A few days ago, the Cairo Criminal Court acquitted Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak and his top security aides on charges of killing hundreds of protesters during the January 2011 uprising. Yet four years ago, the revolutionary youth had focused in their quest for freedom on deposing the octogenarian leader who had ruled, and misruled, the country for 30 years. Soon after Mubarak’s ouster they started questioning whether the real stumbling block to freedom was a man, or a system. Now, as they lament the death of their stolen revolution, they realize they have been facing an entire regime all along, not a single man.
Emphasizing the wide-reaching influence leaders have over their institutions, Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: "an institution is the lengthened shadow of a single man." This is a plausible argument. However, influence also moves in the opposite direction, from bottom to top, doesn’t it? Or to put it differently, who exerts more influence over whom: the man or the institution? In politics, for example, can a single man, in or out of office, change or restructure a deep-rooted regime that is heavily guarded by vested interests and an abundance of guns, resources and microphones? Or does the system inevitably prevail, forcing the men on top to conform to its ways and doctrine?
Arabs narrate their history in terms of men, not ideas. In their tales, anecdotes and myths, they tend to focus on people, searching for heroes—men of courage, nobility and charisma—or, if necessary, inventing and then glorifying them. But the complex, modern systems of rule are so powerful and overwhelming that in the corridors and vestibules of the state machinery, Arab officials melt into the structure of the state, losing their idiosyncrasies and taking special pride in becoming the system's most ardent guardians. They become toxified; they and the state become one and the same. Take Bashar-Al-Assad. A few months after the Western-educated oculist succeeded his father in 2000, the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs called him a "modern-day Ataturk" who was implementing a "cultural revolution" in Syria, and the New York Times depicted him as a "shy young doctor." A decade in power, and the 'shy' Al-Assad turned into a bellicose, brutish dictator of a rare kind.
Indeed, in the land of Arabs, it was the system that subdued the man—all men, friends and foes alike. There has been no towering figure like Gorbachev or Mandela in the modern history of the Arab world. Even the petty reformers, insiders who at a certain moment in time believed in a limited, piecemeal approach to reform, were soon sidelined or swallowed by the vortex of the state machine. The Arab state has been like a revolving door; the faces at the apex of power changed frequently, but the entrenched systems beneath did not. Despite its drastic failures in economy and development, this Draconian state has stayed intact over the years, exhibiting its willingness and capability to travel any distance and to incur any cost in order to uphold its prerogatives and keep democracy at bay.
It’s understandable. For one thing, power in authoritarian states is both seductive and addictive. Writing about the effects of power, a former Egyptian politician, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, said: "To me, it [authority] became like drugs…It has a special taste; it resembles alcoholic drinks, with a 50 percent alcohol that scorches the throat." For another, the Arab state has put down the roots of a potent, gigantic patronage network that is sustained by an army of clients, beneficiaries, agents, intermediaries and dependants. These have been the soldiers of the system. With the top-down movement of resources, and the bottom-up submission of loyalty, the system endured against all odds.
The extraordinary resilience of the Arab state has propelled scholars of democratic transformation to examine the region's "exceptional" character: its immunity to democratic governance, its long-lasting marriage to authoritarianism and banditry. There certainly came glimmering moments for reform, brought about by the interplay of powerful internal and external pressures. Yet, the Arab state shrewdly adapted to such incidents, offering a generous package of concessions and promises, only to quickly pounce on its rivals, thwart the offense, repair the rupture and return to where it had always been, dominant and unreformed.
Egypt’s Tahrir Moment
Among Arab states, the modern Egyptian state provides the best example of this resilience. Established after the 1952 coup of the Free Officers, this state seemed for decades both metaphysical and invincible. It is not only a "deep state" (a term originally used to describe the statist, anti-democracy forces in Turkey's political system), it is also wide and resilient. A huge edifice built over the years with arms stretching in all directions like a giant octopus, the state in Egypt presides over a vast network of entrenched interests and deep-rooted loyalties, and it owns a massive arsenal of guns. This state is made up of a bloated bureaucracy, a sizeable military that controls an economic empire, and in recent decades, it has been allied to the segments of the business class whose economic interests are closely tied to, and dependent on, state institutions. Yet this state had begotten poverty and injustice. And by the beginning of the 21st century, it seemed that its days are numbered.
Without a doubt, the biggest opportunity to dismantle Egypt's authoritarian state and build another, more consonant with modern times, came in early 2011. During the momentous 18-day uprising, protestors not only clamored for Mubarak's removal, but also, with unbounded optimism, for the downfall of the entire regime. And Mubarak stepped down. But his state—represented by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)—was given the mandate to oversee the transition period to democratic rule. It soon became clear that this was merely a leadership reshuffle. And in truth, the system jettisoned Mubarak not to uproot the regime but to protect it.
