Among many of the perceived differences between the January 25, 2011 and the June 30, 2013 mobilizations is a certain perception of the state.
In 2011, in the minds of many, a state, pronounced most clearly in its ferocious security apparatus, had to go and hence its police stations were burnt across the country. In 2013, a state captured by the Muslim Brotherhood, a group perceived as a self-consumed tribe, had to be salvaged and reclaimed. And hence images of protesters and policemen exchanging water bottles and flowers abounded.
But what is this state that people talk about, at times with anger and at others with passion, and what has it developed into throughout the year?
A few scholars have argued that although 2013 appears to be a year of the redemption of the Egyptian state as mass mobilizations became mostly protective of it in the face of a temporary ruling elite seen to hijack it, it is also a year where the solidity of this state is contested through its very institutions.
Nathan Brown, professor of law and politics at George Washington University coined the term “balkanization” of the Egyptian state when looking at how state institutions are amassing more power with less oversight. In article published this week in privately-owned Al-Masry Al-Youm, he contests the common view of Egyptian politics of personalization around certain characters, arguing instead that the problem is that politics here is governed by institutions. So whereas in traditional democratic thinking, a state is safer in the hands of institutions rather than individuals, self-centered institutions don’t quite offer a safety net.
This is the case not only because of the condition of multiple states within a state, but also because too much power within each institution may be conducive to internal fissures.
Questions within the military and security apparatus
The military is an example. Between wide scale popular endorsement in the wake of President and Brotherhood affiliate Mohamed Morsi’s ouster in July 3 by military fiat, and a consolidated position in the state secured in the constitution draft, 2013 appears to confirm the notion of the military institution being a state within a state — a situation seemingly sanctioned by the people. So military budgets are still discussed in seclusion and in the presence of more generals than civilians. The minister of defense has to be approved by the military for two presidential rounds. Military trials of civilians continue, and are allowed in the constitutional draft. And all this is seemingly endorsed by large segments of society as the military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has become the nation’s sweetheart.
But questions emerge around the sustainability of this renewed sense of power. While the current leadership has managed to shield the institution from oversight and win it more popularity in the wake of the Brotherhood fiasco, is its pushing back to the forefront of politics harming its unity?
Robert Springborg, who researches the Egyptian military and teaches national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, says that over time, “the increasingly diverse roles of the military combined with its central and visible political role will place greater pressure on it, including from divergent internal views on how the various challenges should be met.”
He tells Mada Masr that while the “eradicationist policy” adopted by Sisi is to the liking to the officer corps now, this can turn into dissatisfaction, especially if there is more resistance to it from the outside. “One has seen reports of unhappiness among national security troops over the hard line imposed by the military,” he continues.
Sisi’s popularity outside the army is blossoming, and it doesn’t seem to be so different inside — at least from those close in age to the 59-year old officer. But an older generation may find affinities with the equally powerful 65-year old General Mohamed al-Tohamy, the director of the General Intelligence Services, argues Springborg, who may be “to some extent anchoring the now retired officers who might otherwise drift away from the Sisi line.”
Similarly the security apparatus and more precisely the Ministry of Interior is regaining its prowess after its 2011 retreat following the mass protests that escalated into anti-regime protests but began as being against it in particular. The increasing attacks on ministry targets following Morsi’s ouster are providing the institution with a carte blanche for it to flex its muscles under the pretext of self-defense. A contentious Protest Law passed in November, under which several activists currently face charges, comes from the ministry, as does the Cabinet decision in December to label the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group.
But Springborg thinks that the crackdown is being performed by the Ministry of Interior, on behalf of the military, and that this is causing some unrest. He says that with, “what increasingly appears as an insurgency that continues and gains momentum, the Ministry of Interior or rather some of those within it will be increasingly unhappy with the military line.”
He argues that the military subordination of the security apparatus stands tensely against a history of an empowered security apparatus growing increasingly independent during the rule of former President Hosni Mubarak, while the military was sidelined.
A strong, and isolated, judiciary
Another stronghold of the state has been the judiciary, as represented by its main institutions, chief among them the Supreme Constitutional Court, but also general courts and the State Council.
After a short history of clashing with the Muslim Brotherhood over the judiciary’s independence, particularly the Supreme Constitutional Court, the ouster of the Brotherhood from politics meant the automatic redeeming of the sector’s prowess. For one, the constitutional draft granted the General Assembly of the Supreme Constitutional Court the ultimate authority over deciding the number of its judges and its president.
For Youssef Auf, a judge and constitutional scholar, this arrangement is “a new form of judicial oppression” that is the product of settling accounts following the Brotherhood’s attempt to subordinate the court.
“There is increasing isolation within the judiciary as a byproduct of their empowerment. They feel strong enough and hence don’t need to collaborate,” he says.
Auf sees the year as one essentially of losses for the judiciary as it entangles itself more closely with politics, both through its own will and as a result of being actively pushed to do so by other actors. Currently, the fight against the Brotherhood is fought on the grounds of courtrooms, besides the prominent role of the security sector there, just as the judiciary played an important role in Morsi’s ouster as much as the military did.
“The Egyptian judiciary lost a lot of credibility and much of the image that it has constructed for decades as the stable institution and where Egyptians find justice,” he says.
For Auf, this is translating into some internal dissatisfaction, particularly from younger judges, an extension of the generational tensions that marked the revolution in 2011. “As young judges, and by young, I mean those of us who are up to 45 years in age, we are completely dissatisfied by the lack of interest in reform.” He adds that there is an initiative to discuss a radical reform scheme for the judicial sector, but that full reform will not unfold in the near future, since the current leadership is old and resistant to change, in addition to the fact that the current landscape in Egypt is not conducive to significant change.
With these institutions seeming comforted by their current gains, it does not lead to a game sum of empowering the state, mostly due to the lack of a political project that ties them together to perform the expected role of the state.
A return of state crisis?
Hesham Sallam, a fellow at Stanford University's Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, says that the crisis of the state will continue so long as “it is unable to justify the political and economic order in Egypt.” This crisis, he argues, was inherited from the era of former President Anwar al-Sadat when the state gradually began stepping away from its social contract with the people, including its long-standing welfare responsibilities.
According to his analysis, ever since that time, the state pronounced itself most prominently through its coercive apparatus, and with the crisis of revolution, it had to resort to political façade, such as elections and representation by aligning itself with the Brotherhood. With the failure of this alliance and the return to the coercive apparatus, the crisis resumes.
“Now the state is attempting to advance another initiative aimed at building some kind of affinity between the socially and economically marginalized classes in Egyptian society. It is trying to do so through the use of this highly nationalistic, incoherent rhetoric that's trying to create common ground between the rent-seeking interests governing the state and its beneficiaries on the one hand, and the socially and economically aggrieved, on the other,” he says.
In the wake of the bankruptcy this state is experiencing, as it can no longer revive a pact with the marginalized for it has no welfare to offer, and can neither align itself with the elites as they have no way to pursue a fully fledged process of economic transformation, failure is abound.
“The formal political arena,” Sallam concludes, “is unable or unfit to address the type of class compromises that are necessary for peaceful coexistence between Egypt’s social classes.”