The déja vu state

Hardly anyone doubts that Abdul Fattah al-Sisi will sweep to victory in Egypt's presidential election on 26 and 27 May, restoring the old, repressive Egyptian state. In this essay, Atef Botros outlines why he feels that it is questionable whether Sisi will succeed and be able to maintain his grip on power in the long term.

By Atef Botros

When the Muslim Brotherhood assumed power, it used its new position and pre-existing authoritarian state structures to impose its ideological views on Egyptian society. However, due to its sectarianism, its disconnect with the population, its loyalty to the International Muslim Brotherhood Organisation and its greed for power and wealth, it posted no political successes. A lack of co-operation from state institutions may also have contributed to its failure.

Indeed, one of the best outcomes of the revolution was the lesson Egyptians learned from the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. In its quest for power, the brotherhood used religion as a tool. Under the banner of political Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood abused the beliefs of religious people, addressing their needs by launching ostensibly charitable projects that actually served as political bribes. 

Having ignored the demands of the January 2011 revolts and being satisfied with a partial democracy, the Muslim Brotherhood was unsuccessful in running the country. Furthermore, the only entity to which it showed respect was the army. As this was the only other authority in the country, the two made deals with each another. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood secured the army's privileges in its draft of the constitution – a document that angered many Egyptians.

Failure across the board

But ultimately, the Muslim Brotherhood lost both its president and the party's popular and moral legitimacy. This resulted in a series of protests that culminated in the demonstrations of 30 June 2013. Unprecedented crowds turned out to protest against the brotherhood's rule. This later became known as the "coalition of 3 July" and was led by the Minister of Defence, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. The military, backed by popular support, then took undemocratic steps: it ended the regime of the Muslim Brotherhood, arrested its leaders and used excessive violence that resulted in a large number of casualties and fatalities. 

The reaction of the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters to this seizure of power was severe, resulting in a number of attacks on security forces and buildings of state, as well as on Copts and their churches. And so, the Muslim Brotherhood was declared a terrorist organisation, and a war against terror was launched. 

Since then and to this day, the public sphere has gradually been transforming into a publicity machine that is powered by hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood and that emphasises the heroic role played by the army and its leader, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, who has become the country's new icon.

The situation reached its climax when tension between the stubborn and violent Muslim Brotherhood, with its excessive determination to cling to power, collided with the public's anger and hatred. It was at this point that the leader of the army was able to step in and assume the role of "saviour" in a heroic and dramatic play with a supporting cast that included the state and all its institutions. 

General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi casting his vote in the referendum on the constitution (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Ready to rule with an iron fist: Abdul Fattah al-Sisi (pictured above, centre) has said that democracy is a luxury. According to Atef Botros, "it seems that he is paving the way for the reinstitution of an oppressive, authoritative state. Sisi's government will seek to silence the voice of freedom, suppress the opposition, forbid differences and deny and disrespect human rights"

The media too joined the chorus, promoting at once hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood and reverence and veneration of the army and its leader, who at the time claimed not to be interested in leading the country. This song was also backed up by various state organisations, including al-Azhar (one of al-Azhar's religious figures claimed that Sisi is descended from the prophets) and the Church (which applauded the new leader).

Sweeping crackdown on all opposition

But the war on terror did not just target the Muslim Brotherhood, it also targeted any dissenting voices that opposed the new regime. Behind the façade of the state, a president and a transitional government, Sisi was the man pulling the strings. 

Using an aggressive publicity campaign, the regime demonised its opponents, in other words all those who sought democracy and freedom, called for the demands of the January revolts to be met, and openly refused the revival of a security state. The arrests and torture became worse than before. The police attacked the headquarters of the 6 April movement (a major player in the January revolts), and their activities were banned after rumours were spread that they had committed treason.

