Regime and Periphery in Egypt

The crisis in Egypt continues unabated. It has gotten so bad that the Egyptian Defense Minister, General  Abdel Fatah Al Sissi, claimed that, “The continuing conflict between political forces and their differences concerning the management of the country could lead to a collapse of the state and threaten future generations.”

Currently, the state is indeed in a, well, state of crisis. What started as a football riot in Port Said has now (after a delay for the courts) degenerated to a situation in which the Suez Canal zone is effectively out of the control of the government. While the Egyptian military is still guaranteeing transit of the canal, Egyptian ports may be all but unusable. The idea of the Republic of Port Said has cropped up as demonstrators in Port Said defy the government mandated curfews and state of emergency. At least 40 have died in protests in Port Said even as the government has been unable to contain the situation. 

And then there is a whole region that seems to have been forgotten about: the Sinai. There, a largely Bedouin population has accumulated enough arms to take advantage of the chaos elsewhere leaving Sinai without state control over large swathes of territory. There have been cross-border attacks into Israel as well as attacks on Egyptian security and military officers.

The situation is also difficult in Cairo. Fires (now contained) were started at the presidential palace as protestors threw Molotov cocktails as they battled police. Protests in Cairo continue. However, there have been negotiations between the Brotherhood and opposition leaders under the auspices of Al Azhar. Perhaps this will lead to a reduction in violence in the capital, but that is as yet far from clear.

These protests are not necessarily related in goal, unlike the 2011 movement that ejected Mubarak from power. While all three areas of concern (Cairo, Suez, Sinai) likely look to President Morsi as a problem, the problem in the Suez and Sinai goes much deeper. The issue here is the almost hyper-centralization of the Egyptian state. The protestors in Port Said or the Bedouin militants in the Sinai do not simply want to rerun elections and obtain a new head of state. They desire a reworking of the innards of the state – and where the largess of that state is distributed.

These areas wish to have more of a role in their own governance and more of a say at the national level instead of a regime-periphery relationship. Port Said and other canal cities view their ports as one of the primary sources of income for the Egyptian state – and they do not feel that they get anything out of the deal. The Bedouin in Sinai suffer a similar problem. While the Sinai coastline has been turned into a tourist haven, the Bedouin who live there have seen little development.  

Talks between Cairene political players at Al Azhar may hold solutions in Cairo, but they are unlikely to bring a lasting solution to the problem of the periphery. The Egyptian state must find a way to be more inclusive of areas and avoid thinking along the lines of regime versus periphery. The talks at Al Azhar will need to be expanded to fully address the developmental and organizational inequities that present in the current state structure. The era of Mubarak is over, and the only way a democratic Egypt can emerge is by integrating the whole of the populace. Unfortunately, Egypt so far has followed the traditional method of declaring a state of emergency and hoping the police take care of business. It is clear this strategy is no longer as effective as it once was.

Al Sissi may have been more right than he realized.

 

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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