Threading the Needle in Egypt

The large crowds of demonstrators haven’t disappeared from Cairo’s streets, but the nature of the demonstrations has changed considerably. Instead of millions clamoring for new elections, if not the outright removal of former President Morsi, the big crowds, described by the BBC as numbering “tens of thousands,” are protesting Morsi’s July 3rd (military-led) ouster. Smaller crowds are still gathering in Tahrir Square, but these rallies are characterized as either counter-protests, by the BBC, or as rallies in support of a quick transition away from the current military-appointed government and back to a real democratic system, according to Juan Cole. Days of competing rallies and at-times violent clashes between pro-Morsi protesters and government security forces reached critical mass last Saturday, July 27, when dozens of protesters, perhaps over 100 of them, were killed by government forces around Cairo’s Raba’ah al-‘Adawiyah mosque, which has become the central hub for pro-Morsi demonstrators, as Tahrir Square has been for the anti-Morsi crowds (see also). The government continues to pledge that it will disperse the pro-Morsi demonstrators, accusing them of terrorism (though “terrorism” here seems to amount to “blocking roads and bridges,” which seems more like “protesting” than “terrorism”), but the demonstrators are so far defying any orders to break things up.

The back-and-forth bickering between the current Egyptian government and the Muslim Brotherhood, the religious fundamentalist organization that spawned the Freedom and Justice Party that won a parliamentary plurality and the presidency (via Morsi) in the elections that followed the toppling of the Mubarak regime, is maybe the worst kind of geopolitical argument: the kind where you can sort of see both sides’ points. The military defends its role in ending Morsi’s government and returning Egypt to military, or at least military-approved, government by noting that Morsi had lost public support and governed in a way that de-legitimized democratic institutions, leaving the people no choice but to take their opposition to the streets and the military no choice but to step in and end the crisis by removing Morsi from power. This is not wrong; the protests were massive and it was clear that public support for the new government had collapsed, probably because Morsi and the Brotherhood seemed to care more about holding on to power than about doing anything to help fix Egypt’s ailing economy. Morsi, meanwhile, was increasingly governing undemocratically, assuming powers for himself that superseded the law (Nixon would have approved); though he promised that these powers were only temporary until a new constitution could be approved, the process for drafting and approving the constitution was dangerously majoritarian, and this led to fears that the Brotherhood were using democratic institutions to install themselves as Egypt’s permanent rulers. For their part, the Brotherhood counters the military’s version of events by noting plainly that, in a democracy, the military must subordinate itself to the elected civilian authority and has no business determining that this or that protest movement is representative of the people and thus justifies overthrowing said authority. This is also not wrong, for reasons that should be self-evident, and the government does not enhance its cause when it slaughters protesters in what appear to be unprovoked or disproportionate shows of force.

After the jump: the major complications moving forward.

Egypt itself is in the middle of a systemic failure, which could result in anything from total anarchy to a full reinstatement of military-backed autocracy but seems very unlikely to result in a functioning, stable democracy. A couple of weeks ago I attended a panel discussion in DC called “The Way Forward in Egypt?” and sponsored by the National Council on US-Arab Relations. There were four panelists, and what was interesting is that none of them individually painted as bleak a picture as all four taken together. Karim Haggag, an Egyptian diplomat who served in the Office of the Presidency on US-Egyptian relations under Mubarak, argued that the Muslim Brotherhood had governed in a way that alienated Egyptian society and made the coup necessary, though not preferred or desired. He was very clear that Egypt had to move quickly to transition back to democracy, and that one of the challenges of that transition had to be reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood and its reincorporation into the political system. Dr. Marina Ottaway, of the Woodrow Wilson Center, looked at the political situation and was unreserved in her assessment that Egypt’s secular parties are simply unequipped to win elections. The Brotherhood has deep connections to local Egyptian communities and a strong organization, made stronger over decades of operating underground after the Egyptian government outlawed the group in the 1950s. The secular parties are, by contrast, a mess. They have few offices or personnel, no community-level organization, and most are effectively cults of personality that surround this or that prominent figure, lacking ideological consistency and unity with other secularist parties.

The upshot is that, if Egypt returns to democracy tomorrow, or in the short time-frame that Professor Haggag talked about, the only group capable of running a cohesive campaign remains the Muslim Brotherhood. Let’s say the Brotherhood wins again; what’s to stop the whole cycle from repeating itself? The panel’s answer seemed to be that an improved constitution that enshrines minority rights and democratic institutions needs to be put in place before Egypt transitions back to democracy, and the price for the Brotherhood being allowed to participate in the political system must be its acceptance of the institutional framework established by that constitution. But this is flawed on a couple of levels. For one thing, the Egyptian constitution, or any constitution, is a piece of paper, and history is littered with examples of constitutions that were accepted by this or that political entity and then tossed aside as soon as they became an obstacle to attaining or hanging on to power. For another, how can Egypt put together a credible constitution, one that can get serious public support, when the government leading the process of forming the constitution is unelected, appointed by the same military that backed Mubarak? The panel didn’t really have a great answer for that, apart from insisting that public input and consensus were crucial; how to incorporate public input and consensus isn’t clear.

But maybe how Egypt transitions back to democracy isn’t as important as whether it plans to transition back. The government has made the right noises, promising a quick transition, but interim President Adly Mansour’s transition plan is impossibly muddled; it calls for the appointment of a panel of 10 legal experts to draft amendments to the constitution, but only gives them a month to do it, and calls for a review committee of 50 representatives of various social and governmental institutions to look at the amended document but says nothing about what that committee will actually be allowed to do. There’s no explanation as to how either panel will be picked or how, in such a compressed time-frame, the consensus and public input I mentioned above can possibly be part of the process. In the meantime, Mansour’s transition document not only explicitly states that his authority has been granted to him by the military (so, yeah, it was a coup), it also allows the military wide latitude outside of civilian control. Egypt, for all the talk of civilian governance and quick transitions, is, right now, under military rule again.

