The El-Sisi Regime: The History and Protagonists of Contemporary Egypt

The Patrick Zaki Affair (2)

, by Ignazio Pardo, Translated by Rebecca Wenmoth

The El-Sisi Regime: The History and Protagonists of Contemporary Egypt
Protests against President Mohamed Morsi in Cairo, Egypt, in June 2013. Source: Flickr / Amr Nabil. CC BY-SA 2.0.

The case of Patrick Zaki unfolds amid the complex and convoluted Egyptian socio-political context. To fully understand the implications and characteristics of the current el-Sisi regime and the events of the last few years, we need to take a step back and return to the origins of the Egyptian Arab Spring. For the most complete overview possible, we have decided to paint a picture that includes the major events. Starting from the demonstrations in 2011, that brought about the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power, and finishing with the establishment and crystallisation of the current regime under the command of General el-Sisi. In doing so, it is necessary to define and take into consideration the country’s conventions and structural problems, and all the participants and forces (whether opposition forces or otherwise) that have played a part in these thorny developments.

The Arab Spring: a regional phenomenon

The term ‘Spring’ was taken from the West to highlight similarities between the nature, demands and causes of this movement, and the movements that erupted in Europe in the last century. Arab countries where this rift occurred were characterised by authoritarian, centralised systems of government marked by the absence of freedom, pluralism and the opportunity to participate in politics (Guazzone, 2016). Citizens’ living conditions in these countries were anything but thriving: the percentage of people under the poverty line was staggering, the unemployment rate was similarly exceedingly high, and social and economic inequality was on the rise, supporting an ever smaller segment of the population which often happened to be the ruling class. Looking at the situation in light of the Arab world’s relentless demographic growth and the economic crisis in the West —a variable that had grave ramifications in this fragile situation— could explain the triggering of the Spring in the period of 2010-2011. It could be interpreted as an expression of the discontent that had been harboring amongst tyranny, repression, and corrupt and intolerant governments for decades. Although it marked a historical turning point for the Arab world and created a cultural legacy that is still present today, in many places the Spring did not achieve the desired outcomes. It unleashed bloody civil wars, such as those in Libya, Syria and Yemen, and burnt itself out facing reactionary measures and oppressive policies. However, the Arab people’s strong desire for freedom, expressed through the first bid for democracy post-2011, should still be taken into consideration, and cannot be ignored by the authorities of these countries. These facts have, however, often lead to government practices that are even more brutal and oppressive towards opposing forces.

The Egyptian Spring and the Rule of the Muslim Brotherhood

Egypt has not escaped from the aforementioned events. The Egyptian Arab Spring in fact caused a great wave of socio-political changes and consequences in the country. The indisputable protagonist of the upheaval was the Muslim Brotherhood, an incredibly deep-rooted movement in Egypt, where it was founded in 1928 with the aim of bringing Islam back to the centre of social life, proposing a renaissance and modernisation of the Islamic religion —known as Nahda. The Muslim Brotherhood movement has faced periods of fairly persistent repression over the years, despite its strong presence in the country, both in institutions and State entities. Even in periods when it was possible to operate in the open, it was always restricted. The Brotherhood officially participated in the 2011 uprisings, playing a fundamental role in the organisation and planning of the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s military regime. Mubarak’s regime, which had been at the helm for about thirty years, was the natural continuation of a dictatorship that had not been interrupted since the army seized the governmental palace in 1953. This occured when the so-called Free Officers Movement brought General Nasser to power, considering him as one of the fathers of the Nation.

Between the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012, the Brotherhood legitimised itself as the dominant political force in the country. Initially it won parliamentary elections that saw the success of their Liberty and Justice party, i.e. the political branch of the movement. It went on to win the presidential elections in May as well, resulting in the victory of Mohammed Morsi, who was elected President with a very narrow margin over the secular opposition candidate. Without going into detail on the brief but controversial attempt to govern, spearheaded by the then newly elected President (whose time in office was so brief that he narrowly dodged an in-depth analysis by historians), the significance of this result was momentous. Without a doubt, these events marked the Brotherhood’s greatest success ever and represented hope for democracy among the Egyptian people. For the first time since 1954, thanks to the impressive constitutional reforms passed, they witnessed the expulsion of the army from much of the political and legal institutions, and from civil life in the country.

