Egypt: Between a Rock and a Hard Place
I have had the opportunity to be in Cairo three times for brief visits in the last 20 months, the first a few weeks after the departure of Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011, the second in February of 2012 when the revolutionary process was treading water, and this third one over the course of the previous ten days. What is striking is how drastically the prevailing mood and expectations have changed from visit to visit, how fears, hopes, and perceptions have altered over time, and why they are likely to continue to do so.
I. The Overthrow of Mubarak
On the first visit, shortly after the extraordinary exploits in Tahrir Square that started on January 18, 2011, there was a spirit of stunned amazement that made it seem as though the ‘Arab Spring’ was a genuine historical phenomenon of epic proportions and that Egypt had become the core site of a new post-Marxist radical politics that relied on militant nonviolence and a radical ethos of transformation, but avoided ideology and hard power tactics. Gandhi and Gene Sharp were most often invoked as the inspirational influences, not Lenin, Mao, Castro. It was being widely celebrated as a remarkable expression of democratic populism, especially the empowerment of youth, women, with social networking via the Internet being accorded a special prominence during the popular mobilization process. The sentiment could be summarized in different ways: ‘the impossible happened,’ ‘I never expected to experience this rising up of the people of Egypt,’ ‘We have our country back,’ ‘I have never been so proud to be an Egyptian.’ It was an upheaval with transformative potential, magnified and catalyzed by the immediately prior Tunisian rising, which exhibited what seemed to be an innovative form of largely nonviolent radical politics that almost miraculously wrote the script on the set of its unfolding while occupying Tahrir Square along with other less media exposed arenas of protest and opposition. (And not so incidentally, inspired the occupy movements that spread around the world in the following months, with Occupy Wall Street being the appropriate epicenter.) It was treated as an amazing instance of ‘spontaneous empowerment’ at the time, although more knowledgeable observers and participants tended to stress a cumulative process with distinct roots in reactions to prior abuses by the Mubarak police apparatus and in important labor protest strikes.
Of course, even during this period of afterglow, there were deep concerns in Egypt just below this surface of enthusiasm. There were a wide variety of cautionary reactions relating to the lasting significance of what had taken place, and skeptical viewpoints as to whether the deeper challenges of Egyptian poverty and class inequalities could be effectively addressed without a more ambitious political process that challenged and dismantled the institutional infrastructure of the old regime. On the one side were a variety of sentiments that expressed doubts about whether it was enough to be rid of Mubarak, and gave a range of opinions about what was not done and still needed to be done if Egypt would be able to find a path to sustainable and equitable social, economic, and political progress. This outlook was reinforced by the understanding that if forward momentum of this sort was not achieved post-Mubarak, the likely sequel would be regression. There was also widespread skepticism as to whether Egypt could both solve the problems of democratic transition and at the same time address the inequities and failures of the inherited neoliberal economy. Such a challenge could only be met through constituting a new economic order that was far more responsive to the needs of the Egyptian people and less hospitable to capitalist style investment, a process that would certainly undermine investor confidence, at least in the short-run.
Egyptian friends expressed other concerns to me, as well, including worries about what the United States, and Israel, might be doing or plotting behind the scenes to embolden the armed forces to move in counter-revolutionary directions and reverse an emancipatory process that might threaten the regional status quo. There was an anxiety that these outside forces that had exerted such a strong influence in the former configurations of state power in Egypt would not give up their former leverage without trying to restore the substance, if not the form, of the old reliable order. It did seem at the time that democratizing forces were almost certain to become hostile in the future to the geopolitical arrangements favored for the region by Washington and Tel Aviv, and that the political self-determination of Egypt was threatened by the likely machinations of these external forces. At this stage, there was broad agreement that American support was one of the props of the discarded Mubarak leadership, and that Egyptian democracy depended on curbing Washington’s future influence.
There was also debate in early 2011 about three elements of the domestic political scene: (1) whether the armed forces would facilitate or obstruct the establishment of a constitutional democracy in the country; (2) how to allow the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in political life while retaining the belief that it would be disastrous if it end up dominating the democratizing process; and (3) intense speculation about who would carry the presidential torch across the finish line.
