Egypt - a State Built On Sand

President of Egypt Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi at the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, Russia, October 23, 2019.
5 February 2021

The country fails to thrive under autocrats or democrats, writes Ezzedine Fishere

Ten years ago, Egyptians rose up to bring down a regime. They had lost faith in Hosni Mubarak's atrophied rule many years before. But the dawn of a new millennium had seen the emergence of a generation with higher hopes than its predecessors.

After a decade of pressure for democratization from outside, combined with domestic activism and the breakdown of the state's monopoly over communication, this generation became bolder. The fall of Ben Ali, Tunisia's ageing dictator, raised their hopes even higher. When a day of protest in Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011, turned within three days into a mass uprising, these hopes became focused on replacing Egypt's 60-year-old authoritarian regime with democracy.

Egyptians have long nurtured a deep-seated desire for a government that provided security and economic prosperity that was fairly distributed and respected their rights. These views underpinned their support for the nationalists' struggle for independence and later for the statist policies of their pan-Arabist rulers. As both were discredited, their hopes turned into support for Islamists and, on the secular side, democratization.

The convergence of these two groups in the Tahrir Square protest rattled the regime to such an extent that the military felt emboldened to oust Mubarak and establish a transitional authority.

Two and half years of tumultuous 'transition' have eroded rather than strengthened demands for democracy.

Yet two and half years of tumultuous 'transition' eroded rather than strengthened demands for democracy. Political forces within Egypt were pitted against each other due to polarization and mistrust and the lack of a shared vision of what a functioning state should do or what democratic governance entails.

This conflict, and the weakening of a patronage system that had underpinned state institutions, deepened the dysfunction of the state rather than reforming it. When the non-Islamist forces came together in June 2013, they brought enough protesters on to the streets to enable the military to oust another leader, Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood chief who was Egypt's first democratically elected president, and crush their rivals.

The restoration of authoritarian rule under the military leader General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi convinced many that the ground upon which Egypt had tried to build a functioning democracy was too shaky. The Sisi regime that emerged by 2014 is based, like Mubarak's, on the dominance of the military, the support of the state bureaucracy and a crony business class, as well as the acquiescence of the impoverished majority.

It differs from its predecessor in two ways, however. First, it is much more ambitious. Mubarak was a conservative leader, with no designs for Egypt other than keeping it afloat. The new regime's agenda seeks to restructure Egypt's economy, state and society. Second, while Mubarak adopted a relatively pluralistic authoritarian model, Sisi is inspired by enlightened despotism, in which repression is more often used to suppress the popular demands that the state cannot meet and to enforce the ambitious economic, social and institutional changes.

This programme is manifest in many ways, the most visible being the building of a new administrative capital at a cost of $58 billion that is to be home for a renewed, smaller and more effective state apparatus.


Similarly, a bold structural adjustment programme enabled Egypt to restructure its public finances in unprecedent ways, supported by a $12 billion loan from the Internal Monetary Fund. It has also embarked on an impressive infrastructure expansion: an $11 billion network of new roads and a new high-speed raliway at a cost of $23 billions among others.

The new regime also restructured the political landscape, by outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood and then evicting all other political players, designing a new set of political parties and amending the constitution.

At the same time, it sought to refashion public discourse by establishing an unprecedented control over the media. It policed morality and social behaviour with unusual rigor, jailing those it deemed 'deviant', including rainbow flag wavers, atheist bloggers, obscene writers and belly dancers, artists who mocked the army and a singer who disrespected the Nile. To cement all this, the regime introduced a level of repression unknown in Egypt since the darkest days of Gamal Abdel-Nasser's police state in the early 1960s.

Repression is not the only pillar upon which Egypt's dictatorship rests. Important segments of Egyptian society continue to support the regime. In 2018, an Arab Barometer poll found that 66 per cent of respondents trusted the government and 84 per cent the army. This level of support is consistent with an apparent disillusionment with the democratization attempt and a hope that 'enlightened despotism' will build a new, strong and functioning state. This hope is not new.

A number of Egyptians, transcending political divisions, have a positive view of both Nasser and Muhammad Ali, seen by many as the founder of Egypt having freed it from Ottoman rule at the start of the 19th century. Both are remembered not as dictators who inflicted unspeakable violence on their population, but as historic leaders who lifted Egypt from its morass and - almost - placed it on the path to progress.

The trouble with these hopes of authoritarian renewal is that they are also based on shaky grounds. Egypt's experience with 'enlightened dictators' goes back for more than two centuries. Each time the enlightenment faded, leaving only dictatorship. Nobody should be surprised at this - the state-led economy produces impressive results at first, then stagnates and rots.

Strongman tactics show swift resolve, but repression alienates important segments of the population and shrinks the pool of talent from which the state can draw

Strongman tactics show swift resolve, but their necessary reliance on patronage hollows out state institutions and hampers the state's ability to perform. Repression alienates important segments of the population and shrinks the pool of talent from which the state can draw. And militaristic rhetoric, necessary to mobilize support, can lead the country into disastrous conflicts.

Even if the regime escapes these pitfalls, the inevitable disappearance of the dictator jeopardizes all his achievements. Just like the hopes of democratization, the dreams of building a strong state by authoritarian rule are built on weak foundations.

In a nutshell, neither democratization nor despotism offer Egyptians a safe path to a functioning state. Such a path requires Egypt's political forces to share common ground over rules of co-existence, public policy orientation and practical ways to rebuild state institutions.

The January 2011 uprising ushered in a new chapter for Egyptian politics. It brought the people and their hopes into the equation for the first time in a long time. The intervening 10 years, however, have taught Egyptians that solid foundations are needed if the changes they hope for are to emerge. At least it should have done.

Ezzedine Fishere

Former diplomat, currently teaching Middle Eastern politics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

More From: Chatham House

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