Can Sisi Break Egypt's Cycle of Authoritarianism?

If the regime does not allow for a more normal political life in Egypt, the country is likely to repeat another wretched cycle of political stagnation, sudden upheaval, fear and authoritarianism.

In January 2011, Egyptians took to the streets in large numbers, clamoring for the end of the thirty-year reign of Hosni Mubarak and demanding bread and dignity. In June 2013, fearful of the changes the Muslim Brotherhood might introduce, they again took to the streets in large numbers, clamoring for the end of the one-year presidency of Mohammed Morsi. The ensuing takeover by the military brought Egypt back full circle to authoritarianism. With the exceptions of the Muslim Brothers and other Islamists, Egyptians appeared ready to accept the return of a system that denied participation, but promised order and stability.

The lamentable circle that brought the military back to power, despite the hopes raised in 2011, risks being replicated in the future. The problems that led to that uprising continue to fester and will not be solved easily. With avenues to political participation closed by the new regime, discontent could easily lead to a new upheaval, followed by renewed fears of radical change and, again, acceptance of authoritarianism. To avoid a repeat performance, the government needs to reopen the political space for moderate, secularist parties and organizations of civil society immediately, so they can become an effective counterweight to the Islamist organizations that at some point will themselves have to be allowed back into the political system.

Change and the Fear Factor

The renewed acceptance of military rule and authoritarian politics in Egypt is not the result of a peculiar Arab aversion to democracy. Rather, it is a common phenomenon—the typical reaction by elites in power and middle classes that have found a precarious niche in their country’s system to changes that threaten their interests. It is the same reaction that explains popular support for the rise of fascist regimes in Europe, the return of military dictatorships in some Latin American countries after periods of democracy and more generally, the failure of many attempted democratic transitions. The consequences of political openings in all those cases became threatening, even to those that advocated the change.

The 2011 uprising was not a revolution, as many Egyptians like to think. There was no project of far-reaching political and socioeconomic transformation on the part of most of those who participated in the demonstrations, and even the leaders did not appear to have a vision for a new society. Nevertheless, the uprising triggered a chain of events that potentially threatened the vested interests not only of a few people at the top, such as the Mubarak family and its close business associates, but of a much larger stratum of professionals and bureaucrats.

When the free parliamentary elections of 2012 gave 70 percent of parliamentary seats to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and other Islamist parties, and Mohammed Morsi—a Muslim Brother—became president, the old, largely secular elite that ruled Egypt feared it would be replaced by Islamist upstarts.

The array of people potentially threatened was large: the top layers of an extremely well-entrenched bureaucracy; a stratum of well-educated secularists that was critical of the Mubarak regime, was dissatisfied about the lack of individual freedoms and the paralysis of the political system, but ultimately was comfortably ensconced in the professions, the universities and the media; and a business community that had benefited from the liberalization of the economy promoted by Mubarak and, above all, his sons. Many, possibly most, of them genuinely wanted some change—as long as it did not threaten them. And below this professional stratum, was a much larger layer of Egyptians worried by instability and continuing economic stagnation and ready to blame it on the Muslim Brotherhood as they had blamed it on Mubarak earlier.

The Muslim Brothers were clearly a political threat to the old secular elite. They had much greater capacity to mobilize popular support, as seen by election results. Socially and culturally, they were an alien group. True, many of their leaders were highly educated, including in the universities of Western countries where they favored degrees in medicine, science and engineering over the liberal arts. Education did not keep them from being looked down upon as ignorant by much of the old elite. Their culture and values were different. They were part of another social milieu and engendered apprehension even before they had done anything.

The issue of women rights is revealing in this respect. During their brief tenure in office, the Muslim Brothers did nothing that affected the position of women in the society. They passed no new laws, imposed no new limitations. True, women continued to face many problems, but they did so under Mubarak and do so under al-Sisi. Nevertheless, secularists invariably denounced the curtailment of women’s rights as if the Muslim Brotherhood had been acting like the Taliban, raising the specter of what would happen to women under the continuing rule of the Muslim Brotherhood.