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Egypt’s deep state rediscovers itself

It is now evident that the coup has not taken Egypt any step closer to a 'real state' where the supreme authority lies within its elected legislature, issuing laws and holding the government to account. On the contrary, the coup has deepened the roots of the deep state, resulting in an entity that is far from modern. 

If there is anything positive in the events in Egypt since the military’s junta against its elected president on 3 July 2013, it would be the exposure of what has conventionally come to be called the 'deep state', which is a result of this deep state rediscovering itself. 

Among the various groups that participated in the January 25 revolution – Egypt’s real and only revolution – many seem to have sincerely wished to transform Egypt into a state that respected the dignity of its citizens. In fact, they wanted to restore the state – that is, their state – from a corrupt coalition that had hijacked it for decades and divided it into what looked like a confederation of middle-age principalities. The army has its own principality, a giant economic entity with its own factories, supermarkets, and even recreational facilities. As do the police, who are part of the colossal Ministry of the Interior that, in addition to its internal security functions, provides all vital civilian services such as issuing national IDs, passports, etc. 

The judiciary is another principality that the parliament cannot even touch without the permission of its lords. The same applies to Al Azhar University and mosque; as well as to the various, and ironically tremendously rich, Sufi ‘orders’; to the equally rich Coptic Church that pretends it is only accountable to God to evade any supervision over its financial and other affairs; to private media that is run by tycoon businessmen who themselves have their own principality, exploiting Egypt’s workers and monopolising trade in all the vital industries. Last but not least, the Egyptian presidency is a principality of its own, with a budget no one dares to inquire about, that is of course, if it has a fixed budget at all.  

Within each of these principalities, different cantons have different privileges and powers. Military police and intelligence officers, for example, have powers and access to benefits other military counterparts envy. A senior police officer in the traffic department within the Ministry of the Interior is no match for a young officer in State Security. Within the judiciary, judges in the State Council may feel resentful towards their arrogant and privileged counterparts in the Supreme Constitutional Court. 

This applies to all other principalities, where you always find the powerful and the less powerful; the privileged and the less privileged. But what is common among all these principalities is that they all reject the interference of any outside institution in what they regard as their own domains. This, as it turned out after the revolution, applies to even an elected parliament, as well as the various state bodies put in charge of monitoring the activities of public and private institutions and supposedly fighting corruption. 

These various principalities have taken their present shape only gradually as autonomous principalities since the 1950s (many of them did of course already exist, but they were significantly reconstituted after the army’s 1952 coup). Their relationship was determined in a largely ad-hoc manner. At a certain point after their takeover in 1952, the army, as the head of state, was able to exercise a great deal of authority over various state and non-state institutions. In the 1960s they were able to undermine the authority and independence of Al Azhar, the judiciary, private businesses and mass media. In the early 1980s, their second representative (Sadat) felt he had the power even to remove the Pope of the Coptic Church himself – supposedly divinely chosen and appointed – and arrest almost everyone who dared challenge his authority. His policies also gave rise to a new class of businessmen, and the National Democratic Party (NDP) began to assume the role of a moderator to moderate the interests of the various institutions and forces that made up the ruling regime. 

Under the army’s third representative in the presidency (Mubarak), each of these institutions began to reassert itself over a long period of time, engaging in a long and mostly silent (but at times turbulent) negotiation with other institutions. However, they never had the opportunity to 'sit down' together to demarcate their respective domains and agree on how to deal with any possible outside threats.

This was well-known before the January revolution. People talked about the “deep state,” even if that exact term was not used. Such awareness was tacitly evident in simple but strongly indicative sayings that Egyptians commonly deployed before the revolution, and particularly when they felt like outsiders in their own country; helpless when the ‘father’ (Mubarak), for example, was grooming his son (Gamal) to ‘inherit the property’ (Egypt). Why not, Egypt is their principality. “It’s their country,” Egyptians used to say. 

With the fall of Mubarak in 2011, therefore, Egyptians – ordinary Egyptians who are not part of any principality – felt for the first time that Egypt was theirs, that they were not helpless anymore, and that they could determine their own future by electing their own leaders and their own representatives. This was the real cause of the euphoria that followed the revolution. It was a strong feeling of empowerment following a long period of fear, helplessness, and indifference.   

