The Spy Who Told Me: Egypt's Revolution Is Far From Over - OZY | A Modern Media Company
SourcePan Chaoyue/Corbis


Because the Arab Spring didn’t just happen in 140 characters. On it goes.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

Egypt’s unexpectedly long election, ending today, is almost certain to confirm Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi as the new president. Although el-Sissi is revered by a wide section of the public since mounting a coup against the unpopular Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi a year ago, he will have to deal with a challenge no modern Egyptian leader has faced before: a public that knows it can depose leaders who do not satisfy expectations.

The bottom line: el-Sissi has a limited amount of time in which to show his stuff.

Who wins the election is only one small component of assessing the future.

The 59-year-old had only one opponent in the election — leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi — who placed third in the 2012 contest that brought Morsi to power. This time, Sabahi ran a populist campaign full of unrealistic promises that many Egyptians saw through. Although some Egyptians see el-Sissi as the “savior of Egypt,” his popularity has slipped since its high point after the coup. But he retains the backing of Egypt’s powerful military and business interests, and his allies exercise tight control over the media — both of which give him a decisive edge.

But predicting election outcomes is only interesting if it can tell us something about what comes next in a given country. As an intelligence officer, I learned over the years that who wins the election is only one small component of assessing the future, especially in situations as revolutionary as modern Egypt. The more interesting question has to do with the underlying forces that the winner must contend with — the forces that will buoy or constrain the victor, regardless of what he or she has promised to do or wants to do. Here are some of those forces.

That old economy, stupid

The Egyptian economy is perilously close to collapse. It turned in the wake of the 2011 revolution, which brought violence and a chaotic period of failed Islamic rule before last year’s coup. Tourism, which along with Suez Canal tolls, is the major component of Egypt’s income, just had its worst recorded year, with revenues down by nearly half the pre-2011 level. Egypt’s overall debt now exceeds the country’s economic output. Inflation hovers between 11 percent and 12 percent. Unemployment is pushing past 13 percent, and upwards of 70 percent of the unemployed are in the 15-to-29 age range, the very demographic that drove the revolution.

This poses a tough dilemma for a new president. To get Egypt out of this mess requires painful economic reform that will postpone the improved living standards that many Egyptians hoped to get from their revolution. Public patience has proved thin so far in Egypt, so the new leader will need either very skillful and enlightened leadership or sharply repressive policies to avoid yet another wave of demonstrations and calls for new government.

Public malcontent

The likelihood of further protest is strengthened by a second underlying trend — the sour public mood.

The impression that emerges from Pew research and more is of a deeply divided society with declining confidence in the country’s institutions. Dissatisfaction with the country’s direction mingles with a slipping confidence in democracy.

This is a public with a very short fuse.

Meanwhile, not even el-Sissi has a popular mandate: the Pew research sees him landing a mixed review, with only 54 percent favorable ratings while 45 percent see him unfavorably. And even though former president Morsi is viewed favorably by only 45 percent, the country’s division is underlined by the fact that 4 in 10 Egyptians still have positive feelings about this divisive Islamic figure who was ousted and thrown in jail a year ago. 

Most ominously of all, the rating of the country’s only really stable institution — the military — has fallen precipitously from 88 percent approval following the ouster of former President Mubarak in 2011 to 56 percent today, with 44 percent saying it has a negative impact on the country.

This is a public with a very short fuse — especially if the next government proves close to as feckless as the last.


And then comes the sharp rise in terrorism since the 2011 uprising. Most of this is concentrated in Egypt’s eastern peninsula, the Sinai, where a group inspired by al-Qaida has taken root. Although its leader was killed several days ago, this group and other terrorists have murdered more than 700 security officials and civilians since 2011; 500 of those were killed after the 2013 coup. 

Egyptians wave a giant poster of Egypt's Defense Minister, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Tahrir Square, in Cairo, Egypt. Egypt’s likely next president, retired military chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, says ties with the West and the United States will improv

The Still-Brewing Revolution in Egypt

Source Amr Nabil/Corbis

Parallel to combating this group runs a government campaign against the former governing party, the Muslim Brotherhood, which authorities claim is the real driver behind the terrorist upsurge. El-Sissi has made it clear that he will not reconcile with the Brotherhood. A court just sentenced more than 160 Brotherhood supporters to lengthy prison terms — a ruling that comes on top of death sentences meted out to close to 700 government opponents last month.

The terrorism problem is riddled with dilemmas for a new president. Unless el-Sissi gets it under control, Egypt cannot expect to see the return of tourists and foreign investment at significant levels. But if he does not build a bridge to the Islamists he blames, he risks alienating the 43 percent of Egyptians who continue to oppose last year’s ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood leader. And a society that divided will not swallow easily the austerity measures and shared pain the government must advocate to restore Egyptian prosperity over the longer term.

Although el-Sissi will cultivate an image of strength and control as he arrives in power, the Egypt he aspires to lead is dramatically different than the one over which Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak exercised iron control for six decades. Frustrated as its populace may be with the chaos that came in the wake of the Arab uprising that Egypt led, there is still a yearning for a better life and a more responsive government than prior leaders were able to deliver. 

The explosive power embodied in that yearning is likely to build quickly if el-Sissi is unable to deliver. Which means Egypt’s revolution may be far from over.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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