Is History Coming for Sisi’s Regime?

The clearest perspective on Egypt’s current military ruler is offered by a dissident who has seen previous ones rise—and fall.

By Robert D. Kaplan, the Robert Strausz-Hupé chair in geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attends a military parade.
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attends a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of victory in World War II in Moscow, on May 9, 2015. RIA Novosti via Getty Images

Even with a cane, Egyptian human rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, 82, walks with severe difficulty, a problem that began during his several years in prison in the early 2000s. Ibrahim is the grand old man of democracy and human rights in Egypt: a prolific author and long-time professor at the American University in Cairo, and a famous dissident intellectual against the stagnation and brutality of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year regime that ended in 2011.

Meeting Ibrahim and listening to him talk about his country with piercing insight for several hours recalled my frequent talks in the 1980s with the great anti-communist dissident Milovan Djilas, who, witnessing the rot inside the oppressive and calcifying Yugoslav system, had predicted the collapse of his own country years in advance of it happening. Indeed, though Ibrahim was careful to talk strictly about the past, his words carry a warning about Egypt’s future.

Mubarak himself orchestrated Ibrahim’s imprisonment and exile as well as the frivolous court cases and smear campaign against him. Mubarak’s hatred of Ibrahim was personal, since Ibrahim had once been a friend of the Egyptian leader’s family and had taught Mubarak’s wife, Suzanne, and his son Gamal at the American University in Cairo. To Mubarak, Ibrahim had betrayed the family. “That stupid man,” Mubarak reportedly said in reference to Ibrahim’s persecution. “He could have had anything he wanted.” That is, if Ibrahim had only been loyal. It was the same situation with Djilas, who had been Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito’s World War II comrade-in-arms and postwar heir apparent yet broke with his boss over moral and political issues. Tito, a brilliant communist leader, at least understood Djilas’s decision as an ideological disagreement even as he imprisoned and otherwise tried to crush him for it. But Mubarak, a dull and narrow caretaker of a ruler, had no understanding for why Ibrahim wanted to give up his position and comfortable life situation merely for the sake of principles. And it wasn’t as if Ibrahim in the early 2000s was advocating for Mubarak’s overthrow. Back then, Ibrahim only wanted Egypt to liberalize and become a place of enlightened authoritarianism, such as Oman.

What specifically got Ibrahim in trouble was an essay he published in Arabic in a Saudi weekly in the middle of 2000, in which he speculated that Mubarak was quietly grooming Gamal to succeed him. Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad had died only three weeks earlier and had been succeeded by his son Bashar. In a way, like Syria, Ibrahim argued, Egypt would become half a republic (“gumhuriyya”) and half a monarchy (“almalakiyya”), that is, in an Arabic word Ibrahim coined, a “gumlukiyya.” The regime quickly dispatched Ibrahim to prison.

Two decades on, Ibrahim coolly assessed Mubarak’s rule for me—with great implications for Egypt’s current military ruler, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. “Mubarak did a great service to the country during his first decade in power. He calmed a nation that was on the brink of conflict after [Anwar] Sadat’s assassination and got the economy back on track. His second 10 years there were lots of promises but no delivery, and his last 10 years were a disaster, when Egyptians became humiliated on account of economic and political stagnation.”

It is a typical story. A dictator at first contemplates liberal change. In the early period of his rule, Mubarak had even dispatched Ibrahim to Mexico to study how that country was transitioning to democracy. But as a dictator realizes just how much risk such liberalization entails, he retreats back into his authoritarian shell. Then, as he ages, it dawns on him there is no trustworthy mechanism for succession—one that would protect his family and the wealth it had acquired—so he decides eventually on a pseudo-monarchy. “Any president of Egypt does well at the beginning. But given enough time, no ruler does well,” Ibrahim said.

