CAIRO - Calls are being made for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, long resistant to political parties, to establish his own political formation to help him push back against increasingly ferocious attacks by the country’s opposition in exile.
Sisi was forced to defend himself against corruption allegations earlier this month after an actor-cum-contractor, now living in Spain, posted a series of videos in which he accused Sisi of helping to squander billions of Egyptian pounds and facilitating the manipulation of the economy by the army.
Mohamed Ali, a 45-year-old contractor who had a brief acting career and worked with the army for years, said Sisi had misspent exorbitant sums on the construction of presidential palaces while the vast majority of Egyptians suffered from poverty.
The Egyptian opposition in exile, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which runs a number of satellite channels and media outlets in Turkey and is backed by the Qatari news channel, al-Jazeera, used the videos to step up attacks against Sisi’s administration and encourage disenchanted Egyptians to rise up against the president.
“I assure everybody that what was said over the past two weeks was mere lies,” the Egyptian president said on September 13 at the National Youth Congress in Cairo. “This is Egypt’s army.”
He confirmed the construction of presidential palaces. However, he said they are constructed for Egypt, not for him.
“Egypt is a big country,” Sisi said. “I will even build more palaces in the future.”
Some observers said that while Sisi managed to mostly dispel the allegations, as president it is not wise for him to personally engage such critics.
“This is why the president needs a body to back him and function as a channel of communication between him and the public,” said Akram Badr Eddine, a political science professor at Cairo University.
“This body, be it a political party or anything else, will advise the president and defend his policies, especially economic ones.”
Sisi is not aligned with any of the more than 100 political parties in Egypt, and he has been keen on distancing himself from them since coming to power in 2014.
Instead, he has repeatedly called on political parties to merge into each other to make their presence felt in the life of ordinary people.
Nevertheless, a political party could be important for Sisi’s political career and could serve as a bulwark against increasing political attacks fuelled in part by opposition to his economic reforms.
Sisi’s administration launched a comprehensive reform programme in November 2016 that made improvements to the economy, increased foreign currency reserves, raised the economic growth rate and increased exports.
However, the effort also raised the poverty rate, eliminated most subsidies and was strongly opposed by segments of the population, especially those lower on the economic ladder.
Ali’s videos of Sisi went viral. Hundreds of thousands of people viewed, shared and retweeted them, building social media pressure against the Egyptian leader that led to his statement.
Adding to Sisi’s difficulties is a changing political landscape. Figures reminiscent of the 2011 uprising are returning to the spotlight to serve as political foes, such as internet activist Wael Ghonim, who helped connect Egyptians wanting to overthrow Hosni Mubarak.
“The president is badly in need of real political agencies that can back him,” said leading political thinker Hossam Badrawi, who used to be a reformer within Mubarak’s formerly ruling National Democratic Party.
While some say forming a political party would help the president, other observers say it could backfire, suggesting that Sisi may be following in Mubarak’s footsteps.
“A party controlling this country’s political life only because the president belongs to it will be a very bad idea indeed,” said Said Sadek, a political sociology professor at the American University in Cairo. “Instead of having a party, the president should empower the media by giving them access to information and granting them more freedom.”
Amr Emam is a Cairo-based journalist. He has contributed to the New York Times,* San Francisco Chronicle and the UN news site IRIN.