The more things change, the more they stay the same in Egypt

The country’s veteran political and military elite are still in positions of power

An Egyptian man holds pictures of former president Hosni Mubarak (top) and military chief Gen Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (centre). Despite Mubarak’s ousting in 2011, Gen al-Sisi – a faloul – retains a prominent role in the country’s power structure as military chief and defence minister. Photograph: Gianluigi Guercia//AFP/Getty Images

An Egyptian man holds pictures of former president Hosni Mubarak (top) and military chief Gen Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (centre). Despite Mubarak’s ousting in 2011, Gen al-Sisi – a faloul – retains a prominent role in the country’s power structure as military chief and defence minister. Photograph: Gianluigi Guercia//AFP/Getty Images


Sitting on the balcony of his family’s elegant flat watching pleasure boats strung with coloured lights and blaring loud music pass on the Nile, analyst Khairi Abaza readily acknowledges reports of the return of the feloul, the remnants of the 30-year regime of ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

“Of course, they are returning,” he chuckles. “Everyone is feloul. Now we have also the feloul of the Brotherhood.”

He says that in his village a former member of parliament from Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) – which used patronage to cultivate a grass-roots following – may not stand for elections again but will secure the candidacy for his son or cousin.

The Muslim Brotherhood – which grew its own grass roots by providing the poor with clinics, schools and food – could be expected to promote its feloul with the aim of maintaining a presence on the political scene and preserving a role for itself.

Assigned portfolios
Even in revolutionary Egypt, the more things seem to change, the more they stay the same. Figures of the Mubarak regime filled cabinets appointed by the armed forces that succeeded him and were assigned portfolios and jobs by the Muslim Brotherhood, which won parliamentary and presidential elections and, last summer, took over the running of the state from the military.

Feloul are assuming positions in the caretaker administration that overthrew the Brotherhood and president Mohamed Morsi, proclaiming they are determined to pave the way for pluralistic, multi- party democracy.

Feloul cannot be eliminated or escaped. They are prominent, influential and experienced in the ways of ruling this unruly and now rebellious country. Figures such as Gen Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, military chief and defence minister; former chief justice Adly Mansour, now interim president; and caretaker prime minister Hazem Beblawi all served during the Mubarak era. There has been – and will be – no clean sweep of veteran members of the political, business, professional and military elite who co-operated with and were co-opted by the “old regime”. Individuals, however, could be held accountable for their actions.

The military, police, judiciary, bureaucracy and intelligence services are accused by Morsi and the Brotherhood of constituting Egypt’s “deep state”, a term associated with the military in Turkey.

The Brotherhood argues Egypt’s “deep state” is collaborating with Mubarak’s crony capitalists to overthrow the country’s first freely elected president and the Brotherhood’s election-won majorities in the dissolved lower and upper houses of parliament.

While some state institutions – notably the judiciary – attempted to impede Brotherhood rule, the situation is far more complex than the movement is prepared to admit. In the view of analyst Abaza, it brought about its own downfall by failing to “rule by consensus”, even though Morsi won the presidency only because he won the votes of millions of secular Egyptians who were determined to block the return of the ultimate feloul, Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister.

Abaza, who is writing a history of Egyptian governance, believes Egypt can be ruled effectively only by rulers who “build consensus”. The Brotherhood’s old-guard leadership thought it could rule on its own while inserting its appointees into senior positions and sidelining people at all levels in state institutions. This created resentment and prompted non-cooperation.

Abaza gave an example of civil servants at local level who seem to have obstructed the delivery of fuel and provision of electricity to the countryside, undermining the Brotherhood’s standing with villagers. Now that the Brotherhood has fallen, Abaza says there are no electricity cuts or fuel shortages in villages he has contacted.

New consensus
If the caretaker regime is to win the confidence of the revolutionaries who have shown they can mobilise millions of Egyptians across the country, Abaza says, it must “create a new consensus” involving the military, bureaucracy, business community, academics, farmers and labourers.

To build a “revolutionary” consensus, activists argue that the interim regime must secure progress on tasks set by the 2011 uprising. The caretaker government needs to make an early end to military trials for civilians, purge Egyptian institutions of corrupt and repressive feloul in power under Mubarak, and conduct public trials of those responsible for the deaths of 846 activists during the 18-day uprising.

In coming months, revolutionaries say the interim government must stem the country’s economic collapse, draft a constitution acceptable to the entire society, and conduct free and fair elections.

If this effort falters and fails, Egyptians who, in Abaza’s view, over the past two years have come to understand the meaning of consensus, can be expected to return to the streets and squares to make certain they achieve their goal of inclusive rule by consensus: democracy.

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