Sunday, 18 August 2013

Egypt: What It Isn't

It isn’t Tiananmen Square.  
It isn’t Syria.
It isn’t Muslim against Christian.
It isn’t secular against religious.
It isn’t a question of a coup or not a coup.
It isn’t a question of democracy against authoritarianism.
The situation in Egypt is so desperate, so complicated, that an attempt to grapple with it might well start with setting out what it isn’t. Some observers might see shades of Tiananmen Square; for twenty million plus Egyptians who marched on June 30th to oust the Brotherhood administration, it was the shades of the Ayatollah takeover in Iran that mobilized them. The bloodshed over the past six weeks has been sickening and horrific, but Egypt is not Syria with its regional, armed factions; a civil war isn't imminent.
It isn’t Muslim against Christian; one can safely assume that the Coptic minority is unanimously against the Muslim Brotherhood, but so is more than half of Egypt’s ninety-percent Muslim population.  It isn’t secular versus religious. Most Egyptians, Muslim or Copt, would claim to be personally religious; where they clash is over the role of religion in politics.
Whether or not to call the deposing of President Morsi on July 3rd a coup is a question of semantics which concerns U.S. law and foreign policy alone.
It isn’t a question of championing democracy against military authoritarianism. The Morsi administration was as authoritarian as the interim Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that preceded it, or any that is likely to follow it. It is a question of what kind of authoritarianism, and to whose benefit.
And therein lies the violent clash of currents that brought out millions to the streets over the past months, to demonstrate against the Morsi regime and for it. By the unprecedented millions who marched against Morsi, his administration was seen as governing narrowly for the Brotherhood; it was also of the Brotherhood, in every appointment from cabinet ministers to nine governors; and by the Brotherhood, through the influence of his party’s bosses and their spiritual 'Supreme Guide.’ Morsi himself often referred to “my people and my community” when speaking of the Brotherhood. When his supporters marched in the streets, they waved the green Brotherhood flags rather than the red, black and white Egyptian flag, until the negative reaction prompted them to switch. But the discourse of the pro-Morsi demonstrators, and the signs they brandished, remained the same: ‘Islam,’ ‘Shari’a’ and ‘Legitimacy.’ To many Egyptians, the question became: “Where is Egypt in all this?” Are these people Egyptians first or Brethren first?
The Islamists counter: But where is democracy in all of this? A vote is a vote. But is a vote a vote in a country with a high proportion of illiteracy in the electorate, thrust into the polling booth after sixty years of autocratic one-party rule? And does a democratically-elected president continue to be legitimate if his regime is not only autocratic but also disastrously incompetent? By most accounts Egypt under Morsi was spiraling into economic free fall and insecurity, and that its very territorial integrity was threatened in the Sinai. The rights of women and minorities were also being menaced alarmingly. Indeed, in the aftermath of Morsi’s ouster, the attacks on Christian churches by his rampaging supporters is an indictment of Brotherhood ideology, whether or not the leaders were responsible for inciting the sectarian violence.

The violence, on both sides, on every side, whether Morsi supporter or opponent or security forces, is horrific. But it comes down, finally, to a split vision of Egypt: secular versus Islamist in political life, liberal versus fundamentalist in private values, national versus Islamic in world view. In Egypt today, these visions have proved to be irreconcilable.Conversation I participated in today on State of Things

