For scholars and many journalists, most non-democratic regimes look the same: they are led and designed by autocratic dictators—or sometimes by small cliques—according to the leader’s whims and interests. “Pinochet’s Chile” was often portrayed as the projection of the will of a single general, and the Chinese political system is seen as the operation of a few leading Communist Party members and state officials. Political scientists have taken great strides in recent years to uncover how dictators design systems and even use outwardly democratic tools like elections to cement their rule.

Nathan J. Brown
Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, is a distinguished scholar and author of six well-received books on Arab politics.
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Such images capture the futility of much authoritarian politics. They demonstrate how manipulative such regimes can be and how much they can use their own rigged procedures to deflect criticism: “we are just following the rule of law,” “we can’t interfere in the judicial process,” and “we have to bow to the will of the voters.”

Cynicism about such claims is justified. But the prevailing images can often mistake outcomes for intentions. Scholars tend to assume that every feature of a nondemocratic political system must somehow have been put there on purpose to serve the regime and it is their job to show how. Sometimes, however, autocracies emerge less by design than by accretion of practices; sometimes they work badly, and very often they are riven with rivalries.

The Egypt of President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi is certainly dictatorial. It tosses opponents in jail on vaguely defined charges, hounds critical journalists out of their jobs, represses demonstrations with murderous force, and uses legal and extralegal tools to police the political order. To use the term “Sissi’s Egypt” captures the reality of presidential autocracy—but also makes the regime seem a bit too coherent and efficient.

A year ago, we described the emerging legal and institutional order in Egypt as a system of “resurgent authoritarianism” being codified into “a way of life.” Today, the emerging order is clearer. Politically aware Egyptians increasingly describe a presidency that is certainly dominant but unable to pull all the levers of the Egyptian state with effectiveness and efficiency.

A set of unaccountable institutions seem to rule in an unequal condominium with the presidency, military establishment and security forces on top— with the sounds of rivalries and resentments within and among them sometimes escaping from behind closed doors— while other parts of Egypt’s sprawling state alternate between toeing the line and stepping over it. These institutions are very influential—when the presidency, the military or a security body wants something from an official institution, it will find allies and supporters within that body. These allies do not seem to wait for instructions and sometimes respond only to the general atmosphere when purging officials suspected of Muslim Brotherhood sympathies or changing a textbook to extol the role of the military.

While those institutions are clearly on board with the new, post-Brotherhood Egypt, they still work to guard their autonomy and often squabble internally about how much to do the president’s bidding. And they are successfully asserting their privileges—enshrined in custom and sometimes in law—to be consulted before any reform or change is made within their own ranks.

This pattern is most prominent in two institutions: the judiciary and the religious establishment.

The past year, Sissi has publicly expressed frustration with both institutions for not executing his directives as swiftly or decisively as he would like.

The judiciary struggles to assert itself

Yes, judges have meted out death sentences—sometimes with embarrassing enthusiasm. Yes, they have been largely on board with the suppression of the Brotherhood and have faithfully followed many of the authoritarian provisions of Egypt’s legal order. But Sissi has also found—like his predecessors—that some courts take their time, that judges as a body seem to protect their position, and that Egyptian legal procedures pack many surprises for the impatient. At the funeral for assassinated prosecutor general Hisham Barakat, Sissi criticized the judiciary for its slow pace in carrying out verdicts, particularly death sentences, declaring: “We will not wait five or 10 years before trying those who are killing us.” Placing partial responsibility for reducing terrorism squarely on the judiciary’s shoulders, he added: “we will respect the law, but we will establish laws in keeping with what is happening. This is up to the judicial authority.”

Why the frustration? Some judges are enthusiastic in their support of the new order. Many observers were alarmed by the appointment of Ahmed el-Zend as the justice minister, known for his strong anti-Brotherhood stance, record of rivalry with critics of the Mubarak regime and reputed ties to the security apparatus. But while courts issue stunning verdicts, overall the judiciary still seems to show an ability to exercise some independent judgment, and it insists on making its voice heard on matters that affect its structure and operation.

On July 7, the Supreme Judicial Council approved a hastily drafted counterterrorism law, but expressed reservations with several of its articles, including provisions that establish special terrorism courts, shorten the appeal process and a allow trials to occur without the defendant if their lawyer is present. The country’s most senior judges are lending their voices—albeit in a cautious and extremely limited way—to a chorus of opposition, coming from human rights organizations (including the state-run National Council for Human Rights), Egypt’s Press Syndicate and numerous political parties. The effect is real: one month after the steely assertion of presidential will, Sissi is still waiting for a law to sign.

Judges and courts have prevailed on the president to make other changes. The Supreme Constitutional Court successfully lobbied for a change in a system—ironically decreed by their own chief justice, Adly Mansour, when he was interim president—requiring it to rule immediately on any election law challenge. Such lightening review was designed to prevent the court from taking its time and dissolving a parliament after it was elected. However, it also placed a tremendous burden on the court, and Sissi felt compelled to revert back to the old system in which the court can take its time. Parliamentary deputies will have to take their seats knowing that the court—which has never found a parliamentary election law it liked— could dissolve it at any moment.

