Whither Egypt's Democracy?

by Ahmad Shokr | published July 12, 2013 - 6:24pm

On July 3 I walked down the Nasr City autostrade toward the Raba‘a al-‘Adawiyya mosque, where the Muslim Brothers of Egypt were holding a sit-in. Two and a half hours would pass before the defense minister, Gen. ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, addressed the nation to announce the end of Muhammad Mursi’s one-year presidency. But the army’s seizure of power had begun. Armored personnel carriers rolled onto the street, one after another, to block access to the protest. A cordon of tense soldiers in riot gear poised for confrontation.

Mursi supporters, men and women, arrived by the score, in an atmosphere of shock mixed with indignation. Some were crying. Others shouted at the soldiers. A small group of them surrounded an army vehicle and banged on the chassis with their fists. Still others pulled their friends away, fearful of provoking the troops. Chants of “Down with military rule!” -- a slogan of revolutionaries during the period of direct administration by Egypt’s generals in 2011-2012 -- echoed in the streets. Suddenly, a soldier fired in the air to disperse the crowd. The shooting continued for minutes. Most people ran, but diehards stood their ground. Moments later, the army decided to let protesters join the assembly, searching and videotaping them one by one, but the mood remained charged.

My memory took me back ten months to a casual lunch at the home of a Muslim Brother in an affluent Cairo neighborhood. When I arrived, a senior member of the organization was holding court, surrounded by a dozen or so followers. He boasted that Mursi’s victory in the 2012 presidential election was no mundane event; it had to be understood in otherworldly terms. Every step of the campaign had involved risky decisions that could have gone awry. That they did not showed the outcome was divinely ordained. Nowhere did the leading Brother mention the popular revolution that had toppled a dictator in February 2011 or its political possibilities. His account looked inward. The Brothers’ ascent to power was the fulfillment of destiny, the culmination of an 80-year struggle against oppression in which the protagonists had finally triumphed.

Now, in the midsummer of 2013, it was all about to be lost -- an abrupt ending to a short-lived Cinderella story.

The week after Mursi’s ejection witnessed a mind-numbing battle over nomenclature. Was what happened a coup d’état or a broad-based rebellion? The two are not mutually exclusive. What happened was that the generals (in cooperation with others) grabbed the state from an elected president, but their action was precipitated by millions who revolted against the Muslim Brothers’ government, on a scale unprecedented in the history of Egypt.

Behind the terms “coup” and “revolution” are conflicting claims about where legitimacy lies -- in the ballot box, in the streets, in state institutions? Commentators like Noah Feldman are ill at ease with the idea that elections can be trumped by other forms of collective expression. Orderly process, they insist, is fundamental to constitutional democracy. To think otherwise would unsettle a core liberal assumption that politics are a consensual affair where social contracts are forged in discrete moments of ceremony -- elections, referendums, the ratifying of constitutions -- rather than a realm of perpetual conflict. To many Egyptians, however, democracy has proven not to fit in any predetermined template.

Perhaps the more important questions in Egypt today concern the past and the future, rather than the present. How did Egyptian politics reach this breaking point? Has the process that began in 2011 been irreparably sabotaged?

Mursi and his organization, the Society of Muslim Brothers, are undoubtedly to blame for Egypt’s crisis. It became clear early in the Islamists’ rule that they were more interested in consolidating their grip than in building a democratic order. The Brothers preserved all those institutions of Mubarak’s regime that did not overtly threaten their authority, including, notoriously, the security apparatus. According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the police tortured and killed at nearly the same rate under Mursi as under Mubarak. The Brothers’ style of governing was unilateral and exclusionary. Crude majoritarian logic said that victory at the ballot box gave the Society license to rule Egypt however it pleased. The most egregious example was in November 2012 when Mursi claimed absolute powers for himself in a constitutional declaration. The Brother-led constituent assembly then rammed through a draft constitution -- tailored to appease the military and ultraconservative salafis -- that caused consternation among liberals, leftists, Christians, women and others outside the Islamist bloc. The document was approved in a referendum that saw the lowest turnout of any post-Mubarak vote. Over two thirds of the electorate decided not to participate.

