Thursday, July 19, 2018

Five Years After the Coup: The Liberation of Abdel Fattah Sisi

            Five years after the coup in which he overthrew President Muhammad Morsi, former general and Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah Sisi has freed himself from all formal restraints.  This includes freedom from the Egyptian constitution and his own supporters.   That Sisi would crush the Muslim Brotherhood represented by Morsi was a foregone conclusion. That he would free himself from the liberal political figures who served in the first government after the coup also seemed inevitable once they argued for an early reconciliation between the Armed Forces and the doomed Muslim Brotherhood.  Unexpected is the rapidity with which Sisi has freed himself from formal subordination to the very institution that brought him to power: the Egyptian Armed Forces.   There is a profound and enduring paradox of late 20th century Egyptian politics at play here.  Sisi has transformed what first looked to be a collegial coup in which he was primus inter pares into one in which his supremacy is unchallenged.  This has happened in the past, under Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosny Mubarak although it usually took longer.  The paradox is that each time the military was weakened by an increasingly personalized dictatorship it re-emerged in periods of unrest and contention to re-assert its authority. 

Just how Sisi has gained his freedom requires a close look at Egyptian politics and especially at the nearly continuous shifting of top personnel over the past five years.  What has developed is simple to state: President Sisi can now ignore the constitutional guarantees to the Armed Forces of its autonomy as well as purely formal parliamentary constraints on the formation of governments.  Despite the waning of the public cult of personality that initially accompanied the coup, Sisi has increased his personal dominance over the regime.  It may be time to think again about the role of the Armed Forces in the political economy of Egypt and the nature of Egyptian authoritarianism.

            Any account of contemporary Egyptian politics must reckon with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.  It was created in 1954 by Gamal Abdel Nasser.  A regime of colonels turned itself into a regime of self-promoted generals and SCAF provided the armed forces with an institutional mechanism to influence the government after the dissolution of the Revolutionary Command Council.  Composed of 25 senior members of the air, land, and naval branches, it could only meet in the presence and with the approval of the president of the republic.  It convened during the Suez Crisis (1956), the Egyptian intervention in Yemen (1964-7), and during the prolonged period of conflicts punctuated by the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel.  SCAF largely vanished from public view thereafter and played no public role even during periods of high tension between the government and the armed forces.  It did not, for example, intervene when Defense Minister Abd El-Halim Abu Ghazala abruptly resigned in 1989 after conflict with then President Hosni Mubarak.

            SCAF reappeared or was resurrected during the demonstrations against Mubarak in early 2011.  On February 10, 2011 SCAF issued its first communiqué and pointedly noted that it affirmed the armed forces’ support for the Egyptian people.  As it became obvious that Minister of Defense Mohammad Tantawi chaired its meetings in the absence of President Mubarak, Mubarak’s loss of support by the army also became obvious.  Mubarak turned executive authority over to SCAF, and it also assumed legislative power after the dissolution of the national assembly.   SCAF remained intact even after the election of Muhammad Morsi as president in 2012.  A crisis in August 2012 led Morsi to replace Tantawi with Sisi who was thus in place to lead the coup against Morsi in July 2013. 

            What role SCAF would play in the wake of a military coup remained open.  Unlike what occurred after Mubarak left office, SCAF did not itself stand in for government.  Instead the Chief Justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour was sworn in as interim president. But was SCAF unnecessary if the Armed Forces really controlled the post-coup government?  On February 25, 2014 Mansour issued Law 20/2014 publicly structuring SCAF.  This appears to have been the first time its internal structure was made public and indeed may have been its first formal internal structure.  Although the president of the republic had the right to call and attend meetings (and to chair meetings he attended), he was not listed as a regular member.  The regular president of SCAF is the Minister of Defense for whom the Chief of Staff is the deputy.  The members include the heads of the various branches as well as the major staff divisions within the service (such as engineering, legal, training, and fiscal organizations), and the leaders of the army divisions (such as the Second and Third Field Armies) and the head of military intelligence.  Under other terms of the decree, SCAF should meet regularly and requires a quorum.  Formally, SCAF can make decisions by a majority vote and the Minister of Defense transmits its decisions.  In its very constitution SCAF embodies a contradiction of authoritarian Egypt: it represents a completely hierarchical institution but is formally empowered to make decisions democratically.  Law 20/2014 specifically mandates SCAF to approve any appointment of a minister of defense during the first two presidential terms after the adoption of the 2014 constitution.  The law thus implemented the constitutional mandate of article 234 that, during these two initial presidential terms, the Minister of Defense can only be appointed with the approval of SCAF.

This might all be arcane minutiae had it not been the culmination of a prolonged and bruising battle fought between 2011 and 2014 in which the Armed Forces insisted an achieving just this privilege.  Among the most divisive and problematic issues of that period was the conflict over how independent the armed forces would be from the executive or legislative authorities. In an April 2012 interview with the New York Times, former associate justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court Tahani Gebali asserted that as early as May 2011 she was talking to SCAF about how to write a constitution that would preserve the autonomy of the military.  In November 2011, then Deputy Prime Minister Ali Selmi issued a set of “supra-constitutional” principles to guide the writing of the new constitution.  As I noted in a blog post at the time the Armed Forces had embraced principles guaranteeing its nearly complete autonomy and the possibility that it would choose its own Minister of Defense (  Shortly thereafter conflict over this issue led to large scale street demonstrations and significant violence on Muhammad Mahmoud Street just off Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. 

These violent confrontations were a response to rising fears that the Armed Forces had no intention of relinquishing power and contributed to the political polarization that later enveloped Egypt.  Military autonomy was written into both the constitution drafted under by a committee largely dominated by the Muslim Brothers in 2012 and the one written after Morsi’s ouster.  There was a widespread presumption that in the post-coup government the constitutionally protected position of Minister of Defense was even more potent than that of president.  The Armed Forces had vigorously beaten back all attempts since 2011 to subordinate the military to civilian authority in any way.

Now we need to look a bit more closely into the people and institutions engaged in re-making Egyptian political life in the last five years.  In mid-2012, after an assault on an army checkpoint in Sinai took more than a dozen lives, then President Morsi ousted the Minister of Defense, Mohammad Tantawi, and the Chief of Staff, Sami Anan.  Morsi replaced Tantawi with Sisi and Sisi chose General Sidki Sobhi (formerly head of the Third Field Army) to replace Anan as chief of staff.  Then Mahmoud Hegazi became Director of Military Intelligence, the position from which Sisi had just been plucked.  Sobhi became Minister of Defense in 2014 when Sisi ran for president, and Hegazi was appointed in his place as Chief of Staff.  This appeared to be an elaborate but not terrifically important game of musical chairs in which a small group of closely connected officers took control of the state by ousting Morsi and then succeeding each other in positions of increasing importance.  

It was therefore surprising that at the end of October 2017 the music suddenly stopped and Mahmoud Hegazy was dismissed as Chief of Staff and given a role with little substance—as a presidential counselor.   His ouster occurred after at least sixteen policemen were killed during an operation in the Western Desert.  In the months since Mahmoud Hegazy’s removal there is reason to doubt that it was caused by the deaths on the Oases Road.  There have been many assaults on ill-prepared and surprised soldiers and police in which no senior officer was removed.  These tragic events occur sufficiently frequently that they provide expeditious excuses, not amenable to public debate, to sideline general officers.  Mahmoud Hegazy was replaced by a general with whom he shares a name but to whom he is unrelated: Muhammad Farid Hegazy.   Farid Hegazy had earlier benefited from Morsi’s ouster of Tantawi and Anan: he became Secretary General of the Ministry of Defense and Secretary of SCAF under Law 20/2014.  This was only the first of several personnel changes in the Armed Forces.

