Even autocrats can’t have it all. Egypt’s Abdul Fatah Sisi has been president for nearly two years, but he is still in the process of consolidating power.
Caught up in the power struggles are ordinary Egyptians who are suffering what rights groups describe as the harshest crackdown on dissent since Sisi legitimized his putsch in 2014.
The European Parliament on Thursday expressed concern about what it said was a pattern of “torture, death in custody and enforced disappearances across Egypt in recent years.”
The Council on Foreign Relations’ Steven A. Cook writes that the situation is the result of struggles among the major players in Egypt who are seeking to protect their interests and turf.
First, there is the military. Sisi may be an army man but the soldiery is not monolithic. Junior officers, for example, are believed to resent the privileges the top brass enjoyed in the twilight of Mubarak’s regime.
Cook points out that when Anwar Sadat became president in 1970, it took him three years to gain full control of the state. He cut deals with a second rung of army and police officers in exchange for their support for the so-called Corrective Revolution in May 1971 that purged his opponents.
Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, a former air marshal, needed eight years before he could sack his rival, Field Marshal Abd al-Halim Abu Ghazala, as defense minister.
Ministry of Interior
The Ministry of Interior is another faction to be reckoned with. Sisi appointed the interior minister, Magdi Abdel Ghaffar, but that does not mean the ministry is now under his control.
“There are institutional rivalries and prerogatives that have an impact on the behavior of its leaders and employees,” argues Cook, who goes on to note that the institution is a particular challenge for Egypt’s new leaders.
[It] can either keep streets quiet or unleash chaos and since the Ministry of Defense is not inclined toward police work, the police generals and their minions get away with murder — literally.
The coup Sisi led in 2013 against the elected Islamist government that took Mubarak’s place allowed a third faction to stake out its claim to a more independent role: the judiciary.
Absurd verdicts that have been handed down in the last couple of years, including mass death sentences (which have not been carried out) are in part a function of unhinged judges.
But they are also “a reflection of the judiciary’s struggle to undermine the way it has been subordinated to the executive in the past,” according to Cook.
Finally, there are big businesses that benefited from the opening up of the economy in the final decade of Mubarak’s reign but whose interests in many ways collide with the army’s.
The military directly controls vast areas of the economy, from roads to bottled water production. It is believed the threat liberalization posed to the generals’ economic interests is what led them to allow Mubarak’s downfall in 2011.
Yet Sisi cannot altogether ignore the demands of private business. Egypt desperately needs foreign investment and tourism to return. As president, Sisi has cut energy subsidies and liberalized labor laws; reforms that were welcomed by the outside world but have ground to a halt as bureaucrats hold up implementation.
Balancing these various interests is Sisi’s burden. As factions jockey for influence and position, the outward manifestations can be ugly: army officers tussling with tycoons for seats in parliament; Interior Ministry goons beating up protesters; judges who show no mercy.
“Many more Egyptians have lost their lives or find themselves in jail than for as long as most people can remember,” writes Cook.
If the past is any indication, this could go on for several more years.