Egypt for dummies

I have been trying to write an article about my beloved Egypt since I started the blog, but so far I have not been able to. Even though it is supposed to be the country I know the most about, I still feel I don’t know enough, moreover if I take into account the expertise all my Egyptian and foreign friends living in Egypt possess. That is why I thought I could write an introductory post explaining what is nowadays happening there, a post for beginners like me. The Egyptian Revolution was a time of hope and enthusiasm amongst millions of inhabitants of the most populated, and often the most representative, country of the Arab world. But scores of people are once and again protesting on the streets, chanting anew slogans against what they consider an authoritarian regime, this time in the form of an Islamist-dominated Government headed by a controversial and opaque figure, President Mohammed Morsi. The Muslim Brotherhood, underground and harshly repressed for 84 years, seems to be willing to take over not only the political system, but the whole country (Morsi’s latest rounds of appointments stand as a clear sign of that), chiefly as a result of a decades-long thirst for power. Many liberals’ worst fears hinged on the idea that the Brotherhood’s support for democratic transition was only a means towards authoritarianism, and that’s why the stand-off with them has become a fight for democracy itself.. The famous slogan “down with the regime” might be still in fashion, and according to many, more necessary tan ever.

First of all, let’s start from the end. What is happening on 30 June and why do many people seem so excited and/or freaked out about it? Well, that will require to explain what the “Tamarrud/Tamarod/Tamrod Movement” is. Tamarrud means rebellion in Arabic, and the Movement was initiated approximately two months ago by several members amongst the not-that-united Egyptian opposition, in this case from the Kefaya Movement, who set up a campaign with the aim of collecting as many signatures as possible asking for a no.confidence vote against President Morsi under the text: “I, the undersigned, of my full volition as a member of the National Assembly of the Egyptian people, hereby announce that I withdraw confidence from the President of the Republic, Dr. Mohammed Morsi Isa al-Ayyat, and I call for the holding of early presidential elections. I hold fast to the goals of the revolution, and working toward attaining them and spreading a campaign of insurrection among the ranks of the public so that together, we can bring about a society of dignity, justice and freedom“. At first, the campaign was very simple and its main target were ordinary citizens, but it started gaining momentum thanks to the support lent by personalities, political parties and other notable institutions within the Egyptian society.

Islamists have repeatedly dismissed this and other similar movements, or any criticism for that matter, clobbering them by citing their inability to win in the polls, reason why they resort to mobilization in the streets. That is precisely why the campaign was hoping to collect at least 15 million signatures, a number that would exceed by two million the number of votes garnered by Morsi in the runoff round of the last Presidential election. They claim to have impressively gathered more than 16 million signatures so far. It was first cold-shouldered by the Muslim Brotherhood authorities as a mere attempt to disrupt normal politics. The Brothers tried to downplay its significance but, at the same time, the government started repressing its opponents rather than engaging them (Ahmed Maher, founder of the April 6 opposition movement was arrested alongside other activists), thus giving a hint of their real feelings. The more people signed the petition, the more aggressive and authoritarian an stance its officials have been adopting, particularly resorting to attacks through the social media, a domain they’ve been pretty savvy in as of lately. June 30th was indeed the specified deadline for the campaign, by which time a full year will have passed since Morsi ascended to power as the first elected civilian President, with so much promise but so little delivery. To that effect, the campaign will be crowned on the same day with a massive demonstration in front of the Presidential Palace.

It cannot be denied that the campaign and its success are a clear sign of what a majority of the Egyptian people is actually going through these days. The signatories are mainly the people who don’t take to the streets but are unhappy with the MB, a sizable not negligible majority. These even include the so-called “Couch Party”, a large segment of society that feared change and argued for stability from the couch, but are now showing their willingness to leave their couches and join marches against Morsi. Apparently, post-Mubarak political developments have not convinced them that Islamist rule will bring stability, which was initially their main concern at election time. Many things in Egypt are not really in good shape and the prospects are not that optimistic (I wrote a post on the problems Egypt is facing here). Many people expected the situation to improve after the revolution. Most simple Egyptians hardly understand the relationship between good governance and quality of life. Many people are disappointed, and the Tamarrud campaign has been feeding off this disenchantment. The text heading its campaign pretty much upholds it: “Because the streets remain insecure, we don’t want you. Because the poor still have no place, we don’t want you. … Because the economy is collapsed and based on begging [for foreign aid] we don’t want you“. So, is everybody who has signed the petition against Morsi’s Government, or just fed up with the ordeal the country has been going through for months, and even years? Are they aware of how does the system work, ie, of the fact that Morsi can only be removed through the ballot box after he finishes his legal term?