The religious establishment tries to push back…a little

Al-Azhar has been subject to even stronger scolding by Sissi. In January, Sissi called on al-Azhar clerics to pioneer a “religious revolutionsaying “You, imams, are responsible before God…the entire world is waiting for your next word because this nation is being torn apart.” In March, Sissi upped the stakes for Egypt’s religious scholars, telling them that God would judge them the harshest, as error in religion is greater than any other and thus, “the responsibility over you is bigger than anyone else.”

Some within the religious establishment—most notably the Minister of Religious Affairs—seized on the president’s call with alacrity, using it to move against those deemed as insufficiently supportive of the new order or supportive of radicalism.

Others felt that they were coming under unfair attack. The leadership of al-Azhar pushed back against the resulting storm of criticism in the press, complaining that critics were calling for it to do what it had long been doing anyway, did not understand what al-Azhar was, and were not qualified to lecture its scholars on religion. The institution did dutifully release statements condemning acts of terrorism, organize conferences, dispatch educational delegations and seek to highlight its existing (though glacial) curriculum review process—though these measures had been taken long before the president gave his instructions.

More recently, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Azhar, tried to spread the blame, lamenting that media, religious, cultural, and educational discourse was not collectively mobilized to renew religious ideas. In response, the presidency has tried to put al-Azhar into its place, releasing comments the following day emphasizing the need for it to continue to play its role in correcting religious rhetoric and eliminating false ideas to fight terrorism and extremism. Sissi himself lashed out at al Azhar for falling short of his envisioned “religious revolution” during the Ministry of Religious Endowment’s Laylat al-Qadr celebrations. “You are the one responsible for religious discourse, and God will ask me whether I am satisfied [with your performance] or not,” Sissi said, adding that, “the role of clerics is not to give speeches in mosques, but to spread peace among humanity.”

The presidency, the military and the security apparatus on top

Some of the appointment levers available to Egypt’s past presidents have been taken out of Sisi’s hands: senior Azhari scholars will appoint any successor to el-Tayeb; the Judicial Council will appoint a replacement for slain prosecutor general Hisham Barakat; the Constitutional Court will select its own chief justice after Mansour steps down next summer.

To say that Egyptian state institutions are riven by internal rivalries, jealous of their own autonomy and privileges, and often sluggish and divided in their responses to top regime officials is not to deny that certain officials and institutions are dominant. The presidency, the military and the security establishment still set the basic contours of policy. And while they cannot always get all other institutions to do as they wish, nobody can tell them what to do.

However, even among these central institutions, their short-term successes may bring long-term headaches.

The presidency has taken on very visible responsibility for Egypt’s security and economic problems. Already it is common to hear grumblings from leading Egyptians that the presidency has no strategy or vision. Rumors of discontent among key members of the military, business leaders and especially the security establishment have even made it into the normally obsequious press. The presidency may steer the state, but it has neither designed it nor can it completely control it.

The military has also built up its political and economic role in increasingly public ways and, in the process, has also increased its political exposure. It has secured Sissi’s assent for a series of laws issued by decree exempting military facilities from taxation and permitting the military and police to establish their own private security firms. On Aug. 6, Egypt plans to celebrate the opening of a second lane in the Suez Canal, dredged in part by the Egyptian military; numerous megaprojects proposed under Sissi’s economic reform plan included significant military involvement, though all, with the exception of the canal, have failed to come to fruition.

Meanwhile, the security establishment—the vast network of policing and intelligence bodies—seems completely unaccountable. Under previous presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, the head of state seemed able to play these groups off against each other, shuffle top leaders and make ultimate policy decisions. Under Sissi, the inner workings of the regime are invisible to outsiders. Although he has made some personnel changes in key positions, the security apparatus seems to be a machine running on its own, deploying its tremendous ability to monitor, harness, detain, disappear, and use routine violence. The security network is thus effectively setting internal security policy based not only on a perceived Islamist threat but also on a spirit of vengeance for how it felt scapegoated in the 2011 uprising. As state auditor Hisham Geneina (a thorn in the side of many institutions) openly stated recently: “They are like an injured beast that is taking revenge on those they perceive to be responsible for its injury. They are coming back with much savagery.”

Egypt’s Dysfunctional Dictatorship

Social scientists have learned to be on guard against what they term “functionalism,” the assumption that any structure or process reflects some need of the system and must fulfill some kind of role. They should deploy that wariness when studying authoritarianism.

In Egypt, the system that is emerging is dysfunctional in two senses. First, it serves the society poorly since the policymaking process is opaque, inconclusive and more responsive to selected institutional demands rather than popular needs. Second, it is dysfunctional in its own terms, with the system maintaining itself haphazardly. With the introduction of a fractured parliament—one that will be given the immediate task of reviewing the enormous body of legislation issued by decree over the past two years— by the end of the year yet another divided and often-ineffectual actor will be added to the equation.

Sissi and his aides will not be above using this dysfunction for their own advantage, telling diplomats that they are not responsible for or cannot control the Egyptian state. “Sissi’s Egypt” might last as long as “Pinochet’s Chile” or “Salazar’s Portugal.” But that will not be because it is well designed—or even designed at all.

Katie Bentivoglio is a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

This article originally appeared in the Washington Post's Monkey Cage Blog.