A new, but not so new, regime

Mada Masr speaks with Joshua Stacher, assistant professor of political science at Kent State University, about the political steps Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi needs to take as he prepares to run for the presidency.

Mada Masr: You wrote how that the military fell back on the Muslim Brotherhood to use them as a social branch of the regime. Now that the Brotherhood is public enemy number one, pro-roadmap secular parties have carved out some space for themselves, and former President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party doesn’t exist in the same form as it did before, what kind of options does Sisi have to create a new political machine?

Joshua Stacher: I think Sisi’s options are incredibly limited. I also view Sisi as a kind of Wizard of Oz character. There’s been an enormous amount of build up around him as being this omnipotent figure, but as far as I can tell the only plan he has is to drum up popularity through an anti-terror campaign that will allow him to use violence against his opponents.

I don’t think regime change happened between 2011 and 2013, but I would definitely say that we are in the process of watching a new regime come to fruition. There’s no NDP to fall back on that’s readymade, there’s not a wide range of crony capitalist networks like Mubarak had. Look, the military does have crony capitalists, but they need to expand out. They’re going to need a ruling party, they’re going to have to build this regime, and this is an incredibly tenuous process.

MM: The prevailing argument seems to be that this new presidency will fall back on the old NDP networks and old faces. But there’s a lot of tension between the party’s Gamal Mubarak wing, and the security wing of the NDP. Is it possible that they could come back, or is that something that the personalities currently in power wouldn’t allow?

JS: I think that what we’re watching in Egypt is a process of continuity and conversion; usually its continuity and change. What they’re going to do is go around and pick out existing institutions, parties and people that want to participate, and reorganize, reorder and create a new regime. That’s a big change. But the change will be disguised by the fact that we’re going see Mohamed Kamal [the NDPs former spokesperson] running around, and we might see Hossam Badrawy [the last president of the NDP] running around, and we might see these local notable elites in the countryside running for election.

Everyone is going to say this is the old NDP and these are the days of Mubarak, when it is much more violent, much narrower, with some of the same faces.

This is very different than the Mubarak regime, which was much more robust. At the moment this is a very insecure regime, or regime in formation. This is why all dissent — big and small — has to be violently put down. I believe that the violence that we see now against protesters and dissent in general is a deliberate state policy that they need to help construct this new regime.

MM: Since June 30 there has been a lot of violence. But an extension of this is a very zealous judiciary and prosecution that are throwing legal cases at activists and others that are expressing dissent. How much do the interests of these groups and the military align? You said that this is a deliberate state policy, but could you talk a bit more about that in relation to the police?

JS: Other state institutions are looking around, and they are not taking direct orders from the military. They’re watching where the wind is blowing and they’re trying to line up. That’s not all that different from the Mubarak regime, right? Mubarak didn’t give orders and say: this is how you are going to rule.

The problem is the disruptions of the past three years. Many people are equating their livelihoods and their careers with the re-stabilization of Egypt. So they’re all willing to back the regime. In the process of seeing where the military is going and lining up behind it, what you’re actually doing is reorganizing the lines of hierarchy and power relations.

MM: Let’s talk about this reorganization in terms of the military. When Morsi originally appointed Sisi defense minister, there were only a handful of generals that Morsi himself retired. A couple of weeks later, Sisi was the one that reorganized the military. He retired or fired some 70-odd generals. Assuming that these are people displaced because of rank or because of their relationship with others inside the military, do you think that we’ll see another reorganization inside the military once Sisi becomes president?

JS: I never believed that Morsi got rid of [former military chief Mohamed al-] Tantawi and appointed Sisi. I always was under the impression that the military went to Morsi and basically said, ok, you know, here’s how we want to reorganize this. There was discussion at the top of the military, do we actually let the military take this thing over. The wing that wanted to wait and see was the one that sort of won out, and that was how it was reorganized.

MM: You’ve hit on this in some of your other writings, that some officers wanted to wait and see, and this is when they reached out to the Brotherhood. What other indications made you think that?

JS: Well, I just never really thought Morsi was in control. The Brotherhood jumped on the old-state, military bandwagon on February 6 2011. They basically showed up and were brought in as junior partners. The NDP had been burned to the ground and basically run out of existence, [and] the Brotherhood was the one [group] that didn’t have a revolutionary character, and that had that hierarchy that they could dispatch where there was sectarian conflict and say “calm down, relax, we got this.”

There were always signs that the military was always driving this process. When Morsi came to power I think that he got frustrated. And then, of course, in a complete move of desperation there was the disastrous Constitutional Declaration of [November 22] 2012. These were all signs that Morsi was not in control of the mechanism[s of power]. The military could get immediate compliance, because people were looking for someone to come in and assert a predictable order.

MM: You said the Brotherhood did not have a revolutionary character. There are some arguments that the [Salafi] Nour Party was brought into the transition not only for its Islamic character, but for its organization on the ground. Nour isn’t revolutionary, but they are an anti-system, albeit gradualist, organization. How do you think they’ll be playing into what you call this regime conversion?

JS: Well, the Brotherhood was never rejectionist in their opposition. They had acquiesced to the norms of Mubarak, they never went outside of it. They were used to oppression, and they were used to it as a fact of life. The opposition of April 6 [Youth Movement], Kefaya or any of those predecessor movements was based on, “Screw you, we don’t want your system.” And that’s why they could never gain entry into the Mubarak regime.

So whether the Salafis come to play this role, I don’t think they’re going to be anything more than a boogeyman. I don’t know how the Salafis will play into the system if it looks like something like, and I hate to call it [that], Mubarak’s system. My fear is that everyone is going to be calling what Sisi is doing the “Mubarak state.”

I suspect that opposition that accepts the norms of the new military state and abides by the informal rules of how one dissents will be tolerated. And if they decide they want to go rejectionist or they want another outcome, or they criticize Sisi and these sorts of things, they’re going to suffer the same fate as Brotherhood protesters.

MM: When you’re talking about these new rules and the violence that is going alongside them, is the violence only for an interim period before these norms are set, or is it going to be the new norm?

JS: So basically, the reason you can have an authoritarian regime that nobody likes that isn’t all that violent, but repressive, is because the norms are largely set. Everybody knows how to interact with the state when they bump into it. The Sisi regime in formation is so scared of any dissent because it doesn’t have this wide base with multiple constituencies. It’s popular, but that’s not organized political capital. The popularity is a way to buy time so they can build the regime. We’re going to see incredible violence while this regime is in formation. The people that are governing the state are actually far more brittle and weaker than compared to the Mubarak years.

If you think of the Egyptian state as an onion, what we’ve watched over the past three years is layers being peeled off that onion, and we’re getting down to the core of what drives the system.


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