A year after Egypt's military deposed President Mohamed Morsi, a new regime is finally starting to take shape. At its head is the retired field marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the commander who toppled Morsi last year on July 3. He was elected president by 97 percent of the vote in a May election, which, although most likely technically clean, hardly constituted a real contest. After all, the most effective opposition movements had already been crushed.

In various speeches and interviews, Sisi has described his mission as repairing an economy devastated by three years of turmoil, preventing Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood from regrouping, and “restoring the prestige of the Egyptian state. The last phrase is key. Media and officials have used it repeatedly since 2011 to bemoan popular defiance of authority: activist protests that closed down Cairo for days at a time, labor unrest, attacks on police stations, and street vendors encroaching on government property. Only a state ready to wield power ruthlessly can keep Egypt moving, the logic goes. “He who is afraid cannot govern,” Sisi said at his first cabinet meeting. “There is no place for trembling hands. The field marshal has elsewhere said that “true democracy may need to wait 20 to 25 years, and that tourists, vital to the economy, would never come to a country with such out-of-control demonstrations.


Sisi's agenda may be to put the genie of 2011 back in the bottle, but he knows that he must adopt new tools and tactics. Former President Hosni Mubarak controlled Egypt primarily through the police and the ruling National Democratic Party -- what can be called a “low state.” Meanwhile, the military and judiciary remained a “high state,” standing somewhat apart in society. The low state’s job was to coerce and co-opt; over time, both the police and the NDP developed a well-deserved reputation for corruption. In contrast, the high state stayed aloof. The army and the courts were not expected to drum up loyalty for Mubarak among the population -- nor did they necessarily even like him -- but the government protected their prestige regardless, as did laws that effectively criminalized criticism of the military and judiciary. Until recently, moreover, the opposition has been more than willing to prove its patriotic credentials by putting both institutions on a pedestal. The generals and judges were still highly respected when Mubarak fell, managing the transition until the election of Morsi.

Sisi has removed the distinction between high and low government, bringing the army and the judiciary directly into his regime so that they can lend their prestige to his new system and use their supposed incorruptibility to keep other institutions in line. After toppling Morsi, Sisi named Adly Mansour, the head of Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court, as interim president. Since then, judges, who are supposed to be nonpartisan, have praised Sisi and attacked the Brotherhood. As for the army, it is busy managing much of the incoming financial support from the Gulf. Just one project is a $40 billion contract with the Dubai-based construction firm Arabtec to build a million housing units for the poor.

Despite some of his heavy-handed tactics, Sisi is trying to avoid the label of counterrevolutionary. As weary as most Egyptians are of instability, they still take pride in the fact that they brought down a dictator. Sisi has sworn in every speech that his presidency will be a continuation of both revolutions: the 2011 protests that topped Mubarak and the ones in 2013 that set the stage for his own takeover. For the activists who organized the January 25 demonstrations, many of whom backed the overthrow of Morsi but have since turned against Sisi, this is a cruel joke; the post-July 3 government, in the name of stopping protests, has jailed many of their leaders. But for much of the rest of the public, Sisi's claim to be the heir of that uprising is not so outlandish.

For many, the defining sin of Mubarak's regime was the casual abuse of power by a man who had ruled Egypt for 30 years: the millions in public funds he allegedly embezzled, the petty criminals deployed outside polling stations to ensure his allies’ victory in elections, and his promotion of Gamal Mubarak, his son, as his successor. Many Egyptians who voted for Islamists in 2011 after Mubarak fell describe their hopes at the time that "good Muslims" would resist the temptations of power. When Morsi mismanaged the economy and failed to contain unrest, they then turned on the Brotherhood, switching their loyalties to a man who understands the state but still seems relatively clean.


Perhaps in response to this public sentiment, Sisi has played the role of a virtuous leader quite well, ordering his cabinet to be at their desks at 7 a.m. each morning, leading a bicycle marathon to publicize the cost of fuel subsidies, and campaigning against Egypt's epidemic of sexual harassment. He has pledged half of his income and property to the state. Many compare him to another president, Gamal Abdel al-Nasser, who, despite his failures, is still remembered fondly for his ostensible public dedication and personal rectitude. Sisi's clean image is probably not entirely an act. He does appear to lack Mubarak's fascination with self-enrichment and nepotism. His children have pursued careers in the military and state institutions, for example, rather than in the private sector like Mubarak's.

Sisi's charisma can ease his first few years in power, but ultimately the regime's credibility hinges on whether the new power structure can bring the benefits that many Egyptians still expect: security, government services, and jobs. He has pledged that Egyptians will see a "better life" within two years. And despite public perceptions, when it comes to development, corruption may be the least of Egypt's problems.

