Sisi: A tyrant plagued by the ghosts of Egypt's revolution

Sisi: A tyrant plagued by the ghosts of Egypt's revolution
Comment: Kleptocratic patronage, poverty and unemployement. Sisi's rule has merely exacerbated the corrosive problems that led to revolution in 2011, writes Sam Hamad.
7 min read
24 Jan, 2018
Sisi's jittery reactions to potential presidential candidates indicate he is far from secure [Getty]
Counter-revolution is often so pervasive and total in the way it brutally attempts to erase the past that it can be easy to forget that a revolution happened at all.  

In Sisi's Egypt, the seventh anniversary of the January 25 Revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak is a kind of haze in the background. It's a savage irony that the only visible remnant of the revolution, is the brutality of counter-revolution. 

The regime has successfully tied the revolution and its main product; democracy, not just to extremely loaded, mythical conceptions of "chaos" and "instability", but to violence and terror.  

It's telling that in discussions today, people often forget that January 25 did not appear out of nowhere. 

Though it was the revolutionary martyrdom of Bouazizi that sparked the wildfire of revolution that swept through the region, Egypt's revolution - as with all others - had its own unique set of problems that underlay the revolution.  

In Egypt, the main dynamic of the revolution had much to do with the contrary way the modernisation that comes with economic liberalisation, within the context of tyranny, is simultaneously responsible for social destruction and a form of stunted social progress.  

Mubarak's reign was typified by the large-scale destruction of social services and a system of kleptocratic patronage that pervaded all Egyptian society, leading to poverty and unemployment among the educated middle classes as well as the uneducated underclasses. 

Tyrannies like that of Egypt, where people's lives and dreams are treated with systematic contempt, created both revolutionaries and monsters

Economic liberalisation occurring within a tyranny had produced a kleptocracy in Egypt – fiscal corruption reigned supreme, with money being taken out of the public sector and dispersed among the regime, while they paved the way for loyal domestic and foreign corporations to hegemonise and exploit Egypt's economy.  

This social destruction, such as decaying hospitals, schools and the fracturing of the welfare state in general, co-existed with the need for an educated workforce due to the new economic demands that accompanied liberalisation. 

University education was accessible to tens of millions of Egyptians, but this produced a surplus of young educated Egyptians who didn't have the right connections to get a well-paying job in Egypt.  

You had engineers and scientists driven into poverty working as waiters and waitresses for a pittance. 

One of the people locked out by Egypt's tyrannical system of patronage was Mohamed Atta. Atta had studied engineering in Germany, planning to return home to Egypt to seek employment in his chosen field, but it was impossible. His family were lower middle class and weren't members of the National Democratic Party - he had no chance of being an engineer in Egypt.
Read more: Rattled by Shafiq, Sisi's regime shows it is far from stable

Faced with a lifetime of either working in menial jobs that would scarcely meet the cost of living, Atta went back to Berlin and drifted into depression and the nihilism of Salafi-jihadism. His last moment on earth was one of mass destruction, slamming a plane into the World Trade Centre on 9/11 aged just 33.  

This is not to excuse or even attempt to explain his actions, but tyrannies like that of Egypt, where people's lives and dreams are treated with systematic contempt, created both revolutionaries and monsters.  

It's this dynamic that has dominated the Arab spring, with the monsters of IS emerging alongside those who seek not nihilistic destruction but the overturning of the order towards social justice and self-determination. These are the stakes of revolution in the region - it's of no surprise then that counter-revolution has been the best friend of IS, whether it's in Syria or the Sinai.

But while Atta might represent the death of a particular social dream in Egypt, the January 25 revolutionaries embraced the future. With the explosion of technology in Egypt, most notably the internet and mobile phone technology, something Mubarak couldn't control among the populace, the January 25 revolution erupted in 2011.  

The Mubarak regime demanded that most Egyptians accept sub-standard impoverished lives in a developing country. 

