By Rasheed Hammouda and Mohamed Ibrahim
This article is the second of a three part series. The aim of this series is to dispel the increasingly widespread belief held by both supporters and detractors of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi that the circumstances he faces and the actions he takes are similar to those of his predecessors, specifically Gamal Abdel Nasser and Hosni Mubarak. By demonstrating these differences, we can open the floor for a more productive discussion about the state of Egyptian politics.
Last week we disassembled the comparison between Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and his socialist predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser. We showed that not only are the two leaders drastically different in numerous regards, but these differences have crucial implications for the current state of Egyptian society. This week we turn our attention to the comparison of Sisi to the first popularly deposed Egyptian leader in living memory, Hosni Mubarak.
The comparison between the two military leaders often comes with claims of the continuation of an Egyptian “deep state”. These theories are as overly complicated as they are improbable, and they focus on the wrong things. On the flip side, others make the more blunt claim that Sisi is simply Mubarak, but this would be an underestimation of the current situation’s danger. To be sure, Sisi has been gladly reaping the bitter fruits of Mubarak’s regime. However, the crop the current general sows is far more poisonous than that of his predecessor.
Mubarak was every western leader’s favorite Arab Neoliberal. Under his administration, Egypt fared far better in the Global Financial Crisis than many of its relatively unscathed neighbours. For nearly the entire three decades under Mubarak, the country saw GDP growth; in ten of his last years in office, the country had real growth of over 21% cumulatively, according to UN reports. This growth came at a high cost, though, and poverty was on the rise, particularly in the latter half of Mubarak’s time, and it continues to grow today.
Despite this, Mubarak’s policies were popular internationally and at least nominally successful at home. The reason for both of these facts is one in the same. Mubarakonomics was the poster child for developmental policies peddled by neoliberal economists across the globe—policies that focused on increasing Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and international partnerships in an effort to boost GDP, which they did. This growth came at the expense of labour rights, living wages, domestic capacity building, and more. In the 30 years under Mubarak, Egypt was particularly aggressive in attracting FDI. “Free zones” were created with unheard of long-term benefits for foreign investors, international interests were practically gifted land, the value of the pound dropped, and the General Authority for Foreign Investment boasted to the international community about how low the country’s wages were in relation to the rest of MENA.
The policies of Mubarakonomics have been written about ad nauseam here and elsewhere; the salient point is that today we are seeing the disastrous consequences of these short sighted economic actions. As FDI dries up in Egypt, its domestic capacities are revealed for what they are: stunted, neglected, and reeling from a quarter century of misuse. The economy is tenuous to say the least. It may not end up in complete disarray if Sisi is only as wrongheaded as Mubarak was, but he looks to be far worse.
Reports last week have hinted at coming austerity should Sisi become president. If such measures come to pass, Egypt’s economic fate will be put in peril. Mubarak’s tactic was often condescendingly patriarchal; Egypt was told to follow obediently. Sisi’s potentially more severe policies would not be able to be passed off in such a manner. The general’s rhetoric stands apart from his predecessor’s: it warmly asks the Egyptian people to suffer with him, for Egypt’s sake. Even if Sisi were to be suffering alongside the growing population of Egypt’s poor, to what end would this be? There is a conspicuous lack of economic direction.
As previously stated, opposition groups repeatedly make the comparison between Mubarak and Sisi in order to validate claims insinuating the rebirth of a dictator. Though we understand the sentiment, these groups are missing the mark. Sisi could be worse. Mubarak was a remnant tag-along of the heroics of his predecessors. Respect for his regime was, at best, sustained by his military prestige. Throughout his presidency, he remained a distant figure, far removed from the woes of his public. Rarely did he address Egyptians, and when he did, as discussed earlier, it was as if he was a father reprimanding his disobedient children and demanding they change their ways. In addition, the extreme repression that occurred under his leadership took place away from the public’s attention in order to maintain stability.
Though Sisi stands on the back of a proud military, he is neither aloof nor drafting behind the weight of previous leadership. He is constantly in the public eye, and makes it known that he experiences the same hardships as the Egyptian people, especially at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. This was most evident in Sisi’s recent lengthy interview after announcing his candidacy for president. The fact that Sisi appeared on a mainstream television programme in and of itself represents a massive dissimilarity between the two leaders. During the discussion, he repeatedly made it evident that he did not take actions on his own, but only echoed the sentiments of the Egyptian people and carried out their demands. In addition, he clearly expressed his own suffering at the hands of the Brotherhood by revealing two-failed assassination attempts on his life. This type of discussion is intended to promote Sisi’s proximity to the Egyptian people. It seems that he has taken to heart the famous quote by Charles de Gaulle: “In order to become the master, the politician poses as the servant.”
Furthermore, as discussed in the first part of the series, with Sisi, there is much less covert violence taking place. Government aggression against dissenters is commonplace and open for public viewing, and more importantly, participation. Sisi has repeatedly extended his hands out to Egyptians in an attempt to include them in the process of said violence. And even though civilians may not actually be the ones committing the violent actions, they are still a main part of the entire process. This highlights a key ideological difference between Mubarak and Sisi. Mubarak inspired no love from his people, repressing them from above with no clear message except to stay out of his way. The Sisi government, on the other hand, is exhibiting a clear message. The military, the government and the people are all one hand. With this communal hand we will crush all opposition, because the patriot is a nationalist, and the nationalist is a participant.
Rasheed Hammouda is an Egyptian-American researcher based in London with a focus on MENA economics and contemporary philosophy.