August 14, 2018 marked the five-year anniversary of the blackest day in Egypt’s modern history. Egyptian security forces massacred over 800 civilians, mostly in Cairo’s Rabaa Square, as they were protesting the military coup of July 3, 2013. Since then, regime repression has become the order of the day and even the Egyptian judiciary began handing down severe penalties for dissent, as the latest sentences against activists attest. On September 11, the Egyptian judicial committee ordered the freezing of the assets of over 1,100 charities said to be affiliated with the banned Muslim Brotherhood, which was designated a terrorist group in December 2013. This decision will have a wide-ranging impact on marginalized communities throughout the country.
President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi insists that the military’s actions saved democracy for Egypt and that the June 2013 street protests—during which tens of thousands of Egyptians demanded that President Mohamed Morsi resign—expressed widespread anger with the Muslim Brotherhood. Many journalists reported that those protests were hardly spontaneous. In fact, the leaders of the Tamarrod Movement that mobilized the June 2013 demonstrations coordinated their plans with the generals—and with a helping hand from the semiofficial state media.
Yet the claim that the protests were “manufactured” is not accurate. The demonstrators and their leaders genuinely feared that the Muslim Brothers were using democratic institutions to impose an Islamist agenda that would harm the interests of secularly oriented Egyptians. Since then, Sisi and his allies have worked hard to sustain these fears. Indeed, his project hinges partly on ensuring that the Brotherhood will never again pose an electoral threat. To this end, Sisi has denuded parliament of even the limited role that it had played from 1974 to 2011 under the umbrella of “liberalized autocracy.” In its place, the Egyptian president is trying to build a new and more closed system: a full autocracy.
US diplomatic, military, and economic support has helped sustain Sisi’s project. Similarly, economic and diplomatic support from the UAE and Saudi Arabia has been instrumental. But the push to full autocracy is ultimately driven by local forces. Thus, the prospects for an even modest reopening of Egypt’s closed political arena will hinge on some shift in the domestic balance of political power.
Domestic Forces I: Regime and State
The most important domestic forces sustaining the regime are the military and security apparatuses. Along with its political allies, many of whom were part of the now defunct National Democratic Party (NDP), the military not only has the capacity to repress opponents but also to provide a very imperfect net of protection and economic patronage to key constituencies. The military’s deep reach into the economy gives Sisi and his allies ample incentive to pursue the project of authoritarian renewal. Equally important are the military’s ideological and institutional interests. The military’s generals hold that protecting the unity, coherence, and national identity of the state is a sacred mission. In fact, Sisi’s fear that Morsi was posing an existential threat to the Egyptian state played a major role in his decision to topple the democratically elected leader.
Beyond his alliance with the military, Sisi requires the support of veteran political leaders who were linked to the NDP and, even more so, the myriad state and state-linked institutions that constitute the vast state apparatus. His hard-nosed response to the effort of several ancien regime political and military leaders—including Generals Sami Anan and Ahmed Shafiq—to run in the April 2018 presidential elections underscores Sisi’s determination to sustain regime unity and thus punish challenges from within the top echelons of the political elite.
Among the veteran leaders who were pressured to withdraw from the 2018 race was Mohammed Anwar al-Sadat. A former NDP official and nephew of the late President Anwar al-Sadat, he was expelled from parliament in February 2017 for raising the question of human rights and democracy. Still, every effort to contain dissent risks provoking greater elite disaffection. The double-edged nature of state repression was illustrated in August 2018 when Masoum Marzouk, a former assistant foreign minister, was arrested for calling on his Facebook page for holding a referendum on Sisi’s leadership. What happened next must have surprised the Egyptian president; Hamdeen Sabahi, a former presidential candidate who supported Sisi’s takeover in 2013, told a news conference that “We believe that this regime must be changed. This is a failed power. This is a repressive power.” Sadat, the expelled parliamentarian, said that it is time for “`a genuine political reform… for the president and the state to listen’ to the opposition.”
