( President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi- Photo via Daily News Egypt)
Egypt is in the midst of a perplexing era _____ a state of factional rivalry within a messy political polygamy, in which the main challenges facing its autocratic leader Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi are from his supporting camp, rather than from archenemies.
The State or “rival wives” (dawlat al-draayer, the plural of dorra in Arabic, meaning other wive) is the best expression that I have recently heard describing the current dismal state of affairs in Egypt. Imagine a man who is married to many wives living together in the same home. Each wife detests her rivals, but is unwilling to file for divorce. Each aspires to dominate and gain more privileges, willing to ignite mini-fires if necessarily, but quickly rushing to put out fires if they threaten the house as a whole.
Rivalry within any political camp or party is common in any country, but in most scenarios, competing rivals either fight for a decisive victory against their in-camp opponents, or remain dormant for a period of time waiting for a better opportunity to dominate. Not in Egypt. Following the ousting of Morsi in 2013, Sisi’s camp has been composed of factions that have endorsed him out of hatred for his Islamist predecessor Morsi. Endorsement was not out of genuine agreement with a common vision for a post-Morsi Egypt. These factions are fully aware that Sisi is now trying to consolidate power and build his own regime; therefore, they are currently waging an underground mini-war in a quest to consolidate a larger share of power within.
As H.A. Hellyer explained, “each part of the Egyptian state has its own establishment – the military, the security apparatus, the media, the religious establishment, the judiciary, the business elite, and the presidency.” Critically, the presidency has what Hellyer describes as ‘godfather’ veto power. Steven Cook has also aptly pointed out how “the current political environment reflects the all out power struggles at the summit of the Egyptian state pitting the presidency, the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Defense, and the judiciary against each other.” Egyptian columnist Mohamed Abdel Hadi Alam has hinted at this subtle war in his latest Arabic column “A nation in danger, ” published in State-owned Ahram newspaper.
During his journey to consolidate power, Sisi has made three gross miscalculations. First, like many Egyptians, Sisi has underestimated the gap between his ambitions and his abilities. He seemingly has underestimated the colossal task of ruling Egypt that many warned him not to take (I wrote previously how it is a huge gamble). Now the daunting task of ruling Egypt has started to tower over him.
Second, as an army man, he assumed that his civilian backers would obey his orders, even if they disagreed, just as if they were his junior military comrades. But for decades, the stubborn civilian elite has not been used to bowing to the army____ not directly at least, and is seemingly unwilling to bow now. The elite wanted the army to purge their Islamist opponents; not a challenge to their business and political interests.
Third, as an ex-head of military intelligence, he is a man who knows how to gather information, but he doesn’t how to discuss what he finds in the public sphere. His long silence about the reasons behind the explosion of a Russian plane is just one example. His thinking is apparent in his repeated mantra asking the public “not [to] listen to anyone else,” as said in his disastrous Egypt 2030 speech. This speech was described by the Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy as Qaddafi-style. In my opinion, he has the style of a speaker from the intelligence community, full of mysterious codes and hints, aimed at his own camp of “frenemies” as well as the public. That is why it came across as baffling and weird.
Many of Sisi’s supporters now regret their support for Sisi, but for very wrong reasons. They are not neo-democrats, but lazy moaners who miss the old days of Mubarak’s manageable chaos. Mubarak was in a way lucky. He had time to build his regime in an era when Egypt was poorer and had fewer business elite. This allowed him to pick and choose his alliances slowly, but carefully, while managing the already low expectations of the public. More importantly, Mubarak, unlike Nasser, Sadat and now Sisi was always aware of his intellectual inferiority, and his limited personal ability as a leader. As such, he worked throughout his tenure to lower public intellectual and political aspirations, in order to match his own.
Nonetheless, Mubarak’s regime was heading to a similar fate to what Egypt is witnessing at the moment. Yes, Mubarak was a master political hustler, but no one can maintain balance forever while performing acrobatic maneuvers. The current inter-institutional rivalry was already in place, particularly in the last few years of Mubarak’s tenure. Sooner or later, with or without a public revolt, this rivalry would have surfaced in the public arena.
Youssef Boutros Ghali, one of Mubrak’s ex-men, currently living in exile said, “I thought perhaps I was someone who could make a difference.” Ultimately, he admits, “I feel lucky to have come out alive.” President Sisi also thought he would make a difference, but his tenure, particularly year two has proven to be tricky and challenging. Joshua Stacher wrote how Egypt is running on empty. He added that if Sisi survives to fashion a regime, as falsely stable as in the bad old days of Mubarak, he will be a true magician.
I doubt Sisi has magical abilities, however, I am not sure that the end of his tenure will come anytime soon. This is not because he is good, but because of a lack of viable alternatives. On the one hand, his revolutionary and Islamist opponents are good activists, excelling in exposing his appalling oppressive policies, but are lacking their own politicians who can position themselves as credible alternatives. Egyptians are weary about another leaderless revolution that brings nothing but more uncertainty. On the other hand, rivals within Sisi’s camp are missing Mubarak, but have not found “another Mubarak” to market him as an alternative to Sisi. Their selfish myopia is a double-edged sword. While they can weaken Sisi, it has also weakened and discredited any potential rivals that can replace Sisi.
The current year, 2016, will probably be the toughest year in Sisi’s tenure. Whether he survives or not, Egypt will continue to face upheavals and more mess in the near future.