North Africa, West Asia

Can Sisi stop Egypt’s implosion?

Maged Mandour

Neither Sisi nor anyone else can bring stability to the country without radical social transformation, to address the key issues that brought about revolt in the first place.

Maged Mandour
21 May 2016

Mulugeta Ayene/AP/Press Association. All rights reserved.When El Sisi officially came to power, it was the hope of many in both Egypt and the west that he would be the strongman to bring stability to Egypt.

Coming to power on a massive wave of repression, fueled by an undeniable personality cult for those nostalgic for Nasser, he seemed poised to perform the role of the ‘saviour’ who would pluck Egypt out of chaos. This role is heavily engraved in the Egyptian collective psyche due to Nasser’s legacy, which sees history as the product of the actions of ‘great men’ rather than social change and class struggle.

Sisi, at the outset of his rule, received lavish international as well as domestic support in the mission of stabilizing Egypt and quelling any source of protest and unrest. A rapid return to the pre-2011 status quo was expected. However, recent news coming from Egypt has been less tranquil.

Contrary to popular belief, there has been a steady increase in under-reported forms of protests since the military coup. The regime has also moved from one security blunder to the next. From the increasingly sophisticated insurgency in Sinai, the bomb on a Russian airliner, and the murder of Mexican tourists by the Egyptian military in the western desert, the tourism industry is crashing.

Economically, the regime has mismanaged massive amounts of Gulf aid, contributing to a spiraling fiscal crisis, where the Egyptian pound has lost significant value against the dollar. The focus on mega infrastructure projects like the expansion of the Suez Canal – costing around eight billion US dollars and producing no significant returns – was a major contributing factor to the depletion of the country’s foreign reserves.

As for Egypt’s international relations, the murder of Italian PhD scholar Giulio Regeni has soured relations with Italy, one of the Egyptian regime’s closest European allies. This was followed by a number of Middle East experts addressing an open letter to Barack Obama urging his intervention in Egypt. The ramifications of this on relations with the EU are still unclear.

Moreover, the regime surprised Egyptians by giving up two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia, its main foreign backer. This led to a domestic backlash and the first mass protest against Sisi since he took power.

As such, the idea that Sisi would stabilise Egypt has proven false. Why did he fail? Most importantly, did he ever have a chance of success?

The first task Sisi faced to bring stability to the country was the unification of the Egyptian ruling class; its military and civilian bourgeoisie wings. The fragmentation of the Egyptian ruling class has been a feature of politics for the past decade, and one of the leading causes of Mubarak’s downfall. All Sisi had to do was simply create an accommodation between the military and the crony capitalist class, allowing the latter to return to its pre-2011 role: the civilian façade of the regime.

This would have involved a number of political as well as economic concessions. The military, for example, would have had to be content with its economic empire at its current scale, forgoing any increased expansion and reverting to the old formula of allowing civilian business men to accumulate wealth through their connections to the state: the provision of cheap land, credit and government subsidies.

Sisi will be unable to balance between the different organs of the state when conflict erupts between them.

Politically, the military would have had to allow that the parliament be controlled by civilians connected to the regime, acting as objective allies, without exerting direct control.

Sisi has failed abysmally on all these accounts. Rather than attempt to unify the ruling class, he has contributed to its increased fragmentation. He pressured the crony capitalist class and marginalised them in both the economic and political spheres.

Economically, the military empire has expanded dramatically and taken a leading role in major infrastructure projects. The business sector, as a result, has been crowded out and put under direct pressure.

Politically, the military has exerted control over the electoral process through the creation of the “For the Love of Egypt” electoral list, which swept elections. This list was established by an ex-intelligence officer and has close ties to the security apparatus. There is also some evidence that the electoral process was stage managed by the regime, cutting out any possible competition from the crony capitalist class.

Not only has Sisi failed to unify the military and civilian wings of the ruling class, he has also failed to unify the military establishment itself, which seems to be riddled with internal struggles. As Sisi has become increasingly reliant on repression to stabilise his regime, it appears he has lost control over the coercive apparatus of the state. This overreliance on repression has led to a process of the decentralization of state violence and an increase in the power of the petty security official, weakening the control of the centre over the periphery, even flipping the power dynamic in a way where the center becomes hostage to the periphery.

Thus, Sisi not only failed to create a cohesive ruling coalition, he has failed to end the rivalry within the state apparatus itself, making the process of power centralisation and stabilisation extremely difficult.

The second task facing Sisi was the creation of a class alliance that would provide his regime with a broad social base. In the beginning of his rule it seemed that this was a distinct possibility, most notably with the middle and working class.

Sisi had received the support of a large number of liberal and secular figures, who played opposition roles in groups rooted in the middle class. He also received the endorsement of all three labor unions in Egypt, independent and government controlled. He also cleverly used techniques of popular mobilisation, where he asked for popular support to “fight terrorism”. A mass protest was organized in his support. This was followed by the massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Rabaa and El-Nahda squares; thus soliciting popular participation in what can be described as a national crime in order to solidify his base of support. This was coupled with an impressive personality cult, which linked Sisi to Nasser, showing him to be the strong man Egypt needs.

However, he proceeded to squander this support as he continued to follow policies of economic aggrandisement of the military at the expense of all other social groups, which negatively affected the standard of living of the masses.

The most prominent example is the new civil service law, which is chipping away at the privileges of public sector employees, estimated at around seven million. This law has been criticised by labour groups, as it may push six million public employees into unemployment.   

Sisi has not only failed to unite the ruling class, he has also failed to create a solid cross-class coalition that can sustain his rule. However, was he ever up to the task?

Upon closer examination one could argue that Sisi never had the potential to stabilise the country. The role of the president has been significantly weakened in Egypt's new constitution in relation to that of the military. For example, for this and the next presidential term, Sisi cannot remove the minister of defense from his post without the approval of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). This weakness is not only legal it is also social.

Sisi does not have a broad social, organised political movement that supports him, unlike Nasser’s Socialist Union, Mubarak’s NDP and Morsi’s Brotherhood. This means that he is completely reliant on the military and the security apparatus, and is unable to act as a mediator between these forces or dictator on policies that push for compromise. Thus, he will also be unable to balance between the different organs of the state when conflict erupts between them. As such, inter-elite rivalries are not tempered, they are only worsened by the weakness of his position. Those who hoped that Sisi would be a second Nasser are sadly mistaken.

This is why there is an over-reliance on repression as a tool for regime maintenance, which leads to even greater fragmentation as power seeps from the centre to the periphery, leading to an even greater weakening of Sisi’s position. Neither Sisi nor anyone else can bring stability to the country without radical social transformation that addresses the key issues that brought about the revolt in the first place. This is why Egypt is headed towards an implosion that Sisi cannot stop!

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