Four years after taking power in a military coup, Egypt's Sisi is younger and sharper than his predecessor -- but he’s applying the same tools to the same problems. By Thanassis Cambanis
CAIRO—Four years after the revolution he helped lead, Basem Kamel has noticeably scaled back his ambitions. The regime he and his friends thought they overthrew after storming Tahrir Square has returned. In the face of relentless pressure and violence from the authorities, most of the revolutionary movements have been sidelined or snuffed out.
Egypt’s new strongman, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has injected new zeal and energy into the military establishment. He has established his rule using unprecedented amounts of force, including mass arrests and death sentences, and the elimination of freedoms that existed even under previous dictatorships. But he has also won considerable popularity, leading Egypt’s revolutionaries to seek new routes to change.
“Maybe in 12 years we will be back in the game,” Kamel told me during the January Coptic Christmas holidays, wearing a sweatsuit as he shuttled his kids to after-school sports. After some thought, the 45-year-old architect, who lives in southern Cairo, added a caveat: “Unless Sisi changes the rules.”
There’s been a dramatic downsizing of expectations since Sisi came to power in a military coup in July 2013 (he retired from the military and was elected president without any meaningful challenger in May 2014). But if the mood is grim among the activists who so recently turned Egypt’s power structure on its head, historical trends suggest that the victorious military establishment has plenty to worry about as well.
Sisi is younger, sharper, and more vigorous than Hosni Mubarak, but he’s applying the same tools to the same problems. A small, insular group of men makes all important decisions, from drafting the country’s new parliamentary-election law to managing the economy to deciding how to prosecute political prisoners. Foreign aid is a key pillar of support for the government. The main difference is in the faces around the top. Whereas Mubarak’s cabal included some rich civilians, Sisi relies almost exclusively on military men.
The problems are daunting no matter who leads Egypt. Unemployment is endemic. The nation can’t grow enough crops to feed itself, is running low on foreign currency, and runs up hefty bills importing energy and grain that it sells at heavily subsidized prices. There is no longer a free media in Egypt, and a regressive new law makes it almost impossible for independent NGOs to do their work. Political parties that don’t pay fealty to Sisi’s order are hounded and persecuted. One result of this repression is that there is no scrutiny of government policy, no new sources of ideas, and not even symbolic accountability for corruption, incompetence, and bad government decisions.
Egypt’s new ruler has made some shrewd moves. He has tweaked the food-subsidy system to reduce waste and corruption in bakeries, introducing a card system with points that allows consumers to spend their allowance on a variety of goods rather than lining up for bread that they end up throwing away. He paid a Christmas visit to the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, the first time any Egyptian leader has done so since Gamal Abdel Nasser, reassuring some Christians after decades of increased marginalization of and violence against the beleaguered minority.
But unless he miraculously resolves the country’s underlying economic plight—a product of the previous six decades of authoritarian rule, most of it dominated by the military—Egypt will snap again sooner or later.
“Six months ago there was huge popular happiness with Sisi’s performance. Now already it is less,” said Ahmed Imam, a spokesman for Strong Egypt, one of the few active political opposition parties left in the country. “I believe in another six months you will find rage, and the rage will become public.”
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The simplest way to understand the January 25, 2011 uprising against Mubarak’s military rule is as a rejection of a government that was both abusive and incompetent. Since the military coup that ended the monarchy and brought Nasser to power in 1952, Egyptian authoritarians have fared well enough when they provided tangible quality-of-life improvements, or when they leavened the disappointment of growing poverty with an increased margin of freedom. But by the end of his three decades in power, Mubarak provided neither: His corrupt government gutted services and the treasury, while his unaccountable military and police establishment freely meted out torture, arbitrary detention, and unfair trials.
According to his supporters and advisors, Sisi is gambling that he’ll pull off the kind of economic feats that characterized the apex periods of Egypt’s three major leaders in the modern era: Mubarak, Anwar Sadat, and Nasser.
So far, however, Sisi has needed to deploy draconian measures to keep control even at his moment of peak popularity. He has outlawed demonstrations. He has imprisoned tens of thousands, many for the simple offense of protesting. Old state security agents have returned to their old ways, humiliating dissidents by leaking their private phone calls to the media. Crackdowns target homosexuals, atheists, and blasphemers. Judges have sentenced to death hundreds of Muslim Brothers—until recently, members of an elected civilian ruling party—in shotgun trials that lasted a day or two and have made a mockery of Egypt’s once-respected judiciary. An activist from the secular April 6 Youth Movement recently had three years tacked on to his sentence because he dared ask about a Facebook page where the judge in his case had openly identified with Sisi’s regime and denigrated the revolutionaries, casting aside any pretense of judicial impartiality.
Such hardline tactics could reflect a military confidently in charge; many activists who subscribe to this view have chosen exile or a hiatus from public life. But the tactics also could reflect desperation: The old regime has won a reprieve, but it has to work much harder than before to keep a tenuous grip on power. In that case, the overwhelming chorus of support for Sisi could be just the prelude to another period of bitter disappointment and revolt.
