CAIRO — When former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was cleared of all charges last week, it marked an end to the democratic hopes of Tahrir Square and seemed to embody the resilience of Egypt’s “deep state.”
Stepping back to look at four years of unrest and yearning for democratic change, it seems Egypt’s true leadership never really lost power after all. And in many ways, analysts say the deep state, which is loosely defined as a military government with a root structure of police and security organizations as well as vast economic and industrial interests, has further consolidated its grip on Egypt.
To keep that grip tight, the military has now pushed for legislation that would prevent journalists from reporting on the military’s budget, including lucrative contracts that allow it to control everything from the ports of the Suez Canal to the leading chain of gas stations in the country.
A three-month reporting project in Washington, Egypt and New York produced by The GroundTruth Project for GlobalPost has found that Egypt’s deep state has really never been deeper.
It was the weight of the military that ultimately toppled Mubarak in early 2011 when protesters gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square demanding his resignation. And it was the SCAF, or Supreme Council of Armed Forces, that ruled Egypt in the interim before the first free and fair presidential elections in Egyptian history.
Those elections in 2012 brought to the presidency Mohamed Morsi, a political leader of the party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. And then the former Field Marshal Abdel Fatah al-Sisi removed the democratically elected Morsi from power following mass demonstrations. Then in elections held earlier this year, Sisi was named president.
And as of Saturday, the Egyptian courts have cleared Mubarak, his police chiefs and all authorities involved in the killing of hundreds of civilian protesters. Not a single police officer, high or low ranking, has received any form of punishment. Meanwhile hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members have been sentenced to death for various crimes and dozens of secular activists and journalists have been imprisoned. Just this week, pro-democracy activist Ahmed Douma received a three-year prison sentence for “insulting the court,” accusing the presiding judge of bias. After his sentencing, according to Reuters, Douma shouted from his cage in the courtroom, “Down, down, military rule!"
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Egypt’s national media, now toiling under the principles of self-censorship and “aiding the state,” say they do so as part of a fight against terrorism.
Despite photographic evidence and the memories of thousands who saw the events unfold live, it seems there will be no justice for the hundreds of protesters who were slain in the street protests that have erupted since 2011.
Mubarak’s release doesn’t practically change anything in the political scene. The military has moved on under a new leader, more than happy to make the jump from being merely the largest component of the deep state to leading it.
Sisi’s regime has gone from being almost a pariah following the military ouster of deposed President Morsi — spurned by the United States, the European Union and only kept financially afloat by the Arab gulf monarchies of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — to being welcomed back into the international fold.
The crisis in Iraq and Syria has stolen the limelight from human rights abuses in Egypt, and Western backing of secular Arab autocrats in the face of the rising threat of extremist groups like the Islamic State is familiar foreign policy.
Yet Pentagon and State Department officials in Washington will tell you there were never any serious rifts between the Obama administration and the military regime in Egypt anyway.
Indeed, outgoing US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was one of the first people to phone Sisi after the coup and the two men talked “almost every day” during that period, Sisi told the Washington Post in August 2013.
Military aid was suspended in July 2013 in compliance with the so called “coup law” prohibiting aid to militaries who seize power from civilian governments, but the Obama administration refused to classify what happened in Egypt as a “coup” so that it could later resume the aid if it wanted to.
Under the Camp David Accords, the United States transfers an annual $1.3 billion in military aid to the Egyptian military. Concerns about Egypt’s troublesome path to democratic reforms mean that this sum is currently threatened with a haircut down to $945 million.
But according to one former State Department official, the Obama administration had already planned to downsize the aid, regardless of the military’s ouster of Morsi.
Namely the administration believes the Egyptian military’s main priority should be counter terrorism, and as such think the Egyptians should be buying smaller and cheaper hardware. This would explain why the administration released $580 million for “training, counterterrorism and border security” even during the supposed aid suspension.
Robert Springborg, a former professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and an expert on the Egyptian military, believes the Pentagon wants to resume aid to Egypt because it wants to focus on counter terrorism and is less concerned with human rights issues than the State Department.
“Sisi knows there will be an overhaul. The Egyptians will kick and scream because they view it as a Camp David entitlement but they will accept it,” he said.
The reason is that under Mubarak and former military chief Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the aid was viewed as a “coup-proofing strategy” to keep generals happy.
“Tantawi stood in the way of any change. The Americans were pushing Tantawi to shift from a land battle focus to counter terrorism, maritime search and rescue, and border patrol. In 2010 there was discussion of reallocation but he didn’t want military to do anything; the idea was just put it in storage, get jobs for the generals,” said Springborg.
Sisi on the other hand, he argues, knows counter terrorism is the main focus and is happy to accept the shift. Springborg said last summer that he believes that once things cool down in Washington, the Americans and the Egyptians will renegotiate new terms and resume their military partnership.
It seems he was right. The rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State and instability in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya at the hands of Islamist groups has accelerated the process. Washington, in its desperate search for allies in the region and at the behest of their longtime Saudi ally, seems to be embracing Sisi back into the fold.
The Egyptian president, meanwhile, is facing a stubborn Islamist insurgency in Sinai spearheaded by the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis jihadi group. The struggle allows Sisi to make a convincing argument that his military needs American weapons to combat terrorism.
As regional analysts point out, Washington’s support for Sisi, who essentially executed a military coup to topple Morsi, may be motivated by a desire for regional stability but it also undercuts the American rhetoric of supporting democracy in the region.
As detailed in the reporting for this project, Sisi has guarded and consolidated the military’s role in the Egyptian economy ever since he first came to power. The military now handles the building and maintaining of all major roads, infrastructure and housing projects.
Sisi has yet to allow the election of a new parliament and holds all legislative and oversight powers in his hands. He has used these powers to expand the jurisdiction of the military judiciary, setting the stage for even more military trials, hand the military expensive and lucrative contracts, and shield it from even the oversight of the press.
Indeed, his government is about to enact legislation that would make it illegal to report on facts, figures and statistics regarding the military without its permission.
These figures and statistics include the fact that between September and November 2013 alone, the military was awarded government contracts worth $1 billion according to the government’s own announcements and records. Journalists in breach of this law would be faced with up to five years in prison and $7,000 in fines.
Parliamentary elections are now set to take place in “early 2015,” as the office of the president proclaims. But even this vague date is not set in stone, and political analysts here say the elections will not reduce the military’s grip.
"The assumption that parliamentary elections will deliver parties at this time that might challenge the nature of military-state relations is rather dubious,” said Dr H.A. Hellyer, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Centre for Middle East Policy.
“Critical assessment of this current relationship is exceedingly rare at present, particularly given the 'war on terror' frame — let alone attempting to change that relationship in any fashion," he added. The election laws stipulate that 80 percent of parliament’s seats are to be decided by individual, first-past-the-post elections and only 20 percent are reserved for party lists.
What this means is that instead of an electoral system where people largely vote for political parties based on ideology, they are voting for individuals, this coupled with the widening of electoral districts, meaning a lawmaker now will represent a larger area and more people, makes it so that only candidates with enough financial clout can compete, putting the election squarely in the hands of the business networks allied with the former Mubarak regime.
With both the Muslim Brotherhood and the secular revolutionary activists that sparked the original anti-Mubarak uprising in 2011 largely confined to graveyards, jail cells or exile, the remaining political alliances are fighting over who is more loyal to Sisi, even before campaigning has started.
The general mood exhibited among mainstream politicians is that whoever wins the election needs to “provide political support” to the president in parliament.
As critics point out, it doesn’t really matter because the constitution, even the pre-coup version introduced when the Muslim Brotherhood was in power, does not allow for proper civilian oversight when it comes to the military.
The defense budget is to be looked at as one number, not itemized. And it is reviewed only by a defense council appointed by Sisi and then passed by parliament’s defense committee, not the body at large.
And civilian politicians would not dare call for extra oversight powers, not the ones out of jail anyway. A combination of Islamist terrorism and the complete self-censorship exhibited by the local press means most Egyptians are now willing to accept anything the military does.
In June, Sisi cut bread and fuel subsidies, a decision from which three previous administrations have cowered.
The deep state, it seems, has emerged victorious.
Support for this project was provided by The Correspondents Fund with additional funding from the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York. The reporting fellowship is dedicated to the spirit of late colleagues Anthony Shadid, Marie Colvin and James Foley who all dedicated themselves to on-the-ground reporting to tell the stories of the people caught in the tumult and conflict of the Middle East.