North Africa, West Asia

Egypt's 'civil society coup' and the resilience of the post-1952 order

Cairo’s new rulers have few plausible solutions to the longstanding problems of political economy and while Egyptian civil society failed to democratise the political order in the wake of the Mubarak overthrow, it remains a potentially revolutionary force.

WJ Dorman
10 October 2013

The military overthrow of the Morsi government in early July 2013 marked the return of ancien regime forces to the foreground of Egyptian politics. Of course, the Egyptian state’s underlying centres of power — including the military and security/intelligence forces, sometimes referred to as the ‘deep state’ — had never gone away. In the late spring, they made common cause with the anti-Morsi political opposition, staging a so-called ‘civil society coup’

Their ascendancy is manifest on a number of levels, most notably with respect to the interior ministry and an explicit return to the abusive police practices credited with driving the original 25 January protest movement. But the emerging political dispensation, while embedded in post-1952 traditions of authoritarianism, does not simply reinstate the Mubarak era. Egypt’s second transition has been marked by an unprecedented degree of violence, initially by the state against the Brotherhood. Military chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has an unprecedented degree of public popularity, but the armed forces must choose between retreating into the shadows of a future ‘presidential monarch’ — a role for which al-Sisi may be auditioning — or reaffirming its formal autonomy vis-à-vis a weakened presidency as was the case during the short-lived Morsi government. 

However, various factors may complicate an authoritarian consolidation. The brutal demise of the Muslim Brotherhood is unlikely to unravel the complicated entanglement of religion and politics in Egypt. Cairo’s new rulers have few plausible solutions to the longstanding problems of political economy with which all post-1952 governments have struggled. While Egyptian civil society failed to democratise the political order in the wake of the Mubarak overthrow, it remains a potentially revolutionary force. 

Governing, not ruling

Given the prevalence of public discourse in Egypt proscribing the Muslim Brotherhood as unEgyptian and ‘terrorist’, it is worth remembering that the military overthrow of the Morsi government probably reflected its weakness as much as its malfeasance. While saddled with the responsibilities of governance, the Muslim Brotherhood-backed government hardly ruled the state. Rather, it remained beholden to the military, whose interests it defended in the much maligned December 2012 constitution. It never secured the allegiance of the security forces despite being blamed for their continued human-rights violations. Indeed, its abbreviated tenure was characterised by a “balkanization of the state” in which various institutions including the judiciary and al-Azhar religious authorities, sought to assert their autonomy. Perhaps most importantly, the Morsi government’s lack of control over the state meant that it was never able to see off its critics in the secular opposition, and on the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities. In Spring 2013, these forces coalesced around the Tamarod “rebellion” movement whose widely subscribed petition demanding Morsi’s removal and mass protests scheduled for 30 June, the government’s first anniversary in office, set the stage for military intervention.

Observers have speculated as to whether the overthrow was planned in advance. Perhaps Egypt’s military rulers during the post-Mubarak transition had allowed the Muslim Brotherhood their victory in the Spring 2012 presidential elections intending them to fail. But one can argue plausibly that the Morsi government came to power on the basis of an undeclared understanding with the armed forces that it would respect the military’s institutional prerogatives and economic privileges: in effect governing on behalf of the ‘deep state’ which still ruled behind the scenes. If so, then perhaps the military intervened at the culmination of the Tamarod campaign because the opposition had successfully signalled Morsi’s failure in the intermediary role. His government had proven unable to halt the recurring cycle of protest and crisis inherited from the transition period and consolidate at least the appearance of political order and social peace. 

‘Civil society coup’?

The role of Tamarod in the Morsi overthrow is suggestive of the so-called the “civil-society coup,” in which clashes between nominally democratic political actors allow the reassertion of praetorianism. This paradigm is intended to capture situations where a populist autocrat pursues anti-establishment policies in a poorly institutionalised political system, unconstrained by generally weak opposition forces and an absence of checks and balances. Civil society organisations mobilise, becoming the main focus of opposition and take to the street in protest. In moments of crisis or institutional breakdown, these forces make a deal with the military and perhaps hold together an anti-government coalition of soldiers and politicians. While the normative focus of the paradigm is sometimes a critique of civil society ‘gone rogue’, empirically the contribution and significance of civil-society groups to military intervention against the populist autocrat varies from case to case. 

