Protesting conscripts and civil servants: Cracks in the regime’s support system?

Three weeks separated the protests against the civil service law and protests staged by police conscripts last week.

In both cases, additional protests were cancelled or delayed — the conscripts briefly suspended their protests and police forces called off their sit-in, which was scheduled to take place on August 17.

Both groups, however, have continued mobilizing.

Twenty-seven independent syndicates, including the Tax Authority, as well as the health, trade, agriculture, irrigation, railway, transportation, social insurance and customs authority unions have called for a million man march against the controversial civil service law.

Meanwhile, police conscripts gave the Interior Ministry an ultimatum, giving them until September 5 to address their concerns or protests will resume, with the police threatening bigger strike action nationwide.

The civil service law affects a large range of civil servants who constitute around a quarter of the workforce in Egypt. Police conscripts and low-ranking officers represent a critical mass in the police system, their numbers amounting to 320,000.

Many observers believe that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi depends on an alliance between the state’s civil, military and security bureaucracy. The president’s reliance on these bodies gives the demonstrations a greater significance than if they were limited protests against deteriorating working conditions.

Civil bureaucracy: More than just an administrative body

Amr Adly, researcher at the Carnegie Center for Middle Eastern Studies, is interested in what these protests tell us about the nature of the regime and its dominant crisis.

“We are faced with a regime that does not have a popular mandate crystallized in a defined political frame, be it a major political party as in the case of late President Gamal Abdel Nasser, or a ruling party like the National Democratic Party, which both former Presidents Anwar al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak had,” he says.

Sisi’s regime, instead, depends on an alliance with the state’s military, security and civil bureaucracy, he argues.

According to Adly, the conflict arises from the regime’s quest to “redesign the economic model,” with Sisi solely trusting the military to accomplish this task. The civil bureaucracy is not deemed sufficiently efficient to participate, while the business elite is not trusted.

This tendency was exemplified in the manner in which projects like the New Suez Canal bypass, new housing projects and the Sinai development project, were carried out.

Sisi also depends on the military to run the country’s different sources of income, and create an environment attractive to foreign investment. This means that Sisi must redefine the relationship between private capital and state bureaucracy, but the path to changing that relationship is murky.

Bureaucratic reform was one of the main obstacles facing both Sadat and Mubarak, Adly says. Restructuring attempts often failed. One of the most recent failures was when, during Gamal Mubarak’s quest to reach power, he attempted to give the business elite the responsibility for managing capital flows rather than bureaucracy.

More broadly, Adly believes that the civil bureaucracy does not play an administrative role alone, but also a social and political one. This dates back to when Nasser expanded its size, making it an umbrella organization for social welfare and a tool for political control. Controlling it through legislation is bound to be challenging.

The proposed law focuses on austerity as a way to reduce the number of civil servants and their financial privileges. It also aims at making the system more efficient especially with regards to capital administration.

But while Amr Abdel Rahman, the head of the Civil Liberties Unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, believes that the law aims to put civil servants under the pressure of job insecurity, he doubts the regime’s ability to give up the state’s “army of employees.” This kind of move has a high economic cost, given that pensions must be paid if employees are forced into early retirement. Mass lay-offs also bear a high political cost.

While he does not believe that the new law will affect the bureaucratic alliance supporting Sisi’s rule, its implementation creates a need for increased security in response to rising protests.

Abdel Rahman argues that security measures aside, Sisi needs to create a legislative framework to implement them, especially since he is under pressure to cut the budget deficit, which is exacerbated by foreign debt. The budget for wages represents a quarter of the total state budget.

The varying degrees of power and influence of different bureacratic sectors may also affect how the law is implemented, Abdel Rahman adds. For example, the banking sector, the police, the military and the judiciary have managed to exempt themselves from maximum wage stipulations.

The policemen’s revolution: A crack in the system’s armor?

Commenting on the policemen’s sit-in protest in Sharqiya, Major General Abdel Latif al-Badiny, former deputy interior minister, says that although there are no connections with the civil service law protests, organizers of the police protests have carefully chosen the dates and times of theirs sit-ins. He describes the protests as having narrow, “sector-based demands.”

Badiny adds that the policemen’s demands have largely been logical and acceptable, while others “continue to push forth demands which are exaggerated or unwarranted.”

The so-called “policemen’s revolution” is not the first manifestation of unrest within the Ministry of Interior. There have been five previous protests and uprisings within police ranks. In one interview, a low-ranking policeman explained that their conditions had significantly improved since the January 25 revolution, when their wages increased exponentially from around LE950 per month in 2011 to around LE3,000.

For Ali al-Raggal, a political sociologist and researcher on security issues, the emergence of such cracks and schisms within the security apparatus is expected, especially in light of the blows dealt to Egypt’s state authoritarianism during the course of the January 25 revolution.

“We thought that the state had regained its authoritarianism, and that the revolution had been crushed after being unable to dismantle these authoritarian structures. However, it is now apparent that, under the surface, cracks and fractures are growing,” he says.

Absent mechanisms

In his most recent article in privately owned Al-Shorouk newspaper, Ziad Bahaa Eddin, former deputy prime minister, argued that the latest policemen’s sit-in and public sector workers’ protests are a symptom of the absence of mechanisms that allow for conflict resolution.

The absence of an elected parliament or local city councils has contributed to the current escalation, wrote Bahaa Eddin, in addition to the institutional weaknesses of labor unions and professional syndicates.

Bahaa Eddin also referred to the additional restrictions imposed on civil society  including political parties, NGOs and the independent media  under the pretext of “legal, security and economic pressures. This has in turn shrunk the margins for political dialogue, and along with it, society’s ability to naturally express its divergent interests, or to mediate disputes before they erupt.”

Mostafa Mohie 

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