What was even more dangerous was that through its media machine, the regime succeeded in generating public support for these practices. Slogans used to this end included "This is not a time for freedom or human rights", "No voice should be louder than the voice of the battle" and "The priority should be the demands of security and stability." It was also said that the January revolt had been a conspiracy plotted by the Muslim Brotherhood and supported by Egypt's enemies; the true revolution was the 30 June revolution.

The popular rhetoric used by the regime and accepted by the masses promoted excessive nationalism, left no room for opposing ideas or opinions and focused on exaggerating the threat posed by "the terrorist organisation" (i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood) and its grand scheme to divide and destroy Egypt. These threats, so the rhetoric went, required an iron fist – a fist clenched around not only the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, but also around anyone who dared to dissent, anyone not part of their consensus, anyone who demanded freedom, justice and democracy, anyone who championed the "January revolution" and anyone who opposed the oppressive new regime.

Return of the old, repressive state

The old regime regained its vitality and demonstrated brutality to all those who revolted against it. In this atmosphere, the authorities of the state (mainly the military, the police and the bureaucratic deep state) managed to regain their popular appeal, having fallen out of popular favour after the events of January 2011. This was particularly true of the army, which attacked and killed demonstrators, singling out female protesters by exposing their bodies and by conducting "virginity tests". 

In 2013, the army was not only restored to its previous status, it even became a sacred entity. Because it was seen as the country's protector, shielding Egypt from the threat of terrorism and the spectre of grand conspiracy, it was above criticism. 

The fervour for a national religious identity that had prevailed during the brief rule of the Muslim Brotherhood now changed into fanatic nationalism. Instead of accusing those who challenged the Islamic political powers of being either faithless or anti-Islam (as had been popular during the previous regime), new accusations emerged. 

Atef Botros (photo: private)
Dr Atef Botros works at the Centre for Near and Middle East Studies a the University of Marburg. He is also a founding member of Mayadin al-Tahrir, a network for education and sustainable development in Egypt

Now, anyone who dared to oppose the new-old regime, criticised the military or its leader, or challenged the oppressive practices of the state was accused of disloyalty and traitorous espionage. It became clear that the regime relied on this publicity war, indicating a new level of collaboration between Egyptian intelligence agencies and the media. This collaboration became all to obvious when television news bulletins aired recordings of telephone conversations that smeared oppositional figures.

All of this was built on the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood and its political ineptness. It succeeded in generating strong public support for a stance that opposed the "January revolution" and its demands. This wave of support greatly helped the military to promote Sisi as the ideal candidate for the office of president.

Military man

The ground for Sisi's candidacy was very skilfully planned and prepared. First, there was a call for authority to be delegated to him so that he could deal with the Muslim Brotherhood. On 27 July 2013, huge numbers took to the streets in a show of support. This scene was replayed during the referendum on the new constitution. Finally, the minister of defence, who had technically ruled Egypt for the preceding ten months, declared his candidacy for the presidency, a move that was supported by all state institutions.

Abdul Fattah al-Sisi cannot be considered a regular candidate because his strength is not built on his political work or personal history, but on his position as the leader of the strongest institution in the state. Despite having officially resigned from his role in the military, he is not running for president as an individual or a citizen. 

He is heavily supported by the military, which in Egypt is a major economic empire that enjoys many privileges, benefits and exemptions and completely lacks transparency. He is also supported by sections of the old regime, by private for-profit networks, by a police force that supports torture and seeks revenge on those who revolted against it and by oil sheikhs, who fear that their fragile kingdoms could be infected by the freedom and democracy bug.

Fears about the future were confirmed when the general recently spoke to the media. He presented himself as a person who does not believe in freedom, which, naturally, conflicts with security. This is an intentional misconception to justify oppression. Security will not be achieved, and terrorism will not end unless there is true justice, complete freedom and real human rights. 

