A Revolution Struggling


14 months later, it seems that the Egyptian revolution is struggling at best, dead at worst. The counter revolution, led by the different elements of the previous regime (most of them still in power), is gaining ground. In this analysis, I’m not trying to be optimistic or pessimistic, but rather to reflect on what happened, and why we got to this point, which may help us all as we think of what is next.

The structure of the Egyptian state

To be able to make any predictions on where we are heading, it is critical to understand the structure of the Egyptian state (the state, and not the regime), prior to January 25th 2011, and how that was affected by January 25th revolution.

You can think of the Egyptian state as multiple layers, with the military at the core, followed by a strong security apparatus, followed by a political party (the NDP), all wrapped in an final layer of economic interests.

(i) At the core of the state, there is the military. Four months from today, we will celebrate six decades of military rule in Egypt. The military perceives itself as the guardian of the state and the sovereign institution. As a legacy of the Nasser era, they believe in a broader role for the military institution beyond defending the borders. This includes being a modernizing force, a balance for the internal politics, and, the hard core of the state. To do so, they maintain control over a big part of the economy, and reign over most of the governmental (and even private) institutions.

On the economic side, the military runs a large industrial complex ranging from military industries to civilian industries to farms, factories, and corporations. We are starting to learn more about this “military economy” side recently, e.g., http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/3732/the-army-and-the-economy-in-egypt.

On the governance side, the military’s control for the state is primarily due to the role played by retired army generals, who end up in leading positions in most of the government agencies. Most of the Governors are ex-military officers, as well as many ministers, heads or board members of governmental agencies, public (or even private) sector companies, or other important positions. Through their informal network and military culture, they control most of the state and the economy.

(ii) At the second layer comes an inflated security apparatus. Starting from the general and military intelligence organizations (who we know little if any about), to the famous state security, Ministry of Interior, and their Central Security Forces (CSF) (estimated in total to be more than 1.2 million strong). These organizations have infiltrated every single institution in Egypt to the point that they were micro managing the country. The review appointments and promotions in all state institutions to ensure loyalty and acquiescence.

(iii) At the third layer comes the (now defunct) NDP, which manages the political process, the local and municipal politics, and the managing of the day to day governance of the country. The party was the outer façade for the state, extending patronage, recruiting potential local leaders and ensuring their submission, harassing enemies. They also absorbed and channeled the political energies of the public (a mandate that they miserably failed in, especially over the past decade).

(iv) At the fourth layer, comes the government-controlled economy. Despite aggressive privatization, the state’s grip over the economy remains strong. The state directly controls the public sector corporations, companies owned by public banks, as well as the military economy; and indirectly controls most of the large private economy through other means.

While the state’s direct ownership and control of public sector companies has been significantly weakened over the past decade (as part of international pressure, as well as Gamal Mubarak’s liberalization policies), this ownership still exists in some sectors, like the labor intensive textiles sector. Additionally, the four public banks own and control a huge portfolio of companies (for example, the National Bank of Egypt owns most of the companies of Ahmed Bahgat, after he defaulted on his debts).

In addition to the direct ownership of companies, the state has a huge bureaucracy (estimated at around 8 million employees – one third of the total workforce in Egypt) that controls every move for the private sector, and ensures that they are controlled, and in many situations ensures their failure.

These four layers were basically the Egyptian state for the past 6 decades: the military hard core, the security apparatus, the state party, and the economy, dominated by the public sector.

The only real threat for this setup came, ironically, from the Gamal Mubarak Project. Gamal Mubarak pushed for privatizing the public sector (and replaced it with crony capitalists and loyal oligarchs). He also started controlling a big part of the state security apparatus through his alliance with Habib El-Adly. Rumors were that he was planning to place an ally on top of the military, which would’ve placed him in control of the core of the Egyptian state.

So what did the revolution do?

The revolution had three major effects on the state: (i) it destroyed the Gamal Mubarak project, (ii) it destroyed and weakened the outer layers of the state, and (iii) it created a vacuum of power that enabled the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and other unorganized Islamist groups to surface. Let’s explore these one by one.

(i) The first victim for the revolution was the Gamal Mubarak Project. Most of his allies (whether in business or government) are in jail or lost their power. Their arch-enemy, the military, is now back in power. Gamal Mubarak had no popular base, or any other power base for that matter. The interesting thing about this project is that this was probably the only chance for Egypt to transition to a civilian-ruled state (albeit one that is dominated by oligarchs and the like).

