Following months of speculation, leaks, and predictions, Egypt’s army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has announced his resignation, paving the way for a long-awaited presidential campaign. Sisi’s resignation, speech, and candidacy are unique in the history of Egypt. Although the country witnessed a coup d’état in 1952, it has never witnessed a quest by a Minister of Defense to rule in such a way. However, the latest development is a clear indication of the spectacular deterioration of Egypt’s civil politics, which has ultimately paved the way for the increasing involvement of Egypt’s military in “fixing” the country’s chronic problems. Many compare Sisi with Nasser, Sadat, or both, but in fact, the ex-Field Marshal will only be himself, a new brand of autocrat, still polishing and updating his style and his plans for Egypt.
To understand Mr. Sisi’s thinking process, it is important first to look back at past state-building efforts in Egypt, and the complex relationship between the military and the state, which can be divided into three stages.
Stage one: A growing army within a growing state (1952-1967)
The genesis of the first Egyptian republic depended largely on Nasser’s efforts to establish control of the military, administrative, and economic pillars of the state. By widening the selection process of military recruitment, Nasser transformed the relatively elitist army into a huge melting pot that absorbed Egyptians from various religious and social backgrounds, but Nasser’s authoritarian system mismanaged the process and his ambitions exceeded his ability.
Stage two: A severely weakened army that drained the state (1967- 1979)
The 1967 defeat not only revealed Israel’s military superiority, but also severely weakened the Egyptian military, which had become increasingly dependent on the civilian government for logistical and moral support. A special military public fund was established for Egyptian donations to support the army. Even the legendary singer Oum-Kalthoum toured the Arab world and France to promote donations. The state’s administrative and economic revenue was channeled to help the military bounce back, which, in turn, severely weakened central authority and limited its ability to maintain public services.
Stage three: Rebounding army strength in an increasingly weak state (1979-2011)
The military bounced back, mainly due to diminished defense requirements following the peace treaty with Israel. Ex-president Mubarak encouraged the military’s expansion of its business empire under the pretext of achieving autonomy within the state. He did this for two reasons: a) To prevent the shambolic dependency of the army on civilian resources that had prevailed during the early Seventies; and b) to indirectly serve a wide group of civilian beneficiaries who had been relying on the army’s low-cost products. This became increasingly important, especially following Mubarak’s massive wave of privatization and his abolition of various subsidies. The outcome was a mini-domestic interlinked military empire, albeit independent from the state.
On the other hand, despite 30 years of peace, the much-anticipated era of prosperity did not follow and the Egyptian state failed to bounce back. In fact, the legacy of authoritarianism, inefficiency, corruption, nepotism, and widespread institutional weakness that had plagued Mubarak’s Egypt continued unchecked.
Following Mubarak’s ousting after the January 2011 revolution, the military initially opted to court the revolution and negotiate with the civilian parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood. However, the turbulence of the past three years, the weakness of non-Islamists parties, and Morsi’s inept rule have changed the military mindset. Now the military wants to “fix,” but without taking direct responsibility for its mess by fielding one of their men, while securing their independence and exclusivity.
The military’s new attitude is popular among certain segments of Egyptian society. It is understandable that 30 years of Mubarak have destroyed any trust in the efficiency of Egypt’s civilian governing body. Framing the narratives solely on army domination of Egypt’s political scene ignores the extent to which Egyptians willfully accept this formula. We have to admit that many see nothing wrong with the infusion of well-disciplined army manners into the undisciplined central authority. They do not care about the army growing a business empire, as long as this empire benefits them too, directly or indirectly. In a TV telephone interview, actor Mohamed Sobhy explained how the army would find contractors who would offer cheaper offers, as well as disciplined laborers, which would hasten projects’ timelines.
It is easy to label someone like actor Mohamed Sobhy as part of Sisi’s new personality cult. That may or may not be true (I simply do not know). However, it is crucial not to underestimate the populace’s deep sense of defeat of the civil spirit in Egypt. Outside the social media bubble and the revolutionary circle, many ordinary Egyptians have lost faith in their ability to perform and save the state, and Sisi’s camp of admirers and backers is exploiting this defeatist attitude. Nonetheless, the origin of this sense of personal defeat springs from the much-confused Egyptian psyche, damaged by three years of turmoil.
As for presidential candidate Sisi, his moves from July 3 to date reflect a man who keeps editing his plan on a daily basis. He knows roughly what he is up against (mainly cultish Islamism), but he is unsure what he stands for, apart from a very basic patriotic vision. He is open to learning from all his predecessors’ experience, but he is also willing to discard their failed policies. Fashioning his new vision is probably his hardest task, one that makes his ousting of Morsi seem like a walk in the park.
Therefore, after nine months of upheaval, it is time for civilian forces to stop wasting time diagnosing the mess (we all know what is wrong with Egypt), or draw comparisons with the past. It is important to understand that the current military – civilian imbalance will never change through street mobilization or political agitation. In fact, these tactics justify the authorities’ ruthless crackdown in front of the apolitical public. As Amr Hamzawy wrote, we should realize that the transition from our current reality to a future without civil and human rights violations will take a long time. It is crucial for civilian forces to apply more rational measures to tame the current authoritarianism, and convince the future president to edit his plan in favor of more civilian empowerment. This is not an impossible task. Even candidate Sisi has not finished his final plan for Egypt yet, and growing, smart civilian pressure can make this plan less ugly than is currently anticipated.