Over three days in late May, ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, the retired field marshal and former head of military intelligence, was elected president of Egypt with 96 percent of the vote. This tally was far higher than the 51.34 percent recorded in 2012 by the man Sisi helped to depose, Muhammad Mursi, and higher than the 88.6 percent racked up by Husni Mubarak in the rigged contest of 2005. Since the only other candidate, Hamdin Sabbahi, scarcely disagreed with Sisi on matters of policy during the campaign, a Sisi victory was a foregone conclusion, even if the margin was not.

Sisi’s main objective was to outpoll Mursi so as to lend an air of legitimacy and popular approval to the ouster of the Muslim Brother some 11 months earlier. Among those who voted for the ex-general, indeed, there were certainly many who hope that he will bring a measure of stability to a country that is economically as well as politically exhausted by three years of turmoil. The lavish inauguration ceremony and tumultuous Tahrir Square celebration on June 8 brought these voters out in the hundreds of thousands. It is far from clear, however, that stability is what Sisi voters will get: The foundations upon which the reconfigured regime rests make it impossible for the new president to address Egypt’s fundamental social and economic problems, leaving the regime brittle if not necessarily fragile.

A Marked Contrast

Egypt’s first democratic presidential election, held in May 2012, set an important precedent by which Sisi’s anointment will eventually be measured. At the time, there was no constitution, no clarity on the president’s powers and no process of transitional justice. There had been no overhaul of the state security agencies and no reform of economic policy. Key demands of the 2011 revolution, like inclusive economic growth and social justice, were conspicuously unfulfilled. There was, however, plenty of political participation. Though voter fatigue had already set in, turnout was 43.4 percent. For all its flaws, the presidential election was a free, largely fair and surprisingly close-run affair: The top four candidates in the first round finished within 7 percent of one another, while in the runoff the two candidates were separated by a mere 3.5 percent of the vote. While the victor, Mursi, could claim only a slender margin of victory over his rival Ahmad Shafiq, all Egyptians hopeful about a transition toward democracy could take heart from the integrity of the process itself.

The 2014 election could not contrast more markedly with the 2012 contest. Sisi’s election took place amidst increasing repression, and politicians had trouble convincing even their own supporters to cast votes in a race whose outcome many regarded as predetermined. Officials were adamant that turnout topped 30 percent by the afternoon of May 27, despite reports of deserted polling stations. Their confidence was transparent bravado. In order to persuade Egyptians to enter voting booths, the second day of balloting was declared a state holiday, train fares were suspended to allow convenient travel and a fine of 500 Egyptian pounds was imposed for failing to show up. The regime-friendly media did its part, with TV anchors castigating non-voters in lurid terms. Some presenters went so far as to say, “Any woman who goes shopping instead of voting should be shot or shoot herself.” At the end of day two, the Presidential Election Committee suddenly decided to extend the election through May 28, arguing that hot weather had deterred would-be voters. This more-than-faint desperation heightened concerns about public participation, not to mention the reliability of official election data. In the meantime, Sabbahi and opposition parties such as Dustour withdrew their election monitors, saying that the observers had been assaulted, banned from entering polling stations and referred to military investigators.

The low turnout has to concern the regime that Sisi represents. It is a blow to the perceived legitimacy of the July 2013 coup against Mursi and the Muslim Brothers. Back then, the Tamarrud (Rebellion) movement had collected signatures and filled squares with Mursi opponents from a variety of political backgrounds. The groundswell allowed the army to claim that it was acting in the name of the people. This claim, always tendentious, now looks shakier than ever. Voter fatigue certainly contributed; the 2014 presidential election was the sixth time in four years that Egyptians have been called to the polls, with no clear end to the post-Mubarak transition in sight. The certainty of the outcome did not help, either. But the self-inflicted wound was the harsh repression of any opposition, secular or Islamist, in the months following Mursi’s ouster. Ahmad Mahir, co-founder of the pro-democracy April 6 movement, and leftist and liberal activists like Alaa Abdel Fattah and Mahienour al-Masry have spent time in prison and faced torture under a draconian new protest law. (Al-Masry is still in jail.) Predictably, a range of non-Islamist opposition groups boycotted the voting.

