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Why the Egyptian military will relinquish power

In 2013, I wrote that the military would not be able to maintain popular support if they abandon the democratic process, and that neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor the military would be able to re-impose authoritarianism. Egypt cannot be stable without democratic governance. The only remaining question, as I wrote in the German Die Zeit and privately owned Al-Shorouk newspaper, is whether this democratic governance would “soon emerge, or we should embark on a new round of conflict before everyone realizes the need for true democracy?”

We got the answer rather quickly. The new regime not only abandoned democratic transition, but also closed the limited pluralist space that former President Hosni Mubarak had maintained for 30 years, and became increasingly comparable to the Nasserite regime, both in terms of its despotism and the dominance of the military. As a result, many gave up on the possibility of democracy in Egypt and accepted the claim that the military will not abandon its hold over the country in the foreseeable future, perhaps ever.

I contend that this is too hasty a conclusion; sooner or later the Egyptian military will give up control over governance. While they will almost certainly maintain their independence and a strong voice in the country’s strategic decisions, they will have no viable option other than to withdraw from the public sphere, opening the way for a genuine democratic transition.

I build this claim on the basis of the following four assumptions:

First, state failure in Egypt is deeper than what we often credit it for. By 2011, the state was failing to fulfill its basic functions — security, law and order, mobilizing human and natural resources, etc. This failure left no room for denial or pretense. Instead, a general realization settled that the country was sinking in misery, while its ruling elite was using public office for personal survival. This explains the overwhelming support for the January 25 uprising.

Second, this state failure cannot be reversed through tightening control over politics, or mobilizing public support behind leaders. It cannot be reversed by changing ministers and senior officials, or the addition/deletion of governmental programs. Addressing this failure requires, to borrow computer language, a replacement of the “operating system.” Reversing state failure requires a rebuilding of state institutions — economic, service and political — as well as those in charge of security and law enforcement. It requires replacing their underpinning philosophy and operational modes in ways that bring them from the 19th-century-world they are trapped in to our modern era.

This is a tall order. Such a reconstruction requires almost full cooperation among social and political groups in order to provide the necessary support for difficult decisions. And, the state has to undergo these deep reforms at the same time as facing the same economic, political and security challenges that crippled its ailing institutions. In other words, Egypt needs to fight two battles simultaneously: one in confronting challenges such as the weak economy and terrorism, the other with itself; with its own institutions that are supposed to be its tools in facing these challenges. This dual fight is easily lost. It is enough for one significant political group to challenge it — or even refuse to cooperate with it — for it to fail.  

Third, the political culture of many Egyptians has changed. This includes the ways in which people think about authority, and their expectations of the state and those who run it. Today, a majority of Egyptians believe they have a right to hold the state accountable, regardless of their political affiliation. They also expect state officials to be responsive to their demands and want deep changes to occur in order to make this happen.

The fourth and last assumption is that the military leadership has not understood the extent of change in Egypt. They continue to belittle state failure, attempting to contain it through a combination of painkillers, aggressive mobilization aimed at ”giving people hope,” and some daring economic austerity measures. They either do not understand the need to change the “operating system” of the state, reducing it to administrative reform, or do not believe it can be achieved.

No researcher can verify these four assumptions empirically without ending up in jail. Instead, I use an instrumentalist approach to assess their validity. The more data they explain (compared to competing assumptions), the more credit I give them. Over the last seven years, these four assumptions have enabled me — and others — to anticipate a number of important political transformations in Egypt. This is how I could predict, in an article the Financial Times ran on February 4, 2011, the initial success of democratic forces to topple Mubarak and the eventual rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. They also helped predict, in an article published in the same newspaper in January 2013, that the rule of the Brotherhood would be short lived. These are also the assumptions underpinning my novel Bab Al-Khoroug (Exit, 2012), which dealt with Egypt’s political turmoil.

I am not referring to these predictions in order to claim some kind of special foresight, rather I use them to illustrate the analytical usefulness of these four assumptions — my only way to “verify” their validity.

If these assumptions continue to be relevant, then it would be impossible for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the military leadership to maintain stability in Egypt beyond the short term. State failure will not be reversed by the current economic, political and ideological measures the ruling elite is taking, regardless of how ambitious they are. The withdrawal, indifference and active hostility of important segments of the population make it even more unlikely to succeed.

Although the majority acquiesce to the current authoritarian rule, including its harsh repression of opponents and restriction of free speech, this same majority still holds the regime accountable for success and failure. When it fails, the verdict of the people is clear, even if it doesn’t immediately translate into political action.

In other words, the current regime cannot deliver on its promise to make Egypt “as big as the world.” And no media machine can hide the that. Hence, the regime cannot maintain popular support through achievement and performance. It rather relies on the majority’s exhaustion and the panic that prevailed before 2013, including fears of state collapse, as was the case in Syria. It also relies on the absence of an alternative that has a demonstrable track record of achievement. Continued terrorist acts might prolong this sense of fear, and hence support for the regime. Yet, it also undermines public trust in the ability of the regime to provide security.

But the memories of 2011-2013 chaos and insecurity are fading. And living conditions are deteriorating for the majority of Egyptians, especially with the hard economic decisions taken by the authorities recently. In the absence of hope that these trends will be reversed, the verdict of the public will soon be clear.

In short, whatever tricks the military has up its sleeve are bound to run out. And when that time comes, it will run out of room to maneuver. The militarization that started after June 30, 2013, with its tight controls, closure of public space, continued media mobilization, etc., is the “last bullet” the military has in its arsenal. When its inability to reverse state failure becomes a public verdict, those in power might be tempted to use force to quell opposition. But usually, wiser minds prevail.  

Key in this scenario is the validity of the four assumptions I have outlined. If I got any of them wrong — if the revolution was a global conspiracy, or the Egyptian political culture hasn’t really changed, or the current policies will reverse state failure — then we, in Egypt, will live happily ever after under military rule. But I don’t think so.

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Ezzedine C. Fishere