North Africa, West Asia

From Mubarak to Sisi: the end of liberal autocracy

Maged Mandour

Unlike during the Mubarak era, the current regime lacks a reliable civilian ally to populate the legislative branch of the state.


Maged Mandour
10 November 2015

Demotix/Hussein Tallal. All rights reserved.Ever since the coup of July 2013 and the election of President Abdel Fattah El Sisi in 2014, the Egyptian regime has become increasingly autocratic.

Parliamentary elections only finally took place over the past few weeks, more than a year after Sisi came to power. Both executive and legislative powers have been and still are in the hands of the president, and laws are being issued by decree. This includes a number of repressive laws that have generated much controversy, namely the anti-terrorism law, and the anti-protest law. The latter, even though issued before Sisi’s election, was kept in place and Sisi has openly voiced his support for it.

This has been accompanied by the repression of civil society and the labour movement, reversing all the gains made during the late Mubarak era and during the post-revolutionary period. Resistance to labour repression has manifested itself in the recent Mahalla textile worker strikes, a traditional hotbed for labour militarism against low wages and corruption.  

Comparatively, during the late Mubarak era, the regime took more of a liberalised hue. The most prominent examples of this are the constitutional amendments of 2005 and 2007, which allowed for multi-candidate presidential elections for the first time in the country’s history—which have continued since—and a devolution of greater power to parliament.

This is not to argue that the Mubarak regime was not repressive; rather that the nature of the regime was different, namely that of a 'liberal autocracy' and that it went to some lengths to give the appearance of a functioning democratic system. By contrast, Sisi’s regime seems to be focused on greater power consolidation in the hands of the military and presidency, as reflected by his call to amend the constitution to reduce the power of the Egyptian parliament; moving the regime away from any liberal tendency to become an outright autocracy.

This can be attributed to the increased marginalisation of Mubarak era civilian elites, and the power struggle between the military and these elites, also known as the "new National Democratic Party" (NDP) guard. These elites, of which the most notable example is Ahmed Ezz the steel tycoon, came to dominate parliament, the NDP and government during the late Mubarak era. The liberalising trend of more power being devolved to parliament led to the empowerment of these civilian elites, which increased their influence within and over the state.

This also involved an increased "tolerance" of civil society, which was coopted by the same elites in order to increase their power base. For example, syndicates were dominated by members of the NDP, which were then used to provide direct support to the Mubarak regime. This decentralisation of power aimed at empowering a new class: the crony capitalists whose goal was to eventually take full control of the state.

Their power reached its apex during the Nazif government, the last government of the Mubarak era; it was overtly controlled by crony capitalist businessmen. This was, in essence, part of the project for Gamal Mubarak to succeed his father with the support of this new civilian elite against opposition by the military establishment. This involved disenfranchising the old military elites and eliminating their political and economic power, making them subordinate to the NDP.

The Mubarak regime was a 'liberal autocracy'. Sisi’s regime is becoming an outright autocracy.

One of the clearest examples of this was the neo-liberal economic policy followed by late Mubarak era elites, which led to their massive wealth accumulation chipping away at the military’s economic empire. This intra-elite rivalry could plausibly be argued as one of the main factors that pushed the military to side with the protestors in early 2011 and remove Mubarak from power.

This explains why the military has now embarked on a systematic campaign of disenfranchising these civilian NDP elites, both politically and economically, and reversing this liberalising trend. Economically, the military has aggressively expanded its activities, primarily driven by aid from Gulf States, and mega infrastructure projects. This economic expansion has essentially ‘crowded out’ Mubarak era elites by subjecting them to severe economic pressure. By contrast, during the Mubarak era, these same elites received generous state support and subsidies, which allowed for rapid wealth accumulation in exchange for political loyalty to Gamal Mubarak.

On the political side, Sisi’s regime has embarked on a policy of smothering these elites. The most prominent example is Ahmed Ezz himself, who was arrested, then freed, but barred from running for parliament.

There are signs of this struggle in the way that the regime has been trying to intervene in parliamentary elections. For example, Sisi has called for a unified list to run for parliament in order to support the state in its struggle against terrorism, a call which was not welcomed by many parties. This was followed by the creation of an electoral list called “For The Love of Egypt”, whose general coordinator is Sameh Seif El Yazal, an ex-republican guard officer and a security expert who is known for his close ties to the military, and whose list is running with the proclaimed goal of supporting the “Egyptian state” and supporting Sisi. This list has recently dominated the first round of the parliamentary elections.

This can be construed as an attempt by the regime to vet and control candidates in an attempt to create new civilian elites who can provide the mass base it needs to control parliament i.e. a new but loyal version of the NDP. For example, one of the most prominent members of the list is Naguib Sawiris, the Egyptian billionaire, who is not considered to have been part of the Mubarak era political elites.  

Mubarak era elites are still attempting to return to the political scene through these parliamentary elections, however. Ex-NDP members have either overtly entered the race, or covertly funded parties and individuals to enter the race on their behalf.

These parliamentary elections are a struggle between the two strongest forces within Egyptian polity, the military and Mubarak era elites. Their level of success is very difficult to gauge due to the covert nature of their participation.

Then there is the Muslim Brotherhood, who have a rather complicated relationship with the military. During the Mubarak era, the Muslim Brotherhood acted as an illiberal opposition, where they were allowed to penetrate civil society and participate in parliamentary elections in exchange for ‘crowding out’ other opposition movements. During the first transitional period, the Muslim Brotherhood shifted its position to act as an ally of the military, against the protest movement, thus placing itself as a civilian ally of the military, and acting as a regime stabiliser during a period of severe turbulence.

Currently, the Brotherhood has been subjected to a period of sustained, un-paralleled, physical repression. Thousands of its members have been arrested or killed in confrontations with security forces, and its leadership has been sentenced to death for charges ranging from treason and espionage to inciting violence.

This means that the military has also discarded another potential ally, which acted to stabilise the regime in times of crisis. This could pose serious difficulties in populating parliament with potential allies, or at least an opposition that the military can control. This tactic has eliminated two social forces that could have channeled mass discontent away from the military and the presidency, acting as regime 'stabilisers'. It is worth noting that during his recent visit to the UK, Sisi claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood are part of the Egyptian people, and that it was up to the Egyptians to decide their level of participation—a notable change in stance, which might stem from his desire to appease European public opinion.

The other civilian mass movement that could have acted as an ally to the military is the largest Salafi party in Egypt—El Nour Party. However, this party faces significant difficulties in playing this role.

First, among the broader Islamist audience, the party lost significant support due to its backing of the coup that removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power. This severely reduced its appeal to the wider Islamist audience. Second, for the more secular audience, the general animosity against the Salafist movement was compounded with general animosity against political Islam as a whole, especially after the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power. This means that any alliance between the military and the El Nour Party would negatively affect the legitimacy of the regime, which partly justifies its repression as protection against political Islam.

The El Nour Party, rather than acting as the civilian ally that could populate parliament, is a liability for the regime, unable to gain the support of either an Islamist or a secular audience. This has been reflected in the abysmal performance of the party in the first round of the parliamentary elections, which resulted in the party winning eight seats only.

Placed within this context, the delay of the parliamentary elections and the regime’s fear of the parliament and its attempt to control the process, is understandable. The struggle for power between the military and civilian elites might spill over into parliament, transforming it into a real organ for opposition to the regime, which the regime will have serious difficulties in repressing without significant loss of legitimacy domestically and internationally.

Thus, the call Sisi made to amend the constitution and limit the power of the parliament is another move in the regime’s attempts to disenfranchise civilian elites. The main threat that the regime faces is the non-existence of a reliable civilian ally it can trust to populate the legislative branch of the state. This lack of allies forces the regime to attempt to cultivate a new elite close to the military, however, its success in doing so is dubious at best.

As such, the regime has no choice but to concentrate power in its hands and push the Egyptian political system to become a fully-fledged autocratic system.

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