It should be stressed that the armed forces have always been the cornerstone and ultimate decision-makers of the fate of Egyptian politics. By using economic forces and control over the legal system, they have always acted without outside interference, becoming known as the only entity capable of maintaining order and safety in the country and defending the State from the danger of Islamic fundamentalism, with which the Brotherhood is often associated. In light of this position, it is therefore clear that President Morsi’s government immediately found itself in an awkward situation, having to eradicate this idea and overturn the secular vision rooted in the military for almost sixty years in Egypt. Its first —and only— year in power was beset with controversy regarding the Brotherhood which was accused several times of wanting to ‘Islamicise’ the State. It was furthermore accused of proposing reactionary reforms that would provoke counterproductive discontentment among many classes in the country as a result of the new arrangement of institutions. Religious minorities, for example, understandably feared the lack of protection and guarantees for their communities, many women complained about the gender inequality encouraged by the new Constitution, and the press and intellectuals strongly criticised the lack of protection for freedom of expression and thought. In time, President Morsi saw his own electoral base begin to crumble and rise up against him in an ever more consistent, organised and varied opposition, formed mostly from the intellectual world, young revolutionaries, moderates and the judiciary.

The so-called “constitutional Islamist reform” unleashed vehement resentment and revolts that would lead to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, young minister of Defence and Commander-in-Chief of the army (nominated by Morsi himself) to put himself forward as an independent mediator between the government and the opposition. The general, little-known and initially presented as a figure close to the Brotherhood, could have (according to many observers) dampened the irreconcilability between the then in power Islamist movement and the army. Very probably his offer’s refusal gave the green light to plans for Mohammed Morsi’s dismissal.

Autumn arrives. The coup d’état; Abdel Fattah el-Sisi takes power as President

The opportunity to overturn the situation came a few months later, when a new phase of discontent caused further waves of protest in which tens of thousands of Egyptians descended on Tahrir Square in the capital, crying out for the President to resign. At this point, the Supreme Military Council seized the opportunity to exploit the extreme social and political polarisation, by issuing an ultimatum requesting the Islamist President’s resignation within the next 48 hours. Morsi’s refusal led to the army declaring themselves in command of the country and taking over until the next elections. The coup d’état on the 3rd July 2013 in turn provoked strong objections and criticism of a new military regime that would last for more than a month, but these objections were also bloodily repressed by the very same armed forces. It would be remiss not to mention the massacre at Rabaa al Adaweya Square, which was decisively the most famous revolt from this period and also exemplified the attitude of the new Egyptian institutions. There, in broad daylight and even under the gaze of international observers, hundreds of demonstrators were killed and thousands injured by the military. These circumstances didn’t raise any hope for continuity between the demands for democracy that seemed to have taken hold in Egypt not even two years earlier, and the attitude of the new regime that in the course of a year would officially take control of the country. After a brief period of military rule, in May 2014 el-Sisi became President with electoral proof that, beyond any disputes over voting transparency, confirmed the general’s image as a charismatic and trustworthy leader. He was considered capable of improving the fate of the nation, guaranteeing economic growth and political security that would protect Egypt from drifting towards fundamentalism and at the same time distance itself from the previous repressive and reactionary military regimes.

As illustrated by Dr Giuseppe Dentice, researcher at ISPI (Italian Institute for International Political Studies), Egypt’s political life has always rested on three closely related pillars. The first is the army, which for seventy years held the undisputed role of ultimate political decision-maker. The second are the great economic powers, the work of which has always been supported in return for protection and privileges. And finally, the judiciary, whose system has always acted as a gateway for military forces into civil life, allowing their constant and crucial participation in the decision-making process. This unique balance between participants guarantees a regime that is widespread and centralised still today, successfully managing every social aspect of the ruling class with the control and punishment of any trace of dissent or opposition. This kind of approach is incredibly deep-rooted in Egypt, so much so that many observers and academics attribute the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood government to an inability to reconcile these three driving forces or to weaken anti-democratic leanings. Morsi had become President without having control over the mechanism of the State and, before him Mubarak, considered incredibly skilled at maintaining this crucial balance, let go of the reins after thirty years, because of the unexpected eruption of protests. El-Sisi, however, seems to have had the strength and legitimacy to fulfil the key role between the forces mentioned above, in such a way to restart political life and the country’s economy. Despite re-establishing the old dynamics, el-Sisi succeeded —at least at first— in projecting an innovative image, warding off hasty comparisons with Mubarak’s reactionary regime. A new image that was supported by the same intellectuals that Morsi antagonised, and even by many social classes and ideologies that, albeit far from the army, prefered him to the danger of Islamisation of the State.

