The Egyptian revolt is trapped in a balance of weakness. None of the key actors has the power to consolidate a new regime, or even to resurrect the old one. Alliances are necessary, but nobody knows which will last. Every combination seems equally plausible, but each would lead the country in a very different direction. Egypt’s old regime depended on a ‘power triangle’: an uneasy partnership between the military (primarily the army), the security services (the police and secret police under the control of the Interior Ministry), and the political establishment. The uprising in January 2011 disrupted this delicate balance. It inadvertently enhanced the leverage of the military, left the security services largely untouched and created a political vacancy which Islamists, secular revolutionaries and old regime loyalists all scrambled to fill. The three political rivals would find themselves playing a game of musical chairs under the fretful gaze of the military and the security services, and it isn’t yet clear who is the winner.

The armed forces facilitated the popular uprising that ousted Mubarak because – contrary to the academic consensus – they had become the least privileged partner in Egypt’s ruling bloc. Eager to increase its autonomy and regional influence, the army welcomed the chance to renegotiate the existing power arrangements. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) dissolved Mubarak’s National Democratic Party and flirted with the idea of restructuring the Interior Ministry and restricting the powers of the security services. But since no one turned up who was powerful enough to replace Mubarak, the SCAF was forced instead to co-operate with the ministry to avert chaos. By the summer of 2012, it was ready to hand over government to anyone who seemed reasonably capable, so long as they pledged to respect the military’s status. The Muslim Brotherhood was the most plausible candidate. Its familiar willingness to appease whoever was in power made it a safer ally than any of the embittered remnants of the old regime. And the hostility of its rhetoric where Israel is concerned had the twin advantages of justifying the maintenance of a strong army, while alarming Western powers just enough to make them accept the army’s continued oversight: the army would curb Islamist excess, should there be any.

Mohamed Morsi was sworn in in June, and six weeks later, on 12 August, he managed to reshuffle the armed forces’ general command without offending military sensibilities. The defence minister and chairman of the SCAF, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and the military chief of staff, Sami Hafez Anan, were decorated and given honorary roles after leaving their posts. Other high-ranking officers did even better: the outgoing commander of the navy was put in charge of the Suez Canal; the commander of the air defence force became chairman of the Arab Organisation for Industrialisation; and another senior SCAF officer, Mohamed al-Assar, became assistant minister of defence. To further emphasise his reluctance to rock the boat, Morsi chose their replacements from a list of senior commanders. The director of military intelligence, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was handed the defence portfolio, and the commander of the Third Field Army, Sedky Sobhy, was promoted to chief of staff. On the night these measures were announced, Morsi promised – it was a telling speech – to respect the armed forces’ independence. He also promised weapons and training from a wider range of sources, i.e. not just the US. In November the army was able to buy Turkish drones for the first time. Morsi also gave his support to the army’s counterterrorist operations in Sinai in order to satisfy the military’s overwhelming desire to re-establish sovereignty over the peninsula, demilitarised since the Camp David Accords. The extent of the Islamists’ deference to the military was made plain when the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood was forced to retract derogatory remarks he had made about the military’s willingness to bend to the wishes of politicians. And at the end of February, it was reported that Morsi had cancelled plans to replace the now intransigent al-Sisi as minister of defence in light of the armed forces’ objections.

Appeasement was not the only thing the military were looking for in a political partner. They also wanted to be relieved of the burden of day-to-day governance. Unsurprisingly, the Islamists’ demonstrable incompetence over the past six months has tested their patience. After massive anti-Islamist demonstrations in December, the SCAF was forced to mediate between political factions. Al-Sisi warned that political polarisation was threatening to tear the state apart. Morsi did his best, hosting several rounds of ‘national dialogue’, but his inept negotiating only made things worse. By the end of January, he was forced to ask the military to protect his residence, now under siege by demonstrators, and to impose a curfew in three Suez Canal cities – tasks which officers performed unenthusiastically.

Rumours of an impending coup quickly spread. If it happens, it will almost certainly be presented as a necessity – the army is obliged to protect Egypt’s security after all – and applauded by the revolution-weary middle class. But the armed forces can’t hope to impose military rule, and any coup will be carried out in collaboration with whichever political faction seems most likely to be able to restore stability. Shoring up the Muslim Brotherhood is one option. Recasting old regime members as reformed and repentant politicians is also tempting, given their experience in running the state machine. The best hope for the revolution is an alliance between the organisationally strong military and members of the extremely disorganised revolutionary camp. An alliance of that sort would compel the revolutionaries to give up many of their demands, but it would also place the country on a quite different path – which is why the security apparatus will do everything it can to prevent it.

