President Sisi attends the opening of a military-owned chemical plant headquarters in October 2019. (Photo from the Facebook page of the president's spokesman)

Hardened and Brittle: Egypt’s Authoritarian Fragility

12/18/2019 . By Timothy E. Kaldas

At the core of many states’ decisions to maintain close ties with Egypt’s ruling government and its president Abdel-Fattah El Sisi is their confidence in the strength and stability of his regime. At a time in which the region is rocked with turmoil, many foreign powers take comfort in the ostensible quiet Sisi has managed to impose on Egypt (albeit through brutal means). This expansive consolidation of power has been carried out through a strategy of patronage to a handful of individuals with whom he is personally close, including members of his family. While this helps guarantee the loyalty of those holding influence, it comes at the expense of a more diffuse and truly stable institutional system. Sisi’s grip on political power at this time is strong, but the manner in which he has consolidated and organized this power also makes it very fragile and sensitive to unexpected shocks.

We see this convergence of strength and fragility in materials such as knife blades. The hardness of the steel of a knife comes with potential tradeoffs. Soft steels, which require frequent sharpening, are resistant to chipping and breakage if they come into contact with hard materials such as bone. Alternatively, hard steels can hold their sharp edges for far longer if used carefully. However, if during usage, these harder steels strike other hard materials, they will chip or break. With an increased hardness, the steel becomes more brittle and fragile.

States, like knives, range in malleability and hardness. More malleable ones are far better equipped to deal with unexpected shocks. A hardened system has the advantage of being able to move very quickly and decisively. For example, many diplomats have privately credited Sisi’s exceptional authoritarian grip on power as the reason he has been able to do what his predecessors all failed to; namely lifting subsidies on a number of goods, particularly energy. Such reforms have been elusive to past regimes that were more responsive to the public. Furthermore, power upon which the regime depends is concentrated in a relatively small circle. All of this adds to the regime’s hardness and thus fragility.

Dismantling State Institutions

Sisi’s active effort to dismantle state institutions and to undermine their autonomy has contributed to the state’s overall fragility. While the Egyptian judiciary has long been seen as the most independent among Egypt’s civil institutions (having on occasion taken firmly independent positions, such as accusing the Mubarak regime of electoral fraud), its enthusiastic support for Sisi, its active participation in an enormous roundup of political dissidents, and its supervision of a series of sham elections has damaged that credibility for much of the public. As its credibility and popularity has declined, Sisi has also worked to place it under his direct authority, undermining its legal autonomy. First, Sisi’s allies used legislation to increase his powers of appointment of high court judges and this year his appointment powers were enshrined in the constitution. Now Sisi sits at the head of a new body that oversees the entire judiciary and over which the president has veto power.

Following the coup, Sisi was able to govern without a legislature until the end of 2015, when the newly-elected body became primarily composed of pro-regime parties aligned with the “For the Love of Egypt” list organized by former intelligence officer Sameh Seif al-Yazal. This bloc won every single seat set aside for parliamentary list candidates. The purpose of the former officer’s work was to deliver a docile legislature and he succeeded, while a handful of independent MPs managed to get elected. These parliamentarians have been attacked and disciplined repeatedly by the pro-regime majority.

The parliament itself proposed a constitutional amendment that further weakened its own powers despite already functioning as a rubber stamp body. The new amendment created an upper house in which the president could appoint one third of the members, diluting the power of the elected MPs and further increasing the power of the president. Another amendment extended Sisi’s term in office, allowing him to pursue a third term, potentially leaving him in power until 2030. In addition to this, Mada Masr reports that the president has tasked his National Security Agency with delivering an even more compliant parliament next year by eliminating the handful of independent MPs present in the current one.

Dismantling Civilian Centers of Power

Through legislation, the judiciary, and interior ministry, Sisi has seriously constricted Egyptian civil society, passing a draconian NGO law that severely restricts the activities of NGOs and their potential sources of funding, allowing the state to strangle organizations critical of the government. While some of the most carceral elements of the law were softened this past year, the restrictions largely remain intact. A variety of human rights defenders have been arrested, imprisoned, and banned from travel, with many having their assets frozen.

