Ahead of the fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring, Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi arrested dozens of activists and journalists in an extension of a broader crackdown begun when the military took over the country in 2013. Sisi’s repression has left civil society groups fragmented and weakened; dissidents no longer pose an immediate threat to his regime. But there is a big difference between a strong state and a weak state using violence on a large scale against civilians to cover up its panic.
Indeed, the Sisi regime and its counterparts across the region are entering a process of decay, which they will not survive. Simply put, in an increasingly connected and digital world, it is civil society that will thrive against less innovative and technically impaired dictatorships.
The Arab Spring revolution laid the groundwork for a new political game in which the winner is the first actor to cope with fast-paced technological change—and the wealth of information and access it brings. During the Arab Spring, Egyptians at large made better use than regime forces of new tools for communication and collective action. And since then, despite a government backlash, they have continued to enjoy nearly ungovernable access to cross-border media and mobilization tools.
In contrast, dictatorships are increasingly isolated from their people and the rest of the world. Mubarak, for example, was easily overthrown after 30 years in power because he did not understand public demands for, at a minimum, good governance. The next president, Mohamed Morsi, continued in the same path—and now so has Sisi. Yet the public demands only grow louder. Two years ago, the regime closed down a satirical program run by Bassem Youssef that ridiculed military officials. But since then, myriad social media platforms have buzzed with similar satirical comments. (Most recently on January 25, two Egyptian comedians released a video in which they ridiculed policemen stationed in Tahrir Square by handing them balloons made of inflated condoms, with a dedication from the January 25 youth.) When the government cracks down on these platforms, new ones are sure to arise.
As much as Sisi might not like it, resorting to repression will only open up the Pandora’s Box of dissent and activism. Egypt imprisoned around 23 journalists in 2015 alone, thereby landing the country near the bottom of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ annual ranking. But some of those who feel in danger at home found refuge abroad. From there, they are able to continue to disseminate their messages to audiences back home. For every death and imprisonment, meanwhile, new activists are created—something Sisi must be well aware of.
The eventual decline of dictatorship is inevitable. That doesn’t mean, however, that civil society can rest easy. To hasten its victory, dissident groups will need to settle internal differences and make better use of public resentment.
There are over 40,000 registered NGOs in Egypt, along with countless unregistered ones. They demonstrated their power by overthrowing Mubarak and then, with the help of the military, Morsi. However, these movements have failed to dismantle Egypt’s deep state—the iceberg of bureaucracy under the dictator that includes the military, intelligence and state security services, police, judiciary, businessmen, state media, state religious authorities, and a large segment of the civil servants. The deep state is not new; it has existed since the rule of President Gamal Abdel Nasser and it expanded under the Mubarak administration. One of the deep state’s components, the military, had come to be seen as an authority no one could cross. But during the revolution, something new happened: it came under constant criticism due its involvement in civilian life.
Since the deep state has been the backbone of the country for so long, it cannot be quickly removed without shaking up the whole state. It might be possible, though, to restructure the deep state from the bottom up rather than from the top down, although that would require both counter-corruption initiatives and bolstering reformists within the deep state as they push for internal change. That effort cannot come from the regime. For example, Morsi, who was affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, attempted to both appease the military and add his own allies to the judiciary. He failed, not realizing how entrenched and powerful the deep-state forces really were. With the military rule, the real battle seems to be between the deep state and civil society, rather than Sisi himself and social movements.
But civil society could succeed where Morsi did not. The deep state is diverse, including both hardliners and a minority of reformers from across the political spectrum. For instance, the top auditor in Egypt, Hisham Geneina, has recently come under fire after he declared that a detailed study conducted by his organization concluded that the size of governmental corruption between 2012 and 2015 reached around $75 billion. When revolutionary spirits are high among the public, the minority of reformists and technocrats might feel empowered to lay the groundwork for better governance. In such a scenario, the removal of a dictator, although a highly visible signal, is just icing on a cake.
The problem for the moment is that spirits are low, and Sisi’s crackdown on civil society is wrapped up in a broader counterinsurgency campaign. With Egypt facing a bloody Islamist insurgency in Sinai, that campaign has been generally supported by mainstream Egyptians. As Sisi said shortly after Morsi was ousted, the people had given him a mandate to deal with terrorist threats. Back then, Sisi portrayed himself as a savior and a statesman, taking advantage of his position as the military chief. But after he assumed office, the picture has changed.
