Daniel Brumberg gave a talk today through the Arab Center's Seminar Series on the shift in Egyptian politics from liberalized autocracy to full autocracy. Brumberg approached the issue from a comparative politics perspective, with a focus on the persistence of authoritarianism. He argued that Egyptian society is very diverse, complex, and "rambunctious." As such, the shift in recent years from a liberalized autocracy to a full autocracy will cause tensions in key institutions and along major cleavages.
Brumberg discussed the years of "liberalized autocracy" in Egypt, from Sadat to Mubarak, as allowing for a certain level of pluralism to accommodate the diversity of Egyptian society. This sort of liberalized autocracy allowed the regime itself to be the central arbiter between different political forces. The regime utilized different institutions, such as the judiciary and the NDP, to maintain patronage networks as well as foment divisions within Egyptian society. These institutions encompassed in some respect all of the major groups within Egyptian society, including the Muslim Brotherhood.
The situation as it stands today, however, is quite different. El-Sisi is centralizing authority and scaling back many of those same institutions in order to consolidate full control. Today the regime has also become very exclusionary, particularly towards the Muslim Brotherhood. Unlike in the past when all groups could expect some level of participation in formal politics, today certain groups are excluded entirely. Brumberg argued that this narrows the regime's coalition and creates tensions in its ability to rule over Egyptian society.
Finally, Brumberg laid out some vulnerabilities that could emerge from El-Sisi's effort to consolidate power and impose control. First, a vulnerability exists in the state itself, within its massive institutional apparatus. Under Mubarak, there was a state-tolerated fragmentation of the state apparatus (i.e. the "Balkanization of the state"), in order to allow some flexibility and pluralism. Today, Sisi wants the cooperation of these institutions in a centralized way, which destroys the legitimacy that Sisi wants to utilize. One example Brumberg gave was related to the role of Al-Azhar under the Sisi regime; Al-Azhar has expressed a number of reservations under the new regime and tensions between the administration and the university continue. Secondly, vulnerabilities may emerge as Sisi attempts to revamp the legal system and rework the electoral system and parliament. The parliament used to provide a channel to the middle class, but today there is no mechanism of negotiation with that important social actor. Moreover, Sisi has recently signed an IMF agreement that would have the regime reneging on its "social contract" with the middle class. These are all manifestations of tension.
Overall, Brumberg outlined a few challenges facing the Sisi regime as it consolidates control and moves Egypt from a liberalized autocracy to a full autocracy. Brumberg did note, however, that this could not be used to predict when the regime might face challenges, given the flexibility of such regimes historically.