To be sure, the blow is not fatal, but it is ironic that the army’s coup and subsequent clampdown may have resurrected the Muslim Brothers’ reputation. The Brothers’ own authoritarian behavior when in power sent their popularity, and their credibility as democratic actors, into steep decline. Now, the Brothers’ forcible removal from office and subsequent persecution by the state has allowed them to present themselves as paladins of democratic process. Indeed, if the army’s indiscriminate repression continues, Islamists, leftists, liberals and others may find incentives to form a common front against the regime once more.

Strings Attached

What the 2014 election suggests is that Sisi and his army-led regime do not have unconditional popular support. Sisi’s numerous backers can be broken down into several constituencies, ranging from Mubarak-era holdovers (fuloul) aiming to retain their privilege to nationalists fearful of Islamism to those hit hard by economic instability. The last category includes many poor Egyptians and those segments of the middle class whose fortunes declined under Mubarak’s privatization schemes and who now crave recovery of their purchasing power. Some of the pro-Sisi forces — primarily the security forces, entrenched state bureaucrats and elites so anti-Islamist they are almost Islamophobic — can be relied upon. The allegiance of other strata, however, particularly the poor and the impoverished middle classes, is likely to depend on the new chief executive’s performance both in restoring stability and in bringing better economic times.

The post-Mubarak era, indeed, has seen the popularity of various political actors wax and wane. The army was fêted in February 2011 for its role in removing Mubarak, but by November of that year public opinion had turned against the generals, forcing them to permit fair parliamentary and presidential elections. In December 2012, Muhammad Mursi awarded himself sweeping powers (most of which he never used) and confidently put up a controversial constitution for approval by plebiscite. And yet by the succeeding summer he had been shoved aside in a coup backed by a majority of Egyptians.

The Sisi regime’s perch is more precarious still. Egypt’s predicament is rooted first and foremost in its dire economic straits, but neither the armed forces nor other core components of the new regime have promising ideas on this front. Indeed, Reuters reported on June 6 that the regime has enlisted American consulting firms to broker a rapprochement with the International Monetary Fund, whose neoliberal recommendations Mursi could not stomach, knowing their contribution to Mubarak’s downfall. The Gulf states that have bankrolled the post-Mursi regimes are pushing the IMF option as a way to curtail their own cash infusions into Egypt. Second, the regime has made heavy use of propaganda. But propaganda only goes so far before the expectations it raises come back to haunt its authors. Indeed, already the pro-army media is showing signs of caution in its fawning over Sisi. These outlets helped to concoct a cult of personality with a bewildering iconography ranging from Sisi cakes to Sisi lingerie. Now, the same media try to dampen expectations of the savior they heralded, claiming, for example, that despite receiving heads of state and generally behaving like one since the spring, the great man cannot be held responsible for government actions taken before his election. This circumspection indicates considerable concern about the staying power of the consensus behind Sisi and the army. Finally, it may be useful in the short term to paint Sisi as commander-in-chief of an Egyptian “war on terror,” but he may wish to shed that label if the springtime spate of armed attacks on high-ranking police officers and sensitive installations persists. Mubarak, after all, donned a similar terrorist fighter’s mantle after the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat and again during the radical Islamist insurgency of the 1990s, and on both occasions he was forced to realize that “security” alone could not cement his hold on power.

These challenges are all the sharper in a society as deeply polarized as Egypt has become over the past two years.

