Argument

Sisi Learned the Wrong Lessons From Mubarak’s Fall

Wanton repression is building up more pressure for the next uprising.

A supporter of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, then Egypt’s army chief, holds a military boot on her head in a sign of support for military rule in Cairo on Jan. 28, 2014.
A supporter of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, then Egypt’s army chief, holds a military boot on her head in a sign of support for military rule in Cairo on Jan. 28, 2014. Mahmud Khaled/AFP/Getty Images

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi—who has ruled the country since 2013, when he led a military coup against elected President Mohamed Morsi—appears at first to be a close student of another Egyptian ruler. Hosni Mubarak became president following the assassination of Anwar Sadat during a military parade in 1981. After decades of political paralysis, economic discontent, and increasing repression, Mubarak’s 30-year rule ended swiftly in an 18-day popular uprising in 2011. Judging by the violence Sisi’s regime has unleashed on Egyptians in the past few years, it seems that his biggest fear is that the crowds will fill the streets again.

Mubarak and Sisi were both products of the army. For the brass, the events of 2011­—and the short and tumultuous democratic experience that followed—may well seem a mere interruption in the military’s long-term patriarchal command over Egypt and its citizens.

And during Mubarak’s rule, the military got very good at sustaining that role. Despite his regime’s autocratic nature, Mubarak left some avenues for controlled forms of discord. He didn’t welcome any opposition that could endanger his control, and under emergency laws his security forces routinely tortured suspects and harassed citizens. But the Mubarak regime, in all its self-serving lack of political vision, understood the importance of pressure valves. Criticism about common, day-to-day difficulties appeared in newspapers and in public discourse. As long as the dissenting voices did not directly target the president or endanger his regime, they were useful in giving national politics a thin coating of plurality. And that thin coating helped keep the president in power for decades.

But Sisi has curtailed all forms of public speech and dissent, apparently believing such allowances, however small, were Mubarak’s biggest blunder. Instead, Egypt’s current autocrat has chosen another path: eliminating any remnants of public space. By using the full muscle of the security apparatus, Sisi seems to be going for the full depoliticization of society.

Initially focused on the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, the regime’s repression quickly expanded to anyone or political movement questioning the social and economic status quo. Political opponents, secular activists, human rights workers, artists, journalists, academics, and even nonpolitical social media users now risk arrest for saying the wrong thing. The Egyptian regime is even waging a war against its own doctors and other health workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In lieu of political give-and-take, Sisi has injected virulent nationalism into the public discourse. It comes out violently, both in the way the government and its supporters peddle the achievements of the Sisi regime and in the way they deride its perceived enemies. The president has often likened allegiance to him and his administrators to a commitment to Egypt.

But Sisi’s system has created a Catch-22 for the president and his followers. If only someone who is against Egypt could ever complain about how bad things have become there, then the majority of Egyptians—facing low wages, inadequate government services, and decay in public health and education—must be against Egypt. And, by Sisi’s logic, they must all be repressed. In its constant putting out of small fires with a large hose, his dictatorship looks unstable and lacking in self-assuredness.

Egyptian prisons host tens of thousands of political prisoners. Meanwhile, Cairo seems to be waging war on the country’s doctors and health professionals. Hundreds of Egyptian medical staff have reportedly died since the start of the pandemic. Shortages of medical equipment, from personal protective equipment to the oxygen required to save COVID-19 patients, underline the problems in the country’s health system. In propaganda videos showcased on public television and speeches by the president himself, doctors and nurses have been called Egypt’s “white army.” Yet several of them have been threatened, arrested, and prosecuted. Their crimes have included requesting more resources to fight the pandemic, expressing worry about the country’s health system, and complaining about the risky working conditions they endure.

Sisi’s repression of Egyptian doctors is about more than simply hiding weaknesses. The government is going after doctors in particular because they have brought to light on an international stage the shortcomings of the government at large. Vanity projects, such as the $66 billion new capital city Sisi has ordered to be built in the desert, do not improve the daily lives of the majority of Egyptians. Rather, in its lack of competence and inadequate allocation of financial resources, Sisi’s regime is simply a more violent reiteration of the Mubarak years.

Contrary to what the Egyptian president seems to believe, the popular uprising that ultimately led to Mubarak’s demise wasn’t a result of insufficient repression. It was in spite of it. There were plenty restrictions on freedom of speech during Mubarak’s reign. His fall was caused instead by a long decline in social and economic conditions for average Egyptians—the building pressures of a police state that failed to design solutions to day-to-day problems. By failing to improve the livelihoods of Egyptians and then arresting and killing them for complaining about it, Sisi’s regime is only accelerating the inevitable buildup of energy against it.

Francisco Serrano is a writer and emerging-markets analyst.