When you consider the central importance of the security services to the old regime, it is remarkable how well they have done so far. Not a single police officer has been charged with a single offence before or after the revolt. Mubarak’s last interior minister was tried in court as a member of Mubarak’s cabinet rather than as a member of the security service, and imprisoned for failing to protect demonstrators rather than for killing them. Officers close to retirement age were pensioned off with full benefits; minor reshuffles were carried out here and there; and Egypt’s infamous State Security Investigations Service was simply renamed Egyptian Homeland Security without any change in its powers. Even though repression and torture continued, Morsi never missed an opportunity to praise the patriotism of the Interior Ministry, which he claims has already been reformed.

Part of the reason Egypt’s security establishment has landed on its feet is that it has been careful to bide its time. It seems willing to refrain from full-blown ‘pacification’ until the revolutionaries come to learn that the only alternative to police repression is chaos. It hasn’t been entirely passive. It has stirred up and ambushed protesters at carefully selected times and places, engaging them in short, brutal battles and leaving dozens of bodies behind. After each incident, investigations have been carried out, unnamed ‘third parties’ blamed and the matter shelved. One such episode occurred in February last year at Port Said Stadium. Determined to punish the football fans – the Ultras – for spearheading street battles against the police, the Interior Ministry bussed in thugs from the capital and, after blocking all the stadium’s exits, unleashed them against the unsuspecting fans. In little more than an hour, 79 people were killed and at least a thousand injured. A court ruling was scheduled for 26 January this year, and a clear indictment of the security service plot was expected, especially after hints from the presidency that such a ruling might provide the legal basis for a purge and restructuring of the security apparatus. Instead, 21 civilians were sentenced to death and the police were exonerated. Violence erupted around the country and the riot police didn’t hold back, killing fifty demonstrators and injuring hundreds more. People were further enraged by a YouTube video showing a middle-aged demonstrator called Hamada Saber being stripped naked, trampled on by police in heavy boots and dragged along the tarmac. A few days later, a young activist called Mohamed al-Guindy was allegedly tortured to death in a police station. Morsi commended the Interior Ministry’s effectiveness, and appeared on television waving his fist defiantly and threatening troublemakers with harsher measures.

For security officers, the message was clear: under the Brotherhood, they could carry on as usual. This was hardly surprising. An organisation obsessed with conspiracies cooked up by ‘enemies of Islam’, and aspiring to spread piety throughout society, is bound to appreciate a formidable police force. The security services know, then, that they have a good friend in the Brotherhood. But they’re also open to counter-offers from members of the old regime – better the devil they know, as the loyalists tell them. Morsi’s first interior minster, Ahmed Gamal al-Din, a police general, couldn’t quite make up his mind where to lend his support. He was a defence witness during Mubarak’s trial, and his uncle had been leader of the old ruling party in parliament. When protesters gathered in front of the presidential palace in December, police protection was noticeably thin on the ground. Forced to make a humiliating escape through a back door, Morsi decided he couldn’t wait any longer for the Interior Ministry to choose which side it was on. He gave the top security position to another police general, Mohamed Ibrahim, a yes man likely to be amenable to a deal with the Islamists – indeed with any political party that promised to preserve the security services’ privileges.

So while military officers have had to make tough choices, their counterparts in the security services have survived the revolution’s first wave by alternating strategically between permissiveness and repression. In this way they have managed, on the one hand, to make plain to the military the drawbacks of giving in to the revolutionaries, while, on the other, proving to the highest political bidder that security men are still perfectly capable of committing any atrocities that might be demanded of them. And it is under the shadow of these two mighty institutions that the three contenders for political supremacy have jockeyed for power.

As soon as Morsi was elected, old regime loyalists launched a campaign to get the revolutionaries on their side, arguing that the only way to save the country’s secular character was for the revolutionaries to put aside any thought of a vendetta and to form an alliance of convenience with their enemy’s enemy. Yet what really threw these unlikely partners together just 18 months after the revolutionaries had toppled the old regime was the fervour of the Islamist preachers themselves, who in sermons and on television spoke of the approaching crusade to rid the country of infidel influences – liberals and leftists, loyalists and revolutionaries. With at least part of the revolutionary movement acting as cover, remnants of the old regime now began to use their (still) powerful positions throughout the national bureaucracy, as well as in the state-controlled unions, the media and the judiciary, to sabotage the Brotherhood’s attempt to govern. Administrative obstacles and delays reduced the flow of Turkish and Qatari investments, public sector strikes brought the economy to a near-standstill, and every major law the Islamists passed was revoked – most recently, the law governing parliamentary elections, which the constitutional court ruled against in February. The old regime’s strategy was supplemented by generous handouts to security-vetted thugs charged with maintaining a degree of disorder on the streets. Money, of course, was no problem: old regime loyalists still controlled businesses at home, drew freely from bank accounts abroad and received aid from anti-Islamist Gulf States.