In January 2018 Sisi removed Khaled Fawzy as head of the General Intelligence Directorate.  Fawzy was chosen to head the National Security Agency in 2013 and GID in late 2014.  He was therefore closely connected to the making of the 2013 coup.  Abbas Kamel, who had served as Sisi’s own chief of staff, temporarily replaced Fawzy.  In June 2018 was Kamel installed as the permanent head of GID.  Within a small coterie of high-ranking generals Sisi had replaced one of his supporters with an even closer confidante.

Before going further I note two points that are crucial to understanding the changing politics of military dictatorships.  First, dictatorships (or authoritarian governments—the preferred moniker in political science) change over time.  Initial coalitions of army officers, economically powerful individuals, and prominent social figures give way to new constellations of power and authority.  They can grow or shrink, use violence more or less broadly, and coopt or exclude new social forces.  Second, when the armed forces are the institutional foundation of dictatorship, higher officers must maintain the unity and integrity of the military as it is affected by the push and pull of the political coalition that supports it.  This has been a recurring theme of Egyptian politics since the 1952 coup.  Then-General Muhammad Naguib and Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser disagreed about returning governance to an elected civilian government. Having defeated Naguib and placed him under house arrest for nearly 20 years, Nasser faced challenges from other figures including his own Minister of Defense, Abdel Hakim Amir.  Even now we do not know certainly whether Amir voluntarily committed suicide or was summarily executed in the wake of the catastrophic defeat in the 1967 war.  Anwar Sadat and Husny Mubarak both faced challenges from the security establishments but each time the officer corps closed ranks behind a president who, himself, had come from their ranks.  Every Egyptian leader overthrown by the Armed Forces beginning with King Farouk and including Neguib and Morsi was at least formally associated with a policy of establishing civilian control over the military.

The growth of Sisi’s control over Egypt’s state machinery has been slow but sure.  Immediately after the coup Sisi served as both Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense but members of the government headed by Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi floated plans for economic reform and national reconciliation between the army and the Muslim Brothers. Beblawi’s government included several noted liberals including Mohammad El-Baradei, Hossam Eissa, Ahmed Galal, and Ziad Bahaa El-Din.  Baradei, a Nobel laureate work as Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, resigned in August after the assaults on demonstrators in front of Cairo University and the Raba’a Al-Adawiyyah mosque took hundreds of lives.  Bahaa al-Din unsuccessfully proposed reconciliation between the government and its opponents but the military was not interested.  He quit the government in late January 2014.  In February 2014 Beblawi suddenly resigned on his own behalf and that of his government evidently at the insistence of Sisi.  The armed forces had begun to free themselves from the fetters of constitutional government but Sisi still appeared as primus inter pares.  In the interim between the coup which had suspended the Morsi-era constitution and the election of Sisi as president under a new constitution, the new Egyptian government (like others before it) maintained formal adherence to legality and sought to present an air of elite continuity. 

The first post-Beblawi Prime Minister, Ibrahim Mahlab, had been Housing Minister under Beblawi.  Sherif Ismail remained as Petroleum Minister and  Sisi briefly remained as Defense Minister until he resigned to run for president.  Mahlab retained the former Minister of the Interior, Mohammed Ibrahim Moustafa, who Morsi had initially appointed.   The debate about army autonomy ended on the army’s terms: the new constitution stipulated that for the first two terms of an elected presidency the Defense Minister had to be an army officer and could only be appointed with the approval of SCAF.
            Article 146 of the new constitution also gave the president the right to appoint a Prime Minister.  This was congruent with longstanding Egyptian constitutional practice that the Prime Minister represents the executive authority rather than a parliamentary majority.  The only change was a stipulation that within 30 days of the decision on a new Prime Minister, Parliament must give the new government a vote of confidence.  Because the Mahleb government was installed before the constitution was ratified his government required no approval.

            Mahlab’s government ultimately collapsed in a flurry of revelations about corruption and he was replaced by Sherif Ismail in September 2015.  No parliament had yet been elected by the installation of the Ismail’s first government and so it neither required nor obtained parliamentary approval. Parliamentary elections were held later that year and the first post-coup Parliament seated in early 2016. By mid-April 2016 Ismail’s government had obtained a vote of confidence from a sitting parliament.  Given the length of the parliamentary interregnum the delay in approving a Prime Minister who had been in office for six months might be considered irrelevant.  Pro-Sisi “independent” members dominated Parliament largely because the government seemed determined not to create a political party with even nominal autonomy.  The legislature was subservient to the executive and it had belatedly undertaken its constitutionally necessary role.  Unremarkably Ismail’s government also exhibited continuity with the past.  Many ministers remained at their posts and, of course, Sobhi remained as the constitutionally protected Minister of Defense. 
Ismail’s government was dissolved on June 7, 2018 and Mustafa Madbouli, who had replaced Mahlab back in 2014 as Housing Minister, was asked to form a new government which was duly sworn in on June 14. This government exhibited a surprising lack of continuity in personnel and also remarkable disregard for the formalities of the Egyptian constitution. The new government presented by Madbouli did not include Sidki Sobhi as Minister of Defense.  SCAF has never issued its official approval of his ouster or his replacement; it has said nothing. In his place as Minister of Defense was Muhammad Ahmed Zaki.  Zaki had been head of the Republican Guard from August 2012 until his appointment as Minister of Defense.  The Republican Guard played an important role in the 2013 coup if for no other reason than that it provided the security for then President Muhammad Morsi, security that quickly turned into arrest.  As of today, a month after the dissolution of the Ismail cabinet Madbouli’s government has yet to acquire a vote of confidence.  The government has presented its program and there is every reason to think that the majority will approve.  The “25/30” bloc (so named for January 25, 2011 and June 30, 2013—the dates of mass protests that marked the collapse of the Mubarak and Morsi governments) has shown vocal opposition.  It is impossible to imagine that the bloc will derail the process of approving the new government or force Sisi to pursue other remedies under Article 146.

            Article 146 was written by people who were thinking, perhaps naively, that future parliaments would be chosen in competitive elections in which relatively strong parties would be dominant voices.  Thus the article proposes that, in the absence of rapid ratification, the president must turn to the party with a plurality and establish a government with parliamentary approval in a total of 60 days.  Failing that a new parliament must be elected. 

            Former Minister of Defense Sobhi seemed to simply disappear. The contrast with President Morsi’s decision to honor former Defense Minister Muhammad Tantawi with the Order of the Nile, the country’s highest honor, on his ouster is sharp.  Sami Anan, Chief of Staff, was awarded the Order of the Republic.  The circumstances and negotiations around Tantawi’s and Anan’s retirement are opaque but Morsi was signaling, possibly with the approval of Sisi and the rest of SCAF, that he had no intention of significantly affecting the army’s own chain of command or of subjecting its leaders to penalties for their actions after January 25, 2011.  This would include hundreds of deaths, thousands of injuries, and tens of thousands of detentions as well as the infamous “virginity tests” to which women were subjected and that Sisi later defended as necessary to maintain the army’s reputation.  Despite Sobhi’s prominent role in facilitating the ouster of Morsi and the emergence of the new regime he received no official recognition for his service.

            Morsi had better reason than Sisi to fear the Egyptian Armed Forces and to try to placate their leaders.  His, and the Egyptian people’s experience, with generals and former generals underlines the obsessive secrecy with which the Armed Forces guards the secrecy of its internal disagreements—existing or merely incipient.  The consistent tendency of outsiders is to underestimate both the existence of such conflicts among generals and their ability to resolve them decisively and with force when necessary.