One Crackdown to End Them All

One of the regime’s basic responses in a crisis is to identify internal and external enemies as the source of trouble in order to justify the repression of all opposition. But since Mursi was removed, the regime’s crackdown has made even the excesses of Mubarak’s detested regime pale by comparison. “Security” has become a mantra that the authorities invoke to cast any and all dissent as akin to treason. The security forces have killed well over one thousand protesters since the army took power in July 2013. Moreover, while under Mubarak the number of political detainees peaked at around 14,000, the WikiThawra project estimates that since the coup security forces have detained more than 41,000 people. [1] Riding a wave of hyper-nationalism, this assault has targeted icons like Mahir, Abdel Fattah and al-Masry, as well as hundreds of Islamist-leaning university students opposed to the coup. But it is not just anti-government activists who are singled out for punishments intended to set an example. It seems that the new “standard” punishment for participating in protests is a two-year prison sentence and a fine of 100,000 pounds ($14,000), which is steep even for students from the Egyptian elite, let alone those from poorer backgrounds. Many other students have been arbitrarily expelled.

Authoritarian regimes routinely adopt repressive measures in the belief they will dissuade and disperse opposition. In the long term, however, these tactics always generate blowback. In the case of Egypt today, while the regime has made “security” its watchword, there is little sign that security is improving, in either the state-approved sense of quiet or the literal sense of physical safety. Workers continue to stop the “wheel of production” in protest of terrible working conditions, and the anti-government protests at universities scarcely paused for end-of-semester exams. Meanwhile, the cities are essentially partitioned at night with many more roadblocks and police checkpoints than were ever present under Mubarak. The more the regime tries to emphasize security, the more the population as a whole — Sisi-backing or not — feels insecure. These are all signs of weakness for a regime so intent on showing its ferocity. [2]

The Army vs. Egypt

The army’s fundamental problem is that it needs to foster a lasting consensus behind its rule, but cannot hope to meet the expectations such consensus requires. The economic sphere is exemplary in this respect. The army’s heavy-handedness and scare tactics have contributed greatly to the virtual evaporation of tourism, and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been compelled to pour billions into Egypt’s coffers in order to stave off collapse. The Gulf monarchies are only too eager for the army to quash the stirrings of democracy in the most populous Arab country, but even they must see the disappearance of such a vital revenue source as tourism as a very serious worry. As one commentator put it already in 2011, the army “has played fast and loose with the nation’s finances.” [3] The IMF route, should the regime choose it, carries risks of its own.

It is possible, of course, that Sisi’s presidency will surprise citizens and outsiders alike, and produce policy solutions to Egypt’s deep social divides, economic woes and political polarization. But the chances seem slim, if only because Sisi will find it virtually impossible to rein in the army’s prerogatives. The army’s budget is gargantuan and unmonitored. Its vast and growing commercial empire is untaxed and shrouded in secrecy, its size estimated at anywhere from 4 percent to 60 percent of gross domestic product. This empire’s oxygen is the total lack of civilian oversight enshrined in the army-drafted constitution. Its lifeblood is the ability to undercut any and all competitors — if not intimidate them out of business. If Egyptian military production were regularly taxed, it would provide substantial revenue for the country’s perennially strained treasury. Instead, the army reinforces an informal economy, relying on access to government contracts and cheap labor in the form of conscripts. In these conditions, transparent government expenditures, the rule of law and equitable labor regulations run directly counter to the army’s interests.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Sisi presented no economic policy ideas at all during what passed for the presidential campaign. Instead, with the election commission accusing his campaign of bribing prospective voters with energy-saving light bulbs, Sisi called on Egyptians to tighten their belts, even issuing a galling rebuke to the supposed profligacy of the struggling citizenry: “Has anyone considered giving a month’s salary to the poor?” [4] Now in power, Sisi will not be able to repeat such vacuous pronouncements for long before his government’s inability to formulate a decent economic policy becomes inescapably clear. Ellis Goldberg has argued that the low turnout hurts Sisi but helps the army as a cohort, [5] but the more basic problem facing both individual and institution is that while equitable paths to growth are not in the army’s corporate interest, leaving such issues unaddressed will erode both Sisi’s legitimacy and the army’s.

