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Gehad Quisay

Egypt: The winter they called 'Spring'

Member of Supreme Council of Armed Forces comforts anti-Mubarak protester in Tahrir Square [Twitter]

Date of publication: 23 November, 2017

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Book review: 'Egypt', Robert Springborg's latest release, is a fascinating exploration of the deep state that established the republic, and that continues to rule the country with an iron fist.
Robert Springborg's comprehensive study of Egypt over the past seven decades is both thorough and easy to follow. Accessible to a general audience, it presents an in-depth and critical reading of the political and socio-economic realities under, and within the military regime since its inception.

Simply entitled 'Egypt', Springborg's aptly timed release offers a clear map of the complex present, by explaining how military rule was able to presist.

The book takes the reader on a political and historical journey through the birth of the military republic, the economic consolidation of soft military power and the definitive enforcement of its hard power in the wake of the 2011 uprising.

Springborg explains how Nasser established a "deep state" that not only continues to endure but effectively prevents any impactful change from taking place by using state institutions like parliament and the judiciary as buffers protecting the deep state from opposition.

Drawing parallels and connecting events to make sense of the complexities that culminated in the January 25 uprising, Springborg unpacks the romanticised notions surrounding the uprising to arrive at the reality that what took place in 2011 was neither a coup nor a revolution but rather what he dubbed a "coup-volution".

This distinction is essential to the deeply informative and heartbreakingly realistic scenarios Springborg predicts for Egypt's future.

Springborg unpacks the romanticised notions surrounding the uprising

He argues that as a nation Egypt, is at present far removed from its former glory, yet it remains too big to fail, making its neighbours - and indeed the international community - deeply interested in maintaining its internal and thus its geopolitical status quo.

This interference, Springborg argues, makes a total collapse of the military regime along with its deep state an unlikely possibility.

Deep state

Unlike most academics focusing on Egypt, Springborg does not dismiss the Egyptian monarchy as an irrelevant British creation whose destruction was a necessity. In fact, he offers a refreshing critical study of Nasser's interactions with the institutions King Farouq presided over.

He arrives at the conclusion that their destruction was not a genuine attempt at reform, but rather a requirement through which Nasser could build and impose his newly founded regime.

The term "deep state" is often dismissed within the western context but Springborg repurposes it to capture the essence of the Egyptian republics.

He unearths the true branches of the Egyptian government not as the traditional trio: executive, legislative and judiciary, but a more malevolent combination: military, presidency and intelligence.  

The military being the main arm of this state, Springborg maps out the harsh reality that the military has become entrenched to the extent that "the government provides two out of every five jobs in Egypt… the military dominates the government thus literally has the fate of not much less than half the population directly in its hands".  

Dispelling the notion that Egypt was always presided over by a strongman, the author points out that "neither Nasser, Sadat, nor Mubarak had absolute, direct control of the military… all three were keenly aware of the threat of being overthrown by their armies".

This puts in perspective the ways in which each president enlarged the security and intelligence services while pushing the military out of the national spotlight - in a bid to solidify their hold on power. The primary consequence of this power play was the initial optimism and ultimate subdual of the 2011 uprising.  

The deep state, Springborg argues, is at the heart of the failures of political and economic reform in Egypt.

Coup-volution

Much has been said, written and published in praise of the Egyptian Revolution and Arab Spring. Images of Egyptian youth revolting against the only president many have known was a source of inspiration and jubilation worldwide.

Springborg does not touch heavily on the process of grassroots activism or how those he called Facebookiyyin managed to gather such masses in what he called "the unfortunately named Tahrir [liberation] Square".

Combining the reformist nature of the protests and the subsequent coup, Springborg names it a 'coup-volution'

Instead, he highlights the fact that Egyptians did not take to the streets seeking the destruction of the deep state but rather aimed to oust Habib al-Adly [head of security services] and as their fervour mounted they turned their gaze to Mubarak.  

Demanding the removal of certain elements within the deep state and not aiming for its complete destruction meant that January 25 was a reform movement not a revolutionary one. This distinction between revolution and reform is essential to Springborg's thesis.

Sisi supporter celebrates Sisi's presidential election win, holding image of Sisi, Nasser and Sadat with the subtitle "Heroes of the Arab World" [Getty]

A Sisi supporter celebrates his election win, 
holding an image of Sisi, Nasser and Sadat with the subtitle
"Heroes of the Arab World" [Getty]

Springborg presents the reader with a well thought out argument against the mainstream glitz of the 18 days Egyptians spent in Tahrir.

His case is carefully constructed around analysis of the inherent weakness of civil society caused by years of deep state rule alongside the inexperience of the youth which made a solid democratic transition difficult, if not impossible.

The main reason Springborg gives for the eventual failure of what he refuses to call a revolution, is just how little Egyptians knew about the nature of their military which led them to believe that the army was indeed the custodian of their victory over Mubarak and a keeper of their hard-won freedom.  

The military was the definitive winner following Mubarak's resignation. Using the events of January 25, they precipitated a coup against the president who they believed was undermining the military establishment through his plans to hand the presidency over to his civilian son, Gamal.

Combining the reformist nature of the protests and the subsequent coup, Springborg names it a "coup-volution".

Too big to fail

Springborg presents three possible scenarios for Egypt's future.

First, is a continuation of the current status quo, this he believes will require a tremendous amount of luck paired with endless foreign loans to prop up Egypt's failing economy. Second, the introduction of limited reforms - a move Sisi and the military are unlikely to entertain given their fears of another uprising. Finally, he posits a total collapse of the Egyptian state.

The notion that the collapse of the state is a viable outcome rests on three possible narratives.

Read more: Egypt ignores runaway borrowing at its own peril

The first is an esclation in the military's war against Islamist factions including the Muslim Brotherhood, who have been targeted since a 2013 coup led by then Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ended their presidential and political aspirations.

The second is a remergence of the activist and middle class young people who once populated Tahrir Square, though Springborg finds this increasingly unlikely due to political suppression of activists and economic stifling of the middle class.

The third and final collapse scenario is the rise of the lower classes crushed under worsening economic austerity. 

With these scenarios in mind, Springborg is of the belief that Egypt as a nation is too big to fail, meaning that the status quo will attempt to maintain itself with the help of international actors however it remains unclear how long it can preserve itself. 

Professor Robert Springborg speaks about his book 'Egypt' to Al Araby TV [in Arabic]



Gehad Quisay is a history and politics researcher, who graduated from SOAS and Georgetown University. She has also worked as a researcher at a London based think-tank focusing on post-Arab Spring nation building.

Follow her on Twitter: @ghqsy_

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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