The Tragedy of – the Irony of – Egypt

At least I hedged my bets. Though in my 2012 book The End of Leadership, I described Egypt as perhaps the most important example of the promise of the Arab Spring, I did add that it was “too early to conclude much if anything about the recent upheavals in the Middle East.” Still, I, like many others, thought it possible if not probable that what was happening in Egypt was foretelling a future in which authoritarianism in the region would be out, and democracy in.  

To the contrary. The Arab Spring foretold a future all right, just not the one that the throngs in Cairo’s Tahrir Square (as well as many of the experts) originally envisioned. As it turned out, no country was more of a harbinger of the recent trend toward total control by leaders of followers than Egypt.

The current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is far more of an authoritarian than was his three decades-long predecessor, Hosni Mubarak. In fact, Sisi is not an authoritarian leader, he is a totalitarian one. He governs with the assistance of a small, secret, claque of advisors, mostly military men. He controls every institution and organization of government, including the courts and intelligence agencies.  He reaches into the nation’s economy, to keep under his baleful eye every center of power that could possibly compete with his own. He completely contains the media, old media and new, threatening with imprisonment anyone who in any way dissents. He dominates the arts, to be certain to staunch the free flow of information and ideas.  And he has set himself up as an exemplar to be emulated – in order to exclude everyone and everything remotely alien and everyone and everything remotely threatening.

History attests this cannot last. There will come a day when the roof blows off the house that Sisi built. Till then though, Egypt remains a dangerous place for anyone unwilling slavishly to toe the line.  Till then though, Egypt remains a grim reminder that movements and moments like the Arab Spring can as well morph into cruel ironies as great victories.

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