The developments that Egypt witnessed in September revealed an odd mix of intense repression and state violence on the one hand and tangible regime fragility on the other. The contractor/actor-turned-revolutionary Mohamed Ali appeared in a series of YouTube videos disclosing what he alleged to be cases of corrupt dealings that involved top military officials in the Abdel Fattah al-Sisi regime. The videos received high viewership and fed the political debate among Egyptians touching upon the economic role of the military, corruption, and mismanagement of public funds. It did not take long until Sisi commented on these allegations, ironically, confirming many of them through admitting the building of presidential palaces that he considered somehow a public good. A week later, rare anti-regime demonstrations broke out in a number of cities, including Cairo. The regime reacted harshly arresting hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters (and apparently passers-by as well). The crackdown intensified and extended to scores of activists, opposition party members, and university professors. A week later, despite calls for more demonstrations by Mohamed Ali, almost no one showed up. The storm had passed and the regime emerged, seemingly, unscathed, or did it?
I argue that the events of September 2019 were quite revealing of the regime’s inability to institutionalize its authority despite being in power for six years, and despite all earlier attempts at normalizing its rule by issuing a constitution and then amending it, forming a parliament and holding two--albeit highly controlled--presidential elections. Intense repression and state violence in the aftermath of the 2013 takeover did not serve as necessary conditions for the establishment of a new authoritarian regime following a period of revolutionary upheaval and disorder. Six years later, the regime is not institutionalized and life is not normalized under its rule. Intense and rampant repression is a necessary condition for regime routine operation. Repression and state violence were no founding conditions, they developed into daily conditions for governing as Joshua Stacher remarked in a piece published in 2015. As a matter of fact, not only has repression increased in intensity, but its scope has also broadened over time. What started first as measures against political opposition organizations and networks (mainly the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies), soon extended into civil society groups, independent and private media, and the public sphere generally, rather than just the political sphere.
Repression came in handy afterward with the imposition of austerity measures, especially with the adoption of the IMF-sponsored program in November 2016. Rounds of fuel and food subsidy cuts, raising the prices of public services, and imposing consumption taxes were all made possible by employing the highly-efficient repressive machine against larger social constituencies that have hardly been political, let alone oppositional to the regime. This implied that repression was not only being applied in many policy fields ranging from politics to economics and even foreign policy (e.g., the ceding of the two Red Sea Islands to Saudi Arabia back in 2015). It also meant the subjection of newer and broader social groups to high-intensity state repression. With the advent of economic restructuring, the urban poor and the impoverished middle classes fell into the loop of state violence in order to break their resistance and to police any potential collective action. This appeared the first time with the raising of Cairo metro prices in May 2018, which triggered some protest and was met with a police build-up in a number of key metro stations. This employment of repression was political in character as it had to do with passing unpopular austerity measures. It should not be confused with the social repression that the state has usually been engaged with in Egypt, against the marginalized urban and rural groups as part of reinforcing social hierarchy and public order. Conversely, political repression targets explicitly contested state action (or inaction), which is an element largely absent in social repression. Put simply, state violence has increasingly become the new norm of state-society relations under the current regime.
The continuous centrality of repression and violence to the regime reflects its shallow institutionalization. The latter term, as defined in mainstream political science literature, denotes a process of the setting of formal and informal rules for the exercise of power within the state bodies as well as between state and societal groups. Institutionalization was thought to lead to normalization and routinization of the practice of power, turning political power to authority, which functions more smoothly and with less resort to force. It is as Niccolo Machiavelli held many centuries ago in The Prince that initial acts of violence, usurpation, murder and other acts of force lay the foundations for authoritative action. In chapter 8 titled “Concerning those who have obtained a Principality by Wickedness,” Machiavelli wrote:
Hence it is to be remarked that, in seizing a state, the usurper ought to examine closely into all those injuries which it is necessary for him to inflict, and to do them all at one stroke so as not to have to repeat them daily; and thus by not unsettling men he will be able to reassure them, and win them to himself by benefits. He who does otherwise, either from timidity or evil advice, is always compelled to keep the knife in his hand; neither can he rely on his subjects, nor can they attach themselves to him, owing to their continued and repeated wrongs.
The mean challenge has traditionally been with turning force into more “legitimate” forms of authority that would render the use of force as the exception rather than the rule in the subsequent exercise of power. The regime in Egypt, it appears, has not reached this point. It is also unlikely to reach it anytime soon given the political-economic dynamics at work. The recent crisis revealed this quite clearly. No intermediate actors or networks or mechanisms seemed to be at work to channel messages or material resources to sizable social constituencies. The parliament was absent from the scene throughout the crisis. The key to regime survival was the continued tight coalescence between the state coercive bodies in charge of exercising violence, usually in flagrant violation of any semblance of the rule of law or of legal procedure. Interestingly, when things seemed quite shaky one week after the Friday demonstrations, Sisi appeared with a few supporters saying that there was nothing to worry about and that if needs be, he would call upon Egyptians to take to the streets to grant him another tafweed (delegation). Sisi was referring to the first tafweed in July 2013, immediately after the takeover, when millions of Egyptians demonstrated in his support against “potential terrorism” from the supporters of the Brotherhood. For Sisi to invoke such an extra-institutional and–constitutional tool six years later as the ultimate source of authority in times of heightened threat, is quite telling of the failure to institutionalize the regime in at least two ways:
First, this call comes in spite of the fact that Sisi has been elected twice and had the constitution amended through a “popular” referendum and an overwhelming majority in the parliament to be able to extend his rule beyond two terms. The other related observation is that calling for mass demonstrations sounds anachronistic and can mount even to a reversal to the considerable and consistent efforts put by the current coalition of state coercive bodies in order to empty the public space and sphere and to de-politicize the population rather than to mobilize it in its favor. The regime has no ideology, not even a coherent discourse about public authority or national security. It has created a vacuum and has been jealously guarding it with intense repression going after literally any other voice, from independent media commentators and politicians (many of whom have been supportive of the regime but could not be reduced to mouthpieces of it) all the way to Facebook users with more than five thousand followers.
