Can al-Sisi succeed where Mubarak and Morsi have failed?
The Arab state is therefore often violent because it is weak.” This line from Over-Stating the Arab State by the Egyptian scholar Nazih Ayubi perfectly illustrates the situation in Egypt today. Recently, an Egyptian court sentenced 529 Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death for the killing of one police officer. It came as a shock to many Egyptians, including those who had protested against the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in June 2013. The decision shows the weakness of state institutions, manifested in random violence. Since the ousting of Mohammed Morsi in July 2013, the interim authority has failed to offer an alternative political path for Egypt’s transition, and has returned to using coercive measures to silence its opponents.
This violently weak state is a threat to any new political regime. It has turned a large part of Egyptian society against its two former presidents, Hosni Mubarak and Morsi. Massive popular mobilisations, followed by military intervention, forced both to leave office before finishing their term. The deterioration in the state’s ability to provide basic services to Egyptian society, whether it was health, education or transportation, undermined the legitimacy of the Mubarak regime in its last years. When this deterioration also reached the security sector, it contributed to the fall of the regime. The death of 28-year-old Khaled Said in June 2010, who was arrested and beaten by the police, sparked a wave of anger among the youth. They took to the streets six months later to bring down the Mubarak regime.
The incident underlined the randomness of the security forces, which had moved away from repressing opposition to the regime to killing innocent people. Said was no threat to the Mubarak regime, but his killing sent a message to the youth that being apolitical is not enough to save your life. This was a motivating factor behind the demonstrations of January 2011.
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When Morsi came to power in June 2012, he expressed his intention to reform state institutions, including the security sector. However, instead of reforming them, he tried to control them by appointing members of the Muslim Brotherhood to key positions. The resistance of the state bureaucracy prevented him from gaining full control over these institutions, and his failure to ameliorate state services turned a large part of his constituency against him. While the Muslim Brotherhood accused the “deep state” of conspiring against the president, what Morsi faced was not a deep but a weak state, the same weak state that brought down the Mubarak regime. Certain state institutions were unhappy with the Muslim Brotherhood in power. Other state institutions were simply unable to deliver basic services, exactly as it had transpired under the Mubarak regime.
Thus, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s stress on reforming state institutions, in the speech declaring his candidacy for the post of president, came as no surprise. But could al-Sisi succeed where Mubarak and Morsi failed? While the state is weak in its hold on society, its bureaucrats are strong vis-à-vis the political dispensation. They often manage to prevent political attempts to reform their institutions. Even under Mubarak, the regime failed to introduce changes to the bureaucracy to serve his economic policies. Instead, it tried to create parallel structures within certain ministries to help to implement the tasks needed for its policies.
Al-Sisi would have to create a wide ruling coalition of democratic forces and youth groups in order to put pressure on state incumbents to accept institutional reforms. However, two obstacles prevent him from following this course. First, many youth groups who went against the Muslim Brotherhood in June 2013 are sceptical of al-Sisi’s candidacy, fearing it might bring back the old regime. Second, the state institutions that need to be reformed radically are al-Sisi’s allies in his “war against terror”, like the security sector. Al-Sisi’s dilemma lies in the fact that keeping state institutions without reforming them means he will follow the same path as Mubarak and Morsi, while reforming them will oblige him to widen his ruling coalition to include youthful and democratic forces, and to abandon the discourse of a war on terror. A shift that seems difficult for him to adopt in the current climate.
The writer is with the Arab forum for alternatives and the European University in Florence