            This may have been true from the very beginning. Morsi became president by defeating Ahmad Shafiq in the 2012 presidential election.  One of Hosny Mubarak’s last official acts as president was to appoint Shafiq as prime minister on January 29, 2011 in a vain attempt to appease Egyptian demonstrators (and perhaps the Armed Forces).  Shafiq was seen as the preferred candidate of the military and the supporters of the old regime.  So much so that if the 2012 legislature had had its way officials of the old regime such as Shafiq would have been stripped of the right to hold office in the new regime.  Shafiq had been a fighter pilot and ultimately commanded the Air Force before he resigned in 2002 to become Minister of Civil Aviation, a post he held until his appointment as Prime Minister.  On March 3, 2011 the SCAF, having replaced Mubarak as the executive authority in Egypt, accepted Shafiq’s resignation.  While it may very well be that the extent of popular unrest made it impossible for the generals to keep a former colleague in power, there are other possibilities to consider.  As Minister of Civil Aviation, Shafiq was very close to the burgeoning tourism industry which was the entering wedge of a re-emerging large-scale private sector in Egypt.  The growth of Egyptian tourism required significant changes in the structure of the country’s air travel industry.  This included the need to open both the tourism and its infrastructure to foreign investment and competition.  Shafiq’s years as a minister in the Mubarak era required a far greater willingness to work with the emergent private sector than has been true of other generals.  It is not possible to read off policy preferences from anyone’s in-laws but the connections can be tantalizing.  Shafiq’s father-in-law, Tawfiq Abdel-fattah, an officer on the periphery of the group that overthrew the monarchy, served as Minister of Social Affairs and Labor under Nasser in 1958.  Shafiq would, at the least, have been more aware of the problems of organizing a command economy than most officers in the armed forces.

            Had it not been for a decision by Sisi to transfer two small islands in the Red Sea, Tiran and Sanafir, from Egyptian control to Saudi sovereignty this would all be irrelevant.  These two islands dominate the entrance to the Red Sea and thus were once important strategic sites for Egyptian attempts to limit sea traffic to the Israeli port of Eilat.  They consequently figure prominently in regional strategic imagination and history.  Under the terms of the Camp David Accords, Israeli assent to the transfer was necessary as well as Saudi agreement to the maintenance of the treaty itself.

Despite some leaked tapes indicating that many Egyptian generals viewed Saudi Arabia and other Arabian peninsular countries with disdain, President Sisi announced the transfer during a visit by Saudi King Salman in April 2016.  The economic rationale for the transfer—to construct a $4 billion causeway between the Arabian and Sinai peninsulas—is far-fetched. 

            The legal and historical decisions regarding the two islands are complex and irrelevant here.  What matters is that there was significant political opposition in Egypt to the transfer of the islands from the initial proposals in 2016 until it was accomplished in June 2017.  Cession of the islands created significant political and legal problems.  The new constitution requires a referendum as well as parliamentary agreement to transfer sovereignty over national territory.  The claim by the two governments was that the islands, despite being under Egyptian control, had really always been sovereign territory of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and thus no referendum was necessary. 

            Although the islands were transferred (or returned) to Saudi sovereignty in June 2017, there are reasons to believe that there were disagreements within the Armed Forces as well as among the public at large.  Sidki Sobhi, for example, does not appear to have endorsed decision in public. 

            Six months later, as 2017 came to an end, so did Sisi’s term as president and with it the necessity to run for a second, and constitutionally final, term.  In November Ahmad Shafiq announced his decision to return to Egypt from the United Arab Emirates and contest the presidency.  Shafiq abruptly left Egypt after losing the 2012 contest with Morsi at least partly under the threat of criminal charges for corruption issued by Morsi’s government.  He was living in the United Arab Emirates when he announced his 2018 candidacy but shortly afterward unwillingly found himself back in Egypt.  Whether Shafiq was deported by the Emirati authorities or kidnapped by Egyptian ones with Emirati connivance remains unclear but shortly after his announced candidacy he was being held effectively incommunicado.  In early January 2018 Shafiq used his Twitter account to inform Egyptians that he had thought better of running and no longer considered himself a plausible candidate.  In March he endorsed Sisi.  Could Shafiq have mounted a serious opposition campaign?  Would he have?  We will never know but as someone who had won more than 12 million votes in 2012 the government would have been hard put to explain an outcome in which he won only a handful of votes.

            Shortly thereafter, on January 20, 2018 Sami Anan announced that he would contest the presidential election.  He was arrested on January 23 and has been detained since.  Anan’s ties to the military establishment are more recent and more powerful than Shafiq’s.  Anan was Chief of Staff between 2005 and August 2012 as well as Deputy Chairman of SCAF from its revival in February 2011 through June 2012.  The government wasted little time or effort on squashing Anan’s proposed candidacy.  Even though Morsi had discharged him, Anan was arrested for violating military regulations.   The Armed Forces claimed that he had ignored the need to request and receive official permission to run for office as required by a November 2011 decree placing all members of SCAF on military status for life.  He has also been accused of the theft of sensitive military documents that may shed embarrassing light on the current regime. The Central Bank of Egypt placed his assets and those of his wife and daughters under its control.  One of Anan’s campaign associates was former head of the Central Auditing Organization, Hisham Geneina.  Geneina had been dismissed from this government oversight body in early 2017 for charging governments before and after the coup with engaging in widespread corruption.  He has been engaged in court hearings since in which he has been charged with providing false information.  Days after Anan was arrested Geneina was assaulted in public view and left on the pavement for nearly an hour before being taken to the hospital.  Anan’s candidacy was over and Sisi won an election in which a sole supporter posed as an opponent.  Anan has been in custody ever since and over the weekend of July 14 Reuters News announced that he had been transferred to the intensive care unit of the armed forces hospital in the Cairo suburb of Maadi.  Anan would, of course, not be the first detainee of the regime to die in custody but he would be the first high-ranking former general to do so. 

            The summary ouster of Sobhi from the Defense Ministry without public SCAF approval and the installation of a new ministry without parliamentary approval thus comes as the conclusion of a lengthy process of the consolidation of Sisi’s personal control.  Nor did Sisi soften Sobhi’s ouster by awarding him a medal or other honor. But does this mean Sisi’s control is complete?

            It may but there is one last recent news report to consider.  Parliament, which has not yet been able to ratify the new government, did manage to pass a law on July 3, 2018 regarding SCAF.  In a session from which the press was barred Parliament passed a law giving the president of the republic the right to award special (and unspecified) benefits to SCAF members now and in the future.  In addition, no SCAF members can be held judicially accountable for acts committed between July 3, 2013 (the date of the coup) and January 10, 2016 (the restoration of parliament).  In addition, if traveling abroad the law confers diplomatic status (and thus immunity) on SCAF members.  The law gives the president significant discretion in deciding its application.

            Besides Sisi’s dominance, what can we say about Egyptian politics now?  There are three possible ways to interpret recent events.  One is that Sisi is slowly undermining the military and necessarily preparing for the day when some form of real civilian government is in place.  Sisi himself has no particular reason to desire the successful transition to a civilian democracy but, the argument would go, the writing is on the wall.  The emergence of authoritarian civilian regimes from China to Turkey to Hungary implies that the collapse of military rule need not mean the installation of successful democracy, but the threat to armies is that new regimes may want to make the military pay for years of violence and incompetence.  The new law is meant to deny any future government with the option of pursuing Army officers with criminal penalties for its worst offenses.

A second possibility is that the armed forces recognize, especially in the wake of Sisi’s attack on Anan and Shafiq, their own vulnerability.  On this reading, the armed forces accept Sisi’s dominance and will refrain from insisting on their institutional prerogatives as long as he rewards them.   The most recent legislation would then mean that Sisi and the Armed Forces have reached a truce and agreed to remove the weapon of criminal prosecution either at home or abroad.  The generals have acquiesced in Sisi’s dominance but insist on some protection from continued prosecution. 

