Five years after the glorious images of the Egyptian Revolution were televised worldwide, little has remained of the many hopes that accompanied the powerful uprising. Led by the youngest sector of a society tired of nepotism and elitist policies, and disillusioned with a social order based on privilege rather than meritocracy, the revolution that first appeared to originate from within the masses, has now shown its dark side––re-bringing to the surface old cleavages, long-standing problems, and an unresolved legitimacy crisis that extends beyond the boundaries of the Egyptian state to affect the majority of the countries in the MENA region.

This analysis discusses the case of Egypt, with the hope of shedding light on the persistent problems that affect the country, at the domestic level, and on the complex geopolitical game dictated by realpolitik, at the international one. Specifically, this essay focuses on two dynamics that seem to play a pivotal role in determining current political developments in Egypt. First, the Egyptian domestic crisis will be analyzed as part of a far wider legitimacy instability that is affecting Arab republics in general. Second, the international approach to Egypt, especially after the uproar provoked by the death of the Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni, will be examined, showing how the necessities of realpolitik are currently influencing the political choices of international actors, including Italy.

Since the time of the 1952 Egyptian Revolution that saw the rise to power of General Abd al-Nasser (known as the Free Officers Revolution), the military has been playing a crucial role in determining the country’s domestic policy. According to Nathan Brown and Yasser el-Shimy,[1] the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) has never ceased to see itself as a “guardian of the nation,” believing that it had the duty to get rid of government figures that were considered harmful and dangerous for the interests of the country. This is exactly what happened during the 2011 Revolution. As demonstrated by other historical examples, including the French Revolution of 1789,[2] many revolutionary processes are followed by an internal legitimacy crisis that sparks off when the institutional apparatus of the previous order falls apart from within. Comparable to what occurred in other historical instances, in Egypt the revolution reached its apex when the military, originally supportive of Mubarak’s regime, aligned with protestors in the streets to oust the tyrant.[3]

Furthermore, as Nathan Brown and Yasser el-Shimy assert , the goal of the SCAF after the 2011 Revolution was to create a system of “competitive authoritarianism,” which could still allow for the SCAF to remain powerful while promoting a democratic façade. Contrary to their expectations, however, this plan failed to materialize given that the lion’s share of the parliamentary seats went to the Muslim Brothers’ party, the FJP (Freedom and Justice Party). The attempts to reduce the army’s political power in the country were strongly opposed by the SCAF, which, at the first sizable opportunity, ousted the first democratically elected president of the country, Muhammad Morsi. Since then, General al-Sisi has been ruling Egypt, bringing back to memory the old misdeeds of the Mubarak regime or, perhaps even worse, following a common pattern of historical revisionism based on the assessment of the worsening trend of the current political and economic situation in the country.[4] The Egyptian situation has indeed become even more dramatic than it was under Mubarak: the state has become more repressive, the economy has sunk, and protests have increased in many areas of the country, igniting a circle of violence (mainly Islamist-driven) that has further exacerbated the overall situation.[5] Despite the initial promises of the 2011 Revolution, Egypt can still be considered a “deep state,” which may be defined as governed by “a set of predatory, extractive elites”.[6] In this case, the Egyptian elite is unwilling to engage in any sort of reform process that would genuinely improve the political and economic conditions of the country. Instead, the Egyptian elite’s priority is to preserve the vexed interests of the ruling class.

At the international level, denunciations against the blatant violations of basic human rights perpetrated by al-Sisi’s regime have proliferated. The case of the young novelist Ahmed Naji, recently imprisoned following the publication of a novel that allegedly threatens public morality, constitutes just the last example of a long list of oppressive acts against civil society and freedom of expression. This infamous case has been preceded by many other episodes of crackdown on civil society and Islamist and non-Islamist organizations alike. In an opinion article that appeared on The New York Times in April 2016,[7] Gamal Eid explains how the government of General al-Sisi has pursued its case against himself and Hossam Baghat, founders and administrators of human rights organizations. Accordingly, both Eid and Baghat have been targeted because the groups they lead “provide critical resources to those facing human rights abuses in Egypt.”

Amid this dramatic situation that destroys any hope for a better future in the short-run, the generalized crisis of Arab republics is increasingly evident beyond the Egyptian borders. According to Professor Jean-Pierre Filiu, Arab republics have been more fragile and less able to face the wave of protests and subsequent instability of their political system than the Arab monarchies, which have thus far demonstrated a firmer grip on power and a greater ability to face malcontent, therefore avoiding the legitimacy crises experienced by the republics (Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq).[8] The former have been nicknamed Mamluks, in reference to the Turkish slave caste that seized power in Egypt in 1250 and established a sultanate that lasted until 1502. The latter are known as Maliks (monarchs), referring to the monarchical and centralized form of political order that they have instituted. The different levels of resilience displayed by the two types of political systems are attributable to many diverging factors, but the greater capacity to withstand adversity shown by the Maliks rests mainly on the political legitimacy on which their governments rely. Whereas Arab republics have based their legitimacy on political issues such as Arab unity and the liberation of Palestine (all failed projects), the Maliks have legitimized their power and the political and social order deriving from it in terms of religious justifications (as in the case of the Alaouite dynasty in Morocco, which is said to descend directly from the Prophet’s genealogy). To be sure, also the Mamluks have attempted, to varying degrees, to establish a certain form of religious legitimization for their governments, but the nature of the republican system has not allowed for the kind of reliance on identity politics and self-styled religious legitimacy that the Maliks have been able to implement. Consequently, Arab republics are experiencing a legitimacy crisis without precedents, and Egypt is no exception.

