Where Egypt Stands Six Years After January 25

As Egypt marks the sixth anniversary of the revolutionary uprising of 2011, it is tempting in many quarters to view the country as having essentially reverted back to what the case was on January 25, 2010. In other words, the last six years never happened, and the political dispensation that underpins the current administration is basically Mubarak 2.0. But that would be misleading; basic presumptions and assumptions about Egypt internally, and Egypt internationally, are quite different indeed.

When it comes to the way in which Egypt is governed, an earlier piece referred to the ‘regimen of the non-regime’, where rather than viewing Egypt as a singular regime as in Mubarak’s time, it makes more sense to understand it as being run by a conglomerate of relationships. That mixed kind of system does have an underlying structure to it—but that is still being negotiated internally, and will probably be unclear for some time yet to come. The relationship between the different focal institutions remains somewhat in flux, although it is clear that the presidency, the military institution, the security establishment, and the judiciary are the most powerful in this regard—probably in that order.

Internationally, there is a different mood altogether as compared to Mubarak’s time, or even at different points in the past six years. There are three key international relationships to consider: the European Union; the Gulf; and the United States. None of these international relationships are likely to make things difficult for Egypt in 2017, and probably a lot easier than Mubarak’s regime had to deal with.

On the European front, Cairo is in a very advantageous position. On the one hand, numerous international and regional human rights organizations internationally regularly report on Egypt’s record of human rights violations. The reports are seldom favourable, and Cairo has found itself consistently and frequently critiqued and criticized on a range of issues in international fora when it comes to the state of fundamental rights and freedoms. Indeed, the violations noted and reported in these fora are far more numerous and extensive than what was ever discussed under the Mubarak administration. It is thus very common for Cairo to witness critical notes in various European parliaments, media, NGOs, and other sectors. When European parliamentary delegations or politicians visit Cairo, they are also obliged by their constituencies to bring up these concerns.

Yet, even though concerns on human rights are raised, Cairo remains in an enviable position. While the rhetoric between Cairo and some European capitals can sometimes be tense, the actual policy implications are far less so. There are some exceptions—the UK has yet to restore full flights to the entirety of Egypt, and Italy has not restored full diplomatic relations, following the withdrawal of its ambassador in the aftermath of the tragic murder of the Italian student, Giulio Regeni. The former was due to a terrorist attack focusing on a Russian airliner in Sinai, and London is reticent about being vulnerable to a terrorist attack on one of its own planes, particularly as it widely believed in government circles, though never publicly confirmed, in London that the original target was a British plane. As for the Italians, while Cairo denies police involvement with the death of Regeni, certainly most in Rome believe otherwise—and Italian public opinion for the time being will not accept full diplomatic normalization with Cairo.

Apart from that, however, Cairo benefits from a number of circumstances. The first is that Europe is hardly united when it comes to Egypt—some countries are more concerned with a foreign policy affected by human rights considerations than others, and that is clearly visible in the discussions around Egypt in Europe when Egypt is brought up in intra-European fora. Greece is not Sweden, nor is Cyprus like Germany—and the lowest common denominator approach profits Cairo. Additionally, the objective reality is that whether nor not this ought to be the case, Europe’s primary and overriding concerns with regards to the Arab world are basically two: fear of large scale migration coming through Europe’s southern borders, and concerns about violent Islamist extremism affecting European citizens. On both of these issues, Cairo is not perceived to be a liability by most policy makers in most European capitals. There may be some in the analytical and policy arenas who perceive Cairo’s policies to be counterproductive—but they have not won the argument, against the backdrop of the rise of Da’esh (‘Islamic State’ or ISIS/ISIL), the destruction of Syria, the delicate Iraqi situation, an unenviable Libya, and so forth. Right or wrong, that is the perception in European capitals—and Cairo is thus generally viewed as at least far better than much of the region, due to its aggressively anti-Islamist posture, and its ability to generally maintain order within its borders. It may be a short-term vision—but Europe hasn’t been good at looking beyond the short-term for a very long time.

When it comes to the United States, Cairo is even more comfortable, though with a proviso. Newly elected President Donald Trump, irrespective of his various policy stances that affect Muslims in the United States and elsewhere, has made no secret of his complete support of the Egyptian administration, primarily due to the common anti-Islamist posture. Cairo knows it can count on a far less critical stance in DC vis-à-vis human rights and the like than it would have under a Clinton administration. Nevertheless, some within the Egyptian diplomatic service worry about the likely unpredictability and erratic nature of a Trump presidency. No policy maker enjoys uncertainty.

The Gulf is the final major actor that Cairo concerns itself with—and in this regard, the entirety of the Gulf has wholly normalized relations with Egypt following the demise of the Brotherhood administration in 2013. Even Qatar, which is pro-Brotherhood, has acquiesced in the face of pressure from its neighbors. At the same time, however, the Gulf is banking on the idea that Cairo under Sisi will be able to stabilize economically. No one wants Egypt to fail—because an Egyptian failure would be catastrophic, considering the size of the Egyptian population. There remain concerns around the effectiveness and capability of Cairo to actually do what is needed to genuinely reform—but there is no joined up thinking in terms of what to do in order to achieve that from the Gulf side. Cairo may receive some pressure—but the pressure, thus far, hasn’t been on anything that directly pushes Cairo to reform in any way. Rather, it has been over the transfer of islands to Saudi Arabia from Egypt. Otherwise, conditionality of aid and support hasn’t been really very existent.

Thus, in general, Cairo in 2017 is probably far more normalized internationally than it was prior to the revolutionary uprising of 2011. That probably has far more to do with things happening out of Egypt rather than inside of Egypt—but Cairo still feels comfortable about its international position, despite the various missives released from time to time denouncing international criticisms of Cairo.

This isn’t to say there are not reasons for Egypt to be concerned about issues on the domestic front. The very same factors that led to the revolutionary uprising of 2011 continue to exist, and have intensified in the past six years—nothing that drove people to the streets during those 18 days has been sufficiently resolved. The Egyptian population may be exhausted by the turmoil of the 2011-2013 period, and understandably so—but with the economic, demographic, and structural problems that exist, it would be naïve to consider Egypt’s current state as entirely sustainable without wide-ranging reforms. What remains to be clear, however, is that bilateral efforts to encourage that along is unlikely to have much of an effect, if they are even attempted. Multilateral efforts might have had more success, but for all the reasons pointed out above, an attempt to engage in that kind of track is even less probable. If Egypt is to genuinely reform, the drive for it will have to be wholly from inside the country. As unlikely as that may be, one can only hope that the most populous Arab country finds a way to do so, for the benefit of its people and the region. 

 Dr. H.A. Hellyer is a nonresident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. 

Related Experts: H.A. Hellyer

Image: A general view of Tahrir Square is seen during the sixth anniversary of the 2011 uprising, in Cairo, Egypt, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany