Repression and legitimation in Egypt

The world as al-Sisi sees it

A policy formula that only recognises two distinctions – those who are "for the regime" and those who are "against the regime", with the latter arguably grouped under the heading "potential terrorists" – is leading to widespread human rights violations and the persecution of those who hold different political views. A commentary by Thomas Demmelhuber

Selecting the former army general al-Sisi for presidential office followed the tradition of the military's robust role in Egyptian politics. Viewed from this perspective, the civilian Morsi's short intermezzo in the presidential palace appears to be nothing more than a footnote of recent history.

Al-Sisi meanwhile perceives himself to be riding a wave of public support, even against the backdrop of current approval ratings and elections, as far this can be representatively ascertained from opinion polls and with a recent electoral participation rate of just over 28 percent – and as far as this can be described as such (see recent surveys from Baseera). The courting of the Egyptian head of state in European capitals serves to reinforce this official narrative.

This surge of populism can however not disguise the fact that firstly, the Egyptian state has lost control of large swathes of the country (e.g. Sinai), secondly, that it is suffering huge losses in the tourism sector, inflicting as yet incalculable collateral damage following the attack on the Russian passenger jet – and thirdly – that it has for years been teetering on the brink as regards economic and fiscal policy and is therefore barely able to demonstrate any convincing strategic approaches.

Meanwhile Europe and the international community, against the background of a supposedly more urgent search for functioning, stable partners in a shifting region, are generously looking the other way as the nation backslides into autocratic behaviour patterns.

Allure of repression

The Sisi regime, which perceives itself as guarantor of national unity and the stability of public order, places its faith first and foremost in every conceivable means of repression to attain its goals. Reports of tens of thousands of political detainees are expanded by a patently systematic failure of security forces to uphold constitutional norms.

There are numerous reports concerning the bullying of cultural figures of national and international repute, such as the writer Alaa Al Aswany, who is well known outside Egypt. The NGO Arabic Network for Human Rights (ANHRI), which is critical of the regime, issued a protest note that spoke of a smear campaign against Al Aswany.

Wreckage of the Russian passenger jet which crashed in the Sinai (photo: imago/ITAR-TASS)
Teetering on the abyss: the tourist destination Sharm el-Sheikh on the Sinai Peninsula has remained Egypt′s top resort in recent years, despite ongoing political unrest. The suspected IS terrorist attack on a Russian passenger jet in October 2015, which killed 224 people, however, means prospects for Red Sea tour operators and the entire Egyptian tourist industry are gloomy

The list can be continued right across politics and society, as well as numerous professional groups. It is the outcome of a policy formula that only recognises two distinctions: those who are "for the regime" and those who are "against the regime", with the latter arguably grouped under the heading "potential terrorists".

Disregard of legitimacy

Each and every political order, regardless of whether it is democratic or autocratic, requires a fundamental idea to lend it legitimacy. This is even more applicable to the authoritarian regime of the 21st century, as formerly – during eras of bilateral world order – proximity to an ideological patron was adequate life insurance for the political regime.

In this, legitimacy is to be understood as fluid greatness. Crises of legitimacy do not automatically lead to regime change and a collapse of the established order. Legitimacy results from permanent negotiation, requires ongoing approval and more decisively, a basic consensus with regard to the principles of the political order and the justification for this, from which the institutional setup of state-society relations is also derived.

In this context, the new Egyptian constitution is very precise and the most democratic constitution Egypt has ever had: it traces the nucleus of a national community of origin back to the time of the pharaohs, refers back to the achievements of its many revolutions, unsurprisingly ascribes several merits to the military but – and this is key – focuses on the Egyptian people as the elemental hub of all (!) sovereignty: "We are the citizens. We are the Egyptian people, sovereigns in a sovereign homeland. This is our will and this is the Constitution of our revolution."

This claim of the political order is being trotted out to the point of absurdity in the current political manifestation (e.g. in the anti-terror laws tightened by decree in the summer of 2015). Meanwhile, the gap between how the established order is claimed to be and its reality – a gap that is mostly unsurprising in the case of authoritarian regimes – puts the legitimacy crisis of the Mubarak regime, in which the authoritarian regime cancelled out the nominally just as democratic character of the constitution using formal and informal power relations and specifically created institutions, in the shade. Why is the Sisi regime taking this risk and entrusting the attainment of political stability first and foremost to systematic repression?

Amr Darrag, secretary general of the constituent assembly, presents a draft of the new Egyptian constitution in December 2012 (photo: Getty Images/AFP/G. Guercia)
Political legitimacy based on constitutional rights and democratic participation: "the new Egyptian constitution is very precise and the most democratic constitution Egypt has ever had: it traces the nucleus of a national community of origin back to the time of the pharaohs, refers back to the achievements of the many revolutions, unsurprisingly ascribes several merits to the military but – and this is key – focuses on the Egyptian people as the elemental hub of all (!) sovereignty", writes Demmelhuber

Old cronyism, new options

The durability of political rule in non-democratic contexts does not of course only depend on clever legitimation strategies that involve a minimum level of political responsivity. The safeguarding of power and sustainability requires the creative co-opting of allied elite groups that must be tied into the regime and controlled.

In this regard, there is much to indicate that this process of renegotiation of sinecures and privileges, which was also in flux under Mubarak, is currently in a highly fluid state. Ownership structures within politically motivated enterprise, as well as power relations with the new political power centre are being reshuffled and realigned in favour of companies with close links to the military.

This can be clearly observed in large-scale state projects such as the expansion of the Suez Canal or other investment projects that on the one hand are reminiscent of a long forgotten era of state structural policy under Gamal Abdel Nasser and, on the other, are being extended by the politically motivated foreign trade policies of allied Gulf states. In all of this, the consolidation of the ruling apparatus is still the priority goal of the Sisi regime.

"Red line" reorientation

"Red lines defining what is allowed", limits that could be relatively accurately predicted during the final years of the Mubarak regime, are undergoing a new orientation with sometimes random interpretation within the mid-level and more senior administrative and security apparatus. In this consolidation of its political rule, the Sisi regime is under massive time pressure and will have to pay closer attention to achieving greater approval as a result of performance (performance legitimacy) and political responsivity in 2016, if it is to lessen the contradiction, previously outlined, between claim and reality in the established order.

Even though – in the midst of a Manichaean understanding of politics – objections on the part of the regime opposition are being kept out of the public discourse very effectively at present and stability remains the goal of broad sections of society after the restless years of political transition, the knowledge and strategy repertoire held by regime opponents and critics, i.e. how a regime can be challenged, remains part of Egypt′s collective biographical point of reference.

In the end the Sisi regime will be judged on whether it keeps the political, economic and social promises it has itself set down. The maximal exclusion of entire social strata and the repressive flanking of regime policies can at most attain a short-term consolidation of power.

Thomas Demmelhuber

© Qantara.de 2015

Dr. Thomas Demmelhuber is professor of Middle Eastern politics and society at Friedrich Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg.

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