(ii) The outer layers of the state were the second victim of the revolution. The most exposed layer, the NDP, was completely destroyed, both as individuals and as an institution. The NDP leaders are mostly in jail. They failed in regrouping or making any gains during the last parliamentary elections, despite the high expectations that they would still be able to draw some votes. Their offices were mostly burned and destroyed. The result is that the state was left without a political arm that can manage its political affairs, and represent the interests of the ruling elite.

The next layer sustained some big damages, but not fatal ones. The State Security headquarters and main offices were attacked and looted. Images of the torture rooms on national TV created a moment of truth for many who looked the other way and ignored the torture dungeons that they used to run. However, at the end, everyone, including the MB, acknowledged that the state needs a security organization, albeit a reformed one. So the State Security was “renamed” (allegedly restructured) to become the National Security. After that, they disappeared for almost 6 months! Nobody knows what they are doing, post-restructuring! Some signs show that they are back in the game. It would be interesting to learn more about their “new” mission, goals and activities since they were restructured. Who are they working for? What’s their agenda?

The other security organizations did not suffer the same damage because they were not publicly involved in the day-to-day political affairs of the previous regime, and they were also housed mostly on military zones, which protected their offices and staff.

As for the hard core of the state, the military institution, it gained a lot in the early days of the revolution. It regained its political involvement after being sidelined by Mubarak. It also gained a lot of popularity from its perceived support for the revolution. Army generals enjoyed playing the TV celebrities role for few months. I would suspect (without any facts!) that some of them seriously entertained the idea of staying in power, for a while, at that time. It shows in their behavior, and the way they managed the transition process. However, it didn’t take much for the military to lose this popularity and manage to become the focal point for public anger.

As for the economy, the revolution managed to weaken some of the top oligarchs who were the strongest power in the Gamal Mubarak era. Some of them are in jail or exile. Others are keeping a low profile to avoid their files being opened. However, once things settle down (sooner or later), this money will come back to politics, and will search for a new role.

The revolution also showed how weak the real private sector is. Egypt’s economy is dominated by the informal sector, the military economy, the rentier economy, the oligarchs, and the remains of the public sector! Whatever is left, is what you can really call a true “free market economy” – not much, I would argue.

So, in summary, what did the revolution do to the state structure? It destroyed the top layer, the NDP, along with its oligarchs; temporarily weekend the middle layers, the security apparatus; and damaged the reputation of the hard core, the military. 

(iii) The third effect was the release of the MB and the other Salafi forced from their dungeons. The MB, a powerful, secretive, and hierarchical organization started negotiating with Omar Soliman from day one. They were happy to sell off for a deal that gives them legitimacy and recognition and the release of their leaders from jail. In absence of Mubarak, who despised the MB and would not cut a deal with them for three decades, the state saw that it was in its interest to move the MB from the side of the revolution to their side. They needed a political arm that would fill in the vacuum left by the NDP, and they found a good (temporary?) solution in the MB. The MB from their side were content with playing that role. Some argue that they were traumatized after decades of persecution, and preferred a soft deal (Aboul Fotouh made that argument); others argue that they are just opportunists.

An injured state regrouping

At some point, probably during last summer, the “state” started to recover from its numerous injuries. The army took control or the executive power (and all other powers for that matter), and the security apparatus started to rebuild its capabilities. What happened next is a number of moves to regain control of the situation.

First, a new political road map started to appear, which undermines many of the promises that were given when Mubarak was deposed. Suddenly, rather than starting with a presidential election, this was pushed to the end of the process, and replaced with a parliamentary election. The process was expanded to allow for “more discussions of the constitution”. A poll to amend the 1971 constitution suddenly turned into a constitutional declaration that had little to do with the poll. In short, the new road map was full of landmines that kept exploding in our faces, and still do. (By design or mere incompetency? …or both? This remains unanswered).

Second, the revolutionary vanguard were infiltrated, killed, injured, lured into traps, bribed, or defamed. Every effort was done to destroy this strong bond that has evolved among a large number of youth who took the leading role in Tahrir during the 18 days. The result was a fragmented and much weaker revolutionary groups. I, personally, believe that most of the events of the past 10 months were staged, starting from Balloon, going through Mohamed Mahmoud, Maspero, Magles El Wozara, and Port Said. The patterns were too similar. They were “managed”, not reactionary; and they all had the same effect or exhausting the revolution.

