News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - North Africa Understanding Sisi’s Grip on Power

Why the Egyptian military regime is more powerful — and more brutal — than its predecessors


Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi lays a wreath at the Monument to the Unknown Soldier in Cairo on the forty-second anniversary of the liberation of Sinai.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi lays a wreath at the Monument to the Unknown Soldier in Cairo on the forty-second anniversary of the liberation of Sinai, 23 April 2024. Photo: IMAGO / APAimages

It has been over a decade since a military coup in Egypt definitely quashed the hopes inspired by the Arab Spring. Led by officers under the command of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the regime he subsequently constructed consolidated itself on a foundation of mass repression and debt-fuelled infrastructure projects that systematically funnel money to the ruling elite while impoverishing wide swathes of the population.

Maged Mandour is an Egyptian political analyst. He writes regularly for outlets such as Middle East Eye, openDemocracy, the Arab Digest, and Sada, and is the author of the newly published Egypt under El-Sisi: A Nation on the Edge (Bloomsbury, 2024).

How were Egypt’s revolutionary ambitions so decisively snuffed out? And what makes the new regime so ironclad and impervious to opposition? Hossam el-Hamalawy spoke with Maged Mandour, author of Egypt under El-Sisi: A Nation on the Edge, about the political economy of Egypt’s military dictatorship and why he believes Sisi will be much more difficult to topple than any of the strongmen who came before him.

Can you tell us what your new book is about, and what knowledge gaps it aims to fill?

The book looks at the emergence of the Sisi regime as a new phenomenon in Egyptian politics. Simply put, I argue that the regime represents a complete break with all post-1952 regimes. It is the first time that Egypt is ruled directly by the military, with no mass party or facade to counterbalance its dominance. It has led to a complete militarization of the state, political system, and economy.

This hyper-concentration of power has bred one of the most violent and radical regimes in the Middle East. As far as I know, mine is the first book looking exclusively at the Sisi regime, trying to chart its evolution, from the political, economic, and social perspectives.

How is Sisi’s regime different from its predecessors?

The hyper-concentration of power in the hands of the military has not only led to the complete closure of public space, but also to a fully militarized political system and economy — a new mode of militarized state capitalism, with devastating consequences for the poor and the middle class.

This, however, was only possible through the emergence of a revamped form of ideological justification for military rule, what I call a “Sisified version of Nasserism”. This ideological construct views the nation as an organic whole, an ethereal entity that has existed for thousands of years, with the military at the helm. It makes opposition to the military regime equivalent to national treason, which hence must be repressed. This proto-fascist ideology is augmented, and the explosive mix completed, by conspiracy theories of the fifth column, cosmic conspiracies against the state, and fourth- and fifth-generation wars.

The carrot has disappeared, and only the stick — or, in this case, sledgehammer — remains.

This paved the way for a tidal wave of repression that is yet to abate, which was also fuelled by mass popular participation, what I term “societal repression”. The tactic is simple, yet devastating. Sisi has a skill for popular mobilization, using what can only be termed mass hysteria and blood lust, fuelled by his propaganda machine, for his mass repression. That has created a strong bond between him and his base, allowing him to claim that repression has a popular mandate — the ideal setting for a mass bloodletting the likes of which Egypt had not seen since the founding of the modern Egyptian state.

You write extensively on Egypt’s repressive apparatus. Why has the country seen such a high level of lethal and carceral violence since 2013?

I argue that the regime’s repression is endemic — it is not used to repress visible dissent or to stabilize the regime. On the contrary, in some cases, repression is used so poorly that it seems to have the opposite effect, like in the case of the Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni, whose death under torture caused a major diplomatic incident.

What makes repression endemic is the ideological edifice I previously alluded to, which makes the use of violence inescapable. Simply put, in order for the regime to justify the dominance of the military, insidious enemies need to exist — otherwise, its continued dominance is no longer justified. This is combined with a deep ideological indoctrination of the regime base, including the security apparatus. The result is that repression has become decentralized, and very difficult to reign in.

In simple terms, the regime can solicit popular support due to its repression, not despite it, and any real easing will be met with strong opposition from its base, including the low-level security officials actually doing the killing and torturing. This leaves the regime with little choice but to continue its repression, which weakens its ability to co-opt the opposition. The carrot has disappeared, and only the stick — or, in this case, sledgehammer — remains.

How did the EU enable the consolidation of the current Egyptian regime?

That is a very sad story. The EU has played a significant role in consolidating and supporting the military regime in Egypt, from overt financial support through massive loans and aid to arms deals — here, I am thinking of France, Germany, and Italy — and even overt political support. This included the sales of espionage equipment used for the direct repression of dissent.

In other words, the EU provided clear and material support for the military regime and its model of debt-fulfilled militarized state capitalism, which has pushed the country to the brink of economic collapse. It even reached the point of direct military action in the Western desert, where French intelligence was involved in supporting a counter-insurgency operation, which saw airstrikes conducted against civilian targets.

