Despite the original hope that the Arab Spring brought to Egypt, authoritarian rule is back under Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. Egypt’s democracy did not survive, but is all hope lost? Find out more when you subscribe to World Politics Review (WPR).
In November 2016, Egypt’s major cities experienced something that had become rare since a military coup led by then-General—and now President—Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi in July 2013: protests. In the streets and at universities in Cairo, Alexandria and Port Said, Egyptians took great risks in sight of the police to gather and demonstrate against price hikes and bread shortages.
Until then, the country had appeared to have settled into a period of relative calm. Five years after the Arab Spring uprising that brought down former President Hosni Mubarak, and three years following the coup that felled his democratically elected successor, Mohamed Morsi, the country had seemed to succumb to the fatigue of years of political turmoil and the return of a dictatorship emboldened by international support.
The bread protests were a manifestation of deeper strains. Economic mismanagement, exacerbated by the military’s oversized role in the civilian economy, has long produced difficulties for the poor, and the regime and its opponents alike recognize the need for radical changes. To make matters worse, the threat of militant extremism had steadily risen over the previous three years across Egypt, combining with the country’s economic woes to generate widespread discontent. In response, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi stuck to the government’s standard approach of upping the already high level of repression on organized activists, thereby shutting down even the possibility for criticism of official policy.
To learn more about the return of dictatorship to Egypt, read Sisi’s Egypt Is Falling Apart. Will It Explode? for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.
The Real Winner of Egypt’s Presidential Election Was Dictatorship
Less than two years later, as Egypt’s March 2018 presidential election drew closer, the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi resolutely quashed any hope that it would allow even a hint of democratic legitimacy. Authorities made sure every credible candidate was pushed out of the contest, either through arrest or intimidation. A token contender, whose party had already endorsed Sisi, was added at the last minute to avoid the embarrassment of a one-man race. The spectacle was thoroughly demoralizing not only for the opposition, but also for many of the Egyptians who welcomed Sisi nearly half a decade ago as a savior who could pull the country back from the increasingly illiberal policies of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government that was elected in the wake of Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising. If this harsh latest chapter in Egypt has been startling, the international reaction to the crackdown has been no less remarkable. As authorities removed, one by one, the men who dared to run against Sisi, the outcry from the international community, including from Western democracies with close ties to Egypt, has remained decidedly subdued.
To find out how Egypt’s democracy went bad, read Egypt’s Allies Shrug as Sisi Ensures a Sham Presidential Election for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.
How Saudi Largesse Has Helped Sisi Weather the Storm
Though Sisi projects an image of strength, the strains on his rule have become increasingly visible, particularly to Egypt’s Gulf partners. Just prior to Sisi’s re-election, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman stopped in Cairo, where he and Sisi announced a $10 billion joint fund for the development of a megacity stretching from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, and possibly even Jordan. Skepticism is warranted given the number of announced megaprojects in the region that have come to naught. But the crown prince’s decision to stop in Egypt was not without importance. For the past two years, Egypt’s relations with the kingdom have been patchy, as regional foreign policy differences and Saudi Arabia’s own economic recovery and reform effort have encouraged Riyadh to direct its financial largesse elsewhere. Yet Saudi support is still extremely welcome, if not essential, to Cairo’s efforts to jumpstart an economy that has been flagging for years. And Mohammed bin Salman’s visit signals a realization in Riyadh that it needs to bolster its struggling ally.
To learn more about the turbulent past few years in Egypt-Saudi relations, read Egypt’s Sisi Gets a Needed Boost From the Saudi Crown Prince’s Visit for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.
Is Sisi’s Grip on Power as Secure as It Seems?
Since taking power, Sisi has used the security apparatus to eradicate dissent and eliminate any remnants of the civic space that emerged nearly eight years ago. Tens of thousands of Egyptians have been arrested. Cases of torture and forced disappearances have become common, and the use of military courts to prosecute civilians has widened. One thing is clear, however. Though the unprecedented repression has established clear, brutal authority, it has yet to create a regime. Across Cairo, nightly checkpoints manned by police officers with machine guns show a state in control of its territory, but also suggest a sense of nervous anxiety. Most autocrats believe that violence is necessary to seize power. But real power tends to consolidate once the new regime creates a stable status quo that relieves it from enforcing its control through violence. After more than five years at the helm of the region’s most populous country, Sisi is credited by many Egyptians as having brought a modicum of stability. But without the institutionalization of a regime, his brand of autocracy appears inherently volatile and vulnerable.
To learn more about why Sisi’s position might be more more fragile than it seems, read Egypt’s Sisi Has Established Brutal Authority, but Not a Secure Regime for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.
Learn more about how President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has turned Egypt into a dictatorship, as well as what may happen to the Muslim Brotherhood, in the searchable library of World Politics Review (WPR):
- Egypt is no longer a democracy. Was it ever? Find out, in Sisi’s Egypt Is Falling Apart. Will It Explode?
- In Egypt, a dictatorship led by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi was the only choice on the ballot, in Egypt’s Allies Shrug as Sisi Ensures a Sham Presidential Election
- The Muslim Brotherhood goes underground, in Why Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Needs to Transform to Survive
- The turbulent past few years in Egypt-Saudi relations, in Egypt’s Sisi Gets a Needed Boost From the Saudi Crown Prince’s Visit
- Why U.S. policy in Egypt is overdue for a reinvention, in U.S. Policy on Egypt Is a Vestige of a Bygone Era, but Will It Ever Change?
- Why Sisi’s grip on power might be less secure than it seems, read Egypt’s Sisi Has Established Brutal Authority, but Not a Secure Regime
Editor’s Note: This article was first published in September 2018 and is regularly updated.