Third, the media was neutered. Suddenly, some of the familiar names from the previous regime started new TV channels, with unlimited funding, and attracted high viewership. Next, many of the new independent channels were bought and consolidated by few business people (e.g., CBC, Modern and Al-Nahar). Next, many of the most vocal and popular anchors and commentators were harassed out of their shows (best example is the full lineup of the Tahrir Channel). And finally, the remaining few seem to be under huge pressures to “tone down their rhetoric”. The result is that over the past 3-6 months, the window of free expression that we witnessed right after the revolution has all but disappeared.

So where do we stand today?

Tahrir is silent. Did it just run out of steam? Or is it taking a deep breath, and coming back? The millions who took to the streets again on the first anniversary of the revolution on January 25th, 2012, make me believe that it is just taking a deep breath, and when it comes back, it will be harder and broader.

The state is rebuilding its layers. The security apparatus seems to be back in action, although in a covert way to avoid any unneeded agitation. The military is looking for a political cover to replace the NDP. It seems like they recruited the MB to play that role, but their performance so far is miserable for everyone.  If they continue this way, the military will have to recreate the “state party”. However, it is hard for them to do so without a president who anchors this process, hence the frantic search for a president who can represent the regime. This president much have his true loyalty to the military institution, and to a lesser extent, appeal to the MB, and to a much lesser extent, the revolution! A near impossible task.

If you see the signs of a new “state” party, start counting the days for the confrontation between the military and the MB.

So is the revolution over?!

I don’t believe so. What we have so far is a 3-way game: the military, the MB, and the “revolution” (whatever that means). The military gained from the ending of the Gamal Mubarak project, which is probably the most serious threat to their six-decade reign over Egypt. The MB gained legitimacy and control of the legislature. They seem to be too excited with their newly gained power not to realize their fragile situation (more on this later). The only party that did not gain anything yet is the youth who triggered the revolution and paid for it with their blood.

There are three reasons why I don’t believe it is over. First, the military and the MB cannot co-exist. They have to either merge or confront. The military and the MB are both hierarchical militant organizations that actually share a lot in terms of their culture and the way they manage their structure; however, they have completely opposing goals and values. It is very hard to have two powerful institutions like them co-existing in a state like Egypt, given the lack of a real democratic process. They will either merge (similar to Pakistan or Iran), which so far seems to be unlikely, or they will have to confront. When they do, I know where to put my bets.
(Read Robert Springborg’s interesting article on Egypt’s Cobra and Mongoose:  http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/02/27/egypt_s_cobra_and_mongoose).

The second reason is the nature and underlying trends behind the revolution and the youth vs. the generals & MB. A big part of this revolution is a generational battle. A battle between an old generation the refuses to let go, and a much younger generation that is coming to age, and is trying to assert its power. The Generals, as well as the MB Guiding Office are all ailing. And time is on the side of the younger generation (eventually, the elders will die – this is a morbid reality of life). Also, the younger generation is rebellious, technologically savvy, and operates in a different space than the elders. They are not organized in a hierarchy, but as a flat network. Hierarchies are stronger, but rigid, while networks are more resilient and adaptive. Unfortunately, the only way to battle these networks is to kill their spirit and get them to lose belief in their ability to change things, and this is what the state has been trying to do over the past year.

The third reason is that the MB’s strongest days may be behind! I believe that the MB has already peaked two months ago, when they won the parliamentary elections and presided over the People’s Assembly. Since then, they have been exposed as opportunists, and more important, not capable of quickly delivering. Their youth base is slowly deserting them, and they are not likely to be able to replace them at the same rate. They are also challenged with the candidacy of Aboul Fotouh, which might create strong fractures in their cadres. The Salafis may actually be more resilient that the MB because they did not have the same structure to start with. They have enough diversity and a broader base to guarantee that they will continue as a powerful political force, regardless of what party or organization represents them.

Two other simple realities tell us what to expect: the poverty and lack of freedom and dignity that triggered the revolution are still there; now they are more visible and amplified. And second, the oppression machine that existed before the revolution has not fully recovered, so the state’s ability to control any uprising is limited. At some point, people will realize that they don’t like what is happening, and that there is nobody to stop them from taking to the streets, and they will do!

In the meantime, the state is frantically rebuilding its capabilities. And until then, it has no choice than acting with little conspiracies to influence things, and maintaining this fragile alliance with the MB.

*             *             *

PS. I don’t believe that there is much new in what you just read. However, sometimes telling (and remembering) the story makes it easier to understand where we are today, and where we’re heading to, and to regain control of our path.

Amin Elmasry. 23 March 2012.

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2 Responses to A Revolution Struggling

  1. Great analysis! Thanks

  2. Pingback: Bookmarks 03/27/2012 « Cairene's Nilometer

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