Can Sisi stop Egypt’s implosion?

Mulugeta Ayene/AP/Press Association. All rights reserved.When El Sisi officially came to
power, it was the hope of many in both Egypt and the west that he would be the
strongman to bring stability to Egypt.

Coming to power on a
massive wave of repression, fueled by an undeniable personality cult for those nostalgic for Nasser,
he seemed poised to perform the role of the ‘saviour’ who would pluck Egypt out
of chaos. This role is heavily engraved in the Egyptian collective psyche due
to Nasser’s legacy, which sees history as the product of the actions of ‘great
men’ rather than social change and class struggle.

Sisi, at the outset
of his rule, received lavish international as well as domestic support in the
mission of stabilizing Egypt and quelling any source of protest and unrest. A
rapid return to the pre-2011 status quo was expected. However, recent news
coming from Egypt has been less tranquil.

Contrary to popular
belief, there has been a steady increase in under-reported forms of protests
since the military coup. The regime has also moved from one security blunder to
the next. From the increasingly sophisticated insurgency in Sinai, the bomb on a
Russian airliner, and the murder of Mexican tourists by the Egyptian military in the
western desert, the tourism industry is crashing.

Economically, the
regime has mismanaged massive amounts of Gulf aid, contributing to a
spiraling fiscal crisis,
where the Egyptian pound has lost significant value against the dollar. The
focus on mega infrastructure projects like the expansion of the Suez Canal
– costing around eight billion US dollars and producing no significant returns
– was a major contributing factor to the depletion of the country’s foreign
reserves.

As for Egypt’s
international relations, the murder of Italian PhD scholar Giulio Regeni has soured
relations with Italy, one of the Egyptian regime’s closest European allies.
This was followed by a number of Middle East experts addressing an open letter
to Barack Obama urging his intervention in Egypt. The ramifications of this on
relations with the EU are still unclear.

Moreover, the regime
surprised Egyptians by giving up two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia, its
main foreign backer. This led to a domestic backlash and the first mass protest
against Sisi since he took power.

As such, the idea
that Sisi would stabilise Egypt has proven false. Why did he fail? Most
importantly, did he ever have a chance of success?

The first task Sisi faced
to bring stability to the country was the unification of the Egyptian ruling
class; its military and civilian bourgeoisie wings. The fragmentation of the
Egyptian ruling class has been a feature of politics for the past decade, and
one of the leading causes of Mubarak’s downfall. All Sisi had to do was simply
create an accommodation between the military and the crony capitalist class,
allowing the latter to return to its pre-2011 role: the civilian façade of the
regime.

This would have
involved a number of political as well as economic concessions. The military,
for example, would have had to be content with its economic empire at its
current scale, forgoing any increased expansion and reverting to the old
formula of allowing civilian business men to accumulate wealth through their
connections to the state: the provision of cheap land, credit and government
subsidies.

Sisi will be unable to balance between the different organs of the state when conflict erupts between them.

Politically, the
military would have had to allow that the parliament be controlled by civilians
connected to the regime, acting as objective allies, without exerting direct
control.

Sisi has failed
abysmally on all these accounts. Rather than attempt to unify the ruling class,
he has contributed to its increased fragmentation. He pressured the crony
capitalist class and marginalised them in both the economic and political
spheres.

Economically, the
military empire has expanded dramatically and taken a leading role
in major infrastructure projects. The business sector, as a result, has been
crowded out and put under direct pressure.

Politically, the
military has exerted control over the electoral process through the creation of
the “For the Love of Egypt” electoral list, which swept elections. This list
was established by an ex-intelligence officer and has close ties to the security apparatus. There is
also some evidence that the electoral process was stage managed by the regime, cutting out any
possible competition from the crony capitalist class.

Not only has Sisi
failed to unify the military and civilian wings of the ruling class, he has
also failed to unify the military establishment itself, which seems to be
riddled with internal struggles. As Sisi has become increasingly reliant on
repression to stabilise his regime, it appears he has lost control over the coercive
apparatus of the state.
This overreliance on repression has led to a process of the decentralization of
state violence and an increase in the power of the petty security
official, weakening the control of the centre over the periphery,
even flipping the power dynamic in a way where the center becomes hostage to
the periphery.

Thus, Sisi not only failed to create
a cohesive ruling coalition, he has failed to end the rivalry within the state
apparatus itself, making the process of power centralisation and stabilisation
extremely difficult.

The second task facing Sisi was the
creation of a class alliance that would provide his regime with a broad social
base. In the beginning of his rule it seemed that this was a distinct
possibility, most notably with the middle and working class.

Sisi had received
the support of a large number of liberal and secular figures, who played
opposition roles in groups rooted in the middle class. He also received the
endorsement of all three labor
unions in Egypt,
independent and government controlled. He also cleverly used techniques of
popular mobilisation, where he asked for popular support to “fight terrorism”.
A mass protest was organized in his support. This was
followed by the massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Rabaa and El-Nahda
squares; thus soliciting popular participation in what can be described as a
national crime in order to solidify his base of support. This was coupled with
an impressive personality cult, which linked Sisi to Nasser, showing him to be
the strong man Egypt needs.

However, he
proceeded to squander this support as he continued to follow policies of
economic aggrandisement of the military at the expense of all other social
groups, which negatively affected the standard of living of the masses.

The most prominent
example is the new civil service law, which is chipping away at
the privileges of public sector employees, estimated at around seven million. This
law has been criticised by labour groups, as it may push six million public
employees into unemployment.   

Sisi has not only
failed to unite the ruling class, he has also failed to create a solid
cross-class coalition that can sustain his rule. However, was he ever up to the
task?

Upon closer
examination one could argue that Sisi never had the potential to stabilise the
country. The role of the president has been significantly weakened in Egypt's new
constitution in
relation to that of the military. For
example, for this and the next presidential term, Sisi cannot remove the
minister of defense from his post without the approval of the Supreme Council
of the Armed Forces (SCAF). This weakness is not only legal it is also social.

Sisi does not have a
broad social, organised political movement that supports him, unlike Nasser’s
Socialist Union, Mubarak’s NDP and Morsi’s Brotherhood. This means that he is
completely reliant on the military and the security apparatus, and is unable to
act as a mediator between these forces or dictator on policies that push for
compromise. Thus, he will also be unable to balance between the different
organs of the state when conflict erupts between them. As such, inter-elite
rivalries are not tempered, they are only worsened by the weakness of his
position. Those who hoped that Sisi would be a second Nasser are sadly
mistaken.

This is why there is
an over-reliance on repression as a tool for regime maintenance, which leads to
even greater fragmentation as power seeps from the centre to the periphery,
leading to an even greater weakening of Sisi’s position. Neither Sisi nor
anyone else can bring stability to the country without radical social
transformation that addresses the key issues that brought about the revolt in
the first place. This is why Egypt is headed towards an implosion that Sisi
cannot stop!

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