Abdel Fatah al-Sissi in the Age of the Trickster

By Walter Armbrust, University of Oxford

*This memo was prepared for the workshop, “From Mobilization to Counter-Revolution: The Arab Spring in Comparative Perspective,” held on May 3-4, 2016.

In many ways the decisive months in the January 25th Revolution were from October 2011 to February 2012. It was a period of massacres and street battles: Maspero, Muhammad Mahmud (I and II), and the Ministerial Council. In the beginning the rank and file of most of the revolutionary political spectrum, furious at the callous violence employed by both the military under the command of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the security forces controlled by the Ministry of Interior, was chanting “down with military rule” at demonstrations. Many politically less-engaged members of a broad middle class looked on, unsure whether or not to side with the nominally interim military rulers or the revolution.

By the end of these four months the wider public, and to some degree those who could be described as politically mobilized, had experienced a sea change. The “sectarian card” had been played with a vengeance by the government and exploited by Islamists. Whatever SCAF may have wanted at the beginning of its interim rule, by the end of 2011 it was left with little choice but to hand over power to a civilian government. Consequently, if a long-suspected political bargain between SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood might possibly have remained unconsummated at the beginning of November 2011, by early February 2012 there was no question that it was a fait accompli.

The most interesting event that I observed during that period was a side-show to these momentous spasms of violence. It was an anti-revolution rally in ‘Abbasiyya Square near the Ministry of Defence, on 23 December 2011 to be precise, not long after the violent break-up of a sit-in at the Ministerial Council (Maglis al-Wuzara’) to protest the appointment of a Mubarak-era dinosaur, Kamal al-Ganzuri, as Prime Minister. This was implicit punishment for a massive days-long street battle the month before, on Muhammad Mahmud Street, after a government official announced a plan to get all the political forces to agree to “supra-constitutional principles” that would grant the military near-complete autonomy from civilian control. During the breakup of the Ministerial Council sit-in a shocking video was made and widely circulated of a woman beaten to the ground by soldiers in army uniforms. Revolutionary forces called for a large demonstration in Tahrir, dubbed “The Friday of Regaining Honour” (gum‘at radd al-i‘tbar) on the 23rd. That demonstration was well attended, by quite a few thousands.

The parallel ‘Abbasiyya counter-demonstration was called “The Friday of the Crossing” (gum‘at al-‘ubur) in honour of the crossing of the Bar Lev Line in the 1973 October War, a moment widely considered to have been the finest hour of the Egyptian armed forces. Only a few hundred people attended the event, most of them un-uniformed security or military forces. The atmosphere was menacing. Banners calling for the execution of pro-Revolution media figures hung from a nearby traffic flyover. Tough-looking men held signs condemning the revolution or praising the army, police and judiciary. Journalists from presumably unsympathetic organizations were reportedly roughed up. I edged out of the crowd and left when some of the attendees started asking if I was a journalist.

The Friday of the Crossing was promoted by and publicly attributed to a television talk show host, Taufiq ‘Ukasha, who was mercilessly mocked by the pro-revolution camp. On air ‘Ukasha spun wild conspiracy theories about plots against Egypt by immense collectives of enemies: Freemasons, the Revolutionary Socialists, Qatar, the United States, world Jewry, the April 6th movement, Hamas, the Kefaya movement, Google, the Muslim Brotherhood (but not their nominal allies at the time, the Salafis), NATO, Hizballah, Israel and Iran. He pitched his rhetoric in a blatantly populist register. ‘Ukasha was vulgar to the point of absurdity, and apparently ignorant; at one point he famously warned of a Masonic conspiracy that would unfold on “13/13/13”—the thirteenth day of the thirteenth month of 2013.

