Since former president Hosni Mubarak was ousted, Egypt has experienced political and economic instability and a pronounced lack of security. Having previously been governed under a stable, if unproductive, political system that lasted for three decades, Egypt is yet to find definite answers to the turmoil and deadlock which have characterized the country since January 2011.
What do we really know about the formal politics currently prevailing in Egypt? Contrary to the belief that the decision-making process in Egypt remains highly centralized and that the military is the sole decision-making entity in contemporary Egypt, it is actually chaotic, diffused, and contested by many state actors.
During the long years of Mubarak’s reign, the decision-making process was highly centralized and organized by three main institutions. The president himself—along with a small number of political advisors—were heavily involved in and the final say over most strategic decisions. Though some had military backgrounds, most of these individuals were civilians. Via Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP), the upper echelons of Egyptian politics were connected to local issues. The network the NDP built connected national politicians and local elites, especially in Upper Egypt and the Delta. Mubarak established the Policies Committee (PC) in 2002 to be headed by his youngest son, Gamal Mubarak, who led a group of middle-aged and young technocrats, politicians, university professors, businessmen, and senior bureaucrats aiming to replace the NDP’s old guard. The PC played an influential role in nominating ministers to the cabinet and leading development programs and political campaigns before it was dissolved after the revolution.
A third institution—the intelligence agencies—also played a prominent role in decisions related to foreign policy and national security issues. Other institutions, including the armed forces, military intelligence, the judiciary, and Egypt Homeland Security (EHS) ((EHS (al-Amn al-Watany) is the domestic intelligence agency that is the successor to the State Security Investigations Service, which was nominally dissolved after the 2011 revolution. SSIS had their own police forces, prisons, investigative units, and courts. While the nature and extent of the reforms after the revolution are disputed, EHS remains a powerful, independent institution within the Ministry of Interior.)) also played influential roles in decision making, while enjoying a degree of independence from other institutions in the political system.
Contested yet Opaque
In modern Egyptian politics, three main changes have occurred with regard to decision making. First, there is no longer an NDP or an equivalent dominant political body to connect local politicians and gatekeepers with the strategic policy-making process. The post-Mubarak era is the first time since the republic was established that Egypt does not have a single dominant party to control the decision-making process.
There is also no longer a legislative body to legislate or coordinate public policy. Since 2011, there has been a parliament for just of 11 out of 52 months. The Shura Council—the upper house—went from being an advisory body to a legislative one under Muhammad Morsi despite elected by less than a tenth of registered voters. The People’s Assembly (which convened under the 2011 interim military rule and attempted to re-convene under Morsi) and the House of Representatives (defined but not yet elected under the 2014 constitution) have been plagued by struggles with the courts and military over constitutional issues.
Finally, Egypt’s instability makes decision making much more difficult, with social divides more intense, economic hardships getting worse, and security issues and terrorism affecting Egypt as never before. If one adds to this the high degree of political strife both domestically (with the legitimacy of the current regime being questioned) and regionally (with all of Egypt’s neighbors considered a source of threat), it becomes even more obvious that the current political environment is full of risks and crises.
Nine main features distinguish the current process of decision making in Egypt from the previous system.
- Decision making in modern Egypt is highly personalized. Institutions thus have very little to do with major decisions, which are typically formulated to meet the needs of a very limited number of powerful men in different sectors and networks. This includes the president, his assistants, top military intelligence officers, leading high court judges, and a very few individuals associated with security services and the business community. These individuals play a vital role in making decisions related to their policy domains, overcoming any institutional dynamics and structures which may have otherwise impeded them.
- Although primary strategic decisions are still made in Cairo, as was the case during the Mubarak era, this should not lead to the conclusion that the current decision-making process is centralized. On the contrary, it is contested and diffused among many powerful individuals in different competing institutions, including the presidency, the army, intelligence, EHS, the judiciary, and the business community. ((There are many indicators of these struggles, including, but not limited to, an announcement made by the president in a television interview on February 22, 2015, promising to release innocent youth from jails in a few days; the promise was never fulfilled due to what is believed to be a veto by EHS and the judiciary.))