If Sisi is serious about infrastructure investment, he will soon run up against the self-interest of his own allies. Government wages, subsidies, and interest on the debt devour the budget. Sisi has shown some readiness to tackle subsidies, particularly for fuel. But wages will be much tougher to reduce. State bodies were given considerable autonomy under Mubarak, and in some cases they have even refused to reveal their expenses to the central auditor. The treasury carries a heavy burden of hundreds of thousands of low-level public employees and top-level officials with inflated salaries (a top police officer can make over $300,000 a year, ministry insiders say). Meanwhile, the state is also expected to provide employees with services ranging from social clubs to hospitals to sports teams. A further distortion to the economy are the many advantages enjoyed by state institutions, which run commercial enterprises in protected sectors and have preferential access to subsidized fuel. And because state salaries are paid in pounds, Egypt's powerful have a vested interest in propping up the currency even though it costs the treasury billions and undercuts export competitiveness.

With the collapse of the tourism sector in 2011, it has taken over $20 billion in pledged aid from Egypt's allies in the Gulf to keep the economy afloat. Sisi is probably correct in his assessment that tourism will recover only when there is a perception of stability. Although he talks tough about cracking down on protests and terrorism, however, he might not have the tools for the job. The police sulked in their stations after their defeat in street battles in the 2011 uprising, as kidnappings, carjackings, and violent crime surged. They were openly insubordinate to Morsi. But even under Sisi, whom they support and who backs them politically, they are still in no mood to exert themselves. The police abandoned many of their outposts in the wave of violence set off by Morsi's ouster, and in some cases have not returned, leaving communities -- including a suburb of several hundred thousand within a 20-minute drive from central Cairo -- under Islamist dominance. In the short term, the security services can probably afford to leave these enclaves ungoverned. The Brotherhood has mostly limited itself to protests, which have generally been peaceful. (Some radicals, however, have carried out dozens of bomb and other attacks on police, mostly in Cairo, possibly in coordination with jihadist insurgents in the Sinai.) Deadly clashes have declined in recent months, but should political violence flare up again, there are plenty of potential safe havens for militants.


In addition to these handicaps, Sisi is also missing a ruling party -- a key channel through which Mubarak's regime distributed resources, assessed local grievances, and monitored the countryside. The president may simply be unwilling to designate any such power base. The NDP served as a vehicle for the opportunistic and the corrupt, and any institution resembling a successor could easily sour many on the new order. But lower-than-expected turnout in the presidential election may have convinced Sisi that he is not quite as popular as he originally thought, and that he thus needs political fixers. A number of parties aspire to the mantle of the NDP, but Sisi may find a coalition more palatable. Over the last two months, Murad Muwafi, former head of general intelligence, and Amr Moussa, former chief of the Arab League, have unsuccessfully tried to assemble an alliance of opposition parties to support Sisi. But those talks faltered, and the parties are now up in arms over an election law that, according to Sisi critics, favors district-based candidates over party lists, tilting the scales toward local power brokers who made up much of the NDP.

If Egypt’s high state continues to take a direct role in government, its prestige will erode. The military may have billions of dollars to channel into populist development projects, but it is not the most discerning investor. In February, an army doctor announced to a packed conference of the nation's military and civilian leadership that the military had invented devices that could detect and cure HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C, sparking widespread derision. The army had planned to roll them out for the anniversary of the June 30 protests, but at the last minute announced a six-month delay. The more the army does in the public eye, the more difficult it might be to retain its image of competence.

Meanwhile, the judiciary has, in the past three years, squandered its reputation for political neutrality, which it defended even under Mubarak. As recently as 2011, secular activists turned on the judges over their failure to convict police officers accused of killing protesters. The constitutional court's 2012 decision that dissolved a parliament dominated by the Brotherhood and its allies, whatever the legal merits, convinced Islamists that the judges aimed to thwart their agenda. The judiciary as a whole continues to jealousy guard its institutional independence, but this persistence only highlights how dysfunctional and partisan many courts have become. As the most egregious example, one now-infamous judge in Upper Egypt's Minya governorate passed hundreds of death sentences this spring to suspects accused of attacking police stations, while denying the defense a chance to make a case and cursing the defendants as "demons" who preached Jewish scripture.

Sisi may find his honeymoon period to be short. He has inherited from Mubarak an economy that is unlikely to meet the public's expectations, and he does not have Mubarak’s advantage of 30 years in power. In the waning years of the Mubarak regime, it had seemed inconceivable that the opposition could ever unseat him -- a mindset that disappeared in January 2011. By comparison with his predecessor, Sisi is thus on far shakier ground. Yet unlike Mubarak, Sisi has the active support of a greater array of state and private institutions. He may indeed succeed in restoring stability. But if he fails, because he has implicated these institutions in the creation of his new order, the social upheaval unleashed may be far greater than anything Egypt has seen so far.

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  • STEVE NEGUS is a Cairo-based journalist. He was Iraq correspondent for The Financial Times in 2004–08.
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