‘Ukasha was particularly adamant about the dangers posed to Egypt by the Muslim Brotherhood, and was slavishly devoted to the military at a time when “yasqut hukm al-‘askar “ (down with military rule) seemed to be on everyone’s lips. Many observers said he was flat-out an operative of military intelligence, at the time headed by Abdel Fatah al-Sissi . Later, when Muhammad Morsy was elected, ‘Ukasha played a prominent role in planting the notion that al-Sissi was a crypto-Muslim Brother. ‘Ukasha appeared on the air in what many assumed would be his last appearance before the government banned him, warning the public to beware of the Muslim Brotherhood’s “man in the armed forced,” none other than al-Sissi:

I will hold the Muslim Brotherhood in particular responsible for my security, and responsible for closing the Fara‘ayn Channel. That’s first. Second, I hold the Military Council responsible for my security, from Field Marshall Muhammad Husayn al-Tantawi down to the last member of the Military Council, who is General Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the Director of Military Intelligence, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s man in the armed forces.

At the end of 2011 thousands across the country were demonstrating against the military, as opposed to the few hundreds at ‘Ukasha’s rally. Yet clearly, in hindsight, the small demonstration in ‘Abbasiyya was a far better barometer of Egypt’s political trajectory from that point on than the much larger one in Tahrir Square. How, then, should we assess the significance of ‘Ukasha for Egyptian politics?

Undoubtedly ‘Ukasha was a mouthpiece for counter-revolution. But more than that, he was a harbinger of “al-Sissi-ism”—part of a pattern, not simply an operative of the counter-revolution detachable from the style of governance that would emerge a year and a half later. Moreover Abdel Fatah al-Sissi , the eventual President of Egypt who came after ‘Ukasha’s initial revealing flicker in 2011, has ruled in ways that articulate with larger political currents that go further afield than Egypt. The moment of instability that made ‘Ukasha audible to Egyptian publics was characteristic of political fluidity in a revolution, which we may characterize as a liminal crisis—a state of “anti-structure” from which there was no clear exit. But the substance of governance that followed, when al-Sissi took power, in effect echoed many of the themes ‘Ukasha had articulated as a quasi-outsider: extreme nationalism, paranoia, and an obsession with security buttressed by conspiracy theorizing and mirrored by utter devotion to Egypt’s security establishment. al-Sissi ended the revolution, but the new political normativity in which his regime governed was structured by forms of precarity that were distinct from the Revolution, but which echoed its liminality more enduringly, thereby rendering the “paranoid style” that ‘Ukasha pioneered so colourfully a long-term feature of the political sphere.

In what follows I want to first elaborate on the theme of revolution as liminal crisis, and secondly, to explore some of the implications arising from it. To start with, Taufiq ‘Ukasha, my point of entry to this line of thinking, can be understood as a Trickster. Such figures flourish in conditions of liminality. We can understand ‘Ukasha this way by recognizing that he achieved his political salience in the context of certain universal forms that have been described and analysed in the analytical heritage of several disciplines, most prominently anthropology. One of these forms is a narrative archetype: the Trickster. The other is a political inflection of what anthropologists have called “the ritual process.” Ritual is a means for trying to control the unpredictability of transitions from one social position to another. The classic case was “rites of passage,” as described in the classic work by van Gennep in the early 20th century, expanded and elaborated by Victor Turner in the 1970s, and adapted to political theory recently by anthropologist Bjørn Thomassen.[1] The ritual process involved a breaking away from social norms, entry into a liminal phase in which normative social conventions could be (or were expected to be) overturned, and initiands in the ritual were joined together in a state of solidarity that Turner termed “communitas”; think Tahrir Square during the mythical first 18 days of the Revolution. Finally, initiands in the ritual process would be re-incorporated into normative society in their new social positions.

