Interview with Author Maged Mandour: Egypt under El Sisi, a New Brand of Authoritarianism

The cover of Egypt under El-Sisi book (c) Maged Mandour

Published 13 years after the start of the Egyptian uprising, Egypt under El Sisi: A Nation on the Edge by Maged Mandour is one of the first books to provide a comprehensive analysis of the Sisi regime. Mandour, an Egyptian political analyst, argues that the Sisi regime is not a restoration of the pre-2011 status quo, but rather a more brutal and unmediated military dictatorship with no civilian counterweight. We interviewed Maged Mandour to discuss the uniqueness of the current Egyptian regime and how it draws from old authoritarian recipes. 


ML: The main premise of your book is that the Sisi regime is like nothing that preceded it, that it is an entirely new beast. What makes you think that?

MM: The goal I wanted to achieve with the book was to illustrate how the Sisi regime is totally different from whatever was there before. It is not a restoration of the Mubarak autocracy, for instance, it is something very new and dangerous. It is the first outright direct military rule dictatorship regime we have seen with an unprecedented level of repression and political violence. People in 2011 did not understand the nature of the regime and who they were dealing with. At the time, the idea was that if Mubarak leaves, then the problem is solved. Then, it was the National Democratic Party (NDP); if dissolved, it would be fine. From where I am standing now, it was a naive way of looking at the situation. There was no understanding of the regime's structure, how it worked, who the stakeholders were, and why it fell apart so quickly. There was a grave misunderstanding of the role of the military and how it was the most prominent threat to the democratic process, not the Islamists. It was a collective failure on the part of everyone, including the military. There was a very short-sighted understanding of what its interest would be. So, rather than move towards at least a limited form of democracy that can be managed in a way that would preserve the institutional interest of the military, they chose to go all the way in 2013, placing them in a very difficult situation. They have consolidated power to such an extent that they don't have a way to manage dissent, no flexibility, no civilian ruling party, and no way to manage discontent – I would not say democratically, that's not the question here, but in a softer way, in order to avoid violent implosion. If things continue the way they are, we are heading toward a scenario not very far from Libya or Syria or Yemen, not necessarily a full-on civil war, but clearly mass repression on a scale we have never seen before, more than what we have now. The seeds are there for a very dark scenario if things don't dramatically shift. The tricky part is that the regime has built a structure that has closed the way for elite-led reform. Flexibility has more or less disappeared in the face of this strong desire to ensure that all power (political, economic, and social) is concentrated in the hands of the military. The book's release coincided with one of the worst debt crises Egypt has seen in many years. This is a direct result of the regime and its political structures. It is not something that just happened. It results from the fundamental policies the regime has been following for the last 10 years.

ML: In your book, you note that, in the summer of 2013, the regime asked for the people’s support in its effort to violently suppress the opposition, Why?

MM: Sisi called for a popular mobilization to suppress popular participation in politics. He was calling for "a tafwidh," a mandate for him to repress the Brotherhood under the guise that it was not just a terrorist organization but a foreign entity that was not part of the nation. This brings me to the ideological construct that he was able to revive— this view of the nation as a dynamic whole where everyone has the same desires and views, and where there is no heterogeneity. This refers to the conservative Sunni middle-class Muslims' view of how life should be. This means that Egypt does not have a place for religious minorities, sexual minorities, and any other views than that particular one. He was able to paint the Brotherhood as an extremist sect using religious and nationalist language. The idea was to suppress the Brotherhood, but what was behind it was the restoration of the idea of stability and normalcy, which is the repression of all dissenting voices. It is the subliminal hidden message behind what he was calling for. Unfortunately, the secular and liberal leftist elite, not all of them, but the vast majority, followed that. They were under the idea that the Islamists are more dangerous than the military for the democratic process, which is absurd. They helped suppress their popular bases. It was a collective decision, not just the military. This form of dictatorship cannot be built without any form of popular consent. That's what makes this dictatorship unique and very hard to reverse. In the wave of repression at the beginning, where over a thousand people were killed (we still don't know how many exactly), the security forces did not do that without popular participation and mandate. This was the base of the regime. Then, they moved to repress any forms of opposition actively and to close the public space completely. These things were not unpopular acts. By the time it was clear that the military was here to stay and that it was a dictatorship, and it was going to consolidate the power in its hands thoroughly, and it was going to put the economy in tatters, it was too late.