The new constitution states that there is a contradiction between security and freedom of expression. This is a dubious claim. But the general – shaped as he is by an authoritative, strict, military mentality – described protesters as vandals who were trying to destroy the country – and this, despite the fact that he himself asked the public to demonstrate only months ago, a move that gave him the legitimacy to counter terrorism. Sisi described those whose position is different to his own as being against the greatest good, the definition of which he determines himself.

No role for civil society

The general's words were a literal translation of the behaviour of the state since the dethroning of the Muslim Brotherhood. In his speech, Sisi did not mention any role for civil society. He sees the individual as part of the collective, a collective that he expects to behave like soldiers whom he encourages to fight for victory and warns not to deviate from the path that he prescribes. There is no room for an opposition or for parties that could shape a political space where difference is tolerated.

The Saudi king, Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz (photo: dpa)
The enemy of my enemy is my friend: the strategic partnership between the new-old regime in Cairo and the Saudi royal family in Riyadh should not come as a surprise. Saudi Arabia is fiercely opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood or, as Atef Botros puts it, because they "fear that their fragile kingdoms could be infected by the freedom and democracy bug"

As for his vision of women, he sees them as fit for the role of home-maker or mother/wife to the soldiers and citizens. The general has revealed his patriarchal streak and shown himself to be a man who takes pride in the role of the strong male who protects the female. But what is his position on women who exercise their political rights on the streets and in the squares? It is possible to answer this question by considering his justification of the torture of female protesters and the way he insulted them by carrying out "virginity tests" during the January revolts. As a further sign of what is to come, Sisi has described the Saudi king, who leads the most authoritative and backward of regimes, as the leader of the Arabs and their wisest man.

The general's speech clearly stated that he wants to close down the public sphere completely. This is apparent from his refusal to tolerate any protests or strikes, his appointment of himself as the guard and guardian of not only nationalism, but also religion and ethics, saying: "There shouldn't be any religious leadership. The president of the country is responsible for everything in the country, including its religion ... I am responsible for the values, principles, ethics and religion." 

He uses "security" as an excuse to run the country with the military that has raised him since he was 15 – the same military that claims precision, progress and the reliance on modern science; an institution that still promotes an absurd apparatus it claims could diagnose and treat AIDS and Hepatitis C, an idea that became the subject of worldwide ridicule.

Farewell to democracy

The future president intends to increase and emphasise the role of the central government. Such a state will interfere in all aspects of life. This will certainly damage not only the way politics and civil society works, but also the freedom of expression and the pursuit of personal creativity.

Sisi's plans, which seek to save the country from the evil of the Muslim Brotherhood, will take Egypt far from the path of democracy and freedom. The Muslim Brotherhood wasted a historic opportunity to play a mediating role between the supporters of democracy and those in favour of a return to a security state. They failed because they did not want to collaborate, preferring to rule on their own, excluding – and angering – everyone. 

The general will also fail in this role. He represents the old regime, a security state, and does not seem willing to compromise. Sisi expressed this with great clarity in recent speeches, stating that he considered democracy to be a luxury: "maybe its time will come in 25 years." It is already apparent that he is neither willing nor able to achieve balance within the country. It seems that he is paving the way for the reinstitution of an oppressive, authoritative state. Sisi's government will seek to silence the voice of freedom, suppress the opposition, forbid differences and deny and disrespect human rights.

A glimmer of hope?

The upcoming election will not be a fair one; Sisi's victory is all but guaranteed. Regardless of the challenges that face the democratic camp, a divided group without a strong political presence, there is an alternative. This alternative would break the pendulum motion that has seen power swing from the military to religion and back to the military again.

Perhaps the general's recent speeches and the fears they have caused will encourage people to review their positions in the final run-up to the election and to support the other candidate, thereby helping to create a strong opposition to the general's regime.

In short, there is still hope. This election is not only about Egyptian voters choosing between Sisi and his challenger. It is also about Egyptian voters choosing whether they want to live in the new-old state established by the military in July 1952 or whether they want to pave the way for an Egypt without generals.

Atef Botros
© 2014
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/