Ritual exists to control the transitions we know will happen, whereas societies (and individuals) are often obliged to undergo transitions that are unexpected. When unexpected transitions happen the form of the ritual process (not the “content,” or more precisely, the social significance of the transition, which is inevitably contingent on many factors) can still tell us much about how individuals and societies adapt to them. One way to understand revolution is, in Thomassen’s formulation, as a “liminal crisis,” an entry into liminality in which there is no “master of ceremonies” to usher initiands back into a recognized social position. When the liminal phase of a social drama becomes protracted crisis ensues, and consequently “sides are taken and power resources calculated.”[2] This happens precisely in such circumstances as civil wars and revolutions, when “taking sides and calculating resources” obviously raises the question of who leads, both in the sense of familiar leaders operating on a shattered political terrain as well as new leaders emerging in the liminal void.

In a liminal crisis the Trickster becomes an especially dangerous type of leadership. A Tricksters is a being at home in liminality—the wanderer who appears in a village and captivates its inhabitants with alluring stories. The term designates both a character and a type of narrative found in various forms across all modern cultures and in antiquity. From Prometheus in Greek mythology to Wadjunkaga of the native-American Winebago people, Trickster is the fulcrum of cautionary tales about the dangers of uncontained liminality.[3] On the political stage the American politician Donald Trump plays the same role. The potentials of liminality, both creative and destructive, are at the heart of the Trickster, who is exquisitely ambivalent: potentially powerful, ridiculous, and dangerous.

In modern politics Tricksters acquire a following when the conventional signposts of social and political life are thrown into doubt. Normally Tricksters are objects of ridicule. But in liminality such outsiders can be seen as a solution to crisis. “Having no home, and therefore no real human and existential commitments, the trickster is not really interested in solving the liminal crisis: he simply pretends.”[4] One way to perpetuate liminal crisis is to foment strife, which ‘Ukasha did with gusto, as he worked assiduously to set the public against the Revolution, revolutionaries against the Muslim Brotherhood, and Egypt ostensibly against the world, which was, in his narrative, rife with grand coalitions of plotters aiming to destroy the country. But if ‘Ukasha may be entirely legible within the terms of Trickster politics, then what can we say about Abdel Fatah al-Sissi? At first glance it might seem odd to speculate that an iron-handed populist dictator can be understood as a Trickster politician. But I think he should be, in full acknowledgment of the many nuances that characterize Egyptian politics at this historical juncture to be sure, but also in the context of universal forms of liminality which can be a productive analytical framework for understanding contemporary politics globally.

It is important not to be misled by the form of a Trickster as literally a “demonic clown.”[5] Politicians such as Donald Trump or Boris Johnson fit the conventional Trickster form: “a figure of excess, especially of eating and drinking, and of sexual exploits, often depicted with an enormous phallus — the very grotesqueness of his figure denoting an inversion of order … a breaker of taboos, a joker and prankster, the best of companions, but also a thief, a liar and an impostor…”[6] al-Sissi is certainly not that Trickster. His internationally circulated image is of a dour ruler admired by realpolitik Western politicians, presiding over the harsh suppression of Islamist insurgency and revolution, commanding the country to get serious and get back to work—all no-nonsense, and don’t you dare laugh.

But the function of a political trickster, as opposed to the literal form, fits al-Sissi rather better: the pretend politician, a man with no existential commitments (one notes his half-way position between the head of a civilian government and head of a military that sees itself as distinct from and above the state that supports it), purveyor of false charisma, and above all, a suddenly prominent person who presents himself as “a solution to the crisis” when he is in fact just a skillful mime adept at telling people what they want to hear. The fulcrum of a Trickster tale is that people are duped into feeling empowered for a while, but all too soon the feeling “dissolves into nothingness.”[7]

It is important to appreciate that the decline of al-Sissi’s popularity has been remarkably swift considering the immense hopes that a substantial proportion of a revolution-weary public had invested in him. He has been spectacularly bad at forging political alliances. University students were opposed to him from the beginning, but much of the non-Islamist intelligentsia was at first desperate to justify what they claimed, somewhat delicately, was the necessity of a coup on grounds that Morsy posed a mortal threat to the nation. A modicum of freedom of expression and a light security touch on non-Islamist political figures would have kept many of them on side. Instead, al-Sissi’s undiscriminating scorched earth approach to potential political opponents has squandered support. Many intellectuals, opinion-makers, and artists still firmly dissociate their support for removing Morsy from their current political stance. But they have nonetheless largely become hostile to al-Sissi, if not necessarily vocal about it given the dangers of speaking out.

