Friday, March 28, 2014

Field Marshal Pharaoh - Abdel Fattah al-Sisi makes his presidential move

There are two ways to look at the decision of the Egyptian army commander, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, to resign his post in order to stand for Egypt’s presidential elections, whose date has not yet been set.

The pessimists will see Sisi’s elevation to the presidency as a major nail in the coffin of the Arab Spring. It is a setback to the democratic ambitions of the Egyptian people, which, ironically, the Egyptians themselves have been most responsible for undermining. The reason is that Sisi is expected to win the election with a substantial majority of votes.

The optimists will argue that there can be no returning to a pre-2011 situation, now that the Egyptian people have repeatedly demonstrated their power in the streets. This version holds that the country will steadily move forward toward a more democratic future. Just as the 1848 revolution in France initially brought in the authoritarian rule of Napoleon III, it was also followed by his defeat at the Battle of Sedan and the establishment of a more democratic Third Republic.

In a sense both are wrong, but the pessimists are likely much closer to the truth. Yes, Egyptians have tasted what it means to be heard, and Sisi may not be able to silence his people in the same way President Hosni Mubarak did for much of his presidency. Above all, Sisi will have to perform well in order to avoid having to engage in repression at every sign of dissatisfaction. He will come in with a strong mandate, but with this will also come great expectations he has to fulfill.

But at the same time, the army has returned to power. Gamal Abdel Nasser, too, entered office with considerable popular support, which he retained until the end of his life. But the fact is that the authoritarian, military-dominated order that Mubarak embodied was first put in place by Nasser and his successor Anwar Sadat. Sisi would merely be the latest iteration of a type of ruler with which Egypt is familiar.

Since the 2011 uprisings were about changing the way Arab countries were ruled, Sisi’s success would be a great disappointment. The optimists fail to take into consideration that Arab regimes are sophisticated machines of absolute control and political survival. They occasionally break down, but they are particularly adept at avoiding breaking down twice.

They also tend to give rise to remarkably callous and sinister men. In Libya and Syria, the Qaddafi and Assad regimes very quickly reached a conclusion once challenged: it’s either us or civil war. The wager was lost in Qaddafi’s case, thanks largely to French, British, and American air power. But the situation is different in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad may yet prevail, no matter how long the conflict lasts or the number of casualties.

In Egypt, too, the army sought time and again to negate the gains from the overthrow of Mubarak. This it first did in the context of the supreme military council soon after the president’s removal; then again when President Mohammed Morsi was in office, which his incompetence only facilitated. At no point was the military pleased with what happened in 2011. Not only did the uprising threaten its economic interests, it also threatened the military’s role in Egyptian political life.

Today, a Sisi presidency will be accepted by all, whatever it means for Egyptian democracy. Most of the Arab states will endorse his regime, even if some of them, such as Qatar, may continue to back the Muslim Brotherhood. The United States, which has shown singular ineptitude in managing its relationship with Egypt, will also come around. It wants to see a stable Egypt next to Israel, and will welcome any effort by the new Egyptian regime to repress jihadists in the Sinai.

But more broadly, what would the impact of a return to authoritarianism mean in Egypt? For one thing it would again bring to the forefront that old assertion that democracy in the Middle East is usually present in inverse proportion to stability: the more democracy, the greater the instability, therefore if one wants stability, there should be less democracy.

Given the instability in the region since 2011, the return to a stable, undemocratic Egypt will have a bearing on such places as Syria and Libya. Only Tunisia will have broken the pattern through its passage of a democratic constitution, and even then much will be determined by how the document is implemented.

But what is good for Egypt, Sisi’s supporters may find out, must also be good for Syria. Ultimately, Bashar al-Assad may welcome Sisi’s arrival in Cairo, because it will augur his own revival. Next July Assad will stand for re-election, if everything remains as it is today, and the implicit, if not explicit, message he will be sending is little different than Sisi’s: I embody stability and the end of three years of ruinous chaos. That Assad was largely responsible for such chaos will be left unmentioned.

Whichever way one cuts it, the developments in Egypt mark an essential moment in the post-2011 period, where the gains made three years ago have been reversed, and by popular acclamation. Even the most hardened optimists must shake their heads at this, and wonder if their hopeful narrative can hold. Hope is not something that survives for long in the region.

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