Last week, a knowledgeable and respected DC-based Egypt expert commented that Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al Sisi is “just a cog in the machine.” It is not at all clear what exactly this means. If there is a machine, who is behind it? And if it is not al Sisi, who is it? The “cog in the machine” explanation of Egyptian politics is not new, it has just become more pronounced over the last three years. It ranks high with other myths of Egyptian politics, notably the “evil genius” view of senior military commanders who allegedly pull levers and push buttons in a masterful subterfuge that produces only the outcomes that serve the military’s interests. Perhaps al Sisi is a cog in the military’s machine, but it seems that Egyptian politics are more prosaic.
There is no machine in Egypt, but there is most certainly a system—a self-reinforcing one—that is the result of an environment of uncertainty in which Egyptian elites are individually and collectively trying to discern the direction of politics. Once they think they know how events will unfold, these elites will do everything possible to ensure that they are on the “right side” of history. It is unlikely that Field Marshal al Sisi actually ordered the arrests of three Al Jazeera journalists in December of last year, though he created an environment that helped make such violations of basic norms such as freedom of the press possible. The Ministry of Interior went ahead and did it, which is unremarkable, but the fact that a long list of Egyptian intellectuals, ostensible liberals, and alleged revolutionaries lined up to applaud this clear violation of press freedoms, while the pro-government media was egging everyone on, is remarkable. (All irony is lost in Egypt.) This system is the reason why in Egypt’s Jacobin-like discourse anyone who openly expresses concern about human rights violations is branded a terrorist sympathizer. It also explains how otherwise respectful and previously respected Egyptians are falling all over themselves to prove that they are with the new program.
Of course, the pressures to conform in Mubarak’s Egypt were pervasive if not always effective. There was constant hedging among Egypt’s elites as the end of the Hosni Mubarak era drew closer. It was as if thousands of people who operated within the ambit of the regime had their fingers in the air all at once trying to determine the direction of the wind should the president not wake up one day—Egyptians, particularly the elite, never imagined that Mubarak would outlive his own presidency. So privately people criticized Mubarak, his son, his wife, the regime, the system, but just in case, they remained publicly supportive of the president and all too willing to do the government’s bidding.
This phenomenon was considerably less pronounced during Mohammed Morsi’s brief tenure at the Itihadiyya Palace, but it existed. Western journalists were not the only ones who lined up to see Khairat al Shater after it became clear how well the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party had done in the first and second round of parliamentary elections in late 2011 and early 2012. Egyptian business elites, senior bureaucrats, and the media began either quietly reaching out to the Brothers or subtlety (and not so subtlety) accommodating themselves to what seemed like a new era in Egypt.
It is hard to blame Egyptian elites for their predisposition to curry favor even if it violates privately held principles and beliefs. There is no reward for dissent in Egypt. It might get an activist a ringing and eloquent defense on the editorial page of the Washington Post, making him or her a Beltway hero (for a few days), but that will hardly make up for the onslaught that said activist will undoubtedly face within the Mehwar. Confronted with the choice, some brave Egyptians have spoken out, but many more have chosen instead to burnish their pro-coup credentials, calculating that it will ensure them a place (and the attendant benefits) within the new regime. It is hard not to feel sorry for people put in the seemingly impossible position between their conscience and the system.
When Abdel Monem Said Aly wrote an article called, Khatiyat Steven Cook or “Steven Cook’s Offense” it was hard not to be angry immediately. But upon reflection, I understood precisely that he is bowing to the relentless pressure of the system. The piece, which appeared in Al Sharq Al Awsat on January 22 and re-published in English the following Friday in Al Ahram Weekly as “Where Steven Cook is Wrong” offers a strong and fair critique of my recent blog post “Do Not Run Sisi…Do Not Run,” and erroneously and maliciously ties three colleagues—Marc Lynch, Tamara Wittes, and Michele Dunne—along with myself, to the Muslim Brotherhood. Abdel Monem, who was very much a part of the Mubarak power-structure, was signaling to those now in power that despite his longstanding ties to Washington, Brandeis University, and a host of organizations in the West, he can be trusted to advance their political agendas. It is uncomfortable to be drawn into the current Egyptian political dynamic this way. Abdel Monem and I have broken bread together more than a few times and I always valued his insight, but I was never naïve. I always knew who buttered his bread.