By Matt M. Joye
In Egypt, it remains a very good thing to be a general. Even the protestors who occupied Tahrir Square and brought down the former general-turned-dictator Hosni Mubarak courted the support of the army. Now, after just over a year of rule by President Mohamed Morsi, the coup that unseated him has placed another former general in the presidential palace. Indeed, since the toppling of the monarchy in 1952, Morsi remains the only civilian elected to Egypt’s highest office. Yet despite the clamoring of average Egyptians for a return to stability, the landslide electoral victory of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has not been a harbinger of democratic transition. It may in fact signal a dark road ahead for the country that cast off a 30-year despot less than four years ago.
Much has transpired since the momentous swell of popular protest and revolution—known collectively as the Arab Spring—began in Tunisia on Dec. 18, 2010, and exploded onto the world stage. Indeed, even now its imprint extends from the current Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong, to the unseating of President Blaise Compaore in Burkina Faso after 27 years of rule, and more ominously in the continuing civil wars in Ukraine and Syria. Nowhere became more synonymous with this global movement than Egypt: hundreds of thousands gathered in the streets of Cairo, centered on the iconic Tahrir Square, to demand the ouster of President Mubarak. In the end, after withstanding a brutal and deadly crackdown, they remained; gone was the former general who had ruled the country for almost 30 years.
The celebration of that victory would certainly have been tempered if protestors had known three years later another former general would occupy the presidential palace. Elected with 96.1% of the vote, President Sisi seemed to gain some form of democratic legitimacy after leading the coup that deposed President Morsi in July 2013. In one sense it ended an aberration: the military has been the dominant institution in Egypt since at least the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952. After being sidelined for a year by the electoral victory of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood—the only other viable organized political institution in Egypt—it would appear the generals have escaped banishment to the barracks and returned to the field, albeit with somewhat bruised egos. 
Indeed Sisi’s ascension has taken on aspects of a jilted institution determined to re-establish the power and prestige of a group that has long dominated the Egyptian state. At times this has bordered on the bizarre. Sisi and the regime have advanced a cult of personality built around the president as Egypt’s savior. The Egyptian media coverage of his recent United Nations speech portrayed a triumphant and overwhelming response by the assembly to his address; the New York Times version was less glowing, noting the applause came almost exclusively from his entourage. Egypt’s private media outlets have vowed to observe a self-imposed gag order on criticism of his government. One satellite network even stated, “…freedom of expression cannot ever justify ridicule of the Egyptian Army’s morale.” After the United States briefly suspended some military aid to Egypt, US Secretary of State John Kerry was subjected to security wands on visiting the presidential palace—unusual for a visiting dignitary. In the midst of protests in the aftermath of the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a Ferguson, Missouri police officer, Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs even issued a statement advising the US to undertake “respect for the right of assembly and peaceful expression of opinion.”
Obviously at times it pays to have a short memory. The violent attack on Pro-Morsi demonstrations by the military in the aftermath of his overthrow killed over eight hundred people, according to Human Rights Watch, and was unlikely to have occurred without at least tacit approval from Sisi: he was in charge of the military and deputy prime minister at the time. The Muslim Brotherhood is now banned as a “terrorist” organization, which has swept up many non-Brotherhood supporters in the subsequent raids. Perhaps most ironic, the leader who has only risen to power because of a series of protests now bans demonstrations of more than ten people without a special permit, and these are hard to procure.
Foreign and domestic non-governmental organizations, under the guise that they provide a conduit for foreign interference, have also faced new restrictions. NGOs that are based in Egypt will now need the approval of the government before accepting any foreign funding. When HRC tried to deliver its findings on the Rabaa Square massacre, its representatives were turned away at the airport and prevented from even entering the country: this was the first time HRC had been denied entrance to Egypt. Former US President Jimmy Carter’s NGO, which promotes free elections and human rights, has already withdrawn, with Carter citing an environment so antithetical to democracy that it “could be extremely difficult, and possibly dangerous, for critics of the regime” to remain.