There is a last and more ominous interpretation: Sisi has created an instrument that allows him greater control over the Armed Forces.  He now has a tool through which he can reward and punish active members of the military as he sees fit.  The Armed Forces have resisted providing any executive with the tools to create or exploit their divisions.  Officers have been rewarded with sinecures after their service concluded and have generally been free from threats of prosecution while on active duty.  The murderous assaults on Morsi supporters and especially the Muslim Brotherhood at Rabi’a al-Adawiyah and in front of the Republican Guards headquarters in the summer of 2013 in which more than a thousand people were killed were exceptional.  As the legal proceedings against Anan and Shafiq show, the government has many ways to threaten generals and former generals.  On this view the ouster of a defense minister, the installation of a new cabinet, and the legislation safeguarding some but not necessarily all officers for their participation in the events of 2013-2016 is an indication of the degree to which Sisi has escaped the influence of his close allies as well as his enemies and his lukewarm supporters.

            What does this mean for continued dominance of the military in Egypt’s politics?  Recently the well-known novelist, political commentator, and former diplomat Ezzeddine Choukri Fishere proposed that Egypt’s armed forces must, sooner or later, cede control to civilians and accept that only by democratic means can Egypt be well governed.  The events of the last few months show just how difficult any such political transformation will be.   The Egyptian Armed Forces are a corporate institution many of whose officers are connected by marriage, education, and a network of social facilities including clubs and hospitals.   Post-retirement careers include entering private enterprise and civil administration.  They will resist removal for obvious reasons of interest but they also play significant roles in making many Egyptian enterprises and agencies work.  Their initial education and training may be for war but like most armies in the world today they rarely if ever engage in combat.  What studies we have of the Egyptian military suggest that its strengths are engineering and logistics and these are the skills that officers may have withdrawn during the Morsi presidency when shortages in fuel, water, and food began to appear to a greater degree than during the Mubarak years.  Egypt has many other talented professionals with expertise in engineering, construction, and logistics but for the moment army officers have the set of informal ties as well as technical qualifications that are especially important for large bureaucracies. 

            Once again a general has emerged from a period of instability and managed, with the support of a unified high command, to place himself at the center of political power in Egypt.  In place of the feverish cult of personality that emerged in the wake of the coup, Sisi has instituted, as did his predecessors, his own control over the executive and its administrative arms.  He has hollowed out the legislature and military as independent sources of authority even though he dominates them. There is little reason to doubt this will be successful in the short run and little reason to doubt that it will fail over the longer run.  The bulwark of Egyptian regimes whether new or old over the last half century has been the unity—not the loyalty—of the Armed Forces.



Sunday, February 04, 2018

Rage, Fear, Hope and the Emotions of Revolution


In its own telling the Egyptian revolution began with days of anger that broke the barrier of fear.  Egyptians raised their heads and proudly looked to a new day. It ended with ecstatic manifestations of popular acclamation as the military took power from an elected civilian president and embarked on a campaign of violence against his supporters.  In the intervening years scholars, officials and activists have sought to explain the successes and failures of the uprising largely with reference to the interests, analyses, and practices that shaped the activity of the many actors in these events.   The language of emotion has largely dropped out of the analytic frame despite subsequent allusions to revolutionary betrayal, disillusion, and despair.

One exception is an article by Wendy Pearlman, “Emotions and Microfoundations of the Arab Uprisings” published in 2013.  Pearlman argues for the importance of emotions as crucial to any analysis of the uprisings, including the Egyptian revolution.  Her viewpoint differs significantly from the one I employ here because she appears to think of emotions as more akin to what many researchers in the field would call moods or background feelings.  She describes emotions as orientations toward the external environment that shape cognitive evaluations of the world.  Thus she presents emotions as influencing cognitive evaluations or as themselves influenced by them.  She proposes consequently that changing the emotional orientation of people toward external events, including political ones, will change their evaluations of those events.

The seventh anniversary of the Egyptian revolution of 2011 is an appropriate time to revisit those initial claims about the importance of emotion.  Did emotion play a significant role in the revolutionary period and, if so, how?  Were Egyptians insufficiently rational and emotionally too volatile to make a democratic transition feasible?  Even a first attempt to respond to these questions requires a more careful look at how we understand emotions and their historical and social contexts.  Initially it is crucial to understand that there are now and have been, for centuries, two distinct ways of understanding human emotion.  One way of looking at emotion is as the antithesis of rational cognition; the other way, now backed up by significant research and philosophical inquiry, is that emotions are a form of cognition and without them we cannot be rational. 

In what follows I pursue the view that emotions are neither the antithesis of cognition nor a background condition that affects and is affected by our evaluations, including our moral evaluations, of the world external to us.  Emotions, in this framework, are those evaluations.  They are cognitive processes without which human beings cannot engage in purposive rational activity.  As might be expected with any evaluative process of something as complicated as the situation of human beings in the social and physical world, emotions reflect our beliefs about the nature of that world, about the possibilities and dangers it holds, and about how others respond and expect us to respond. 

 The Egyptian government, then led by President Hosni Mubarak, established January 25 as Police Day as a national holiday in 2009. Police Day commemorated an event that decades earlier had provoked Egyptian anger. On that day in 1952 British soldiers assaulted an Egyptian police station in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia and 41 Egyptians died.  Fury at that assault is often said have ignited the attacks on European-owned stores and European individuals in Cairo the following day when shops were destroyed and scores of people were killed and injured in an event whose specific origins remain a mystery.  Police Day was thus a somewhat ambiguous holiday.  It celebrated resistance but it also celebrated a police force and ministry of the interior that, with its violence and corruption, no longer merited the respect of millions of Egyptians.

Tens of thousands of Egyptians demonstrated January 25, 2011 until dispersed by the police using tear gas, clubs and concussion grenades in Cairo and other cities.  Public support for the government plummeted over the following days especially as demonstrations were violently repressed in Suez.  One widely viewed video featured a lone demonstrator who opened his jacket and approached a policeman, daring him to shoot.  Filmed on a cellphone from a balcony overlooking the street you can see the demonstrator drop to the ground, the pop of the gun, and the sudden cries of the observers in the apartment.

Organizers announced that January 28 would be the Friday of Rage.  Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in Cairo and other cities after a tense couple of days.  In addition to the mass demonstrations, scores of police stations were attacked and thousands of prisoners were released as local jails and prisons were destroyed or left unguarded.  Police disappeared from the streets and a prolonged period of public insecurity followed. Even the first deployment of tanks by the Egyptian armed forces into Tahrir Square in Cairo was met by violence until it became clear that the army was not about to launch an armed assault on protesters.

As William Reddy argues, naming emotions makes them less ambiguous and us more committed to them.  If true for individuals in the moment it is equally true of historical reconstruction. January 28 was the “Friday of Rage.” Must it necessarily have been a day when all protestors expressed their rage?  Is “rage” a good description of what hundreds of thousands of Egyptians felt that day?  And is it the only valid description?  As the noon prayer came to an end on January 28 I stood among hundreds of Egyptians who had gathered at the Mostafa Mahmood Mosque.  Surrounded by young riot policemen with shields, helmets and batons, my initial response was fear.  As the police opened a path for the crowd to head down Arab League Street and as it became clear that demonstrators vastly outnumbered police I felt relief and exhilaration.  Perhaps as a foreigner I lacked an adequate appreciation of Egyptian emotional responses but given what people around me were saying as well as videos still available on YouTube I think my own experience was common.  So clearly there was not just rage, even if we had all assembled in response to a day of rage.  Rage may also be too blunt a word although it is a good and correct translation of the Arabic word, ghadab, that named the day.   Perhaps outrage is a better approximation of the relevant emotion or perhaps indignation.  These words, however, give a very different sense to the dominant emotion.  They clearly add a moral dimension to the emotional description. 