Although the Morsi government was hardly populist or anti-establishment, its demise at least partially fits the civil-society coup paradigm. Its approach to governance was unilateralist, leading to widespread suspicion that the Muslim Brotherhood was seeking to entrench itself in the state and recreate the Mubarak-era regime with itself at the centre. Opposition forces were not just weak, but also divided and lacking a coherent agenda. The entire political environment remained implicitly authoritarian with few institutionalised opportunities for meaningful political contestation. Hence it was perhaps inevitable that the opposition would return to the repertoire of street protests which in June/July 2013 signalled the Morsi government’s loss of control and, crucially were used to give the military’s return to power a populist cover. In the lead-up to the overthrow, some opposition activists had demanded military intervention. In its aftermath, there were reports of coordination between Tamarod and the soldiers during the protests. The opposition and private-sector media have subsequently sought to justify Morsi’s removal and subsequent massacres of Muslim Brotherhood supporters with hyper-patriotic appeals and scare-mongering. They precluded any serious domestic debate about the merits of overthrowing an elected government and the violent repression of its supporters. 

But actual civil society participation in the overthrow itself and subsequent consolidation of power has been limited. Neighbourhood-level popular committees have acted as a kind paramilitary auxiliary. Ordinary Egyptians began to show their disdain for Brotherhood activists. But the removal of the Morsi government and subsequent repression of the Muslim Brotherhood was mainly done by the police and the army, leading some skeptics to claim that the ‘second revolution’ of July 2013 was stage-managed. Deep-state forces and Mubarak-era elites rather than the secular opposition groups appear to be the most direct beneficiaries of the overthrow. Hence the paradigm’s normative critique of civil society must not be exaggerated. There were few opportunities for the secular opposition to play ‘loyal opposition’ vis-a-vis the Morsi government. Its role may have been momentarily crucial in legitimating the takeover, especially to external audiences, but transitory with respect to the longer-term replication of the deep state and the reconstitution of authoritarianism in Egypt.


A man holds a picture of General Al Sisi during the celebrations of the Yum Kippur War Anniversary in Egypt. Demotix/Adham Khorshed. All rights reserved

‘The Empire strikes back’

The repressive character of the post-Morsi dispensation seems self-evident in the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. But the interim government’s autocratic tendencies have been obscured by the public popularity of the campaign against the Brotherhood as well as Gen. al-Sisi’s incipient cult of personality, both propagated in the private media. Nonetheless they are manifest in the return of Mubarak-era officials to the cabinet as well as retired military and police officers to the upper echelons of ‘local’ government. The police and military have suppressed labour unrest. There have been repeated attempts to intimidate and coerce journalists whose reporting is perceived as unsympathetic, as well as smear campaigns against secular liberal politicians and leading figures in the Tahrir protest movement. 

While the post-transition political order remains a work-in-progress, some observers discern the consolidation of authoritarianism in the constitution-writing committee dominated by representatives of state agencies. The interim government has proposed laws restricting protest and increasing its ability to jail its opponents. Moreover, a proposed electoral law would weaken the largely Cairo-based opposition parties and foster the reemergence of the rural notables, perhaps even of a ruling party, as key political brokers in the countryside. Such forces have been the backbone of top-down clientelist politics since the 1950s. 

In many small respects, the interim government is reenacting the Mubarak era: for example, in its efforts to curb Islamist unrest by closing small mosques and banning unlicensed preachers, and distributive measures to ‘buy’ social peace including increases to public-sector pay rates and the minimum wage. The tentative accomplishments of the ‘revolution’ are also being wound up at the micro-level: in January 2012 Bedouin residents in Marsa Matruh on the Mediterranean coast took advantage of the post-Mubarak breakdown in state control to re-occupy land, from which they had been displaced nine years earlier on the pretext of constructing a nuclear power plant. However recent reports indicate that Egyptian military intelligence has retaken the land. Interim president Adly Mansour has announced the site would be first in a series of nuclear power stations, a wholly impractical scheme but nonetheless in keeping with the long-standing “edifice complex” of Egypt’s rulers.

Violence & oligarchy

Such multi-pronged revanchism is indicative of the underlying resilience the post-1952 political order, put in place by Nasser and his Free Officer colleagues and reproduced through 2010. If al-Sisi does become president then it will be tempting to see the 2011-2013 period as merely a brief interregnum in this praetorian tradition. But the post-Morsi dispensation is not a straightforward return to the presidential authoritarianism of Mubarak and his predecessors. 

