After the Coup
This essay, when first written at the start of the 2013 coup, predicted a bleak future for Egypt. Because it is so rare that the prognostications of academics turn out to be correct, they are usually happy to be vindicated when reality squares with their predictions. That is not the case here, however. I would have been delighted had Egypt, contrary to my pessimistic outlook in 2013, proven me wrong and continued on its march toward the democratic future that the January 25 revolution promised. If anything, however, early conclusions were not sufficiently pessimistic. One could not have imagined a scenario in which a former military officer with no significant accomplishment other than leading a military coup and slaughtering hundreds, if not thousands, of his countrymen, would be elected president without facing any meaningful opposition a mere three years after Mubarak had resigned. Nor could one have imagined that the Egyptian judiciary would hand out mass death sentences with a casualness appropriate perhaps for a traffic court proceeding, but certainly not for charges implicating the death penalty. Political repression has gone beyond expectations of this author as well. Unsurprisingly, there have been mass arrests of Muslim Brotherhood members, or those accused of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood. More surprising, however, has been the vigor with which the reconstituted Egyptian security state has pursued non-Islamist political activists such as Ahmad Maher, the leader of the April 6 Movement, who was imprisoned, along with countless others, for violating Egypt’s post-June 30 protest law.
Other than the “election” of President Abdul Fatah el-Sisi and the referendum approving amendments to the controversial 2012 constitution, self-government has come to a halt in Egypt. As of mid-2015, Egypt still lacks a parliament, ostensibly because the government has been unable to draft an elections law that satisfies constitutional requirements. The consistent failure to adopt a constitutionally satisfactory elections law, however, in circumstances where the president has a monopoly of lawmaking power, suggests that indifference is at work here, not principled differences on what an adequate system of representation would look like. This suspicion is also confirmed by the seeming complete absence of public demands for parliamentary elections. As suggested in the original essay on which this chapter is based, the June 30 counterrevolution, far from heralding a deepening of Egyptian democracy, has heralded the death of democratic politics and the surrender of the Egyptian people to despotism in the irrational hope that an all-powerful despot could solve the problems that they had shown themselves to be so incapable of dealing with during the short, fifteen-month democratic experiment that drew to an end with the June 30 coup.
One of the commonly heard justifications for the coup was that Egypt was on the cusp of a civil war, and, but for the military intervention, Egypt would have descended into the same kind of internecine war of all against all that has come to plague Syria and Iraq. While it is impossible to know what would have happened to Egypt in the absence of the coup, it is indisputable that armed violence against the state has escalated sharply in the wake of the coup. North Sinai is in the throes of an all-out insurgency, and Sinai-based militants have openly pledged fealty to the self-declared caliphate of the Islamic State (isis). The increasing intensity of the Sinai insurgency has cost scores of Egyptian soldiers and police their lives, culminating in the 2015 bold attack on the Sinai town of Shaykh Zu- waid in which countless Egyptian soldiers and police were killed. Sinai-based insurgents have also claimed credit for a myriad of bombings in the Nile valley that have claimed the lives of dozens of security personnel. In a brazen bombing in Cairo, militants successfully detonated a bomb targeting the motorcade of Egypt’s prosecutor general, Hisham Barakat, killing him. While it is unlikely that this insurgency would succeed in toppling the Sisi regime, it undermines the regime’s claim to legitimacy by highlighting its failure to stop these attacks. The attacks not only risk sapping the morale of security services but also, perhaps more crucially, risk undermining the confidence of investors, reducing the attractiveness of Egypt as an investment destination.
Another justification given for the necessity of the coup was that the Egyptian economy was on the verge of collapse. This, we can say with some certainty, was clearly an exaggeration. While the economy certainly stagnated in the wake of the January 25 revolution, the economy continued to grow throughout the transition period till June 30, albeit at an anemic pace. Whether this growth is sustainable is highly questionable, but there is no doubt that economic growth accelerated sharply during Sisi’s first year in office. Unprecedented support from the Gulf States, as well as the $8.5 billion expansion of the Suez Canal, undoubtedly injected massive stimulus into the Egyptian economy, with growth in the third quarter of 2014 reaching 6.8 percent. The rate of growth, however, has already begun to decline as the effects of this massive one-time stimulus dissipate, and now, with the completion of the canal’s expansion, little is left to spend on other badly needed infrastructure projects. The Sisi regime, however, deserves credit for beginning to reduce the unsustainable energy subsidies that have crippled Egypt’s public finances. However, despite this important measure, and despite the 2015 collapse in global energy prices, Egypt’s current account deficit continues to increase, and its budget deficit is still in excess of 10 percent of its gdp. It is no surprise, then, that the Egyptian pound has depreciated significantly in 2014
and 2015, and will need to depreciate even further before it reflects the fundamentals of Egypt’s economy, even if this comes at the risk of increasing Egypt’s already elevated rate of inflation.
In short, no dramatic improvements have been achieved on the economic front that suggest that the coup produced an economic outcome for Egypt that is materially superior to that which would have been achieved had Egypt continued along its democratic path. The Egyptian economy continues to be on life support, dependent on outside assistance from the Gulf. Should this assistance disappear, it could have dramatically negative consequences for the stability of the Egyptian economy.
Despite the dramatic security and economic failures of the Sisi regime, it is unlikely that Egypt can now simply turn its back on the coup and renew a march toward democracy. The coalition that made the January 25 revolution possible has been completely shattered. Non-Islamist revolutionaries, with the exception of a few, are unwilling to question their participation in the June 30 coup or to consider reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood or its rehabilitation from its newly designated status as public enemy number one. The Muslim Brotherhood, battered by the arrest of the top three tiers of its leadership, has effectively lost control over its rank-and-file followers. If even a small percentage of them fall into the arms of isis, there is a real risk that the insurgency in Sinai could expand in scope and intensity in the Nile valley. This risk will only increase once the Egyptian government carries out the numerous death penalties that have been issued against members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including former president Morsi and the entire senior leadership of the brotherhood. The Egyptian state, moreover, has gone “all in” behind Sisi, making it inconceivable that significant portions of the civilian bureaucratic elite could ally itself with revolutionary groups within civil society.
What this essentially means is that unless Sisi succeeds in radically restructuring the Egyptian state, either it will eventually implode under the weight of its own incompetence and inefficiency, or some kind of revolutionary action will overwhelm it again. Sadly, the prospects of a peaceful transition to a better future for Egypt are even more remote today than they were eighteen months ago when this chapter was first published. And since there is no evidence that Sisi is succeeding in creating a new governing coalition capable of facing Egypt’s challenges, Egypt’s future looks grim. The only point of dispute is how grim that future will be.