Business elites likewise are frustrated with al-Sissi’s rule. His economic policies thus far have been a mix of neoliberal initiatives (a “roll-back” policy fine by the business elites) and neglect of state initiatives to actually structure the economy to their advantage (an insufficient “roll-out” policy to rig the economy in their favor). al-Sissi operates through grand announcements of mega-projects, most of them re-treads from the late Mubarak era, such as a “million unit” low-income housing project, a “new capital city,” a Norman Foster-designed plan to re-make the Maspero Triangle—a lower-class area near the centre of Cairo—as a mixture of low income housing and elite business and tourism facilities, and a so-called “second Suez Canal” which was in reality an infrastructural enhancement needed, eventually but not urgently, to maintain the Canal’s place in the global shipping market. The Canal project in particular was instructive. A routine upgrading of the Canal was presented to the public as an epic national achievement that would, the regime claimed, more than double the Canal’s badly needed foreign currency income. It was inaugurated by a pageant, much parodied by those who felt they could do so safely, in which al-Sissi sailed through the new channel perched on the prow of a warship wearing Qaddafi-like sunglasses. The fact that Canal revenues subsequently declined, as most experts predicted, was quietly ignored by the regime.

Al-Sissi had told the public what it wanted to hear — and the public briefly saw what it wanted to see. “The sense of empowerment that tricksters manage to produce feels real enough for a while, but it evaporates as suddenly as the trickster entered the stage, and dissolves in nothingness.”[8] The Canal ceremony by all accounts did feel real to the public in July, 2015—it was by far the most successful political theatre the regime has mounted since al-Sissi’s accession to power. But by April of 2016 the exuberance of the previous year was gone, as spontaneous demonstrations erupted against al-Sissi’s gift (or “return” as the regime termed it) of the two Red Sea islands Tiran and Sanafir at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, to Saudi Arabia. An attempt to amplify the initial demonstration ten days later was brutally suppressed in a wave of arrests of potential organizers that successfully prevented further anti-regime expressions. Though the regime remains popular in some quarters, it is now clear to all that it stays in power only through violence. The proportion of the public that falls for political tricks like the Canal opening will never increase.

One might be tempted to attribute the regime’s actions to political inexperience or simple ineptitude. This may be true to a degree, but it is also consistent with the character of the Trickster as a mime—an outsider with no existential commitments pretending to be a politician. In this sense there is a distinction to be made between the liminal crisis that brought Taufiq ‘Ukasha to prominence in 2011, and de facto permanency of crisis that has been ongoing since al-Sissi took power in 2013, or really long before the Revolution insofar as the structuring of crisis is part of the way modern capitalism works. But how has crisis been made permanent in post-revolution Egypt?

First, al-Sissi has made no effort to create the sort of political machine that Mubarak’s National Democratic Party had wielded, at least through the first two decades of Mubarak’s rule—before the machine began to atrophy in the long transition from Hosni Mubarak to his son Gamal in favor of a more blatant rent-generation-through-megaprojects model. Many observers have commented that al-Sissi does not really seem to care about politics. Some have attributed this to his military background, assuming that he is accustomed to giving orders and having them followed unquestioningly. But the slow reconstituting of even a parliament that was designed to be largely subservient to the president without being linked to him politically (and not a parliament with a political agenda of its own and a machinery of hegemony to back it up) left a hollow feeling in the most politically expert parts of the public. The parliament deflects some of the rising political criticism that might otherwise stick to the president, but it does little else. It is completely unlike the NDP patronage machine that had run Egypt for the previous three decades and the regime seems not to be trying to turn it into anything more.