Since his election, General el-Sisi has introduced a policy focused on “bringing Egypt back to the straight and narrow”. A new Constitutional Charter amended the constitution issued by Morsi, restoring the dominance and privileges of the military class and eliminating any religious element from the institutional apparatus. Read together with a decree from the same year that designated many religious movements as terrorist groups, and therefore also enemies of the State (first and foremost, the Muslim Brotherhood), the Constitutional Charter, concealed behind the well-liked façade of secular progressiveness, officially introduced the beginning of the imposing and widespread repressive system still present in the Egyptian regime. This approach was reinforced by the additional 2015 anti-terrorism laws and the declaration of a state of emergency in 2017 — measures used to further weaken any form of dissent. It has also contributed to shaping a wide-reaching regime in which, as Federica Zoja, researcher and writer for Italian newspaper Avvenire, noted “it is not only the emergence of organised opposition that is being repressed, but also that of individual opposition”. Over time, President el-Sisi has succeeded in breaking into every sphere where criticism could begin. One need only look at the incredibly strong control over communications, media, websites, and the vice-like grip on universities, whose chancellors are appointed by the President’s office and can expel students and researchers that give classes or promote ideas that are ‘unconstitutional’ or that ‘threaten public security’, in other words anything remotely against the regime.

The cases of Giulio Regeni and Patrick Zaki demonstrate perfectly the fate of the more than sixty thousand political detainees currently in Egyptian prisons today.

Who is the Egyptian opposition?

As already noted, there is no real form of organised opposition on a substantial level inside the country. As for the biggest forces, especially Islamic ones, it is no longer possible to operate and only the strongest have managed to survive, albeit with extreme difficulty, and especially not on Egyptian soil. This is the case for the Muslim Brotherhood, which created an extended international network that stretches to Europe and America. The largest centre is in Turkey, which received the protection of the Turkish President Erdoğan. This has allowed it to not completely disappear, but has certainly weakened it. As Professor Matteo Colombo argues, the Brotherhood has been surpassed by models of religious renewal and by leaders that have shown themselves to be more efficient, like the more gradual but decisive method used by the very same Erdoğan. The movement won’t be able to survive forever without a real base and reference points.

As for other parties, especially secular ones, it is worth mentioning a study carried out by Michel Dunn and Amr Hamzawy and published by the Carnegie Middle East Centre, which divides the secular Egyptian political parties into three broad groups. The first is made up of parties created recently, that have kept to the party line dictated by el-Sisi, and therefore have joined the country’s governing and management mechanism. The second group is made up of formations that have managed to survive while maintaining partial independence from the head of government, and includes the Social Democratic Party and the National Party of Egypt. However, their members are still subject to oppression, threats and boycotts that make it impossible to participate in politics as an opponent on any practical level. The perpetual state of uncertainty they are subject to also causes internal divisions in their leadership, whose positions often splinter off in response to intimidation. Finally, there are parties that have declared themselves against the regime, but according to the study and on the basis of quantitative and qualitative data of their political activity, these parties are not likely to be able to oppose the regime or give it any cause for concern.

The study, that draws interesting conclusions, claims that secular opposition parties in Egypt have experienced a significant drop in credibility, firstly after using the Muslim Brotherhood’s revolutionary propaganda in 2011, and secondly, after having sensed the threat of Islamisation of the state, favouring instead General el-Sisi’s rise to power. While this allowed some of them to continue working, it completed their ‘neutralisation’. To conclude, the authoritarian regime in power in Egypt is certainly ruthless and firmly in control, but in the last few months we have witnessed developments that raise valid questions about why the President needs such a restrictive system. In fact, in September last year thousands of people gathered in the now symbolic Tahrir Square to protest following a case of corruption, but this quickly snowballed into broader and more radical objections to the regime, unleashing the frustration of a people who, after seven years of rule, still point to many problems that characterised the country at the eruption of the Arab Spring. Still today 32.5% of the population in Egypt live under the poverty line, youth unemployment is higher than 40%, and as sufficiently reiterated, human rights, particularly for minorities, are by no means guaranteed. The country’s strong and constant demographic growth, which is already the highest population in the middle east, further amplifies all these problems. The government, well aware of the effects of this kind of unrest, therefore remains alert, seeking to prevent the emergence of any kind of dissent using any means necessary. It starts by targeting individuals so that they can never gain a foothold on a larger scale. Though it was quickly and bloodily repressed by the armed forces (to the tune of more than 1,900 arrests and hundreds of convictions), the protests in September have taken on great symbolic weight. They were in fact the first significant uprisings since el-Sisi’s rise to power. Their magnitude demonstrates that the so-called ‘power paranoia’, which pushes him to rule with an iron fist, is due to real fears that, while still weak, contain real subversive potential.

This article was previously published, with the collaboration of Virginia Sarotto, in Il Bradipo Federalista, a blog created by the JEF branch in Bologna. For the original article, see [https://ilbradipofederalista.wordpress.com/2020/04/21/il-regime-di-al-sisi-storia-e-protagonisti-dellegitto-contemporaneo/].

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