Autocracy isnʹt necessarily a state of law. The fashion for one-party states, in which the oppression is legally set out in written constitutions, faded a long while ago. Nor is autocracy simple repression, of the type which spreads fear and intimidates on a day-to-day basis. Each instance of autocratic rule is predicated, in part, on fulfilling a promise to deliver peace of mind in return for the loss of certain rights.
Moreover, autocratic rule is not merely a framework for the propaganda machines to churn out lies to the point where reality becomes lost in falsity. If people are deceived for long enough, they become convinced that the delusions they originally bought into are indeed facts – indeed, they will even harass the authorities on this basis.The ideology of autocracy exists between what is legal and what is informal, between fear and a sense of security, between what the autocratic power says and what it actually does on the ground, between what is public and what is not, regardless of whether something is in fact common knowledge.
Driving the system
The grey areas between these opposites and the deliberate ambiguity which underpins the selective practice of the authorities and their apparatchiks, specifically regarding the application of the law or the endorsement of rights which are not implemented, are the essence of autocracy; they are its most efficient and long-lasting driver.
The people drown between these two contradictory positions, trying to negotiate rules of engagement which are inconsistent, in the hope of securing whatever rights they can, even if only by accident.
The bravest are those who seek to bridge the gaps between these contradictory positions by facing up to the authorities, trying to force them into bringing their rhetoric into line with their actions, uncovering what is hidden and pushing them to behave as they claim to, but donʹt.
With the experience of more than three decades in power, Hosni Mubarakʹs regime excelled in the art of autocracy; they succeeded in goading everyone to join in. Every practice, speech and institution existed on the dividing line between the law and the unofficial.
Even organisations belonging to civil society that were active during Mubarakʹs rule fitted into this dual system. The human rights agendas of these organisations led them to rely on the law as dictated by the regime, by its constitution and its rhetoric, in order to bridge the gap between it and between what was actually applied on the ground.
At the same time, the regime forced those same organisations to operate on the narrow dividing line between the legal and the unofficial. Although their work was legal in principle, most human rights organisations during the Mubarak era remained in limbo and without a proper legal footing, deliberately so.