Sisi Isn’t Mubarak. He’s Much Worse.
Egypt faced terrible repression during the Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak eras, but nothing like today’s sustained cruelty.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi achieved something impressive in the last few weeks: He made remarks that, in their loopiness, managed to outdo U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign rallies. In a televised address he declared, “The situation was this way, we were this way, and despite it being this way, we went this way. That is the miracle.” Then, a few days later, while imploring Egyptians to lose weight and exercise more, he added, “Even in the media we have to choose guests who take care of their bodies.”
One has to wonder whether Sisi is cracking under the extraordinary pressure of being in charge of a country that seems to be ungovernable. No doubt he has established some political control since coming to power, but it is hard to make the case that Sisi is actually governing. In the last six months, Egyptians have been forced to endure a potato shortage and water scarcity. Instead of addressing the issues that the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to housing recently highlighted, the government attacked her and the people she interviewed in the course of her research.
In the most basic sense, Sisi faces a crisis of authority; he seems incapable of using the authority he already wields. His supporters are now moving to solve that problem by giving him more. They want to amend the 2014 constitution either to extend the president’s term in office or possibly abolish presidential term limits entirely. Egyptian officials and Sisi’s supporters previously vowed that this would never happen. They claimed that Egypt had changed. No one believed them—and their skepticism was clearly justified. That Egyptians are now paving the way for Sisi to stay on as president beyond the two four-year terms outlined in the constitution is perhaps the least surprising development in the Middle East over the last few years. It is tempting to declare that history is repeating itself, but that is not what is happening. Rather, even with all the events of the past almost eight years, Egypt has never actually deviated from an authoritarian path.
Supporters of Sisi insist that extending his term is necessary to consolidate all the positive change he has wrought since coming to power in July 2013. They claim that the economy is recovering, infrastructure development is underway, and that stability and the country’s international stature has returned. In the world in which these people live, everything that the 2014 ad campaign “The New Egypt” promised—“Peace, Prosperity & Growth”—has come true or will become reality so long as Sisi maintains his current course with a steady hand. His opponents, both in Egypt and abroad, agree that the country has changed, but they portray a far darker reality in which wherever stability exists, it is built on the pervasive fear of security services that operate with impunity. Egyptians, they say, are struggling to get along as subsidy reform has made life more expensive. The positive macroeconomic indicators that the government touts—especially growth—hide the unsustainable debt the government has taken on to make those numbers look good.
Sisi’s critics are, of course, correct. Egypt is profoundly repressive and the happy talk from supporters of the regime stretches credulity. That said, both camps are in some ways wrong. Egypt has not actually changed as much as many people like to believe. One could argue that in Sisi’s Egypt, the military is more autonomous and more deeply embedded in the economic and political life of the country. That might be true if the basis of comparison is the presidencies of Anwar Sadat or Hosni Mubarak, but there is precedent for the military’s current role in the years between 1954 and 1967, when the armed forces also played an oversized role in politics and economics.
Instead, the analytically important difference between the Sisi era and those that came before it is the degree to which the authorities have employed force against their own people. Because he has neither espoused a positive vision nor delivered on what he has promised, Sisi does not elicit the loyalty of Egyptians. The president and his people have been forced to rely almost exclusively on arrests, intimidation, violence, and even murder in an effort to bend Egypt to their will.
Gamal Abdel Nasser had a vision and was widely admired, even beloved; Sadat struggled to convince Egyptians of his “state of institutions”—mostly because he did not mean it—and the switch to a commercial economy, but he was the “Hero of the Crossing” of the Suez Canal in 1973 and thus had legitimacy at least for a time; Mubarak had no vision, but over time he learned how to manage Egypt. There was, of course, terrible repression during the Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak eras, but it was nothing like the sustained cruelty that has marked the Sisi period so far. Supporters of the government defend the president and the government by claiming they are protecting the country from the Muslim Brotherhood and extremism, but they have targeted everyone else as well.
Yet even in the government’s repression of students, journalists, activists, and foreigners, as well as members of the Brotherhood, Sisi’s Egypt is not that different from the Egypt of earlier eras; it’s all just a matter of degree. As one opponent quipped, “Sisi is just Mubarak on steroids.” Yet the analogy extends beyond that recent era, even if for some observers, Egyptian history began on January 25, 2011, the “day of rage” that marked the beginning of Mubarak’s overthrow.
Sisi is the logical extension of a system that has existed since the Free Officers declared in 1953 that the monarchy was abolished and a republic would take its place. That system has managed to regenerate itself after massive challenges from the June 1967 defeat in the Six-Day War, Nasser’s death, Sadat’s assassination, and the uprising that toppled Mubarak. After each of these moments, Egypt has reverted to an authoritarian mean. It is not as if Egyptian leaders have a perfect theory of politics. If they did, Nasser would not have demanded that the U.N. leave Sinai in May 1967, Sadat would not have planned to reduce subsidies in January 1977, and Mubarak would not have given his son a prominent role in running the country.
Rather, Egypt features a self-reinforcing set of political institutions that reflect the prevailing social order. Although leaders have changed and the degree of repression has fluctuated, the pattern of politics in Egypt has remained remarkably similar over the course of 65 years.
This is not to suggest that President Sisi is not vulnerable. Recent polling conducted by James Zogby indicates that Egyptians are profoundly unhappy with their situation and that even the army—the holy of holies—is no longer trusted like it once was. But that does not mean that change is coming or that if it does come, it will be the kind that overthrows the seemingly self-reinforcing political and social orders—in other words, a revolution, which is an exceedingly rare phenomenon. Of course, meaningful change can and does happen in other, less dramatic ways, but Egypt’s system blocks, deflects, or otherwise undermines these efforts.
In a few weeks’ time, the annual retrospectives of the January 25 uprising will start to appear. No doubt they will come in two varieties: lamentations for what could have been and celebrations of what has been accomplished. The odds were always against “bread, freedom, and social justice,” and the declarations of progress are a lot like the Sisi mania that gripped Egypt in the fall of 2013: built on nothing. Egyptian politics is where it has always been and where it is likely going: authoritarianism.
Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook