One of the main questions in the rush of breathtaking events of the last three years in Egypt is whether Abdel Fatah Al Sissi can do what his two predecessors failed to do: remain in power. The widespread doubts about the “Civilian Marshall” do not encourage bets on Al Sissi, except by those in the Gulf who pay billions of dollars to keep Egypt afloat. But even with these negatives, Al Sissi may have a chance to pull through.
There are innumerable details describing the dire situation in Egypt, but beyond details, it is crucial to grasp the “logic” of the events. The framework of this logic is a triangle composed of the state, the population, and the opposition. Each leg of the triangle consists of different and sometimes conflicting, forces. Here we will mainly focus on one component: the opposition, whose main forces are the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the growing labor movement and the liberals.
Since the downfall of Mohamed Morsi last July, MEB harbored the expectation that the Brotherhood would go through a period of self-criticism, especially after it also suffered popular isolation. But it was not expected that this process would take over 8 months to become public.
It was only last month that Morsi’s former advisor, Jamal Heshmet (now residing in Qatar), said publicly that the organization would “retreat one step” in its relations with “our other partners in the January 25th revolution.” He later explained that the MB is willing to work out a deal with the liberals to guarantee that the next president—after toppling the inevitable next military rule—will not be from the MB. In addition, they would agree that the MB would not govern alone.
Then, after he also hinted that any return of Morsi to the presidential palace would be temporary and transitional, contacts with several liberal groups opened up.
Heshmet’s statements, tailored along the famous Bolshevik motto “one step backward, two steps forward,” came about only after long discussions among MB leadership members and advisors. Nonetheless, a hostile response was quickly mounted from another wing of the MB. Two days after his statements, Ahmed Al Mughair, a relatively young MB “youth leader,” published a short booklet rejecting an alliance with the liberals and emphasizing that if the MB approaches any other political force, it should only be the Islamists.
The dispute hardly rises to the level of the “deep self-criticism” we expected. And while there is no doubt that there is a heated debate inside the MBs about possible mistakes that led to toppling Morsi, it has not developed into a major rupture in the leadership.
The Qutbists (adherent of the views of Sayed Qutb) appear to still be in control, and the main reason for their continued dominance is the pressure that the Muslim Brotherhood is under. Continuity and closing ranks is a natural response. In previous instances, splits in the organization took place both because of the government’s active and sophisticated role (the 1952-55 splits) or because of normal conditions (the 1990’s and last decade). Today’s circumstances are drastically different.
The government of Egypt is currently playing one single note, repression—so don’t expect to see any major cracks in the MB, which constitutes the major opposition to Al Sissi.
If the economic situation does not improve rapidly, the MBs will capitalize on the popular suffering. Adding to this potential advantage is the noticeable increased presence of the MBs in the emerging labor protests. A continuation of these labor strikes with increasing involvement of the MBs may contribute to changing the MB as much as it will change and shape these protests. Historically, the MBs were present in the labor movement only in its early phases. But the organization may need nothing more than the “early phases” to gain enough time to break Al Sissi and his regime.
If a long confrontation develops which presupposes that the economic situation doesn’t improve fast enough, the regime will be forced to resort to a higher dose of violence. The machine of the state, with no political culture after over 60 years of military rule, is already rushing to violence when it is not needed.
The sentencing of 529 protesters to death is a clear sign of that overkill. While Al Sissi has a big problem in the economy, he may have an even bigger challenge in reorganizing the state and bringing the necessary balance to Egypt’s political domain, along with its economic and social policies.
Al Sissi seems to be aware of these challenges. It was necessary for him to start from the army—the only functional institution in Egypt. He has the right grasp of the enormity of what is ahead. But unless he reduces the polarization, improves the economy, and abandons the oppressive methods used for 60 years in a post-revolution context that is radically changed, the chance may not be his, but the Muslim Brotherhood’s.