Monday, 5 August 2013

Morsi's Martyr Children

Anyone watching the world media’s coverage of the Morsi-supporters camped out for the past month in two major squares in Cairo will have noticed the numbers of women and children among them, and the prominence with which they are brought before the cameras. The women, in headscarves or even full niqab, are vociferously vocal and many speak passable English. One teenage girl I saw on the news insisted that she, and the other protesters, would refuse to leave the camps unless Morsi were re-instated or they were killed, adding: “the greatest dream of any of us is to die a martyr.”
Who put these ideas into the girl’s head? What are the Muslim Brotherhood leaders inculcating in impressionable young minds? And even if this particular girl were of an age to make up her own mind about what her life is worth, what about the hundreds of children, babies, toddlers, crawling all over the camps and trotted out before the media as potential victims: what kind of parent or guardian makes the decision for their child that any cause is worth ‘martyrdom’?
On Sunday the Brotherhood marshaled a group of youngsters, dressed them in white shrouds, gave them signs proclaiming 'Martyrs', and paraded them for the benefit of the media. Even more disturbing and reprehensible, the MB are accused of rounding up many of these children from the streets of the slums of Cairo, and busing them to the site of the sit-in at the Rabaa Mosque. The United Nations Children’s Fund has expressed dismay at children being deliberately put at risk as victims or witnesses to violence, and at least one man has been arrested when he was caught transporting forty children to the site.  
There are also no doubt penniless, homeless people, adults and children, who are drawn to the tent city for the free food and shelter as an alternative to starving on the streets. There is no doubt, also, that the MB leaders are exploiting the situation for propaganda: they may or may not be fanatics, but they have proven their dexterity in manipulating both traditional and social media.
It is an effective strategy: nothing stays the hand of the police or military from evacuating the camps by force as much as the presence of women and children and the potential for disastrous images of innocent ‘martyrs.’ The strategy of hiding behind women’s skirts and children’s ‘shrouds’ is all the more shameful and hypocritical on the part of the MB leaders precisely because they themselves used to denounce their opponents in Tahrir for the participation of women, claiming that parents and guardians should keep their women home and accusing the girls who spent the night at the sit-ins of loose morals. 
A video clip taped by members of the Tamarrod group who organized the revolt against Morsi makes just that point: “When our women and girls participate in protests, you call them immoral; when yours do, you say it is normal. When our children are killed, you hold their lives cheap; but here’s the difference between us: when your children are killed- we don’t hold their lives cheap.”
The so-called Morsi supporters in the tent sit-ins seem to be unaware, or not to care, that they are being used as a pawn in a negotiation that has nothing to do with reinstating Morsi, which is impossible given that he cannot govern with the military, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the police, and every institution of government against him. The real negotiation is to save from arrest and prosecution the real leaders of the Brotherhood, the ‘Supreme Guide’ Badie, the party boss Khairat El-Shatter, and his deputy Bayoumi. Morsi himself was nothing but a figurehead who was brought in as a pinch-hitter presidential candidate at the last minute when El-Shatter was disqualified. Morsi’s resignation and the peaceful disbanding of the protests are the price being negotiated for the freedom of the real party bosses.   
But what happens after the Morsi-supporter camps are disbanded, as they will be, one way or another; what happens when these vocal women go home? Will they be allowed a voice in Islamist political affairs commensurate with the role they played in the protests? Or will they be relegated to the hearth and nursery? And what will the ‘martyr’ children have learned?

