Sisi’s Military Maintains Power in a Fragmented Egypt

Supporters of al-Sisi gather in Tahrir square during the celebration of the October War's 40th anniversary. Cairo, October 6, 2013. (El Sharnoubi/Flickr)

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has a clear political philosophy. He wants to strengthen the state and eliminate its opponents. For many Egyptians, this openly nationalistic rhetoric is welcome. Political contestation and associated civil unrest, the threat of terrorism, and a severe economic downturn have severely affected the Egyptian polity in recent years and increased the public’s demand for leadership capable of meeting the country’s multifaceted challenges. This basic dynamic of modern day Egypt is portrayed regularly through state-run, and some foreign, media outlets. Yet if one delves deeper, there is clearly more at play.

Egypt’s modern history has been dominated by one group: the military. This powerful institution came to prominence following the overthrow of the King Farouk regime by the nationalist Free Officers in 1952. Successive presidents from Gamal Abdel Nasser to Hosni Mubarak were also, at one time, senior members of the military. This dominance has also emerged outside of the political realm. The military is heavily intertwined with key business sectors and industry in Egypt. It runs factories, provides services, and has a vast portfolio of property. It is interested in control and stability.

This stability was severely undermined during the events of the Arab Spring in 2011 when a new challenger emerged in the form of political Islam and its champion, the Muslim Brotherhood. The threat turned to potential crisis for the military when Islamist parties, including the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, dominated the legislative election in 2011-12 and an Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, was elected and took office in mid-2012. The long-time challenger of the military-dominated state had taken power in dramatic fashion.

However, the military was not the only party opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood. Secular, socialist, liberal, militant football supporters, and Coptic Christian groups, many of whom were involved in the protests that led to the ousting of Mubarak in 2011, distrusted the Brotherhood and feared that “their” 2011 revolution, which cost so many lives, was being threatened. Specifically, these groups were concerned about the actual or perceived Islamization of the state, particularly following the redrafting of the constitution by an Islamist-dominated assembly in 2012. It was these concerns, combined with fuel and electricity shortages—allegedly partially influenced by the military—that sparked countrywide protests against Morsi and the Islamist government in June 2013, allowing the military to intervene and assume power shortly thereafter, to much fanfare.

Since then, the military, through an interim administration, and then under al-Sisi, has again come to dominate Egyptian politics. In addition to revising the constitution in January 2014, the military-backed authorities have clamped down on the Islamist opposition. Morsi remains in jail, and thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters are incarcerated or have fled Egypt. The Brotherhood, now designated a terrorist organization and effectively banned from politics, continues to hold regular protests against the regime. However, since the August 2013 military-initiated clampdown on protest sites in Cairo, Giza, and other major urban centers—which left as many as 1,000 people dead—the frequency of this has decreased significantly.

The reaction of Egypt’s allies and neighbors to the recent events has been surprisingly passive. Following the military takeover in 2013, standard condemnations occurred. The African Union suspended Egypt from the regional body, but a year later it was allowed back in. Egypt’s main international ally, the United States, has also resumed cooperation with the country, and Qatar has begun developing closer ties with the Egyptian military and distanced itself from the Muslim Brotherhood, its one-time ally. In 2015, during the anniversary of the 2011 initiation of anti-government demonstrations, protests were once again violently dispersed by the military, with as many as 25 people killed. The international community’s largely muted response to these events, and in subsequent days, was telling.

How then have al-Sisi and the military managed to sidestep international criticism and suppress domestic opposition? Firstly, the regime has effectively positioned itself as a counterweight to Islamist extremism in the Middle East and North Africa. The rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and its affiliates in Egypt and other North African states has emerged as a direct security risk to regional and Western states. The need for these countries to work with regimes that are opposed to extremism, such as Egypt’s, has trumped concerns over democratic principles and practices. The Egyptian regime has used this global threat to its advantage. It has presented itself as being on the frontlines of the war on terrorism—most recently in the face of ISIS’ murder of Egyptian citizens in Libya, which prompted al-Sisi to authorize a swift military response, and more commonly in its own North Sinai governorate against ISIS and al-Qaeda-aligned militant groups. But Egypt has also, not so subtly, drawn links between the domestic Islamist political opposition and extremism.

Beyond the Sinai, the regime has played up its role in the fight against domestic terrorism—a fight partially instigated by the military when it overthrew the Islamist government. Egypt has experienced a spike in acts of low-level violence since 2013, including bomb attacks against state facilities and personnel. These attacks, largely connected to youth supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, have further heightened domestic anxiety and raised anti-Islamist sentiment, thus supporting the regime’s propaganda campaign. Furthermore, the spike in violence, together with statements by Brotherhood-linked clerics calling for the assassination of al-Sisi, has not endeared the group to the international community or the Egyptian public.

This developing narrative, in which the Egyptian military is the defender of the nation against the Islamist enemy, has certainly gained some traction, but there is a risk that it may be wearing thin. It is important to remember that in addition to support for the Muslim Brotherhood among recipients of its long-established charitable works at a grassroots level, the Brotherhood and its political allies obtained the approval of a vast percentage of the electorate in elections held in 2011 and 2012. While Islamist protests may have decreased in frequency and size, it would be inaccurate to say the Muslim Brotherhood has lost a significant amount of support. Rather, it is the regime crackdown on its leadership and organizational structure and the Brotherhood’s recent restructure and increased focus on charity and preaching that has resulted in a lower public demonstration of support.

In addition to this latent pool of opposition, many non-Islamist supporters of the 2013 military intervention are also increasingly turning away from the regime. In addition to the Brotherhood’s anticipated boycott of the legislative elections due in March and April, a number of other parties have called for a boycott, citing “oppressive” laws such as the protest law instituted in 2013 to stifle dissent, and the continued detention of thousands of activists. At the time of writing, the list of parties that had announced boycotts of the elections included the Salafi Watan Party, the liberal al-Dostor Party of former vice president Mohammad ElBaradei, and the Socialist Popular Alliance Party. The list may grow larger in the coming weeks.

Egypt is clearly fragmented and conditions are ripe for another surge in street-level civil unrest. However, it remains unlikely that the current regime, supported by the military, will lose power in the short term. The Muslim Brotherhood is scattered and demoralized and the increasing insurgent-like activity of a part of its radical youth base has only begun to seriously challenge the state and is no more than a nuisance at present. The other opposition parties diverge sharply in ideology and there is no clear unifying voice or position. Should the military “manage” the legislative election in March and April to achieve the desired result—as it allegedly did during the constitutional referendum in January 2014 and presidential election in May 2014—and continue to stifle opposition across the board, opposition groups may once again be forced to come together, as they did against Mubarak in 2011.

In the interim, the regime is seeking to improve the economy through national projects such as the New Suez Canal and road network upgrade. These are designed to boost the economy, raise national morale, and improve the image of the regime. Should these projects succeed, the regime may well buy some time. On the other hand, their failure could deal a body blow to the military’s influence and the government’s success, and precipitate another wave of protests.