The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings brought unprecedented change to Egypt. But even when millions of protesters forced President Hosni Mubarak to step down after 30 years in office, much of the country's power structure remained in place. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) held fast to power as it scrambled to respond, launching Cabinet reshuffles, partially lifting the state of emergency and prosecuting officials from Mubarak's fallen government. These moves, however, seemed more an attempt to appease the public than an earnest effort to reform the Egyptian political system. During his brief stint in office, President Mohammed Morsi made no attempt to push the army out of politics and instead opted to work with select factions of the military against others. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the director of military intelligence, appeared willing to work with Morsi, who made him minister of defense.
The promotion backfired for Morsi, though. Al-Sisi took advantage of Morsi's political inexperience to chart his course to power. Backed by a broad coalition, the defense minister overthrew the president on July 3, 2013 — just over a year after Morsi took office. Al-Sisi then embarked on a steady quest to consolidate his rule. Four and a half years later, as the incumbent president prepares to stand for re-election in March, his singular focus on his own power may become a liability — for his administration and for the Egyptian people.
Streamlining the Deep State
As his first order of business on reaching the presidency in May 2014, al-Sisi started breaking down the web of personal interests that permeated Egypt's institutions. This network, the so-called deep state, flourished under Mubarak, who gave the army free rein to launch business endeavors. From there, the deep state grew into a mammoth undertaking comprising top military brass, the security forces, the judiciary, intelligence apparatuses, the state bureaucracy, regional governors, academics, media outlets and businessmen. Rather than trying to ingratiate himself with the powers that be in the deep state, al-Sisi worked to topple them. He purged potentially troublesome officers from the military before replacing the chief of staff of the armed forces. The nearly four-year firing spree culminated in January with the dismissal of the director of general intelligence.
With his hand-picked leaders in place, al-Sisi now relies on the military to remain in power. The coup he orchestrated against Morsi in 2013 brought an end to Egypt's brief period of representative politics and ushered in a new era of rule by absolute power. And unlike earlier authoritarian leaders, such as Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Mubarak, al-Sisi derives his legitimacy not from a single-party system of governance but from the armed forces. (Political parties mean little to the current president because he isn't interested in political mobilization.) Perhaps ironically, he even has allowed the armed forces to expand their economic empire, much as Mubarak did before him. The military's business network has since grown to include commercial real estate developments, adding to the energy and manufacturing businesses it already runs.
Even so, al-Sisi generally eschews the traditional institutions of the deep state, apart from the military. The president opts instead to work with Egypt's youth, who were instrumental in the 2011 uprisings that brought down Mubarak. In 2016, al-Sisi hosted the First Egyptian Youth Conference, aimed at "extending effective communication channels among the Egyptian government and prominent Egyptian youth across the country," according to Egypt's State Information Service. The next year, the president issued a decree establishing a national academy for youth training and empowerment under his direct supervision. Aware of the power the youth population wields, al-Sisi is keen to keep it under his thumb lest he find himself on the wrong side of a coup. The president courts the media's support for much the same reason, buying off reporters and news outlets with privileges and pay raises.
Like other autocrats, al-Sisi has no tolerance for opposition. Col. Ahmed Konsowa received a six-year prison term for announcing in November 2017 that he would run against al-Sisi in the next election. Lt. Gen. Sami Annan, the Egyptian army's former chief of staff, met a similar fate when he unveiled his plan to run for president; the military arrested him on an array of charges, including trying to "drive a wedge between the armed forces and the Egyptian people." Their examples seem to have persuaded human rights lawyer Khaled Ali to withdraw his candidacy. Ali, who gained a modest following in 2016 after successfully challenging the government's deal to hand control of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, faces three months in prison for allegedly making an indecent hand gesture to express satisfaction with his judicial victory. Had he chosen to stay in the race, the charge doubtless would have disqualified him.
Egypt's Constitution treats running for office as a right, but it also leaves regulating the right up to "the law." Al-Sisi seems to have interpreted the clause to refer specifically to his office; when he announced his intention to seek a second term, he vowed not to "allow corrupt people to rule Egypt." The SCAF-controlled Judicial Committee for Officers and Personnel of the Armed Forces also reserves the right to determine eligible military candidates for the presidency. But as the military's supreme commander, al-Sisi is a natural choice for the committee. Furthermore, the SCAF wouldn't allow more than one candidate from its ranks to run for the presidency, in the interest of maintaining the army's unity.
A Path to Autocracy Paved With Good Intentions
Apart from safeguarding his own interests, al-Sisi has demonstrated little interest in governing. Having set comprehensive educational reform as a prerequisite for modernizing Egypt — one that, at a price of $13 billion a year, is unattainable — the president limits his efforts to improving security at airports and tourist attractions. His strategy for managing Egypt's economic problems has so far hewed close to the World Bank's recommendations: slash food and fuel subsidies, float the Egyptian pound and privatize state-owned banks and companies. These measures, however, won't be enough to appease Egyptian voters, no matter how few candidates they have to choose from.
Al-Sisi's obsession with power is bound to cause his demise sooner or later. Every day he stays in office, he gives his people a new reason to believe that rebellion is the only path to political change. As the uprising seven years ago demonstrated, the Egyptian people are patient and permissive until they're pushed beyond the limit.