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Can Egypt escape the grip of its authoritarian past?

When Egypt's 25 January Revolution began in 2011 calling for the removal of the regime, few anticipated the speedy dismissal of the man who had held the reins of power for four decades. Fewer still would have predicted that in the space of two years the Egyptian military would depose two governments, underlining its position as the supreme authority in the country.

Though no one was under any illusion about the political and economic strength of the Egyptian military, many were surprised by the intensity with which it reversed the democratic election result and ousted the government of the Freedom and Justice Party led by Mohamed Morsi. Not only that, but it was also insisting on taking the moral high ground by declining to accept that such a move was a coup. Supporters even used the oxymoronic "constitutional coup" in their propaganda.

Let's leave aside the prosaic argument as to whether it was or was not a coup; that can be gauged easily by comparing the actions of those who came to power in Egypt, as described here. Egypt's challenges look set to sink the country into even greater political repression, increasing levels of foreign dependency and a painful degree of impoverishment across the country.

As I was reminded by Dr Maha Azzam, Head of the Egyptian Revolutionary Council (ERC), Egypt is now a country that operates contrary to all the principals of good governance. It has returned to full dictatorship and authoritarianism in all of its worst excesses. "It's a country where all political space is denied to its citizens despite the cosmetic cover supplied by the last election or forthcoming parliamentary elections," Azzam told me. "The reality is that the military is back in the guise of General Al-Sisi. What we have now in Egypt is the continuation of a system that has lasted for 60 years."

The former Middle East expert at Chatham House, a post she held for 10 years, also lamented how some of the worst extremes reminiscent of the Nasser era are scarring Egypt, particularly with what is happening in the prisons. There are now over 40,000 political prisoners suffering the worst violations of human rights in the country's recent memory.

Egypt's massive U-turn from the spirit of the 25 January Revolution and the alarming rise of political repression and human rights abuses following the overthrow of President Morsi has been documented widely by numerous human rights groups. The statistics are chilling; 529 people were sentenced to death in a trial lasting just a few hours, for example.

A dark cloud is hanging over Egyptian politics. Al-Sisi's first electoral victory last May was conducted in this climate of fear, repression and intimidation that lead to mass arrests. Human Rights Watch reported that more than 16,000 people were arrested and that the mass arrest of thousands of political dissidents, whether Islamist or secular, has all but shut down the political arena and stripped Egyptian elections of any real meaning.

Naturally, given the moral façade of the counter-revolution as well as the backing of regional and Western governments, the Egyptian authorities have tried to hide their crimes by preventing journalists reporting the flagrant human rights violations carried out by the security forces. In its report published in spring 2014, the Arab Organisation of Human Rights listed 166 journalists who were arrested and the newspapers and satellite channels that had been closed down without valid legal reasons. Moreover, as part of the government's efforts to deprive detainees of fair trials and legal representation, 234 lawyers were jailed for defending political detainees in a move designed to be a deterrent to others in the legal profession.

During Egypt's periodic review at the UN Human Rights Council last November, it was attacked for its poor human rights record. The final review, which includes testimonies from the Muslim Brotherhood and Amnesty International, is due to be published in March this year.

These events expose the real dynamics of power in Egypt. The manner in which the old regime has more or less been restored has given new meaning to the analogy of Egypt as a deep state, a theme that is picked up by Lisa Anderson, Professor of international Relations at the American University in Cairo. Her look at the role of the army in different countries across the region illustrates vividly just how deeply the army is embedded in Egyptian society.

"If the army sees itself as an instrument of the state – or in the case of Egypt if the state belongs to the army – it will ditch the regime to protect the People and preserve the state," she wrote. "This is what we saw in Egypt. On the other hand if the army has no investment in either the state or the regime, then the military will crumble, which is what happened in Libya. If the army is not only an instrument of the regime, but helped build the state, it will kill the People to protect it. Then, the People must not only overthrow the regime, they must fight to overthrow the state, because they are one and the same. That is what happened in Syria."

In Egypt, the regime-state-military dynamic is strongly in favour of the military; it not only controls the levers of power in politics, but also in the economy. Since the overthrow of Morsi, the entrenchment of the military within Egypt's economy has been getting even deeper. The generals have used their power grab to slip their allies into key economic posts and expand their authority over government development deals, including a lucrative Suez Canal project.