Mubarak's resignation put Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak's faithful defense minister, in the driver's seat. Like most Arab World autocrats, Mubarak had planted his loyalists in key institutions. And the more docile they were, the longer they stayed in their positions — Tantawi was defense minister for 20 whole years. This colorless, taciturn military bureaucrat, raised in the womb of the state, was faithful to his superiors to the point of self-effacement and fundamentally opposed to change. But the threat posed by the uprising was massive, and Tantawi floundered.
Tantawi was 76 when the revolution broke out in January 2011, too old to understand its underlying causes, too slow to respond to its rapid dynamics. To be sure, the cloistered general felt no affinity with the revolution. He eyed with suspicion, even hostility, the young revolutionaries who toppled his patron and changed his world, but unlike other elements within the state bureaucracy, he sensed that a new status quo had been born, and that there had to be a new approach to governance. Egypt's political landscape had changed dramatically after Mubarak's sudden ouster. Demonstrations took place every Friday in the iconic Tahrir Square, a cascade of labor strikes swept industrial plants across the country, and, perhaps more importantly, Mubarak, his sons and henchmen were put on trial. The internal security institutions were melting down, which allowed the revolutionaries, in a hitherto unthinkable move, to break into the headquarters of the notorious State Security Intelligence, grabbing classified documents as souvenirs and taking photographs of the personal belongings of Habib Al-Adly, Egypt's ruthless pre-revolution Interior Minister.
Taken by surprise, and lacking skill and vision, Tantawi improvised. He had no strategy or blueprint, but he had a sharp sense of threat. Accordingly he felt the need to adapt to a perilously precarious period. Authoritarianism was giving way to an era of electoral politics and freedom of assembly and expression. Sitting astride internal and external pressure to reform, Tantawi promised free elections and a return to the barracks, but he sought to retain the privileges of the military in the new order. To the military, the revolution was a test—a junction to be crossed, not a change of lanes. Concessions had to be made, and they were.
After months of tiresome pushing and pulling with political forces, the state grudgingly accepted that the moment of change had come. Tantawi believed Mubarak had erred by planning to groom his son as his successor, and that his brand of intransigence would not survive against the high tides of the Arab spring. So aside from securing the interests of the military, Tantawi did not choose his successor. The 2012 presidential election was free and fair, bringing to power the Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi. Not only did Tantawi endorse the election results, he also agreed to serve as defense minister to the new president—the newcomer to the system from the the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the regime’s arch-enemy.
In power, the MB failed drastically, playing into the hands of the state that was girding for battle. In the months from July 2012 to June 2013, as the mismanagement and opportunism of the MB became apparent, the state got what it sought, a casus belli, the justification of a war that only needed a catalyst. The mass demonstrations on June 30, 2013 emboldened the state to recover lost territory. While in 2011 the military had the patience of a saint, waiting for 18 turbulent days before eventually forcing Mubarak to leave, in 2013 it quickly ran out of patience. One day after the huge protests, the military issued an ultimatum, and two days later, Morsi was ousted and arrested.
The coup put paid to the age of revolution and street politics, inviting back the pre-2011 practices and mentalities. So the period from 2011 to 2013 seems like a parenthesis between two remarkably similar eras. The system has prevailed over the biggest threat it has faced since 1952, capitalizing on popular anti-MB hysteria to retain its dominion and dodge reform, and cutting the tongues of critics in the name of restoring "the prestige of the state." The agents and allies of the state believe that it has to be fearsome once again. With the unprecedented levels of coercion it has employed since Morsi's ouster (killing thousands and arresting more than 40,000 in less than a year), the state now seem invincible, even metaphysical. And Egypt is back to square one.
Algeria: From Reform to Civil War
What happened in Egypt last year bears a striking resemblance to what took place in Algeria two decades earlier. The road from revolution to state-building and then state consolidation in Algeria was marred by corruption and mismanagement. By the end of the 1980s, under the leadership of President Chadli Bendjedid (ruled 1979-1992), the country had reached the brink of a crisis, the worst since independence. Its youth, in despair about the country’s economic and social situation, and indignant at the regime's corrupt nomenklatura, were boiling with rage. They called the 1980s les années noires (the dark years). Then in October 1988, they revolted.
