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Full circle in Egypt as failed revolution lets the military strengthen its grip

Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is emerging as a popular favourite to be the next Egyptian president. AP Photo/Khalil Hamra

While Egyptians should be celebrating the three-year anniversary of the Jan25 movement that resulted in Hosni Mubarak’s removal of power, many are instead struggling to come to terms with the events of the past 6 months. This period has seen Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammad Morsi, removed from power by a military supported coup d’etat in July 2013, and a rise in political violence in which hundreds have been killed and thousands imprisoned, many of them members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The number of deaths across Egypt has dramatically increased since the coup d’etat, with large-scale clampdowns on Brotherhood supporters. Yet this restriction on political space is not solely limited to overt supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood; rather, deaths include large numbers of students, academics and intellectuals, stifling another source of opposition within Egypt.

Defence minister and the head of the Egyptian military, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, has been promoted to the rank of field marshal, the last military honour he will receive, seemingly paving the way to his election as President. This is the second indicator that Al Sisi will become president of Egypt when elections are held later this year. The first was the seemingly unanimous backing given to the draft constitution in a referendum earlier this month. The constitution gives more power to the military, while eroding the power of civilian posts, suggesting a return to the three decades of emergency laws under Hosni Mubarak.

The reported 98% vote in favour of the draft constitution (although the turnout was reported to be just 38.6% of the country’s 53 million voters) is another indication of the strength of support for al-Sisi. Yet, the prominent role of the military in Egypt goes far beyond the latest strongman – reflecting decades of pro-military propaganda pushed by a largely compliant media and coupled with successful infrastructure building projects also associated with the army.

Egypt’s ‘deep state’

The concept of Egypt’s “deep state”, which many believe has manipulated much of the recent political maneuvering, is manifested in the power of the bureaucracy, intelligence and security services, the judiciary and the state media – behind which stands the military.

Indeed, it is impossible to ignore the long-standing and pervasive influence possessed by the military in Egypt’s politics. Aside from Morsi, now awaiting trial - possibly for his life - virtually all Egypt’s presidents, from Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, thgough Hosni Mubarak and, briefly from 2011, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, were military veterans. But as well as this, most of Egypt’s regional governors – 25 of them appointed after the ousting of Morsi in July 2013, are generals or former generals.

Vast military-industrial complex

This political power and influence has resulted in the military controlling a vast economic empire across the state, with the size of military-owned industries estimated to be between 8% and 40% of Egypt’s gross national product.

Yet despite this economic influence and the continued military crackdown on opposition, the popularity of the military in Egypt remains strong. This popularity is articulated in the phrase that echoed across much of Egypt: “The people and the military are one hand”.

Furthermore, according to a Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) representative, “The people’s trust in Sisi is a call that must be heeded as the free choice of the people.” It is believed that al-Sisi will resign his position and announce his candidacy in the coming days for presidential elections, which, must be held before April.

The field marshal’s likely victory – and the military’s continued prominence within Egyptian politics – would seem to highlight the endurance of the “deep state” and suggests, at least for the present, a failure of Egypt’s experiment with democracy.

It is hard to ignore al-Sisi’s popularity in Egypt at present – although his likely electoral success will also have a certain amount to do with the suppression of much of his likely opposition. But the question of what the Jan25 movement achieved must be asked. While opposition to the regime is being crushed, little remains of the outpouring of emotion and belief in the aftermath of the events of 2011, that real change could be achieved in Egypt.

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