- The dominance of the armed forces over all main domains of policymaking suggests that the current process of decision making in Egypt is highly militarized. In this regard it is also notable that there is no single political assistant to the president, who instead depends on military assistants, including some who were his colleagues while he was serving in military intelligence. ((This includes figures like Kamel Abbas, Osama al-Gendy and Hatem Qennawy (all of whom are former army generals and currently play an influential role in the presidential palace), in addition to Ahmed Ali (a former army spokesperson who served as information secretary for President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi) and Ahmed Gamal al-Din (a former interior minister and the president’s current security advisor).)) Moreover, a number of retired military and police officers are also serving as governors and in different ministries, either in public relation offices or directly attached to ministers’ offices, further contributing to the extent to which decisions are now based on security. Decision making in Egypt is thus often sudden, defensive, and confrontational.
- With the diffusion and personalization described above, most decisions in Egypt are mal-coordinated, with Egyptian political life frequently characterized by contradictory policies and gaps between the decision-making and implementation processes.
- Decision making in Egypt is also divided due to the diffusion and contestation between different state institutions, each of which claims supreme, unchecked control over its designated policy area. A typical example of how this gives rise to problems lies in how the judiciary, military, and security apparatus competed to lobby the constitutional committee in 2013 to insert clauses ensuring their autonomy over their respective budgets, personnel, and practices, refusing any kind of checks or balances by other institutions.
- Decision making in modern Egypt is also bureaucratized. Decisions that are related to education, health, transportation, microeconomics, and other fields are left to the cabinet and its bureaucratic system. In this system, ministers and senior bureaucrats play the most influential roles in policy formation, leading to a very slow and inefficient process for decision making and implementation. With limited resources available, this flabby and inefficient bureaucratic system—which also faces the possibility of having policies vetoed by security institutions along with intimidation from the media—means that lower-ranking bureaucrats merely sign off on decisions made above them. It is true that bureaucracy played an essential role in decision making during the Mubarak era, but whereas ministers tended to stay in their roles for several years, they are replaced in the current political regime quite often. This has left Egypt with a rapidly deteriorating system of public services and governance.
- The decision-making process in Egypt further suffers from a characteristic of other totalitarian systems: the dominance of unchecked networks and institutions that can do nearly anything as long as they do not interfere in other zones of influence. The 2014 constitution did include mechanisms for the presidency and parliament to check each other, but in reality this is not the case. No parliament has been seated for nearly two years, while a fragmented party system—and the president’s non-membership in any particular party—means that each network defines and imposes its own domain of power depending on the relationships among different groups. Only those within a powerful group have influence on decisions.
- The decision making process in Egypt at present is also characterized by short-term thinking with no strategic plans being formulated. Most decisions are made at the last moment when they can no longer be delayed or avoided. While the Egyptian media and some commentators occasionally describe the current environment as an “emergency” and decision makers as “firefighters,” this analogy is unfair. Firefighters, after all, will rush to the scene after receiving a call so they can get the fire under control and protect people and buildings. If Egypt’s firefighters worked in the same manner as the country’s decision makers, they would not respond to emergency calls unless the fire had already engulfed the whole place!
- Finally, the current decision-making process in Egypt lacks transparency and accountability. In the absence of a legislative body and real oversight, most decisions are made without a clear explanation of why and how this policy was settled upon, or even of who made the decision. This, of course, makes it impossible to hold decision makers accountable for their actions.
Decision Taking vs. Decision Making
For all of the above reasons, one can talk of a “decision-taking process” instead of a “decision-making process, as decisions are taken without any real “making” process beyond the struggle among military, judiciary, and security institutions, along with the business community, to define domains of dominance and supremacy. In this context, the regime depends on dazzling policies—such as economic megaprojects—to ensure media influence and survival. But without making any productive changes to the daily lives of Egyptians, we can expect a more intense, chaotic political era in Egypt to dawn over the coming few years, where the president will likely try to consolidate his power by removing competing power centers. In this scenario, the room for non-state actors (civil society organizations, political parties, social movements, and others) to maneuver in order to bring changes and reforms to the political scene would be very limited but still achievable. Working closely with the public, exploiting the expected vacuum due the absence of a dominant political party and the anticipated struggle between power centers, diversifying lobbying tactics ranging from boycotting elections, negotiating with strong men of the regime for political concessions, to strategic cooperation with some state actors if possible, are all cards to be considered by pro-reform actors in the coming few years.