Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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“Is Egypt Stable?”

by Steven A. Cook
June 1, 2015

Ramadan lanterns, known as "fanous", made in the likeness of Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi are displayed for sale at a market in Cairo (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters).

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I do not know how many times over how many months that question has been put to my colleagues and me at an endless number of panel discussions, roundtables, hearings, and meetings with our friends in government. It is actually a question more about durability—will President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Egypt’s new/old political order exist anywhere from one year to five years from now?—than stability. The intellectually honest answer is: Maybe, maybe not. That is about as wishy–washy as one can get, but analytically that is likely the best we are going to do.

On a number of levels, the stability—er, durability—of the Egyptian political system does not look good at all. Egypt manifests the problems and pathologies of a modernizing society: A middle class that wants more and that is afraid of getting less and less, an old elite determined to maintain its privileges, uneven economic development, and rapid urbanization. Add to this mix rising food prices, increased costs for fuel, rolling blackouts, crumbling infrastructure, a social safety net that became and remained nonexistent a long time ago, and a nasty insurgency. This all amounts to a witches’ brew of contested politics, instability, and violence.

How has Sisi sought to manage these complex and multilayered challenges thus far? Maybe it is because he is a neophyte, but so far not so good. Sisi rules with a heavy emphasis on coercion, patronage, and with little in the way of an authentic or positive vision of Egypt’s future with which most Egyptians can agree. If there was such a vision, the media and officialdom would not need to question the “Egyptian-ness” of those who happen to disagree with them or absurdly accuse all critics to be Muslim Brotherhood supporters, terrorist sympathizers, and agents of the Qatari and Turkish governments, Hamas, Israel, Iran, and, of course, the United States. When a leader relies almost exclusively on force or the threat of force, they invariably fail to elicit the loyalty of the population, thereby compromising their ability to establish political control. This was Hosni Mubarak’s undoing.

Since the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces sent Mubarak packing in February 2011, journalists, scholars, and policymakers have tended to look at Egyptian politics through the prism of that event and the massive protests that led to the coup d’état of July 2013. We have been on the lookout for the next Tahrir Square. There is good reason for this, not least of which is the country’s leadership seems profoundly afraid of provoking Egyptians to take to the streets once again. I understand President Sisi is single–mindedly focused on minimizing electricity problems this summer, which coincides with Ramadan. You can understand the man’s concern: With average temperatures in the mid-90s, intermittent air conditioning that come with blackouts can only contribute to the misery and anger of hungry people, even if their stomachs are empty out of religious obligation. There is also the added exasperation of missing one’s favorite Ramadan TV show when the electricity goes. Yet politics in Egypt is not just about “the street.” It remains to be seen whether President Sisi actually commands the state. It is pretty clear that the presidency, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Interior, the General Intelligence Service, and the judiciary agree that the January 25 uprising, its immediate aftermath, and the Morsi interregnum were disastrous and should not be repeated. Beyond that, there seem to be institutional rivalry, political fissures, and efforts to make sure the narrow interests of each are ensured. These struggles contribute to instability, raising questions about the durability of the Egyptian political system.

All the signs suggest that Egypt is a country on the edge, but still I hesitate to say definitively that its present instability will consume Sisi like it did Morsi and Mubarak. It is true that the overwhelming majority of analysts understand that all is not well in Egypt, but no one can be quite sure if the country is headed toward another round of political upheaval. That is not because we are talking to the wrong people (though it is quite possible that we are) or that our assumptions are wrong (also entirely possible) or that we simply do not understand Egypt (we may not), but rather because uprisings and revolutions are, by their very nature, unpredictable. It is also important to keep in mind that before January 25, 2011, virtually everyone had a hard time imagining the fragility of Egypt’s political system. Analysts need to avoid falling into the same trap, but in reverse. That is to say we should consider the possibility that despite Egypt’s contested politics, violence, and repression, Sisi’s political order may be more durable than we imagine. To do otherwise would risk being surprised once again.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Hosam El Dakhakhni

    The question is, are you helping? Or the MuslimBrotherhood so precious, you would rather lose Egypt with its people as an ally? Cause we are
    Moving forward, you better join in, as your windows is nearly closed.

  • Posted by Mona HARES

    Je vous rassure… Egyptienne d’Alexandrie, j’ai vecu tous les evenements dupuis les revolutions colorees de par le monde jusqu’au jour d’aujourd’hui…

    Sissi est soutenu par le peuple… C’est nous qui l’avons plebiscite…Que Dieu lui donne la sante et il restera tant qu’il n’aura pas rempli le role qu’on lui a confie…

  • Posted by MoMo

    It seems that the Mr Cook is enjoying his criticism looking through the Muslim Brotherhood prism, he is unable to see statistics related to decline of crime rate, decreasing unemployment, growing economy that doesnot depend mainly on tourism, the mega projects in infrastructure, all what he can see is what the MB or some activists say, a fair evaluation should have a refrence point be it 2012 or 2013 but at least not just a bla bla bla a simple cut and paste of an article that would be wrote in a Qatari media outlet.
    some simple words if Mr Cook accepted that President Bush junior who took the US to two major wars is a capable leader he should relax a bit when he is writting his biased article, he should simply consider facts he mentioned “growing middle class” did they come from space, reducing blackout “may be by importing electricity from Mars” ..hunger and anger , it seems he considers that the MB are the Egyptian people…”may be Mr Cook should visit India and tell us when India is going to revolt against its leadership ….Mr Cook please dont confine yourself to the MB silo and look through the prism of MB as the representative of the middle east what your center has promoted for too long that they believed it …

  • Posted by Sara Kira

    Isn’t it too weird, or maybe not, that same bla bla opinion is being said all day and night by the Muslim Brotherhood?? the Islamists that the US wanted to impose on the Middle East? not to weird eventually, everything is bluntly exposed.
    Sara Kira
    An Egyptian Citizen.

  • Posted by Ashraf Sabrin

    Excellent analysis. It says posted in Egypt. So be careful if you are really there.

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