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Five years ago, the leaders of Egypt’s protest movement shocked themselves by successfully bringing down President Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power since before many of them were born. In those days, it was not unusual to hear talk of a new dawn for Egyptian politics and the Arab world. It is difficult to find many leaders of that movement who are so cheerful today. And their disappointment is broadly shared in academic, policy, and media circles around the world. Young and disaffected Egyptians, the story goes, revolted against a stultified regime and demanded a democratic government, a freer society, and more economic rights. They won the battle but lost the war, as the military, initially along with the Muslim Brotherhood and later without it, gained the upper hand and defeated the revolutionaries.
But there is a very different way to tell the story of 2011. This tale is not one of high but disappointed hope, but one of threatened chaos and rescue. From the perspective of Egypt’s security institutions—its military, police, and intelligence forces—the uprising threatened to bring down not only Egypt’s president but its entire social and political order. Averting such an outcome was an arduous task, one that the Egyptian armed forces still see themselves as undertaking.
In January 2011, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)—a long-standing military body that eventually led the interim government after Mubarak was ousted and before Mohamed Morsi was elected—did, in fact, share some of the protesters’ grievances, including outright opposition to Mubarak’s attempts to pass the presidency on to his son Gamal, a civilian, and discontent with the growing powers of the Interior Ministry in the political system. In fact, soon after the protests began, the military leaned on the aging president to remove his son and his close associates from their ruling party positions. Habib el-Adli, a Mubarak ally and powerful minister of interior, was relieved of his duties as well. Finally, as the revolt picked up momentum, the SCAF ousted Mubarak, a former air force general who had ruled Egypt for three decades.
Egypt’s military has traditionally seen itself as a guardian of the nation: in other words, it believed it had both a right and a duty to get rid of government figures who had become illegitimate. Despite long-standing personal and institutional ties to the president and to his constitutional order, the SCAF found a higher calling in protecting core national interests, including stemming the tide of labor strikes that had reached military-run facilities and threatened to paralyze the economy, restoring law and order in the face of rampant criminality, defending Cairo’s finances in light of a substantial drop in tourism and foreign investment revenues, and forestalling the kind of civil war that would soon break out in Libya and Syria. Egypt, the generals understood, had approximately 90 million citizens, half of whom were near the poverty line. More disturbing, they believed, was that the regional unrest bore the traces of a foreign-inspired plot to destabilize Egypt and the Middle East; they constituted the last line of defense.
Also guiding the SCAF’s decision to step in was the fact that since the 1952 coup against the monarchy, the Egyptian military had always played a prominent role in building, and at times managing, the political system. In the 1950s and 1960s, it shared responsibility for governance with the presidency and cabinet. Defeat in the 1967 war with Israel forced the generals to take a step back from day-to-day matters. But it also relieved them of responsibility for most of Egypt’s problems and allowed them to maintain autonomy from civilians. It was a happy compromise not only for Egypt’s rulers, who no longer had to look over their shoulders in constant fear of a coup, but also for the army. Generals could focus on defense and procurement of arms and economic lifelines, while leaving the president, who invariably hailed from within their ranks, to tend to governance and politics. In 2011, however, Mubarak proved himself an unsteady pillar on which to rely—and he was sent packing.
In the first stage after the revolution, the SCAF hoped to play the role of guardian; it would rule the country through decrees and unilateral constitutional declarations but still maintain a civilian government that enjoyed relatively significant autonomy in health care, education, and infrastructure. More ambitiously, the SCAF worked toward introducing free elections and allowing Islamist political participation. The idea seemed to have been to create a system of “competitive authoritarianism,” which the authors Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way have described as pluralism without democracy. For Egypt’s generals, competitive authoritarianism would have ideally produced a hung and weakened parliament, a president with a military background, and institutionalized autonomy for the SCAF. Had this effort succeeded, the military would have reasserted its authority as an aloof guardian over an internally stable and internationally accepted pseudo-democratic façade.
The military saw no choice but to assume the task it had wished to avoid all along: ruling and governing at the same time.
But the generals proved unable to steer outcomes, and the strategy went awry. The parliamentary elections of 2011–12 produced a decisively Islamist parliament with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party taking the lion’s share of the seats, followed only by the more fundamentalist Salafists. Likewise, the hopes for a return to the tradition of the officer-presidentwere quickly dashed when the Brotherhood’s second-choice candidate, Mohamed Morsi, edged out the retired air force general Ahmed Shafiq in a hard-fought contest. Morsi soon moved to strip away the SCAF’s legislative authority and even replace the minister of defense with the director of military intelligence, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Contrary to talks of an alliance between these erstwhile enemies, the Brotherhood had effectively launched an ill-fated attempt to tame the generals. Although in 2012 the rivalry appeared latent (and the Brotherhood acted as if it had the time and the ability to manage the relationship), the generals were already girding to reassert their primacy.
At every step along the way, in fact, the military fought back. When the parliament proved unwieldy, the Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved it—and the SCAF made sure the ruling stuck. When it became obvious that Morsi would be the next president, the SCAF issued a constitutional declaration circumscribing the powers of his office and augmenting its own. Finally, the suspicion that the Brotherhood would eventually move for civilian control over the armed forces led the security bodies to encourage protests, and the president was overthrown.
The failure to squeeze Egyptian politics into the military’s box, in addition to the Muslim Brotherhood’s own jarringly clumsy political touch, left the military seeing no choice but to assume the task it had wished to avoid all along: ruling and governing at the same time. Indeed, in July 2013, when Sisi declared that Morsi was no longer president, Egypt’s prospects looked dim: the economy was flirting with disaster (foreign currency reserves were less than three months’ worth of imports), society was deeply polarized (with the president’s proponents and opponents frequently engaged in street battles), the Sinai Peninsula was rocked by terrorist attacks, and neighboring countries were imploding. To the military, the only option seemed to be to rescuing the country from catastrophic collapse by imposing order, whatever the cost.
It is easy—and not without merit—to describe Egypt’s political system today as a restoration of Mubarak-era autocracy. But that does not go far enough. Repression is now far more extensive. In that sense, the proper historical parallel might be the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egyptian president from 1956 until his death in 1970. Under the Nasserist system, only one political party was allowed, the Muslim Brotherhood was harshly repressed, and political dissent of any ideological slant was heavily policed and monitored. The press was nationalized and tightly controlled, professional associations brought to heel, and military and security officials sprinkled throughout key state positions. The Nasserist period encouraged political activity, but only to the extent that it supported the regime. Egypt’s current political system is based on a similar level of repression at the hands of a ruling army.
Yet Sisi is not presiding over a simple re-creation of Nasserism, either. There is no sole political party to marshal everybody to the beat of the same drum. There are no mass rallies to garner popular support—the regime did call Egyptians out to the streets when it faced down the Islamists in 2013, but since then it has told them to get back to work. There is no ideology such as existed in the Nasser years, only a vague nationalism that invites people to support their leaders while giving them little idea where such figures wish to lead their society.
In that sense, the current Egyptian regime bears more resemblance to the stodgy authoritarianism of southern Europe and Latin America in the mid–twentieth century than to the ebullient nationalism of the Nasser era. Politics is something to be minimized and tolerated within very narrow bounds; most important decisions should be left to specialized (and unaccountable) state institutions. In the military’s view, Egypt has not met the fate of Syria or Libya, and that by itself is an accomplishment worth celebrating. Politics should and must wait.