Egypt’s January 25, 2011 uprising is history, and – depending on how upcoming five-year anniversary protests play out – so may be the uprising’s aspirations for “bread, freedom, and social justice”.
Following the February 2011 ousting of dictator Hosni Mubarak, Egypt entered into a promising – albeit tenuous and difficult – democratic transition. Although the old political order maintained its essential character, several democratic elections and referendums, a new constitution, and unprecedented political inclusion and participation threatened Egypt’s 60-year military dictatorship. The June 2012 election of a civilian president – the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi – was a significant achievement.
But Egypt’s most deeply entrenched state institutions – the military, police, judiciary, and media – were never onboard with the 2011 uprising. Each institution worked to derail the democratic transition, aided at times by clumsy transitional governance by the Muslim Brotherhood, the group that swept Egypt’s 2011-2012 election season, and an arguably anti-democratic liberal opposition.
On July 3, 2013 – and with the support of large anti-Morsi protests – the Egyptian military, led by Defense Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, carried out a military coup, arresting Morsi and assuming formal control of the state. Roughly one year after the coup, Sisi was elected president in a sham election.
Now five years removed from a democratic uprising, Egypt finds itself once again mired in authoritarianism. Perhaps remarkably, the state has managed to control public discontent enough to prevent the kind of mass protests that could put Sisi at risk.
How has Sisi managed to re-solidify an authoritarian order? How has he managed to subdue a motivated citizenry that has, in the past, appeared willing to die for freedom? Finally, how long will he be able to survive amid growing discontent?
Sisi has governed Egypt with a proverbial iron fist, intimidating, jailing and killing dissenters and manufacturing loyalty through fear. The police, military, judiciary and media have all played key roles.
Egypt’s security forces, embarrassed during the country’s 2011 uprising, seem to have taken one important lesson from their experiences – that the force they employed to protect Mubarak wasn’t enough.
Following the 2013 coup, security forces arrested more than 40,000 people and committed several mass killings, killing more than 2,500 people in all.
The violence seems to have worked – fear has reduced the size and frequency of anti-coup protests. Even when protests have been launched, security forces have set up security walls to prevent dissenters from gathering in large squares, and the government has effectively banned television coverage of marches. These measures ensure that a spectacle – the kind that galvanised the opposition in 2011 – doesn’t take place.
The state has also used forced disappearance and torture as methods of intimidation. Amnesty International says torture has been “rampant” since the coup, while more than 300 cases of forced disappearance were documented over a recent two-month period.
Rather than investigate police and military abuses, the state has appeased both entities. Sisi has given multiple pay raises to military and police officers; erected a statue honouring police at Cairo’s Rabaa Square, the site of the largest police-perpetrated massacre; and awarded the military a multi-billion dollar business contract.
The state has also unleashed a fierce hyper-nationalist propaganda campaign that frames police and military as victims, heroes and protectors.
Egypt has also passed dozens of draconian laws, including a law that criminalises protests. A new rubber-stamp parliamenthas already pledged loyalty to Sisi and the judiciary has aided Sisi at nearly every step. Judges have issued several mass death sentences, including one sentence against 529 people for the alleged killing of a single policeman.
Upcoming anniversary protests
Sisi has successfully crushed dissent in the short-term, but it is doubtful that his brand of governance can completely subdue opposition in the long-term.
Harsh brands of authoritarianism tend to give rise to violent resistance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, terrorist attacks have increased dramatically in the Sisi era and Egypt is now an ISIL recruiting ground.
There are signs that Egyptians are growing increasingly discontent. Although the state projects the president as universally popular, polls show Morsi’s popularity on par with Sisi’s, and that about half of Egyptians disapprove of the 2013 military takeover.
Sisi’s government is clearly concerned about upcoming protests planned for January 25. An Egyptian security official told Reuters that the government has “taken several measures to ensure activists don’t have breathing space and are unable to gather”.
The government has recently arrested several dozen Facebook page administrators for allegedly “inciting protests”, and sent directives to religious leaders to deliver sermons about patriotism and security. The security forces have also raided random homes to check Facebook accounts for signs of dissent.
Sisi is likely safe for now, but for how long? History and political science both suggest that another uprising is a matter of when, not if.
Mohamad Elmasry is an assistant professor in the Department of Communications at the University of North Alabama.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.