Since July 2013, Egyptian politics has seemed grimly predictable, with authoritarianism reestablishing itself firmly in the country, challenged only at the margins, or through terrorism and insurgency. Most of the lively politics of the immediate post-2011 period has all but ceased. Indeed, even the later years of Hosni Mubarak’s rule look better by comparison.
But the details still pack some surprises, with certain state institutions showing limited signs of feistiness and sometimes coming under sharp attack—not from any opposition but from militantly pro-regime sources. The sprawling Egyptian state, which is as “wide” as it is deep and has become “Balkanized,” is proving a bit difficult to manage for Egypt’s leading institutions—the presidency, the security services, and the military. However, they are taking a variety of steps to bully it into line.
SISI’S SILENT SPRING
This development is of particular surprise to me, not because I overestimated the coherence of the Egyptian state but because I thought that the country’s new president, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, might more closely resemble his predecessors and handle the problem differently. Before Sisi took office, I wrote a well-reasoned and historically grounded analysis, “Sisi Spring,” which included some tentative speculation along these lines. It turned out to be utterly wrong.
Egypt’s previous presidents had generally come into office promising that they would not be as oppressive as their predecessors, and used a short period of tactical liberalization to target rivals within the state apparatus. Besides being a weapon to bring incumbent officials into line, such loosening could also help new presidents build their constituencies. I speculated that Sisi might do the same. The presidency he won was a weakened institution. Other centers of power in the Egyptian state were led by longtime officials and some had successfully established greater autonomy. Sisi’s popularity was not translated into any organized or sustainable basis of support which he could deploy in support of his program, whenever he decided what it was. In the period after 2011, the Egyptian state was even at risk of succumbing to syndicalism, in which its various branches represented not just institutions but important constituencies, each marching off in pursuit of its own set of interests. Liberalization might be a way of strengthening the presidency and bringing the state on board with its priorities.
But there has been no spring. The Sisi presidency is attempting to bring coherence to the Egyptian state apparatus, but the tools which it is using are not subtle or liberal, even on a tactical basis. Instead, the new regime is jawboning, threatening, and legislating in order to rein in centers of power and autonomy in the state apparatus. Much of what passes for politics in Egypt today consists of the sound effects from those struggles.
STRUGGLING TO SPEAK WITH ONE VOICE
Over the past year, that effort has been most audible in contests involving professional associations, the religious establishment, and the judiciary. What appear at first glance to be debates over the religious curriculum and judicial appointments really amount to the Egyptian state speaking to itself. In this context, the presidency and the security establishment have used various tools to ensure that they fall into line.
Professional associations are officially chartered bodies in Egypt. While not formally part of the state apparatus, many of their members are and they pose as spokesmen for their sector before official bodies. While they were kept on a tight leash at the time of president Gamal Abdel Nasser (generally through compulsory membership in the country’s sole political party), at times some were able to establish a more independent stance from the 1970s onwards. Opposition movements—Islamists in particular—found a foothold there.
The Islamists were largely ushered out in the post-2013 period, but some associations still showed signs of feistiness. A year ago, the Doctor’s Syndicate sponsored a strike in reaction to allegations of abuse by the security forces. But when journalists followed suit, they were met with a harsh response. Some leaders of the Press Syndicate were arrested, charged, and convicted (their case is now on appeal). And this year, a pro-regime candidate wrested control of the syndicate away from the more independent incumbent by suggesting that a cooperative stance might be more in the journalists’ interest. And other state bodies have been established under loyalist leadership to keep a firm eye on media.
The judiciary has also been targeted. While generally supportive of the post-2013 direction the country has taken—and with judges having Islamist sympathies purged—the judiciary has still represented a problem at times. Some courts have dealt the regime defeats. An administrative court overturned an international agreement with Saudi Arabia; the Supreme Constitutional Court struck down part of a protest law; and regular appeals courts have voided a number of convictions that come from “terrorism” circuits (parts of the regular judiciary that have been tasked with trying large numbers of those accused of political violence). Judges are now being threatened with a draft law that would give the president discretionary authority in making some key judicial appointments. The autonomy that the judiciary has won in Egypt’s political system is clearly in danger. Judges have protested loudly and publicly. But whether or not the law passes as it is currently drafted, the warning shot has been heard.
Another warning shot has just been fired to bring the religious establishment into line. Given full autonomy six years ago, Al-Azhar’s senior leadership has made clear that it does not take instructions from the country’s political leadership. There is now a legislative proposal to change that. Pro-regime parliamentarians are suggesting that a number of state officials and public figures chosen by the president be brought in to help guide Al-Azhar. Once again, the draft legislation seems designed as much to send a message to bend to the regime as it is to bring about immediate structural change.
WHO IS FIRST AMONG EQUALS?
The authoritarian effect of these measures is clear, but there is more at stake than the degree of autonomy for state bodies. There is a struggle for dominance as well, one in which the presidency’s short-term victories may not realize Sisi’s long-term interests.
For all the ways that various parts of the state apparatus are persuaded to go along with the president, two sets of institutions stand out for the degree to which they retain their autonomy: the military sector and the internal security apparatus. There has been remarkably little turnover in the leadership of these institutions under Sisi. Indeed, his predecessors (most notably Anwar al-Sadat) used tactical liberalization in part to bring about what he called “a state of institutions”—one in which pockets of Nasserite influence and the institutional bases for potential rivals in the security establishment and sole political party could be isolated or forced out in a “corrective revolution.” Yet rather than bringing such institutions under his control, balancing against them, or ushering out their leaders, Sisi seems to be relying on them and allowing them to shape the regime and public policy.
Today, Egypt’s senior leadership does not have to worry about losing a competitive election. Nor does it worry about losing an argument in a highly-policed public sphere. But the events of 2011 left it very concerned about a popular uprising or a collapse of public order—the two perhaps equivalent for many security-minded leaders. And the policy performance of the current regime, especially in the economic realm, is shaky. By bypassing the option of a “Sisi spring,” the president is now dependent upon autonomous power centers. Having used them, he now must worry that they will discard him if they feel he is dragging them down.