The Middle East Channel

The Sisi Spring

Over the past two months in Egypt, any alternative to the presidency of Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has all but disappeared from the political horizon. Indeed, by not ruling out his own candidacy in clear and definitive terms, Sisi has (perhaps partly inadvertently) effectively discouraged any viable alternative from emerging and made his assumption of office virtually inevitable.

But if the domestic picture is clear, an international consensus that is nearly as strong has also emerged: A Sisi presidency will start with strong popular support but will have difficulty meeting popular expectations. Its policy orientation remains problematically unclear and would be unlikely to deliver sufficiently to retain the initial wave of enthusiasm. I do not question that international consensus in its broadest terms. A couple days after the 2013 coup, I wrote: "We now have some idea how long a honeymoon any Egyptian leader has: less than a year." But now I think I went too far. Regardless of its policy performance, I am very doubtful that Sisi's presidency will be a disaster like Morsi's. It may disappoint many but it is unlikely to collapse and might evolve in a variety of ways. Its shape will be determined in part by how he and Egyptians answer three questions about the new political era.

1.    Will anything bloom during the Sisi spring?

Past presidential successions in Egypt have brought limited but still quite real periods of liberalization. Hosni Mubarak began his presidency by meeting with some of the intellectuals and opposition figures whom his late predecessor had just arrested. And that predecessor -- Anwar Sadat -- had been shocked, completely shocked, to discover upon entering office that domestic surveillance was taking place in Egypt and publicly burned tapes of conversations. Indeed, this is not an Egyptian pattern only -- Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali showed Tunisians a far kinder, gentler face when seizing the presidency in 1987 than he did a few years later; even Bashar al-Assad began more benign ophthalmologist than ruthless dictator during his brief "Damascus spring," a real if similarly limited and short-lived period of slightly freer public discussions.

There are some good reasons why autocrats try not to put a jack-booted foot forward first. First, a political opening helps establish a good clean start and distinguish, at least briefly, their liberality from the predecessor's harshness. Henry Hale has described an even more profound dynamic for new leaders in what he calls "patronal presidentialism" -- a golden opportunity to "move to strip rival groups (sometimes including their own former coalition allies) of power and assets -- this is often done, sincerely or not, under the banner of ‘rooting out corruption.'" 

Sisi will likely feel such factors though a bit more lightly than his predecessors. He will come in with his popularity already high and does not have the same need to build a name for himself. There are no obvious challengers to threaten his presidency, even if there are some figures and institutions with bloody hands from which he might want to distance himself. And Sisi, as a political figure, has emerged very much a product of one of Egypt's leading institutions (the military). And the new political order, which is propelling him to lead it, has the strong support of other strong state institutions.

But that point leads to a factor that might operate unusually strongly in Sisi's case: While his popularity seems quite strong inside the country, the new regime's name is mud internationally. In order to understand why, it pays to take note of a dramatic asymmetry between how Egypt's political situation is perceived domestically and internationally. Inside Egypt, most people who are allowed to articulate their views in public applaud the new order and allegations of international attempts to divide the country are as legion as they are loopy. Internationally, diplomats, pundits, academics, and journalists tend to shake their heads at how it is the country's new leadership's actions are driving the society in divisive and troublesome directions. The darker view of the situation is not confined to democracy and human rights advocates. What troubles international observers is not merely the large number of dead Egyptians or the literally uncounted arrested upon whom the new rulers have built their rule. Arrests, indiscriminate force, and hysterical media do make for rather depressing reports from human rights organizations and dreary news stories.

But what has struck me in policy-oriented discussions in different settings outside of Egypt is how a broad consensus is emerging that the new regime is not merely without a plan to deal with Egypt's political woes but is actively aggravating them. International observers tend to use words like "mindless" and "inexplicable" to describe the pattern of repression. While Egyptian officials blame domestic terrorism on the Muslim Brotherhood, international observers are more likely to take the view that it is the Egyptian leadership's policies that are transforming a regional nuisance in Sinai into a nationwide insurgency.

A Sisi spring might become a bit more pronounced if he decides the outside observers have a point. And while Egypt's institutions now act stridently, carelessly, and with a sense of impunity in support of the new order, there may be some long-term costs to their reputations in the hitherto uncritical domestic scene as well. It is not merely that the security services have returned to their most bullying ways; it is the way they proudly parade their misdeeds in public -- leaking tapes and transcripts of all kinds of innocuous conversations. The release of a videotape of the bizarre raid on the "Marriott cell" of Al Jazeera English journalists provoked a measure of international outrage coupled with a degree of mirth for the melodramatic soundtrack. But drawing less attention has been a whole series of domestic leaks -- including one of a discussion between former President Mohamed Morsi and his attorney. The shameless public violation of the attorney-client relationship (one sufficiently egregious that it would likely bring most professional prosecutors to despair of pursuing a case) has provoked few public murmurs of discomfort in Egypt -- for now. But in an environment in which officials have no shame, they have left a paper, audio, video, and virtual trail that might come back to haunt them in calmer times. Even now, it is not unusual to find some officials from state institutions evincing some reservations in private conversations. Such voices might grow and professionalism could come to trump panic in a more stable political environment. Sometimes such discomfort seeps into public view, such as when the leaders of the religious establishment distanced themselves from a pronouncement by the media-oriented imam of the Omar Makram mosque that a spouse's Muslim Brotherhood membership was cause for divorce or from another religious scholar (Sad al-Din al-Hilali, somewhat of a maverick but also a member of the committee drafting the new constitution) who seemed to compare Sisi to the prophets.

