On June 17, 2019, the first democratically elected president in Egypt’s republican history, Mohamed Morsi, collapsed in a courtroom and died. After just one year in office, Morsi had been ousted by the July 2013 military coup led by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and since then held in custody. In an attempt to rapidly erase his figure from the political history of the country, Morsi’s body was buried in an unknown place and any kind of public ceremony forbidden. As insightfully summarized by Federica Zoja on this web magazine some months ago, al-Sisi’s regime watchword was “Let Morsi be forgotten”.
A week ago, another former Egyptian president passed away. After being hospitalized for surgery in late January, Hosni Mubarak, who had led the country from 1981 till the 2011 revolution that overthrew his regime, died comfortably in a hospital room. Full-honour military funerals were held in the residential and upper-class Cairo’s neighbourhood of Heliopolis, Mubarak’s casket was wrapped in the Egyptian flag and current president al-Sisi attended the service, also declaring three days of national mourning.
The last days of Morsi and Mubarak, as well as the different posthumous treatment they received, epitomize the overall trajectory Egypt has undergone over the last decade. That is, from an authoritarian regime to an unprecedented revolutionary process, up to the success of the counterrevolution and the following emergence of a new dictatorship. In such a perspective, Italian author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s cruel verdict – everything must change so that everything can stay – seems fully vindicated. To be more precise, if there is any kind of difference between Mubarak’s regime and al-Sisi’s, many analysts argue that should be found in the significantly higher level of repression that the latter uses to suffocate internal dissent and opposition. Such an interpretation, which is certainly difficult to deny, has finished by determining a partial and grotesque rehabilitation of Hosni Mubarak – seen by some leading Italian newspapers as a severe but substantially wise autocrat – and inhibits a full understanding of how institutions and balance of forces in the ruling coalition have been affected by al-Sisi’s rise to power. The latter is analysed in detail here.
The revolution’s long-lasting impact
The institutional architecture of Mubarak’s regime was based on three main power centers: the presidency, the Ministry of the Interior and the ruling party. The 2011 revolution literally destroyed all of them. Only three days of interrupted protests, which had started on January 25, were enough to physically defeat police forces in the streets and determine the complete implosion of the Ministry of the Interior, whereas at the end of the now famous 18 days of uprisings, Mubarak was forced to resign and the ruling party was left in complete disarray, being subsequently banned by a sentence of the Constitutional Court in April 2011. In such a situation, the armed forces took power and led the transition in order to protect their own interests as well as the existing system.
Dealing with a particularly strong revolutionary movement, the military was however forced to search for allies. It tried therefore to split the burden of the transition with the sole grassroots-based political organization in Egypt – the Muslim Brotherhood – and worked to rapidly rebuild the Ministry of the Interior, hoping that this would provide a rapid reaction force exempting the armed forces from daily security duties. The bizarre honeymoon between the generals and the Muslim Brotherhood proved short-lived and Morsi’s presidency was overthrown, after just one year, by a popular movement that was quickly co-opted and led by the armed forces. The rapid instauration of a new regime in the aftermath of the July 2013 military coup did not recreate, however, the same institutional structure of the pre-2011 period. To be sure, under al-Sisi, the presidency is certainly an important and crucial power center, arguably, more powerful than in Mubarak’s years. Yet, the Ministry of the Interior remains much weaker than before and, above all, the regime does not rely on an easily identifiable and well-structured ruling party. This represents by far the most surprising aspect of a regime that many commentators describe as hyper-repressive albeit poorly structured.
A vast literature in the subfield of comparative authoritarianism also underlines how ruling parties are critical to guarantee elite cohesion, by providing a set of rules and procedures through which competition in the ruling coalition can become institutionalized and provide patronage to citizens, linking therefore the people to the regime. Whether the lack of a ruling party will ease the fall of al-Sisi’s regime in the medium-long run remains difficult, if not entirely impossible, to predict. In any case, it seems to represent a point of weakness at the current stage.
Weaker than expected
The second important difference between Mubarak’s years and al-Sisi’s concerns the significant reshuffle in the balance of force within the ruling coalition. On the eve of the 2011 revolution, the abovementioned institutional architecture underpinned the implicit alliance between an unproductive and compradora bourgeoisie on the one hand, and the armed forces on the other. Such a convergence had been leading the country since the launching of Sadat’s Infitah (opening), which aimed to move away from Nasser’s state capitalism, introduce a market economy and replace the alliance with the Soviet Union with a partnership with the United States.
Neoliberal policies, which started in earnest in the 1990s, further strengthened the collaboration between the unproductive bourgeoisie and the military and accelerated the transformation of the armed forces into a fraction of the capitalist class, with vast interests spanning from military weapons to almost all civilian productions. Gradually, however, the neoliberal bourgeoisie was able to take the upper hand in this implicit alliance, grouping itself around Mubarak’s son Gamal, conquering the beating heart of the ruling party and taking over the government as well when new Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif’s nominated a cabinet primarily composed of business executives in 2004.
The 2011 revolution mortally wounded the neoliberal bourgeoisie, which remained dependent on a direct line to the State structure and therefore suffered tremendously from the overthrowing of Mubarak’s regime, losing the connection to power provided by Gamal. The armed forces, on the contrary, were able to weather the storm and reclass themselves as the indispensable point of reference in the new ruling coalition emerging in the post-2013 military coup period. In this regard, not only has the country undergone an unprecedented process of militarization that hit all spheres, but the armed forces have become the most important economic player, acting as gate-keeper for private investors and multinationals, especially in mega-projects such as the doubling of the Suez Canal and the building of a new capital city. Such a context tends to be barely stable, often side-lining partially critical businessmen and sometimes transforming former allies into vociferous critics. It is interesting to note that this was exactly the dynamic that led to huge, though short-lived, protests in September 2019, which were indirectly put into motion by the declarations of Mohamed Ali – a former building contractor, subsequently marginalised by the generals – against the allegedly improper use of public funds by al-Sisi and his inner circle.
In other words, today’s Egypt is a giant with feet of clay. This depends, first and foremost, on an issue that this article has not taken into consideration – that is, the social and economic misery that affects millions of Egyptians. However, the institutional structure and the balance of force within the ruling class also do not seem to be leading to the stability of the regime. As usual, only the future will tell.
Gianni Del Panta is postdoctoral research fellow at the Department of Social, Political and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Siena. He recently published L’Egitto tra rivoluzione e controrivoluzione: da piazza Tahrir al colpo di stato di una borghesia in armi (Il Mulino, 2019).
Photo: Khaled DESOUKI / AFP
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