The repressive apparatus and the death of politics in Egypt

Summary: the overthrow of President Morsi launched a new model of repression in Egypt, one that seeks not to manage dissent but to obliterate it.

On this the tenth anniversary of the coup that overthrew Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s only democratically elected president, we launch a week of analysis, interrogating the impact of the coup on the country and its citizens. We begin with Hossam el-Hamalawy. Hossam is a journalist and scholar-activist, currently based in Germany. He was involved in the Egyptian labour movement and was one of the organisers of the 2011 revolution. You can follow his writings on Substack and Twitter.

Hossam el-Hamalawy is an Egyptian journalist & scholar-activist
Hossam el-Hamalawy wrote his doctoral dissertation in Political Science at the Freie Universität Berlin on the role of the security services in the Egyptian counterrevolution

The birth of Egypt’s republican order, one year following the Free Officers coup in 1952, produced a repressive apparatus that was intentionally fragmented with overlapping mandates. The three main components of this apparatus–the army, police and the General Intelligence Service (GIS)–were encouraged to compete, not to share information, nor coordinate action. The design was meant to coup-proof the successive executive heads of state, whose dominant perceived threat remained a military coup, till the outbreak of the 2011 revolution.

The military deployed forces on the streets, after the collapse of the police on 28 January 2011, to try to stabilize the country. The senior brass did not support the uprising but were forced to remove Mubarak under pressure from protests and strikes. The generals did not open fire on protesters, simply because they could not guarantee the loyalty of their troops in the face of this wide, multi-layered social revolt.

The army leadership initially sought an alliance with the Islamists, hoping the latter could defuse dissent and bring the revolution to a quick end. Only when the Islamists failed to do so did the generals decide to stage a coup and employ the level of violence they deemed necessary to pacify the country once and for all.

The regime that evolved out of the post-2013 bloodbath was not a restoration of the pre-2011 authoritarianism. Rather, Sisi constructed a new regime with a different system of governance, whose dominant perceived threat is a popular uprising. This had a fallout on how the repressive apparatus was organised. For the first time in the country’s modern history the security services were unified.

This unification was not a smooth and easy process. On the eve of the 2013 coup, the military had already streamlined the Ministry of Interior over the previous three years, but the GIS remained relatively independent and in fact at odds with the military.

Based on interviews I conducted with Egyptian exiles including a former member of President Muhammad Morsi’s advisory team, Major General Muhammad Raafat Shehata, then the GIS director, had not been involved in plotting the overthrow of the country’s first democratically elected president. In fact, Shehata warned Morsi of the impending coup.

Shehata and those in the GIS who did not support the coup were not motivated by democratic values, as much as by their concerns that the military intervention would plunge the country into chaos.

Two days following the coup, Shehata was sacked and replaced with Major General Muhammad Farid al-Tuhami, the former director of Military Intelligence and Administrative Control Authority. More importantly, Tuhami was Sisi’s mentor and among the hawks who advocated the wiping out of the Muslim Brothers.

Tuhami oversaw successive purges of middle- and high-ranking officers at the GIS, whose loyalty to the new regime was in doubt. Loyalists were promoted. Simultaneously, Sisi’s son Mahmoud, a former military officer, who joined the GIS presumably in 2009 (not in 2014 as some news outlets misreported), started playing a more central role in managing the spy agency. He was joined later, presumably in 2016, by his youngest brother, Hassan, an Al-Azhar graduate and translator who previously worked at a petroleum company.

The above-mentioned scenario sums up Sisi’s strategy in extending his control over state organs. He uses a carrot-and-stick approach, in addition to family ties.

Sisi also oversaw the creation/reactivation of unofficial and official “supreme councils” following the coup, which fostered coordination between the different components of the repressive apparatus. Some of these councils had already existed prior to 2011, but rarely convened. Under Sisi, they meet ritualistically every three months, and the unofficial coordination bodies are in daily contact and share information.

Dissent in the ranks of the GIS could be exemplified by the continuous leaks of sensitive phone calls between the army leaders and of Sisi’s meetings that surfaced in the exiled Egyptian media outlets,from 2014 till 2018. The last pockets of internal dissent were wiped out during the showdown between Sisi on the one hand and Ahmad Shafiq and Sami Anan on the other when the latter two retired generals tried to challenge him in the presidential election of 2018.

Sisi and his security services managed to eviscerate the country’s civil society, unleashing a wave of lethal and carceral violence against all shades of dissent in a manner unseen in the history of modern Egypt. Mubarak presided over a dictatorial regime, but one that managed dissent, and outsourced social control to a wide array of civilian institutions, not just the repressive apparatus. And it is this exactly which Sisi and his generals viewed as Mubarak’s mistake. He had been too “lenient” and this was the reason for the 2011 “catastrophe” which almost brought down the state. Sisi was going to have none of this. His approach to politics rested on eradicating rather than managing dissent.

Sisi has run the country over the past decade without a proper ruling party, with no opposition, no NGOs, and a rubber stamp parliament. Any actions or entities independent from the state have not been welcomed, including those which are not even remotely political.

However, Sisi did so amid full regional and international backing. The Arab Gulf sheikhdoms in specific, most notably the UAE and Saudi Arabia, showered his regime with billions of dollars, and cheered his grotesque violations of human rights with the aim of pacifying Egypt, crushing the revolution, preventing its domino effect and dismantling the Muslim Brothers.

With the economic crisis, spiralling debt and tensions with the regional sponsors, the unity of the agents of coercion should not be taken for granted though. History has taught us political and economic crises are bound to create divisions among the ruling elites. Sisi’s grip on power is still strong, but he is not as confident as he was ten years ago, with his popularity plummeting and alienating all social classes. He is already facing a gradual revival in dissent in the professional syndicates, and is currently conducting talks with the remnants of the opposition (which he had already crippled) hoping they can now help him defuse public anger.

In tomorrow’s newsletter we continue our analysis of the coup with Dina Wahba a feminist scholar and postdoctoral researcher in the Communication Science Department, University of Salzburg.

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