These small cracks in the ruling political elite have echoes in the vast state apparatus. Sisi has encountered criticism from the state-funded Al-Azhar University, the training ground for the clerical establishment. Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb has in fact openly clashed with Sisi on a range of issues, including his call for Al-Azhar to “renew” Islam. Pushback has also emerged in the judiciary, where several higher courts have invalidated some of the draconian sentences imposed on hundreds of Egyptians accused of supporting a “terrorist group” (i.e., the Muslim Brothers). In December 2016, even the Supreme Constitutional Court—whose president, Adly Mansour, served as Egypt’s interim president during July 2013–June 2014—rejected one key article in a law that gives the regime unprecedented powers to repress the opposition.
Potentially more troubling have been public demonstrations organized by some leading professional syndicates that are state-funded and closely regulated by government ministries. In the wake of the July 2013 coup, leaders of some of these syndicates backed Sisi. But over the ensuing four years the Syndicates of Lawyers and the Syndicate of Journalists openly assailed the regime’s escalating bid to stifle free expression. Given their links to Egypt’s vast professional middle class, such expressions of dissent suggested that a key social sector that had depended on the regime’s protection is increasingly estranged from its supposed protectors.
None of these potential cracks in the regime—or in state or state-linked institutions—have thus far posed a mortal political danger to Sisi’s project. That said, syndical dissent could assume greater political significance if and when the leaders of the still fragmented political opposition manage to narrow the wide social and identity breaches in their ranks. Any effort to heal these divisions will first require a sober assessment by opposition leaders, especially from the Muslim Brotherhood, of the hard lessons bequeathed by their brief—if an ultimately failed—democratic experiment.
Domestic Forces II: The Muslim Brotherhood: Lessons not Learned
All of the key parties that participated in this short-lived experiment contributed to its demise. But if the military desired such an outcome, its wishes were inadvertently granted by the most powerful opposition force—the Muslim Brotherhood. From the outset, Brotherhood leaders did not recognize that democratic change hinged in part on forging consensus among all opposition groups regarding the principles of pluralistic democracy. Absent such consensus, the military had every incentive to sustain the divide-and-rule strategy it had long used to co-opt potential opponents. But after winning the 2012 parliamentary elections, Brotherhood leaders issued statements and took actions that underscored their hostility to liberal and leftist forces. Their effort to limit the role of non-Islamist leaders in a constitution drafting committee (which was appointed by the Islamist-controlled parliament), on the one side, and to negotiate separately with the military, on the other, magnified the ideological and political breach. This failure to grasp the normative and practical advantages of forging consensus gave secular leaders a good reason (or excuse) to back the efforts of the secularly oriented courts to issue judgments that effectively invalidated the 2012 parliamentary elections, thus helping to set the stage for the July 3, 2013 coup.
That the Muslim Brothers did not grasp these lessons in the maelstrom of the momentous and often violent events that convulsed Egypt starting in 2011 is hardly surprising. As several scholars have noted, their leaders never expected to actually win elections that, at least in theory, would give them control over the legislature and the executive. Moreover, the Brothers’ older leaders were hostile to calls from within their movement to reach out to more secularly oriented leaders. Dissident veterans, such as Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Foutouh, were expelled from the organization, while leaders of its youth or “shabab” wing—many of whom resented the calcified leadership of the Brotherhood—were prevented from organizing independently.
In light of the terrible fate that was visited on the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, it would seem that both Islamist and secular leaders have reason and incentive to consider how their actions or non-actions contributed to the collapse of Egypt’s democratic experiment. However, conditions inside and outside Egypt have worked against such “political learning.” The regime’s relentless repression has helped to radicalize many younger supporters of the Brotherhood. At the same time, the imprisonment of the top tier leadership has not only fragmented the organization, but it has also ensured that there are few figures in the top hierarchy of the Brotherhood who have the authority and means to restrain a radicalizing youth. As for Brotherhood leaders outside Egypt, their wide geographic dispersal to major cities such as Istanbul, Qatar, and London has provided some individual leaders a chance to ponder the future of the organization. But it also fragments the organization while working against any collective effort to evaluate its actions during the 2011-2013 period.
Nevertheless, a certain amount of soul searching has unfolded. Not surprisingly, there is no agreed upon assessment of “what went wrong,” much less a clear vision of what a new strategy should be. Some insist that the Brothers made no mistakes and therefore, the responsibility for their fate lies in the hands of the military and its allies inside and outside Egypt. For example, Mohamed Soudan, a veteran leader who helped create the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party, rejects the idea that the organization failed to reach out to secular leaders. Moreover, he insists that there is no genuine or significant division between “reformists and conservatives.” The reformists, he holds, “are very few in number” and are in fact the creation of the state-controlled media. Soudan articulates the position of the organization’s conservative vanguard which, both before and after Mubarak’s fall, scorned any sign of dissent from within the Brotherhood.
Still, other veteran leaders have offered a different perspective. Amr Darrag, who was Minister of Planning and International Cooperation until the July 2013 coup, argues that the Brotherhood’s long-standing “gradualism”—by which he means organizing grassroots support from below while, from above, accommodating the military and state apparatus—was its only choice under the umbrella of Mubarak’s autocracy, although it proved counterproductive. But after Mubarak’s fall opened the door to a totally new situation—namely, the opportunity to secure a decisive electoral foothold in the parliament and the presidency—the Brotherhood, Darrag insists, should have taken a “revolutionary” approach by trying to “reform” the military and security apparatus.
The problem with Darrag’s analysis is that given the enduring power of the military after Mubarak’s fall, any serious bid to undermine its power through some kind of “reform” (much less, a purge) would have provoked the military an immediate retaliation by the military and security forces. The more promising route would have been to forge a united front with leftists and secular forces. Darrag has little to say about how the Brotherhood’s approach to secularly oriented opposition groups figured in the demise of Egypt’s short-lived democratic experiment. As for the organization’s current course, he is not clear. The Brotherhood, he suggests, should now seek a consensus with other parties regarding a reopening of the political arena. This point, however, comes across as a tactical rather than strategic consideration. Indeed, there is little in Darrag’s extensive remarks that suggests that the Brotherhood should rework the basic vision of its overall place and role in Egyptian society.
Sisi Allows No Room for Non-State Islamist Reformers
Where democratic transitions have taken place in history, they have rarely been the result of revolution. Rather, such transitions generally result from a process of negotiation and “pact making” that allows ancien regime forces to secure space and even some power in an emerging—if far from perfect—democratic order. This kind of gradualism can offer a path away from autocracy, but only if oppositions find common ground. Echoing this maxim, former Brotherhood leader Abdelrahman Ayyash insisted in 2014 that the movement should try to form coalitions with other groups that were harmed by Sisi’s military coup, adding that the Muslim Brotherhood “right now is still very arrogant … they need to open themselves up to some criticism.”
Such an approach would require a genuine revision of the movement’s worldview. Sisi may not believe that such a change is possible; moreover, he has no intention of creating conditions that would invite a shift. On the contrary, if there is going to be any “reform” of Islam, it will be done by the state and under his command. This approach, as noted above, does not guarantee that state institutions will always cooperate. Still, for Sisi, a tightly controlled subcontracting of “reform” to Al-Azhar is far more preferable to tolerating free-thinking Islamist actors.
Indeed, the arrest of Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Foutouh in February 2018 underscores Sisi’s determination to plow ahead. Aboul-Foutouh was arrested for a variety of charges, including having ties the Muslim Brotherhood. Ironically, he was expelled from the Brotherhood for publicly expounding the very pluralism and political inclusion that some Brothers might now be embracing belatedly. Aboul-Foutouh’s real “crime” was that he demanded that the regime reopen the political arena, a claim echoed by Sadat and other ancien-regime leaders who felt the boot of Sisi’s government after they tried to enter the 2018 presidential race.
The last thing Sisi wants is an alliance between these disillusioned state or state-linked leaders and independent Islamist proponents of political reconciliation. Such an alliance is probably a long way off. But Sisi’s bid to impose a military-controlled, full-fledged autocracy has provoked a measure of pushback and resistance from a myriad of forces and actors who are seeking an exit from the politics of repression and fear.