Confrontations continued sporadically until November, when Morsi tried to consolidate his power with a constitutional declaration removing all judicial checks on the president’s decisions. This ill-judged move provided the perfect pretext for a well-orchestrated operation aimed at ending Brotherhood rule by means of massive rallies, media campaigns and civil disobedience – the general strike declared in Port Said in February was one example. The Brotherhood responded with violence and wild accusations, followed by tearful denials – tactics reminiscent of the Mubarak years. With the all-important parliamentary elections in April fast approaching, revolutionaries have found themselves at the mercy of the old regime: making use of the loyalists’ strong presence in the state apparatus and their extended patronage network in the provinces may be the only way to prevent the Brotherhood from winning another election.

To avoid being outflanked, the Muslim Brotherhood has to find a way of driving a wedge between the old regime and the revolutionaries. Confrontation has failed, and divide-and-rule tactics have proved a subtlety too far for the hamfisted president. Having failed to purge state institutions of loyalist elements without provoking a popular outcry against Islamist conspiracies, and having learned that the Brotherhood’s boy scouts were no match for the revolution’s seasoned street fighters, Morsi has come to realise that his only choice is to cement an alliance with one of his opponents. But each possibility carries a hefty price tag. Compromise with the secular revolutionaries would discredit the Brotherhood ideologically, costing them the conservative vote and losing them the backing of their fundamentalist political partners. The largest Salafi party, al-Nour, has already formed a breakaway faction, with dissidents demanding a tougher stance against secularism. Similar protests have been heard from Hazemun, the menacing puritan followers of the lawyer turned preacher Hazem Abu Ismail. Eager to avoid discord within the Islamist camp, Morsi didn’t offer anything tangible to the revolutionaries during the dozen or so rounds of ‘national dialogue’ held in the presidential palace between December and February. Nor did meetings at the end of February between Saad al-Katatni, head of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, and high-profile revolutionary figures lead to a breakthrough.

Any deal with the old regime would cost the Islamists materially since it directs an entrenched patronage network of businessmen, village notables and public officials. Sharing power and resources with this network would mean dividing further an already small pie. Morsi, an incurable optimist, hoped that giving positions in government to old regime technocrats might be enough. In the past six months he has appointed two separate cabinets, both under Prime Minister Hesham Kandil, an Irrigation Ministry employee since the 1980s. Both cabinets were full of administrators and advisers from the old regime. The Brotherhood went a step further, releasing three pillars of Mubarak’s regime from prison: the secretary general of the old ruling party, Safwat al-Sharif; the longtime speaker of parliament, Fathy Sorour; and Mubarak’s right-hand man, Zakaria Azmi. Peace offers to jailed or exiled loyalists immediately followed. In return for their co-operation with the Brotherhood, corruption cases would be settled and a possible return to the circles of power negotiated. The old regime has so far found the Islamists’ pragmatism and opportunism rather handy. But the Brotherhood is still mired in hair-splitting cost-benefit analyses of each alliance and what it can offer. Meanwhile, the already fractured revolutionary camp is further disintegrating, and thus more susceptible to advances from either of its adversaries.

That the Egyptian revolution has been marked from the beginning by a lack of organisation is no secret. The fact that this state of disarray has lasted so long is harder to explain – or to excuse. Youth groups behind the uprising, such as the 6 April Movement, are still considering their options two years on. Some chose to join one of the many political parties that sprang into existence after the revolt. Others flirted with the idea of using their recently acquired celebrity to give them clout as pressure groups. Still others couldn’t be persuaded to leave the streets, even though they had failed to form a lasting revolutionary organisation, and even after it became obvious that their continued defiance was creating cover for criminal acts, such as the recent ransacking of Cairo’s InterContinental Hotel or the storming of Port Said’s central prison. The openly militant wing of the youth movement has chosen either to operate through the Ultras, or to join the new mask-wearing anarchist militia known as the Black Bloc. The older generation of revolutionaries have been no less efficient in dissipating their energy. Having reinvented themselves as revolutionaries, most longtime opposition figures act as they always have: they quarrel over breadcrumbs, or command rival fiefdoms.

