Has Sisi lost control over state repression?

Cairo, Egypt (openDemocracy) – Egypt is currently undergoing one of the worst periods of repression in its modern history. Thousands languish in overcrowded prisons, hundreds have been sentenced to death, and the use of sexual violence is unprecedented.

There has been a qualitative change in the nature of state violence in Egypt. During the years of the Mubarak regime, the state used violence and torture, as it does now, but its use was kept at a level that was socially acceptable to the urban middle class. A class that was largely immune to such violence.

Although the judiciary played its role in state repression, there was the appearance of the rule of law and due process; here the word ‘appearance’ is critical. Additionally, the methods of torture were less severe and less shocking to the conservative sensibilities of the middle class.

For example, the use of sexual violence was not as widespread. Now, it seems that the full fury of the state has been unleashed, with disregard for the old self-imposed restrictions that kept certain social segments largely safe.

This, however, does not mean that the Mubarak regime did not violate human rights regularly; but his ‘style’ of repression was more politically savvy, and targeted lower segments of society, which allowed him to maintain a façade of civility internationally and to the urban middle class.

The current levels of violence seem to be counterproductive to the stability of the regime. On the one hand, the regime’s international image has been badly shaken. Even though there is no real international pressure to halt abuses, it has become clear, unlike the previous dictatorship that hid behind the guise of a “liberal autocracy”, that the current regime is a full-blown military dictatorship.

Sisi’s recent trip to Germany, accompanied by Egypt’s superstars, is an indication of how concerned the regime is with its deteriorating international image.

On the other hand, this level of random and unprecedented repression has expanded to include supporters of the regime who have run afoul of the security apparatus, mostly for non-political reasons. For example, a lawyer’s strike recently took place due to a police officer attacking a lawyer. This situation forced Sisi to issue a public apology criticising the police force.

Control over repression seems to have moved from the centre of the executive branch of the government to its periphery, as repression has become an end in itself rather than a tool for maintaining the regime’s stability.

Moreover, there is evidence suggesting that there are internal factions inside the state competing for power, and as a result central control over repression has been weakened.

For example, there were a number of leaks from Sisi’s office that exposed the direct relationship the military has with media outlets, especially famous talk show hosts who played a significant role in ousting the Muslim Brotherhood. These leaks could have only been made possible with the cooperation of other branches of the security apparatus.

What is also quite unexpected is that Al-Ahram, the largest government newspaper in Egypt, and Al Masry Al Youm, an independent newspaper, both very pro-regime, have published investigations into the abysmal condition of Egyptian prisons, reporting some of the abuses that have taken place.

These examples, combined with the proliferation of repression on a scale that could potentially harm the current regime’s prospects, provide some support to the notion that the Egyptian state has fallen prey to internal struggles. However, before jumping to any conclusions, a deeper societal analysis may help clarify the situation.

Since the 1952 coup that brought the free officers to power, the Egyptian polity has been dominated by the military in one form or another. After military defeat in 1967, and the collapse of Nasserism as the ideological base of the regime, the role of the military diminished, only to maintain a role as the protector of regime stability, acting as the backbone of the regime.

In other words, the military retreated into the background, agreeing to share power with a junior civilian ruling partner, the National Democratic Party (NDP), in exchange for an extensive tax-free economic empire.

As such, there was a trend of power decentralisation, where the military’s power declined. However, the president’s position remained paramount. He had to be from the ranks of the military, and any clash between the president and generals always ended in favour of the president.

However, as the NDP became more powerful, it relied more on the police, which was staffed by allies, to counter the military’s power and provide support for Gamal Mubarak (son of Hosni Mubarak) as a possible heir to his father, against opposition by the military establishment.

The NDP became more populated by crony capitalists, who advocated for a liberal autocracy rather than military dictatorship, and used this to attract the support of the urban middle class, as well as the United States, in its bid for power.

This bid for power fragmented the Egyptian ruling class, which partially explains why the military initially sided with the protestors in 2011. It also explains the nature of repression under Mubarak’s liberal autocratic regime; a semblance of the rule of law had to exist and control over repression remained centralised.

The events of the Egyptian revolt and the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood have eliminated any trappings of liberalism and returned the military as the dominating power in Egyptian politics.

However, in the process the military has systematically destroyed any possible surrogate for civilian rule, both the Muslim Brotherhood and the NDP. The destruction of the Muslim Brotherhood has been well documented, but that of the NDP has not.

The military has not only banished the leaders of the NDP from politics, it has also aggressively expanded its role in the economy at the expense of crony capitalists.  It has also extorted cash payments from these businessmen under the pretext of donations to the “Long Live Egypt” fund.

This partially explains the reluctance of the regime to hold parliamentary elections; there’s a lack of reliable civilian allies to populate the assembly. Based on this, one could argue that there is a trend of power centralisation within the Egyptian polity, which could lead to tighter controls over the repressive apparatus of the state. However, a deeper look suggests the contrary.

Even though the military is now the greatest power within Egyptian polity, it suffers from a fatal flaw, which is its ideological weakness and poor economic performance. This means the regime has to rely more on coercion than consent to remain in power.

Under these conditions, the centre will become hostage to the periphery, and control over ‘enforcers of repression’ will become more difficult. If the police were to go on strike tomorrow, the regime would fall the following day.

Additionally, the military is far from being united; there are significant internal rivalries. The most evident of these is that of the general intelligence agency with other branches of the military; the former became very powerful under Omar Suleiman.

Omar Suleiman was one of the possible heirs to Mubarak. Even though he was a military man, he was disqualified from running for president during the first transitional period when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was running the country. Also interesting is that the head of the general intelligence agency has been changed more than once after Omar Suleiman, which could be an indication of the ongoing power struggle between the different branches of the military.

Moreover, there are men affiliated with the military who have their own ambitions for power; the most notable are the former prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, living now in exile in the United Arab Emirates, and the former chief of staff, Sami Anan. This competition might weaken the centre and affect its ability to control its agents.

There are signs for the reemergence of competition between the police and military, as clashes have taken place between members of the two agencies. Reports of police abuse are also very interesting, and suggest that there is a split within the security apparatus. All of this weakens the power the centre has over its agents of repression.

So, can El Sisi stop this infighting and regain control over repression? To answer this question, the presidency’s power needs to be compared to that of the military.

Based on Egypt’s current constitution, the presidency has been weakened and the position of the military strengthened. As it stands, Sisi can remove the defense minister but only with the military’s approval. It is important to note that Sisi, prior to becoming the president, was a member of SCAF and the head of the military intelligence. He had to step down from the military to become president.

Egypt brutality.  Image Source: Global Panorama, Flickr, Creative Commons

Egypt brutality.
Image Source: Global Panorama, Flickr, Creative Commons

Thus, the president’s power has been diminished, and with it, the ability to control the repressive apparatus of the state. This also indicates that the president’s traditional role, as a stabiliser of the regime and possible power broker, has also declined, weakening the centre and allowing for higher levels of infighting.

Written by Maged Mandour for openDemocracy.