How do you maintain the image of a friendly, fatherly military stewarding the country toward democracy, one in which the generalissimo looks increasingly likely to run for president himself, while simultaneously continuing to tighten power on the streets and crack down on political opposition? How do you thread that needle?
It turns out to be really difficult, maybe too difficult. That contradiction, and ongoing inability of the military-dominated government to fully overcome it, was captured perfectly in an anecdote reported by Egypt-based journalist Max Rodenbeck. A long-time correspondent for the Economist who also wrote a wonderful book on the history of Cairo, Rodenbeck wrote recently on the government’s simultaneous efforts to cultivate popular support (backed by funding from Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia) and to crack down on dissent. Those two missions collided, and spectacularly:
Significant sums of that generous Gulf aid have gone towards addressing this perceived image problem. Among several Washington public relations firms recently hired, one sent a film crew to Egypt to shoot some pretty footage of order and progress. Within hours of setting foot on the streets of Cairo, they were arrested.
There’s a certain dark comedy to the government cracking down on the very people it had hired to promote its image. But there’s a tragic element as well. In a way, isn’t every arrest of a journalist or intimidation of an opposition activist similarly self-defeating, if not as glaringly so? That was supposed to be one of the principal lessons of the February 2011 revolution that started all this. It was supposed to be a lesson of Morsi’s power-grabs and the fall from power it helped to enable. But it’s a cycle Egypt seems to keep returning to.
Of all the powers that have attempted to rule Egypt since Hosni Mubarak’s fall, and including Mubarak himself, none has succeeded in fully convincing the country of its benevolence, but neither has it been able to impose its will. But they’ve all tried to do both, and poorly.