Across Egypt’s capital, parts of the state’s mammoth bureaucracy are clicking into gear after the army toppled President Mohamed Mursi and drove his Muslim Brotherhood from power last week.
That’s evidence, the Brotherhood says, of a plot by Egypt’s “deep state” to deprive Islamists of any real chance to rule or to reform systems installed by deposed leader Hosni Mubarak.
The foreign ministry, sidelined under Mursi, is retaking charge of diplomacy. State newspapers and TV again march in lock step with the official line after months of fitful dissent.
While the 2011 revolt against Mubarak all but banished his once-feared police from the streets of downtown Cairo, this round of unrest seems to have emboldened some to come back.
This is not to say the vast network of ministries, agencies and authorities that underpins the Egyptian state is operating with anything approaching efficiency - or that the country’s severe economic and political problems are close to being fixed.
But for Brotherhood members embittered by what they call a coup against Egypt’s first freely elected president, it confirms what they have been saying for months: officialdom, riddled with Mubarak-era holdovers, obstructed all its attempts to govern.
The increased deployment of police in some areas and the abrupt end to a fuel crisis a few days after Mursi’s overthrow showed the bureaucracy “did not want to function under the new leadership,” Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad said.
“When that leadership was thrown out by the military, well, now they can function again,” he said.
The Islamist group’s members also say parts of the state apparatus actively mobilized against them as anti-Mursi protests picked up, denying their opponents’ accusations that they were taking over, or “Brotherhoodising,” official institutions.
“Dr. Mursi faced a fierce media campaign: ‘no to the Brotherhoodisation of the state’. Now, we as a nation find it was a lie, from A to Z,” said Bassem Ouda, the minister of supplies under Mursi, and a Brotherhood member, speaking to Reuters at a vigil held near Cairo University.
Reflecting on his last days at the ministry, Ouda blamed country-wide fuel shortages days before anti-Mursi protests on a mixture of panic buying and what he described as a conspiracy hatched by security agencies and other parties resistant to Brotherhood rule, or what he called the “deep state.”
The idea of a deep state bent on undermining Brotherhood rule was a regular feature of the Islamist movement’s public statements during the year Mursi was in power.
The president himself invoked the concept in a speech to the nation on the eve of the protests that led to his toppling.
“I took responsibility for a country mired in corruption and was faced with a war to make me fail,” he said, going so far as to name specific officials, media owners and neighborhood “thugs” he said were part of a campaign to subvert him.
Critics say this conspiratorial or even paranoid world view, nurtured by decades of repression under Mubarak and his military-backed predecessors, directly contributed to the Brotherhood’s downfall by discouraging it from the compromises and coalition-building that could have saved it.
Saif Ahmed, a 29-year-old government employee, said the Brotherhood only had itself to blame for its failure to rule.
“They know nothing about Egypt and have no idea how to run a state. They are just a bunch of power-seekers who want to hijack state institutions just as they hijacked the revolution,” he said during an anti-Brotherhood protest before Mursi’s removal.
The Islamists often seemed frustrated by their inability to steer the public institutions which employ more than 6 million Egyptians and which they sometimes tried to circumvent.
When they saw the foreign ministry as resistant to their initiatives, they transferred diplomacy to the presidency. When bakeries resisted wheat subsidy reform, they tried to distribute bread through charities. When the police failed to protect their headquarters, they hired private security.
This dysfunction became especially urgent with the economy, as Egypt ran critically low on the foreign currency reserves it needs to import food and fuel for its 84 million people.
Egypt has bought itself some time on that front. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have offered $12billion of aid since Mursi’s ouster, another fact Brotherhood members darkly cite as evidence of a campaign against them.
A golden opportunity wasted
Mistrust of the Brotherhood runs deep among many Egyptians after decades of government propaganda demonizing the group, but its problems working with state institutions are not unique.
Mubarak’s son Gamal, who many Egyptians assumed was being groomed to succeed his father, faced similar resistance when he tried to install businessmen as ministers in his father’s last years in power, said Ibrahim Houdaiby, an independent political researcher and former Brotherhood member.
“This is a bureaucracy that wants only insiders,” Houdaiby said. “The Brotherhood had a golden opportunity to change that, but they chose not to.”
The Brotherhood’s brief experience in power has generated frustration at what it sees as a state impervious to reform.
Describing government workers as in the main “inefficient, unprofessional, uneducated,” Haddad, the Brotherhood’s spokesman, said any would-be reformers should be aggressive.
“You have to steamroll all your reforms one by one, very fast and very strong,” he said.
Otherwise, “the state you’re supposed to rely on to deliver services to the people is going to do quite the opposite.”