Monday, 29 July 2013

Egypt: Seeking a Way Out

A friend asked me recently what Egyptian liberals were thinking these days, and I replied ruefully that I imagined it felt like scrambling back into the frying pan to get out of the fire. That is, if post-Mubarak military rule was the frying pan, then Muslim Brotherhood rule was the fire. He also asked if, given the roiling polarization in Egyptian society between secularists and Islamists, and the stalemate between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and the military, civil war loomed on the horizon. The state has a monopoly on force of arms in Egypt, unlike in Syria or Iraq, and the Muslim Brotherhood has no militias at its command- yet- so civil war in the classic sense is not imminent, but if the situation continues to deteriorate and foreign powers intervene to arm factions, it will be a very real threat.
So is there any way to pull back from the brink, to diffuse the crisis without more bloodshed? 
For the past month, there have been hundreds of thousands of Morsi diehards camped out in front of a mosque in Cairo’s Nasr City neighborhood. All efforts to dislodge them have failed so far, in spite of clashes with the authorities that have led to a hundred killings. They are digging in, literally digging up sidewalk bricks to build a wall around the perimeter of the mosque. The unsanitary ad hoc tent-living conditions have become a serious health hazard, not to mention the traffic impasse and total disruption of the lives of the hapless, infuriated residents of the neighborhood, who are hardly mollified by some protesters’ offers of flowers and apologies.
The military authorities have warned that they will ‘soon’ move to dislodge the encampments. It is a necessary step, most Egyptians believe, to clear, not just the Morsi supporter mosque sit-in, but also Tahrir and all the other offshoot sit-ins as well. The right to free speech and assembly, even in a democracy, means the right to march and demonstrate, with the prerequisite permit, and police protection- after which everyone goes home. It does not mean the right to take over every public space and turn it into a permanent, lawless, tent city cum soup kitchen cum street fair populated as much by the homeless, the hungry, or the jobless as by committed activists. Egyptians want, need, and deserve a return to civility, to patrolled city streets, to functional city squares, and to law and order.
On the other hand, it would be a serious mistake for General El-Sissi and the military to interpret the massive turnout in their favor as a mandate to massacre. Moral issues aside, there is more appetite on the Muslim Brotherhood side to create martyrs than there is on the military’s, and for good reason. The Muslim Brethren are a minority, unquestionably, but their support runs deep. For every Morsi supporter camped out in front of the mosque, for every card-carrying Muslim Brotherhood member, there are multiple sympathizers in the society at large, and that is true across the socio-economic divide. I can think of one example of twin sisters, thirty-something young women whose father, on their eighteenth birthday, bought each a matching Mercedes sports car to drive to college. One marched in support of the Military takeover, and one supported the Muslim Brotherhood. Families are divided on the issue, brother against sister, and husband against wife.
The hope, therefore, is to diffuse the crisis through negotiation, and not by forcible eviction of the encampment. There are signs of political will on the part of Western powers to find a peaceful solution. The European Union has sent its Foreign Policy chief, Catherine Ashton, to Egypt to try to broker a deal, officially at the behest of the stakeholders. On the Egyptian government side, she will find competent, experienced interlocutors in Vice-President Mohamed Baradei, former chief of the U.N. Nuclear Agency, and Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmi, former ambassador to Washington. On the MB side, president Morsi is held incommunicado and other leaders are under arrest, but there are other prominent heads of the movement to negotiate through. Intriguingly, a group of younger cadres who call themselves the “Brethren Without Violence” have dissented from the MB leadership and may lead the way out of the mosque encampment.
For its part, the Obama seems to grasp the wider implications of the crisis for the stability of the region and has charged Foreign Secretary Kerry to broker talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders with a view to re-launching the peace process. It truly is the eleventh hour, but the hope seems to be that Israel might recognize the urgency for stability in an increasingly unstable region, and that the Abbas administration in the Palestinian Territories might recognize an opportunity when its rival, Hamas in Gaza, is weakened by the loss of the Morsi administration’s support.
For the U.S., Israel and the world, not only Egypt but also Gaza and Syria are in play. The Brotherhood were to all evidence supporting Islamist radicals in an increasingly lawless Sinai, as well as supporting Hamas in Gaza and the Islamist insurgency in Syria against Bashar Assad. Egyptian volunteers were allegedly travelling to Syria for jihad, and might come back radicalized and pose a threat to their own society and beyond.

Pursuing a peaceful solution to the impasse in Egypt that allows the MB to save face is worth every iota of patience and self-control the military can muster and the civilian authorities can urge. The alternative is a bloodbath and the creation of martyrs that will serve as a radicalizing myth to inspire generations of terrorists, and cleave a fractured society irreparably in two.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Egypt: Making a Hero of the Military- Again

