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The anecdote that perfectly explains Egypt’s self-defeating crackdowns

Egyptian security forces deployed near a polling station in Alexandria. (AFP/Getty Images)

The arc of history seems to bend toward status quo in today's Egypt. This week, Egyptians are voting on a popular referendum to approve or reject a new constitution. It's the second such constitutional referendum since the February 2011 revolution that was to change everything; the first, in late 2012, when President Mohamed Morsi was in power, approved a new constitution that carved out special powers and immunities for the military. All the same, the army suspended that constitution immediately after ousting Morsi in a July 2013 coup. This new constitution would further entrench the military's powers and its independence from civilian rule, as well as extending similar privileges to security services.

That sets up the contradiction that Egypt's military-dominated government is trying to navigate, and has been since the July coup, which was ostensibly about protecting Egyptian democracy from Morsi but looks increasingly like an assertion of military power. How do you maintain the image of a friendly, fatherly military stewarding the country toward democracy, one in which the generalissimo looks increasingly likely to run for president himself, while simultaneously continuing to tighten power on the streets and crack down on political opposition? How do you thread that needle?

It turns out to be really difficult, maybe too difficult. That contradiction, and ongoing inability of the military-dominated government to fully overcome it, was captured perfectly in an anecdote reported by Egypt-based journalist Max Rodenbeck. A long-time correspondent for the Economist who also wrote a wonderful book on the history of Cairo, Rodenbeck wrote recently on the government's simultaneous efforts to cultivate popular support (backed by funding from Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia) and to crack down on dissent. Those two missions collided, and spectacularly:

Significant sums of that generous Gulf aid have gone towards addressing this perceived image problem. Among several Washington public relations firms recently hired, one sent a film crew to Egypt to shoot some pretty footage of order and progress. Within hours of setting foot on the streets of Cairo, they were arrested.

There's a certain dark comedy to the government cracking down on the very people it had hired to promote its image. But there's a tragic element as well. In a way, isn't every arrest of a journalist or intimidation of an opposition activist similarly self-defeating, if not as glaringly so? That was supposed to be one of the principal lessons of the February 2011 revolution that started all this. It was supposed to be a lesson of Morsi's power-grabs and the fall from power it helped to enable. But it's a cycle Egypt seems to keep returning to.

Of all the powers that have attempted to rule Egypt since Hosni Mubarak's fall, and including Mubarak himself, none has succeeded in fully convincing the country of its benevolence, but neither has it been able to impose its will. But they've all tried to do both, and poorly.



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Max Fisher · January 14, 2014

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