The Tamarrud campaign’s main point is that, even though he was democratically elected, “Morsi was not given a blank cheque”, as its spokesman Mahmoud Badr usually says. And that point was made quite clear after the 22 November overreaching controversial Presidential Decree. The country, already deeply polarized after both the Parliamentary and the Presidential Elections, was left on the verge of breaking up, and the moot approval of an even mooter Constitution did nothing to calm things down. The next parliamentary elections, which in principle had to be held back in April, have not yet been scheduled, and are unlikely to occur before September, despite the Brotherhood’s being in campaign mode since the beginning of the year. That leaves taking the street as the only viable option for those who want to show their dissent.  Moreover, when elections finally do take place, and even if the National Salvation Front abandons its current boycott commitment, the Brothers are so far likely to win again, mainly thanks to a nationwide network they have been patiently building for years across big cities, slums and God-forsaken little villages. Nonetheless, byzantine debates about the legality of these different steps in the transition process have and will not calm(ed) down, and may be the main reason why Egyptians still rather take to the streets than turn out to vote.

According to Warren Buffet, “it takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it”. The popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood has consequently been alarmingly plummeting since. Add to that the division within the Islamist faction itself, as represented by statements by the Salafist Nour Party, conservative/religious extremists that accuse Mr Morsi of having betrayed God and not being a true representative of Islam, his leader Yasser Borhami having said “if millions like the ones in the revolution take to the streets, I will ask Morsi to resign”. Howbeit, that doesn’t mean its huge base of grassroots support has eroded, as the Tagarod, last Friday 21 July pro-Morsi protests, markedly made clear. That is one of the lessons the Brothers have learned: as the main leverage of the revolutionaries calling for the ouster of the ancient regime was mass mobilization, what better way to counterbalance and delegitimize them than mobilizing huge numbers of supporters within a pro-Islamist bloc? Inasmuch as the Brothers progressively became comfortable with power, the millioniyya  (one million person) in Tahrir Square progressively became ineffective for eliciting change. The Brotherhood has been incredibly wise in putting into place a strategy to demonize the opposition, or, in any event, to make them look pathetic. To a certain extent and in that respect, Egypt has sometimes seemed to be back to the times of Mubarak, when a “handful of activists” filled a square surrounded by either security forces, either people defending the legitimate mandate of a democratically elected President and his Government and ready to bully the former off the street. What the Brothers themselves like to call “street politics” somewhat became hopeless and boring, to draw in larger numbers. Until now, in all likelihood, that is.

Nobody doubts the movement has breathed new momentum into Egypt’s stalled politics, thus somewhat reviving the spirit of the revolt that overthrew Mubarak more than two years ago. Back them, one of the most important gains of the Revolution was the feeling of empowerment, many Egyptians now free to express their views, to publicly denounce the authorities’ wrongdoings, felt they had been granted. Will June 30 really represent a new revolution, the inauguration of a third Republic? It is the first time the non-confidence card is used in Egypt (it has to be noted that neither the Constitution nor any law that mentions the possibility of initiating a political change by merely collecting signatures), although renowned authors like Nervana have drawn a parallel between the campaign and the 1919 revolution, when the people delegated its authority on Saad Zaghloul and his confederates to form a delegation that would represent them and speak in their name during the confrontation with the British occupation. This is not the only precedent: back in 2010, the National Association for Change (paradoxically backed then by the MB) collected more than a million signed petitions to pressure then-President Hosni Mubarak for political reform and fair elections. What are then the possible outcomes of June 30th?

