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Egypt’s implosion: Elections and the prospects for change

As the Egyptian Presidential elections approach, which will be held between 10-12 December 2023, the country’s debt crisis continues to deepen and questions about the future of the regime loom large.

There is little doubt that Sisi will win the upcoming vote, not only due to the fragmentation and weakness of the opposition but also due to his totalitarian command of the state, especially its repressive apparatus which has already initiated a targeted campaign against Ahmed El-Tantawi, the only candidate that poses a mild threat to the regime and its iron grip.

Even though the short-term prospects of the regime seem secure, its longer-term prospects are subject to speculation, with an increasingly violent economic crisis and a rapid loss of support in some quarters raising questions about its ability to survive.

In the broadest sense, there are three possible scenarios for change: self-reform, explosion, or implosion.

“Even though the short-term prospects of the regime seem secure, its longer-term prospects are subject to speculation, with an increasingly violent economic crisis and a rapid loss of support”

The first, and least likely scenario, is self-reform. In this scenario elites within the regime, most likely within the security services, initiate a process of limited reform, where the autocratic nature of the regime would remain, while sharing power with a civilian partner.

This would push the regime to a more technocratic direction, allowing for civilian leaders to emerge in certain sectors with an independent power base, while allowing the military to continue to dominate the state through a civilian façade.

It would allow the regime to call on civilian competence to alleviate the current crisis, while limiting the power of the military and halting the process of the militarisation of the state and the economy, which is at the root of the current economic crisis.

This, however, is a very unlikely scenario due to the ability of the military to completely dominate the state and the political system while eliminating all centres of civilian power, even those broadly supportive of the regime.

The most notable example of this policy is the lack of a civilian ruling party, which can strengthen the Presidency and balance the military.

This is exemplified in the role, or lack thereof, of ‘Mostaqbal Watan’, the pro-Sisi party that dominates the parliament, but plays no significant role in policymaking and only occupies one ministerial position in the current government.

What compounds the matter is the weakness of the moderate opposition, which could act as a partner for the regime in a process of self-reform.

This weakness of the opposition and its inability to act as a counterweight to the security services was manifested in the National Dialogue, which has failed to deliver even a modest political opening or the systematic release of political prisoners. In fact, by some indicators the regime has stepped up its repression during the dialogue.

The second scenario is the prospect of mass social upheaval followed by mass repression leading to a cycle of violence and counter-violence. In other words, the regime would explode in a flurry of violence in a Syria- or Libya-like scenario.

This, unfortunately, is a more likely scenario than self-reform, and the regime has already laid the groundwork for a confrontation like this. The most notable factor is the ability of the regime to command the loyalty of junior officers in the military, the ones responsible for executing orders to repress.

In 2011 during the Egyptian revolution, Mubarak commanded the loyalty of the top brass, but the loyalty of the junior officer class was in doubt, especially if ordered to repress a mass uprising with broad social participation.

Today, however, the situation is different, not only due to the successive increase in the salaries of junior officers but also due to years of ideological indoctrination in the regime’s version of chauvinistic nationalism and conspiracy theories, which frames any and all opposition as an existential threat to the nation and the state.

“The regime has also invested heavily in the physical infrastructure of repression, in preparation for a possible confrontation”

Still, the loyalty of junior officers remains unpredictable. Even though the regime has attempted to solicit their support, there are no guarantees that this loyalty will hold, especially if the uprising has deep popular support.

The regime has also invested heavily in the physical infrastructure of repression, in preparation for a possible confrontation. The new administrative capital has been designed to protect the regime from a possible mass uprising in rebellious Cairo.

Located 65 kilometres east of Cairo, and monitored by 6,000 cameras, the new capital is far enough to protect the regime from the mass of the urban poor, and expensive enough to keep the poor and most of the middle class out.

In other words, the regime is orchestrating a situation in which the centres of government are located away from the mass of Egyptians, surrounded by the elites and the regime’s support base, freeing the regime to employ mass repression on rebellious urban centres if the need arises.

The regime has also decimated any moderate opposition within the country, which could, potentially, act to absorb popular anger and divert it towards reformist goals, while acting as a negotiating partner with the regime for a possible transfer of power.

Despite these factors, there are also questions about the willingness of the Egyptian people to engage in mass street protests, knowing full well that mass repression will follow. Over the years, the fatigue has accumulated from calls made over the years for similar protests to affect change, and the ineffectiveness of these calls.

The final, and most likely scenario, is that of a slow implosion. Rather than explode in a flurry of violence and bloodshed, the deepening of the economic crisis and the slow draining of popular support would cause the regime to collapse with a whimper rather than a bang.

For this scenario to occur, however, there are two factors that are yet to materialise. First is the evolution of an opposition that has deep popular support and that is able to not only offer an alternative to the regime but also to challenge its grip on power and score small, tactical, victories against it.

This would be a cumulative process, which would take years to achieve, and it would require significant sacrifices as the regime resists losing its grip on power.

The second factor is that the economic crisis would start to chip away at the legitimising narrative of the regime in a manner that would seep into its repressive apparatus. Most importantly, this narrative would spread amongst the junior officers, undermining the regime’s ability to repress dissent.

This would open up the possibility of the regime imploding under its own weight and prolonged popular pressure. The form that this will take is very difficult to predict, and the political system that will emerge from it is also very hard to imagine.

It will depend, to a large extent, on the strength of the opposition, the depth of the popular support it enjoys, and the depth of the crisis in the military establishment. This, however, is the longest road of all and will entail significant sacrifice, as it attempts to shake the military stranglehold over the state and the political system.

“Rather than explode in a flurry of violence and bloodshed, the deepening of the economic crisis and the slow draining of popular support would cause the regime to collapse with a whimper rather than a bang”

There is no quick solution to Egypt’s crisis of governance. Indeed, all the above scenarios are long-term, and can also occur simultaneously.

For example, attempts at reform can open the floodgates for demands for radical change leading to the collapse of the regime, or attempts at repression can lead to mutiny causing a rapid implosion.

Attempts at predicting the future are always hazardous, and this one is no different. The only constant is the complex nature of Egypt’s structural problems, which will require years to untangle and confront.

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