Foreign Policy

Is the story coming for Sisi’s regime?

April 29, 2021, 5:26 a.m.

Even with a stick, Egyptian human rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, 82, walks with severe difficulty, a problem that began during his several years imprisonment in the early 2000s. Ibrahim is the great old man for democracy and human rights in Egypt: a prolific writer and longtime professor at the American University in Cairo and a famous dissident intellectual against the stagnation and brutality of the 30-year-old regime of Hosni Mubarak, which ended in 2011.

Meeting Ibrahim and listening to him talk about his country with piercing insights for several hours reminded me of my frequent conversations in the 1980s with the great anti-communist dissident Milovan Djilas, who witnessed the rottenness of the oppressive and calcifying Yugoslav system Had predicted collapse years before entering his own country. Although Ibrahim was careful to speak sternly about the past, his words warn of the future of Egypt.

Mubarak himself orchestrated Ibrahim’s imprisonment and exile, as well as the frivolous trials and smear campaign against him. Mubarak’s hatred of Ibrahim was personal, as Ibrahim had once been a friend of the Egyptian leader’s family and Mubarak’s wife Suzanne and son Gamal had taught at the American University in Cairo. Ibrahim had betrayed the family for Mubarak. “That stupid man,” Mubarak allegedly said of Ibrahim’s persecution. “He could have had anything he wanted.” That is, if only Ibrahim had been faithful. It was the same situation with Djilas, Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito’s comrade in World War II and post-war heir, who had apparently broken with his boss on moral and political issues. Tito, a brilliant communist leader, understood Djilas’ decision at least as an ideological disagreement, even when he was imprisoned and tried in other ways to destroy him for it. But Mubarak, a boring and close caretaker, did not understand why Ibrahim wanted to give up his position and comfortable living situation only for the sake of principle. And it wasn’t like Ibrahim advocating Mubarak’s overthrow in the early 2000s. At the time, Ibrahim only wanted Egypt to be liberalized and a place of enlightened authoritarianism like Oman.

What specifically got Ibrahim into trouble was an essay he published in Arabic in a Saudi weekly newspaper in mid-2000 in which he speculated that Mubarak Gamal tacitly used to follow him. The Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad had died just three weeks earlier and was replaced by his son Bashar. In a way, like Syria, Ibrahim argued, Egypt would become half a republic (“gumhuriyya”) and half a monarchy (“almalakiyya”), that is, a “gumlukiyya” in an Arabic word that Ibrahim coined. The regime quickly sent Ibrahim to prison.

Two decades later, Ibrahim Mubarak’s rule was cool to me – with great effects on the current Egyptian military ruler Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. “Mubarak did a great service to the country in its first decade in power. He reassured a nation that was thereafter on the verge of conflict [Anwar] Sadat’s assassination and got the economy going again. His second 10 years saw many promises but no delivery, and his last 10 years were a disaster as the Egyptians were humiliated due to economic and political stagnation. “

It’s a typical story. A dictator first considers a liberal change. In the early stages of his rule, Mubarak even sent Ibrahim to Mexico to study how that country was transitioning to democracy. But when a dictator realizes how much risk such liberalization entails, he withdraws into his authoritarian shell. Then, as he gets older, he realizes that there is no trustworthy succession mechanism – one that would protect his family and the wealth they have earned – so he eventually opts for a pseudomonarchy. “Every Egyptian president does well in the beginning. But if you have enough time, no ruler will do it well, ”said Ibrahim.

The Arab Spring, which eventually overthrew Mubarak, would prove a disappointment in itself – even treason. Ibrahim stated that it was indeed quite common for revolutions to be kidnapped. The Russian Revolution was kidnapped by the Bolsheviks and the Iranian Revolution by the Islamic clergy. The French Revolution had its reign of terror and military rule from Napoleon Bonaparte. The American Revolution was really a development that owed much to British constitutional practices of the previous century; so this fate was spared. So it came as no great surprise to Ibrahim that the Arab Spring would also be kidnapped in Egypt.

The Arab Spring brought Ibrahim back to Egypt from exile in the United States. But when he surveyed Tahrir Square in person, he worried. “There were no guides, no platform. Enthusiasm is no substitute for domination, ”he said. So Ibrahim wrote a column on the threat of kidnapping the revolution. A decade after the Arab Spring, with the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood followed by that of Sisi, Ibrahim said, “The Muslim Brotherhood never dissolves. It is always in reserve, a civilian army with the same disciplined hierarchy as the military. But what keeps the military in power now is not just the memory of the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, but also the memory of the anarchy that accompanied it. “

While the world’s media projected the Arab Spring as a pageant of democratic yearning in Tahrir Square, many Egyptians remember the chaos, the looting, the sound of gunfire at night, the houses destroyed by mobs, and the gangs of young men Roads and at the airport. The middle class particularly feared for their well-being. It is these memories that still form the foundation of popular support for the Sisi regime.

But what about Sisi’s future prospects?

Ibrahim and others believed that a leader’s claim to legitimacy, especially after a revolution, is a pure ambition: the ambition to build up and develop his country. That was the legitimacy of the then Egyptian leader Mohammed Ali after Napoleon’s departure from Egypt. It was the claim made by then Egyptian leader Khedive Ismail Pasha in the second half of the 19th century. Both had been great builders and had laid the foundation for modern Cairo. And it was Sisi’s ambition after the failed Arab Spring.

Sisi is actually the opposite of Mubarak. Instead of being a leader with a caretaker mentality, he’s a hardworking man in a hurry. He knows the street toppled both Mubarak in 2011 and the President of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013. Sisi is determined that this will not happen to him. He became a modernizer in the style of the late 20th century, enlightened rulers in authoritarian style like Park Chung-hee in South Korea, Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore and Mahathir bin Mohamad in Malaysia. He uses the digitization of the records to get the rich of Egypt to pay more taxes. With China’s help, he built a grandiose new capital and satellite cities in the desert. There are literally hundreds of new projects like fishing, wastewater management and slum extermination that he has initiated with help from Japan and Europe.

However, the Egyptian economy is still dominated by a highly hierarchical and inflexible military, at a time when flattened hierarchies are best positioned to capitalize on the complexities of the digital age. The establishment media are reportedly under the control of intelligence agencies. Sisi’s report on human rights is simply cruel, with many activists in prison and reports of enforced disappearances and widespread torture. And because criticism from outside the regime is not allowed, Sisi’s rule threatens to be undermined by a climate of insufficient critical thinking. In fact, it was the lack of debate under the harsh, ideological regime of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser that contributed to Egypt’s military disasters in Yemen in the 1960s and against Israel in 1967.

Sisi’s first decade was promising – as was Mubarak’s. The Washington stereotype that Egypt is an autocracy of fading relevance and going nowhere is simply wrong. Egypt’s security relationship with Israel is extremely active and intense. The regime’s treatment of the Coptic Christian minority community is better than ever since the Free Officers coup in 1952. But as Ibrahim’s analysis shows, Sisi could face the same forces of decline as its military predecessors in power. Mere energy and Asian role models will not be enough. Ibrahim’s message of life – just like Djilas’ – is that without a vital dose of freedom and human rights there is no real modernity. That was the tragedy of Nasser and Mubarak. Can Sisi break the cycle?

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