Egypt’s brief dalliance with free elections after the 2011 uprising led, perversely, to the most authoritarian government since the 1970s. Under the presidencies of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, the country had started a slow and uncertain transition from the full authoritarianism of the Nasser period to a halting semi-authoritarianism: it had reopened the system to party competition, although it continued to ban the organization with the largest popular support, namely the Muslim Brotherhood. It allowed some, though limited, freedom of the press and of speech. It held regular multi-party elections, while making sure that only the government’s National Democratic Party could win. Opposition parties always had some representation in parliament, with the number of seats negotiated in advance with the government. Even the Muslim Brotherhood eventually obtained a degree of representation, either by inserting its candidates into other parties’ lists or by having them run as independents. This was done openly and tolerated, because the numbers were small and did not threaten the government. Egypt, like many other authoritarian countries after the fall of the Soviet Union, had learned to have its cake and eat it too, putting up a somewhat open façade while making sure that power could not pass outside the hands of the ruling establishment.
By the end of the Mubarak presidency the system was functioning smoothly. It was only threatened once in 2005, when American pressure on Mubarak to move toward democracy resulted in an unprecedented 20 percent of the parliamentary seats being won by members of the Muslim Brotherhood running as independents. The outcome frightened the US government into desisting from putting pressure on Egypt on democracy, and the Egyptian government and the secular opposition political parties into closing ranks to make sure that the Muslim Brotherhood delegation in parliament would be completely ineffectual.
The uprising of 2011 put an end to the somewhat complacent semi-authoritarianism of the late Mubarak period by restoring the dominant role of the military and security forces first ushered in by the Nasser regime in the 1950s and 1960s. It also reinforced the role of the state in the economy, relegating the private sector to a subordinate position as executor of projects the military controlled. Within two years of the uprising, after a short hiatus during which the Muslim Brotherhood controlled the presidency, Egypt had restored the authoritarian military state of the Nasser period. In the 1950s and 1960s, that model had inspired a generation of Arabs. Now it appears hopelessly anachronistic and is extremely unlikely to influence other countries.
The Free Officers’ coup of 1952 brought to power Gamal Abdel Nasser and gave an unprecedented role to the military both in politics and in the economics of the country, creating a model that had an enormous influence in the Arab world and more widely in the Third World. Nasser’s regime was authoritarian, but it also inspired Arab countries that were just emerging from various forms of colonial control and aspired to reassert their national identity and to catapult themselves into a period of rapid economic growth. In that model, the state was the dominant actor and the military was the backbone of the state. Initially, the model worked and launched a period of industrialization and agricultural expansion under state control. The private sector was not eliminated but reduced to a marginal role. Egypt developed an industrial sector, expanded the amount of land under cultivation by irrigating parts of the desert, and built the Aswan Dam, thus making it possible to bring electricity to most villages and also to cultivate as many as three crops a year in parts of the country. The system also provided free health care and education to the population and guaranteed that university graduates would be given jobs in the civil service. It also subsidized essential food stuff, cooking gas and electricity rates, creating a burden for the state that eventually became unsustainable as the population increased.
The system lacked a solid economic foundation and proved to be a house of cards. But initially it appeared to work well enough to be adopted by others and its legacy still weighs heavily on the region.
In the decades following Nasser’s death in 1970 the state continued to be a major force in Egypt’s politics and economy. Neither Anwar Sadat nor Hosni Mubarak attempted a radical reform of the system, but many of its features started fading. The private sector underwent a revival after the 1990s, the role of the military became more covert and the social reforms initiated by Nasser failed, starved of funds and undermined by the uncontrolled population growth.
The 2011 uprising paradoxically brought back Nasser’s authoritarian — rather than semi-authoritarian — system. The uprising was a movement for greater democracy, but within two years the military was openly back in control. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi tried to give the regime a democratic façade, but the attempt was belied by the role military officers, both active duty and retired, wielded. Egypt today is again an authoritarian military state, that sees development as the business of the state to be brought about through the implementation of ambitious big projects launched with little regard for their economic viability and carried out under the supervision of the military by private sector firms acting as subcontractors. It is Nasser’s state redux, but with two important differences: the elements of social reform of the Nasserist project are absent and there is no indication that Egypt is once again inspiring other countries. The Egyptian authoritarian model looks at the past rather than future. And once again it is a house of cards built on a weak economic foundation. Many of the big projects launched by al-Sisi, for example the building of a new capital not far from Cairo, are prestige projects without an economic or political justification. Egypt has been initially buoyed by support from Gulf countries, relieved to see the end of the Muslim Brotherhood’s control of Egypt and more recently by the discovery of natural gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean. Gas production is crucial for the Egyptian economy, but it is not sufficient to support for long unproductive schemes in a country of over 100 million people.
The revived Nasserist model is not inspiring a new generation of Arabs, as the old one did. Times have changed and ideas that were in the mainstream then have long been rejected. Egypt is no longer seen in the region as the country that defied the West by reasserting its control over the Suez Canal and built the Aswan Dam with Soviet help when the World Bank refused a loan. It is no longer seen as the cultural heart of the Middle East. It is now the poor cousin struggling to stay afloat with the help of the rich Gulf countries. Al-Sisi himself has no charisma.
But the statist trend is alive and well in the region, and the appeal of authoritarianism remains strong, even if Egypt is not the model.