international analysis and commentary

Egypt, four years on: the politics of restoration under Al-Sisi

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For years, January 25th has been known among Egyptians as Police Day, when citizens were supposed to rally around the police with gratitude and patriotism. Since 2011, when demonstrations were called on that very day in Tahrir Square triggering a mass upheaval, January 25th came to be known as the anniversary of the “January revolution” (thawra ianar). Four years later, the impression one draws while walking the streets of Cairo is that January 25th is again Police Day. Every intersection is guarded by plain-clothed mukhabarat (security service) officers and street police agents. But there is hardly any traffic to regulate or any demonstration to quell. The roads that saturate the capital with car smog are almost empty and traffic flows exceptionally regular through the same roundabouts where, each day, dozens of cars fill the air with compulsive honking.

The death of Saudi King Abdullah on January 23rd – followed by the declaration of seven days of mourning in Egypt – has even given President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi the opportunity to call off the few public events planned to celebrate the January revolution of four years ago. After all, the current regime is born out of the “second revolution”, which unfolded between June 30 and July 3, 2013, leading to the ousting of Egypt’s first-elected President Mohammed Morsi. The semantic dispute over these latter events has been bitter and will divide the collective memory of Egypt for years to come. Call it revolution, call it coup d’état, the outcome doesn’t change: the military-led regime is again in full control of power – albeit with a reconfigured inner balance – and has even re-gained legitimacy compared to the last years of Hosni Mubarak’s rule.

The January revolution is not openly repudiated, of course. The nationalist rhetoric that underpins the current regime is based on the fiction of national unity, and too many people still identify themselves with the events of Tahrir to openly discard it as a failure. Even more, the men in power want to avoid giving the impression that they are not taking the root causes of the revolution seriously, as those issues still need to be addressed. The official narrative, hence, portrays the Muslim Brotherhood as the hijackers of the revolution and the military as the patriotic force – propelled by the “second revolution” – that has brought Egypt back to the safe, right track.

The hardest blow to the proclaimed aims of the January revolution is not so much its appropriation by the military – something which took place from the first days of protest in Tahrir – but the comeback of the usual duopoly of Egyptian politics: the regime on one hand and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other, restored to its usual role of clandestine actor after a brief and unsuccessful incursion into the realm of legal politics. This is a blatant oversimplification, of course. The “regime” should be deconstructed into its military, bureaucratic, business components, its patronage networks and its urban and rural/tribal constituencies. The Ikwan, as the Brotherhood is commonly known, has always been torn by a number of internal cleavages of strategic and generational nature, among others. That said, it is a fact that the January revolution was the first attempt by the people to claim the right to an alternative to the suffocating dichotomy that has paralyzed Arab politics since the end of the Cold War: authoritarian – mostly military, or monarchical – regimes maintaining power in the name of the “politics of the lesser evil”, where the “major evil” is always represented by the Islamists. 

The emergence of a real alternative is dependent upon the existence of well-organized socio-political subjects able to advance it. In Egypt, while the revolution opened up an arena of power contestation, no civil force was strong enough to challenge the two traditional competitors. Although the variegated revolutionary forces must share the blame for their own failures on many occasions over the past four years, it is too easy to label them as immature, leaderless and fanciful. Their weakness is the deliberate outcome of the policies enacted over the last 40 years, which worked according to an unplanned though effective division of labor: the military coopted, divided or repressed any alternative leadership or movement, while the Islamists obtained the monopoly of contestation, fencing most anti-regime social milieus through sectarian membership. Not surprisingly though, the main challenge to the Brotherhood’s short-lived electoral supremacy has come from within the Islamist camp, namely from Salafist parties. We should not forget, moreover, how such duality has been consolidated and exacerbated by international dynamics driven by the “war on terror”, whose most recent manifestations lead us to believe that the above-mentioned dualism, and with it the “politics of the lesser evil”, will not disappear anytime soon.

Some observers contend that activists in Egypt and in the Arab world at large have learned the lesson, they are organizing underground and new uprisings will take place sooner or later. Such a view contains trails of hope, probably some excessive faith in uncertain “transitions”, and even some analytical truth, at least in the long run. But short-term anecdotal evidence attests to the contrary. Thousands of revolutionary militants and activists languish in prison, and most of those who have eluded arrest couldn’t escape disillusion and have reverted to safer individual paths. It couldn’t be otherwise, since revolutionary forces simultaneously face state repression and popular disdain for having “thrown Egypt into chaos”.

