Changing Alliances and Continuous Oppression: The Rule of Egypt's Security Sector

Despite the passage of more than three years since the outbreak of the revolution in Egypt, attempts to reform police and military institutions – or to develop democratic civilian rule – have not borne the desired fruit. Through multiple governments, constitutional re-writes, and changes in the alliances of power within state institutions, Egypt’s repressive security establishment continues to wield enormous power over the country.

The decade before the revolution saw the police grow in influence, at the expense of the once-dominant military, as part of an alliance with a clique of business leaders surrounding the Mubarak inner circle. With the January 2011 revolution overthrowing Hosni Mubarak, the military attempted to take advantage of the situation at the expense of the unpopular police, widely associated with the repressiveness of the Mubarak regime. Widespread protests against the interim military government, however, led it to more readily develop an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, with their broad popular appeal, and the police, which was seeking to rehabilitate its image.

This coalition of these three groups began forming in March 2011, and remained together until late 2012. While it lasted, the Brotherhood, army and police exercised different levels of influence within the coalition, with each group forced to fight battles on three fronts in parallel: they fought to maintain cohesion within their own group, they battled with their coalition partners for increasing influence, and they battled for public support in the face of escalating protests.

President Morsi managed to place his chosen leaders at the head of the army, which quietly and temporarily took a step back from heavy involvement with governing the country. The Brotherhood, however, was unable to push through reforms for the police, instead coming to rely on them to quell rising protests from opposition groups. The police, in turn, struggled with their role in repressing the opposition and supporting a government composed of people that they had previously been tasked with oppressing. Despite the resilience of this alliance during nearly two years of revolutionary turbulence, it eventually collapsed in December 2012 for several connected reasons:

  • The Muslim Brotherhood’s failure to contain opposition from the wider public, which saw the contrast between the demands of the revolution and the actual political and economic activities of the Brotherhood government;
  • Deepening political polarization as the Brotherhood ruled in an increasingly isolated manner to the exclusion of other parties;
  • The escalation of political violence and its rapid transmission from across the country;
  • The army’s loss of influence over a president who increasingly relied on the police for internal repression;
  • Rejection by rank and file police of their leaders’ demands to defend the Brotherhood-led power alliance against protesters and opposition groups;
  • Growing concern in the military about the security of the Egyptian state due to the failure of civilians to effectively run the government and contain political disputes;
  • The inability of the Brotherhood to deal with rising fears for the survival of the state.

With Morsi’s overthrown and the crackdown on the Brotherhood, the military and the police remain allies in power today, but the Egypt that they rule is not the same one that existed under Mubarak. The Egyptian people have awoken to their own power to take political action, and the turbulence of the last three years has disrupted old balances of power within the security institutions, which will play out in unforeseeable ways in the years ahead.

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.