Policy was treated as the exclusive domain of Brother-affiliated officials and the few allies they managed to cultivate within the bureaucracy. The government failed to engage with activists, non-governmental organizations or other stakeholders. After June 14, 2012, Egypt had no parliament and no elections on the horizon. Mursi appointed a public prosecutor whose sole function appeared to be pursuing vocal opponents of the president. The Brothers incited their followers to violence, notably during December 2012 clashes with protesters against the constitutional declaration in front of the presidential palace. They relied on divisive religious rhetoric, at times reaching the level of sectarian incitement, when it suited them. The weeks before Mursi’s ouster saw a surge of anti-Shi‘i hate speech that the Brothers allowed and sometimes indulged in to rally hardline Islamists, their only remaining friends, behind the president. They failed to address ordinary Egyptians’ economic grievances -- rising prices, regular petrol shortages and power outages -- and any plans for reform were little more than recycled ideas from the final decade of Mubarak’s rule.

Theirs was not simply a government with disagreeable policies. The Muslim Brothers, and the Guidance Bureau at their helm, became viewed as a secretive, untrustworthy clique that placed the organizational interest above any other. As a result, they earned the contempt of most segments of Egyptian society outside their traditional constituency. Claims that the rebellion-turned-coup has subverted the democratic process overstate the extent to which such a process existed to begin with. The Brothers viewed their opponents as saboteurs to whom no quarter could be given. As one Egyptian analyst, ‘Amr ‘Abd al-Rahman, told me: “Since December 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood has turned politics into a zero-sum game. In the end, a zero-sum game is what they got, but they could not win.”

Mursi became hugely unpopular within state institutions as well. As early as December, reports described him as feeling “isolated in the political arena and even within his own government” and hence falling back on his traditional Islamist base. To many in the bureaucracy, Mursi and the Muslim Brothers were unwanted guests, a menace to institutional fiefdoms. Their closeness to hardline Islamists concerned the security and intelligence agencies that are self-appointed guardians of Egypt’s “national security.” Some generals reportedly saw Mursi’s presence at a June 15 Islamist conference, where clerics denounced Shi‘a and encouraged Egyptians to fight alongside the rebels in Syria, as the last straw. It was no secret that many Interior Ministry personnel were among the crowds on June 30. At one point, a protester next to me joked, “The state is revolting against itself.” He was partly right.

Had Mursi remained president after June 30, his presence would have continued to poison the atmosphere. But where does Egypt go now?

To characterize the unfolding struggle as a battle between illiberal democrats and undemocratic liberals is to oversimplify matters. A vast number of those who participated in the June 30 protests do not fit neatly into either camp. The predominant sentiments were not partisan; rather, millions were spurning what they considered a pariah regime that did not represent Egypt. For some time, there has been a growing loss of faith in elite politics and a deepening conviction that the entire political class is bankrupt. This dynamic was quite discernible on June 30. There were few displays of loyalty to politicians from the anti-Mursi opposition. Hardly any party slogans could be seen or heard among the masses. Instead of articulating a clear alternative, many demonstrators took impetuous recourse to the army as a guarantor of stability and an institution that would restore a sense of national pride. Some even yearned for icons from the distant past. A minority protested the rule of the generals and the Guidance Bureau in the same breath, and reiterated the revolution’s call for bread, freedom and social justice.

The political forces endorsing the new transition are a motley crew. Few of them have anything more than a frail base of support among the population. Those who led the June 30 protests -- a shaky agglomeration of old regime sympathizers (fuloul), revolutionaries, liberal elites and disillusioned Mursi voters -- will soon go their separate ways. There are already signs of fracture within the coalition. Disagreements have emerged over cabinet appointments, with the salafi Nour party -- the only Islamist group that consented to the army’s road map -- emerging with something like veto power. The army-appointed interim president, ‘Adli Mansour, issued a constitutional declaration on July 8 that was roundly criticized by factions that were not privy to the contents beforehand. The mainstay of the new regime is the army, backed by reactionary Arab states that are relieved to see Mursi gone and the Brothers weakened. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates rushed to promise financial packages worth an estimated $12 billion. Meanwhile, the United States hesitates to label the events a “coup” and plans to move ahead with the delivery of F-16 fighter jets to Egypt as part of its annual aid package.

