Five years after the Arab Spring, analysts say the conditions are in place for another uprising in Egypt.
On April 15, the scene on the streets of Cairo was unfamiliar: Thousands of Egyptians, angered by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s policies, called for the downfall of the regime while chanting slogans from the 2011 popular uprising against then-President Hosni Mubarak, who later stepped down: “We don’t want you, leave.”
Sisi, who once enjoyed widespread public backing, has been facing mounting criticism in recent months over a faltering economy and widespread reports of police abuses, some of the motives for the uprising that unseated Mubarak in 2011.
So is Sisi finally losing his grip on Egypt? Al Jazeera speaks to three Egypt experts.
| Wael Haddara, former adviser of ousted President Mohamed Morsi
“Sisi is not losing his grip on Egypt. He never had one.”
Is Sisi losing his grip on Egypt? No, because Sisi never had a grip on Egypt in the first place. The illusion that he did is one of the fundamental root causes behind the miserable state of affairs in Egypt today.
The only way events could have unfolded differently is through recognition that Egypt can only be governed effectively through a mechanism in which all significant players have the assurance that they will have the freedom to pursue their self-interest in an equitable and fair fashion.
As I have argued, Egyptians have a hierarchical conceptualisation of power. Power is possessed by those high up and is wielded upon those lower below. In reality, power is diffuse and resistance is possible at every level.
The coup that took place from June 30 to July 3 was possible only because a wide coalition of forces came together to bring an end to Egypt’s brief democratic experiment. Many of us who supported Egypt’s democratically elected president understood that the coalition arraigned against him would be unsustainable.
In the conversations I had with western diplomats in the immediate aftermath of the military coup, only one saw this clearly. He accurately described the coalition as a “coalition of denial”, brought together only through opposition to Morsi.
He shared my assessment that the coalition would prove difficult to sustain, not only because of the lack of a common purpose beyond removing Morsi, but also because the coalition depended on restoring and amplifying the positions of the various partners.
For some, like the security services, the judiciary and the military, this amplification could only come at the expense of society at large, creating further instability. For others, like the political actors who thought they would be at centre stage, it would be impossible.
In that sense, the coalition was always destined to fail, with the more central players progressively disposing of the more peripheral ones. As one-time partners were disposed of, they turned into critics. Others turned to obstructionism, directing whatever power they could leverage towards undermining the regime.
This phenomenon explains many of the episodes in which the regime appears to have shot itself in the foot: The wheat import crisis, the Al-Jazeera journalists debacle, the bungled investigations into the Russian Metrojet bombing and the murder of the Italian student Giulio Regeni, to name a few.
These new opponents joined the ranks of the old ones – the supporters of the democratic experience in Egypt, albeit with minimal shared vision. Sisi, and his remaining partners in power, came to the conclusion that more brute force was needed and so, over the course of 2014 and 2015, we witnessed ever greater exclusion and repression leading to more of the same.
The only way events could have unfolded differently is through recognition that Egypt can be governed effectively only through a mechanism in which all significant players have the assurance that they will have the freedom to pursue their self-interest in an equitable and fair fashion according to jointly agreed on rules that level the playing the field.
Mubarak had become adept at manipulating Egyptian polity so that enough players felt they had enough of an opportunity to pursue enough of their self-interest. However, over the course of his 30-year rule, this accommodation was progressively lost and by 2010, he suffered the consequences.
Sisi never understood those rules and became quickly drunk on his own imagined charisma. Sisi is not losing his grip on Egypt. He never had one.
| Abdullah Al-Arian, assistant professor of history at Georgetown University, author of Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat’s Egypt
“Popular protests should come as a worry to the regime and its supporters”
Since its emergence following the July 2013 military coup, there has been no shortage of experts, observers and wishful thinkers predicting the imminent demise of the regime of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt.
After all, the coup promised to replace the turmoil of the nation’s post-Mubarak transition with an era of peace and prosperity and it has failed spectacularly on both counts.
The resurgence of popular protests this month and the unity of purpose displayed across Egypt’s ideological spectrum should come as a worry to the regime and its supporters.
The fact that Sisi has resorted to unprecedented levels of state violence while failing to develop a broad political base to legitimise his rule has only lent more credence to the notion that his regime’s days may be numbered.
If a renewed effort to challenge Sisi’s rule does emerge in the coming weeks, there are a number of significant recent developments worth tracking. Even among the staunchest supporters of the coup across Egyptian society, uncritical backing of Sisi has waned considerably.
Leftist opposition figure Hamdeen Sabahi, who offered his enthusiastic endorsement of the coup and dutifully ran against Sisi in the 2014 presidential election to lend it an air of legitimacy, has been remarkably critical of the regime.
