a mess called egypt



“Everything is on edge in this country, some of the nervousness borders on hysteria and mutual hatred. This is a situation upon which neither stability nor respect for the state can be founded.” Abdallah Al-Sinnaoui –  Al-Shorouk newspaper


It has become increasingly difficult to write about Egypt, for personal as well as analytical reasons.

On the personal side, the fall from the euphoric heights of  2011 has been extremely painful and depressing. These hopes were unrealistic as we later realized.

Those who believed that Egypt was on the cusp of some radical change that would launch it on a democratic trajectory have been plunged into the bottomless pit of despair after the excessive optimism associated with the toppling of the rhino-skinned Mubarak and his family from the top of the regime.

Describing what happened after that is problematic to say the least. Much will depend on which narrative you adopt : did the revolution succeed then it was thwarted by a counter-revolution ? That appears to be the dominant narrative both in Egypt and abroad. What happened when the Muslim Brothers president was removed from power ? Was that a second popular uprising or a coup or both  ?

If you, however, believe, as I do, that the Jan25 uprising failed to achieve any of its declared goals (freedom, social justice and dignity) then you need to take a harder look at the subsequent developments to understand why it failed and look for explanations beyond the headline picture of Egypt that you are likely to encounter in Western writing.

What is certain today is that instead of a new dawn the country has descended deeper and deeper into some of the nastiest types of authoritarianism it has ever seen — political dissent is increasingly viewed as treason or part of a foreign conspiracy.

This collective paranoia has always existed and managed from the corridors of the old police state with the help of the media that takes its orders from shadowy characters behind closed doors. They turn it on and off as they wish.

But it has now reached levels unseen before  in Egypt. Those who suffer the brunt of this political affliction can expect character assassination in the psychophantic media if they are lucky, or  incarceration, forced disappearance or violence for the unlucky ones.

I grew up in Nasser’s Egypt. Back then, my father and his friends would lower their voice when they discussed politics or if they, god forbid,  wanted to criticise Nasser himself. The other day I found myself doing the same with a friend at a café in central Cairo.  I even looked over my shoulder before I asked : Is he stupid or weak” ? My friend understood what the pronoun referred to, and went for the second. Another friend said “both”.

The one question that many in the political class has had on their minds for a while has been: does President Sisi endorse what his Ministry of Interior is up to or  is he too weak to stand up to the police?

Many of those on the left and liberals who supported him when Morsi was removed from power three years ago are having second thoughts. Despite passionate pleas, he has clearly turned a deaf ear to their entreaty to rein in the police, release jailed activists — mind you, they are not asking him to release Muslim Brothers members , just secular activists — but he either cannot prevail upon the jailers, or he consents to their ruthless hostility to the Jan25 uprising and their sledge hammer approach to security.

As far as I am concerned, I can no longer give him the benefit of the doubt any more.

I think we all know now where Egypt under President Sisi is heading — not an open, confident and democratic society, but rather an inward looking, paranoid country obsessed with all kinds of real and imagined plots against it – almost every calamity that has befallen the country is now attributed to some foreign hands. A country that cannot face up to its self-inflicted disasters can never recover. This way the future looks bleak.

Time and again Sisi has made it abundantly clear that democracy comes second to security and putting food on the table for the apolitical majority. Increasingly, he seems to show little respect for the intelligentsia, and addresses himself to the “masses”.  Mind you, those masses are complaining as never before from the dramatic hike in prices as a result of the Egyptian pound’s losing much of its value and the economic recession. But they are disorganised as ever, and cannot make their voices hears. So, most probably they will put up, but for how much longer?  No one can tell.

Sisi’s mantra that Egyptians should all be united against the common enemy, whatever that is,  has betrayed his true essence : he is a soldier who does not like or understand politics and despises the fractious political class. More than once he has stated there should be no disagreements, and all Egyptians should speak with one voice. He even went as far as to urge the public to only listen to him and to trust no one else but him !

The desire to control the public sphere is unmistakable. The controversial demonstration law has all but criminalised the right to public protest, which is supposed to be enshrined in the constitution. Moves to control the privately owned media has advanced apace. The latest being a crony capitalist  acquiring ONTV,   one of the few TV channels that had sought to offer a somewhat different perspective on events in Egypt;  even the relatively mild and innocuous criticism  proved to be too much for the authoritarian mind.

I use the phrase “political class” because for the vast majority, as a taxi driver  once told me,  are not really interested in politics; they care only but prices of food and services, he said.   So, may be Sisi is right when he focuses on what really matters : security and putting food on the table.

Those who already have food on the table and much more, the political class, have shown themselves to be out of touch with the wider public. They have failed to link abstract concepts such as “democracy”, the “constitution” or “human rights” to the daily grind that most people endure.

But to be fair to Sisi, Egypt was already in a terrible shape long before he took over. Any attempt to fix it will face fierce resistance, because of powerful interests, institutional, economic as well as purely social, that benefit from the old order. He may not have the right recipe, but any one trying to fix it will face daunting challenges on all fronts.

There is an institutional as well as cultural deadlock that is holding the society back.

All the signs are that he’s trying to resurrect Nasser’s model of “state capitalism”, where private enterprise is controlled and channeled through state institutions which skim off a big slice of the cake and– hopefully – uses it for spending on basic services and redistribution of wealth. The state monopolises politics, the people keep their mouths shut and in return they get their basic needs fulfilled. That is the theory at least.

Not only has this model been tried and discredited before, but it also runs counter to the regime’s declared ambition that the country is open for business, and that it wants to have a market economy that attracts foreign investment. Nothing of that seems to be coming at the moment, not only because of the global economic slow down, but also because the contradictory signals the regime is giving out.

Tied with whatever economic model the country goes for is the existential threat of Egypt’s other ticking time bomb : its rapid population growth. Two million new mouths to feed every year is compounded by the fact that the soon- to-be 100 million nation are all squeezed into a mere 6 percent of the total area of Egypt.

Effective birth control will never happen without a cultural revolution that questions every thing Egyptians hold dear : offspring and religion — the latter being a formidable obstacle to family planning. Not only is the conservative religious establishment skeptical to the righteousness of contraceptives, (according to Islamic tradition the prophet has urged Muslims to proliferate) but religious strife appears to make matters worse. A taxi driver once told me that Muslims cannot stop making children because if they did, they would be outnumbered by their fellow Coptic Egyptians.

Sisi has launched an ambitious social housing scheme to clear all the slums that have encircled the big urban centres. But he has no plan to prevent new ones emerging during the next generation. No economic model can salvage a country whose population increases at this rate. And there isn’t even a public debate about it, let alone a campaign to prevent Egypt falling off the cliff.

“In the same way Egypt suffers from excessive population growth and low standard of living”, wrote professor Gamal Himdan back in the nineteen seventies, “Egypt’s suffers from incompetent bureaucracy. The bureaucracy in Egypt has become obese and at the same time it has become beyond the pale to the extent that it can pull the whole of Egypt towards obesity and lawlessness. It is not a hyperbole to claim that bureaucracy can break the back of Egypt if she did not break its back. Just as the case with population growth, there is no other solution than controlling the growth of the bureaucracy.”

That was back in the nineteen seventies.

Today the bureaucracy has become like a metastasized cancer in the body of government. The state employs some seven million pen-pushers, half of whom are superfluous or has no real jobs. President Sisi himself has publicly admitted that the state does not need more than half of those.

It is no secret that this bureaucratic fat has thwarted the lofty ambitions of many who wanted to reform Egypt’s defunct and corrupt administration.

Recent attempt to reform  the civil service code has met fierce and widespread resistance. Even the current rubber-stamp parliament, that is supposed to take its orders from the presidency, could not pass a new bill designed to change the employment conditions for civil servants. There is real fear of what some seven million Egyptians and their dependents could do if the state goes against their wishes.

It has been noted before that when Mubarak’s younger son, Gamal, was the driving force for modernising the administration he had to side-line the civil servants and hire private consultants to get any thing done.

Sidelining the corrupt and incompetent bureaucracy is also what Sisi is doing as he relies more and more on the military and the engineers corps to get things done. The popular theory that the army is gobbling up the state fails to see that the state in Egypt has almost stopped to function properly for decades . If you want to get anything done you have to create parallel structures and empower them. The neo-liberal Gamal Mubarak relied on his business cronies and their consultants. The statist Sisi relies on the people he trusts most : the soldiers.

It’s a chicken-and-egg question then whether it is the military’s fault that things have come to this, because they have been the backbone of the regime since they overthrew the monarchy in 1952, or that things have come to this and they had to intervene to shore up a failing state.


Egypt is complex and depressingly so, with many forces stacked up against one another creating paralysing contradictions, with no visible way to resolve them in the foreseeable future.

Ossified tradition and medieval religious worldview versus modernity, the military versus the civilian, the rich versus the poor, the rural poor against the urban rich. No movement or political party has emerged that can promise a break from this debilitating deadlock.

Given this multifaceted complexity, most writing about Egypt in western media tends to be rather superficial and fairly predictable : the appalling human rights situation, the deepening economic crisis, and the unhealthy obsession with President Sisi as the mastermind of all misery unfolding in the country.

I recently went to an academic event about the Arab spring, five years on, this sort of thing, where talk about the relative success of Tunisia and abysmal failure of Egypt dominated the discussion. It was a litany of woes versus a litany of somewhat cheerful developments in the north African country. It was like reading a series of NYT, WoP and Guardian editorials. I thought it was the role of academia to dig deeper than that. Unfortunately that didn’t happen.

The narrative that Egypt had a revolution followed by a counterrevolution still dominates the discourse about Egypt. Nothing is further from the truth in my opinion.

Egypt’s revolution failed the moment the Muslim Brothers came to power – they are fundamentally part of the old order and there was no way they could have taken the country beyond the despotic state tradition that has crippled Egyptian society and destroyed its potentials for so long.

Islamism is totalitarianism. It does not recognize individual freedom, it rejects equality between men and women, nor does it believe that people have the right to make their own laws. A political movement that adopts the Koran as its constitution – as the Muslim Brothers does — and which believes that our rights and duties are enshrined in the Sharia that no one has the right or the authority to question or change is anything but democratic.

Throughout the day-long seminar there was hardly a mention of the wider cultural context that produces authoritarianism and the democratic  failure, or why does Sisi still have a substantial constituency. The simple fact is that political authoritarianism has deep roots in Egyptian culture was not mentioned once.

Writing recently about the crisis of liberal politics, Professor Stephen Walt hit the nail on the head by highlighting  that the trappings of democracy do not necessarily lead to democracy. A very pertinent remark that should always be remembered when discussing the Egyptian debacle :

Liberals also forgot that successful liberal societies require more than the formal institutions of democracy. They also depend on a broad and deep commitment to the underlying values of a liberal society, most notably tolerance. As events in Iraq, Afghanistan, and several other places demonstrate, however, writing a constitution, forming political parties, and holding “free and fair” elections won’t produce a genuinely liberal order unless individuals and groups in society also embrace the key liberal norms as well. This sort of cultural and normative commitment cannot be developed overnight or injected from outside, and certainly not with drones, special forces, and other instruments of violence.”


There is an old social fabric in Egypt that precedes the modern nation state by millennia.

Modernity or the modern trappings that you  meet in Egypt are  only a thin veneer. That fabric – where patriarchy and religion reinforce one another — has survived despite all efforts at modernisation and breaking up the forces that stood in the way of creating a modern society with effective state machinery.

Only taking into account these deep lying social and cultural forces that have resisted change can explain the failure of the Egyptian uprising. Not the myopeic obsession with the character of Sisi and the military. Both are in my opinion the symptoms of deeper cultural sedimentations that hold Egypt back.

Egypt was on course of becoming a failed state long before the 2011 upprising that toppled Mubarak – loss of legitimacy for the ruling clique, competing factions within the state apparatus, failure to provide basic services for the population, all were there. Perhaps the best outcome of the historic Jan25 protests is that it has exposed Egyptian society as never before with deep social and political divisions along with a spectacular failure among its competing groups to compromise and build consensus.

After the fall of Mubarak, the political class failed to agree on either sharing power or on the fundamentals of a new Egypt : the shape of the relationship between religion and the state, the military and the state . Politicians also failed to agree on the form of government — parliamentary or presidential, or both, and the electoral law itself,  on how to draft a new constition, and the sequencing of all these steps to lay down the building blocks of a new Egypt,  that was never to materialise.

Inevitably, with no previous experience in resolving conflict peacefully, Egypt was heading towards a protracted  period of civil strife if not an outright civil war.

Egyptian economist Amr Adly wrote recently a very insightful analysis on his Facebook page explaining  why rushing to the ballot box after removing Mubarak was doomed in a society like Egypt :

The question is why did the political sphere collapse so quickly and so easily after January 25 ? I think the answer lies in this ‪: as much as procedural democracy is extremely important for any democratic system, it is however impossible to achieve without consensus on the shape and limits of ‪(political‪) power that reduces fear over the transfer of power through the democratic procedure‪. That was not existent in Egypt,  as the country displayed deep divisions regarding the question of the relationship between religion and political power‪. In the absence of this consensus,  fear of the transfer of power is increased and the competition between social forces become even more pronounced ‪— and that is precisely what happened in Egypt‪.” (my translation)

Looking at the abyss where the Syrians, the Libyans and the Yemenis have been plunged, the Egyptians were all too glad to have one coherent institution that prevented that from happening to their country : the military.

But soldiers are soldiers. They don’t do democracy, they only know one thing : discipline, hierarchy and obeying orders. Sisi is precisely that as I argued above. He is an Egyptian nationalist in the traditional military mode, patriarchal and authoritarian. He, and with him millions of Egyptians, believe that he stepped in a critical moment to rescue a nation that was on the brink. I think failure to account for the popularity and credibility of that narrative marks most Western media coverage of Egypt since the fall of Mubarak.

Step back further and take a hard look at Egypt’s long history, and another, no less important and unflattering detail of the big picture emerges.

The more I do so, the more I find myself forced to conclude that in a country that has been ruled by foreign dynasties for millennia, this outcome was inevitable. Self-governance is not innate, but an acquired social skill that can be learnt and honed over centuries.

The post-colonial order preserved in some fundamental aspects the old power relations between rulers and ruled that prevailed for millennia of rule by foreign dynasties but in a new guise.  Egypt’s supposed “liberators” could not come up with a new social contract, the public rhetoric notwithstanding.

In reality, their priority was to rein in the people, not to set them free. For that they deployed the old methods of controlling the populace, playing the card of religion in one way or another to claim legitimacy, whipping up fears and xenophobia whenever needed, playing the game of divide and rule. The more divisions the better, to prevent the possibility of them ever uniting against the rulers. That was a rare moment in Tahrir square back in January 2011. And that explains why the sense of terror today’s rulers feel towards the prospect of the crowds ever converging on Tahrir square again.

With all this in mind, it is safe to conclude that Egypt remains – and will for decades to come – on a steep learning curve — learning how to rule herself in accordance with modern values of respect, persuasion and participation and not with the inherited colonial mindset of fear and coercion.




Magdi Abdelhadi

Writer, broadcaster, moderator, media consultant. I commute between London and Cairo. I am a former BBC journalist. All views here are only mine.

One comment

  • Very interesting to read of Egypt written by somebody inside. The news are made from outside and they don’t see or understand the culture of the coutry and the excitement inside.

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