Mohammed Morsi was a deeply divisive figure who seemed to want to institutionalise the Muslim Brotherhood as Egypt’s answer to South Africa’s ANC party i.e., being more or less permanently in power.  At least he was an elected figure who could have been removed at the next general election if enough of the electorate were mobilised behind a single opposition candidate.  Now the army are back in control and conducting the same sham elections as they had been doing under Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak – Mubarak only fell because the military establishment opposed his succession planning and withdrew its support. So the man that is now president is former general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a person with similar opinions on democracy as Belarus’ dictator Alexander Lukashenko – Jeffersonian, el-Sisi is not.

The latest crackdown has placed all civilian infrastructure such as parks, university campuses, roads and bridges, under army jurisdiction. The presidential decree lists all these as ‘equivalent to military facilities’ and anyone accused of committing a crime in these areas will disappear into the military tribunal system. It is a further triumph of the military as democracy in Egypt dies by 1,000 cuts as the West continues to turn a blind eye.

It is not unlike the Emperor Diocletian ‘rationalising’ the administration of the Roman Empire (of which Egypt was a part), dispensing with the last vestiges of civilian rule left over from the Republic and Augustus Caesar’s arrangement with the Senate.  The ruler was no longer principes (first citizen) but dominus (lord).  Not that Diocletian was unpopular for openly implementing autocracy – he gets a bad reputation largely through his ferocious persecution of Christians (even if this was urged on him by his fanatical subordinate, Galerius).

El-Sisi has also been known in the last few years to whip up popular resentment against the Coptic Christian minority in Egypt. El-Sisi’s popularity in the middle-classes isn’t dented though – as the Guardian put it, ‘many Egyptians welcome’ el-Sisi’s response to 24th October’s attacks in the Sinai peninsular, ‘with his strongman rule seen as the only bulwark against the chaos wrought elsewhere in the Middle East by extremists such as Isis’. After the chaos since the Arab Spring (some of it fomented from the barracks), Egyptians want peace and view the unravelling of Syria with ever greater horror. On Sunday 26th October, 17 editors from both state and private newspapers issued a joint statement backing the government’s fight against terrorism and reiterating ‘our rejection of attempts to doubt state institutions or insult the army or police or judiciary in a way that would reflect negatively on these institutions’ performance’. It’s a party line but one that the middle-classes can swallow.

Diocletian did the same in his day, giving over twenty years of internal peace and prosperity after a sequence of ten emperors in 17 years and the temporary breakaway of huge sections of the Roman polity in east (Palmyra) and west (the Gallic Empire). He governed with a co-emperor – with the title of Augustus – and two vice emperors known as Caesars (the Tetrarchy). However, in 305 Diocletian stepped down, promoting his junior colleague (Galerius) in his place and twisting the arm of his co-Augustus to do the same. This experiment in a ‘constitutional military’ settlement ended in a series of civil wars with Constantine I (‘the Great’) unifying the whole edifice under his sole command. Yet as the factions marched against each other, squandering lives and resources, they promised to keep themselves in check if Diocletian would come out of retirement to return as dominus. Diocletian’s response was: ‘If you could show the cabbage that I planted with my own hands to your emperor, he definitely wouldn’t dare suggest that I replace the peace and happiness of this place with the storms of a never-satisfied greed’.

With every Egyptian president since the abolition of the monarchy in 1953 either dying in office (Nasser, Sadat) or overthrown (Mubarak, Morsi), it is inconceivable that the reactionary el-Sisi will ever come close to paraphrasing that ancient statement, which emphatically rejected power politics.

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