It is hard sometime to find something really new to say about the political developments in Egypt. Ever since the overthrow of Mubarak in 2011, and the subsequent dramatic events that saw the removal of his successor, the Islamist Mohamed Morsi, the basic structure of the conflict and distribution of roles in this historic epic have remained more or less unchanged. The three main actors have demonstrated unenviable rigidity.
There is the Islamists, who want to turn Egypt into some kind of theocracy in all but name. Then there is the old regime stalwarts, what I call the Mubarakistas, who have done everything they could to thwart the transition to an open and free society, because that may bring with it a measure of accountability which will most likely throw many of them in jail. Last but not least , the nebulous groups that we, short of a better name, call the democratic forces – liberals, leftists and enlightened secular conservatives and others who defy clear-cut classification– who want a break with the past and to forge a new social contract between the state and the individual based on rights and duties to replace the old and defunct patriarchal state.
There is however some crucial update as to what the next chapter in this fascinating drama may look like after the introduction of the supposedly new actor, President El-Sisi, who, after initially raising the hopes of many, may turn out to be not that new at all.
For months now almost everyone in Egypt has been asking with increasing anxiety : where is the country heading?
And the answer is : no one really knows.
The one thing we know for certain is that the latest terror attacks in Sinai have exacerbated the apprehension and racheted up the political and social tension in society.
Two big players though – the Islamists and the Mubarakistas — seem to know where they want to go and take the rest of the country with them. Not only that, but they also have the means to do so.
The Islamists, having realised that the outside world will not come to their rescue after the overthrow of their man in the presidential palace, and that they cannot grab power back any time soon, if ever, they are hell bent upon bringing the house down by keeping the country on edge and unstable, through daily terror and riots, thinking that this in the long run will bring down the current order and the opportunity will emerge again ( as it once did post Mubarak in 2011) to seize power.
They are not only counting on their supporters and the violence they can unleash, but equally, it seems, on blunders by their enemies – the Mubarakistas, who still pull the strings in the security establishment and the judiciary.
Although an outright knockout is unlikely, one can say that the terrorists are winning and the Muslim Brothers strategy appears to be working in one important sense. They have denied the Egyptians so far the sense of having turned a new page, so that they can focus on fixing the economy and building a new government. So, for example by mobilising their student base to disrupt normal university life for or detonating a few explosive devices every day, some to devastating effects, they are exhausting a police forced that is already overstretched.
But far more serious than all of that in my opinion is that they have provided the security establishment with a very good pretext to stifle the public sphere and cow the media into toing the official line. The notorious demonstration law is a good case in point. It may have had its rational in a country exhausted by daily protests for three years, but it is now being deployed to target the youth activists who brought down Mubarak. Clearly, it is being wielded as a sledgehammer by the old Mubarakistas in the security establishment and the judiciary to take revenge on the groups that made the 2011 revolution possible. Some of their leaders are now languishing in jail.
By default or design, this crack down serves the Islamists well. The harsher it is, the more likely the opposition to the current order will increase.
For the Mubarakistas, they too are hell bent upon turning the clock back and exacting maximum revenge on their enemies, which include not only the Muslim Brothers, but in equal measure the youth activists who spearheaded the uprising that forced Mubarak out of office in 2011.
Thus are the Islamists and the Mubarakistas taking Egypt back to the same cul de sac out of which many had hoped the 2011 revolution would take the country out and launch it on a new trajectory.
Ironically, their desperate actions reinforce one another. Each bomb the Islamists detonate give the Mubarakistas the opportunity to dig deeper, to wield a bigger and more fearsome stick against anything that moves. Predictably, the Mubarakistas use the real threat of terrorism to justify more and more intrusive measures to protect society from the terrorists, but also to stifle dissent and political opposition.
Squeezed in the middle, are the revolutionary forces, fragmented, fractious and still in total disarray. Apart from crying foul, they do not know how to mobilise or organise, or even explain their grievances to the common man.
Enter the man so many had projected onto him their dreams of a better future and a prosperous Egypt, President El-Sisi.
For the Islamists and a few others on the far left, he was evil incarnate. But for a substantial majority, he held out the prospect of a strong leadership that can crush the terrorists and improve the economic prospects of Egypt.
For months he had kept his cards close to his chest though, keeping alive the impression that he will be on the side of the revolution and its goals of freedom, social justice and dignity. Occasionally paying lip service to democracy, yet paradoxically, in the same breath, repeating the age old mantra that Egypt is not quite ready yet.
But as the days went by, more and more of those secular and leftist groups who supported him have become disillusioned. His repeated rhetoric that all Egyptians should love one another and that they should speak with one voice, has proven to be far more sinister, and not just sentimental trash. It betrayed a failure to manage the transition from a military man to a statesman, who understands how civilian politics operates, let alone what a free media is.
Any signs of change in the near or not so near future ?
In fact, his most recent appointment of a former Mubarak minister as his national security advisor has abolished any residual ambiguity regarding his relationship to the old regime. His choice of Fayza Abul-Naga — a Mubarakista and a sworn enemy of a free civil society movement and independent NGO’s —has shown beyond any doubt that El-Sisi has finally nailed his colours to the mast.
Tragically, he seems set on an apparently irreversible path of collision with the democratic forces. Echoing Mubarak, he has dismissed the growing chorus of criticism among the political elite as a minority. He remains of course confident that the vast majority of Egyptians are exhausted by three years of turmoil, and have no appetite for more street protests, or any of the chaos that prevailed in the wake of the removal of Mubarak.
But their fear and patience will last as long as they still believe El-Sisi’s promise of economic improvement. If he fails to deliver, and the Egyptians have grown incredibly impatient, nothing will shield him from their anger or the real possibility of all his enemies forgetting their differences to stand up to him and the Mubarakistas.
Unlike Mubarak, however, El-Sisi remains the army’s choice to lead the country. If that moment of confrontation comes – and it may be sooner than many think – no one can wager on whose side the men in uniform will stand.