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The General Knows Best: Ridiculing Civilian Politics in Egypt

[President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi in a recent meeting with Egyptian [President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi in a recent meeting with Egyptian "intellectuals." Photo from the official Facebook Page of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.]

With the marked deterioration of economic conditions and the deepening of security challenges confronting the state, the current military-backed regime in Egypt has failed to deliver on its long-standing promises of economic prosperity and stability. As signs of social discontent have grown, even in the face of brutal repression, the regime of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has been blaming its own failures on conspiracies and plots, allegedly led by external forces in collaboration with opposition groups and human rights advocates. It has also sought to preempt the emergence of any alternative to the political status quo through its repressive strategies, coupled with the dehumanizing narrative it has employed to slander and discredit dissident voices, often labeling them as foreign agents. At the same time, the al-Sisi regime has resorted to another important strategy I describe as “ridiculing politics.” The latter term denotes a conscious attempt by the regime to discredit civilian political life in its entirety, while promoting the belief that only the generals are capable of governing the country.

Within this strategy of ridiculing politics, official rhetoric has reduced the state to its “military-security core,” which comprises the army, the security services, and the intelligence community. It portrays civilian state institutions, especially national and local bureaucracies, as a set of benign bodies that are—and always have been—dependent on that military-security core.

This same notion of a powerful, effective military-security core versus a weak, incompetent civilian community of public servants is also mirrored in the configuration of power inside the government. Today the legislature, in effect, is beholden to the unchecked authority of the military-security establishment, represented in the institution of the presidency. There little attempt to evoke the façade of democracy by providing the legislature with some nominal independence. By operating under the full guardianship of the military, the state narrative goes, parliament is able to fulfill its national duties without falling prey to the inherent weakness of its civilian interlocutors. Thus, the current legislative assembly, also known as the House of Representatives, was essentially formed under the watch of the office of the president, the military, the general intelligence, and the security apparatus.

Toward that end, the regime adopted a parliamentary election law that gave the edge to independent candidates, and not political party lists, thereby undermining the role of party politics and national public policy debates in the parliamentary elections. Traditionally, independent candidates tended to eschew national policy issues in favor of local parochial interests. These interests have deepened these candidates’ loyalties to the government, familial and tribal networks, and to the rich financiers supporting their campaigns. Thus, unlike parties, independent candidates usually face little incentive to adopt strong positions on salient public policy debates, or issues as the representation of social groups, and legislative oversight of the executive.

Prior to the 2015 parliamentary elections, the presidential office and the various security agencies structured the electoral contest in a manner that ensured a sweeping victory for their loyalists competing for the independent candidacy seats. They also formed a nationwide list, the infamous “For Love of Egypt,” and engineered an easy victory for it in the party list races.

The military’s approach to handpicking “trusted” candidates (and would be parliamentarians) reflected a deliberate effort to underscore the understanding that the role of parliament and its members first and foremost is to lend unequivocal support to the president’s policies. On their part, al-Sisi’s loyalists among parliamentary candidates proudly presented themselves as the political backbone of the president and his government. They often argued that support for the military-backed regime is patriotic duty for defending Egypt’s national interests from creeping external dangers. Their campaigns invoked the state’s frequent portrayals of al-Sisi as a national (and perhaps the only) savior, while simultaneously dismissing the possibility for any form of legislative oversight of his policies. In advancing that narrative, these would-be parliamentarians were upholding the aforementioned notion that “only the generals are qualified to rule Egypt,” and endorsing the dominance of the military-security core over civilian institutions, notably the legislature. Most importantly, they ridiculed parliamentary politics and, more generally, civilian political life in the eyes of wide segments of the Egyptian public.

The regime’s choices of candidates, moreover, implicitly conveyed the notion that the legislature would not function without the presence of military and security veterans. The retired officers, the story goes, will guide and streamline the performance of gullible civilian legislators who do not have the experience necessary to comprehend the national security threats and external conspiracies supposedly confronting the Egyptian nation. It is not surprising, therefore, that almost one sixth of elected members were former army or police officers.

Like most independent candidates turned parliamentarians, retired army and police officers rarely make any substantive contributions to public policy debates or proposals. Instead, their increased presence in public life following the coup of 3 July 2013 has helped reify the military’s dominance over mainstream media. For instance, retired army and police officers would often appear on television to enlist public support for al-Sisi’s autocratic ways and to defame his opponents and label them as the enemies of the nation. Thus, the officers’ presence in parliament serves a similar purpose. Namely, they are expected to exploit their alleged “security expertise” to advance the regime’s fear-mongering conspiracy theories and level accusations of treason against oppositionist voices. Key within this picture is the supposed mark of credibility that former affiliation with the military and security agencies affords these legislators. According to that reasoning, they are the logical choice for leading consensus inside parliament and keeping inadequate civilians in check.

Not only does the military regime’s narrative reduce to civilian elites to ineffective public servants in need of the supervision and control of the officers. They are also portrayed as misguided individuals who eschew national problems and the basic needs of the Egyptian people in favor of personal interests. Ultimately, this all serves the purpose of ridiculing civilian politics, and undermining any effort to build an alternative to the rule of the generals.

That narrative can be discerned in key phrases that allies of the ruling establishment have systematically used in the media to justify the superiority of the military-security core to the state’s civilian components. Examples include: “the president is working singlehandedly, while other state institutions are undermining his achievements,” “the president and the army are working hard to rescue the nation, while parliament and civil servants are busy with nonsensical debates and petty demands,” “the Egyptian state would have collapsed already if it were not for the army and the security institutions safeguarding its stability and unity.”

Within the framework of this strategy of “ridiculing politics,” the regime has worked in the lead-up to the legislative elections to ensure that the prospective parliament would provide rubber-stamp approval for the president’s proposed policies. Chief among them are the several hundred laws that the executive decreed in the absence of a legislature between 3 July 2013 and January 10, 2016, when the House of Representatives finally convened. In a legislative environment wherein politics and salient public policy debates are wholly absent, passing these laws occurred in short period of time with no meaningful discussion. In sum,  by generating an apolitical legislature the regime has ruled out any possibility for the emergence of real policy debates, and proposals. It is in that sense that the regime’s strategy of “ridiculing politics” has gone hand in hand with the complete abolition of freedom, the right to meaningful representation, and the very existence of the individual citizen in Egypt.

In sum, the regime has structured the new political arena in a way that completely discredits civilian politics and that presents al-Sisi as the only path for stability and survival. Egyptians are told to accept his authority and his guidance not only in the realm of politics, but also in how they lead their private lives, and even in their own household consumption habits. They are called upon to work hard, stop protesting, and give up their political rights and freedom for the sake of bread, security, and stability. Finally, they are urged to unite behind their savior and not flock around the evidently inadequate civilian elites and politicians who are incapable of delivering the basic needs of the Egyptian people.

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