Hossam el-Hamalawy: A Decade of Counter-Revolution in Egypt
First published at Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.
Today marks ten years since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, then the Egyptian Minister of Defence, staged a coup against Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. This earth-shaking event crushed the revolution that broke out in the most populous Arab country on 25 January 2011 against Hosni Mubarak, an autocrat who ruled the country for three decades with ample Western backing. The first uprising in a string of protests in the region soon dubbed the “Arab Spring”, Morsi’s overthrow in 2013 marked the definitive end of that cycle of protest and the onset of a reactionary backlash that has yet to let up.
What has Sisi’s rule meant for the over 100 million people who live in Egypt? Morsi, who died in government detention in 2019, was a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood and pursued policies that were by all accounts conservative and neoliberal. His tenure as president disappointed many progressives, and convinced more than a few to support Sisi’s coup in 2013. But ten years later, the military takeover has unleashed wave after wave of state terror and seemingly permanent authoritarian rule.
Ruling without governing
On the eve of the 2011 revolution, the ruling coalition in the country included the three components of the repressive apparatus — military, police, and the General Intelligence Service (GIS) — with a clique of crony neoliberal businessmen around Hosni Mubarak’s son, Gamal, filling the upper echelons of the ruling National Democratic Party.
From the time of its inception following the 1952 Free Officers’ coup, Egypt’s repressive apparatus was left intentionally fragmented, with overlapping mandates and weak coordination. Different sections spied on one other and competed for resources. This design reflected the interests of the new rulers: namely, preventing the reoccurrence of a military coup. Such an approach is usually referred to by civil-military relations experts as “counterbalancing”. Hardly an Egyptian invention, it was already a standard tactic in autocracies across the Global South.
Some Egyptian analysts, as well as pro-army propagandists, usually claim the military was side-lined during Mubarak’s reign in favour of the police. This, they argue, was the main reason the military initially endorsed the 18-day uprising and forced Mubarak to step down back in 2011. Yet, this is only half the story.
It is true that Mubarak promoted the Ministry of Interior (MOI) within the ruling coalition. He relied heavily on its organs, most notably the State Security Investigations (the secret police) and the Central Security Forces (the militarized riot police) to confront domestic dissent and wage counterinsurgencies. Nonetheless, the military was hardly marginalized. Instead, it took the backseat, with its senior brass enjoying privileges, amassing wealth, and influencing policy-making from behind the curtain. The generals were happy to avoid any public criticism or accountability, leaving the day-to-day political squabbles to the police and the politicians. In essence, they ruled without governing.
Following the peace treaty with Israel in 1979, Anwar Sadat and his successor Mubarak announced the “end of all wars” and worked on changing the army’s strategic doctrines. In the 1980s, the Egyptian army effectively declined to develop its fighting capacity in favor of economic activities. Despite the relatively brief period of professionalization and depoliticization under Sadat, the military witnessed a resurgence in its political influence during the tenure of Field Marshal Abdel Halim Abu Ghazala, Mubarak’s Minister of Defence who oversaw the expansion of the military enterprises until his ouster in 1989.
The two decades leading up to the revolution saw the rise of businessmen who benefited from the regime’s neoliberal reforms and their connections with Mubarak’s youngest son Gamal, who was being groomed to succeed his father. Much ink has been spilled about the friction between those businessmen and the military, and about how the senior brass did not favor the prospects of a civilian in the presidency. In reality, despite the unease between the business elites and the military, a leaked US Embassy cable stressed in 2008 that “the overall relationship between the two still appears to be cooperative, rather than adversarial”. Gamal Mubarak also enjoyed close ties with the senior brass, which could have secured him the generals’ backing for a future presidency.
Moreover, the rise of these neoliberal elites and Mubarak’s succession plans encouraged the dictator to give the military even more economic and political privileges to ensure their support. None of the military firms were privatized. On the contrary: the army stepped in to buy (or more accurately to annex) public sector companies offered for sale. Elsewhere, retired generals filled the ranks of the state bureaucracy and management boards of public and private sector companies.
Sisi and the revolution
By the time the 2011 revolution broke out, the military was a central pillar of the regime and involved in close partnerships with both local and international capital. When the MOI collapsed on 28 January 2011, the so-called “Friday of Rage”, Mubarak ordered the army to intervene to save his regime. Troops were swiftly deployed in the capital and provincial urban centres.
The generals did not support the uprising. On the contrary, they tried more than once to break up the occupation of Tahrir Square. However, they could not order their junior officers and conscript soldiers to open fire on the protesters, because they could not guarantee their loyalty in the face of a multi-layered uprising that drew from all classes in society. Finally, as the labour strikes took off in the last week of the 18-day uprising, the generals had no choice but to force Mubarak to step down, lest the entire regime of which they were a part collapse.