If anger was the right word, the source of the anger is more difficult to discern.  One common explanation is that deprivation, hunger, and poverty cause anger.  From Egypt to Iran and Tunisia and the United States inequalities of wealth and income provoke anger that then translates into disruptive political interventions by the afflicted.  Anger is said to drive the poor to attack the rich and appropriate their property. 

But, again, is anger the right name? Why is anger rather than envy or greed the dominant emotion fueling such an attack? Angry people might demonstrate but in Egypt there are good reasons to think it was urban middle and lower middle-income people who demonstrated and talked up their anger at the regime.  Property theft, by the rich and poor alike, was widespread during the revolution but it does appear to have been driven primarily by greed or avarice.  Sometimes it involved violence but more frequently state property and unguarded private property were simply stolen. 

Anger was widely perceived as the dominant emotion of the early days of the uprising. We might be forgiven for forgetting that for decades Egyptians and external observers have debated the role of anger in the country’s social and political life.   There are many convenient explanations besides deprivation for the anger of Egyptians. Rage figures prominently in some accounts of contemporary Arab and Islamic politics.  Take, for example the 1990 article “The Roots of Muslim Rage” by Bernard Lewis.  Lewis proposed that a significant (but undefined) number of Muslims, whom he termed fundamentalists, were at war with secularism and modernism.  In this he was largely echoing modernization theories of the 1950s and 1960s that argued the transition from tradition to modernity provoked profound psychological unease or disease among affected populations.  Lewis proposed that the introduction of Western economic, political and social institutions had led to worsened outcomes for most of the population in Muslim majority countries and that what he called a “mood” of anger and resentment spread among people who were increasingly aware that, as heirs to “an old, proud, and long dominant civilization” they were being cast aside by their inferiors.  He argued that the “instinct of the masses” in locating the sources of their increasing poverty and lack of freedom in the West was not wrong.  He further argued that there are “moments of upheaval and disruption, when deeper passions are stirred, [and]…dignity and courtesy towards others can give way to an explosive mixture of rage and hatred….”

Lewis’s critics were not slow to react.  In this they followed a path set out by Edward Said. Muslims, Arabs, and especially Palestinians were indeed angry they agreed but not because of lost civilization glory, modernization, or secularism.  Their anger rose from precisely what Lewis scanted: dispossession and despoliation, particularly, of Palestinians.   They thought Lewis was wrong to suggest that anger was unjustified or that it was rooted in a centuries-long cultural tradition but he was not, evidently, wrong to think that pervasive anger ran deep and wide and that it was a societal rather than an individual response.  If Palestinians are frequently angry (and likely far angrier than Israelis) it may have less to do with their mood or their culture than with the constant repetition of word and actions that are demeaning and destructive and the absence of any safe spaces in which to recover.  So at least one Palestinian psychologist proposed to me over lunch one day many years ago during a seminar I had helped to organize about trying to ameliorate the trauma of seeing a loved one die violently.

Anger, in the way that Lewis and many of his critics use the word, is usually described in hydrological, geological or meteorological terms. This is often called a “hydraulic” theory.  Anger is a fluid and, although it can be dammed, channeled, or contained, these attempts can fail. Then the pressure becomes too great and like a volcano or a geyser it overflows, erupts and destroys everything in its path.  Such metaphors are common but research in psychology, cognition, and philosophy all indicate they are both wrong and useless.  An emotion, including anger, is a cognitive process not a hydraulic one.  It is a way we have of evaluating events in the external world.

To the degree that accounts of the Egyptian revolution place emphasis on cognition, they focus on interests and behavior.  Frequently they focus on the interests and behavior of the working class.  This is so for all versions of political economy whether so-called rational choice microeconomic modeling or the soft political economy critics of neo-liberalism.  In a field still torn by the debate over Orientalism it is understandable why emotions vanished from an academic literature concerned that Egyptian workers appear more or less as rational as European or American workers. Thus, in line with contemporary theories of social movements the interests of Egyptian workers are held to be destabilizing and oppositional but not necessarily emotionally profound.  Indeed most scholars consider the discontent of the lower classes and their desire to redistribute the wealth of society a permanent feature of social life that, in non-democratic societies, only the coercive might of the state prevents.  The intrusion of emotions into social life in this literature is often seen as an idiosyncratic aspect of Egyptian society or culture.

The insistence on interests and the exclusion of emotions from understanding revolution is more surprising considering that revolutionary leaders have often not shared it.  Ayatollah Khomeini famously asserted that revolutions were not about the price of watermelons although he provided no definitive answer as to what they were about. Lenin described revolutions as festivals of the oppressed, a description echoed in a discussion by Sahar Keraitim and Samia Mehrez of Tahrir Square as a mulid.  One bit of evidence in my own experience supporting their view is that when I entered Tahrir Square very early in the morning of January 29 one of the first people I encountered was a man with a large tray of cookies that he was giving out in celebration as if at a popular religious festival.  My understanding of the argument Keraitim and Mehrez make is not that the demonstrations in Tahrir were religious but that the repertoire of practices deployed in revolution must make some emotional sense to the participants.  Thus, to see the demonstrations in Tahrir as if they were events in which marchers proceeded to a central location, listened to speeches, and then dispersed is misleading.  So, too, estimating the number of demonstrators based on the idea that Egyptian urban squares could only hold a limited number of people is misleading because, as in a festival but unlike a rally, people were constantly coming and going.

So far I have drawn on contemporary research on emotions from many directions—psychological, philosophical, and even medical—all of which suggests the hydraulic approach to understanding emotions is both wrong and useless.  This includes the work of Antonio Damasio on the neuroscience of the brain, summed up usefully in his book Descartes’ Error, the lengthy work of political philosophy by Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought, and The Navigation of Feeling, historical sociologist William Reddy’s study of the period before and after the French Revolution. The common thread of these works and many more is not simply to reject the Cartesian dualism of mind and body (including the brain) and the Humean dualism of passionate attachment to goals and cold reasoning about how to reach them.  Rather they propose that emotions are cognitive processes that direct our attention to events in the world through which we evaluate their implication for our own goals and well-being.  Emotions are cognitive processes even if we are not always conscious of how they work.  As evaluations emotions combine our beliefs about the world, including the social world, with our understanding of the importance of our goals for ourselves.   

Anger is not a deep well-spring of energy ever-ready to be tapped nor is fear an immobile barrier to be broken once and for all.  Fear can immobilize us when we understand the danger of an occurrence and re-evaluate downwards the importance of an activity or goal in which we are engaged.  Fear, like anger, is a cognitive response to events external to our own lives.  Before January 25 Egyptians did not confront a barrier that was later shattered.  Before January 25 most Egyptians understood that the police state in which they lived was intact even if it was not as concerned to prevent the presence of all oppositional speech or actions as had been the case under Nasser, Sadat and even the early Mubarak period.  After January 29 Egyptians observed that the capacity of the police forces had been severely weakened.  Consequently there were few limits imposed by the government on overt speech or public mobilization.  Political leaders, from the Muslim Brothers to the Revolutionary Socialists, thus became bolder and appeared to be less fearful and more courageous.  What had not changed was that, no matter how courageous the opposition became, most high government officials including within the armed forces had not accepted in principle or in practice that freedom of expression or association as foundational. 

