To the many Egyptians who took to the streets in January 2011 to bring down former President Hosni Mubarak, Cairo is full of reminders of the country’s post-revolution failures.
Tahrir Square is once again a bleak traffic-laden roundabout; just next to it, the Egyptian Museum is associated with torture by the military after activists were detained and interrogated there following a protest in March 2011. Nearby, the downtown area of Maspero is notorious for the massacre of Coptic Christians. To the east, Rabaa al-Adaweya Square symbolizes the violent repression of those, many of them from the Muslim Brotherhood, who opposed the military coup that brought General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi to power in July 2013.
Cairo’s charged urban geography frames the harshness of present-day Egypt. Since taking power, Sisi has used the security apparatus to eradicate dissent and eliminate any remnants of the civic space that emerged nearly eight years ago. Tens of thousands of Egyptians have been arrested. Cases of torture and forced disappearances have become common, and the use of military courts to prosecute civilians has widened.
One thing is clear, however. Though the unprecedented repression has established clear, brutal authority, it has yet to create a regime.
Across Cairo, nightly checkpoints manned by police officers with machine guns show a state in control of its territory. But the excesses of the newly returned police state—plainclothes agents lurking around cafés and bars—also suggest a sense of nervous anxiety.
Most autocrats believe that violence is necessary to seize power. But real power tends to consolidate once the new regime creates a stable status quo that relieves it from enforcing its control through violence. After more than five years at the helm of the region’s most populous country, Sisi is credited by many Egyptians as having brought a modicum of stability. But without the institutionalization of a regime, his brand of autocracy appears inherently volatile and vulnerable.
At times, Sisi seems to understand the precariousness of his own position. During a televised event in February 2016, he vowed to “remove from the face of the earth” anyone trying to bring down the state. Many observers saw it as a warning to dissenters within his own army, more than to protesters. It is perhaps this type of unhinged authoritarianism that gives Egypt’s current political situation an air of the transitional, rather than that of a final resting state.
Initially focused on the Muslim Brotherhood, Sisi’s crackdown has expanded to include anyone opposing the narrative framing him as Egypt’s savior. Unauthorized street protests have been banned since 2013 and carry heavy jail sentences; critical media outlets have been closed down or co-opted. Since 2017, at least 500 websites have been blocked. These have included domestic and international media outlets, as well as the websites of human rights and civil society groups. New cybersecurity laws passed in 2018 have increased the pressure on online dissent through the monitoring of social media accounts.
Earlier this year, Sisi won Egypt’s presidential elections, ushering in his second term in office. He got an improbable 97 percent of the vote, after ensuring that opponents were kept off the ballot. And yet the political theater, just credible enough to appease his supporters in Washington and Europe, was led by a man who, by all accounts, has no interest in politics.
Mubarak and his clique used the National Democratic Party, or NDP, to institutionalize autocracy. The party served to mediate the relationship between the leaders and the rest of society. It was also an effective way to distribute patronage and keep the system running smoothly. Against the NDP, a host of state-sanctioned opposition parties offered the appearance of plurality. It was a false stability, but it had its own rules that helped it endure for 30 years.
The present autocracy is much more difficult for Egyptians to navigate because it lacks the established and recognized rules of the previous one.
This structure collapsed under the pressure of the Tahrir Square protesters, who also burned the NDP’s headquarters in downtown Cairo in the early days of the 2011 uprising. Seven years on, there has been no shift toward democracy, no rewriting of the social contract between Egyptians and the state, and no end to the arbitrary violence that had characterized that relationship.
And yet the present autocracy is much more difficult for Egyptians to navigate because it lacks the established and recognized rules of the previous one. Sisi is not only mistrustful of politics as a societal practice, but of politicians altogether. Lacking the structure of a party, he has resorted to populism, appearing in public events whose main purpose seems to be to show him interacting with Egyptians. More worrisome is the patriotic dynamic he has unleashed, equating support for Egypt as support for himself. This has opened the door for personal loyalists to police society and protect Sisi’s leadership. A group of lawyers recently filed a case to force the Egyptian Parliament to initiate discussions on removing the two-term presidential limit, imposed through the new constitution passed in January 2014, yet another step in the campaign to allow Sisi to run for a third time in 2022.
Under Mubarak, the army had become an economic force on par with the dozen or so family-run conglomerates that came to dominate the Egyptian economy. But the military under Sisi’s presidency seems to be the principal economic driver. Army-owned businesses have multiple advantages over their private-sector counterparts, including easier access to financing and quicker government approvals. But by crowding out the private sector, the current arrangement risks disrupting the country’s halting efforts toward economic recovery.
Besides a reform program required by the International Monetary Fund to access a $12 billion loan, much of Egypt’s economic policy since 2013 has been driven by large-scale government projects, characterized by vast amounts of investment and uncertain returns.
Egyptians have already endured years of economic hardship. The country remains heavily dependent on imports of food products and other goods, making it vulnerable to external shocks. Annual inflation was above 15 percent in early December. It is impossible to predict what a further deterioration of the economy would mean for Sisi’s leadership.
Yet it is indicative of Egypt’s current predicament that Sisi’s vision for economic and national renewal appears to be centered around building a city from scratch in the middle of the desert, far away from the Nile. The new capital will boast shiny government buildings, homes and-supposedly-green space twice the size of New York City’s Central Park. Government officials often speak about the project, with an estimated budget of $45 billion, as a new beginning. Above all, they claim, the new city will be clean and secure. Applied elsewhere—to improve housing, hospitals and opportunities for small and medium businesses—the huge sums of money and resources could have a meaningful impact on the lives of a larger number of Egyptians. Instead, showcasing a shiny new capital to kick-start Egypt’s purported renaissance seems to have been too tempting for the current leadership to resist.
Giant billboards selling high-end homes in the future city, and in other desert developments that have been proliferating for years on the fringes of Cairo, now seem to crowd out everything else along parts of the Nile-side corniche. It is pure escapism, of course, but not just for the Egyptians that might be able to afford real estate there, wishing to flee Cairo’s traffic and pollution. For Sisi and his supporters, the new city is a promise of escape from the thing they fear most: Egyptians.
And yet, exactly because of the brutal way he has dealt with Egyptians over the past five years, it is unlikely that a brand-new capital will give Sisi what he has craved since he took power in 2013: to distance himself from the reach, and consequences, of popular discontent.
By: Francisco Serrano, a writer, journalist and analyst, whose work has appeared in Foreign Affairs, The Outpost, Monocle, Weapons of Reason, The Towner and other outlets. This article appeared on WPR on 27 December 2018.