H.A. Hellyer

Egypt’s dilemma: New regime, same old state

Contributed to The Globe and Mail

A riot police officer stands in front of anti-government protesters during clashes in Simon Bolivar Square, which leads to Tahrir Square in Cairo, on Jan. 30, 2013. (MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/REUTERS)

A week ago, Egypt’s revolution commemorated the second anniversary of its beginning. It hasn’t, however, been a week of celebrations – the day itself was considered by many Egyptian activists and political forces to be a reminder that after two years of transition, the revolution has not delivered on its potential. Moreover, violence has occupied the attention of the media, with civil unrest rocking cities such as Port Said, Suez and the centre of Cairo.

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These are not disparate occurrences – they are inextricably linked. Two years ago, Egyptians did not rise up against a man – Hosni Mubarak – but against a system. The famous call during those 18 days of protests was clear: “the people want the fall of the regime.” In the two years since, however, that regime not only remains more or less intact – but the system within, which it operated, has taken a turn for the worse. Those who claim to support Egypt’s revolution have a lot more to do before it can be considered to have been completed.

While the regime within the institutions of the state has largely survived intact – despite many efforts of President Mohammed Morse to impose his own hegemonic regime – the institutions of the state have been weakened.

So, while the state and its institutions are not coming apart, cracks have formed – cracks that have been building not for days or nor weeks, but for many months. What we have seen over the past few days is the exploitation of those cracks as they are subjected to pressure through this crisis.

Since the beginning of this revolution, calls for reforming the institutions of the state have gone largely unheeded. Instead, the institutions have continued to deteriorate. During the transition, they have not been given the proper attention required to see them strengthen and function in a more just manner.

The ministry of interior, which governs the infamous Egyptian security services, for example, has certainly not been reformed and, as a result, is unable to carry out its responsibilities effectively. The violence over the last few days, which has cost the lives more than 60 Egyptians, is directly related to this continuing deterioration – and we should expect to see more cracks in the institution in the weeks and months ahead.

The responsibility for that deterioration can only lie with those who have been managing the Egyptian transition since Mr. Mubarak’s resignation – the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and the presidency of Muslim Brotherhood member Mr. Morsi. It is their responsibility to reform and alter the institutions of the state to serve the Egyptian people more effectively, as well as fulfil the aims of the revolution. These two forces were the only ones who had the power to enact change. However, the SCAF did not take such steps, preferring to focus on other issues. When Mr. Morsi took office, changing the institutions was generally ignored in favour of steps that sought to impose a new hegemony sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Some supporters of the government point the finger of blame towards the opposition forces for the violence and the crisis – but the opposition has no competency or power to affect the institutions, and it is not responsible for the violence. To assume otherwise is to grant the opposition more clout than it actually possesses. If the opposition and the government were to stand together and urge an end to the violence sreets, it would be largely ignored.

The grievances being heard on the streets of Egypt’s cities are not political in any case – they are far more raw than that, and the violence will only continue if the core causes of those grievances are not addressed. The institutions of the state are not equipped to deal with the outbreak of a crisis when things break down. Egyptians will urgently need these institutions in the period ahead, most particularly because the worsening economic situation is colliding with popular discontent over Mr. Morsi’s government.

The last few days are an indictment of the opposition political leadership for many things – but not because of the outbreak of violence or the inability of the state to suitably manage that violence. Only the governing powers of the past two years can be held to account in that regard – the reforming and restructuring of the institutions of the state should have been the first priorities of any post-Mubarak regime.

They were not – and they should be held to account for that. It is unclear, however, whether they will be held to account; not unless the leadership of the opposition is able to organize effectively, in political terms, to ensure that.”

As such, it is likely that the state’s institutions will deteriorate further, until either a stronger political opposition can hold the government to account – or until a new president is elected into office. Neither appears likely for some time.

Dr. H. A. Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Project on U.S.-Islamic World Relations at the Brookings Institution, and ISPU, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs and West–Muslim relations. Follow him on Twitter@hahellyer.