In the aftermath of Egypt’s July 2013 coup that ousted the Muslim Brotherhood President, Mohamed Morsi, and set the stage for the country’s current military-led political order, the regime of President ‘Abd Fattah al-Sisi has single-mindedly and ruthlessly sought to eliminate independent political life in Egypt. While the initial focus of the al-Sisi regime was the repression and eradication of the Muslim Brotherhood, the security establishment quickly pivoted to a much broader course of repression to include any and all independent civilian political actors or parties. The al-Sisi regime sought not only to destroy organized political life as it existed at the time of their ascension to power, but also sought to cripple the possibility of future political organization and activity.
In this, the al-Sisi regime reflected the primary lesson that the security establishment drew from the events of the 2011 Egyptian uprising, namely, that the Mubarak regime’s approach to dissent and opposition created the environment that led to its own demise. The latter years of the Mubarak era witnessed the rise of controlled opposition politics and the emergence of a semi-free press, albeit one that was forced to operate within certain red lines. The Mubarak regime allowed these developments to address the concerns of foreign patrons like the United States about the lack of democratization, while also creating a safety valve for popular discontent within Egypt. However, in tolerating opposition politics, the Mubarak regime provided opportunities for the growth of cross-party planning and relationships and created space for more focused opposition political activity. Such political contacts and activities clearly expanded the imagination of Egyptian political actors and created a framework for dissent and mobilization when the opportunity presented itself in January 2011.
In response to that recent history, the al-Sisi regime saw an opportunity following the ouster of Morsi to establish a new military-led model for governance. That model was predicated on a statist conception of political order that understood civilian politics as nothing more than a secondary line of support for the policies and priorities of the government. Constructing that new model of governance followed a series of steps that began first with the complete repression of the Muslim Brotherhood that began in earnest with the Raba’a massacre in August 2013, which witnessed mass killings of pro-Morsi protesters by the Egyptian security forces. Following the massacre, the entire senior leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood was detained, sent into hiding, or pushed into exile abroad. While Brotherhood circles continued to try to meet within Egypt, their capacity to function as a political force on the ground collapsed in the face of the ferocious repression of the regime. Brotherhood political life shifted abroad as the group’s cadres dispersed, with significant concentrations in Turkey and Qatar.
The stress of repression and exile has posed a unique challenge for the Brotherhood despite their robust organization and deep experience with operating underground. The result has not been the complete eradication sought by the al-Sisi regime, but it has seen the Brotherhood crippled domestically and fragmented and fractious in exile.
While the initial focus of repression was the Muslim Brotherhood and their Islamist fellow-travelers, the scope of repression quickly broadened to encompass non-Islamist opposition of all types, including some actors who had supported the July 2013 coup. In short, there has been no course correction since July 2013, even as the al-Sisi regime has continued its process of consolidation. Independent non-Islamist political actors who have sought to challenge the regime or contest elections have quickly been arrested and have ably demonstrated the zero-tolerance policy of the al-Sisi regime.
This paranoia has at times been seen as an expression of weakness and a testament to potent potential threats to regime stability. This analysis is often no more than wishful thinking in light of the fragmentation and despair that now typifies independent civilian political life. Instead, this paranoia is a testament to the regime’s unwavering commitment to snuffing out the possibility for future political challenges; the regime is committed to crushing political threats before they are allowed to materialize. This can also be seen in the regime’s intolerance for protest and mass mobilization. That intolerance has only been further stiffened by the unexpected and short-lived protests that erupted in September 2019. As the anniversary for those organic protests approaches, the Egyptian security establishment is clearly seeking to avoid a repeat of those events, going so far as closing cafes and blocking the possibility for public gatherings of football fans.
Alongside this consistent approach to dealing with civilian opposition, the al-Sisi regime has also taken a very firm hand in dealing with challenges from within the security establishment. While the inner workings of the security state remain opaque, it is clear that there is internal competition and friction between institutions and individuals. Such internal tensions have at times spilled out into the open, primarily through the attempts of former senior military figures, such as Sami Anan and Ahmed el-Shafik, to contest presidential elections. Despite their military pedigree and standing, such challenges have also been dealt with swiftly and in heavy-handed fashion. With the weakness and despair of civilian politics, the most consequential risk factor for regime sustainability arises from within the security establishment.
While vigorously enforcing its zero-tolerance policies for dissent and opposition, the regime has been keen to cultivate new sources of support through control of media and the establishment of co-opted and wholly controlled political institutions, most notably the rubber stamp parliament that has demonstrated no independent political initiative.
As it has gone about its consistent and ever-expanding course of repression, the standard of governance of the al-Sisi regime has been poor on almost all fronts. Alongside its unrelenting repression, the regime is also relying on the exhaustion of society from years of turmoil following the 2011 uprising and fear about the potential course of political instability, which has been informed and reinforced by other regional examples of civil strife, conflict, and war. The end result is a directionless Egypt, ill-equipped to deal with the myriad social, economic, and security crises it now confronts, and few alternatives in terms of ideas, policies, or thinking. This brittle and inauspicious political climate may endure, but it is sure to immiserate Egyptians along the way.