For one, terrorist operations are only increasing and living conditions for Egyptians are worsening. All along, it seems, Sisi’s counterterrorism program has had less to do with terrorism and more to do with handing power to hardliners in the deep state. For instance, several retired military generals have been appointed as governors, heads of municipalities, and managers of large state companies. Meanwhile, media outlets, run by pro-Mubarak businessmen, are stacked with Sisi mouthpieces.
In August 2015, Sisi even passed a new law that increases the government’s surveillance powers, imposes new restrictions on journalists, and defines “terrorist entities” in broad language that could include civil society organizations. An earlier law even prohibited protests outright.
To fight off another enemy—foreign influence—the government has also prohibited foreign funding for NGOs. Meanwhile, the government has spearheaded media campaigns portraying the organizations working in the fields of human rights and democracy as “Western agents” trying to “wreak havoc in the country.” Ironically, however, the government itself is a huge recipient of foreign aid and ideas. Over the past 30 years, it has gotten $1.3 billion annually in military funding from the United States. Egypt has also received a considerable amount from Gulf countries to enhance the military rule in 2013. Funds coming from Saudi Arabia go to the military, but also Wahabi schools and mosques.
Civil society has struggled to respond.
Despite all the challenges, there are still glimmers of hope.
In the pre–Arab Spring era, authoritarian rulers were able to cement their grip on power so much that they could even pass it down to their children. But they emerged at a time when the world was less connected, when they could more easily manipulate the public sphere through a single-party system, state-controlled media and religious authorities, and powerful security services. Authoritarian rulers were strong enough to crush any dissent.
In the post–Arab Spring world, no dictator can recreate the old ways. The forces of globalization and development have their own rules for aspiring strongmen. In the twenty-first century, the public has a more developed understanding of human rights, of freedom, and of free media—and people all over the world have higher expectations for their governments.
The Sisi government has not quite caught on to the new ways of the world. It is repeating the same mistakes that Mubarak and Morsi made before they were ousted. Sisi is bringing back Mubarak’s police—the same force that tortured the revolution icon Khalid Saeed to death. Reminiscent of Morsi, Sisi is limiting decision-making power to an extremely small group, alienating all other political parties and powers. Even the country’s parliamentary candidates were selected or appointed by the military intelligence service, Hazim Abdul-Azim, one of Sisi’s supporters, said in public testimony on the New Year’s Eve.
Bad governance increases public resentment, and new tools help the public express that resentment. Egypt’s civil society, however fragmented and weak it is now, has demonstrated the ability to translate anger into an action, learning, for instance, when to keep low-profile in a time of danger (like now) and when to take it to the streets (as during Mubarak’s ouster and the military junta rule in 2011-2012). Conventional dictatorships, including the Sisi regime, are centralized and hierarchical systems, with the military on the top and the security apparatus at the bottom. Yet, as seen three times in less than three years, Egyptian police have no capacity to face massive protests; the army personnel, even if against the wishes of the military leaders, has no intention of getting tangled in a direct clash with massive numbers of protesters. At the opposite end of the spectrum, civil society is horizontal rather than vertical, as some organizations are hit or closed down, many others take their place.
It might be too dangerous at the moment to come out in force, but civil society is quietly increasing in size and scope, and it has more connections and exposure to other experiences than ever. Here, the case of Tunisia might be key. Tunisia’s relatively smooth transition is attributed in part to its civil society; Tunisian activists were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2015. Young people are leading protests against the government’s failure to meet the needs of the poor. Such success and international recognition on the one hand and the ongoing struggle to pressure the government to pay attention to people with low income from the other is likely to give momentum to the same forces in Egypt.
For now, one should not put all one’s eggs in the Sisi basket. Egypt is still in transition—as is the rest of the region. The post-Arab Spring era is in itself a transition from post-colonial dictatorships to full-fledged democracy during a time of liberalization and the globalization of the marketplace of ideas. And that transition can only have one result in the long term: good governance and freedom.