While the post-1952 order was historically less violent than counterpart regimes in Algeria, Iraq and Syria, exemplary massacres have become a recurring phenomenon since the Mubarak overthrow. The clearance of the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins on 14 August, with a death toll of close to 1,000, was described by Human Rights Watch as “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in Egyptian history.” This top-down violence may be instrumental in the creation of a new praetorian dispensation. But it also risks again radicalising the Egyptian Islamist movement and has helped provoke a de facto insurgency in the Sinai, sectarian uprisings in Upper Egypt and what appears to be the beginnings of an urban guerrilla campaign in Cairo and other secondary cities.

Egypt’s armed forces have always been the foundation of the post-1952 order. But Nasser and his successors were civilian ‘presidential monarchs’, helping insulate the military from the responsibilities of governance. Thus direct military rule in the wake of the Mubarak overthrow was relatively novel, and seen as disastrous for the military’s reputation. The current chief al-Sisi has a public profile unseen since Nasser, to whom he is frequently compared. Yet it is unclear whether he wishes to formalise this role as a presidential strongman when elections are eventually held. Instead, the emerging dispensation may be more formally oligarchic, with deep state institutions such as the military and police given a constitutionally enshrined degree of autonomy from the executive. If so, it risks reproducing one of the underlying pathologies of the Morsi era: a president who must govern without ruling. 

“The 25 January Revolution is not over”

The increasing brutalisation of the political arena and the balkanisation of state institutions will shape, and probably obstruct, the future consolidation of authoritarian power relations in Egypt. Several bottom-up factors are likely to be significant as well. 

1. The secular opposition has been accused of supporting the Morsi overthrow, because it was unable to defeat the Islamists electorally. But the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood does not mark the end of Islamists in Egyptian politics or their intersection with the state. The rival Salafi trend — a more doctrinaire Islamist movement which stood clear of the Morsi government’s demise and has been included in the second transitional dispensation — is likely to be the most immediate beneficiary of the Brotherhood’s demise. Its parties took over a quarter of the popular vote in the 2011/2012 parliamentary elections and are likely to attract religiously minded sections of the electorate in the absence of the Muslim Brotherhood. The movement has quiet linkages to the security services — acting as a police proxy in the subaltern zones of Egyptian society — and has signalled a willingness to defend military interests. Overall, the post-1952 political order has never really been secular, Mubarak and his predecessors made instrumental use of religious appeals and regarded Islamist groups as a means of engaging with the Egyptian grass-roots by proxy

2. Egypt’s fundamental problems of political economy remain and indeed may have worsened. In addition to its political problems, the Morsi government struggled with the declining hard-currency reserves. They constrained crucial purchases of wheat and fuel — necessary to maintain the subsidy regimes which have helped guarantee social peace since the Sadat era — and help explain the power cuts, gas lines and bread shortages which further destabilised the government in its final months in office. In the short-term, this situation has been ameliorated by $8 billion in cash infusions from the Gulf states happy, for their own reasons, to see the end of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political experiment. But the Egyptian economy remains essentially ‘circulationist’, dependent on external rent streams which are historically in decline. How any future government will cope with this situation is unclear. Despite decades of economic reform by pretence, Egypt rulers have been reluctant to embrace the austerity measures to control demand. This unsustainability of the political economy will be a long-term constraint on the renewal of durable authoritarianism 

3. Finally, the contradiction at the centre of post-Mubarak politics remain. While the post-1952 order was predicated on the demobilisation and containment of Egyptian civil society, the political narrative since 2011 has been that of bottom-up protest. Opposition parties and civil society forces have been unable to foster a genuine process of democratisation, but remain a potential obstacle to the consolidation of authoritarianism. Eventually, issues of the economy or other quotidian crises will signal the end of current ‘honey moon’ period for the government of the day and its backers in the deep state. Egypt’s new rulers must somehow figure out how to wind down the now normal practices of public contestation and protest despite the almost inevitable persistence of the grievances which inform them. If they are unable to do so, then Joel Beinin may be prescient when he wrote: “The January 25 Revolution is not over. Rather, it has not yet occurred.”

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