To the degree that anger combines an ethical evaluation (are we legitimately obstructed?) about our own goals with a sense of their importance the expression of anger will differ across society and within society as well as over time.  So too will any action we undertake.  As Neil Ketchley has proposed in a recent book, many Egyptians viewed the police and the jails attached to police stations as the most salient obstructions to their lives.  These Egyptians, almost entirely from working class neighborhoods, experienced profound anger about particular police and particular stations.  Something like one quarter of all primary police stations in Egypt were destroyed during the last few nights of January 2011 by local residents.   Ketchley’s account suggests that the destruction of the police stations in such large numbers and short a period of time occurred because the police had already concentrated their efforts on the massive demonstrations in Cairo and other cities.

The demonstrations had been called to express anger but it does not require deep analysis to think that the anger of the demonstrators was different than the anger of those who attacked police stations.  Nor is it a stretch to think that as news of the assaults on police stations and some of the large prisons where prisoners were freed over the following days Egyptians came to realize that the threats of police violence that had inhibited speech and public presence were greatly diminished. Thus rather than seeing these differences as based on preferences or styles or interests, contemporary understandings of emotion suggest that different Egyptians evaluated the role of the police in their lives and the ways in which they significantly affected their lives in different ways.  There was and is no single kind of anger that Egyptians expressed or ought to have expressed if we think of anger as evaluative and cognitive.  What shook the Egyptian government was the confluence of these two streams of anger, themselves made up of many decisions by particular people on their own or in small groups. 

If anger often involves a belief in the illegitimacy of an obstacle then what particular obstacles did Egyptians focus their attention on and how did they come to see them as illegitimate?  How did they come to believe that attacking that obstacle to their well-being was more important than the response it threatened?  Answering this question will require us to look more carefully at how different groups among the Egyptian population understood government policies to be unfair.  For some Egyptians police corruption and brutality were immediate concerns; for others these were significant concerns but appeared to be systemic problems rather than immediate threats; for others no doubt the decision by the government to shut off any electoral path to change the previous fall was more telling.

Whatever emotions Egyptians expressed in 2011 they likely still experience today.  Anger, fear, and courage (not to mention many other emotions) are still part of Egyptian life, but they are now evaluations that must be made within the context of the difficulties of the revolutionary period itself, the reconstruction of the police forces, and the implacable unwillingness of the armed forces to accept peaceful disagreement and political opposition.  It is thus not surprising that for many Egyptians new emotional responses to the world have become dominant.  It is to explore more of these issues that I hope to devote forthcoming entries. 

I plan to write several more entries on understanding the revolution through the emotions but before ending two points are worth making.  First is that if emotions are indeed cognitive evaluations of the events in the world external to ourselves then revolutionary periods must be emotionally fraught and we should expect to see a maelstrom of rapidly changing emotions.  As the ordinary institutions and expectations break down in a revolutionary upheaval we should expect that people—individually and in contact with each other—should rapidly revise their evaluations of the meaning of those events for their own well-being.  Rapid emotional change may have been indicative less of the volatility of Egyptians than of the volatility of the social and political environment.  In such a situation ,it hardly seems plausible that people would retain the same cognitive evaluations of (or consequent commitments for) abstract goals such as democracy or “rule of law” whose very definitions are subject to significant debate during a period of intense, rapid, and nearly constant change.  This does not imply Egyptians did not desire democracy, rule of law, or an Islamic state, or socialism; it simply implies that by 2013 they may have had very different ideas about what those goals might be or what the impact of trying to attain them would be.

Second, while human emotions are plastic to some degree there is reason to believe that a prolonged period during which it proves to be impossible to solve problems posed in the external world itself has emotional consequences.  The unethical psychological practices designed by American psychologists to induce “learned hopelessness” among Iraqis were based on real psychological research.  The primary method involved is to ensure that experimental subjects are conditioned to believe that nothing they can do affects their condition. 

In one of the earliest entries to this blog I noted that the Egyptian Armed Forces wanted one thing above all else: to ensure that Egyptians never came to believe that their words or actions affected state policies.  Even when state policies do change it is crucial that they not be seen to change in direct response to popular participation or public criticism.   Hannah Arendt once wrote of the importance of arbitrary rule as more than a result of dictatorship; it was, she proposed, a method of rule because it sapped any sense of agency.  Egyptians are not experimental subjects and the analogy is necessarily inexact but it looks as if the years since 2013 have been a prolonged and significantly successful attempt to deprive Egyptians of belief in their own agency or, in other word, of hope.  If the past is any guide it will not last forever but while it does it will be a profoundly unpleasant world in which to live.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Egypt's Oligarchs in Dubious Battle


Harsh as the government of Abdel Fattah Sisi continues to be it has suffered some significant setbacks at the hands of the judiciary, the religious establishment and the parliament.  This is so despite its tens of thousands of political prisoners and severe repression of civil society associations committed to defend free expression and the rule of law as well as its more obvious political opponents. Each individual defeat can be explained as the result of a combination of idiosyncratic factors, but the growing list suggests reconsideration of our understanding of the regime as simply an authoritarian state. 

These conflicts are worth attention because these institutions have been so closely identified with the creation of the current regime.  Many trial judges enthusiastically supported the new regime and issued guilty verdicts against a wide swath of opponents of the coup who were frequently labeled terrorists.  In hundreds of cases defendants were sentenced to death and in thousands of others they were given long prison terms.  The chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court served as interim president.  Leading religious figures, including the head of the Azhar, associated themselves with the ouster of former president Muhammad Morsi and with Sisi himself.  The parliament, elected in 2016 under the constitution that replaced the one written during the Morsi era, is widely viewed as a docile, rubber stamp.  It affirmed most of the decrees Sisi issued during the year and a half in which Egypt had no legislative body whatsoever.  Parliament was to some degree the creature of the intelligence agencies which influenced the election process. To the extent that it represents anyone at all, it represents the interests of powerful local elites who were threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Morsi presidency.  The religious establishment, notably the head of the Azhar but including past and present officials, opposed the Morsi government and publically provided support to the coup in the days leading up to it and in the formation of the government afterwards. 

There is a widespread presumption that each of these institutions is subservient to and directly controlled by the president.  This may not be the case.  It may, in fact, be the case the Sisi presides over an elite coalition whose internal disputes and conflicts make its members difficult, if subordinate, partners in the current regime.  It is convenient to think of each of these institutions as completely under the control of the armed forces, President Sisi, and the security forces.  They are certainly not independent or unaffected by the army, the president, or the intelligence agencies, but they also have independent reasons to support the current regime and on occasion to dissent from its policies.  Examining those moments of dissent is revealing of the contours of the Egyptian state and politics today.

Contemporary political science has a dichotomous understanding of political regimes: democratic or authoritarian.   Although there are various “flavors” of each type, when political scientists speak of the types of governments there are they invariably are interested in how political officials are chosen.  Speaking of democracy it is common to point out that more than free elections are required and to propose a list of individual freedoms that democracies must protect if they are to be considered real.  Political science describes dictatorships in a variety of flavors which themselves are largely devised to explain how public officials are chosen or choose themselves. 

Interesting as this is and useful as it may be for American policy makers and pundits, it is different and possibly far less sophisticated than the political analysis of political regimes that dominated much European political thinking for hundreds of years when there were no democracies and most executives were ruling monarchs.   During the centuries in which early modern Europe was made, almost no states were (in our contemporary sense) democratic nor was democracy generally conceived as either a viable or a valuable form of political organization.  Until very recent times, when critics of autocratic rule thought about how socially prominent, politically powerful, and wealthy groups could temper the power of centralizing rulers they rarely mentioned democracy and they paid little if any attention to the rights of the lower classes, women, or religious minorities.  They thought in terms of aristocracies, oligarchies, or mixed governments in which elites shared power.