The transitional period that followed saw the military rushing to cement an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, hoping the Islamists would help to slow the revolutionary tide. At the same time, the army did its best to dodge any calls for reforming or restructuring the much-hated MOI.
The senior brass sought a quick end to the revolt and a return to “normalcy” so they could carry on with their old ruling-but-not-governing formula, which the older generals were used to. Yet, the Islamists failed to dampen the militancy in the streets, workplaces, and university campuses. One wave of industrial actions followed the other. Protesters engaged in confrontations with the police forces and soldiers.
The election of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Muhammad Morsi in the summer of 2012 inaugurated a new chapter of “instability” in the eyes of the military, contrary to what they might have hoped. Morsi tried to appease the military and the police, refusing to hold them accountable for the crimes they committed in the first two years of the revolution, let alone their abuses in the previous decades under Mubarak. Nonetheless, the Faustian bargain, by which the military would return to the barracks in exchange for the government safeguarding their interests and ending the revolt, was going nowhere.
It was at this point that the generals, led by Sisi, secretly reached out to the leaders of the secular opposition, who were planning mass protests on the first anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration. Sisi and the senior brass for their part plotted to use the protests as a cover, depicting the army’s intervention as a “response” to popular demand rather than a coup. One pundit described the event as a “coupvolution”.
Yet, what followed 3 July 2013 was not a restoration of Mubarak’s regime and its authoritarian formula. Instead, Sisi proceeded to build a new order — one that he hoped would be stronger, more resilient, and more absolute than the order that had collapsed two years before. Egyptian sociologist Sameh Naguib explains:
The logic is simple: the old regime would not have fallen if it was not weak and had not been strategically flawed. If there was a chance to rebuild the class power that the old regime nearly lost, then new radical policies and strategies need to be put in place. If the old regime was too scared to carry out radical neoliberal reforms, then the new regime must be bold and go ahead even if it means major class battles. If the old regime relied on an implicit balance with the opposition led by the Muslim Brotherhood, now is the time to destroy that organization and that balance. If the old regime was authoritarian but had its limits in terms of risking the use of violence, the new regime must not hesitate even if that means massacres. Many of the features of the new regime are shaped by that logic
The backlash begins
The state violence began immediately after the military seized power. Public and private mainstream media outlets whipped up fear among the population, demonizing Morsi’s supporters and inciting against sit-ins the latter organized in Rabaa Square in Cairo and Nahda Square in Giza.
In a public statement issued on 24 July 2013, Sisi demanded a “popular mandate” authorizing him to confront the “possible terror threat”. Two days later, mass mobilizations backed by the army filled the squares, while TV celebrities continued inciting and stirring up a moral panic against anti-coup protesters. Killings by the military and security forces were already occurring almost daily before they moved to suspend the Rabaa and Nahda protest camps on 14 August 2013, when they murdered more than 800 protesters in a single day — the biggest massacre in modern Egyptian history.
Sisi’s repression during the nominal presidency of former President of the Supreme Constitutional Court Adly Mansour came in successive waves. Initially, he focused on targeting groups with the capacity to mobilize nationally. He embarked on a campaign to wipe out the Muslim Brotherhood by dismantling their organizational structures and killing and rounding up their leaders and cadres. An anti-protest law was passed around the same time, outlawing any form of street activism. The law was used to imprison secular activists, including some who backed the military takeover.
The 6 April Movement, one of the country’s leading youth groups, was also banned. University campuses — safe havens for political dissent under Sadat and Mubarak — were stormed by the MOI’s Central Security Forces using live ammunition, rounding up and killing students in broad daylight.
Sisi officially assumed the presidential office in June 2014 and promptly unleashed a new wave of repression against any groups capable of mobilizing on the local level. Football ultras groups, which had played a significant role in the revolution, were declared illegal in 2015, and its members continue to be arrested on a regular basis.
A series of laws were issued to cripple the country’s once-vibrant NGOs or force their closure. Human rights defenders were attacked in the streets, slapped with travel bans, had their assets frozen, and were incarcerated. Those who managed to flee the country are denied identity documents and their families back home are targeted.
The jurisdiction of the military courts was expanded, who now began prosecuting thousands of civilians. Death sentences and executions skyrocketed. Forced disappearances and torture of suspects, including children, remain systemic. Rights advocates have documented sexual violence against both men and women. A government-sponsored campaign for conservative morals saw women jailed for “violating family values”, while the police conducted the largest crackdown against the LGBTQ community in decades.
Sisi’s incarceration archipelago
The mass arrests meant a growing population behind bars. No accurate official figures have been made available by the state, but some Egyptian rights watchdogs estimate the total number of people languishing in jails to be as high as 120,000 convicted prisoners and pre-trial detainees. Almost half of them are held on “political” grounds, the other half for “criminal” reasons.
