Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1133, 31 Jan - 6 Feb 2013
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1133, 31 Jan - 6 Feb 2013

Ahram Weekly

The state of the State

A week of spiraling violence begs questions about the functionality of the Egyptian state, writes Amira Howeidy

Al-Ahram Weekly

Few people anticipated the second anniversary of the 25 January Revolution would be marked by nationwide violence which left more than 50 dead and hundreds injured. And nobody seems to have a clue how to defuse a crisis that has escalated to dangerous proportions, certainly not those state institutions charged with preventing or containing the chaos. They appear inept, deliberately absent, or both.
Four days into the violence Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi warned of “state collapse”. Continued failure to tackle the security, socio-economic and political challenges facing Egypt will have “disastrous consequences”, he said.
Five months after President Mohamed Morsi dissolved the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces which had assumed power following Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, Al-Sisi’s comments immediately raised questions about the army’s intentions. Sources within the military moved quickly to reassure the public: Al-Sisi’s choice of words, they said, shouldn’t be interpreted as a prelude to any “coup against legitimacy”. He was merely voicing concern over the ramifications of the existing volatility remaining unchecked.
Al-Shorouk’s back page cartoon section on Sunday 28 January went further. It was left blank except for the word “the state”, a pictorial representation of the vacuum many fear is engulfing Egypt.
Those fears have been growing steadily since the fall of Mubarak. Security forces melted away on 28 January. Lawlessness, including the opening of prisons and mass escape of thousands of criminals, ensued. The military took over policing. It was months before the police began to slowly reappear in the streets but after decades in which they had operated beyond all accountability only to disappear overnight, their credibility was threadbare.
Calls by activists and political forces to radically overhaul the Interior Ministry have been ignored by all three post-Mubarak cabinets. So have demands for transitional justice, the term used to refer to the processes and mechanisms by which Mubarak’s legacy of corruption and human rights abuse is supposed to be redressed.
Two years after Mubarak was forced from office and the result is a continuation of his regime, though with a new head — an elected president from the Muslim Brotherhood — transplanted onto the old body. The resulting hybrid has been variously described as an oxymoronic, intractable or — more simply — a weak state.
“Egypt had always comprised a dominant state and weak society. Now it’s made up of a weak state and a weak society. Despite the protests society has not been systematically empowered and there are no laws to protect it,” says Ghada Moussa, director of the Governance Centre in the National Management Institute, an anti-corruption watchdog affiliated to the Ministry of Administrative Development.
Mubarak’s tattered infrastructure has long shown signs of collapse, most recently in the railway sector. The judiciary’s reputation is severely compromised by corruption and the politicisation of rulings. Ministers are accused of recreating with “shaking hands” a weaker version of the old regime. “Sensitive” institutions like the intelligence apparatus are viewed with suspicion as constituting the core of the deep state. And all of this under the first elected civilian president who observers say doesn’t have full control of the institutions of government.
When Morsi declared a state of emergency and curfew in the three Suez Canal cities in an attempt to contain ongoing clashes he was ignored. The angry tone he adopted in the brief address to the nation on Sunday 27 January, a speech in which he praised the police and deployed the military in an attempt to restore calm, did nothing to convince the public to take him seriously.
In the 2012 Failed States Index Egypt ranked 31, up 14 places from 2011.
“Society is heading towards anarchy because of the state’s inability over the past two years to meet even the minimum demands of the poor who constitute 46 per cent of the population,” says Moussa.
Failure threatens Egypt’s once solid and centralised state, she implies, because of incoherent policies and political ineptitude.
Many are unwilling to accept this conclusion, preferring instead to blame the deep state — the powerful institutions still loyal to Mubarak — and its network of interests.
“It doesn’t mean we have a failed state,” insists Manar Shorbagi, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. Holdover staff from the Mubarak regime are resisting change and while “some institutions appear non-existent, their passivity is in fact a position of counter-change”.
But even when counter revolutionary forces are absent from the scene chaos still finds a way, as events in Port Said amply demonstrated. What began as a furious reaction to a court verdict sentencing 21 defendants to death for their part in killing 74 football fans last year ended up with a death toll double the number of defendants sentenced. Like many areas of Egypt Port Said is awash with unlicensed firearms. Illegal weapons, which have proliferated in the security vacuum of the last two years, contributed to the death toll. Such problems will continue to resonate, and pointing an accusing finger at Morsi will not solve them.
“One problem is that the president won’t make up his mind. Is he a reformist, a transitional spare tire president or a head of state?” says Emad Shahin, American University in Cairo professor of public policy and administration.
And even if he does make up his mind, how will he direct the entrenched Egyptian state which in Shahin’s view is supported by a powerful military establishment and centralised bureaucracy?
Morsi can try to revive the state’s weakened institutions if he wants to, “or if he can,” says Shahin, but so far the president and the Muslim Brotherhood have been “over analysing and thus over paralysing” the state.

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