MESA Banner
The Sisi Regime and the Limits of Authoritarian Upgrading in Egypt

Panel I-12, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
This panel offers a critical examination of the survival strategies President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has adopted since his formal accession to power in 2014. The absence of meaningful political contestation since 2013, the Sisi’s regime’s control of the media sector, and the marginalization of voices of dissent have evoked the image of absolute regime dominance and political stability. The papers this panel posits, however, unsettle this image of stability. They highlight the challenges the Sisi regime has confronted in advancing major policy goals across a variety of fields. Among them are urban planning, solar energy renewal, and youth empowerment. More generally, the regime’s efforts to bolster its performance-based legitimacy have faltered in the face of economic crises and international pressures.
Political Science
  • This paper analyzes the Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi regime’s strategies of youth cooptation and management since the onset of the Sisi presidency in 2014. The efforts of the regime to advance a discourse around youth empowerment was largely shaped by dominant narratives privileging the role of youths in advancing the January 25 Revolution and subsequent waves of popular mobilization. These narratives evidently informed the regime’s approach to youth management and to containing the threats that demographic group allegedly poses to the stability of the political order. The advancement of the Sisi regime’s youth empowerment initiatives coincided with the military’s efforts to promote military-centric nationalism and pro-military sensibilities among newer generations of political leaders through various courses and certificate programs offered by the Nasser Higher Military Academy. The emphasis on youth political participation in the regime’s discourse was also accompanied by a variety of initiatives aimed at training and promoting young political leaders, including the Presidential Youth Leadership Program, as well as the Coordination of Youth Parties and Politicians. These initiatives served in part to undermine the dominance of traditional political elites inside established political parties and inject these organization with Sisi loyalists. However, traditional political elites and families with longstanding involvement in politics under the rule of Hosni Mubarak succeeded in using youth empowerment initiatives as a vehicle to advance the political careers and stature of their own associates and family members. Thus, these initiatives were in part coopted and exploited by the very traditional political classes the Sisi regime once sought to sideline at the onset of his rule. The paper contributes to our understanding of the limits and the shortcomings of the youth cooptation strategy the Sisi regime has followed.
  • Sisi’s regime has used ambitious urban planning and development schemes as a tool to reinforce authoritarian rule in Egypt. Urban development schemes were seen by the regime as a source for generating legitimacy and revenue for the state, and for policing society to prevent an urban uprising akin to the uprising of January 2011. As a source for legitimacy, ambitious urban development schemes were supposed to bring forth a vision of a new society based on urban renewal and expansion, ambitious infrastructure projects and new employment opportunities. As a source for rent or revenue, urban development schemes were supposed to generate revenue for the state by allowing it to become the biggest real estate developer in Egypt. The state endeavored to build new cities in the desert and to free up lands in prime locations by forcefully relocating its inhabitants to either develop this land or sell it to real estate developers. Finally, as a tool for policing the city and preventing urban upheaval, urban development schemes were supposed to remove state institutions from highly populated areas to a new gated capital in the middle of the desert and to redesign important parts of the city to make them more easily accessible to security forces. Ten years since the state embarked on its ambitious urban planning and renewal plans the results seem mixed at best. The quest to achieve legitimacy seems to have failed in the face of deepening economic crisis and the state’s failure to address the essential needs of its citizens. These projects have also failed to generate the revenue needed to solve the economic problems of the state. Finally, the inability of the state to complete these projects due to financial constraints has limited their intended effects on regime security and its enhanced ability to police society and curb any potential uprising. This aim of this paper is to explore how urban planning and development became the primary national project of the Sisi regime, how the regime formulated its vision for urban planning and renewal and how this vision was translated on the ground. Secondly, the paper will explore how urban planning was intended as a vehicle to legitimate the Sisi regime, to generate revenue and to police society. Finally, the paper will examine the actual results of the urban development schemes and their impact on state legitimacy, revenue, and security.
  • In November 2022, Egypt hosted the COP 27 conference in Sharm El Sheikh with the intention of showcasing its efforts to address climate change and signal its intention to play an influential role within the international community in redressing the development challenges linked to climate change. Its commitment to realizing such changes domestically in practice, however, has been far more circumspect. This paper examines the political economy of renewable energy in Sisi’s Egypt. Since 2013, scholars have devoted increasing attention towards understanding the politics of economic reform and the reconstitution of authoritarianism in Egypt under President Sisi. This paper deepens that conversation through an analysis of the solar energy sector in Egypt over the last decade. I argue that initiatives to support renewable energy projects like that for solar energy are an important lens through which to understand new forms of contestation between the private sector and the government; They also illuminate tensions behind the government’s desire to alleviate climate-linked development crises and its apprehension of empowering private sector actors in its efforts. In 2016, the government aggressively promoted solar energy projects through the private sector to offset an energy crisis. That support bolstered solar energy companies, with new actors entering the market. In 2020, the government suddenly shifted its policy, introducing tariffs on renewable energy, effectively debilitating private sector involvement in the solar energy sector. The policy’s initial success in curbing an energy crisis also made it apparent to many that energy independence from the government was possible for anyone with land and sun—a point, many note, that was not lost on the government. To date, little attention has been given to the politics of renewable energy in Egypt. This paper shows how energy policy has evolved since 2013 and how the government and private sector have adapted drawing on primary source documents on the solar energy industry in Egypt and interviews with policymakers and practitioners engaged in such projects in Egypt and in Europe. In doing so, this research contributes to the literature on environmental politics and climate governance and business politics in authoritarian regimes.
  • Whether through closure, censorship, surveillance, or cooptation, the regime in Egypt has effectively consolidated all platforms, publications, and programs in the country under an amalgamated political agenda of conformity. To understand how this unanimity was accomplished, it’s stability, and the prospects of change, we must zooms out to explore how the harmonized media discourses are sustained by a structural, legal, and institutional system. This paper situates the conditions in Egypt’s media environment within a larger framework of transnational authoritarian media consolidation that is entrenched across the Middle East and North Africa. Egypt does not exist in a vacuum. Instead, it impacts and is impacted greatly by its milieu, the region, and dynamics further afield, particularly in media production where hubs and powerhouses are heftily funded and wield substantial power and influence regionally—whether in Doha, Dubai, Istanbul or Riyadh. This paper shows how the regional media models that prevail today are two--a classic one which has direct governance, ownership, control, and management of both resources or a neoliberal statist model outsources media operations to private and semi-private corporations that produce content which appears to be fire-walled from the centres of power, exemplified by the use of satellite television and digital platforms. The strategy that was adopted involved doubling down on the neoliberalization of the media sector. To ameliorate risks, the state creates conditions that render the multitude of channels and platforms discursively harmonized through the centralization of messaging, increased governmental oversight, actual or perceived panopticon-style surveillance, and, where necessary, the “outing of sources” as a chilling effect to ensure conformity. This paper reviews the mechanisms through which these two divergent strategies contribute to what I describe as a neoliberal authoritarian media system in Egypt, and one that is rapidly becoming the regional model for state-media relations. It is fair to say that we are now, almost 10 years since Al-Sisi’s words about building arms in the media, that the model of neoliberal authoritarianism for this industry is now at its zenith. Furthermore, the state has also greatly benefitted from the very same neoliberal authoritarianism of other states and their shackling and control of their own oppositional Egyptian media voices—whether in Istanbul, London, or Doha.