‘The secret group ruling Egypt,’ the deep state and its collapse

Even though I am convinced there are profound differences between the processes of revolutionary transformation in 1952 from those of 2011, which render a comparison of their outcomes rather corrupt, I cannot help but recall the symbolic meaning of a particular incident that followed the 1952 revolution.

In the pivotal year of 1954 and while the people were steeped in typical transition discussions about the constitution, presidential powers, secular-Islamist divisions, as well as other noisy yet pointless debates about the balance of power and what is going on behind the scenes — as we are now — Ihsan Abdel Qoddous, then a renowned reporter and political writer, wrote an critical article titled “The Secret Group Ruling Egypt.”

Abdel Qoddous was alluding to the Free Officers and the Revolutionary Command Council. He was consequently detained and tortured for three months in a military prison. When he was discharged from prison, he kept aloof of politics and changed his genre of writing to romance novels.

Pondering the discrepancy between the public facade and the actual complicated negotiations and struggles taking place behind the scenes between “the secret groups” that remain in control of the strings of power in Egypt make it impossible to give attention to the elections and debates about writing the new constitution. Such debates, I believe, the military rulers and the Muslim Brotherhood have already discussed at length. Their negotiations are certainly cloaked in secrecy. We are only aware of the tip of the iceberg. 

Nevertheless, I am anxiously awaiting one specific constitutional article, namely the one concerned with the National Defense Council, because the members of this council will be the new secret group to rule Egypt in the coming period before the entire regime collapses under mounting popular pressure.

In fact, I believe that preoccupation with the details of parliamentary and presidential elections and the identity of the winners is straying us from the point, because our main concern should be the context and conditions governing the elections. Egypt’s military leaders are controlling the state and the three branches running the elections, namely the judiciary, security apparatus and the media, so it would be illogical to expect an outcome that does not please them.

I am not claiming that Islamists do not deserve such electoral victory because they in fact enjoy wide popularity, are characterized by organizational competitiveness and would most likely still win in an election regardless of the military’s intervention. Rather, what I am saying is that the current elections are being orchestrated by the military leaders to reproduce the former regime, which does not serve Egypt’s democratic transformation. Not only does this have catastrophic repercussions for the path of the revolution but also for the nation in its entirety.

To my mind, the key significance of the elections lies in the heavy defeat of the remnants of the now-dismantled National Democratic Party, which genuinely reflects the people’s rejection of the former regime. Even though this rejection did not crystallize in an outright embracement of the revolutionary bloc, it still demonstrates that the people have a real desire for change. And here lies the crisis.

I expect that we will soon see the people exerting pressure on the elected institutions — the Parliament and the presidency — to achieve the goals of the revolution, purge the state of corruption, bring retribution for the killing of protesters, bolster freedoms and improve the standards of living.

Failure of these elected institutions to meet the people’s expectations is the most likely outcome simply because power over the economy, security and state institutions are beyond their authority. Real power lies in the hands of those who run security and military institutions, in addition to the bureaucratic elite, members of major economic networks or what analysts call “the deep state.”

In its desire to reproduce the old regime, the military’s “deep state” needs a popular front represented by an elected parliament and president (even if the elections are nominal and in fact the current electoral process is far from being democratic) in order to handle public services. Dossiers related to major economic interests, foreign policy, strategy and security will, however, remain under the grip of the military.

If this scenario unfolds, the people who poured angrily into the streets in January 2011 to protest deteriorating economic conditions, human rights violations and the loss of human dignity under the former police regime will sense no change in their lives.

Realizing change in people’s lives in Egypt seems very difficult in light of the power equation currently being put together. Egypt’s economic crisis is a structural one, not one resulting from the corruption of the ruling elite. Therefore, replacing the elite with another new one, the Brotherhood in our case, will not resolve the problem.

Egypt’s economy does not depend on manufacturing or converting industries; it depends heavily on the large-scale importation of food. This consequently generates a horrifying triangle of unemployment, budget and balance of trade deficits.

Additionally, Egypt’s economy is dependent upon rent-based revenues derived from the petroleum and tourism sectors, as well as remittances of expatriate Egyptians, which puts the country at the mercy of international market fluctuations and inflation.

Therefore, Egypt is in dire need for a comprehensive progressive macro-strategy reflected in fiscal and taxation policies that aims to stimulate development, employment and manufacturing. This is in addition to fostering the consumption capacity of the local market through raising salaries in line with increasing productivity and reforming the education, health and service sectors. We should also work to purge the state of corruption and fight monopolies.

But this seems hard to achieve, not only because Islamists have rightist and neo-liberal inclinations at the level of economic ideology, but also because the deep state will not allow any genuine state reform and will work on preserving the old web of giant economic interest groups.

The establishment of a new political economy that is biased toward the people and is subject to their scrutiny is required to dismantle the complicated web of interests that was consolidated over the long years of tyrannical rule. It is essential to rid the country of the oligarchic economic policies of those giant interest groups.

At the level of political freedoms, however, the current regime will not seriously address the abuses of the security apparatus, which it deploys for its benefit. The fact that Egypt’s military rulers are slow to compensate the families of the martyrs provides proof of this. Guilty members of the Interior Ministry and the military will not be punished under the rule of the deep state.

Any attempts at bringing the officers accused of killing protesters to justice will be resisted by the Interior Ministry. The only solution to this problem — that of dismantling the Interior Ministry, punishing killers of protesters and building a new security institution that respects law and human rights — is entirely rejected by the military rulers because they want the existing security apparatus to remain intact.

As a result of all that, the high expectations of the people will plunge into frustration. People’s confidence in the Parliament, the president and the entire political path will nosedive, which will lead to frustration that will ignite a fresh wave of anger. This angry socio-economic uprising shall takeoff from the smallest alleys.

In what follows, radicalism might seem like the only fair choice, even if it is incapable of producing a conclusive victory. In light of their weak institutional structure, revolutionaries do not possess and won’t provide ready alternatives.

Finally, it is clear that the current situation in Egypt will produce a military oligarchy, where the deep state shares power with the political and religious right. But this power-sharing regime will have no ability to suppress an angry public, or present economic and social solutions to a society that is boiling over bread-and-butter issues.

We are in fact headed to a total collapse of the political regime. Several are to blame for this debacle, most notably all of those who are trying to breathe life into a dead state, disregarding the fact that the regime has lost all its battles for acquiring legitimacy. Dinosaurs are bound to die, even if they shed their skin.

Ashraf El-Sherif teaches at the American University in Cairo. He is a specialist on political Islam.

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