Through roughly the first year after the coup, around 41,000 persons were arrested or charged. Egyptian prisons were operating at 150 percent of capacity by 2015, according to the state-controlled National Council for Human Rights. By 2022, Haitham Muhammadein, a socialist lawyer and former prisoner, estimated the total number of political prisoners and detainees to be anywhere between 20,000 to 30,000.
To house this growing population, Sisi built at least 34 new MOI-run prisons by 2021. Cells are overcrowded, and hygienic standards are terrible. Prisoners suffer from inadequate food, lack sufficient access to ventilation, are deprived of exercise, prevented from family contact, and deliberately denied medical care. Two more mega-prisons were built in Wadi al-Natron and Badr, as Sisi, in an Orwellian turn, decided to rename prisons as “rehabilitation centres”.
An Egyptian rights group documented at least 958 deaths in custody between 30 June 2013 and 30 November 2019, including nine minors. Around 70% of the deaths resulted from intentional denial of medical care, 14% from torture, and 7% from suicide. By 2022, the deaths had already exceeded 1,000.
From early on, Sisi’s war on terror extended to the Sinai Peninsula, where a once low-intensity armed insurgency gained steam after the coup. The army, police, and their proxy militias have been involved in grotesque abuses, from collective punishment, random killings at checkpoints, arresting families of suspects as hostages, and field executions. The military also used conventional weapons in civilian areas, such as heavy artillery, gunships, and cluster bombs.
Muzzling the media
Such human rights violations receive no coverage in the local press, simply because Sisi controls both public and private mainstream media.
Following the coup, the military moved quickly to take control of the media. Sisi first opted to monopolize and restrict the flow of information. Opposition TV channels were immediately shut down. Offices of international news outlets were raided and several foreign channels were taken off the air, while foreign journalists were harassed and deported. More than 600 websites were blocked, including literally all those run by the opposition, local and international rights watchdogs, or independent journalists.
At the local level, journalists were systematically intimidated. In order to arrest fugitive journalists wanted on protest charges, the police stormed the Press Syndicate, which had been a safe haven for media workers and activists under Mubarak. Sisi’s 2015 anti-terror legislation criminalized disputing statements issued by the military. This was followed by a batch of laws that tightened state control over traditional and online media outlets, creating regulatory bodies whose heads are appointed by Sisi, such as the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, the National Media Authority, and the National Press Authority.
More shockingly, a GIS-owned company consolidated its grip on the entire media establishment, buying most local newspapers, TV stations, and radio channels. By the end of 2021, the Committee to Protect Journalists listed Egypt as the third-worst jailer of journalists in the world, after China and Myanmar. Egypt was also ranked one-hundred-and-sixty-eighth out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’s 2022 World Press Freedom Index. Under Mubarak, the country had ranked one-hundred-and-twenty-seventh.
A motley coalition
Sisi’s counterrevolutionary onslaught initially enjoyed the backing of large sections of society. The polarization that engulfed the country under Morsi produced fault lines between Islamists and secular forces — this was not only the result of the Muslim Brotherhood’s actions, but also the result of the liberal opposition coalescing around the so-called National Salvation Front, which framed the conflict in such a manner.
Egypt’s big bourgeoisie naturally was unhappy with the revolutionary upheaval and threw its lot in behind the army, but it was by no means the only class in the broad pro-Sisi alliance. Sections of the middle class had grown tired of instability and bought into the sensationalist propaganda in the mainstream media blaming the Brotherhood for the country’s malaise.
The coup also enjoyed widespread support among considerable sections of the working class. One year under the Brotherhood’s administration saw neither an improvement in workers’ standards of living nor a halt to neoliberal reforms and austerity. The statistics on industrial actions during this period are revealing: in 2012 alone, the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights recorded at least 3,817 industrial actions and social mobilizations, more than the total number of protests the country had seen in the entire decade of 2000–2010. At least 4,567 social protests were recorded in the first six months of 2013, on the eve of the coup. Yet, despite this upsurge in militancy, Egyptian workers’ frustration with Morsi’s rule was ultimately channelled into a reactionary position thanks to the influence of labour movement leaders from various camps.
The state-backed Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions was staunchly behind Mubarak from the beginning, issuing directives to its bureaucrats to ensure workers did not participate in the first week of protests during the 18-day uprising. Later on, it played a role in mobilizing the thugs who attacked protesters in Tahrir Square during the infamous “Battle of the Camel”. Subsequently, it was present in every mobilization in support of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces throughout the transitional period.
The leadership of the Federation of Independent Unions, on the other hand, was dominated by Nasserists, including its president Kamal Abu Eita, who endorsed the army takeover and was rewarded with a membership in the first post-coup cabinet as Minister of Manpower and Immigration. Abu Eita played a central role in diffusing industrial actions during his brief ministerial tenure, asking the workers to support the state’s “war on terror”. The labour movement paid a dear price. Industrial organizers were sacked, victimized, or arrested in dawn raids. Independent unions were strangled, and strikes were banned.