In this regard, it is hard to say whether the undisputed power of the Al-Sisi regime was better represented, on the eve of January 25th, by the killing in broad daylight of 32-year-old activist Shaima’ Sabbagh or by the desolation in the streets of downtown Cairo on the day after. Shaima’ was shot in the back by police while taking flowers to Tahrir Square in remembrance of the martyrs of the revolution. The shooting  targeted a peaceful march of a few dozen people; her murder was a cruel act of intimidation. In all likelihood, there would not have been a rally at all on the anniversary day – except in the Ikhwan’s peripheral strongholds, where they actually took place and ended with an unconfirmed death toll of more than 20 victims. Looking at the killing of Shaima’ with the cold lens of political analysis, it appears as a brutal display of arbitrary and unnecessary power, which is an inherent feature of authoritarian regimes.

To overcome a sense of frustration for a spring that never came, the last four years need to be framed in a wider historical picture. Egyptian politics and society are not back to square one. But political development is seldom a linear process, and what has occurred since 2011 constitutes the latest chapter in the history of a regime that has survived many internal and external challenges since its origins. The military Republic founded by the Free Officers passed through the catastrophe of the Six-Days War of 1967, and specularly endured the peace agreement with Israel in 1978-79. Moreover, while Hosni Mubarak will be remembered as the first contemporary Egyptian head of state to be ousted by a popular uprising, the circumstances that led him to the presidency following the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981 where no less traumatic and challenging for the regime.

Thinking of the January 2011 revolution as a turning point that would give birth to a wholly new political system, closing the long chapter opened in 1952, has proven a mistake. On the contrary, Egypt’s generals seem to have brought an infusion of new popular consent into the veins of a regime that had become sclerotic in its self-referential attitude and policies. The continuous reference made by the current leadership to the era of Gamal Abd el-Nasser is not only aimed at reviving nationalist and patriotic feelings, but aspires to recreate an empathy with the masses that was lost during the time of Sadat – with his controversial policies, particularly in the economic sphere – and was never restored during Mubarak’s long grey reign.

Such an ambition cannot avoid taking into account the specular nature of the current regime with respect to the Nasserist one. The latter had come to power following a coup d’état that he had infused with legitimacy thanks to his unparalleled charisma and his shrewd playing with the expectations of the anti-colonial struggle and the contradictions of the Cold War. Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has was also crowned by a coup d’état, but one that was “popular” according to the alleged definition given by the military themselves. Nasser led a “revolution from above” that mobilized the hearts and minds of Egyptians through a dream of national liberation; Al-Sisi owes his authority to a “coup from below” driven by disdain for the Muslim Brotherhood and fear of a disrupted economy. This is the reason why the current President cannot do away with the revolution and its rhetoric, because, willing or not, his only legitimacy rests on it.

The reasons that brought people to the streets in January 2011 were not due to a passing hybris of political consciousness or to a foreign conspiracy. On the contrary, “freedom, bread and social justice” were real and concrete demands. The majority of people then choose to take to the streets for a second time not only out of widespread disdain for the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule, but also because the cost of  “permanent revolution” had exceeded, by far, its short-term benefits. Every revolution promises a brighter future but delivers a murky, disappointing and often violent present. Al-Sisi needs to show Egyptians that he is able to build a better present, and although the people have learned the price of impatience, they will neither allow their country to slide into the decline and inertia witnessed under Mubarak. Accountability of the political leadership has become an irreversible factor of the political equation in Egypt.

The last four years have not only witnessed an extraordinary exercise of regime resilience, but also the will by the people to revoke the idea of an absolute political mandate. It is not merely an issue of representation – which is simplistically solved by the “concession” of elections. It is a deeper claim for self-determination that the people are no longer willing to devote as electoral capital, but that they are retaining with jealousy.

The President has avoided – deliberately or not – portraying himself as the bearer of any grandiose vision for the future. He is the man of the step-by-step approach, placid up to being paternalist. His safe path may however turn out not to be a viable one, in the long run, particularly if it reveals itself as a complete revival of the old path of his predecessors. This is the main reason why, despite the reassuring tone of Al-Sisi’s speeches, Egypt doesn’t give the impression of a stabilized country. Most Egyptians, contrary to how it may seem from outside, don’t consider the current situation as a conclusive restoration. The political climate could be better described as a state of suspension, a physiological period of calm after years of heavy storms.

How long this lull will last, and most of all what will it usher into, will mainly depend on Egypt’s generals’ capacity to recognize that the revolution has not passed in vain and resist the temptation to consider the popular demand for stability as a safe-conduct for a return to the past.