Two Egyptian institutions that were critical to the development of resistance and opposition to Mubarak were universities and mosques. Both have been targeted by repressive government measures. Muslim imams and preachers must now have approval from the government, and many smaller houses of worship have been closed. At Friday prayers, every preacher must deliver the same sermon. Universities, once a space free from police and thus safe to demonstrate after the restrictions, have been rocked by arrests and violence now that security forces have returned. Now long lines and searches are mandatory just to enter campus, staff may be fired for “inciting” demonstrations, and the head of each university is appointed by the president under new restrictive policies. A wave of preemptive arrests and protests has resulted.
In the aftermath of an attack by militants in the Sinai Peninsula on Oct. 24 that left more than 30 soldiers dead, the Egyptian Army bulldozed hundreds of houses to create a buffer at the Gaza border—initially giving only 24 hours advance notice—and leaving thousands homeless. The Sinai has long been a battleground between militants and the Egyptian military. But the attack has upped the ante, as the military had claimed until now it was winning the war against the insurgents. The Egyptian government has responded with additional repressive measures. One such policy, which hands prosecution for violations of public utilities over to military courts, is broad enough that marches on public roads could fall within the new jurisdiction.
Under even the most enlightened leadership, Egypt faces numerous challenges that would test the functionality of the state. Economic pressures are almost at a breaking point, with the collapse of the tourism industry, the decline of export revenues as gas and oil production decline, and a bloated bureaucracy and huge debts that siphon off much of its budget. Recent cuts in fuel subsidies, which caused gas prices to spike by 80 percent while electricity costs also rose, are not popular and thus speak to the extent of the crisis. The violence in the Sinai is unlikely to diminish in the near future. The specter of a Muslim Brotherhood re-emergence from the shadows is equal parts convenient spook and real fear in the minds of military brass.
Yet in the overwhelming crackdown on any entity that remotely threatens the rule of the military, there are potential seeds of opposition sown. Public support of the military has fallen dramatically, and the underpinning of earlier support—the wish for a return of stability after the chaos of the revolution and the Morsi regime—largely hinges on whether Sisi can deliver both stability and the economic growth that might accompany it. The removal of fuel subsidies was in part directed at the IMF, which is currently withholding a $4.8 billion loan critical for debt payments. Some investment has returned, but Sisi has not shed the state-centric economic model of old. Egypt has a history of cronyism based on state protections for favored industries: the military has often been the biggest beneficiary of state-directed economic ventures (Mubarak was personally connected to at least 469 businesses). It is possible that the stability of a Sisi regime will restore the stability necessary for economic growth and investment, which might be the biggest panacea for the ills of Egyptians.
There is a more dire option. With so much pressure on every avenue of dissent and political organization, overwhelming repression might produce far more determined—and risk-adverse—adversaries. The designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization is no doubt politically expedient, but the wider net of oppression might alienate much larger segments of the population. Cracking down on universities, mosques, demonstrations and the like leaves little room for opposition within orthodox political channels. The domestic situation also limits the support that Egypt can garner from its longstanding allies, namely the US. The attempts by Sisi to foster closer ties with Russia stem in part from the hesitancy the US showed—read temporary suspension of military aid—after the coup that brought him to power. Egypt needs to address its structural deficiencies and attract investment to deliver on the growth that is the justification for its authoritarian rule—trading freedoms for the sake of stability. If Sisi cannot deliver an economy that at least partially fulfills the promises of the revolution and coup, it may take all of the qualities of the general in him to hold onto power. For those who occupied Tahrir Square four years ago, this might seem all too familiar.
1. Bahgat, Gawdat and Robert Sharp. “Prospects for a New US Strategic Orientation in the Middle East.” Mediterranean Quarterly 25.3 (2014): 27-39. Project MUSE. Web. Oct. 29, 2014.
Photo by EEAS