The only logical choice for civil, democratic forces seeking to heed and move beyond the demands of 2011 in Egypt is to dive into the upcoming presidential elections. It is incumbent on them because the events of the past five years have resulted in a ruling elite strategically entrenched in a regressive regional and international order.
A decision to engage in the elections may provide democratic groups with an escape from the current paralysis of Egypt’s political sphere, and a chance for politics to move away from the duality of “military vs. Islamists.” Many politically engaged people have frozen in time since the bloody summer of 2013, amid the crackdown on civil society and general dissatisfaction with economic and social policies. The elections could provide an opportunity to revive their organizational structures and discourses, particularly given their inability to protest — or even express a clear desire for an alternative.
Is it possible for an authoritarian regime like Egypt’s to change and take on a more democratic form?
Historically, disintegrating authoritarian regimes — including that of January 2011 in Egypt — show that three conditions must exist before such collapse is possible: serious cracks in the armor of the ruling class due to institutional or individual rivalries or disputes over the representation of its interests; a decline in foreign support for a particular political elite; and a steadily growing democratic trend that can accelerate both the cracks’ expansion and the withdrawal of foreign backing.
A quick glance at developments since July 2013 shows that none of these conditions exist, and nor are they likely to in the near future — at least the coming few months, before the first presidential term of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ends. The current ruling elite is in the early stages of formation and governing. Its authority was only formally recognized four years ago, and its first year in power was marked by heated struggle with Islamists and international conflicts as it sought to solidify its legitimacy.
We should not forget that serious discussions to oust former President Hosni Mubarak only began after a quarter of a century of his rule, enough time to dispel any hope among his supporters that reform from within was possible. The current rulers seem much more cohesive than Mubarak’s regime in its last years. Since January 2011, many loyalist factions and coalitions have been reorganizing under Sisi’s firm leadership.
Though rivalries and dissatisfactions exist — even within institutions such as the military and security apparatus — and have the potential to escalate under any government, there is currently no indication in Egypt that such problems will lead these actors to abandon their current alliances or challenge Sisi’s leadership. Additionally, the absence of a main ruling political party, which might mitigate tensions as they emerge, means small fissures often appear as larger crises. But this was intentional. Sisi witnessed the collapse of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) over the last six years of Mubarak’s rule, so he has refrained from organizing his supporters into a single entity. He saw the NDP become the focal point for criticism of corruption and inadequacy, and a force against which to rally popular anger.
Moreover, the ruling elite is not shy about its role in a complex web of local, regional and international economic interests, facilitated by the centralized decision-making capabilities of the military. Indeed, it’s possible that in its modern history Egypt has never been so blatantly exposed to the biases of an economic and political elite — an elite which has instinctively reinvented itself by becoming a key partner in the “war on terror.”
Sisi has gone above and beyond his Western allies’ expectations in terms of curbing waves of migration to Europe and endorsing Israel’s occupation and apartheid. Even Mubarak was reluctant to push through right-wing economic reforms to the extent that Sisi has, and to exert as much pressure on the parties ruling Palestine. Egyptians bearing the brunt of Sisi’s economic reforms are confronted with vigorous nationalist hysteria from the Egyptian media and politicians. For Egypt’s allies, this discourse reinforces the impression of Sisi as strong man.
Those in international think tanks and research centers who predict that Sisi’s legitimacy will rapidly disintegrate due to increasingly oppressive political measures and the worsening economic crisis underestimate the differences between Mubarak’s authoritarianism in his last days and that of Sisi newly in power. They also overlook the alliances made by the two regimes, and the contexts in which they were made. Mubarak’s ties were forged after the collapse of the USSR, at a time when liberal economic policies were more attractive. His approach was based on a worldview that no longer exists.
A boycott of the regime’s actions and politics is a recipe for isolation that will only result in losses for the boycotters. The experience of the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies and supporters should provide us all with a learning experience in this regard.
This brings me to the last condition in transitioning away from authoritarianism: the growth and sustainability of democratic activism.
Despite the turbulence in the region and unprecedented transformation among Egypt’s rulers over the past four years, organized political opposition seems to have completely frozen since July 3, 2013. Most prominent actors on the scene today emerged between 2011 and 2013 as a result of the rifts that took place and the factions that formed among civil democratic forces. As such, they have developed little in terms of organizational structures, discourses and popular base of supporters.
Islamist groups, still representing Egypt’s main political opposition, remain incapable of surmounting the violence they experienced in recent years. They have neither integrated into existing modes of governance, nor show desire for potential reconciliation. Most continue to dwell on the question of legitimacy and their sole strategy is boycotting the regime. They have little inclination toward self-critique or reflection.
Other oppositional forces, so-called “leftists” or “national leftists,” those aligned with the National Salvation Front, also froze in July 3. They have more diverse interpretations of the current government’s policies. Some, like the Free Egyptians, lean toward supporting a trend they see as supportive of secular governance, while perceiving the governing elite as a negative remnant of the Mubarak era and showing dissatisfaction with the delay in religious reform under Sisi.
These groups of civil opposition now appear as Don Quixote figures, tilting at windmills. They expect more concrete steps from the government in terms of fighting extremism and moving away from Wahhabism, but naturally do not want to give up their economic advantages. They can never quite distinguish themselves from the government, because for them any serious opposition is necessarily allied in some way with the Brotherhood. They continue to hope the ruling elite will make space for them in the coming elections. I wish them luck with that.
This leaves us with the civil democratic opposition, which tried to quickly set itself apart after July 3 through distancing itself from both the ruling elite and the Islamists and blaming both for the crisis. It is reliant on support from middle- and working-class students, those who are highly educated and recent graduates, including private-sector professionals, parts of the petite bourgeoisie, as well as a vanguard from the industrial working class and the pool of civil servants, whose living conditions have rapidly deteriorated over the last four years. The goals and slogans of this sector of the opposition seem idealistic. They are over-reliant on the language of 2011, which is no longer sufficient for mass mobilization.
Any feasible democratic program in Egypt today will need to include a social program to give people back an element of control over their lives and futures. With Islamist forces veering more to the right politically in recent years, a coalition against the regime seems unlikely. But the demoralization and disengagement among Egypt’s political opposition does not necessarily mean they will not embrace another alternative.
Dissecting the situation in such a manner is integral to delineating the aims of the democratic current from that of the presidential elections, due to take place in six months. The challenge is not to find an alternative to a collapsing regime, because the regime is not in a weak position. Nor is the challenge to prove its illegitimacy through boycott, because this will not have a significant impact given the cohesion of the ruling elite and the strength of its regional and global alliances. The real challenge is to develop a new democratic discourse out of our current reality, and form a radical oppositional coalition that can help accelerate a future dismantling of the regime.
But developing tactics requires a battle to fight. This is where the presidential elections, somewhat ironically, can have some utility in forming a new democratic bloc in Egypt.
All other channels for political participation are either closed (including student unions and professional and workers’ syndicates) or biased in a certain direction (such as parliamentary and local elections). Four years of Sisi’s monopoly over the press has left an impression that there is no significant institution in the country except the presidency, and that any change will require challenging the palace.
And ultimately boycotting the elections is akin to announcing to the government and its Islamist opponents that democratic forces are exiting the scene. It is not an option to wait until an ideal candidate is identified, although such a person may have a role to play in future — when a semi-serious possibility of changing the government arises, then we can find consensus on someone. Meanwhile there is no viable alternative to democratic forces representing themselves in whatever way they can in the elections. When other conditions for the disintegration of the current order exist, we can talk again.