People may believe that authoritarianism is a standardized practice – on the contrary. There are several degrees and functionalities of authoritarian rule, wherein autocrats’ personalities play an essential role in shaping their respective ruling mechanisms.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has always envied his late predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser’s leadership style – which was bereft of the slightest glimpse of democracy – has accused Hosni Mubarak of being too soft on the Muslim Brotherhood. However, Mubarak – a thoroughly authoritarian president who was overthrown by his people in Feb. 2011 – was substantially better than Sisi at a number of tasks.
Mubarak was always surrounded by a close group of trustworthy, qualified political executives and advisors who served him well, whereas Sisi trusts no one. The latter uses a fill-in-the-blanks approach to political appointees, assigning bureaucrats to fill ministerial and parliamentary positions with little concern for their merits and qualifications as long as they can implement his ideas in the shortest possible time span.
Mubarak was a strong manipulator who had the ability to induce people to meet his needs by skillfully communicating his political goals. Sisi, with his inadequate communication skills, is not influencing anybody; he is not even controlling his own people, in my opinion. Appropriate use was made of ‘political clowns’ under Mubarak, yet they remained firmly within the ‘clown’ bracket. Sisi, however, in my opinion, has given them more room to perform their antics. As a result, they have managed to dominate the political scene.
Mubarak used a divide-and-rule strategy, establishing a number of political power entities while making sure to create friction among them. Sisi’s complete reliance on military and security forces has diffused Mubarak’s traditional power entities.
Whereas Mubarak was aware of his limitations, was happy to live in his comfort zone and declined any attempt to do things differently, Sisi believes the sky is the limit, but has yet to explain how he plans to accomplish his ambitions.
Government bureaucracy has been a concern to both presidents. Neither has worked on reforming the government apparatus to improve its productivity and efficiency, yet Mubarak used to empower his entourage, encouraging them to bend the law in order to overcome bureaucracy, and providing them with the necessary immunity to do so. Sisi expects his cabinet to produce positive results, but unlike Mubarak he has not provided his executives with any ruling mechanisms, support or immunity.
Mubarak was well established regionally and internationally. For better or for worse (for Egypt), many world leaders recognized and trusted his narrative. Although he perceives the situation differently, Sisi’s credentials have not yet been accepted either regionally or internationally.
Despite the above differences, the two leaders share most of the fundamental qualities of authoritarianism: a policy of repression, widespread injustice and inefficient government. Nevertheless, Mubarak, whose clearly-structured reasoning mindset was easily understood by his followers, managed to run a functional authoritarian state. Sisi’s method of reasoning is fragmented, making him very difficult to understand. His dissociation from Egypt’s challenges threatens to turn it into a flailing state.