Concentrated Power Looks Good Amid Chaos

One of the Egyptian revolution’s original sins was sticking with a strong presidency. In young democracies with weak institutions, presidents are tempted to concentrate power — and often find it difficult to resist. The strong presidency, which dogged Egypt for decades before the 2011 uprising, has been taken to its logical conclusion, with Field Marshall Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi riding a popular wave of mass hysteria and hypernationalism to the country’s top office.

Sisi’s millions of adoring supporters have convinced themselves that only another military strongman can provide the stability the country has so sorely lacked over three years of political turbulence. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies argue that the coup has been “broken” and that the regime is dying a slow death. Both are likely to be disappointed. Egypt may continue to experience near-daily protests, suffer more terrorist attacks and see its economy further deteriorate, but none of that will necessarily bring down a powerful regime that enjoys huge Gulf support, U.S. and European acquiescence and, importantly, is willing and able to employ its full arsenal of repression. Brutal, unyielding repression can “work,” at least for a time, in the narrow sense of helping those in power maintain it.

The increasingly small number of Egyptians who can still conjure up the hope and power they felt during the 2011 uprising believe, understandably, that their countrymen will never go back to the way things were. But too many of them already have. As any number of episodes show, whether Algeria in the 1990s or Chile and Argentina in the 1970s, a people’s revolutionary and democratic spirit can be broken. And, despite all knowledge and experience to the contrary, it can take people a long time to wake up and realize what was done in their name and what they, themselves, chose to enable. 

This piece originally appeared in New York Times Room for Debate.