With respect to the MB there was uncertainty and controversy as to the orientation of its leadership, some suggestions of inter-generational conflict between the traditionally conservative older generation and a more modernity oriented and moderate younger generation. There was also disagreement as to whether its Islamic orientation was rather insignificant because its real goals were to promote private business interests and to gain access to the commanding heights of governmental authority. There were estimates at the time of MB strength as being somewhere between 25-30%, almost no mention of the Salafis as a political force to be reckoned with, and a liberal secular consensus that it was fine for the MB to take part in the political process, assuming that MB strength did not turn out to exceed those estimates. Some anti-Mubarak secularists did say that if it turned out that the true strength of the MB was 40% or more then Egypt would be in deep trouble of a not clearly specified nature. In effect, the secular consensus implicitly believed a year and a half ago that a political process dominated by the MB, even if it came about by democratic procedures, was unacceptable. But such a prospect was widely dismissed as so unlikely as not to be worth discussing. Implicitly, there were some prophetic fears even before the MB grassroots nationwide strength was disclosed in a series of electoral moments, that majoritarian democracy was not a legitimate outcome for Egypt. In a way, the MB seemed, at first, to acquiesce in this understanding, signaling their agreement by pledging not to compete for the presidency, presumably to avoid threatening the kind of ecumenical unity that was so powerfully displayed at Tahrir Square a few weeks earlier.
The balance of opinion that I encountered in late February 2011 seemed to feel that an active role for the armed forces was a necessary feature for any successful transition to constitutional democracy. The alternative was assumed to be a descent into societal chaos, followed by economic collapse. On the role of the armed forces in the upheaval, there were differing assessments, some thinking that the military leadership had itself been eager to avoid a Mubarak dynasty, abhorring the prospect of power shifting to his younger son, and thus initially allowed, even welcomed the popular rising, so as to let the movement get rid the country of the Mubarak factor rather than to stage a coup on its own. Yet, the armed forces were certainly not willing to loosen their grip on the reins of power and privilege that included a major stake in the private sector economy, and thus favored a rapid return to societal normalcy. The surviving military leadership remained tied to an authoritarian style of politics, which was in effect, meant business as usual from the perspective of Tahrir activists. Others in Egyptian civilian society were more hopeful about the intentions of the armed forces believing that the upper echelons of the military, while not revolutionary, shared the reformist goals of the uprising, favored constitutional reforms, and sought to withdraw as quickly as possible from the political arena, limiting its role to facilitating order during a transition to a law-based political democracy.
There were opposite worries, as well, in the afterglow of the Tahrir Square victories. Above all, a sense among those who understood politics in a conventional Western liberal manner that this movement that was so exciting during the days of struggle that culminated on January 25th lacked leadership, cohesion, program, and vision. As such, it would not be able to the challenges of the next phases–managing the practical procedures of governance or competing effectively in electoral arenas for a major role in policymaking circles. This innovative political revolutionary process had the short-term effect of allowing the battle for the future of the country to be waged by two essentially anti-democratic forces with hierarchical structures of organization that were at odds with kind of disorganized unity exhibited during the days of struggle in Tahrir Square: the MB and assorted remnants of the old order, an unholy alliance between the Mubarak beneficiaries, the old bureaucracy that had not been deconstructed, big business interests, economic sectors such as tourism and small shopkeepers, and Copts deeply worried about moves toward Islamism. This eventuality culminated in the presidential runoff between Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafik.
Many of those that had flooded the streets a year earlier never cohered sufficiently to envision ‘next steps,’ and seemed either to retreat from political arenas altogether or leave the field to those who were more traditionally organized to compete for power. On a more radical side were those who were outside the mainstream of the earlier uprising, but remained engaged on the basis of believing that the movement that took shape in Tahrir Square could only reach its necessary transformative goals if it persisted in a populist mode that kept the poor masses in Egyptian society fully mobilized. Among such activists there existed a shared conviction that the revolutionary process needed to be deepened in a spirit of urgency or else the system would quickly slip back to its old ways. This radical element while affirming the originality of the Tahrir style and outcomes rejected all efforts to achieve revolutionary goals by means of party politics and elections, including traditional leftist approaches. At the same time, without being willing to endorse a blueprint for transformation, radicals identified their preferred movement with the realization of a just and independent future for the country, especially for those Egyptians so long disempowered and barely subsisting. This Egyptian radicalism remained committed to the Tahrir politics based on maintaining popular unity across the typical divisions of class, religion, and ethnicity, without advocating its own program or promoting particular leader, affirming the continuing need for confrontational tactics, and comfortable with the idea that chaos might ensue and persist for some years. Chaos was accepted as the price that must be paid if the movement that overthrew Mubarak was to grow into a genuine ‘revolution,’ and not degenerate into either a ‘counter-revolution’ or a species of ‘liberal reform’ that left the majority of Egyptians in as miserable a shape as during the Mubarak era. In the end this radical vision was based on beliefs in local empowerment and emancipation, the creativity of people, a robust labor movement, and a bottom up view of political reconstruction, rejecting both MB and liberal secular views of top down political order. This radicalism drew its inspiration from a sense that a new kind of transformative politics had been revealed in Tahrir Square, but that it was a flowering that would wilt if not nurtured by an uncompromising insistence that the wellbeing and dignity of the Egyptian masses was the core challenge, and could not be achieved by elections, parties, and government.
