Five Notes on Egypt's Crisis
Hani Shukrallah, the distinguished former editor of al-Ahram Weekly, laments the “decline and fall” of the Society of Muslim Brothers from a partner in a diverse Egyptian nation to a narrowly partisan faction willing to beat up opponents, “the very caricature of itself as painted for years by its bitterest enemies.”
Amidst street battles over Muhammad Mursi’s decree and Egypt’s draft constitution, the Brothers have indeed argued a familiar authoritarian line: The protesters have no valid claims; they are a small troublemaking minority; they wish to disregard electoral results and plunge the country into chaos. Some of the Brothers and their backers have been portraying the protesters as nothing but Mubarak-era “remnants” (fuloul), an empty charge if ever there was one.
Mursi, in his speech today, made gestures toward toning down the rhetoric, saying it was “natural” for there to be some opposition to his actions. But in repeatedly using words like “thugs” and “infiltrators” -- and emphasizing the deaths of six counter-demonstrators -- he evoked the dismissive attitudes of Egyptian leaders past toward dissent. He invited the opposition to lunch and indicated willingness to revise one article of the draft constitution, but otherwise made no concessions, stressing that soon the electorate would decide the constitutional matter anyway.
At the same time, it is entirely unsatisfactory to compare the Brothers to fascists, as Shukrallah does in his piece and as Amr Hamzawy was quoted doing in the New York Times. Mursi and the Brothers are overseeing an autocratic transition due to their structural position, not because they are inherently more autocratic than any other group. There is a desperate need to avoid painting the Brothers or the opposition with a broad brush; at the same time, analysts should be clear that the current conflict is asymmetrical. The Brothers are the stronger party and it is disingenuous to lay blame for the strife equally on all sides.
In that spirit, a few points:
1) As Shukrallah notes, it was the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that wrote the rules for the post-Mubarak transition and set the stage for the routinized violence that has accompanied its every phase. The SCAF picked the Brothers as the only organization capable of pushing through Mubarak-era protections of army prerogatives in a “democratic” Egypt. Meanwhile, the SCAF designed a weak presidency and, with judicial assistance, robbed the presidency of other elected institutions or a constitution that might support it. It worked to maintain basic continuity within the state apparatus, and excluded those demanding deeper change. With that backdrop, perhaps any sitting Egyptian president would now be seeking to centralize authority in his own hands, if for no other reason than to govern. This is a byproduct of the structure of the post-Mubarak transition. But now it’s the Brothers and not the SCAF who are taking the heat. It is disturbing, to say the least, that the military has escaped with so little scrutiny.
2) Ironically, in fact, Mursi’s speech today was reminiscent not so much of Mubarak’s swan songs in January-February 2011 as of the time-buying proclamations of the SCAF’s Field Marshal Husayn Tantawi over the next year. He’s throwing dissenters a few tiny bones to squabble over while preparing for a referendum that he is confident will render all the contention moot.
3) Mursi is alternately depicted as all-powerful and incredibly calculating or a stooge who is making it up as he goes along. He is neither. He stacked the Constituent Assembly, for sure. It would have been smarter and more generous to allow weaker parties a more substantive role in writing the constitution. But that’s never the way political transitions work. The powerful write the rules in their own interest. In Egypt’s case, the decision was made to “electionize” the transition. Those who don’t have a voice in the corridors of power have a right to object, but they also need to strategize about a way forward.
4) The Brothers are poised to use the new $4.8 billion IMF package to further consolidate their power. They will use “structural adjustment” to eliminate competitors, reduce the size of the state (which currently has 5.5 million employees), and place their own people at the levers of power. Economic reform will be the means of breaking the holdovers in the state apparatus or neutralizing them. It will be entirely partisan and undemocratic -- an exclusivist project of political engineering. Yet it would also seem likely to engender still more protest and conflict. So it is odd that, besides the US government, the only institution that seems less “concerned” about Mursi’s constitutional declaration is the IMF.
5) The protesters have many solid legal and ethical arguments on their side. But they don’t have the numbers to compel Mursi to back down. Mursi’s electoral mandate was slim -- 51 percent -- but it is likely that elections in the near future will produce more of the same. To call a president who got 13 million votes illegitimate and liken him to Mubarak (however much the Brothers’ tactics do indeed resemble Mubarak’s) is an argument that will not hold. (And the US doesn’t matter much, but Washington’s warming embrace of the Brothers will further isolate the protesters.) The game has changed, yet the protesters are working off the same script that they used to eject the dictator of 30 years. In Charles Tilly’s terms, they are using old repertoires of contention to fight institutions that are not transformed but whose guise is. This disconnect is fueling conflict.
It’s an entirely unfair process. It is deeply troubling to watch progressive Egyptians keep experiencing such violent disappointment. But no one ever promised justice: just elections and turnover.
And the urge to throw around analogies to Nazis is to be resisted as much as the self-serving discourses of power that the Brothers are unleashing on Egyptians.