Even the private sector appears an untenable source of independent civilian power in Sisi and his allies’ view. Under Mubarak, the civilian business elite had a fair amount of policy influence, often used to serve their personal financial interests. Today, this group has largely been politically marginalized.[1] Aside from sidelining the business community politically, the military has aggressively expanded its economic empire and in the process has deterred investment on the part of domestic and foreign investors. Since the IMF bailout in 2016, the non-oil and gas economy has contracted nearly every month according to the purchasing managers’ index, and foreign direct investment has been stagnant and well below targets. What FDI does exist has largely been directed to the oil and gas sectors as well which are directly tied to the government. Privately, the business community is awash with stories about military companies interfering in private business affairs.

Dismantling the Press

Finally, the military and other security agencies have bought, co-opted, and intimidated the lion’s share of Egypt’s media industry, as they have gone as far as to purchase film and television production companies. While this has allowed the state to control much of what is broadcast into the homes of Egyptians from Egypt, it has also increased the public’s desire to turn to alternative outlets outside the country and the government’s control. It is suspected that this is part of the reason the president’s son Mahmoud El-Sisi, who had been tasked while at the General Intelligence Service with controlling the media, has now been dispatched to Moscow for a post at the Egyptian embassy there. The last remaining independent press outlet in Egypt, Mada Masr, had its office raided and a number of its journalists briefly detained after publishing an investigative report on the son’s reassignment.

The Cost of Consolidation

This consolidation of political, economic and media power in the hands of a small group of supporters of the president has significantly increased the fragility of the regime. The lack of a deliberative body in the form of parliament has allowed for unstudied and ill-advised decisions to be taken based on the preferences of the president, with no effective debate around the wisdom of those decisions. Sisi’s megaprojects have been and continue to be extremely costly with the actual accounting often being fairly opaque. His needlessly accelerated Suez Canal expansion used up a large amount of hard currency at a time when the country was suffering from an acute shortage. Few if any independent observers are convinced by the prudence of his massive New Administrative Capital project, which is projected to cost at least $45 billion and, like the canal, is being overseen by a military-owned company.

The broad repression of criticism in parliament, in the press, and in public has removed all feedback loops between the regime and the public. This dynamic resulted in the regime going into crisis mode over the public response to a series of viral Facebook videos, with the president addressing the criticisms, the Minister of Defense making an unusual series of public appearances, and the media being awash with pro-Sisi programming. It also resulted in a few thousand protestors throughout the country being perceived as an existential challenge to the regime, when a more permissive environment could have allowed for such protests to pass as a natural expression of discontent in response to austerity measures.

In this instance the regime was able to quell the protests through a massive crackdown, arresting over 4,000 people. However, it is only a matter of time until the next spark sets off a larger round of protests that may not be put down as easily.

In 2011, the military’s perceived distance from the president allowed them to cast aside Mubarak, imprison a few ministers and business leaders who were close to him and, ultimately, maintain its own power. Today, Sisi is far more deeply intertwined with military leadership, meaning their fates are more likely to be linked. Furthermore, the erosion of institutions’ independence undermines the effectiveness of projecting blame onto them to quell discontent. Efforts to reprimand ministers by parliament, after the latest protests, were ineffective.

Additionally, with no independent political parties permitted and much of the country’s civil society severely repressed, there are no spaces in which political expertise can be built and alternative leadership fostered. When Sisi ceases to be president there is no mechanism for a peaceful transition of power as witnessed in Tunisia, nor is there space for credible alternatives to be groomed. Fear of a transition, despite its inevitability, has compelled Sisi to take actions that all but ensure that when that day comes it will be chaotic.

Sisi’s sharp hardened blade may have cut down his opponents and concentrated power in his hands but when it hits an even harder challenge, it may not merely chip but break entirely. The steel of the regime must be tempered so that Egypt’s government can withstand the transitions that Egypt requires and deliver the flexibility that is needed to advance the wellbeing of the public and overcome unanticipated challenges as they’re encountered. Until that happens the risks associated with the regime’s fragility are both substantial and unsettlingly unpredictable.

[1] El Tarouty, Safinaz. 2015. Businessmen, Clientelism, and Authoritarianism in Egypt. New York. Palgrave Macmillan