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
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.
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
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
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
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).
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