The worrisome thing is that Egypt may very well stay there, under military rule, and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi may very well be making moves to ensure it. There are disturbing signs that el-Sisi is attempting to build a cult of personality around himself: efforts are made to connect him directly to Egypt’s still-revered former dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser, he gives troubling speeches to the Egyptian people asking them to demonstrate on his behalf to “give him a mandate” to take on the Brotherhood, state media is effusive in its praise for his person and his performance. The Guardian sums it up:

The general’s ambitions for himself represent a further problem. He has begun to adopt a special tone of intimacy, that of the leader in deep discussion with his people, which suggest he sees himself in the line of descent from Nasser. He told Morsi that “his project was not working” six months ago, he said in his speech. Where, precisely, in this soldier’s job description is it written that he can tell an elected president what to do? Advise, yes; suggest, maybe; but “tell”?

For his part, el-Sisi claims he does not “aspire for authority,” so he says he isn’t planning to run for president if/when elections are restored (although if the presidency doesn’t have real authority, does this matter?), but then he also says stuff like, “[w]hen the people love you, this is the most important thing for me,” which sounds maybe a little bit like a thing that a would-be dictator would say?

What makes this particularly worrisome is that evidence has arisen that demonstrates that Morsi and el-Sisi were deeply opposed to each other on multiple fronts, long before the public demonstrations that supposedly forced a reluctant military to step in and force Morsi from power. There is obviously lingering institutional hostility between the Egyptian military and the Brotherhood that goes back to Nasser, when the Brotherhood supported Nasser’s 1952 coup that overthrew the Egyptian monarchy but quickly soured on Nasser’s secular agenda and attempted to assassinate him only two years later. But el-Sisi seems to have disapproved of Morsi on a personal level; he perceived Morsi as incompetent (which, admittedly, he kind of was), disagreed with Morsi’s moves toward stronger ties with Hamas and with the Syrian rebels, and was particularly angered by Morsi’s order that the Egyptian military stop cracking down on extremist groups in the Sinai. It is entirely possible that el-Sisi was simply waiting for the right opportunity to get rid of Morsi, that the popular tamarrud movement just gave him the cover to do what he wanted to do anyway. For their part, a disturbing number of Egyptian “liberals” are suddenly full-throated supporters of military rule, and seemingly not in a transitional sense.

Playing into all of this, political scientist Nathan Brown has identified what he calls Egypt’s “wide state,” a play on the Turkish “deep state” that is thought to exist within and above the publicly acknowledged state apparatus; for Brown, Egypt doesn’t so much have an organized state within a state, running the country in secret, as it has a number of state organs (the military, the police, the judiciary, even the diplomats) that are operating in opposition to one another, each run by an entrenched caste of bureaucrats whose memberships had crystallized into mini-fiefdoms over the years under Sadat and Mubarak. The Egyptian constitution itself has threatened the built-up autonomy of these organs, and the Brotherhood’s efforts to exert control over them left them all working toward ousting Morsi. It will not be easy to break the authoritarianism of these institutions to incorporate them into a democratic system.

On the other hand, in The Atlantic, John Beck contends that there are signs that popular support for the military coup is fading:

Other, more secular groups who welcomed Morsi’s ouster also saw Sisi’s announcement as a move designed to provoke violence and create an excuse to impose curfews and increase the military’s hold on power. “We are stuck in the middle between military and fundamental authoritarianism,” says Bassam Maher, an activist and NGO worker.

He added, that while many “revolutionary” activists are becoming increasingly suspicious of Sisi’s motives, they have been reluctant to stand against the military directly because they do not wish to be thought of as aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamist groups, which they also oppose. Many activists describe themselves as paralyzed and conflicted about opposing the army’s recent moves.

A few, however, are willing to take a stand. On Friday, while most of the city divided itself into pro-Morsi and pro-military groups, a small number of protesters opposed to both camps attempted to establish a “third square” in central Cairo. The demonstration was tiny in comparison to the mass rallies held elsewhere, but it did signal the appearance of a new force in the protests.”Once the military starts building its powers, they will not just be used against the Muslim Brotherhood, but against all social movements,” said Mohamed Hazem, a leftist protester. “We believe that once people will realize the military is against the revolution and things the revolution is asking for, like social justice and freedom and democracy, people will oppose them.”

Certainly the violence has alienated many who had supported the coup. But the question is, who’s left for these people to support? The performance of the Brotherhood, and Morsi in particular, while in office has absolutely cost them the support of large numbers of Egyptians, and the call by prominent Brotherhood-aligned television “preacher” Yusuf al-Qaradawi for Muslims around the world to stand against Morsi’s overthrow has been met with considerable anger by Egyptians in general (Qaradawi asked Muslims to go to Egypt to serve as shuhada’, which could mean “witnesses,” i.e., to the military’s abuses, or “martyrs,” i.e., taking up arms against the Egyptian government, so you can see why many interpreted his comments as a call for violence). But now we’re back to the problem I described above, which is that no third party, apart from the military and the Brotherhood, has emerged  that looks like it could effectively participate in the democratic system, let alone effectively govern the country.

There is probably a very narrow path that Egypt’s current appointed government can follow to implement a popularly-accepted constitution and restore democratic governance, but it will require more than just healing the rifts that have opened between the Muslim Brotherhood and the rest of Egyptian society. It will require rolling back decades of military control and bureaucratic autonomy to bring the entire state firmly under democratic, civilian governance, and it will require the emergence of a real alternative party that can campaign as effectively as the Brotherhood and govern as competently as the military. It doesn’t seem that even the seeds of such a party exist right now.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.