President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who is perceived as the strongman of Egypt, constantly claims that his goal is to lead a strong country – yet he is actually working on neutering Egyptian society.
To ensure that it will not be the source of any solid opposition, steps have been taken to fragment Egypt’s future parliament; the national media transmit a single message that conveys the presidency’s perspective; citizens who differ with the president are marginalised; the roles of institutions in general are being undermined (only those that support the president remain effective); and appointed executives all praise the president’s policies. Far from building a strong state, these measures will produce a fragile, failed one.
I am not, intrinsically, a believer in the concept of strong or weak states. There are successful states and failed ones. Success might entail the combination of progress, prosperity and peace. In this case, a government that is incapable of functioning could easily be portrayed as a failed state. The model of a nation with a strong military and a weak economy is irrelevant for Egyptians. Having concluded a solid peace agreement with Israel a few decades ago, the military leaders have focused solely on improving their personal economic conditions.
The essence of strength entails a dynamic, vibrant society where empowered institutions are independent of the government, the rule of law determines the relationship between the state and its citizens, where government decisions and policies are totally transparent and executives are appointed on the basis of merit, not loyalty. A strong state is one where each citizen has a solid sense of belonging to the country and where people are genuinely willing to offer their ideas and services to their country, without being forced. These conditions, necessary for building a successful state, require major reform of Egyptian institutions. So far, however, realising the above conditions appears to have no appeal for Egypt’s strongman.
Al-Sisi, a man of military discipline, does not want to play the role of politician in the sense of wheeling and dealing with various political parties and institutions. He wants to build a very strong engine -the presidency – to lead the entire society, whose members are expected to stand in row and obey his instructions. While this is an excellent approach for a military in wartime, it is not appropriate in the context of a developing country in dire need of its citizens’ ideas and energies to boost its economy. By neutering all elements of Egyptian society apart from the presidency (approximately 94 million Egyptians), the president will create an extremely fragile society. Instead of providing support, such a society can only be a burden to him.
Along with his regime of supporters, Al-Sisi is moving towards creating a society of fear. A number of measures have been taken to curtail the basic political rights of Egyptians (freedom, dignity and justice), and the absence of these rights creates a somewhat bitter relationship between its citizens. As a result, a large portion of Egyptians (especially citizens who have been harmed by the state) will not have strong ties to their country.
It is always claimed that Egypt has a number of specific characteristics that differentiate it from other nations. The large segment of its population who is illiterate and poor could fall prey to a false proposition or foreign conspiracy. Enabling them to exercise their full political rights could therefore easily lead to more demonstrations, strikes and disobedience. The millions of Egyptians surviving under extremely poor living conditions could easily fill up Tahrir Square in no time. This could escalate either into a revolution or into a second drama similar to Rabaa Al-Adaweya. Since neither scenario would be acceptable to the ruler, it is better to avoid any instability or a crisis by subduing society from day one.
Thus the primary task now is to manipulate and control the masses. Neutering society (rather than strengthening it) will certainly facilitate this task. It is obviously much easier to manipulate poor, illiterate, sick people who suffer daily and beg the government for a little help than people who know their political rights and insist on demanding that the government improve its performance. The plan is therefore to keep the vast majority of Egyptians suffering under the burden of their personal challenges.
People may maintain that the millions of Egyptians who voted for Al-Sisi in the last presidential election and who presently constitute his strong pillars of support make him a valued leader, and that there is no sense in allowing the minority that opposes him to abolish this structure.
In my opinion, Al-Sisi successfully managed to place himself as the strongman that Egypt currently needs as a leader. While this story was well perceived by millions of Egyptians, it does not mean that the president has a strong backing of followers. On the contrary, his popular support is very fragile, and it is rapidly eroding. The majority of these citizens voted for Al-Sisi to escape the Muslim Brotherhood. They wanted to rely on the military to sustain their status, while giving a little vocal support to the regime.
After checking with many wealthy acquaintances who adore Al-Sisi, I realised that their financial contribution to the “Tahya Misr” (Long Live Egypt) Fund was almost nil. The majority of Al-Sisi fans want the benefit of his protection while hanging on to their cash.
Obviously, when a country is unstable and its future uncertain, it is in everyone’s interest to keep his or her money. Still, there is no denying the similarity between Al-Sisi’s supporters and those of ousted president Mubarak; regime beneficiaries who want to collect the fruits, without taking part in the work.
Al-Sisi envies late president Gamal Abdel Nasser, an autocratic leader who was nevertheless admired and loved by the majority of Egyptian society. He aspires to emulate Nasser’s tactics; to build a strong, independent nation where the state is motivated by patriotism, where freedom of expression does not exist and where the president enjoys the support of almost the entire nation. This strategy was successful in the 1960s; an era during which we had a clear enemy, the state took over the economy from the private sector and the only available media was that of the state. Today, we live in a very different era where advanced communication tools enhance the common citizen’s political awareness. Any attempt to imitate the past is certainly doomed to fail radically.
Furthermore, while Nasser espoused a clear patriotic cause that Egyptians believed in completely, Al-Sisi faces a different internal challenge that has emerged within our society and many people differ with his approach to solving the crisis. A nation’s citizens usually tend to unite in the face of an external enemy – much more so than when the conflict is an internal one that is already polarising society.
Mubarak adopted the strategy of empowering his affiliates while weakening the entire community, tactics that were used for three whole decades. Al-Sisi may therefore consider applying the same policy, but after two revolutions, or uprisings, Egyptians today have become more aware of their rights, more demanding and less fearful of the ruler. Mubarak, in my opinion, had a solid and strong system that I thought would not fail easily. However, it collapsed in just a few days – and when the situation became heated, the former president’s successors and affiliates were quick to abandon him. If the solid and clever tactics of the Mubarak regime failed to uphold the former president, they surely will not be of any help to Al-Sisi.
In reality, there is no “solo strong leader”. By default, any leader needs to be backed by ideas, institutions, people and mechanisms; neutering these can only result in weakening the president himself. Dependence on citizens who praise him continuously is not a sustainable proposition; these supporters are much too weak to build a sound and stable nation. It is almost impossible to keep people in the dark in an era where citizens have broad access to the internet and can witness fair governance practices in other countries. If Al-Sisi genuinely desires to head a strong country with a flourishing economy, he needs to lead rather than to manipulate, thereby establishing a fair and independent system that will constitute a strong pillar of support for Egypt.