Egypt: Sisi’s Staying Power and Revolution, Regime-Style

If there is any lesson to be drawn from the movement of uprisings unleashed in December 2010 it is that nothing is predictable. The Brotherhood is in a bad way, but neither it nor “political Islam” are spent forces (whether it’s in analysts’ and academics’ interests or not); Sisi and the military who continue to form the backbone of the Egyptian republic have won for now, but his continued domination is hardly set in stone. When Mubarak stepped down, the army behaved as saviours and guardians of the people’s will, but some six months later revolutionaries were insulting them on the streets and things just went downhill from there.

Sisi has some extra cards up his leave to outlast Tantawi and Mursi in people’s affections – he has a big enemy to crush (Islamists, terrorists), he his facing down American pressure, he’s enabling the country to slowly get back on its feet, with a cooperative interior ministry that has refound itself after the ignominy of Jan 28, 2011 and all that followed. As for the Brotherhood, they ran in presidential elections after vowing never to do so, then the seemingly impossible happened when they won. Not only that, the military acquiesced in their victory and turned a blind eye to its violations. In other words: Nothing was predictable, nothing was permanent.

One of the more interesting observations about Sisi is that there is actually not much to him beyond warring against political Islam and promoting the kind of nationalist chauvinism instituted by Sadat and continued by Mubarak. His forays into the realm of ideas have involved pitting Islamist politics against nationalism – an argument that became fashionable in the UAE over the past year as a means of rubbishing the Brotherhood (they cleave to a foreign agenda, they are a fifth column, they are not loyal citizens of the state) and which advocates possibly got from Emiratis (it’s always been around but became more prominent). A couple of commentators have picked up on Sisi’s vision problem – Azmi Bishara on Al Jazeera and Fahmy Howeidy in a column the other day. Nasser had ideas and even his enemies inside Egypt developed a sneaking admiration for him from their jail cells.

Sisi’s reliance upon the Gulf could also turn people against him. Last year the Saudi embassy was besieged by Egyptians angry over the treatment of an Egyptian national in Saudi Arabia, as well as a general sense that Mubarak had been way too tolerant of Al Saud haughtiness – encapsulated in the slogan that spread at the time “Toz fi Jalaltak” (Stuff You, Your Highness). Riyadh is for now sold as enabling Egyptian independence in the face of U.S. perfidy, but it looks like Riyadh paying the army to reestablish the pliant Mubarak state. Hatred for the United States – which derives from different motivations with different constituencies in Egypt – is about all that’s holding together Sisi’s support base and stopping a backlash against a return to Gulf vassal status.

Meanwhile, interim president Adly Mansour’s attack on Qatar reflected the fact that Qatar has indeed not shifted ground since the former emir stood down in place of his son Tamim, despite a widespread belief that Doha had “seen the light” and acknowledged the wisdom of older brother Saudi Arabia. On the contrary, Al Jazeera has returned to the feisty oppositionalism that made it such compulsive viewing before 2011. Egypt is being presented in much the similar manner as the revolt in Syria in its first months; grainy amateur videos caught on phones show late-night protests down streets that the official media pretends do not exist, with split screens and valiant names for days and weeks of civil disobedience.

There is no reason why Egypt would develop into a civil war scenario like Syria or Algeria because it does not have the terrain that supports conflict on that scale. The Islamist insurrection of the 1990s – which was limited – bears some resemblance to the situation now, as the car bomb attack against the interior minister on Thursday suggests. In both cases there is reason to believe that the security establishment decided to provoke conflict in order to crush a perceived latent threat to the system (see Montaser al-Zayat’s Hiwarat Mamnu’a). The main difference in terms of possible consequences, however, is that the phenonemon of the suicide bomb is prevalent now under the banner of a virulent, uber-violent Sunni jihadism that did not then exist. Car bombing has become a sophisticated industry, honed in Lebanon and Iraq. We are now in the post-9/11 and post-Iraq era formed by Bin Laden and Salafi sectarianism. The violence could be more frequent and more bloody, but it’s framework is more likely to remain “low-scale insurgench” than “civil war”.

That the state is dismantling the revolution, while maintaining lip service to it, is clear. While Mansour was vowing no military trials for civilians the other night, several cases were actually in process. The interior minister and the prime minister have made several references to Jan 28, 2011 as a day of chaos orchestrated by the Brotherhood that was wiped away by the security forces’ performance murdering nearly 700 people on August 14, 2013. Without Jan 28, does Jan 25 stand up on its own? The state would have it that Jan 25 was an honourable day of legitimate protest against excesses of Mubarak’s rule – though it’s not inconceivable that Jan 25 will face public renunciation too – but that three days later the march veered from its path.

For many activists, to deny Jan 28, when tens of thousands met the violence of the regime with an explosion of anger against symbols of the state, is to deny the essence of a revolutionary moment of rejection of a corrupt regime. The denial suggests the regime is capable of reforming itself. Effectively that is the slogan of the moment – that the regime has gone back to Jan 27, has heard the people, sidelined the Islamists, and is proceeding with orderly change.

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