Yasser El-Shimy, teaching fellow, Boston University.
The anti-democratic forces unleashed by the July 3 military overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi are bound to continue with vigor, particularly as Field Marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sisi readies to get a promotion to the presidency. July 3 did not simply represent an end at gunpoint to Egypt’s democratization path, albeit fraught with flaws; it represented an end to politics itself. Sisi’s mission is two-fold: to consolidate a military-led political order and to embark on a large-scale nation-building program funded by anti-Islamist Gulf monarchies, managed by army generals (and some technocrats), and executed by labor working in desperate conditions.
Genuine pluralistic politics run counter to such ambitions, but the pretenses must go on. In order to secure a resumption of U.S. military aid, the procedural machinations of a democratic system will endure. Thus Egypt had a constitutional referendum, where 98 percent of the voters approved a deeply divisive draft (those campaigning for a “No” vote were sentenced to prison), and will have parliamentary elections in which the political group that won a majority in the last round is not allowed to compete. Washington is supposed to buy into this scheme, if it does not want Moscow to become the new patron for Cairo’s rulers. Egypt is not harkening back to the days of Mubarak’s dictatorship, to be sure. Hosni Mubarak, at least, went through the trouble of setting up a political party, and the inconvenience of allowing some space for free expression. The new arrangements lack subtleties, but with seemingly unending Gulf aid, such niceties appear unnecessary.
Military-dominated politics leave little room for dissent, with opposing voices now associated with either treason or support for terrorism. Human rights are an afterthought. The ruling generals see this heavy-handed approach as the only option to save a country rocked by relentless protests, plummeting economic indicators, and destabilizing foreign interference. To them, a nation with over a quarter of the populace living below the poverty line and a 50 percent illiteracy rate cannot afford the luxuries of democracy and human rights. Egypt needs order, not freedoms of assembly and expression. If Cairo is to climb out of the rut, Egyptians must follow the army’s plan, not debate its wisdom or feasibility, so goes the reasoning.
In the new-old Egypt, there is no room for Islamists. Non-Islamists, as diverse as they are, have a choice: play the role of Mubarak’s old secular opposition—cartoonish, acquiescent, and irrelevant—or be shut out. Some of them are playing along out of greed or fear; others are jailed or otherwise silenced. The drums of the “war on terror” beat ever louder, especially as many Islamists predictably radicalize in response to the repression. In a cynical way, the new regime’s raison d’etre becomes derived from fighting the monsters it has itself helped create.
As peaceful political participation and expression is blocked, other forms flourish, including protests, riots, subversive graffiti, and, more ominously, violent attacks against government personnel and facilities. This, in turn, further undermines an already fragile economy, fueling a downward spiral of economic underperformance and socio-political instability. An army-led economic revival may never materialize.
Some bank on a reconciliatory President Sisi to heal the nation, but, even assuming he wants to, there are reasons to be skeptical: 1) he is too polarizing a figure to lead such a process; 2) Islamists are too embittered by the recent events to accept a compromise; 3) his administration may need an enemy to shift attention away from the sorry state of the economy; and 4) his coalition of revanchist security agencies and Mubarak-era elites see no need to cede ground. Yet, because total victory is not in the offing, for the foreseeable future, Egyptian politics will remain violent, hysterical and unstable. Welcome to office, Mr. President.