The Arab Spring that eventually toppled Mubarak would itself prove to be a disappointment—a betrayal even. Ibrahim explained it is actually quite common for revolutions to be hijacked. The Russian Revolution was hijacked by the Bolsheviks and the Iranian Revolution by the Islamic clergy. The French Revolution had its Reign of Terror and military rule by Napoleon Bonaparte. The American Revolution was really an evolution that owed much to British constitutional practices of the century before; thus, it was spared this fate. So it did not come as a great surprise to Ibrahim that the Arab Spring in Egypt would be hijacked too.

The Arab Spring brought Ibrahim back to Egypt from exile in the United States. But as he surveyed Tahrir Square in person, he became worried. “There were no leaders, no platform. Enthusiasm is no substitute for rule,” he said. Hence, Ibrahim wrote a column about the danger of the revolution being hijacked. A decade after the Arab Spring, with the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood followed by that of Sisi, Ibrahim said: “The Muslim Brotherhood never dissolves. It is always in reserve, a civilian army with the same disciplined hierarchy as the military. But what keeps the military in power now is not only the memory of Muslim Brotherhood rule but the memory of the anarchy that accompanied it.”

Indeed, while the world’s media projected the Arab Spring as a pageant of democratic yearning playing out in Tahrir Square, many Egyptians remember the chaos, the looting, the sound of gunshots at night, homes vandalized by mobs, and the gangs of young men in the streets and at the airport. The middle class especially feared for its well-being. It’s these memories that still form the bedrock of popular support for the Sisi regime.

But what about Sisi’s prospects going forward?

Ibrahim and others suggested a leader’s claim to legitimacy, particularly in the wake of a revolution, is sheer ambition: ambition to build and develop his country. That was then-Egyptian leader Mohammed Ali’s claim to legitimacy following Napoleon’s departure from Egypt. It was then-Egyptian leader Khedive Ismail Pasha’s claim in the second half of the 19th century. Both had been great builders, laying the foundation for modern Cairo. And it has been Sisi’s ambition in the wake of the failed Arab Spring.

Sisi is actually the opposite of Mubarak. Rather than a leader with a caretaker mentality, he is a hard-working man in a hurry. He knows the street toppled both Mubarak in 2011 and Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Sisi is determined this won’t happen to him. Thus, he has become a modernizer somewhat in the mold of the late 20th century, enlightened authoritarian-style rulers like Park Chung-hee in South Korea, Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, and Mahathir bin Mohamad in Malaysia. He is using the digitalization of record-keeping to get Egypt’s rich to pay more taxes. He has been building a grandiose new capital and satellite cities in the desert with China’s help. There are literally hundreds of new projects, such as fisheries, wastewater management, and slum eradication, he has initiated with aid from Japan and Europe.

Yet, Egypt’s economy is still dominated by a steeply hierarchical and inflexible military at a time when flattened hierarchies are best positioned to take advantage of the digital age’s complexities. The establishment media is reportedly under the control of intelligence services. Sisi’s record on human rights is simply atrocious with many activists in jail and reports of disappearances and widespread torture. And because no criticism is allowed from outside the regime, Sisi’s rule threatens to be undermined by a climate of insufficient critical thinking. In fact, it was the very absence of debate under former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s hard, ideological regime that was a factor in Egypt’s military disasters in Yemen in the 1960s and against Israel in 1967.

Sisi’s first decade has been full of promise—as was Mubarak’s. The Washington cliché that Egypt is an autocracy of fading relevance and going nowhere is just plain wrong. Egypt’s security relationship with Israel is extremely active and intense. The regime’s treatment of the minority Coptic Christian community is better than at any point since before the 1952 Free Officers coup. But as Ibrahim’s analysis shows, Sisi may become prone to the same forces of decline as his military predecessors in power. Sheer energy and Asian role models will not be enough. Ibrahim’s life message—the same as Djilas’s—is that without a vital dose of freedom and human rights, true modernity does not happen. That was Nasser’s and Mubarak’s tragedy. Can Sisi break the cycle?

Robert D. Kaplan is the Robert Strausz-Hupé chair in geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is the author of The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate; Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific; The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the U.S. Government’s Greatest Humanitarian; and other books.