In the interim period between the revolution in 2011 and the coup two and half years later, the principalities of the old state maintained a low profile. The army, now officially in charge, was in the forefront of events, of course. But the events of those years made it clear that their popularity and influence among the Egyptians (which rests on various myths of different kinds) could deplete in a matter of months. Very soon the military realised that things could get out of control and, in their perspective, they did. For the first time since 1952, a civilian became the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, one whose legitimacy came from elsewhere, who expected military obedience from senior military leaders and was brave enough to attempt to sack senior officials to make political gains, and more seriously, could ask questions about an empire that has insightfully been described as a “black box in a dark room.” 

This ‘non-sense’ had to be stopped, all in the name of national security, and allegedly of saving Egypt from a global conspiracy to sabotage the country in which even world leaders were involved, along with their “internal traitors” and “terrorists”. But the events prior to the election of a civilian president must have made it equally clear to the military that if they wanted to regain control, they would have to rebuild the old coalition of principalities, but now on more conscious grounds, where every principality knows its rights and duties. This is exactly what was going on in Egypt after its revolution; the coup itself was just its culmination. 

Admittedly, we do not know exactly when the Egyptian military began to orchestrate the coup or with whom. It is unlikely that the President of the Supreme Court (the judiciary), the Sheikh of Al Azhar and the Orthodox Patriarch (the institutions of the “religious establishment”), the Salafi leader, the journalists (mass media), and the “liberal” politicians (liberal and secular forces) were summoned on the day of the coup to show their full support. These representatives of many of the old principalities had very likely been communicating and negotiating for months. And most likely, they were not just negotiating over whether a coup might succeed or not, but also over how the deep state would be restructured and reconstituted in the post-coup era. 

All this would be mere speculation had it not been for the events of the last twelve months. A mere glance over the new Egyptian constitution (and the composition of the committee that produced it) and the presidential decrees – issued by the un-elected, army-appointed interim president (Mansour), who is the President of the Supreme Constitutional Court, and who also held both executive and legislative powers, just as his present successor does – suffices to demonstrate the point. The constitution now recognises the virtual autonomy of the judiciary and the army, with the elected president of the republic stripped from his previous military leadership rights (this, of course, becomes irrelevant when a military leader is the president). Many presidential decrees gave the army ownership or management of various lucrative and vital projects, including real estate, high-ways, as well as entire sea ports. 

Other decrees have weakened the ability of the Egyptian judiciary and legislature to protect the Egyptian economy from the abuses of domestic and foreign businesses. And we must not forget the decrees that have nearly outlawed protests or criminalised entire groups of political forces in an attempt to eliminate any potential future threats. These are only examples, but almost every single presidential decree from July 2013 to June 2014 has empowered old institutions and weakened “outsider” institutions, groups, or individuals.

This is all we can see for the time being. What appears to be certain, is that the institutions of the old, deep state have become ‘conscious’, both of themselves as separate entities within the state (to the extent we can talk about a state in this context), and of their inter-dependence. Yet as much as this consciousness seems to have strengthened these institutions (to the extent that they successfully orchestrated a counter-revolution with popular support), it may also trigger their undoing.

Each one of these institutions now has both expectations and what they regard as their entitlements for their role in the coup. It is not unlikely that these institutions – whose relationships are based on purely pragmatic calculation but who are otherwise worlds apart  – could fail to continue in balancing their respective interests and the interests of the entire coalition that brought Egypt back to square one. This does not necessarily mean that all of them will collapse, but it means that at least some of them will collapse or simply concede to the power of others in a hierarchy of authority, power, and privileges. 

Whatever the circumstance, it is now evident that the coup has not taken Egypt any step closer to being a 'real state' where the supreme authority lies within its elected legislature, issuing laws and holding the government to account. On the contrary, the coup has deepened the roots of the deep state, resulting in an entity that is far from modern. 

About the author

Amr Osman is an assistant professor of history at Qatar University (currently post-doctoral fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin). His BA was in political science (American University in Cairo, 2000), MPhil in History (University of St. Andrews, 2004), and PhD in Near Eastern Studies (Princeton University, 2010).


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