Sisi’s Egypt, five years on

A piece notes the problems for President Sisi in Egypt with the 25 January marking the fifth anniversary of the Egyptian protests, “that sparked Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising, and the Egyptian government is on edge. Fearing that activists will use the occasion to launch a new round of mass protests, the regime has intensified its crackdown on oppositionists in recent weeks, arresting members of prominent revolutionary organizations, anti-government Facebook page administrators, and critical journalists. The regime has also taken its fight to the mosques, with the minister of Islamic endowments decreeing that protesting on Jan. 25 “contravenes sharia law, as it drags Egyptians into violence.” President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi provided perhaps the direst warning about the potential dangers of new civil unrest. In a speech in December, heaccused those “calling for a new revolution” of trying to “ruin this country and destroy the people.” Sisi is right to be worried — but not necessarily about the prospect of renewed protests. While his popularity has declined in recent months due to Egypt’s sputtering economy, another mass uprising appears unlikely. Instead, Sisi’s vulnerability comes from an entirely different source — from within his own regime, where new tensions have emerged in recent months”.

The writer notes that “Sisi’s anxiety about another mass uprising isn’t surprising. It reflects his intimate knowledge of recent Egyptian cataclysms and his perhaps inevitable fear that history could repeat itself. After all, he was Egypt’s director of military intelligence when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces responded to the January 2011 uprising by toppling then-President Hosni Mubarak, and he was Egypt’s defense minister when the military once again responded to mass protests in June 2013 by ousting the country’s first elected president, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi. That latter decision made him public enemy No. 1 for the Brotherhood, which vowed to avenge Morsi’s overthrow. But it also made Sisi a national hero to many millions of Egyptians who feared that the Brotherhood was governing Egypt into the ground, and it carried him to victory in the barely contested May 2014 presidential election”.

The piece mentions that “With economic growth slowing, currency reserves falling, inflation rising, and youth unemployment still soaring, Egyptians are feeling the pinch — and complaining about it more audibly that at any point in the past two years. For the time being, however, there appears to be little popular enthusiasm for another uprising. The experience of the past five years has made many, and perhaps most, Egyptians politically risk-averse, and the absence of any clear alternative to Sisi makes them fear that another uprising could spark significant instability. The severe chaos that has overtaken other Arab Spring countries adds to their sense of caution. Egyptians commonly point to state collapse in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq and embrace their unhappy status quo by comparison. But new tensions within Sisi’s regime could spell instability down the road. Although analysts frequently speak of the country’s “deep state” as if it is a unified and omnipotent entity, it is in fact a loose coalition of power centers that includes state bodies such as the military, intelligence, police, and judiciary — as well as nonstate entities such as the powerful clans of the Nile Delta, tribes of Upper Egypt, private media outlets, and the business community. And while these power centers often have competing interests (for example, the Interior Ministry and the military were rivals during Mubarak’s latter years), they unified behind Sisi following Morsi’s ouster forone overarching reason: They viewed the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat to their respective interests”.

Yet this compact seems to be breaking up, “In recent months, however, this fear of the Brotherhood’s return has diminished. With tens of thousands of Muslim Brothers in prison, its exiled leadership increasingly divided, and fewer Muslim Brothers within Egypt willing to risk getting killed at demonstrations, the organization no longer exists as a coherent entity on the ground. “We don’t hear much about them now,” a military general told me in November. “They create some problems … but they see no result from what they are doing.” Without the threat of the Brotherhood to unify the Sisi regime’s core power centers, latent tensions are now coming to the fore”.

The author notes the problems of Sisi with the business community and the dramatic arrest of a tycoon, “The problem, multiple Egyptian businessmen told me, wasn’t the fact that Diab was arrested — “we support upholding the law,” one told me — but the manner in which he was arrested. At 5 in the morning, an armed counterterrorism team stormed into Diab’s bedroom where he was sleeping with his wife, handcuffed him and his son, and then leaked the photographs to the press”.

The article adds that “There are also signs of tension between Sisi and the security services. While the security services’ activities are opaque, they exert significant influence over the country’s private media networks and are likely permitting, if not encouraging, the sudden upsurge in criticism that Sisi has faced in recent months”.

He gives the example of how “The tensions among the security agencies are even more apparent on Egyptian satellite networks, where specific security agencies are suddenly being criticized quite openly. In late December, TV host Tawfiq Okasha, who has long promoted pro-regime conspiracy theories, claimed during a live television interview with TV host Youssef el-Husseiny that Egypt’s General Intelligence Service and the NSS had turned against him after previously offering support”.

The writer ends noting that “Perhaps most significantly, foreign officials have reported strains between Sisi and the military. While the military might seem like the president’s natural base of support, officials attribute the tension to Sisi’s notoriously narrow political circle, which breeds mistrust and perhaps jealousy among other high-ranking officials. Egypt’s rising economic and security challenges have only amplified the military’s concerns. “[Generals] say that Sisi is isolated and surrounded by guys who don’t have answers,” one official told me. “They are starting to ask questions. ‘Why is Alexandriaflooding? Why are Mexican tourists getting killed? This is embarrassing.’” There are also hints of friction within the top brass, with high-ranking generals showing a lack of deference to their superiors during meetings with foreign officials. It is difficult to assess the depth or urgency of these intra-regime rifts. The Sisi regime’s inner workings are barely visible to outside observers, and even members of the core power centers find the current situation confusing. “There is definitely a power struggle,” one well-connected businessman told me”.

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