The Shallow End of Egypt’s Deep State: A single toe at a time

By Hampton Stall

A Farce of Democracy continued…

This past week, the former head of Egypt’s military, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was elected as the president of his country. He received 97% of the vote with a turnout of about 47%, much lower than his high goals. An alternative candidate did exist, but military intimidation and American policy may have snuffed out his chances. The election, by most standards, was undemocratic. What is to become a concern is to what degree the Egyptian state will rebuild under Fatah Abdel al-Sisi.

Some commentators have compared Sisi’s ushering into power to Hosni Mubarak’s state. While Sisi may not create a state as oppressive and brutal as Mubarak’s, it is likely that many of the former regime’s policies will return under the reign of Sisi.

Recall that Sisi was head of the military that overthrew Mohamed Morsi’s democratically elected government following popular protests in Tahrir Square. A president whose candidacy was built upon an identity of an army strongman “pretending to be a civilian” is worrying enough, but one whose military orchestrated a coup just one year prior is doubly a concern for a post-uprising Egypt.

Mubarak’s eventual fall was in part caused by his suppression of opposition voices. Not only were communists squashed under Mubarak, but also Islamist opposition was given so few seats in the Parliament that its power was limited to almost nothing. If either group took power in Egypt, there may have been problems, but the moderate opposition was kept in check, too. Not only did Mubarak require his approval of opposition party candidates (the same happened in Syria under Bashar al-Assad this week, too), but the seats awarded to these opposition candidates not only completely disregarded real vote counts, and were so unbelievably low that many on the ground proclaimed that Mubarak would have been more democratic in not allocating seats to the opposition parties to save them the embarrassment.

Sisi’s military oversaw the trials and sentencing to death of several hundred Muslim Brotherhood activists – a disproportionate charge for such a large group of people even with proper evidence and due process. He has even publicly said that under his presidency “the Muslim Brotherhood will not exist”. This is worrying because given Sisi’s history, his claims are not only ones to be taken seriously, but will undoubtedly involve political change through spent blood or undeserved amounts of jail time instead of real political reform.

The Muslim Brotherhood has been banned as a terrorist group in Egypt, and alongside the 6 April movement encouraged not voting in the election. Voting is mandatory in Egypt, and not voting could lead to heavy fines. This fine has been the law for years, but Sisi’s military publicly stated prior to polls opening that they would enforce the fines this time. Such low voter participation indicates that either the Egyptian people were not afraid of enforcement of legal prosecution or felt as if the election was so flawed they could not support it.

Clashes between security forces and members of the Muslim Brotherhood (or simply anti-Sisi protestors) were frequent leading up to the election, and many have died unjustly on either side. The Egyptian state has time and time again blamed the attacks on the Muslim Brotherhood and called them a “terrorist organization”.

A major concern under Mubarak’s rule was the politically-serving emergency law Egypt’s police and military adhered to under his command. While this has not yet been decreed into law by Sisi (partially because he was elected so recently), he seems poised to do so. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, an Islamist insurgency in the Sinai, has been a major target of Egyptian military operations. This insurgency is violent and a real threat for the security of Egypt, but the political/nationalistic rallying cry around crushing the insurgency fosters a real sense of foreshadowing for the future of the nation.

Sisi’s operations in the peninsula have been supported by US diplomats and a continued flow of helicopters and tanks. The US military has been extremely deliberate to make friends with Sisi, and even given major concerns by members of Congress (who later rescinded their concerns) about military aid spending to Egypt, has okayed military aid anyway.

A dangerous game

Diplomats met with Sisi and “leaders of civil society” prior to the elections, but not with any opposition leaders. Not only did this narrow American policymakers’ understanding of the situation surrounding Egypt’s elections and security, but it also bolstered Sisi’s legitimacy as a candidate. If the US military and state representatives are meeting with Sisi, it is a sign of tacit support to many foreign actors or actors in Egypt. It’s very unlikely that the US is trying to install Sisi in any way, since American diplomats see Egypt as a critical ally in the region so any meetings with who they assume to be the next president are seen as fostering an early relationship rather than giving legitimacy to a military man. Diplomatic efforts are important, but US personal diplomacy may have been a little early, given that there was, in fact, another candidate.

The military aid given to Egypt is not only notable in pragmatic terms by giving the military equipment with which to fight enemies, but is also incredibly symbolic of support from the United States for the newly-recovering Egyptian state. America is looking for allies in the Middle East and North Africa, and a successful transition is in the interest of American diplomats, even as the US “pivots to Asia”. Is Sisi the right ally to make, though?

Well, whether or not Sisi’s political allegiance helps further American interests is only one part of the puzzle of American military aid to Egypt. The United States is the producer of the best tanks in the world, but the tank business is no longer booming for contractors looking towards the US military. The Army is actually telling companies like Lockheed Martin to stop sending tanks, since the cost to store them is too great for the military to afford. Egyptians, however, love tanks. Dr. Josh Stacher, in a visit to Davidson College this past fall, pointed out this relationship to a small group of students, adding that there is profit for tank manufacturers in America’s military aid to Egypt. Neither the professor nor I wholeheartedly attribute American military aid to the capital interest of military industry in America, but the link is one that should not be ignored.

There are fears that the Egyptian deep state will only reconstitute itself under the military and Sisi’s rule. A return to army-government marriage is a huge step backwards towards the Mubarak era, even if the marriage is only de facto and not an institutionalized relationship. Hopefully, Sisi will recognize this path before Egypt rolls back the uprisings and returns to square one. The United States should encourage this hesitation and forethought rather than blindly supporting a candidate who appears to be facing West, simply because America is playing a dangerous game with Sisi, and those most at danger are the people of Egypt.


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