The Navigator from CGP

Seven Years Later, Has Egypt’s Revolution Become a Series of Coups?

PUBLISHED January 25, 2018

This week’s Navigator is being issued on January 25 in recognition of the anniversary of the Egyptian revolution that toppled former dictator Hosni Mubarak. Seven years on, CGP Senior Fellow Sahar Aziz – American-Egyptian lawyer and scholar of national security, civil rights and Middle East law – examines the deteriorating political and economic conditions in the world’s largest Arab state and recommends that the United States reconsider its continuing policy of supporting military regimes in the country.

For the first time in Egypt’s history, two former military generals announced plans to run against another former general for the presidency. Meanwhile, the few civilian candidates have all withdrawn their presidential bids. Military factions, not civilian politicians, now dominate Egyptian politics.

Egypt, thus, may be poised for another military coup in the not-too-distant future.

Few observers of Egypt’s historic January 25th revolution could have predicted this would be the nation’s fate seven years later. The year 2011 marked the first time in a generation when People Power came to life in Egypt. Thousands of police could not stop the millions of Egyptians occupying the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and tens of cities across the country demanding social and economic justice.

Machinations by the military and security forces to push the people out of politics failed. Consequently, Egypt’s political future was uncertain for the next two years. Parliamentary and presidential elections were competitive. Attempts to draft the constitution to disempower the people failed. And Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was under constant public scrutiny.  

This all ended when millions of Egyptians made the fatal political move to trust General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi when he promised to hold new elections shortly after ousting Morsi. Egyptians’ distrust of the Muslim Brotherhood — ingrained in the national psyche for over six decades — and the fears of an Islamist autocracy challenged their commitment to the democracy they heralded on January 25, 2011.

Egypt’s real political stakeholders now reside within the military. Deliberations that affect the nation’s future occur within the barracks and halls of the Department of Defense, not in civilian institutions or the streets.

But with over 400,000 active personnel, the Egyptian military is no monolith. Factions are inevitable, and with them come power struggles. Indeed, recent events indicate al-Sisi’s popularity among his comrades may be waning.

Troubles Within the Military?

Al-Sisi’s sudden firing of Khaled Fawzy, the head of the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), last week is telling. The president replaced Fawzy with a former subordinate from the Military Intelligence Service (MIS), formerly headed by al-Sisi, thereby showing his lack of trust in the GID.

Fawzy’s sacking came amid rumors that the GID undermined al-Sisi by leaking tapes of government plans to persuade the Egyptians to accept Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Fawzy’s insubordination also extended to reported maneuvering as a key back channel in U.S.-Egypt relations.

Prior to 2011, the GID was the closest security institution to Hosni Mubarak’s presidency, with the MIS lagging behind in domestic influence. The demotion of domestic intelligence within the deep state hierarchy is likely feeding resentment against al-Sisi. The detractors may be among a faction of security and military officers encouraging Mubarak’s senior generals to take back control of Egypt. Two of those former generals — Sami Anan and Ahmed Shafiq — have announced their plans to run against al-Sisi in the 2018 presidential elections.

Never before has a former general, as a presidential incumbent, been challenged by his colleagues.  

These developments signal dissatisfaction within the ranks of the military. Shafiq and Anan would not take the risky step of challenging their colleague without some assurances of support within the military.

Anan and Shafiq are not marginal military figures. Anan has been a major player in Egyptian and regional military politics for decades. He was commander of the Air Defense Forces before becoming the army’s chief of staff under Mubarak. His influence earned him the second highest position in the Supreme Council of Armed Forces that took control of Egypt after Mubarak stepped down.

Anan also has friends in the region. He is a known quantity to the Saudis and considered a reliable partner by his Israeli and U.S. military counterparts. Indeed, Anan was in Washington when the January 25th revolution broke out, compelling him to cut his visit short and rush home.

Similarly, Shafiq is in the cohort of respected officers who fought in the 1973 war. A former Minister under Mubarak, Shafiq was a finalist in the 2012 presidential elections who lost to Morsi by less than a 4 percent margin. He continues to have a following among a growing number of Egyptians who look back at the Mubarak era with nostalgia.

The President’s Waning Popularity

Al-Sisi, in contrast, is losing popular support. His sweeping austerity measures have plummeted Egyptians’ standard of living. The military’s expansive economic empire is choking Egypt’s private sector and frustrating the business elite. All paths to profitability now lead to the military; with free labor from conscripts, exemption from regulatory requirements, and a tax-free budget, the military’s economic advantages risk putting Egyptian companies out of business.

The military’s economic activities are also taxing its officers. Overseeing myriad commercial projects ranging from infrastructure to storing wheat to bottling water, lower and mid-level military officers find themselves entangled in work for which they have little expertise. Many complain of being overworked and distracted from their primary role of defending the nation. Indeed, Anan noted in his announcement the undue burden shouldered by the military running civilian affairs.  

Meanwhile, on the international front, al-Sisi irked the Trump administration when he was caught purchasing arms from North Korea. Although he succumbed to Saudi demands to hand over the Tiran and Sanafir islands — a move seen as treasonous by some generals and veterans who fought for them in the 1973 war — al-Sisi’s refusal to send troops to fight in Yemen and his support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria has strained Egypt-Saudi relations.

Coupled with the worsening security situation in Sinai, a pending water crisis with Ethiopia, and disagreement over al-Sisi’s support for Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Shafiq and Anan’s presidential bids could indicate a prospective coup.

But al-Sisi will not go without a fight. Shortly after Shafiq landed in Egypt, after five years in self-exile in Abu Dhabi, al-Sisi’s regime coerced Shafiq into withdrawing his candidacy under threat of corruption charges. Only four days after announcing his campaign, Anan was arrested on the pretext that he failed to obtain permission from the army and allegedly forged documents about his military service. Thus, his attempt at a soft coup through elections is likely to fail, making a violent coup a possibility.

A Grim View of Egypt’s Future

On the seventh anniversary of the January 25th revolution, the political forecast for Egypt is not promising. When the United States backed al-Sisi in a coup against a civilian president, it not only violated its stated commitment to democracy, it also opened the door to an unstable political future.

Now that Egyptians have been muzzled through a harsh crackdown, the only institution that matters is the military. But in contrast to civilian politicians, generals resolve their disputes with tanks, not ballot boxes.

The United States must decide if it will continue with its failed policy of supporting military regimes or act on its stated commitment to democracy globally. The first step is to stop supporting military coups and regimes, which includes a militarization of the economy and governance by former military generals.

Additionally, U.S. legal requirements that Egypt adhere to international human rights norms in exchange for military and economic aid are ineffective. Congress frequently waives them on vague national security grounds.

What Washington needs to offer Cairo is a comprehensive aid package that emphasizes the professionalization of civil society and prioritizes legal rules that provide a fair playing field. Egyptians of all political leanings successfully toppled Mubarak at a high cost to their lives and safety. But they were ill-equipped to compete in the next phase of electoral politics. The curtailing of political space under Mubarak for Egyptians to learn the game of democracy paved the way for the seasoned Muslim Brotherhood’s sweeping electoral victory.  

To be sure, Egyptians’ political preferences reach beyond the Islamist-secular dichotomy imposed on them. If Egypt’s citizens had the chance to resolve their differences through public convenings, a free media, and independent universities, they could defuse political fault lines in the voting booth.

Instead, political disputes will be resolved in the barracks. Those resolutions are rarely bloodless.

Sahar Aziz is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy, and a Professor of Law, Chancellor’s Social Justice Scholar, and Director of the Center on Security, Race, and Rights at Rutgers Law School. She is the author of Military Authoritarianism in Egypt. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.

Image courtesy of  Shutterstock.

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