused his calculations and put him in a state of confusion.”

Issa said, it is clear that al-Sisi believes that he is the one who determines the interests of the country, as he asks the opposition to define the interest of the homeland and the citizen, as he sees it, not as the opposition sees it. He added, “We do not understand how giving up the islands of Tiran and Sanafir and selling the public sector, for example, is for the benefit of the citizen and the homeland.”

As for the Egyptian opposition writer and politician Mohamed Sherif Kamel, he believes that al-Sisi’s speech carries three messages. The first is that he does not understand the meaning of freedom of opinion and expression, nor the meaning of opposition. The second is that he will not allow any form of opposition. Kamel added that the third message is to the outside. He wants to say that he has opened the public sphere, confirming that parties of the regime advised al-Sisi to modify even a little of his superior style. He continued, “We do not forget that Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein has been released after four years of detention, and this is evidence that there are some pressures that have begun to be exerted on him.”

Meanwhile, Egyptian activist Magda Mahfouz said that al-Sisi’s talk of accepting the presence of the opposition “comes in the context of preparing for the winds of change with the least damage.” She pointed out that since Biden’s election, there has been a state of anticipation and anxiety in Egypt against the background of his criticism of the human rights situation. Magda indicated that al-Sisi found himself confronting two issues, namely human rights and political life, and that is why he took the initiative to define standards and frameworks for the opposition, such as talking about life problems, and on the condition that the speaker understands what he is saying. She said that these two conditions indicate al-Sisi’s desire to abolish the political opposition, as well as opposition to the regime that came after the military coup.

The Egyptian activist expected that the Egyptian regime would not accept a real opposition within its generally accepted framework. Still, under pressure from the American administration on the one hand and Europe on the other, al-Sisi came out with this hadith on the people.

According to observers of Egyptian affairs, there has been a state of suspense in Cairo since Biden’s election, against the background of his criticism, prior to his election, of the human rights situation and the restriction of freedoms in Egypt. With Biden assuming the presidency of the United States, the Egyptian authorities recently released some dissidents, human rights defenders, and journalists who were detained without trial or on charges of a political nature, the most recent of whom was the Qatari Al Jazeera journalist, Mahmoud Hussein, after four years of detention without trial.

Egypt faces international criticism regarding restricting freedoms and arresting dissidents, but Cairo repeatedly affirms its keenness to adhere to the law and human rights principles. Egyptian opponents abroad are counting on Biden’s intervention to pressure the Egyptian president on human rights and freedoms.

Al-Sisi, a former defence minister, has been in power since 2014, following his victory in the first presidential elections following the overthrow of the late former president Mohamed Morsi in the summer of 2013. Cairo says that its relations are balanced with Washington, based on cooperation and common interests, and that it adheres to the laws and is not afraid to talk about human rights in the country.