Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has certified his seizure of power with an electoral pantomime, and looks set to preside over a reconstructed Mubarakist system. The revolution appears as a blip in the stubborn tradition of one military dictator transferring power to another. But try as he might, the new leader of Egypt can’t rule the way Mubarak did. Sisi faces an entirely different set-up than the relatively tame country Mubarak inherited, and will have to devise a ruling formula from scratch to deal with a country in a protracted political transformation.
It’s strange to me how so many commentators are unanimously declaring the economy to be the make-or-break test of the new autocrat’s rule, as if the survival of any of Egypt’s military rulers depended on economic performance. Inequality, immiseration, and corruption accelerated under Sadat and flourished under Mubarak, but neither was brought down by those conditions. Their fates hinged on the tools of political control they designed to channel and contain economic discontent and political ambition.
Sisi’s survival depends on how he’ll pacify and roll back the mass politicization that erupted post-revolution, a feat that no other modern Egyptian ruler has had to attempt. From January 25 2011 to June 30 2013, in a spectacle unseen in the modern history of this country, crowds filling streets determined the fate of powerholders. On July 3, Sisi terminated that dangerous pattern, co-opting popular mobilization into state-sanctioned folk festivals and using overwhelming state violence against oppositional protests and sit-ins.
But to build an enduring authoritarian order, Sisi will have to go beyond his crude strategy of crushing real mass mobilization while staging medieval pageants of mass acclamation. The limits of this approach couldn’t be clearer in the election debacle. Apparently, Sisi and his machinery didn’t anticipate that claiming a popular mandate is far easier with protests than through elections. Hence the hilarious government panic and desperate eleventh-hour measures to compel people to take part in a choreographed election, an exercise more idiotic than herding cats.
Simply put, Sisi has to construct a sophisticated new system for handling opposition. The state terror he’s unleashed on opponents since July 3rd may work in the short term, but begins to signal state weakness in the face of unabated acts of resistance. Similarly, the spectacles of popular acclamation à la Syria’s Asads quickly become liabilities, showcasing a ruler’s mendacity and megalomania rather than his invincibility.
Mubarak’s rule lasted because it managed different kinds of opposition. There was a parliamentary space inherited from Sadat, for channeling the political energies of the reformist Muslim Brothers and a dozen maverick non-Islamist politicians. When a protest culture began to emerge in the 2000s, Mubarak’s police didn’t crush it but instead worked to ensure that workers’ protests never merged with pro-democracy demonstrations. Mubarak even kept Sadat’s risible state-created opposition, the neo-Wafd, Tagammu, and Nasserist outfits that were useful when he needed a stooge to stand against him in sham elections.
This system chugged along for 30 years and would have lasted longer, had an internal and external shock not overturned everything. Mubarak’s son and his friends over-managed the 2010 parliamentary elections and hogged all the seats, radicalizing the tamed parliamentary opposition. A month later, on January 14, 2011, the Arab authoritarian order was changed forever when one of its architects ran away in the face of massive street opposition, electrifying crowds all over the Arab world. The stage was set for the separate worlds of opposition under Mubarak to converge and terminate his storied longevity.
Revolutionary Creation, Military Destruction
The uprising inaugurated an era of mass politicization, breaking down the barriers between people and politics Mubarak had maintained so well. It seems like a different country now, but recall the heady year of 2011, when every part of Egypt was alive with boundary-breaking political action: protests against mini-Mubaraks in the state bureaucracy; protests against governors; evolution of neighborhood popular committees; protests against church burnings; the first free internal university elections; freetrade unions; the first sustained Tahrir sit-in after Mubarak’s ouster; and crowds’ storming of two of the most fortified symbols of power in Cairo: the State Security headquarters and the Israeli embassy.
At the same time as Egyptians were actively remaking politics in their neighborhoods, streets and workplaces, a new national political tradition was born: the Friday mass protest or melyoneyya, radiating out from Tahrir in Cairo to the central squares in provincial capitals. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to claim that this was the first time since 1919 that crowds steered national policies, via a weekly outdoor mass parliament more potent than any legislative body.
When that body was seated in January 2012, it was peremptorily dissolved less than six months later, part of the military’s long game of torpedoing every popular achievement both at the ballot box and in the streets. In short order, the first elected president was overthrown; the first popularly-authored constitution suspended; Tahrir Square was closed off with barbed wire and army tanks; protest encampments at Rabaa and Nahda burned and thousands of protestors killed; an anti-protest law promulgated; and thousands of students, activists and non-political citizens arrested, jailed or sentenced to death.
Writing of the 1851 coup d’état that arrested the 1848 revolution in France, Marx’s words illuminate equally well the Egyptian drama of revolutionary creation and military destruction: “Instead of society conquering a new content for itself, it only seems that the state has returned to its most ancient form, the unashamedly simple rule of the military sabre and the clerical cowl.”
Sisi has yet to go beyond the primitive Bonapartist impulses of using the state’s brute force and crude propaganda. But to recoup the investment in him by his Gulf, US, and Israeli friends and backers, he will have to build a viable authoritarian political order that can calibrate and not just indiscriminately crush opposition.
If Mubarak inherited a country with tame levels of conflict, Sisi seized power in a scarcely recognizable Egypt, a place that in three remarkable years has undergone three political upheavals: a popular uprising; an intensely competitive, hard fought presidential election; and a military coup cheered by half the population and resisted by the other half.
Residues of these conflicts have made deep grooves: the nightly anti-coup processions and Friday demonstrations in Greater Cairo and several other cities; student protests of stunning bravery and heroism; an armed insurgency in Sinai; workers’ protests that are likely to increase in frequency and magnitude; and a thriving satirical subculture dedicated solely to ridiculing Sisi’s every gesture and utterance.
Sisi’s gamble requires that he figure out a workable formula for ruling Egypt without the participation of Egyptians, at a historical juncture when Egyptians have become much harder to rule.