Al-Sissi’s apparent lack of concern for political institutionalization articulates with a concomitant reliance on media spectacle, which goes perfectly with megaprojects and hypernationalism. One compares al-Sissi’s use of media with the practices of both Taufiq ‘Ukasha and Donald Trump. Both in their own way are on the cutting edge of global politics in terms of their use of a media bullhorn defiantly disconnected from their respective political establishments. Politics by media spectacle has limits. Trump’s lack of conventional political organizing skills might lose him the presidency. ‘Ukasha, despite having been elected to the Egyptian parliament (later expelled for insubordination after having an unauthorized meeting with the Israeli ambassador), has probably had his day, and will be relegated to the carnivalesque margins of politics. But the rising prominence of media spectacle as a political tool in both cases is unmistakable. It remains to be seen how far such spectacle can carry al-Sissi.

Media spectacle flourishes in “permanentized” instability. In such a system “the state increasingly limits itself to discourses and practices of police and military safeguarding, which in turn increasingly operate with disciplinary control and surveillance techniques.”[9] Such an image is instantly recognizable in Egypt, as in many other societies. The Muslim Brotherhood provides a pretext for an endless security crisis, which the state nurtures, as opposed to seriously addressing the root grievances that keep the organization politically viable. Everything from floods in Alexandria[10] to the ostensibly righteous (in the view of the most vehemently pro-regime press) killing of Italian/Cambridge doctoral student Giulio Regini can be blamed on the Brotherhood.[11] After Great Britain’s Brexit vote, one joke circulated by Egyptians on social media was to ask how long it would take the government to blame the disaster on the Ikhwan. In the actual world over 40,000 political prisoners were held in Egyptian prisons as of May 2014; after that the data become vague, but it is unlikely that the number of prisoners has shrunk. [12] Moreover, extrajudicial disappearances of citizens at the hands of security forces have become an alarming phenomenon,[13] and the means for defending the rights of prisoners has been systematically degraded.[14]

Aside from discipline and surveillance, instability produces some of the effects of the liminal crisis mentioned above. But a liminal crisis conceived in the terms of the ritual process writ large is a moment of political fluidity characteristic of all revolutionary events, perfect for the emergence of a Trickster, but also genuinely open to contingency and hence also potentially grounds for the emergence of other political formations. Permanentized instability is a synthetic form of liminality that governments struggle to keep within manageable limits. The degree to which it is deliberately structured is debatable, but it is worth noting that instability is not at all out of place in a neoliberal order. “Crisis capitalism” is one way of expressing that kind of instability. Milton Friedman, one of the primary ideological architects of neoliberalism, famously stated that crisis breaks “the tyranny of the status quo —in private and especially governmental arrangements”,[15] and that the function of those committed to “freedom” as he understood it, was “to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”[16]

In a more philosophical vein Isabel Lorey writes on “government of the precarious” in which “precarious living and working conditions are currently being normalized at a structural level and have thus become a fundamental governmental instrument.”[17] A neoliberal system that reneges on general welfare (which is not so much a means for eliminating precarity as for harnessing it in governance) and instead prioritizes its resources more narrowly on safeguarding the security of an elite was a root cause of Egypt’s revolution, and is increasingly a feature of all neoliberalized societies, certainly including Egypt even more intensely after the Revolution than before it. The point of a “government of the precarious” is to balance “a maximum of precarization, which probably cannot be exactly calculated, with a minimum of safeguarding to ensure that the minimum is secured at this threshold.”[18]