ML: So, the regime made the majority of Egyptians complicit in its repression, in a way, anyone protesting today can be brought back to the blood on their hands from 2013 as in, “Remember, you asked for this”.

MM: You are absolutely right. What I tried to look into in the book is that repression was not State-led. It is what I call societal repression. It was not done just by the security apparatus. It was done with popular participation. At this point, as we are speaking, there is no clear agreement on what happened in the summer of 2013. Was it a massacre, or a necessary cost? Was it something the regime did to create a sense of polarization and for the military to jump in to consolidate power? It is a foundational moment for the regime that, until now, the opposition has been unable to break through and create a consensus that what happened was not just morally wrong but also politically disastrous. There was no reckoning that they were innocent people, hundreds and maybe thousands, murdered in the streets of major cities in the country. People who supported this opened up the path for a military dictatorship Egypt had not seen before. You are asking people to wake up and look at themselves in the mirror and say by the way; I have blood on my hands because somehow I supported this, and I repressed people that did not support this, and now look where I am. The regime has also treated its base with very clear contempt, and now this economic meltdown should prompt some soul-searching. I'm not sure it will happen. But it can be the beginning of the collapse of this myth. Sisi promised a good new fascism, a return to national glory, and this will not happen. A large part of this narrative is now collapsing. It is a question of whether it is going to collapse strongly enough that the Muslim Brotherhood is not a foreign entity; as much as we may not like it and disagree politically with it, it is a part of the Egyptian body politic. It is not something you can and should repress, it is a political force you disagree with. It is a very difficult situation for the regime supporters. The fantasy is falling apart little by little.

ML : One of the things that I noticed while reading your book was the similarity in discourse between Sisi and people like Kais Saied, when it comes to using polarizing language and turning political opponents into traitors to the nation. Traitors to the nation have been a central feature of authoritarian discourse in the Arab world, which tells us a lot about what sort of polity these States aim to create (one of mistrust and paranoia). Why is it that this discourse that is both chauvinistic and based on the idea of weakness (as in, “the State is under threat of imminent collapse”) is so powerful?

MM: I trace this back to Nasserism in my book. It is not something that Nasser invented. Those currents already existed when he took power when he said that democracy does not work, and we need a national project led by the military. In the Egyptian case, this view has been entrenched for decades. It is us against the world. It has taken different forms, including religious forms. It is a view of how Egyptian identity is and was built. For example, I grew up in Egypt and left at 23 or 24. For the vast majority of my life, I had no idea that there were other minorities, that there were people who did not think like me. This is deeply entrenched; it is continuously inscribed in your head. There is this idea, for example, that the Egyptian State has existed for seven thousand years. It is ludicrous. It is not even two hundred years old. The Egyptian national identity is fairly new. Generally speaking, it's a very common experience to think that everyone is like you and that there are no differences and no social conflict to be managed. Ideas of class struggle and a democratic process to try and manage the different social groups are very perplexing for a population that has agreed to the bargain of sacrificing freedom in exchange for economic gain and security. It's very deeply entrenched. That's why the period from 2011 to 2013 was very perplexing and irritating. Suddenly, there were feminists, queer communities, ethnic minorities asking for recognition, religious minorities asking for more rights. All of this perplexes an already oppressed group that feels superior to the surrounding group. It is hard to change that view and the deeply entrenched mindset of how we are as a nation. It was very comforting when Sisi showed up and said: "Look, I’m going to do all these horrible things. Let me do them, and everything will be over. You don't have to worry about feminist rights, queer communities, and religious minorities. Anything that you don't like and disagree with, you won't hear about it anymore and I promise you economic prosperity." A lot of people bought into that. The Brotherhood was the label that was placed on many of those people. It was a way to repress all perceived social differences and conflicts. Rather than encouraging that as a way to mediate those differences, the answer for many is to repress them. For example, in 2011, people were surprised that the Salafists were such a strong political force. Was everybody asleep for the last two decades? It is this view of a Sunni middle-class moderate heteronormative existence that is extremely dominant in Egypt.