We first have the “Groundhog day option”, nothing happens in spite of all the hype and protesters quietly simmer down. Some might think that if you sit around and do nothing long enough, the opposition will fizzle. The same thing happened after 25 January 2013. Rather than fearing June 30, several Brothers see it as an opportunity to develop a final blow to their weak and divided opponents. Even though resentment will still prevail, calm will take hold and the Brothers will keep implementing their plans and thus predictably deepening their authoritarian stance. Elections will be held, the Parliament will again be dominated by them, the opposition will continue to make noise without posing a real threat, a true democratic Egypt will seem to regain stability… Or rather not, as it will much probably lead to stalemate. Many Egyptians will still feel their country is being hijacked by a truly organized force, one that will resort to any means to win and to impose its ideological project on the whole population. Just like today. Back to square one. Political breakthrough is not to be discarded as an outcome, as well. In spite of the calls for a revolution, a public desire for some resolution, any resolution, at whatever cost, in increasing by the day. More over if the alternatives are widespread violence or a return to military rule. This crave for a viable solution may eventually lead the majority of Egypt’s factions to work together to rebuild state authority. This however does not really conform with the Islamists’ view, illustrated by widely used expression “Egypt has an overdose of democracy” whereby Egyptians have gone wild and must be restrained, a view that could justify a crackdown and massive arrests on June 30, that is, a serious crackdown of the demonstrations. This, depending on the protesters and other political forces (including international actors)’s reaction, will in turn and mostly for sure mean a dire escalation of violence from both parts, an even deeper polarization of the society, and the resumption of an arm-wrestling nearly anybody would be interested in, as it could inevitably really push Egypt on the verge of becoming a failed state. For many reasons, the concept of state collapse is not strange to the Middle East. Just look at Lebanon in the past or Syria nowadays. But, is Egypt too big to fail? What if Egypt is too big to save?

Will Morsi find himself forced to step down under public pressure? Despite the campaign’s call for the holding of early Presidential elections and despite the undeniable poor performance of the Government (unprecedentedly halfheartedly admitted by Morsi himself), it is key to remind again that this time is different. On the one hand because he was democratically freely transparently fairly elected, event though the defeat of a representative of the old regime had much to with it, and on the other hand because this is not a case of a united full-spectrum front against a dictatorship but a case of half of the country against the other. Besides, does anybody actually believe that the Brothers will let go power that easy? Just in case, they have as of lately resorted to the term “civil war” as a scare tactic, a civil war that actually looks to be an impossibility, precisely because the people that will take the streets are masses that are far from self-identifying as an organised group. Or will the Military feel forced to intervene? Strange as it seems, more and more voices have publicly called for the military to return to power, especially after certain Brotherhood’s moves such as resorting to worrying levels of violence and assaulting both media freedom and civil society. Minister of Defense General Abdel Fattah El-Sessi has hinted it time and again: the army has to live up to its commitment to side with the people and protect the integrity of the state. Many officers have indicated that they have no issue with political reform and change so long as “social cohesion” is not threatened, what would the turning point be for them? Taking into account their moot performance prior to Morsi’s elections, the Army would clearly need undisputed popular legitimacy to step in as they did before, pretty aware of which are the challenges and risks: its undemocratic nature making it incapable of building up the broad consensus needed for reform; the current nonexistence of a person/political able to establish control any better than Morsi they could hand power to;  the possibility of their reputation being seriously tarnished if they prove incapable of securing Egypt’s streets…

What is clear now is that Egypt will lose even more time absorbed in a whirlwind of infighting, the country  taken hostage by both an intoxication of power and a certain degree of paranoia by the Brotherhood and the lack of an effective strategy on the opposition side. To make matters worse, the ideological divide seems to be deepening, with on the one hand a Government acting as if it was a continuation of the Mubarak regime,  and on the other hand youths that have never experienced democracy before and believe they have the right to overthrow anything not to their liking. This huge generation gap is not likely to be bridged in the near future. Elites, including many of the crony corrupt capitalists allied with the old regime, accused of being the financial backbone of the opposition, vie for power, and do not really fight for a true democracy, or even change in the actual sense of the word. Let’s not forget about an international community, whose contribution appears to be ineffective if not, sometimes counter-productive. The Brotherhood may seem a failure, but their failure is not of their only making, as it also stems from the lack of cooperation of many institutions whose support is vital and essential to the functioning of a state, such as the police and the judiciary. The only thing that can really save democracy in Egypt is democracy itself: the Brotherhood has to reform and lead the way to a more inclusive democracy, while the opposition should propose coherent political alternatives and make believe they are able to take power through elections. There’s no need to revive the revolution but to invent a sustainable political process. This is not a revolution but a continuation of an unfinished revolution. Machiavelli once said: “there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in establishing a new order of things”.

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