To mask its incapacity here and elsewhere, the regime hopes to tempt the salafi movement to assume the same role of pliant opposition played by the Muslim Brothers in the later Mubarak years, if not the civilian partner role the Brothers adopted after Mubarak fell. While the Brothers aimed to rule after the 2011 uprising, their economic ideas were never particularly different from what had come before. The Brothers were keen not to upset the army’s economic applecart, in fact, but their nationwide networks of activists and welfare institutions made them a political threat. The army seized the perfect opportunity of Mursi’s tremendous unpopularity to cut the Brothers’ ambitions down to size. Replacing the Brothers with salafis — who have not presented any original economic ideas, either — would allow the regime to continue its crackdown against the Brothers and to keep the opposition divided while gaining the support of puritanical Egyptians (also funded by Saudi Arabia) capable of providing the same welfare services that the Brothers supply and that the state is no longer willing to offer.

Formerly an ally of the Brothers, the salafi Nour Party has thrown its support behind Sisi (despite its base often supporting anti-government protests in defiance of leadership directives). Nour was the only Islamist group allowed to debate the contents of the 2014 constitution, drafted after the “Islamist” constitution approved in 2012 under Mursi was repealed. The party may be afforded political space by the regime long enough to fill the void left by the Brothers, but its future remains uncertain. The Brothers’ fate certainly provides an object lesson in the unintended consequences of striking deals with Egypt’s real rulers.

Shoulder to the Boulder

If it was not yet clear during the military’s stint in direct power, from February 2011 to July 2012, and if there were silver linings around a cloud or two when the Brothers were in charge, it is obvious that “there is no democratic transition at present” in Egypt. [6] Instead, competition between elements of the old regime is shaping Egypt’s economic and political landscape. How different this new regime will be from the old remains to be seen.

The new regime is not simply a resuscitation of Mubarak’s. For a start, public opinion is far more polarized than under the ex-dictator, even in the last days before the January 2011 uprising. Second, the coterie around Sisi has yet to develop a mechanism for adjudicating internal disputes. Under Mubarak, the National Democratic Party had that function, but this organization is disbanded and nothing is yet in its place. With Sisi as a “civilian” president, the army has avoided repeating the mistake of 2011 when it took power directly, while securing its interests through constitutional guarantees. Many of the faces have also changed: The business leaders close to Mubarak’s son Gamal are orphaned by their disgraced patron, and the military deals directly with Gulf sponsors, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia, rather than through civilian cronies. In the long run, however, the armed forces are but one pole in the balance of power in Egypt. Businessmen, bureaucrats, local strongmen and the mighty Ministry of Interior will all jostle for position in the new order.

That said, as under all post-Mubarak governments — from the Brothers to the military itself — the crucial pole in the balance of power is the social forces built up in Mubarak’s final decade and unleashed by the 2011 uprising. Now, as under Mubarak, economic inequality and political disenfranchisement generate instability. Now, as then, instead of confronting such deep-seated problems with the seriousness of purpose they demand, successive governments respond with a toxic mix of hyper-nationalism and brute force. While this retrenchment will work in the short run, insofar as it will protect elite interests, the army’s inability to respond to popular demands — bread, freedom and social justice — leaves the emerging regime fierce, outwardly strong, but potentially as brittle as its predecessor. The army-led regime has shouldered the boulder of stability to the top of the hill, but because this rock rests on a plateau of manufactured consensus, eventually it will tumble back down.


[1] Mada Masr, May 25, 2014.
[2] Andrea Teti and Gennaro Gervasio, “The Unbearable Lightness of Authoritarianism: Lessons from the Arab Uprisings,” Mediterranean Politics 16/2 (July 2011).
[3] Robert Springborg, “The Political Economy of the Arab Spring,” Mediterranean Politics 16/3 (October 2011).
[4] Mohamed El Dahshan, “Does General Sisi Have a Plan for Egypt’s Economy?Foreign Policy, April 18, 2014.
[5] Ellis Goldberg, “A New Political Dilemma for Egypt’s Ruling Military,” Monkey Cage, June 2, 2014.
[6] Michele Dunne, “US Policy Struggles with an Egypt in Turmoil,” Arab Reform Initiative, Washington, May 2014.

How to cite this article:

Gennaro Gervasio, Vivienne Matthies-Boon, Andrea Teti "Sisiphus," Middle East Report Online, June 10, 2014.

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