This sorry state of affairs hasn’t prevented those in the revolutionary camp from co-operating from time to time to avert disaster. This co-operation has inevitably taken the form of an umbrella organisation, a tactic employed unsuccessfully in the Mubarak era. The latest incarnation is the National Salvation Front (NSF) – and, as soon became clear, never has such a grand name been assumed by such a mediocre body. The NSF, which was launched in November, brought together all the usual suspects who have featured on every opposition front, before and since the revolt. What made it special were three high-profile figures who volunteered to steer it. First on the list was Mohamed ElBaradei, the diplomat and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. As a possible presidential candidate before the revolt, ElBaradei, who has spent most of his adult life abroad, was censured for his lack of familiarity with Egyptian politics. During and after the uprising, it also became clear that he lacks initiative, a sense of strategy, organisational skills and – while we’re at it – charisma. His primary (possibly only) asset is his self-styled image as cosmopolitan intellectual: liberal, secular, rational, modern, he stands for the way the West – along with many of the country’s middle-class urbanites – wishes to see Egypt.

Second among the triumvirate is Amr Moussa, Egypt’s former foreign minister and secretary general of the Arab League, who, despite having served Mubarak for more than a decade, presents himself as having long been a closet oppositionist. Unlike ElBaradei, he took his chances and ran for president last summer. He came fifth – not a stunning performance. His strategy is to be in the right place when fortune smiles. And to make sure, he is present on the political scene all the time, just in case. It’s worth noting, too, that ElBaradei and Moussa both created political parties in 2012, neither of which had much success.

The third figure is slightly less of a joke. Hamdeen Sabahi at least established his own political party, the Nasserist al-Karama (Dignity) party, before the revolt. As one of the leading lights of the student movement in the 1970s, and an MP under Mubarak, Sabahi understands domestic politics inside out. And unlike the two snobbish diplomats he has to work with, Sabahi speaks the language of ordinary Egyptians. He came third in the presidential race, and tried to capitalise on this by founding yet another youth movement: al-Tayar al-Shaabi (Popular Current). What Sabahi lacks is any sort of political programme. His platform can be summed up in one word: ‘nostalgia’. Sabahi promises to revive Egypt’s glory under Nasser. Asked during his presidential campaign how he proposed to achieve this, he repeatedly denied any intention to follow Nasser by nationalising companies, redistributing wealth, restoring single-party rule or waging war against Israel. Nothing he said helped bewildered voters understand what Nasserism had to do with 21st-century Egypt.

So far the trio’s performance has been dismal. They seem to hope that by posing in front of the cameras at every NSF press conference, they may eventually be in a position to ride the crest of popular support all the way to the presidency (with the blessing of the military or the old regime), or at least to the premiership (in a deal with the Muslim Brotherhood). They have shown no sign of attempting to unite the revolutionary camp. It’s worth remembering that more than 50 per cent of Egyptians voted for a revolutionary candidate in last summer’s presidential elections. The tragedy was that there were six ‘accredited’ revolutionary candidates.

In the run-up to the referendum over the new Islamist-drafted constitution in December, the NSF was in a shambles. Internal bickering meant that it gave no advice on how to vote until a week before the referendum; voters were then asked to boycott the process; then beseeched, at the 11th hour, to vote against the proposed constitution. Amazingly, despite this indecision nearly 40 per cent of voters voted no. Hopes were high that if the NSF started campaigning long enough before the elections in April, the revolutionaries might secure a foothold in the new parliament. But the NSF has so far not only failed to produce a list of candidates, it hasn’t even decided whether it’s going to take part in the elections.

Clearly, until they get their house in order, those who claim to represent the revolution can be little more than kingmakers for the Muslim Brotherhood, the remnants of the old regime, or the army. But even this role eludes them. To be a kingmaker requires humility, and this has never been a revolutionary trait. The NSF leaders will therefore keep going round in circles until one of the more pragmatic players chooses to make a real ally out of them.

Claims that the Muslim Brotherhood has hijacked the revolution and is consolidating its hegemony haven’t much substance. The reality is that there is still political fluidity. It’s true that the Brotherhood is in the lead in opinion polls at the moment, but it is also busy fighting a rearguard action to secure a costly alliance with one or other of its enemies before they unite against it. If the deadlock continues, the military will reluctantly intervene. And the security services will make sure that whoever assumes executive power will be neither willing nor able to limit police repression. It seems that none of the players quite realises the gravity of the challenges ahead. Those reduced by the Mubarak years to a hand to mouth existence won’t listen to any party that doesn’t promise immediate relief. And those enthralled by two years of popular revolt have little patience for the paternalistic pretensions of any ruler, civilian or military. As the emboldened citizenry perfect the art of permanent subversion the governability of a country with Egypt’s huge problems and meagre resources is open to question.

8 March

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences