Ruling a large nation like Egypt for nearly 30 years requires more than the traditional authoritarian’s iron-grip. Unlike democratic leaders, successful authoritarian rulers need to have a specific political talent. Mubarak was a master authoritarian ruler who knew how to manipulate his citizens. President Al-Sisi, on the other hand, is a strict dictator who believes that staying in power only requires full-fledged cruelty – to the extent that even Mubarak’s harshest critics now regret the good old days of his despotism!
Living in an authoritarian nation is ultimately demoralizing. It is certainly much worse than living in a nation of extreme poverty where citizens need to exert more effort to advance their status and definitely more dreadful than going through a national disaster that occurs seasonally and then passes. Those who haven’t experienced autocracy should know that it is an evil amalgam in which unfairness is widely applied, immorality is habitually justified, ignorant citizens are valued over meritocracy, and people live in constant fear of being harassed or imprisoned by the authorities.
Egyptians today miss Mubarak, the “modest” authoritarian who imprisoned opposition figures on a rotating basis and didn’t have any lasting enemies. His policies were subject to public criticism and while corruption was widespread, the economy was steady. Whereas Al Sisi has simply depoliticized the entire society, his critics are permanent enemies liable to be put behind bars for years, simply for having expressed an opinion that differs with that of the president!
Furthermore, Mubarak was a pragmatic president; emotions played a minimal role in his ideas. He tended to distance his critics from senior governmental positions, but he never dismantled communication bridges with them, inclusive of the Muslim Brotherhood. Al Sisi is a self-absorbed character who destroys bridges with everyone, including his supporters. Our president doesn’t differentiate between convicted criminals and citizens who simply disagree with his policies.
Mubarak was a sensible ruler; he recognized that the Military Institution, along with the vast majority of Egyptian citizens, weren’t happy with the possibility that his son (Gamal) was being groomed for the presidency, thus, he resisted the idea. President Al Sisi has vastly different presidential characteristics that revolve around his egoism; he wants the entire universe to continue adoring him for saving Egypt from becoming an Islamist country that would have exported terrorists to the world!
Mubarak was always upscaling the economic and political status of the Military, Institution, but he distanced it from direct governance, which enabled the military to play a “neutral” role after he was ousted. Al Sisi’s biggest mistake is that he drags the military into every single government operation – which won’t immune them when push comes to shove. Nowadays, we keep hearing that the Egyptian military and intelligence are pressuring large successful private enterprises to obtain a majority stockholding in their firms at a substantially reduced market value.
The limited room for freedom that Mubarak used to offer to his fellow citizens allowed him to sense the degree of citizens’ acceptance of his policies – and to adjust these accordingly. Meanwhile, Al Sisi is living in a darkroom, falsely believing that Egyptians adore him blindly! Mubarak used to apply “incremental brutality” on opponents in proportion to their “wrongdoings”, warning them prior to abuse –whereas Al Sisi believes in a policy of maximum cruelty that doesn’t spare his affiliates.
Mubarak’s main concern was unemployment. He believed that people might revolt because of poverty and thus encouraged the private sector to expand, albeit with a strong element of corruption, and he was pleased to assign the most skilled politicians to vital state positions as long as they didn’t challenge his status. In contrast, Al Sisi often seeks out implementers who are willing to apply his ideas unquestioningly, regardless of their substance.
Al-Sisi has managed to completely change the dynamic of the Egyptian economy, moving it from market driven to state-owned, which simply prompts every single private enterprise to consider shutting down its business – thereby discouraging foreign direct investments from considering Egypt as a potential investment destination.
The consistent devaluation of the Egyptian currency, rising inflation, the substantial increase of the country’s foreign debt, which has been used for unproductive projects and now equals almost 90 percent of GDP, along with many other negative economic indicators, manifest the economic difficulties currently confronting the entire population.
Authoritarian rulers’ policies and practices reflect on their ruling regime and citizens’ reactions. Mubarak’s “modest” ruling approach was echoed in the 25 January 2011 uprising; citizens refrained from violence and called for bread, justice and freedom. Likewise, Al Sisi’s extreme cruelty will certainly be mirrored in any future uprising, which is anticipated to have a significantly larger magnitude of violence.
Prior to the January 25 uprising, I used to argue that a popular uprising couldn’t occur in Egypt because it is ruled by an iron-fist. I was mistaken and I learnt that when citizens reach their tipping points, the iron-grip won’t be able to protect the president. Nevertheless, I strongly believe that Egypt would be better off applying a factual, top-down reform scheme rather than confronting a massive, uncontrolled uprising. Neglecting the former will certainly lead to the later, regardless of the iron-fist policies.
Ironically, Egyptian society is a truly modest one; Egyptians just want to feed their families and live a dignified life, period. In return, they are willing to accept any kind of economic challenges and put up with poor government services like overcrowded public transportation and regular public utility services cutoffs.
The problem presently is that we have a president who has a strong desire to expand mega-projects and apply policies that are of no use to the vast majority of the population. Al Sisi had an opportunity to capitalize on Egyptians’ disgust of the Muslim Brotherhood fiasco, a chance to build a true, modernizing state – but he declined.
“I won’t allow a destabilizing movement like the January 25 uprising to happen again” is a mantra often repeated by President Al Sisi. Actually, Mubarak didn’t enable an uprising to oust him; his security apparatus couldn’t handle the intense crowds massing in the streets. Al Sisi’s overall policies have managed to arouse Egyptians to the tipping point they had reached on 25 January 2011. They are now waiting for something to occur to trigger their anger – I am not questioning the what, but the when and how! Mubarak’s downfall was caused mainly by his corrupt regime. Al Sisi’s failure is exclusively his own fault!