Twelve years have now passed since Egyptians bravely took to the streets demanding a right to govern themselves democratically. Some might quibble and claim that the protesters in the center of Cairo, and across so many other cities and towns in Egypt, were not demanding democracy, but something more tangible: "bread, freedom and social justice." Nearly a decade ago, backers of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's coup claimed the intervention of the military was necessary to preserve the "civic" character of Egypt's state against the alleged religious extremism of then-President Mohammed Morsi and his political party, aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet those who cheered for Sisi must now reckon with his track record, which has demonstrated that it is impossible to have a successful "civic" state if it lacks even minimal standards of democratic accountability. Egypt under Sisi's regime is proof that you can't achieve the material benefits of a modern, civic state using the infrastructure of a military dictatorship.
A modern civic state begins and ends with seeking the welfare of its people. It does not see its success in building vanity projects to the great leader, or in the endless line of sycophants waiting to praise him. So, let us ask, how fare the Egyptian people, 12 years after Jan. 25, and now approaching 10 years since the coup that brought Sisi to power? Let us leave aside for the moment the political brutality of Sisi and his allies. The violence they unleashed, which unfolded virtually live on television for the world to see in the summer of 2013 at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, has essentially continued unabated since. Sisi and his allies have destroyed politics in Egypt; Egyptian civil society has never been so thoroughly decimated and demoralized. Even in the darkest days of Hosni Mubarak's rule, a public culture of criticism and intellectual ferment existed. There was a modicum of hope that the Mubarak regime could be persuaded to increase space for democratic participation and accountability. Even though that space was relatively small, it was enough to allow for the possibility of politics and for Egyptians to dream of a better future through collective democratic action.
Egypt under Sisi's regime is proof that you can't achieve the material benefits of a modern, civic state using the infrastructure of a military dictatorship.
- Mohammad Fadel
Sisi and his allies in uniform, however, apparently drew from the Mubarak years the lesson that any amount of space for politics is too much space. So they have set about systematically destroying the capacity of Egyptian civil society to sustain any shred of political life.
This is evident in the pitiable status of Egypt's parliament. Sisi, ever creative in his plans to cement his authoritarianism, understood that Mubarak's strategy of sham elections carried within them revolutionary implications: If only Egypt had honest elections, then Egyptians could enjoy the benefits of democracy and accountable political leadership. Such a lesson needed to be unlearned, and Sisi was determined to show Egyptians that honest elections are irrelevant because institutions like the parliament are themselves irrelevant. By ensuring that parliament is filled with so-called "independents," unaffiliated with any meaningful political party (but really, beholden to Sisi and the military), Sisi guaranteed that parliament would simply be a site for rent-seeking sycophants who are incapable of forming broader social coalitions that could challenge his power. Twelve years ago, the revolution of Jan. 25 began with a national cry based on hope in what could be accomplished if Egyptians worked together. Today, Egypt's leaders do their best to destroy even the possibility that the average Egyptian might hope for a better future in cooperation with his or her fellow citizens.
There are those who, despite the destruction wrought on Egyptian political life by Sisi and his ilk, will attempt to justify it in the name of economic development and modernization. Too many people, including professionals in international development, continue to believe, without evidence, that authoritarian regimes are more successful in implementing economic reforms than democracies. The argument is superficially appealing: Economic reforms are painful, and produce many losers, and because they vote, politicians who are democratically accountable will resist adopting needed reforms. An authoritarian regime, the argument goes, is insulated from public pressure, and so can act rationally without fear of losing the next election.
But the authoritarian regime's insulation from civil society also contains within it a profound bug. Its independence from popular input may very well make it easier for it to administer otherwise painful reforms (leaving aside for now the question of the wisdom of those reforms), but it also makes it easier to waste vast public resources on ill-considered projects—like a new, unnecessary capital city to mimic Dubai, rising in the empty desert beyond Cairo, and expansions of the Suez Canal. Democratic politics have the economic advantage of forcing decision-makers to solve the most pressing problems faced by their constituencies. Without such pressure, and without the possibility of accountability, there is no reason to believe that regimes will not use their power to pursue their own private well-being rather than that of the public.
It is safe to say that Sisi's political brutality is matched only by his economic incompetence.
- Mohammad Fadel
It is safe to say that Sisi's political brutality is matched only by his economic incompetence. Egypt's external debt obligations have ballooned from $40 billion in 2012 to over $140 billion at the end of 2021. Despite all the massive borrowing by his government, Egyptian exports have actually declined slightly in this time frame, from $45.8 billion in 2012 to $44.9 billion at the end of 2021. In light of this catastrophic performance, it is no surprise that the value of the Egyptian pound relative to the U.S. dollar has dropped precipitously, from 0.15 Egyptian pounds to the dollar in 2012 to 0.03 Egyptian pounds to the dollar, a loss of almost 80 percent of its value relative to the dollar.
For Egyptians themselves, this has produced widespread immiseration, the negative effects of which will last for at least one, if not more, generations. Almost 73 percent of Egyptians lived on just $5.50 per day or less in 2017, with an annual income of only $2,007, making Egyptians some of the poorest people in the world. To put this in perspective, per capita income in Egypt in 2017 was $2,300. This means that almost three-quarters of the population did not even earn the "average" income—revealing, in addition to widespread poverty, the concentration of national income in the hands of a small slice of society. These numbers mask real human suffering that has no doubt increased as a result of the most recent devaluation of the Egyptian pound. Meanwhile, Sisi is fumbling to try and defend his vanity projects—a small but distinct sign of the public pressure building on his regime.
Democracy is not a utopia. It is hard work. It is prone to mistakes, inefficiency and other human flaws. But it has the virtue of allowing for course correction, something authoritarian regimes systematically lack. Nothing, sadly, will stop an authoritarian regime from driving the bus off the cliff other than its passengers. The autocrat, because it sees the cliff coming, thinks he can bail out in time to save himself, even if it dooms everyone else. Twelve years after Egyptians bravely took to the streets to demand the fall of Mubarak's regime, let's hope this is not Egypt's fate under Sisi.