No Political Opening is Likely
The rising centrality of repression to the functioning, and not just survival of the regime in times of heightened threat, precludes serious chances of partial political opening. To start with, political liberalization, no matter how partial or cosmetic, requires a level of institutionalization of authoritarianism that is simply missing in the current situation in Egypt. The ruling authority does not have the institutional channels for the representation of societal interests in general. It has consciously made the decision not to resurrect a state-party, which has functioned since the times of Gamal Abdel-Nasser as a link between the bureaucracy and various societal groups allowing the rise of patronage and clientelistic relations as well as the creation of intermediaries between the political leadership and society. Already the last decade under Mubarak’s rule showed increasing trouble in attracting these intermediaries and in keeping them in check. The National Democratic Party had undergone significant disintegration years before the 2011 revolution. It remains hard, or even harder, for the current regime to find the people to fill ranks of another state party while keeping them in line and harmonizing their interests.
Another challenge is finding enough resources for the sustaining of patronage networks in the event of creating such intermediaries. The available resources, definitely scarcer than under Mubarak’s last decade, have been rather put in the service of tightening the ruling coalition, within and between key coercive state bodies. This often meant a bigger bite for these state bodies and those affiliated with them formally and informally, from a smaller cake (due to austerity, currency depreciation, and chronic fiscal crises), which became itself an additional element of contestation as revealed by the recent Mohamed Ali-triggered crisis.
The previous restraint is institutional having to do with choices made at previous critical junctures that made this regime increasingly look similar in dynamics to Latin America’s (often short-lived) bureaucratic authoritarianism regimes of the 1960s and 1970s. There is also another functional restraint that corresponds to the multiple uses of repression that makes it very hard now to adapt politically and economically with smaller doses or more restrained practice of repression. A case in point is Egypt’s reinsertion into the global economy through heavy foreign borrowing since 2016. Egypt started this path with the IMF deal of November 2016, which offered the former a twelve-billion-dollar loan as part of a broader finance package of twenty-one billion dollars over three years. The Egyptian regime was to bring about macroeconomic stabilization by introducing unpopular measures including slashing subsidies, freezing public-sector wages, devaluing the Egyptian pound, raising consumption taxes and privatizing public utilities. These IMF-conditioned measures were crucial for raising debt on the global financial markets. The IMF upheld Egypt’s “policy reforms,” which translated into relatively better credit-rating by Moody’s, S&P and others in a way that reduced the borrowing cost for badly-needed dollars. These agencies sent the right signals to private equity investors, willing to take the calculated risk of investing in Egypt’s growing external debt through buying government bonds and bills, both denominated in dollars as well as occasionally in Egyptian pounds. The bedrock of this full cycle has been the continued ability of the regime to pass and uphold unpopular austerity measures, which could only be done through the reemployment of repression in economic policy-areas against broader social constituencies as explained earlier. This formula did not work in other less authoritarian MENA countries such as Jordan and Morocco, not to mention Tunisia.
Egypt’s debt-dependent economic recovery means that not only has repression been instrumental for regime security stabilization (but not institutionalization) but also it was a condition for redefining Egypt’s position in the global economy. Foreign debt has been growing at very high rates in the past three years. Better macroeconomic indicators attracted more debt than foreign direct investment, which has never caught up with the pre-2008 levels. It is not exaggerated to maintain that unlike the last decade under Mubarak and his neoliberal economic team, Egypt is being reinserted through debt rather than foreign investment. It is an exact and full reversal of the earlier period (2004-2009). Foreign debt has been stagnant under Mubarak with a declining ratio to GDP whereas net FDI inflows soared to unparalleled levels in Egypt’s contemporary economic history. It has been the opposite since 2016. Repression is so crucial for keeping the cost of borrowing low and for securing the very access to foreign borrowing for that matter. This is a functionalist restraint on any political opening, even if partial or cosmetic. Moreover, it reinforces the institutionalization-deficit that the regime has suffered from since its attempted establishment in mid-2013.
In conclusion, state violence and repression in Egypt proved not to be the founding conditions for a new authoritarian regime. They have become conditions for regime operation. The scope, scale, and functions of repression have only increased in the past six years. This co-evolved with the inability of the regime to institutionalize its power, neither within the broad state bureaucracy or with regard to the conducting of state-society relations. The choices that were made in 2013 and 2014 in response to challenges and opportunities have made subsequently repression more central not just for the internal cohesion of the regime by binding together a tight and small alliance of coercive bodies, but also for the reinsertion of Egypt’s economy into global financial markets through debt. This, in turn, created institutional and functionalist restraints to any partial political opening that could enable the regime to deal with rising socio-political tension or by accommodating more pluralism.
[Click here to read this article in Arabic]