As for the impending electoral process, there was an emphasis on speculation about the presidency. Who? When? Among Cairo liberals who had been uncomfortable with the Mubarak past, but had long coexisted with it, there was a widespread sense that Amr Moussa would prevail. Moussa was not fully trusted even among secular liberals to advance the democratic values that were affirmed by all who had gathered in Tahrir Square and other city public spaces throughout the country. Although long prominent in the Mubarak regime, Moussa had jumped ship early enough to have mainstream credibility, and was thought to be on good terms with the military, moderate in relation to the MB, and widely known inside and outside of Egypt having serverd both as Foreign Minister and Secretary General of the Arab League. There was also some enthusiasm for the candidacy of Mohamed ElBoradai, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. More than Moussa, ElBoradei had clean hands, having been outspoken in his rejection of the Mubarak past and appearing along side the Egyptian activists in the square. At the same time, his prospects were discounted because he lacked a national political base, was not an effective speaker or experienced as a politician, and was perceived as an outsider who had lived too long in foreign countries. The more radical voices were dismissive of this preoccupation with who would emerge as the leading candidate or how political parties would fare, believing that their kind of politics would need to discover how to govern without a government of central institutions, an inchoate vision of the need for a ‘new politics’ and a distinct lack of confidence, even interest, in the vagaries of ‘old politics’ (parties, elections, bureaucratic institutions, governmental leadership), in effect, what was being sought was a ‘human security regime’ that had never been established anywhere, ever. At the time, such dedication was at once moving and troublesome, an embrace of what Derrida called ‘democracy to come’ with a kind of trust that the modalities of enactment would be discovered in the process of struggle.
II. Treading Water
A year later in early 2012 these divisions persisted but hardened, and anxieties seemed far more intense, and the aura of excitement that followed the victory of the January 25thMovement had definitely receded. There was, first of all, a new sense of impatience, especially among those who needed economic normalcy if their livelihoods were to be sustained. I met tourist guides at the pyramids and storekeepers in Cairo who expressed disappointment about the results of the upheaval of a year ago, acknowledging that while they had originally been glad to see the end of the Mubarak regime, they had fared personally better back then, and seemed ready to support whatever leadership that could restore stability.
On a different level of perception, the far greater than expected strength of the MB in the intervening parliamentary elections, as well as the abandonment of the early MB pledge not to field a presidential candidate and the surprisingly strong showing of the Salafis, changed the electoral landscape considerably. It was evident that the folks in Cairo were out of touch with the grassroots sentiments of a conservative society imbued with an Islamic identity. This assessment was discounted by liberal critics who explained MB dominance as misleading, representing an underestimation of its organizational strength. The Salafi emergence was similarly discounted by secularists as being mainly a product of Qatari and Saudi Arabian massive infusion of funds, but also as a consequence of the fact that in the past Salafi groups had shunned conventional party politics. All in all there were widespread and growing worries about the Islamization of Egyptian political life, with threats to civic freedoms, constitutional democracy, and the labor movement.
The biggest development was the definite undertaking of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to undertake the task of establishing order in Egypt, and assuring a measure of continuity with the past. Although the SCAF leadership insisted that it was only managing the transition, its autocratic style, the recurrence of state violence and torture, and its reluctance to hold Mubarak operative accountable for past crimes intensified suspicions that SCAF ambition was to control the political future of the country. The SCAF also seemed to constrain democratic choice by disqualifying on highly technical grounds several presidential candidates.
The process had gone so far that ElBoradai withdrew as a candidate, and Moussa no longer seemed a favorite to win. Among the negative scenarios that were being discussed during this period in various forms was the idea that the MB and the armed forces had struck a deal that doomed the future of the country to an unacceptable political future.