ML: Another similarity is the fact that a good chunk of the secular opposition sided with the State in the face of a coup against Islamists, why is it that this always happens?

MM: It is a very good question, but very hard to answer. I don't want to be simplistic, either. I think it was a naive understanding of what the military would do. The coup was not a surprise. The secular elite was aware of it. And the Brotherhood was aware of it to a certain extent. Also, they could not help themselves. It is a collective failure of the Islamists and the secular elites. The secular elites did not understand the military dynamics and intention, and there was this naive idea that they were going to come in and do a coup and that democracy was going to come back after they massacred a thousand people. And outlawing the biggest party in the country would somehow give us a healthy, democratic existence. There is also, at least from where I'm standing, a very clear and salient conflict: urban vs. rural. The Brotherhood has a solid conservative base, and the secular elite, who are mostly based in the cities, despised them. They find it unbearable that a university professor from a provincial town who did not speak English particularly well can become a president. It can become a point of pride that we have a democratic system where a person with that social background can become a president. A part of it has to do with class, even though the Brotherhood cuts across classes. It has members from the upper, middle, and lower classes, and that's a hypothesis I cannot prove. There is this view that the supporters of the Brotherhood are the poor and the lower middle classes. The urban middle-upper class, which was at that point an important political force because they were in the lead of the liberal and/or leftist movements, also despised them. There is a geographical element and an ideological element. It is the view that the Brotherhood is backward-looking, very conservative, and very nativist compared to the elites that were Western-focused. There was a great miscalculation that the military was much more dangerous than the Brotherhood could ever be. Also, an important point is that the Brotherhood did not help their own cause. They acted in a very clumsy way. They wanted to do everything that the military did but failed spectacularly. They tried to consolidate power in their own hands but failed. They did not realize that being a multi-class social movement meant having multiple constituents. So, they were making extremely haphazard policy decisions. Their gravest mistake was to think that to avoid the fate they endured in the 1950s, they needed to appease the military. Once they do that, they’d appease the security forces. Then, they can deal with the leftists and the liberals, and they can give them something small since they are not a coherent political force. These anti-democratic convictions were, unfortunately, abundant on the political spectrum: Islamists, secularists, leftists, rightists, wherever you want to call them. There was no understanding that part of the democratic process is "I don't like you, but we can share the same space, and we need to figure out how we live together." That thinking was not there, and the real threat was coming from the military and security services, not from the Islamists. The Islamists behaved horrendously. They tried to repress the demands for democratic accountability, or they were just very poor at doing it, making things worse. It led to this constant instability, which made the intervention of the military welcomed by many. Many people said, "I don't want to see daily protests and people clashing every week. I would rather the military come in and restore stability and end this completely."

ML: You talk of an autocratic mindset across the political board, can you explain that notion a bit more?

MM: The notion is very simple: The virus of Egyptian nationalism is infused across the board. The chauvinistic view is that I represent the people's interests and can speak on their behalf alone. Everybody else is either deluded, a traitor, or outside the nation. Of course, it varies in degrees, but somehow it exists in most of the political fractions in Egypt, which means it's very easy to exclude others. The Brotherhood thinks that they speak on behalf of the real Egyptians. The military thinks the same. The leftists and secularists share that same view, which is that we represent the nation. Once you believe that we are the real nationalist forces, it becomes very easy to exclude certain opponents: repress, kill, and imprison them. That's why Sisi could imprison 60,000 people without anybody batting an eyelash. It was fine. There was no popular backlash whatsoever.