The revolt was in one crucial aspect tantamount to the 2011 uprising in Egypt—an unforeseen earthquake that throws the system off balance and persuades the men in charge (or, to be accurate, some of them) that a change of sorts is necessary to keep the system afloat. Bendjedid thought the state was ailing and reform was needed. After riots that left hundreds dead, he sacked his prime minister and promised "greater democratization of political action" and "political and institutional changes." In early 1989, a new constitution was drafted that introduced multiparty elections to Algeria's political system for the first time since independence. A window of reform was left slightly ajar, and dozens of newly-formed political parties passed through it.
The junta saw these measures more as a survival strategy than a wholehearted approach to democratic rule. Naturally, generals profoundly accustomed to a strict, chain-of-command culture do not have a penchant for the diversity, competition and debate that democracy brings. When the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won the municipal election in 1990, and the first round of the parliamentary election in December 1991, sending shock waves through the system, the army generals felt that the reforms were spinning out of control. The "deciders," who were ensconced behind the façade of a civilian leadership, intervened, cancelling the election, sacking Bendjedid and thrusting a new president, Mohamed Boudiaf, into office. But the new president was not as compliant as they thought. He vowed to combat corruption and target the "mafias" of banditry that had plundered the nation. A former politician, Abdel-Hamid Brahimi, admitted in a moment of frankness that "the equivalent of the country's foreign debt ($26 billion) was paid in bribes to government officials over a decade”, words which quickly became an adage in Algeria. Boudiaf's declarations, real or feigned, reassured Algerians that he would undermine the networks of patronage and enrichment that had become so enmeshed in the fabric of the state. A few months later, he was assassinated, allegedly by the military.
Clearly, the state was unable to tolerate the reformers, even petty ones aspiring to modest change. With the elimination of two presidents inclined toward reform, the hardliners in the military took full control. The maximum scale of the state's violence was unleashed, no longer to be used only when necessary, but whenever possible. The reign of terror of the 1990s, les années rouges, harvested hundreds of thousands of lives. Algerians bitterly mocked that the struggle for independence had made Algeria "the land of one million shaheed (martyr)" but civil war turned it into "the land of one million zabeeh (slaughtered)." Reform was indefinitely postponed, even after the guns fell silent. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who became president with the blessings of the army at the end of the civil war in 1999, still maintains a tight grip on power. Last April, the 77-year old, wheelchair-bound leader started a new term in office. The images of Bouteflika's pale face at the poll station epitomize where his country stands today: behind a veneer of democracy, it is sick and still unwilling to reform.
The story of systems overcoming reformists is one that repeats itself tediously in other parts of the Arab world. In Sudan, for instance, there is the case of General Abdel-Rahman Swar Al-Dahab, the defense minister who in 1985 toppled Sudan's president Gaafar Nimeiry in the wake of a popular uprising. Nimeiry established a military dictatorship that lasted 16 years. Swar Al-Dahab promised to hand power to an elected civilian government after a one-year transition period, and kept his promise. In 1986, parliamentary elections were held for the first time since 1968, bringing to power the leader of the majority party. But once more this liberal experience was but a short interlude between two dictatorships. In 1989, a military coup led by Colonel Omar Al-Bashir again threw Sudan into the abyss of military rule. Déjà vu. And despite the genocide in Darfur, secession of South Sudan, and Al-Bashir's own indictment by the International Criminal Court for committing crimes against humanity, the Sudanese president is still holding onto power, becoming the 12th longest-ruling leader in the world.
If we think of the Arab spring as a prolonged sociohistorical process carried out over multiple layers of time and space, then it is fair to say that its ultimate fate is still unknown. The regimes of Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen have obviously survived the Spring's first offenses. Other Arab states are still governed by an unbroken chain of autocrats. If anything, the Arab spring has told us that change does not come from above. The men of the system have no appetite for change no matter how awash in corruption and ineptitude the state is; and if they do, the system has the capacity to oust them at once. Egypt is therefore standing in the streets of continuity, not at the gates of change. Al-Sisi, after all, is the offspring of Mubarak; preserving the state is his leitmotiv. To expect him to reform is to ask him to betray the institution to which he belongs, and in which he spent 45 years of his life. In a speech he gave last June, Al-Sisi clearly said that "state institutions shouldn’t be touched, and nobody should comment on their performance."
The massive changes in Arab societies notwithstanding, the Arab state remains curiously unchanged: Egypt has smoothly reverted to the notorious ethos of the Mubarak years; the sheikhs of Gulf states use petrodollars to sustain the rule of their tribes-with-flags brand of states; and a tyrant like Al-Assad starts a new term in office as his torn country turns into a mass grave. Perhaps the ink spilled in the Arab world on the popular "great man theory" should instead have gone to write in length about the "great state theory"—the dominant institution deserves the most thorough scrutiny.
Nael M. Shama
* This essay appeared first on the website of Le Monde Diplomatique (English) on December 4, 2014.