Coverage of Egypt continues to exist in a broad variety of media outlets – both regionally in the Arab world, but also internationally in the broader international community. Since 2013, with the military’s removal of then president Mohammed Mursi from office following widespread protests, Egypt’s political authorities are invariably described as the ‘Egyptian regime.’ That’s particularly the case in the English language media worldwide – but is the word ‘regime’ really applicable in Cairo’s case?
In a heated exchange between myself and a senior Iranian official a couple of years ago, I described Iran’s authorities as the ‘Iranian regime’ – a regime I felt had egregiously supported rather nasty policies in Syria. The Iranian official’s indisputably humorous disposition notwithstanding, he objected to the use of the word ‘regime’, claiming it was a word that was a ‘slight’ upon his country’s authorities. (I didn’t stop using the word.)
He had a point, in that one seldom finds the use of the word ‘regime’ in a positive fashion when applied to a state’s authorities. On the contrary – the subtext of such a word is going to always be negative in one shape or form. But in one way, it is certainly a compliment – because a ‘regime’ is one that runs, and rather cohesively at that.
Regime or not?
Can one describe Cairo’s ruling authorities as a ‘regime’? Analysis of the country’s ruling authorities is not the easiest to engage in nowadays – but rather than use the word ‘regime’, one might consider three models of organization to explain how this particular political dispensation does – or does not – function.
The first is a rather historical one, and familiar to Egypt. I cannot take credit for it – a colleague of mine, though under Chatham House rules, expressed it – and that was the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt. It’s an interesting model to ponder to understand how Egypt functions – because in Mamluk Egypt, the Sultans might have had the largest number of mamluks (soldiers), but the lesser powerful Amirs could have some troops as well. If we imagine the mamluk as an embodiment of power, then it is clear to identify that there was no single power centre in Mamluk Egypt – and sometimes-conflicting power centres, while an overall agreement on a basic trajectory.
In Cairo today, many observers also agree that power is certainly disparate and not altogether well strewn into a single web – while a ‘regime’, on the other hand, would certainly be far more cohesive. Even after the Mamluk Sultanate was taken over, the Mamluks continued to hold a great deal of power – one of the reasons Muhammad Ali in the 19th century essentially declared war upon them as a class was due to their feudal power. They owned, in real terms, much of the country – and that would interfere with Muhammad Ali’s vision for control. (It didn’t end very well for the Mamluks, history records. Not at all. Muhammad Ali wasn’t exactly kind with them.)
The second is another state model, but a much more contemporary one – and that is Vladimir Putin’s Russia. At the height of the Mamluk Sultanate (and the record does vary over hundreds of years), it represented a pinnacle of political, economic and cultural grandeur in the medieval era. One can’t really say that for Mr Putin’s Russia in the slightest.
Russia is certainly powerful on the world stage, but Putin has hardly made the country a bastion of great attraction for the world. On the other hand, Vladimir Putin is a rather popular figure in Russia. Under his predecessor, there was a massive financial crisis, a declining GDP, a substantial increase in poverty, and security anxieties via militant activity.
Putin took over from Boris Yeltsin, imposed order, and was blessed by high oil prices. For the average Russian, if only due to comparing their lives under Putin to what they had before, it’s not hard to see why he gained popularity.
The Egyptian Don?
Moreover, the concern around stability and order, even if at the expense of civil rights, is a very critical issue to keep in mind – and that is true in Egypt today as well. The presidency of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is one that came into office on a promise of order – and by and large, the majority of the Egyptian population, particularly given the security situation in the country, as well as more regionally, view him as providing that stability. It may be an unsustainable kind of ‘order’ – many make that argument with a forceful degree of evidence to back it up – but perceptions needn’t always be true, and the perception is that this dispensation works (for now).
Additionally, the disparate power centres within Russia itself also make for some interesting parallels to be drawn with Egypt. Nevertheless, none of those parallels are particularly flattering – at the end of the day, after all, Russia is hardly viewed as a paragon of virtue. It is 122nd out of 167 countries in the Democracy Index, and the World Justice Project views it as 80th of 99 countries in terms of the ‘rule of law’.
But if the Russian comparison is one that many might draw with regards to Egypt, there is one final one to consider – and it is an Italian one. It is not, alas, the current Italian state – that would be nice indeed. It would be good to think of Egypt as comparable to the third largest economy in the Eurozone, with a remarkably high level of human development and the highest life expectancy in the European Union.
No, unfortunately, the comparison is far more baser – the Sicilian mafia. (Point of interest – Sicily used to be an Arab-Muslim sultanate, and some historians argue the word ‘mafia’ comes from the Arabic ‘marfud’. But I digress. )
The notion of the ‘Godfather’ was popularised through a variety of films by the same name – but it wasn’t a media creation.
The concept was certainly controversial for some historians, who argued that the ‘capo dei capi’, or ‘boss of bosses’ was a fiction – but others insist that the concept had genuine currency. It’s an interesting concept – because, again, many observers of Egyptian affairs argue that rather than the cohesiveness that the word ‘regime’ might imply, it’s far more useful to see the current political dispensation in the country as being much more about disparate power centres, with an eponymous figure on top of that structure. In that regard, there are some parallels.
In the Sicilian case, each power centre (or ‘family’) has its ‘boss’ or ‘don’. An individual power centre has a certain degree and level of autonomy, to be sure – and it uses it – but there is a veto power to be employed by the ‘capo dei capi’. The question is – when does he use it, and is he able to maintain a level of consensus on key issues, or not.
If he can, and the other families do not rebel, then the ‘Godfather’ remains. It doesn’t mean he runs the show with full dictatorial powers, where all simply pay heed and obey – but it does mean the rules are more arbitrary than based on integrity, and the system is founded on power dynamics, more than they are on justice. That’s not exactly a grand system of respect for fundamental rights and responsibilities.
It would seem, thus, perhaps, the Egyptian political dispensation is not, indeed, a ‘regime’ after all. The irony is, if only relatively speaking, it might be better if it were.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.