Promise of the revolution has given way to stifled dissent, reduced foreign investment and a decline in regional influence
Ten years ago today, Egyptians fired the imagination of the world when they toppled Hosni Mubarak. The Tahrir Square uprising, the centerpiece of a chain of Arab rebellions against tyranny, seemed not only to have ended 30 years of Mubarak dictatorship but to have upended six decades of military rule.
Only weeks earlier, the police state of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown in Tunisia. In short order Muammer Gaddafi was toppled in Libya and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, while Syrians rose up against the dynastic dictatorship of the Assad family. Yet it was the heady ferment of Tahrir which seemed to presage that Arabs were finally on a path to democracy.
Generation after generation, Arab coups had been passed off by their beneficiaries as revolution. This, at last, seemed the genuine article: a solid regime, rooted in the army and the security services, blown away by the people in the streets. “Lift your head high, you are Egyptian”, the youth of Tahrir said in the afterglow of victory.
Yet the promise of Tahrir soon turned out to be a mirage.
Egypt’s first democratic elections brought mainstream political Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood and its candidate Mohamed Morsi, to the presidency, while the generals remained in the shadows biding their time. The Brothers then blew their chance after barely a year in power. Instead of governing for all Egyptians they tried to hijack a revolution they had initially been reluctant to join. They abused their slim mandate by attempting to pack Egypt’s weak institutions.
An upsurge of popular hostility to the Brotherhood’s sectarian behavior regrouped the vital forces that brought down Mubarak in the Tamarrod (Rebellion) movement, which was artfully shaped by the military, and former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, to carry out a coup in mid-2013.
The army, already Egypt’s paramount institution, was given an injection of popular legitimacy that enabled it to reconsecrate the security state. In Sisi, Egypt had a new pharaoh, elevated by the liberals and nationalist left who had brought down Mubarak.
The new military rulers quickly stifled Brotherhood protests with mass killings and soon started filling the jails with the opponents of both Mubarak and the Brotherhood. Sisi, elected president in 2014 and re-elected in 2018 in what was more a marketing campaign than a political contest, wields unconstrained power that even Mubarak never enjoyed. He has eliminated all dissent. There is no room in his Egypt for independent opinion or autonomous organizations.
Mubarak surrounded himself with some first-rate advisers, especially in foreign policy. Sisi seems to prefer yes-men, and is said by former colleagues to listen mainly to military intelligence and a security cell attached to a cabinet he largely ignores.
The turmoil from which Sisi emerged triumphant showed that Egypt’s Islamists, liberals and soldiers failed to find ways to coexist. Secular forces, in particular, failed to throw up viable leadership and instead looked to the military to rid them of the Islamists — with predictably fatal results.
Liberalism has not done much better economically, either. Under Mubarak, many private companies found it expedient to have an army officer on the board. But under Sisi, Egypt’s economy is coming to resemble a military business empire encompassing everything from poultry and fish farms to holiday resorts and gyms, as well as chemicals, cement and construction. An army company is the lead contractor in the Sisi signature project of building a $50bn new capital east of Cairo.
Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Center, an expert on Egypt’s military, says the army’s crowding out of the private sector has resulted in a lower level of private investment than in the 1960s, at the height of the so-called “Arab Socialism” of Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Internationally, Sisi has benefited from the retreat of western opinion into its former comfort zone of preferring authoritarian rule to upheaval — especially after jihadism hijacked Syria’s rebellion and incubated Isis. Donald Trump famously referred to the Egyptian ruler as “my favorite dictator”.
President Joe Biden tweeted last summer that there would be no more blank cheques for the Egyptian strongman. But ever since Egypt reached a peace deal with Israel in 1979, the US has provided at least $1.3bn in annual aid to its military — only briefly suspended by Barack Obama’s administration after Sisi’s 2013 coup. Washington has long regarded this stipend as a modest price for Cairo’s contribution to the security of Israel and the Suez Canal.
Yet, under Sisi, Egypt has become less of a regional pillar of US policy. Now, the most populous Arab country has in geopolitical terms been almost eclipsed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which moved quickly to bankroll the new regime in Cairo with billions of dollars in 2013, casting Egypt almost as a client. Sisi’s ruthless monopoly of power cannot compensate for this sharply diminished influence — so very much the opposite of what seemed briefly on the cards a decade ago.
*By David Gardner – The article was published in the Financial Times on 11 February 2021)