Egypt is by no means a democracy and the government does not shrink from savage violence.  We can understand it better if we think of it as an oligarchy composed of a coalition of interests and institutions.   We can ask ourselves when their interests (both material and institutional) are aligned or at cross-purposes.  Doing so casts light on contemporary Egyptian politics and it also casts light on why Egypt, in the wake of the Arab Spring, has turned out to be a very different place than Tunisia, Yemen, Syria or Libya.  This is not to say that Egypt today is in a better place than its neighbors or even a particularly good place, only that it is worth trying to understand how it is different.
The regime is not unstable and the president will usually get his way, but occasionally some actors manage to outmaneuver the president. They do so at least partly to keep their own institutional power intact as well as for more direct reasons of interest.   The Egyptian parliament, the Azhar and the judiciary are closely aligned with the presidency but they also have significantly more autonomy than at any time in the last 60 years with the obvious exception of the brief period between January 2011 and July 2013 when one repressive regime ended and another began. 

Among the most recent and perhaps important defeats of the president came with an attempt to cede arguably Egyptian territory to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,  with the attempted passage of a law regulating the civil service, and most recently with the attempt to eliminate men’s right to divorce their wives verbally.  In each case the government’s position has faced some significant popular opposition but also ultimately was rejected by the judiciary, the legislature, and the religious establishment respectively.  Each of these challenges to presidential authority occurred openly.  The fate of the islands and divorce remain open but the government made at least some concessions on the civil service law.
            Defense of the nation’s borders is a constitutive element of modern nationalism.  National sovereignty over national territory has mobilized Egyptians for more than a hundred years.  British troops did not completely leave the country until 1954 and Israeli troops occupied the Sinai Peninsula in 1956 and again between 1967 and 1982.   Between 2011 and 2013 there were rumors that President Morsi planned to give Sinai to the Palestinians so that they could withdraw from Gaza and create a state.  During those same years Egyptian army officers also frequently warned of plans to divide the country into separate statelets. Unfounded and ridiculous as these rumors were, they served to intensify a sense of existential threat and the fragility of national sovereignty. 

The failure of the armed forces to prevent the creation of a sovereign Israel in Palestine in 1948 was a proximate reason for the military seizure of power in 1952.  The army’s defeat in 1967 was a deeply-felt national catastrophe weakening the Nasser regime. President Sadat carefully nurtured the image of the 1973 war as a military victory to enhance his legitimacy as did President Mubarak after Sadat’s assassination.  Even intellectuals highly critical of the Nasserist regime and its repression have expressed fears that integration into the global economy could threaten national sovereignty.

Egyptian writers have, on occasion, expressed popular fears about tyranny, corruption, and existential threats to the nation.  Sometimes these expressions have been humorous and sometimes nightmarish.  Gamal Al-Ghitani is known in the US and Europe, to the extent that he is known at all, as the author of the short novel Zayni Barakat.  It first appeared in Arabic as a magazine serial in 1971 and in 1974 as a single volume.  Its English translation, introduced with a foreword by Edward Said, provided a much wider audience with access to a story of how a police state works.  El-Ghitani set his account of authoritarian excess in early 16th century Mamluk Egypt.  Other accounts of the Nasserist state by authors like Naguib Mahfouz such as Karnak Café were set in the historical present.  While they detailed the ethical and physical destruction such government produced they did not portend the collapse of the state.  By setting his novel just as the Ottoman conquest of Egypt occurred, El-Ghitani seemed to suggest that authoritarianism had deep historical roots as a strategy for governance but that it also created a government that could be fatally unresponsive to external challenge.

              By the time of his death in 2015 El-Ghitani had long ceased to be an insurgent figure in Arabic literature or the Egyptian literary establishment, but his early work remains a useful touchstone. The recent decision by the Egyptian Supreme Administrative Court voiding a treaty that would have ceded two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia makes it worth revisiting his 1978 story, “What Happened to the Land of the Valley” written when Israeli troops occupied the Sinai Peninsula and Israeli settlers built towns along the northeast coast.

            “No one knew when it began,” Ghitani opens his story, but voices were raised against allowing foreigners to own land even then.  Elements of irony abound when we learn that initial purchases include not only apartments and small stores but even pavement.   A dystopian global market drives foreigners who can no longer afford housing in London, Paris, and Sidney to buy more and more property in Cairo and its environs.  When they have purchased the entire country the new owners attempt to evict the inhabitants.  The eviction is thwarted by the discovery of an acre in Upper Egypt which remains out of their possession.  In a dramatic but uncertain conclusion thousands of Egyptian men, women, and children link arms to protect the acre from being flooded as the alien purchases open dams and dikes to flood the single crucial acre of sovereignty that remains.

            When it was announced in early 2016 that the Egyptian government planned to cede control over Tiran and Sanafir, two islands between the Sinai and Arabian peninsulas to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Egyptians were stunned.  The  Saudi government claimed that Egypt had occupied the islands in the mid-20th century at its request to protect them from Israel.  Egypt was not ceding territory; it was simply returning islands mid-way between the Saudi and Egyptian mainlands to their original sovereign.   

            The government never gave a clear reason for the transfer and popular and elite suspicions blossomed that the regime was exchanging the national territory for billions of dollars of aid it had already received from the Saudis.  These concerns are not new.  The billionaire Saudi investor and prince Walid Bin Talal was forced to relinquish an agricultural project in Upper Egypt in the early months of the 2011 uprising due to widespread concerns about corruption and undue influence over the Mubarak government.

            It is not surprising that intellectuals, activists, and ordinary citizens quickly moved to stop the transfer.  Public demonstrations occurred despite a ban that has frequently been enforced with murderous violence.  Khalid Ali, an attorney and leftist opposition candidate for president in 2012, initiated legal action.   Within weeks historians, legal scholars, and others identified decrees, maps, and legislation showing that that the islands were subject to Egyptian control in the late 19th century.  If so the islands would have been Egyptian well before the Saudi state came into existence.   This matters because the government cannot, under the existing constitution, alienate Egyptian territory.  The government’s initial explanation of the transfer of the islands was that it resulted from delineating the Egyptian-Saudi maritime boundary.  The argument for border delineation made the transfer an administrative decision rather than a legislative act.  Just for this reason the ultimate arbiter of the legality of the transfer was the High Administrative Court rather than the Supreme Constitutional Court.  The court determined that the evidence put the transfer outside the administrative power of the executive authority.  It could only be accomplished by a legislative act regarding the sovereignty of the state.

            The generally compliant legislature has not voted either to transfer the islands or to grant the president the right to do so.  This is not the first time the legislature has been recalcitrant to government initiatives.  In January 2016 the legislature, reviewing laws promulgated before it was seated, rejected President Sisi’s civil service law by a vote of 336 to 150.  The law, a revision of the pre-existing law on the civil service, aimed to make it easier to discipline workers and to fire them as well as to cut the growth of wages paid them.  It was unpopular with civil service employees and their unions and led to public protests that, although illegal, were not dispersed with the kind violence deployed against political protests.

            A revised civil service law was enacted at the end of 2016.  The new law provided greater financial incentives to government employees than the original proposal and was clearly a defeat for Sisi.  Egyptian analysts differ over why the legislature opposed Sisi on this issue.  Some have argued that the police played a significant role in electing the current parliament and that the conflict over the civil service law reflects a continuing conflict between the police establishment and the military.  Another possibility is that Sisi’s decree in July 2015 that the 75% of the seats in the parliament would be individual candidacies and only 20% party lists has had unforeseen consequences.  Individual seats strengthen the candidacies of wealthy businessmen and influential families whose interests are not wholly dependent on the regime.  Consequently the creation of the majority “For the Love of Egypt” list by the late military intelligence officer, Sameh Seif El-Yazal, did not or could not re-create the kind of pliant partisan apparatus that former president Mubarak had with the National Democratic party.  Weakening the legislature may, in fact, have weakened executive control over the legislators.  Lastly, the choice of the issue over which the legislature confronted the executive is meaningful.  Over the last 20 years employment in state-owned industry has markedly declined as privatization and market-oriented policies have dramatically decreased the size of state-owned industry.  Civil service employment has decreased but remains large.  As an example of what this means, in 2010, government statistics indicated that just over 12% of Egyptians were employed in manufacturing which is increasingly in private ownership and almost 9% were employed in education which remains largely a public function and almost another 8% were employed in either the civil or defense administrations. 