The military's economic empire, which is crowding out civilian businesses, includes: infrastructure projects, services, hospitals, nurseries, shipbuilding and virtually all other sectors. It is estimated to account for as much as 40 per cent of the Egyptian economy. Some believe that Morsi's plans to develop the hugely lucrative Suez Canal with help from Qatar alarmed the generals, who were not involved in the deal; this, arguably, contributed to the military ouster of Morsi in July 2013.

With the country now firmly restored to full military control what future is there for the Muslim Brotherhood or any other Islamist party? The movement is now a banned organisation; is history repeating itself?

For Dr Barbara Zollner, Lecturer in Middle East Politics at Birkbeck College in London, the comparison is easy and tempting but nonetheless inaccurate. She told me that a number of people have compared 1954 with 2013, but they have not considered the fact that we are in a different contextual frame and hence are dealing with a different kind of Muslim Brotherhood.

Zollner's book on the Muslim Brotherhood looks at the years of Hasan Al-Hudaybi (1954-1971); she said that the starting points of the crises in the two periods are very different. The prison years following 1954 produced a circle of radicals, which is significantly different to what is happening now. The jailed Brotherhood members now ascribe to a vision of politics that remains non-violent despite their incarceration. "They are committed to working through the system and working with the grassroots," stressed Zollner. "Their vision is still very conservative, but nonetheless committed to non-violence."

If the Muslim Brotherhood has indeed shed its violent past developed in Egypt's prisons during the 50s and 60s, and the vision of non-violent change remains a major principal within its Guidance Council, what sort of impact will political isolation have on the movement?

According to Dr Zollner, the Brotherhood was already facing internal pressure for greater reform even before the latest clampdown. In contrast to the prison years where the fracture was between an imprisoned radicalised faction which advocated violence and those who didn't, the current reform is underway, led especially by Brotherhood members who were also disappointed by their performance in government. It is a kind of sibling rivalry which contests the leadership, becoming more accommodating and, overall, more effective politically.

The Brotherhood has split in the past and in all likelihood will split again in the future, claimed Zollner. "There will be reform and they will continue to play a role in some form and shape; the question is whether the Brotherhood is able to reform from within. If it is not able to reform from within and let reformists have a say within the existing frameworks they will start forming other Islamists parties."

Different flavours of Islamist political parties may emerge from the Muslim Brotherhood, all committed to non-violence but separated by their levels of conservatism and willingness to modernise. We already have personalities like Abdel Moneim Abu el-Fotouh who split from the movement in 2011 after being convinced, as one commentator put it, that democracy means "supporting whatever the people choose, even if it contradicts Islam or rejects it in principle".

On the wider question of the role of Islamism in the region, Dr Zollner pressed on the fact that there is no evidence for the widespread assumption that Islamists will close the door of democracy once in power. In fact, we can say in all honesty that it was the non-Islamists who have been grabbing power in Egypt in an un-constitutional and undemocratic manner while Islamists, such as Ennahda in Tunisia, for example, continue to work within the constitutional framework.

Many Egyptians, Brotherhood supporters included, criticised the Freedom and Justice Party for its poor performance during its year in office. According to Dr Azzam, though, any democratically-elected government at that period would have faced opposition from the military and from the corrupt institutions that were unwilling to reform. "It wasn't just about the Brotherhood; it was also about very powerful elements in Egyptian society and within the Egyptian state who were unwilling to release their grip on power and allow the emergence of a more open, accountable and democratic system," she told me. "The fear of losing their grip meant that the entrenched political and economic classes were going to fight any government that was democratically-elected and was going to initiate reform. Even if President Morsi was not from the Brotherhood he would have been deposed through a counter-revolution."

As a result, she claimed, many have seen the spirit of the 25 January Revolution killed off but now regret playing a hand in paving the way for the military to reclaim its impenetrable position. "The question that every Egyptian needs to ask again and again is what kind of country do they want? The issue isn't whether one likes the Brotherhood and agree with its policies; it is much more fundamental than that. It is about the kinds of politics we want; democracy or authoritarianism; freedom to organise in a society the way that we want to, or to be bullied into submission by an entrenched political elite."

Dr Azzam is optimistic that the Egyptian revolution will succeed in the end. "Revolutions come in waves and we will soon see a second wave that will bring down Egypt's corrupt order," she insisted. Such optimism is hard to fault in light of the fact that the French Revolution of 1789 did not "come into port" until the proclamation of the Third Republic almost eighty years later.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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