The largest and best-organized players will be crucial to how the drama unfolds in the coming months. The country is now gripped by a showdown between two of its most undemocratic institutions -- the army and the Muslim Brothers. The latter’s response to Mursi’s removal has been outright defiance. Their leaders have vowed to fight the generals’ maneuver to the bitter end. “We will not leave the streets until President Mursi is reinstated,” the Brothers’ supreme guide, Muhammad Badi‘, declared to a crowd on July 5 in Nasr City. At stake in this standoff is more than the fate of aggrieved Islamists. The exclusion of the Brothers casts a long shadow over Egyptian politics. Without their participation in the renewed transition, Egypt will inevitably slide toward more heavy-handed repression -- and many players could eventually pay a hefty price. Already, Mursi and most of his presidential advisers are held incommunicado by the army without charge. Senior Brothers and other prominent Islamists are detained. Pro-Mursi television stations are off the air. The ground is being prepared for criminal charges against the heads of the organization should they remain non-compliant. The Brothers’ stubbornness may close whatever window of opportunity there is for reintegration. The army’s killing of more than 50 Mursi supporters on July 8 may have irreversibly hardened the group’s stance.

Egypt is still ruled by the armature of the old regime. Two and a half years of elite factionalism -- the inability to forge a stable alliance -- have set off a game of musical chairs. In this period, the momentum has rotated among Islamists, liberals, state bureaucrats, businessmen, military and security officials, and Mubarak-era dregs. They share a fetish for capturing the state but also the lack of a novel vision for dealing with Egypt’s deep structural problems. Attempts by any combination of these figures to restore full-fledged authoritarianism are likely be tempered by some level of public disobedience. At the same time, there is no revolutionary coalition strong enough to begin overturning the undemocratic and inegalitarian legacies of previous regimes. A balance of weakness has set in whereby no side in Egyptian politics is able to claim outright victory.

More distressing, perhaps, is a societal mood that is becoming more inclined toward intolerance and scapegoating. Egypt’s unsavory climate of chauvinism, intransigence, opportunism and deceit from almost every side has been made worse by Mursi’s ouster and its bloody aftermath. Media outlets are constantly in search of fifth columnists to demonize, whether as “terrorists” or as “infidels.” The Brothers are portrayed as traitors with a penchant for violence who must be forcibly subdued. For their part, the Brothers paint the revolt against their rule as a little more than a conspiracy hatched by the old regime. They insist their resistance to the army is peaceful, but the string of violent acts by Mursi supporters -- the killing of protesters in Cairo and Alexandria, the intimidation and mob attacks directed at Christians in Minya and Marsa Matrouh -- tells a different story. There were even accusations that the interim president is secretly a Jew.

The upsurge of aggressive patriotism on the other side is worrying, too. In Cairo, images of Gamal Abdel Nasser are becoming common, as are intemperate professions of affinity with the army. Foreigners are viewed with suspicion. Conspiracy theories abound. “Obama supports terrorism,” is a standard refrain at protests, referring to the US president’s imagined fidelity to the Muslim Brothers. Under new visa regulations, Syrian refugees are threatened with deportation, while prominent television personalities whip up animosity toward them. Abuses committed by anyone who is not Islamist -- from sexual assaults at public gatherings to police brutality -- are ignored, or worse, justified by most state and private media. Critical sensibilities are numbed amidst a profusion of nationalist euphoria. Two narratives are increasingly dominating Egyptian politics: one of Islamist defiance in the face of victimization and another of a revitalized nation set free from tyranny. The pluralistic landscape -- revolutionary, Islamist, fuloul -- that existed for much of the post-2011 period is pulling apart toward these two poles.

Revolutionary moments can arouse the greatest hopes but also expose the deepest fears. The line between those two feelings is a fine one. June 30 may have been an inspiring triumph of popular will, one unseen since the 18 days that toppled Husni Mubarak. But left unchecked that will can be usurped and fashioned into a new authoritarian consensus from below. Only time will tell. But such a development would be a big setback for the revolution.