Fifty years ago the laws governing civil servants affected only a small, relatively secure portion of the workforce.  As the work of Egypt’s Nobel prize winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz recounts, these employees may have been subject to chicanery and mis-treatment by their superiors but their positions were nevertheless largely understood as desirable.  The Egyptian public service has grown larger and wages, especially at the lower levels, have become increasingly hard to live on while service rendered the public has become increasingly poor in quality.  Less secure tenure not only eliminates one of the important perquisites of the positions but is widely understood to make employees even more subject to the whims of supervisors.  

That parliament defended its own constituency is by no means an indication of its support for freedom of expression, liberalism, or support for any greater principle of good governance or democracy.  Parliament has stripped two members of their seats in the last year.  The first, Tawfiq Okasha, was ousted by a majority for having had contacts with the Israeli embassy without first gaining parliamentary approval.  The second, Mohammad Anwar Esmat al-Sadat, nephew of the late President Anwar el-Sadat, was ousted recently for his attempt to prevent passage of extremely restrictive legislation governing the work of non-governmental organizations and his disclosure of wasteful spending on parliament itself. 

Last, the regime has felt disaffection from the religious establishment including the public expression of discontent by Shaykh al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayyeb.  The Azhar is often described as a thousand-year old university and the most respected global institution of Sunni Islam.  The Azhar does comprise an old and significant set of institutions for religious instruction where many of the officials who oversee Egypt’s mosques are trained.  It also provides formal and informal opinions (fatwas) for government and private individuals about the religious character of their actions.  Speaking of the Azhar can also refer to the modern university with faculties of medicine, politics and literature or the primary-secondary school system with more than a million students.  The “Azhar” comprises a broad array of educational and religious institutions.  Like the government educational bureaucracy and the court system, reaches deeply into Egyptian society.  Like the army and the bureaucracy the Azhar has not been well or deeply studied, not least because it does not welcome external scrutiny.  A poignant account of the life of a fictional Azhari graduate is to be found in Abderrahman Sharqawi’s 1952 novel “Al-Ard” (This Egyptian Earth):  a graduate finds himself morally at odds with a government official who steals land from peasants but also finds himself trapped by his own economic insecurity in acquiescing in the theft. 

In 2016 the government proposed a change in the law governing divorce in ways consistent with what many analysts have referred to as “state feminism”.  Over the last 60 years Egyptian governments have occasionally attempted to use the law to shift the balance of social power toward women.   These have generally enhanced the bargaining power of women in family law but without empowering independent civil associations of women.  In Egypt Muslim men can divorce their wives at will.  Divorce for men is what scholars call performative because saying the words “I divorce you” three times ends a marriage.  The act of speaking the words constitutes the divorce which need not be communicated to the wife or registered with the state.  Women can initiate proceedings to obtain a divorce but, unlike men, they cannot unilaterally end a marriage.  Sissi proposed that verbal divorce be annulled to be replaced by a formal meeting with a religious official.   His stated concern is both that there are too many divorces and divorce is increasingly common.   Forcing the process into an administrative process might diminish their number if only insofar as it becomes more expensive, more cumbersome, and more public. 

Tayyeb publicly opposed this measure which was unpopular with many of the Azhari ulama and especially the governing council.  The proposed change may very well disadvantage men to some degree and it is at odds with received practice and understanding of family law as subordinate to Islamic norms.  Because the constitution mandates that Islamic legal principles provide the basis of Egyptian legislation there is tension between institutions that claim authority to interpret what constitutes Islamic law or legal principles.  These debates have become more acute as two constitutions were written, ratified and approved in referenda in the past four years. 

This may appear to be a rather marginal issue on which to oppose Sissi and his government, but it indicates some important disagreement between the Azhari elite and Sissi’s proclaimed project of reforming Islam.  There are good reasons for insisting that verbal divorces be registered—not least fairness to women who are divorced without knowing it.  There are also reasons why members of the Senior Scholars Council which, in the wake of the tumult of the last few years, now wields significant authority again might reject such a proposal.  Azhar has gained both autonomy and a secure constitutional role in the wake of the uprising.  Where the head of the Azhar (the shaykh) was formerly chosen by the head of state, he is now chosen by the Senior Scholar’s Council and the constitution guarantees that the institution will receive government support.   Azhar’s leaders have every reason to protect it against any encroachment. 

Overall, the bench, the officers’ corps, the legislature and the religious establishment supported the coup and the creation of the current government.   This is in contradistinction to the 1952 coup, frequently taken as the model and progenitor of Egypt’s current constellation of institutions.  In 1952 large sections of the religious establishment and the free professions (from which the legislative elite was largely drawn) opposed the seizure of power by army officers and the Free Officers spent years subordinating the civilian elite to their control.   Nasser spent years in frequent, and frequently unsuccessful, attempts to create a single ruling party.  The ultimate success of Hosny Mubarak in creating the National Democratic party provided him with a means to transfer authority away from the army and, he seems to have hoped, ultimately to his son.  The decision not to encourage a single majority party forecloses a possible repetition of that move but may have strengthened the concern of legislators to retain some independent influence over their electoral fate.

The civil administration has grown larger and far more important in Egyptian political and economic life than it was in 1952 even if it is arguably often over-staffed, less expert and inefficient.  As the Egyptian political scientist Ashraf el-Sherif noted several years ago, many of the bureaucratic institutions and ministries have become more autonomous since the uprising.  This may have begun during the long stasis of the late Mubarak era but it progressed with some rapidity after the uprising.  Institutional autonomy is reinforced by the increased personalization of positions including inheritance.  The children of officers become officers; the children of judges become judges; the children of legislators become legislators.  The mechanisms may be subtly different in each case but they also reinforce the need and the ability to retain some institutional independence if only to ensure that the children can inherit the positions and authority of the fathers.   In several well-publicized cases institutional closure has gone even further so that branches of the judiciary have refused to allow law school graduates deemed socially inferior to enter service. 

Egypt is not a democracy nor is it a liberal political order.  It may, however, be a mixed political system in which a powerful president is both sustained by and sometimes opposed by other powerful institutions that seek to retain as much autonomy as they can.  The set of political institutions that have emerged since the coup are more stable than many people think and can probably survive a transition to a new political leader.  To forestall such a transition Sisi will have to ensure the legislature and judiciary both agree to constitutional amendments.  But it will take more than simply amending the clause limiting the president to two terms in office.  It will also require amending the clause that forbids amending the limitation itself.  If there is indeed any desire among legislators and the judiciary to preserve their independence that latter clause is one they will have to hold dear. 

Jurists and legislators are now faced with a new challenge: President Sisi’s decision to invoke a state of emergency in the wake of the bombing of churches in Tanta and Alexandria.  There is not much reason to think that the legislature will refuse Sisi’s requests to extend the state of emergency.  It will be easy as well for legislators of limited horizons to cooperate against a judiciary that is widely perceived as self-interested, illiberal, and cruel.  The decline of an oligarchy nourished in the long years of Hosni Mubarak and that flowered in the wake of his collapse will not mean democracy.  Could it, however, lead to something worse than the present?