ML: Talking about Algeria, Thomas Serres coins the expression “governing through crisis”, which is basically the idea that the State will be providing very little and threatening the population with the return of a worse situation (in the case of Algeria, the civil war; in Egypt and Tunisia, the return of Islamists), in your book you say the State needs constant polarization. What is the consequence of such a mode of governing a society?

MM: It's the autocratic mindset. You live under the constant threat of collapse, but at the same time, you are willing to accept heavy doses of repression to try to avert what you perceive as the worst fate. This repression becomes normalized. It is also baked into normal life. Autocracy does not work at the meta-political level only. You cannot live in an autocracy and also have a democratic workplace or a democratic family culture. It all fits together to ensure that everybody is subservient to this narrative across the board. It is not just the autocrats through the State; it is also the citizens. It is the family at home, the teacher at school, and the boss at work; it is decentralized, and if it becomes the accepted narrative across the board, the disagreements are frowned upon. Any opposing views in general to the prevailing narrative become an existential threat and should be repressed for the group's good. That's not just limited to the meta-political issues. It is spread everywhere. It becomes a way to ensure that everybody thinks and speaks the same. If they don't, they should not air that loudly. It's like rust that eats the cane of the democratic ethos that could develop from an understanding that disagreements and different views are not bad things. I grew up in an environment where you are not allowed to disagree with your parents; you are not allowed to disagree with your teachers or your boss. And if you disagree with a police officer, it won't end well. We are always facing an existential crisis that allows elites and the governing body not to deliver, and it's fine. There is no democratic accountability. You can be as corrupt as you want. You can fail in public governance and mismanage the economy to the point of collapse and there are no real consequences to this. As long as you can sustain the idea that if you leave, there will be Islamists and ISIS cutting throats and beheading babies.

ML: Why is it that the regime constantly refers to the threat of imminent collapse?

MM: The regime is a military dictatorship in control of the State's economy and the media, and that's known. It is not hidden. So, for the population to accept it, there must be a logic to protect the State from constant collapse. There is always a conspiracy. There is always somebody who's trying to destroy the State and bring chaos. And if this suddenly goes away, then suddenly the whole narrative of military dominance and superiority disappears, especially now that it's obvious that they mismanaged the economy with disastrous consequences. Why should you stay in power even more despite not managing the economy well? At least you are providing us with safety, and we are not like Libya, Syria, or Iraq. So, it is very simple logic.

ML: You show in the book that Sisi didn’t really bother with the creation of a party to counterbalance military power, same goes for Kais Saied, who did not create a party. Can we argue that the worldwide crisis with political parties, has gone as far as making single parties useless in authoritarian regimes?

MM: That's what makes Sisi unique. He is one of the tenets of the ideological belief that the military is superior to any civilian. If you are a military officer, you will do a better job than any civilian, even if the said civilian is an expert. He has no desire to build a civilian party. There were some attempts to build a cadre of young politicians who are pro-Sisi. They were never given real power. He was following a policy of having these large youth conferences to talk to them directly. There was never an institutional attempt to build a party. That's a thing. It's not a one-party system that you can compare to the Soviet Union or China. Sisi loves the Chinese model. A while back, he was saying how China developed even though they starved, and it's okay for us to starve now. He was referring to Mao. It was not a good look. He has no desire to do so, and the military has no desire to do so. One of the rationales for not creating a party is that both Sisi and the Army read 2011 as civilians had too much power. It was never in the cards for him to build a civilian mass party. Even the one-party system is not acceptable, and what makes it disastrous is that it causes the death of politics. There is no one-party system where you can mediate social conflicts. The regime does not have clear wings. It's either hard right or harder right. I would not call it a crisis in the single-party system. This is not a single-party system. Ten years in, it does not look like there will be one, but who knows, maybe it will happen at one point.

ML: You explain in the book that the current Egyptian regime is somehow holding itself hostage as it is incapable of advancing reforms, How is that possible?

