People may think that authoritarian rule is an easy task. However, the truth is quite the opposite; it is a far more complicated undertaking than democratic rule. Whereas democratic rule is a collective work, in which responsibilities are shared among the President, members of Parliament, governmental institutions and others, authoritarian rule requires a smart manipulative mindset driven entirely by a single person – a task that is much more difficult to realise. Manipulation is not only about implementing harsh measures; it is also comprised of heavy doses of seduction and shrewdness.
Egypt is certainly far from being a nation ruled by law, and it definitely cannot be defined as a democratic country. It has its own authoritarian mechanism, developed several decades ago, the latest functional version of which was introduced by Mubarak. In my opinion, Mubarak was a successful authoritarian ruler, not on account of any valuable achievements for Egypt, but in the sense that he was able to manipulate power successfully for almost three decades. The former President’s talents lay in his skilful manoeuvring of politicians and institutions to serve his goals.
Ruling a country like Egypt for three decades requires more than just an ‘Iron Fist’! Mubarak knew that politicians are power hungry, so he developed a mechanism in which he engaged large numbers of talented politicians and technocrats, with the aim of helping him to sustain his power (qualified politicians who managed to custom-tailor the rule of law and to compel supposedly independent institutions to further his ends) – but which also trapped them by abusing power. Citizens comprehended this mechanism, and managed to acquire stable positions either by aligning themselves with the ruling regime or by playing the role of fake ‘opposition leaders’. At the same time, Mubarak meted out harsh punishments to all those who sought to expand their designated political roles.
The mechanism developed by Mubarak is not a haphazard one; it is a complicated structure that was managed by his closest loyalists, people who knew how to formulate and implement policies in this dirty political setting. This authoritarian mechanism functioned smoothly until Mubarak’s son (accompanied by his new regime) emerged as his potential successor, leading to the breakdown of the entire mechanism.
By working against all odds, President Al-Sisi today faces a real dilemma! He does not want to revive Mubarak’s corrupt regime, yet he does not want to build a democratic country based on the principles of the revolution. He is not involved in corruption, but he is not fighting it. He has no desire to establish his own political party in order to engage his millions of admires, yet he wants Egyptians to join forces in support of his political desires of their own accord. He works on disengaging citizens from politics by creating an extremely challenging election structure, then criticises the weakness of their political involvement. He does not know how to compel independent institutions to implement his decisions, but does not want to empower them to enhance their performance. He marginalises politicians who differ with him, then finds himself facing difficulties with his non-functional projects.
Al-Sisi, who is known for his dislike of politics and indifference to politicians, initially wanted to distance himself completely from the political sphere. Roughly six months after assuming the presidency,however, he realised that he had to become involved with the “usual political leaders”. Accordingly, the President urged these leaders to come together to establish a proportional list for the parliamentary elections, one that he would support. However, leaving shaky political leaders to team up together without a ruling coach is a completely unrealistic approach. Although it was known that this proportional list would win the election, the initiative failed completely.
Furthermore, the engagement of numerous politicians with divergent outlooks at the recent roundtable discussions with the Prime Minister is clear evidence that the President still wants to buy time prior to running the parliamentary elections, blaming the delay on the politicians because they do not have a united opinion. We have by now become very familiar with poorly organised discussions whose purpose is to spoil dialogue. The Prime Minister, who spent his entire career in the construction industry before joining the cabinet, swore to God that his government is eager to hold parliamentary elections in the near future. This is an indisputable indication that the Prime Minister has nothing to do with the political roadmap, which is being managed behind the political scenes and does not involve him and his good intentions.
Al-Sisi wants politics to revolve around him with politicians and businesspeople, acting like worker bees, producing royal jelly for the queen bee. Politicians play the role of praising the President’s policies, while businessmen donate a substantial part of their earnings to the ‘Long Live Egypt’ Fund. The President, meanwhile, has no desire to give either party anything in return. Apart from the single Coptic minister in Egypt’s current cabinet, Al-Sisi has appointed no politicians to the post of minister or governor (not even those who played fundamental roles in the 25 January/30 June Revolutions).
Nevertheless, the Egyptian political scene is becoming more complicated than it was during the Mubarak era. Thousands of Egyptians are eager to become engaged in politics, the vast majority wanting to be affiliated to the President. Not only does this make it difficult for the President to predict their true allegiances, it is also impossible for the State Police to monitor, as it used to do under Mubarak, the true intentions of thousands of politicians. Thus Al-Sisi is lending a deaf ear to the idea of establishing his own political party, which would certainly include most of the current political leaders whom he is trying to avoid. The President simply wants to create a political disparity by maintaining the existing corrupt political environment while at the same time distancing himself from politics and retaining his standing as an overwhelmingly popular leader.
Al-Sisi believes that, by not having an existing presidential challenger, by impairing and blocking political channels (Parliament and the media) and by depowering parties and marginalising political leaders, he has succeeded in keeping himself as the sole Egyptian leader. Nevertheless, it is my opinion that the menace to the President does not come from his foes (he is doing an excellent job of distancing them from politics, after all). The real risk is posed by his affiliates, especially by government institutions. Instead of playing the manoeuvring game, as it did in Mubarak’s days, each institution is trying to ingratiate itself with the President by bending the law and by being more aggressive towards his political opponents. Since they do not abide with the rule of law or have a common political manipulator, conflicts are bound to arise among these government institutions sooner rather than later.
If Al-Sisi continues to insist on consuming the entire political cake alone, those who are left out will spoil it for him. Since the ruler has not given them the opportunity to be constructive, today’s political leaders have become exceedingly talented in the art of destruction. The extended honeymoon between the President and the politicians cannot last long; the President will either share political power with them, or they will begin to condemn his decisions and policies.
It is absolutely essential for a Commander-in-Chief to keep all the reins in one hand in order to move his troops according to plan. For a political leader however, keeping a tight hold on the reins for an extended period is not a sustainable or advisable proposition. Al-Sisi needs to play the political scene cleverly – otherwise the politicians will use the same reins to pull him down.
I have a single piece of advice for Al-Sisi: to completely disregard the old tactics and work on enabling Egypt to acquire a genuine democratic mechanism. Weakening everyone (with the exception of the President) and polarising society does not make the President immune to our political diseases. If he does not work on recovering the country (by imposing a proper application of the rule of law, introducing a better structural election law to bring genuine politicians to the Parliament, empowering institutions and appointing a qualified government), Al-Sisi will certainly be dragged down into the rotten domain of politics.