Any time they tried to voice criticism or express their will buoyed by the electronic internationalism of the internet era, they were smashed; thus, it was overt moments of brutality like the brutal torture and murder of Khaled Said that became emblematic of the cause.

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Thus, learning from Mubarak's mistakes, the Sisi regime has gone out of its way to use the only language it knows, namely violence and terror, to ensure that something like January 25 will never happen again. 

It's why when hundreds of thousands of pro-Morsi and pro-democracy supporters gathered in Rabaa and Nadha to resist his coup, far from the approach of withdrawing the security forces as they did on January 25, the Sisi regime perpetrated a massacre, seemingly dousing the last remaining flames of January 25 with blood.

Along with the mass imprisonment and persecution of members of the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, he has ensured that the demographic who supported either them or what you might call the "liberal" wing of the revolution is more constrained than ever before.  

It is of no surprise that counter-revolution has been the best friend of IS, whether it's in Syria or the Sinai

Tens of thousands of people have been arrested and held without trial, with widespread torture of detainees and the death penalty being handed out for political reasons. In addition to this, there has been a wave of disappearances of dissidents and regime critics - the internet, so crucial in formulating dissent prior to January 25, has been utilised by the regime as a tool for spying on potential troublemakers.  

Campuses have been turned into both physical and ideological fortresses, with police and private security forces patrolling them, and lecturers transformed into spies, reporting those students who might be critical of the regime to the authorities, or meting out draconian punishments. 

Read more: Police state Egypt: Jailing political opposition

Hundreds of students have been arrested in an ongoing crackdown. The atmosphere fostered by Sisi is that no one is safe – merely criticising or even just questioning the president or the military can land you in prison.

Instead of undertaking reforms that benefit those Egyptians locked out by the economy, Sisi has relied on huge aid from the UAE and Saudi Arabia to bolster the elites, as well as seeking a loan from the IMF that carries with it a destructive austerity programme that has seen further cuts to the already precarious welfare state.  

The internet, so crucial in formulating dissent prior to January 25, has been utilised by the regime as a tool for spying

It was with impressively crude efficiency, that the regime, in its "deep state" phase, dismantled and finally smashed democracy in Egypt, playing different factions of the revolutionary base off against each other, to return itself to full power. 

It was within weeks that it became clear that the Sisi regime had no will to share power, and the resulting developments have seen the creation of an outright fake parliament, stacked full of Sisi loyalists and rich businessmen, as well as an entirely fixed presidential election process.

It might be easy to look at the despairing situation in Egypt and want to forget that January 25 ever existed, but Sisi's rule has merely exacerbated the same problems that fed into it. While another revolution in that style is unlikely, Sisi's jittery reactions to potential challengers in the upcoming presidential election indicates that his regime is far from secure.  

Though the demographics that made the January 25 revolution are damaged and disillusioned by waves of persecution, they still bravely protest on a regular basis. The main current of criticism, though, comes from within the establishment. And, so ironically, it is these Mubarak diehards who were so antagonistic to January 25, who now dress in democratic garb and face persecution for doing so.

Most recently, General Sami Anan, Mubarak's former Army Chief of Staff, was forced to suspend his presidential campaign after being arrested for apparently "insulting the military". Anan had been criticising a host of Sisi's policies, including his failure to tackle corruption, "terrorism", even criticising elements of his reign of terror.  

If the Sisi regime was safe in its own skin, it would have simply put on a show election, as it did in 2014 with Hamdeen Sabahi the organised challenger.  

But now, with Sisi's entire logic of stability through authoritarianism crumbling, as IS takes hold of the Sinai and threatens all Egyptians, or as dissent is further fuelled by the IMF austerity cuts, or as Sisi's nationalist credentials are undermined by his subservience to the Gulf, it seems that the ghost of January 25 continues to haunt the regime and - despite attempts to push it down the memory hole - shape Egyptian society.  

The revolution may have failed, but it shook the foundations of Egypt's kleptocracy to the extent that they can't ever forget it, namely because they have no solution other than violence to its causes.

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.