Last week, Sabahi sued Sisi over his decision to turn over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. A number of prominent journalists, intellectuals, and television personalities have also spoken out against the regime in recent weeks. Indeed, if the islands episode has demonstrated one thing, it is that the fascistic hypernationalism promoted so forcefully by Sisi has come back to haunt him.
In another troubling sign for Sisi, there has been a flurry of reports of major divisions within the regime itself, where rivalries between competing intelligence agencies and powerful state institutions threaten to tear the regime apart at the seams and make Sisi the first casualty in this bitter competition.
Meanwhile, Egypt’s economic situation has only added to Sisi’s woes. With the state’s foreign reserves down by more than half and the value of the Egyptian pound dropping at unprecedented rates – recently topping 11 pounds to the US dollar – Egyptians are feeling the pinch across all segments of society.
Tourism, a major source of revenue for Egypt, has been decimated since the coup, and certainly was not aided by the downing of a Russian aircraft and the regime’s scandalous response to the killing of Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni.
No amount of foreign aid or investment is likely to turn around Egypt’s economic disaster. Indeed, the tens of billions of dollars in Gulf assistance since the coup have not mitigated the situation, nor is there likely to be any more coming.
If anything, Sisi’s international standing has diminished considerably as pressure continues to mount on governments to cut ties with a regime that has continued its relentless assault on the rights of its citizens and behaved erratically on the global stage.
The Regeni tragedy and Italy’s subsequent withdrawal of its ambassador from Cairo has exposed the limits of the West’s ability to blindly endorse Egypt’s slide back into authoritarianism.
Even when taken together, these factors alone are not sufficient to signify that the Sisi era may be short-lived. However, the resurgence of popular protests this month and the unity of purpose displayed across Egypt’s ideological spectrum should come as a worry to the regime and its supporters.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s followers have notably set aside their demand for the reinstatement of ousted President Mohamed Morsi, instead coming together with liberal and leftist protesters to wave Egyptian flags and call for the fall of military rule.
To be sure, in the face of popular mobilisation, the state has shown itself to be far more ruthless in its defence of Sisi’s rule than that of Mubarak in his final days.
But with a never-ending string of crises stemming from the internal and external pressures to his rule, the coalescence of such a movement may yet defy Sisi’s bid to cement his authority for years to come.
| Joshua Stacher, associate professor of political science at Kent State University, author of Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt & Syria
“When will Sisi be overthrown?”
Egypt’s general-turned-president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is at risk. He is just the latest presidential sacrifice trying to stop the state from haemorrhaging its capacity to govern.
Sisi, and military colleagues who distrust the state’s 6.5 million civil servants, have failed to build resilient networks with docile crony capitalists, and untethered security forces that compete against each other more than provide security.
Whatever direction Sisi turns, he will not be able to outrun the political, social or economic instability that haunts the generals’ narrowly based regime like a spectre.
Whoever tried to govern Egyptians after 2011 was going to have problems because the people’s revolutionary demands remain unacknowledged and unmet.
This is compounded because it has been more than five years since the initial uprising that took place on January 25, 2011. Not only do Egyptians now live under the most repressive government in their modern history, according to the country’s human rights workers, but incidents of police brutality are the quotidian norm.
The state’s violence was supposed to break dissent and mobilisation. Instead, it leads to unpredictable protests to push back against murderous police, overzealous judicial sentences and general injustice.
If this was not bad enough, Sisi and his military colleagues who distrust the state’s 6.5 million civil servants, have failed to build resilient networks with docile crony capitalists, and untethered security forces that compete against each other more than provide security.
Everything is harder and more dangerous than the days of Mubarak’s broken regime.
The economy is also buoyed by more rent than at any time in 25 years. Yet, tourism continues to ebb, the expanded Suez canal is not producing the profits Sisi promised, and the aid transfers from the Gulf seem to carry an informal consequence that Egypt needs to give something back in return.
As the Egyptian pound continues to drop, prices on everyday goods rise, pensions stretch further, and people at pitted against one another to survive on less. In December 2012, the ousted president’s unilateral constitutional declaration produced protests at the palace. Sisi, then minister of defence, publicly worried that the president’s divisiveness might cause “the state to collapse”.
Seven months later, Sisi relieved Morsi from his elected office. In a more muted replay last week, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) leaked that it had told Sisi transferring the Islands “could harm national pride and upset the public”.
Is SCAF starting to distance itself and return to its fictitious role of neutrally defending of the country? Much has been invested in Sisi’s presidency. It is unlikely that he will be dumped without the wild card of uncontrolled popular mobilisation. Social scientists could not predict the 2011 uprising.
Few felt the 2013 military coup was possible given the international support around Egypt’s presidential elections and political “transition”. We will never know beforehand when it is the next leader’s turn.
But a few things remain clear: The state continues to fragment. The unorganised generals have no answer for fixing the post-independent state, its economy, or producing genuine stability by politically engineering social classes. When will Sisi be overthrown? He already has been.
The event just has not happened yet.