Oppressed social groups such as the Copts and women’s rights campaigners, already fearful of the Brotherhood’s sectarian and conservative ideology, welcomed the 30 June 2013 protests and the army takeover, hoping a more secular and liberal alternative would emerge in its place. All the above-mentioned forces cheered the bloody crackdowns by the military against Morsi’s supporters and sang Sisi’s praises. Needless to say, Sisi’s course of action after he assumed the presidency has been hostile to the majority of those who once zealously endorsed him.
Even Egypt’s big bourgeoisie has suffered under Sisi. The generals of the repressive apparatus with the military at the centre have evolved into what some call a “predatory” ruling class that cooperates with civilian business elites from time to time, but also parasitically swallows up their capital by force when deemed necessary. In 2022, the Economist wrote that “Egypt isn’t open for business”, warning foreign investors that “the army grabs whatever it wants” in a “Mafia-style shakedown”. Indeed, foreign investors have been reluctant to invest, at least in sectors where the military is expanding, fearing unfair competition and the near impossibility of arbitration in any potential dispute with the army.
Some Egyptian business tycoons already expressed their concern, and at least one heavyweight, Naguib Sawiris, bluntly expressed his opposition to the military’s involvement in the civilian economy on several occasions. In some cases, domestic capitalists were compelled to give up their assets to the military or GIS, such as Muhammad al-Amin, the owner of broadcasters CBC, Extra News and al-Watan, Salah Diab, the owner of newspaper al-Masry al-Youm, Muhammad and Hatem Mo’men, the owners of Mo’men fast food chain, and Safwan Thabet and his son Seif, the owners of Juhayna dairy products.
Growing pressure on all sides
Ten years after the coup, Sisi’s grip on power may be still solid, but his political clout at home and abroad is by no means as strong. His recent initiative to hold a “dialogue” with the remnants of the opposition must be viewed in that context.
Sisi’s popularity today is probably at its lowest ebb due to the deteriorating economic conditions and militaristic approach to all matters related to governance. He rules an Egypt bereft of a civil society, relying solely on his domestic enablers from the repressive apparatus — the military, police, GIS, and the Administrative Control Authority. Yet, Sisi could not have lasted this long without regional and Western backers. The Arab Gulf states, specifically Saudi Arabia and the UAE, played a central role in propping up his regime in order to crush the revolution and the Muslim Brotherhood. The monarchs understood well that revolutions are contagious, and were keen to pacify the most populous country in the region as swiftly as possible.
Israel was also concerned by the fall of Mubarak and the revolutionary tide that swept Egypt, where pro-Palestinian sentiments have always been strong. The coup was met with wild enthusiasm among Tel Aviv’s political establishment, who actively campaigned on Sisi’s behalf in the US. Israel has conducted air strikes in Sinai with Sisi’s approval to help the latter with his war on Islamist militants. Security and economic cooperation between the two states is stronger than ever.
The 2013 coup initially saw the US government divided on what to do vis-à-vis Sisi. While Obama and the US ambassador in Cairo did not support the military takeover, Secretary of State John Kerry and the Pentagon rallied to endorse it. Obama however refrained from describing the event as a “coup” and symbolically froze several million dollars in aid and an arms shipment in October 2013, but carried on with the rest — over 1 billion dollars. Since 2015, it has been business as usual.
Despite public statements expressing “concerns” about the human rights situation in Egypt, the European states emerged as primary enablers of the Sisi regime, especially France and Germany, applauding his efforts in the fight against “terrorism” and “illegal migration.”
Tensions between the Arab Gulf sheikhdoms and Sisi have been on the rise lately on the heels of the spiralling debt crisis. The International Monetary Fund and other international donors have been pressuring Cairo to devalue its currency, implement even harsher austerity measures, slow down the work on Sisi’s white elephant mega-projects, and privatize the military-owned enterprises.
Meanwhile, dissent is slowly gathering steam and is expressed on three different fronts. The first is in cyberspace, where criticism of the regime’s policies, despite the censorship and arrests, floods Egyptian social media. The second is through incremental spontaneous strike actions in workplaces. It is difficult to gauge the exact size of the industrial actions, but dissident outlets monitoring the situation such as the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services and the Revolutionary Socialists speak of a general increase. The third is relatively the most organized, expressed in mobilizations in the ranks of the professional syndicates.
How Sisi will navigate his way through the current economic crisis will determine his chances for the continued foreign backing essential for his survival. In the words of Hisham Kassem, one of Egypt’s veteran liberal pundits, “Egypt might be too big to fail, but the president of Egypt is not too big to fail.”