The increasingly tumultuous situation in the Egyptian nation has been exacerbated by the ambivalent position of Western powers. The criticism Italy, the U.S., and other Western allies have voiced against the harsh repression of al-Sisi’s regime has not been matched by actual measures that would compel the regime to stop the bloodshed and the unjustified imprisonment of civil society activists. This ambivalent behavior exhibited by the Western allies became especially clear during the visit of the U.S. Secretary of State to Cairo in Egypt in early April. The American diplomat carefully downplayed the regime’s misdeeds rather than openly condemning them.[9] The reason behind this dual behavior appears to be twofold. On the one hand, we find the long-lasting risk posed by “the War on Terror,” in which Egypt is considered a fundamental ally to counter the spread of jihadism in the area. On the other hand, we encounter the desire to put a stop to the political instability in Libya, the persistent political crisis of which is both having major effects on many European countries’ economies and contributing to the increase of an uncontrolled flow of migrants from the Maghreb.

Issues of realpolitik come into play in determining Western powers’ soft attitude towards General al-Sisi. More specifically, the Western allies’ desire to stabilize Libya through the cement of the fledgling government of al-Sarraj, results in an attempt to convince General al-Sisi to interrupt his backing of General Khalifa Haftar, the leader of Operation Dignity. The overall aim is to create a strong support in the region for al-Sarraj’s UN-backed government. The establishment of al-Sarraj’s regime could not only neutralize Haftar’s Operation Dignity but also help prevent a bloody fight between this organization and Libya Dawn, the Islamist formation with a stronghold in the Eastern region. a fight which would further destabilize the region and provide more room for Daesh to thrive. Al-Sisi’s support of this cause seems to be tacitly rewarded by the Western allies’ complacent approach toward the violations of human rights at the Egyptian domestic level.[10]

In conclusion, while Egypt is falling back to a deep state structure that prevents citizens to freely group and express their opinion in the public space, and which preserves the interests of a restricted circle of autocratic figures, international powers are countering Egypt’s violation of human rights only in words, due to their fear of the potential negative consequences that could emerge from the loss of Egypt as an ally in the area as well as of the total collapse of the already alarming situation in Libya. General al-Sisi and the SCAF are therefore left free to continue their harsh repression of Islamists and civil rights activists working for a more inclusive political system and a just social order In this context, Mubarak’s regime has gradually started to be remembered with a baleful and dangerous nostalgia.

Valentina Cantori

Master’s Degree in Culture and Languages for Communication and International Cooperation (University of Milan)


References and notes

[1] Brown, N., and el-Shimy, Y., “Did Sisi Save Egypt? The Arab Spring at Five,” Foreign Affairs, January 25, 2016. Retrieved from: http://fam.ag/1VayPQU.

[2] Doyle, W., “The Oxford History of the French Revolution,” NT, New York City: Oxford University Press, 2001.

[3] Ghannouchi, S., “The Role of the Army in Egypt’s New Politics,” al-Jazeera, September 30, 2011. Retrieved from: http://bit.ly/209lp70.

[4] Walsh, D, Youssef, N., “The Strange, Unending Limbo of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak,” The New York Times, May 16, 2016. Retrieved from: http://nyti.ms/1WB1LTJ.

[5] “Mamluks and Maliks. Why Arab Monarchies have Survived Uprisings better then Republics,” The Economist, Mat 14, 2016. Retrieved from: http://econ.st/23Y3EZq.

[6] Faris, D. M., “Deep State, Deep Crisis: Egypt and American Policy,” Middle East Policy, 20(4), 2013: 99-110, DOI: 10.111/mepo.12049.

[7] Eid, G. “Egypt’s Hollowed-Out Society,” The New York Times, April 17, 2016. Retrieved from: http://nyti.ms/25bWirf.

[8] Filiu, J-P, “From Deep State to Islamic State. The Arab Counter-Revolution and its Jihadi Legacy,” London: Hurst Publishers.2015.

[9] Labott, E., “In Cairo, Kerry Downplays Rift with Egypt Over Human Rights,” CNN, April 2016. Retrieved from: cnn.it/1XmH10E.

[10] Kirchgaessner, S., Stephen, C., Michaelson, R., “Realpolitik Hinders Hunt for Killer of Italian Researcher in Egypt,” The Guardian, May 16, 2016. Retrieved from: http://bit.ly/1VZFmih.