General Abdelfattah al-Sissi justified his coup to prevent a civil war. But after the spate of violence experienced during the last days, those claims seem more dubious than ever. Rather than avoiding civil strife, the authorities’ policies seem to be encouraging it. Al-Sissi’s real objective may be the reinstatement of the core elements of the old regime, but supported by a broadened social coalition that includes the young middle-class. The repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, the sheer manipulation of media (both private and public), the return of baltaguiya‘s (paid thugs) rule to the streets of Cairo, and the state of emergency seem all too familiar.
At the Mubarak era, only a small clique ruled the country. Because of their sense of entitlement, it almost seemed that they owned it. This is why the secular youth rose up and led the rebellion on January 25th . The emergence of a new generation with a better education, more demanding vis-à-vis the State, broke the basis of the regime built by Gamal Abdel Nasser after the 1952 Revolution.
It is the precisely this social group the one that the military would like to include in the new governing coalition. They think that the old system does not need an overhaul, but only some repairs. The co-optation effort seems to have worked with Tamarrud, the youth revolutionary group that organized the massive June 30th protests. They are now demanding Mohamed Morsi’s trial, but they never mention the need for accountability for the crimes committed at the time of Tantawi’s Military Junta, which was a key revolutionary demand only a few months ago.
The million dollar question is: Can this new system work? In the short run, it can. In the long run, it won’t be so easy for two reasons: 1) The Islamist movement, which is more than just the Muslim Brotherhood, is stronger, wider, and more deeply rooted than before the Revolution. 2) To suppress political Islam would require a sustained use of large-scale violence that would be hard to digest by the Western public opinion as well as by some Egyptian liberals. Al Baradei’s resignation and Western governments reaction to the Raba al-Audawiya massacre are a clear warning. The new authorities can survive for a while only with the support of the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, but it is difficult to consider it a viable State isolated from the West.
However, this is not the only possible scenario when trying to interpret al-Sissi’s moves. There are at least three more. Maybe the Defence Minister, the real strongman of the current regime, does not seek to establish a new system based on the suppression Political Islam, but only to deal a blow to it before opening up the political system again. Hence, this would be only a temporary phase. His objective would be to weaken the Islamist movement, maybe with the hope to moderate it, while at the same time giving some time to the secular parties so that they can build up their grass-roots organization. Thus, it would be unlikely that the Brotherhood or any other Islamist force would win a free election whenever it takes place.
This scenario, which would also include the co-option of the young middle-class, is more clever than the previous one, but it has one handicap: the more violence it is used against the Islamist, the more cohesion it will instil in their ranks, and the less likely that it will reform and moderate. We just need look at Morsi, a mediocre president who has turned into a hero within the Islamist camp.
I would like add two more possible scenarios: 1) al-Sissi does not really have an endgame, and his actions are completely improvised, which is the opinion of Robert Fisk. 2) He seeks to impose a military dictatorship under the guise of that engineered by Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan, that is, trying to merge nationalism and Islamic piety as the State official ideology. The latter is the opinion of Robert Springborg, a scholar specialized in the Egyptian army. From my point of view, this last scenario is unlikely. Al-Sissi’s is aware of the risks of placing the army in the forefront of Egyptian politics, so they new regime at least will have a civilian façade.
Probably, only Al-Sissi really knows what is his plan. We’ll have to wait until his next moves to have a sense of where he wants to take Egypt.