MM: The regime's structure is really something new. For the first time, there is no civilian ruling political party. There is a party in the parliament with the majority. Still, there is no evidence that it is responsible for policymaking, and when this happens, there is no counterweight to the military and the security services. We now have the debt crisis as a prime example of how this works. There is a crisis, and reforms are deeply needed to curtail the military's influence. This means that Sisi has to move against his base. He could plausibly do that if he had a counterbalance to allow him to change the military's position within the regime, but he does not have that. Even if Sisi wakes up in the morning and says: "I want to change the policy completely." With whose help? There is a civilian government with no power. There is no mobilized popular base that he can rely on; there is no civilian power, even if major businesses support him, there is no one that is able to balance out the military. This means that in the case of a crisis like the one happening right now, reforms are almost non-existent. If there is a popular mass uprising, assuming it happens, how would the regime possibly deal with it? There is no moderate opposition with a power base that the regime can negotiate with. The Brotherhood are all gone. No moderate civilian elite can somehow steer the regime away from the course of a disaster. The regime is now stuck on a very difficult path to change, even if Sisi wants to. And that's a very important point. There is a view that it's the Sisi regime. It is not. Even if Sisi wakes up and says: "I'm resigning.", the fact is that it is a military dictatorship, regardless of who is at the helm.

ML: What is the regime’s way of reasoning around its current crisis?

MM: In terms of the economic crisis, the regime is responding by placing all of its eggs in one basket, which means Egypt is too big to fail. The prevailing logic is that if we collapse, there will be instability in the region. Migrants are going to cross through, either Palestinians, Sudanese, or sub-Saharan Africans. This view is paying off; it seems the IMF is now willing to increase the loan's value, which was originally estimated at 3 billion dollars. We don't know the new value, but it seems enough to avoid a default or debt restructuring discussion. That seems to be the regime's bet at the moment. In terms of the Gaza situation, that kind of linkage is that Egypt is getting support, or Sisi is going to try to get support because of the situation there. I don't think it is as linked as people might think because Israel's idea of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and pushing them into Sinai is directly hindering one of the regime's ideological imperatives, which is this deep chauvinistic Egyptian nationalism. After all, one of the accusations leveled against the Brotherhood is that it is an extension of Hamas, and Hamas is an extension of it. There were rumors that Sisi was planning to assign the Sinai to the Palestinians in exchange for 8 billion for them to have a State there. If he is able to open the border and accept Palestinian refugees in mass, it is very difficult for him to reconcile with his entire legitimizing narrative. That's one of the many reasons the regime does not allow this to happen. The relationship with the Israelis is under quite a lot of strain, but they are still close allies. Let's be clear that the regime is not taking a strong antagonistic position against Israel even though they disapprove of the operation and the extent of destruction. From what I can see, that's the logic prevailing there.

ML: What do you make of Egypt’s situation with the current geopolitical evolutions?

MM: I don't think the regime will collapse if it lets Palestinians in, but it would be in a difficult position. We have to keep in mind that the islands' transfer was first announced in 2016 at the height of the regime's popularity1In 2017, the Egyptian authorities officially transferred the sovereignty of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir on the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia. This transfer was very openly criticized in Egypt since its announcement in 2016. . Now, the situation is very different. The regime is currently under much stress because of the debt crisis. There is a fear of popular backlash. When the regimes gave the islands to the Saudis, there was a popular protest against it for the first time, and there were struggles in the judiciary. Even some regime elites criticized it. This is a different situation entirely. The second point is that the regime did not link the Brotherhood directly to the Saudis, but it linked them directly to Hamas. There were accusations that Hamas was responsible for the bombings in Egypt. If you now open the border and allow the Palestinians in, it's damaging for your narrative in the medium to long term. The situation is similar, but not entirely. In the case of the Saudis, they had very little choice. We have given you so much money; we need those islands now.


1 In 2017, the Egyptian authorities officially transferred the sovereignty of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir on the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia. This transfer was very openly criticized in Egypt since its announcement in 2016.

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.