In other words, certain constituent parts of society are kept below the threshold of revolution, and above the threshold of absolute poverty and thus potentially prone to buying into a system that requires belief in the capacity for individual self-improvement. The space between these thresholds—a space of synthetic liminality—may be precisely the social position at which a Trickster politician is maximally audible: Taufiq ‘Ukasha spinning his bizarre conspiracy theories; Abdel Fatah al-Sissi pitching ever grander (and less economically viable but more rent-generating) megaprojects, and foreclosing criticism by invoking the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists-over-the-horizon as a never-ending threat; British voters captivated by Boris Johnson’s unfulfillable Brexit promises; Donald Trump whipping crowds into a frenzy with promises to “make America great again” by building walls to keep Mexicans out and forbidding Muslims from coming in. Maintaining the thresholds of this structured precarity is, ironically, a quintessentially precarious task, which is to say, the perfect job for a Trickster, someone who is “at one and the same time creator and destroyer, giver and negator, he who dupes others and who is always duped himself.”[19]

Trickster tales often end in disaster. Can we imagine a hypothetical Trump presidency coming to disaster? (This is a rhetorical question.) More to the point for present purposes, Western governments that interpret al-Sissi as an unfortunate but necessary bulwark against the chaos of undisciplined freedom are grievously misunderstanding the structured precarity at the heart of the regime’s capacity to govern. Perhaps such precarity is so close to their own governing strategies that they can no longer tell they’ve been Tricked.

Walter Armbrust is an associate professor of modern Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oxford.

[1] Van Gennep, Arnold. 2004 [1909]. The Rites of Passage. Tr. Monika Vizedom and Gabrielle Caffee. London: Routledge. Thomassen, Bjørn. 2012. “Notes Toward an Anthropology of Political Revolutions.” Comparative Studies in Society and History. 54 (3): 679-706; Turner, Victor. 1977. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Cornell: Cornell University Press.

[2] Turner, Victor W. 1988. The Anthropology of Performance. New York: PAJ Publications, p. 91.

[3] The figure of the Trickster is well known in the study of literature, folklore, mythology and anthropology. For a classic study of the phenomenon anchored in folklore, anthropology, and psychology, see Radin, Paul. 1956. The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology; with a commentary by Karl Kerényi and Carl G. Jung. New York: Philosophical Library.

[4] Thomassen 2014, 104.

[5] Forlenza, Rosario and Bjørn Thomassen. 2016. “Decoding Donald Trump: The Triumph of Trickster Politics.” Public Seminar (28 April): http://www.publicseminar.org/2016/04/decoding-donald-trump-the-triumph-of-trickster-politics/#.V4uVB5MrLys accessed on 17 July, 2016.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Forlenza and Thomassen, 2016.

[9] Lorey, Isabell. 2015. State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious. London: Verso, p. 64.

[10] http://www.echoroukonline.com/ara/articles/260592.html

[11] http://www.tahyamisr.net/2016/04/blog-post_685.html The fanciful allegation that Regini was working on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood to destabilize Egypt implicitly justifies his murder, though the article does not openly admit that it was a branch of the security forces that killed him.

[12] https://wikithawra.wordpress.com/2014/01/09/al-Sissi-mansour-detainees/ On conditions within the expanding network of post-Revolution prisons, see http://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n04/tom-stevenson/al-Sissis-way).

[13] The Independent reported that 1,840 such disappearances have occurred over the past year (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/egyptian-government-disappears-1840-people-in-just-12-months-ruling-by-fear-a6923671.html). The Egyptian independent news site Mada Masr reports that in February 2016 alone twenty young people, some in their teens, had been disappeared in Alexandria (http://www.madamasr.com/news/least-20-alexandrian-young-people-forcibly-disappeared-last-week).

[14] Friedman, Milton. 2002. Capitalism and Freedom; Fortieth Anniversary Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. xiii-xiv

[15] Hanieh, Adam. 2013. Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 48-52; Klein, Naomi. 2008. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. London: Penguin.

[16] Lorey 2015, 63the most violentthan a mass slaughter)as theg skillst had run Egypt forgently, toic that falls for political tricks will never i

[17] Ibid, 65.

[18] Radin 1956, ix.