Critical human-rights monitors continue to track government abuses, some from within Egypt despite the constant risk of arrest. A few youth and political movements continue to operate as well. The Revolutionary Socialists, the Youth Movement for Freedom and Justice, and April 6 all continue to organize, albeit on a modest scale; gone are the mass protests of 2011-2013. The Constitution Party, which includes some leading secular liberals, has been outspoken in its criticism of military rule. So has the Strong Egypt party, led by a former presidential contender and ex-Muslim Brother named Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who has the distinction of having equally opposed abuses by Islamist and secular military regimes since Mubarak.
“Either the regime is reformed and resumes a democratic course, or its bad performance will provoke a revolution that will explode in its face,” Aboul Fotouh said in a recent interview in his home in a Cairo suburb. His party might run parliamentary candidates in the elections scheduled for March and April, but state security agents have made it impossible for the party to operate normally, canceling all 27 conference-room reservations it has made in the last three months—a favorite tactic resuscitated from Mubarak’s time.
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Most of the leaders of the original uprising are in prison or exile. Some have been silenced, and some like, Kamel, seem willing to accept military repression as the necessary price for getting rid of the Muslim Brotherhood, which they considered the bigger threat. “Even knowing what I know today, I would say the Brotherhood is worse,” Kamel said.
Today, private and state media channels have become no-go zones for dissenting voices. Independent presenters like Yosri Fouda and comedian Bassem Youssef have gone off the air, and other one-time revolutionaries like Ibrahim Eissa have become shrill advocates for the regime.
In the four years that I’ve been reporting closely on Egypt’s transition from revolution to restoration, I’ve seen young activists go from stunned to euphoric to traumatized and sometimes defeated. I’ve seen stalwarts of the old regime go from arrogant and complacent to frightened and unsure to bullying and triumphalist. And yet, so far, the core grievances that drew frustrated Egyptians to Tahrir Square in the first place remain unaddressed. Police operate with complete impunity and disrespect for citizens, routinely using torture. Courts are whimsical, uneven, at times absurdly unjust and capricious. The military controls a state within a state, removed from any oversight or scrutiny, with authority over a vast portion of the national economy and Egypt’s public land. Poverty and unemployment continue to rise, while crises in housing, education, and health care have grown even worse than the most dire predictions of development experts. Corruption has largely gone unpunished, and Sisi has begun to roll back an initial wave of prosecutions against Mubarak, his sons, and his oligarchs.
Kamel has abandoned his revolutionary rhetoric of 2011 for a more modest platform of reform, working within the system. He was one of just four revolutionary youth who made it into the short-lived revolutionary parliament of 2012, and he helped found the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, one of the most promising new political parties after the fall of Mubarak.
He expects to run for parliament again with his party, but the odds are longer and the stakes lower. The parliament will have hardly any power under Sisi’s setup. Most of the seats are slated for “independents,” which in practice means well-funded establishment candidates run by the former ruling party network. The Muslim Brotherhood, the nation’s largest opposition group, is now illegal. Existing political parties can only compete for 20 percent of the seats, and most of them, like Kamel’s have dramatically tamed their criticisms.
“I think Sisi is in control of everything,” Kamel said. “Of course I am not with Sisi, but I am not against the state.”
That’s why he’s devoting his efforts to a training program for Social Democratic cadres, a sort of political science-and-organizing academy for activists and operatives that will take years to bear fruit. “It’s long-term work,” he said.
Still, something fundamental changed in January 2011, and no amount of state brutality can reverse it. Many people who before 2011 cowered or kept their ideas to themselves now feel unafraid.
“We want accountability, not miracles,” said Khaled Dawoud, spokesman for the Constitution Party. “We’re not asking for gay rights and legalized marijuana. We’re asking to stop torture in prisons.” Dawoud is a secular liberal activist who kept his integrity even during the period after Sisi’s coup when many of his peers cast their lot with the generals against the Islamists. He has been harassed by every faction, facing death threats and even a murder attempt by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In three years’ time, Egyptians took to the streets and saw three heads of state in a row flee from power: Mubarak, his successor Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and President Mohammed Morsi. The legacies of the revolution are hotly contested, but one is indisputable: Large numbers of Egyptians believe they’re entitled to political rights and power. That remains a potent idea even if revolutionary forces and their aspiration for a more just and equitable order seem beaten for now.
In the worst of times under Mubarak, and before him Sadat and Nasser, mass arrests, executions, and the banning of political life kept the country quiet. But as Egypt heads toward the fourth anniversary of the January 25th uprisings, things are anything but quiet, despite the best efforts of Sisi’s state. Dissidents are smuggling letters out of jail. Muslim Brothers protest weekly for the restoration of civilian rule. Secular activists are working on detailed plans so that next time around, they’ll be able to present an alternative to the status-quo power. No one believes that this means another revolution is imminent, but the percolating dissatisfaction, and the ongoing work of political resistance, suggest that it won’t wait 30 years either.
“That’s our homework: to prepare a substitute,” said Mohamed Nabil, a leader in the April 6 movement who still speaks openly even though his group is now banned. “At the end Sisi is lying, and the Egyptian people will react. You never know when.”