III. Late November, Early December 2012
Of course, lots had happened. The presidential race had run its course in two rounds. The runoff was between Mohammed Morsi of the MB and Ahmed Shafik a former air force commanding general and outspoken advocate of a ‘law and order’ presidency, the two leading Egyptian institutions with least in common with the spirit of Tahrir Square. The SCAF seemed to hesitate before finally declaring Morsi the winner in a closely contested final vote, and even then appeared determined to constrain presidential power, but Morsi struck back, retiring the top generals, and effectively asserting presidential authority. Morsi also moved to entrust the drafting of the constitution to a commission of the Parliament dominated by Islamists, and now subject to a national referendum scheduled for December 15th. Then came Morsi’s November 22nd bombshell that claimed presidential authority to issue decrees that could not be judicially reviewed, but in response to the protests, has been substantially rescinded, although sweeping powers have been asserted by Morsi to control future demonstrations and protect the polling process relating to the referendum on the draft constitution. As matters now stand, the opposition is not pacified, and repudiates the process by which the draft constitution was prepared and the substance of several provisions that give the text an Islamic slant, as well as the failure to affirm the equality of women, labor rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights treaties.
The anti-Morsi forces have returned en masse to Tahrir Square with an agenda that seems to demand a reversal of these recent developments, which would plunge the country into a deep crisis or an insistence on following through with the adoption of a constitution that was seen as flawed in its endorsement of Sharia law as the basis of state/society relations and by its deference to the anti-democratic demands of the armed forces (including a non-reviewable defense budget, the right to try civilians in military courts, protection of vested interests in the economy).
So far there have been almost daily clashes, some deadly, in Tahrir Square and throughout the city of Cairo, and in other cities around the country. There are several lines of response to these developments: the dominant one applauds the return to the streets to renew the struggle for democracy and economic equity based on its claim that the MB has an undisclosed plan to impose an authoritarian form of Sharia on Egypt with backroom alliance with the armed forces and neoliberal business and finance interests; the opposition claims to be fighting for an inclusive and pluralistic form of democratic political order, which recognizes as stakeholders in constitution-making, the several distinct communities that together make up Egyptian society, including seculars, Copts, and liberals. Another more radical assessment is that the fundamental issue involves the utter bankruptcy of conventional state-centered politics coupled with the complaint that ‘nothing has changed, absolutely nothing.’ What seems to be happening, expressed in the fighting and the mass protests, is a new subjectivity associated with local empowerment in specific communities and among societal sectors, especially women and labor. It is striking that pictures of the confrontation give prominence to women as a major presence among opposition forces, while those that seem to be all male are taken from visual representations of the ranks of MB militants.
IV. A Few Tentative Conclusions
In the end, there are several issues, which have come to the surface in this unfolding Egyptian drama:
–a deep division as to the nature of political legitimacy in the Egyptian context, with Islamists resting their claims on the will of the majority, what in
the American 18th century context was derided as ‘the tyranny of the majority’, while the opposition insists on stakeholder democracy that is protective of distinct constituencies that are fearful of each other and of a Sharia Egypt; in this light, both sides seem uncompromising, and resting their encounter on contradictory views of democratic legitimacy;
–a new fear that the rise of the MB is leading to the hijacking of the Egyptian Revolution by the forces of Islam in a manner that took place in Iran in 1979; in effect, that it is unacceptable to have Egypt governed by the MB no matter what the outcome of a series of elections. This unacceptability is accentuated by accusations that the MB has made deals with the armed forces and neoliberalism, the two most resented features of the Mubarak past. In this regard, no compromise is possible so long as Morsi remains president, and the unrest will continue. This rejectionist position has been expressed by the announced boycott of the December 15th referendum, which has been interpreted as a recognition that it would in any event prevail. In this respect, the opposition is staking its future on resistance rather than democratic procedures, although a less extreme reading would stress the refusal of Morsi to delay the referendum as demanded. The opposition believes that Egyptians have lost their fear of state power, learned to say ‘no,’ and that while repression may turn to harsh measures, it will not be able to achieve legitimacy or even stability;
–a few brave souls in Egypt are sharply critical of and disturbed by this polarization, insisting that common ground exists among the contending forces, and must be found to avoid national disaster. The claim is that Morsi is far more sensitive to the pluralist claims than the opposition contends, although he has made serious ‘mistakes’ by pushing the panic button that have alarmed opposition elements. In practical terms, the draft constitution is not as flawed as claimed, and that the Morsi leadership has indicated a willingness to be receptive to accommodating amendment in the likely event that the referendum is approved. Similarly, that the opposition has over-reacted, rejected the democratic mandate of the electoral process, and risks pushing the country into a civil war.