How do the questions of migration and arms trade influence EU-Egyptian relations?

I am of the opinion that migration does not play as significant of a role as one would expect. The systematic transfer of wealth from the Egyptian poor and middle class to the regime’s creditors, including the EU, is a more significant factor.

German involvement in the regime’s model of debt-fuelled militarized state capitalism is deep and sustained.

The logic is simple yet devastating. Through a mass debt spree, which the regime used to fund white elephant projects, the military embarked on a transformation of the dynamic of capital accumulation in the country. This entailed the creation of a new ruling class of militarized capitalists that use their control of the state to accumulate wealth. The vehicle for this was high-interest loans, the burden for which fell on the shoulders of the poor and middle class, who effectively financed this transformation due to the regressive nature of the Egyptian taxation system.

The regime’s model is immensely profitable to the regime’s creditors, including the EU. This even extends to the regime’s arms deals, with evidence emerging that they were financed through debt. In essence, poor and middle-class Egyptians are financing the tools of their repression, to the benefit of the regime elites and the European arms industry.

In what sectors are German investments in Egypt? Germany says it creates jobs for Egyptians with these projects. Does that claim hold merit?

German involvement in the regime’s model of debt-fuelled militarized state capitalism is deep and sustained. The biggest beneficiary is Siemens, which won multiple billion-dollar projects, including a 23-billion-dollar mega-project to build an electrical rail line connecting the Red Sea and the Mediterranean — the largest in the company’s history.

These projects were all fuelled by debt, in some cases provided by German banks, effectively transferring wealth from the Egyptian poor and middle class to large German corporations. Hence, the argument that these projects create jobs rings hollow, for even if unemployment did indeed drop under Sisi, poverty rates dramatically increased, with local consumption dropping precipitously. This means that these jobs did not provide a living wage and that the German elite are direct participants in the debt crisis currently wreaking havoc on the Egyptian economy.

Egypt’s foreign debt has reached a record high of roughly 168 billion US dollars. How did we get here?

As already alluded to, debt is an integral part of the regime’s economic model, allowing the military to spread its tentacles across the economy. Simply put, the regime made the political decision to heavily rely on debt to embark on an unprecedented spending spree, estimated at 400 billion dollars, on mega-projects with dubious economic benefits. These projects were either executed or administrated by the military and the security services, allowing them to gain massive windfall profits.

These allowed Sisi to consolidate his rule and create a deeply symbiotic relationship between him and his base, the military establishment. It also allowed the regime to entrench itself in the global financial system, where it was named the “darling of the emerging markets”. That ensured the regime would be able to maintain its grip on power, since it ensured the backing of its creditors while creating a bonanza of profits for the security services, thus ensuring their complete loyalty. Foreign debt played a crucial part in this process, providing an important source of foreign currency needed to embark on these mega-projects.

You have also written a lot about the “militarization” of Egyptian capitalism. What do you mean by that term?

Here I refer to a mode of capitalism devoid of market dynamics, dictated by a capitalist class that is heavily militarized. Capital accumulation occurs through appropriation of public funds and massive debt rather than value extraction through market competition and profits.

This creates an economy that is rife with intense exploitation, but that is bereft of improved economic competitiveness that could potentially provide a basis for future economic development. From an orthodox Marxist perspective, it would be closer to primitive accumulation than a mature capitalist system.

In simpler terms, it is the systematic pillaging of public resources, enabled by international finance, accompanied by mass state violence and a deeply chauvinistic form of nationalism.

How have recent global bailouts impacted poverty rates in Egypt?

With the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the vulnerability of the regime’s economic model became apparent. A credit crunch ensued, about 20 billion dollars of hot money flowed out of the country, and a dramatic debt crisis erupted. The regime was no longer able to borrow and it seemed that there was a chance for reform.

The opposition was decimated by years of popular-backed repression from which it is yet to recover, making effective opposition unlikely.

The IMF attempted to impose some conditions, including the demilitarization of the economy, and the regime’s Gulf allies seemed reluctant to intervene. The regime did not budge, however, as it placed all its hopes in a bailout happening — and it was right.

As of now, 57 billion US dollars have been pledged from the UAE, EU, IMF, World Bank, and even the UK. This bailout will simply allow the regime to meet its debt while avoiding reform. The bailout is not only directed at the regime but also at its creditors, as the risk of default was constantly growing. This means that the regime will probably continue to shift the burden of the crisis onto the shoulders of the poor and the middle class

Do you see any hope for change in Egyptian politics soon?

Sadly, no. Unlike previous regimes that ruled Egypt, Sisi does not have a civilian ruling party or a visible reform-minded wing that exerts pressure. The prospect of elite-led reform is constrained by the regime’s ideology.

On the other hand, the opposition was decimated by years of popular-backed repression from which it is yet to recover, making effective opposition unlikely. The prospects for change, in my opinion, are in a long-term process of micro-resistance that could eventually lead to a breakthrough. The road will be long and hard.