The Egyptian government raised the prices of fuel and electricity at the end of June 2017, marking the second increase in less than a year. These measures are part of an IMF-backed reform effort, initiated in November 2016, that seeks to abandon most currency controls and to cut fuel subsidies. This new round of subsidy cuts has accelerated Egypt’s annual inflation rate, leading it to reach the highest level in decades by July. Despite the deterioration of socio-economic conditions in Egypt, protests have not erupted to any significant degree and, at first sight, the overall situation seems to be stable. This text presents a few doubts as to why the current order is not sustainable – in spite of the lack of public contention.
Based on a shared collective memory of failed protests, Egyptian society has refrained from protesting on the national level during the past few years. The failure of the 25 January 2011 revolutionary protests in bringing about a democratic regime or economic growth, and only leading to the deterioration of the socio-political situation, has consolidated a common belief that protests are useless, if not downright harmful. Accordingly, repressing political protests – which has increased in scale under the current regime – has come to be accepted by society at large or has, at least, not been met with much resistance. Today however, two new well-connected variables must be added to this equation, which open the door for further instability, namely: the continued absence of mediation channels between state and society concurrently paired with a decline of the regime’s legitimacy in the eyes of many sectors of the society. Obviously, the strategies that the current regime is applying to consolidate its rule – mainly based on closing off political space and igniting nationalistic sentiments among Egyptians – are increasingly limiting its capacity to establish a longer term, sustainable order.
The Risk of Eliminating Channels for Societal Opposition and Mediation
Aiming to get the economy back on track, the Al-Sisi regime put forward a strategy comprised of two pillars. On one hand, it sets out to execute mega projects, such as the expansion and development of the Suez Canal, launched on 5 August 2014. These projects are not only meant to create jobs but also to raise hopes and bolster national feelings among Egyptians. On the other hand, the regime is executing the structural financial reforms required by IMF loans. Along with adjusting deficiencies in the state budget, these reforms also aim to increase international confidence in the Egyptian economy and thereby spur foreign investment.
To assure that these painful reforms are implemented with as little opposition as possible, the regime has instituted an exclusionary and repressive order based on three main pillars. The first entails the construction of a form of “legal authoritarianism”, which has been concretized through a series of decisions and laws aimed to close off political space. Examples of these laws include the promulgation of the anti-protest law on 24 November 2013 – which imposes a series of restrictions on peaceful demonstrations and sanctions several years in prison – as well as the promulgation of the NGO law on 29 May 2017, which constrained the work of NGOs and their funding possibilities in Egypt. The second pillar is control of the media, concretized through the exploitation of the security forces to gain influence over some private media channels so as to deter individuals who adopt oppositional voices or critical stances. The third pillar has to do with the use of repression against potential activists, a method which has now returned on a larger scale. Besides eliminating all forms of opposition, the regime also has not allowed for any elite-based channels of mediation. While the Mubarak regime relied on a ruling party, the National Democratic Party (NDP) as a tool of governance on the national and local level as well as a channel for mediation with the society – whether in the legislative instances such as the parliament or through networks of clientelism and patronage in the municipalities – the current regime, in contrast, has refused to create such a mediator from the outset.
This became apparent during the Al-Warraq Island crisis in mid July 2017, when the regime found itself in a social conflict with one segment of society, namely the inhabitants of Al-Warraq island. Here, there were no mediation channels in place, neither to resolve the conflict nor to negotiate with the people. The government decided to exploit the advantageous location of this island of 60,000 residents on the Nile river in the northern part of Cairo by razing the slum area and turning it into a resort. Without entering into any previous negotiations with the inhabitants, security forces entered al-Warraq and began destroying homes which the governement deemed to have been illegaly constructed. A confrontation with the security forces ensued and one inhabitant died, leading to an outbreak of demonstrations. Obviously, the lack of mediation channels with the island’s residents rendered it difficult for the regime to implement its decision. An important outcome of this was that Al-Dahab Island (also situated on the Nile) subsequently organized a demonstration in solidarity with the residents of Al-Warraq on 21 July 2017, showing how a small-scale protest can easily escalate and tip the scale s oncepeople become cognitively aware of the similar situation they find themselves in.
The Regime’s Legitimacy: The Trap of Overstating Nationalism
In the aftermath of Morsi’s ouster, the new military-led regime gained legitimacy in the eyes of Egyptian society based on the idea that it saved the country from descending into chaos. They recall the the period under Morsi, during which protests were directed against attemplts by the Muslim Brotherhood to establish control over state and society, resulting in a state of continuous disfunctionality and even paralysis. These dynamics of contention ended with the uprising on 30 June 2013, which was followed by a military intervention on 3 July 2013 that paved the way for the establishement of the Al-Sisi regime. Accordingly, the latter has built a basis of support based on on its capacity to restore order and protect the Egyptian state from a similar fate of other countries in the region.
Nationalism was thus used to rally support for the regime. Yet, its nationalistic posture (and even its raison-d’être) was seriously shaken by the government’s decision to transfer Egyptian sovereignity over the islands Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia on 24 June 2017. Though there has historically existed a conflict between these two states in regards to the islands, Saudi Arabia agreed to let Egypt establish its sovereignty over the islands since the 1950s and to protect them. Large segments of Egyptian society believe that this deal was made in return for economic support and consider this to be humiliating and inacceptable. This stance was confirmed by the numerous protests that erupted, during which protestors held placards mentioning: “Egypt is not to be sold”. Moreover, on 13 June 2017, the Baseera Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research affirmed that only 11% of Egyptians believe the islands to bepart of Saudi Arabia.
The agreement on the new demarcation of the maritime border between Egypt and Saudi Arabia – ratified by the Egyptian president just a few days before the increase of the prices on fuel and electircity (by the end of June 2017) – occured in the context of the ongoing deterioration of the socio-economic conditions. As such, it accelarated the process of declining support for the regime among Egyptian society. This was also made clear through the framing used by protestors from al-Warraq Island, reflecting the decline of the regime’s legitimacy: “You won’t sell Al- Warraq Island to the United Arab Emirates as you have sold Tiran and Sanafir Islands to Saudi Arabia”. This was based on wide-spread rumors that the governement intended to sell this island to an Emirati investor who planned to transform it into a resort.
In conclusion, it should be noted that the passage from the “semi-authoritarian” regime under the late years of Mubarak, in which some open socio-political spaces existed, towards the almost “fully authoritarian” regime of Al-Sisi regime, in which almost all socio-political spaces have been closed, signifies that Al-Sisi has lost all entities for mediating between the regime and society, be it on the social/syndical level or on the political/partisan level. Notably, the absence of these mediation channels in a context of increasing de-legitimation of the regime – due to a discreditation of its nationalistic stances in light of the continuous deterioration of socio-economic conditions – would render any increases in repression a very risky measure to pursue. While real malaise surrounds the established state-society relations in Egypt, a new form of inclusionary social contract would provide a solution for a state suffering from declining support for its policies and for a regime faced with an accelerated decline in legitimacy. For this to happen, the government should permit the creation social and political structures capable of managing conflictual interests by creating venues for negotiation. This approach would avoid the possibility of a social explosion.
The research for this blog post has been part of the project on “Socioeconomic Protests and Political Transformation: Dynamics of Contentious Politics in Egypt and Tunisia Against the Background of South American Experiences”, directed at PRIF and carried out in cooperation with the Arab Forum for Alternatives (Egypt) and the University of Sfax (Tunisia).