“Is Egypt stable?”
I do not know how many times over how many months that question has been put to my colleagues and I at an endless number of panel discussions, roundtables, hearings, and meetings with our friends in government. It is actually a question more about durability—will President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Egypt’s new/old political order exist anywhere from one year to five years from now?—than stability. The intellectually honest answer is: Maybe, maybe not. That is about as wishy–washy as one can get, but analytically that is likely the best we are going to do.
On a number of levels, the stability—er, durability—of the Egyptian political system does not look good at all. Egypt manifests the problems and pathologies of a modernizing society: A middle class that wants more and that is afraid of getting less and less, an old elite determined to maintain its privileges, uneven economic development, and rapid urbanization. Add to this mix rising food prices, increased costs for fuel, rolling blackouts, crumbling infrastructure, a social safety net that became and remained nonexistent a long time ago, and a nasty insurgency. This all amounts to a witches’ brew of contested politics, instability, and violence.
How has Sisi sought to manage these complex and multilayered challenges thus far? Maybe it is because he is a neophyte, but so far not so good. Sisi rules with a heavy emphasis on coercion, patronage, and with little in the way of an authentic or positive vision of Egypt’s future with which most Egyptians can agree. If there was such a vision, the media and officialdom would not need to question the “Egyptian-ness” of those who happen to disagree with them, or absurdly accuse all critics to be Muslim Brotherhood supporters, terrorist sympathizers, and agents of the Qatari and Turkish governments, Hamas, Israel, Iran, and, of course, the United States.
When a leader relies almost exclusively on force or the threat of force, they invariably fail to elicit the loyalty of the population, thereby compromising their ability to establish political control. This was Hosni Mubarak’s undoing.
Since the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces sent Mubarak packing in Feb. 2011, journalists, scholars, and policymakers have tended to look at Egyptian politics through the prism of that event, and the massive protests that led to the coup d’état of July 2013. We have been on the lookout for the next Tahrir Square.
There is good reason for this, not least of which is the country’s leadership seems profoundly afraid of provoking Egyptians to take to the streets once again. I understand president Sisi is single-mindedly focused on minimizing electricity problems this summer, which coincides with Ramadan. You can understand the man’s concern: With average temperatures in the mid-90s (Fahrenheit), intermittent air conditioning that come with blackouts can only contribute to the misery and anger of hungry people, even if their stomachs are empty out of religious obligation. There is also the added exasperation of missing one’s favorite Ramadan TV show when the electricity goes.
Yet politics in Egypt is not just about “the street.” It remains to be seen whether president Sisi actually commands the state. It is pretty clear that the presidency, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Interior, the General Intelligence Service, and the judiciary agree that the Jan. 25 uprising, its immediate aftermath, and the Morsi interregnum were disastrous and should not be repeated. Beyond that, there seem to be institutional rivalry, political fissures, and efforts to make sure the narrow interests of each are ensured. These struggles contribute to instability, raising questions about the durability of the Egyptian political system.
All the signs suggest that Egypt is a country on the edge, but still I hesitate to say definitively that its present instability will consume Sisi like it did Morsi and Mubarak. It is true that the overwhelming majority of analysts understand that all is not well in Egypt, but no one can be quite sure if the country is headed toward another round of political upheaval. That is not because we are talking to the wrong people (though it is quite possible that we are), or that our assumptions are wrong (also entirely possible), or that we simply do not understand Egypt (we may not), but rather because uprisings and revolutions are, by their very nature, unpredictable.
It is also important to keep in mind that before Jan. 25, 2011, virtually everyone had a hard time imagining the fragility of Egypt’s political system. Analysts need to avoid falling into the same trap, but in reverse. That is to say we should consider the possibility that despite Egypt’s contested politics, violence, and repression, Sisi’s political order may be more durable than we imagine. To do otherwise would risk being surprised once again.