The wheels of repression might turn with a bit more difficulty and the mechanics of regime propaganda provoke more embarrassment than support unless corrective action is taken.

So some kind of Sisi spring is likely. But its contours right now are hazy. It will, to be sure, be restricted in extent, tactical in intent, and perhaps limited in time. But the most significant limitation may be formed by the political context: Not all the cards are in his hands and his most vociferous opponents will be difficult to placate. While Sadat and Mubarak faced little organized dissent, with dissident intellectuals and disgruntled leading officials their strongest threat, Sisi will face an angry and determined opposition, one unlikely to be placated with a renewed newspaper license or an appearance on state media or two. True national reconciliation would be a major project and require concessions from both Islamists and rulers that neither show much interest in (and that the former may already slowly be losing their ability to make). I have noted the dangerously dark mood in the Islamist camp elsewhere.

2.     What will happen when Sisi pulls the levers of state power?

Sisi is stepping into a presidency that has seen some of its authority scaled back -- especially its ability to control other state institutions. His former colleagues in the military will pick Sisi's minister of defense. Of course, it is clear that Sisi is making arrangements right now to keep his former home in reliable hands, and a significant continued level of military support for his presidency is likely. But his relationship with his former colleagues may gradually change in ways that are difficult to predict right now.

Other parts of the "wide state" also have some legal and constitutional tools to strike out more on their own than they have in the past. The security apparatus -- or forest of security agencies and intelligence services -- show every sign now of answering to nobody but their own undemanding consciences, as well as their senses of mission and grievances nursed carefully over the past three years.

The religious establishment, formerly under the control of figures who were not only presidentially selected but also in close rivalry with each other, is now under the more centralized control of the senior leadership of al-Azhar, with a degree of institutional autonomy unrealized for decades. Various judicial bodies have also attained a decree of autonomy that they had been merely dreaming of in past eras.

Of course, the presidency will not be devoid of tools over the various parts of the state apparatus. It will likely dominate the parliament and thus have a strong voice over legislation, the composition of the cabinet, and the budget. Even if the president's appointment power has declined, these various bodies will become supplicants for funds. Al-Azhar has ambitions to extend its voice farther throughout Egyptian society, for instance, and cannot do so without generous state support.

Political dynamics within the Egyptian state apparatus are hardly likely to be transparent. Since July 3 (well, maybe a bit before), these institutions have been united by a common mentality -- so much so that it is difficult to understand how much the new regime is centrally controlled or coordinated. Such ambiguity will likely continue after Sisi's election, augmented by a presidency that traditionally does not publicly micro-manage the state apparatus and strives to appear above the fray in public. Sisi's own public posture thus far has been very much in line with such a tradition -- he speaks out rarely and when he breaks his silence, he is stronger on sentiment than on policy pronouncement. So Egyptians are unlikely to see precisely who is pulling on the sinews of state authority but much political discussion will likely involve trading rumors on precisely this subject.

3.    Has Egyptian society been depoliticized?

In the years before the 2011 uprising, many Egyptians found their political voice. A culture of outspoken criticism and protest struck root and took embryonic organizational form not merely in demonstrations and wildcat strikes but also in broader political movements and independent trade unions. But since 2011, organized political life has actually grown weaker. Formal political parties have multiplied in number but shown little vitality; the large protest movements have been sidelined and suppressed; and various Islamist movements (and not merely the Brotherhood) -- any of the backers of "legitimacy," i.e. Morsi's presidency -- receive popular loathing and official treatment that ranges from petty harassment to murderous. Independent trade unions have seen one of their leaders (the current minister of labor) spearhead a reassertion of the old state-dominated structures.

Is the current atmosphere a product of a hysterical popular mood (which state bodies harness for their own ends), or is a longer-term trend at work against the politicization of Egyptian society? If Sisi gradually disappoints -- or, more likely, if the cabinet seems unresponsive, the parliament ineffectual, the bureaucracy inert, and the security services arrogant -- will the result be a return to popular mobilization or instead the kind of grumbling and despair that characterized Egyptian society in previous decades?

Even after two visits to Egypt over the past two months, I remain uncertain. Much public political discourse directs anger at Morsi and the Brotherhood, but private discussions can sometimes be thoughtful and more nuanced, leading me to believe that for all the bizarre content of much public discussion, Sisi will still face a more sophisticated and demanding audience than Egypt's previous military presidents.

Nathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University, non-resident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and author of When Victory is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics (Cornell University Press, 2012).

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

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