Almost everyone I know personally in Cairo is celebrating the massive turnout Friday to support General Sisi’s call for a mandate to quash ‘terrorism’, which in Egypt is a euphemism for the Islamists. Coptic church bells rang in sync with the call from the minarets announcing the breaking of the Muslim Ramadan fast at sunset. Friends posted defiantly ‘Egyptian and proud, no matter what the rest of the world thinks.’ Some of them had left their comfortable summer resort homes to drive back four hours to Cairo to take their place among the sweltering masses at Tahrir- without breaking their fast.
So I feel like the Grinch with my caveats: We don’t need another hero. Don’t make a savior of General Sisi. Remember the history of military ‘strongman’ regimes, and I don’t mean just in Egypt or even the Arab world. Remember how quickly, after the coup of 1952, Naguib proved to be a mere figurehead who was ruthlessly shunted aside by Colonel Nasser, ushering in a sixty-year regime of successive military rulers in civilian clothes. Hold Sisi and the military to their promises to hold elections and give civilian, secular democracy a chance- or be prepared to take to the streets again if they don’t. But remember that the military have proved how brutally they are capable of squashing protests- does anyone remember the blue-bra girl?
But I understand. Roughly half of Egypt, give or take, including almost everyone I know, doesn’t want to hear it. It has come down to a secular/Islamist divide in Egypt, with the secularists now overlooking their differences, Wafdist liberals embracing Nasserites, capitalists cozying up to socialists. This unprecedented solidarity, while highly commendable, is likely to prove ephemeral, and more workable, in practice, on the street than in a Cabinet or Parliament. This may be one reason why so many, today, put their faith in the Army, rather than a civilian coalition government, to face down an Islamist challenge.
While this half of Egypt rejoices, roughly the other half of the population, give or take, turns out to call for the re-instatement of deposed president Morsi, now under arrest and accused of controversial charges of treason. At the time he was deposed on July 3rd, I was as relieved as anyone to see the end of the disastrous, rogue Muslim Brotherhood regime and the damage it wrought in barely a year. But today, I can’t help feeling that it was the place of the head of the civilian government, or of a liberal party, not a General, to call for demonstrations. The Military should be above partisan politics. And I can’t help feeling queasy about giving the Military carte blanche to crack down on anyone, even the Muslim Brotherhood. So at the risk of antagonizing the half of Egypt whose secular, liberal values I share, I will continue to dampen the parade, all the while hoping my reservations turn out to be unfounded. Perhaps this time, the Military will keep in mind that the masses might take to the streets again to hold them to their promises.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Egypt: Everybody Coups

Everybody coups, let me say upfront, is not my expression but John Oliver’s on The Daily Show last night. But I actually don’t agree with Oliver’s point about the June 30th popular uprising in Egypt that led to the military intervention that deposed Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi. Oliver seems to be claiming, substantially, that ‘a coup by any other name’ is still a coup, to paraphrase Shakespeare; or more vulgarly, ‘if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, it’s a duck.’
But if Oliver insists that it was a military coup that deposed Morsi, then he must accept that Morsi himself, in his short but catastrophic one-year administration, staged repeated unconstitutional coups-by-decree against every legitimate opposition he encountered: he staged a coup against the military, decapitating the entire top tier of generals, including Field Marshall Tantawi; to their credit, the generals went quietly. He attempted to decapitate the entire top tier of judges by decreeing a immediate retirement age of 60; the judges, for their part, dug their heels in, and Morsi backed off. He attempted to decapitate the opposition media by harassing and pursing talk show hosts and closing down media channels. Morsi also staged a coup against the constitution, by declaring himself and his decrees above judicial review while he railroaded overnight a Muslim Brotherhood-cobbled ‘constitution’ against the strident objections of the entire spectrum of the political opposition.
In other words, Morsi acted illegitimately from day one, and was hell-bent on purging all government and non-government entities of political opponents and replacing them with incompetent but sworn Muslim Brotherhood. He ignored the fact that his narrow margin of election at the ballot box came, not only or even mostly from Islamist supporters, but from a wide swathe of the liberal, secular, revolutionary forces that deposed Mubarak in 2011, and that only voted for Morsi in 2012 because they could not stomach voting for his Mubarak-clone opponent in the election.
The irony, today, is that Morsi’s Moslem Brotherhood supporters cling with a death grip to the claim of ‘legitimacy’ as grounds for re-instating the deposed president. The same people who now claim the sanctity of the ballot box forget that they have always claimed, and still claim, that Shari ’a is above democracy, ballot boxes, and man-made laws.
If June 30th 2013 was a military coup, it was a military coup by popular demand, not all that different from January 2011; after all, it was the generals, in the end, who went to then-president Mubarak on February 11 and told him that it was time to go. So John Oliver is right in a way: everybody coups. But a rose by any other name is not the same. Whether the Obama administration calls it a coup or not makes a great deal of difference legally as far as aid to Egypt is concerned. Most of the 1.3 Billion in aid goes to the Egyptian military, and much of it comes back to the U.S. in the form of arms industry contracts; the aid also guarantees Egypt’s adherence to the peace treaty with Israel. Suffice it to say, it is not in U.S. interests to stop military aid to Egypt.
Not to mention that U.S. foreign policy is unpopular enough in Egypt today without any added grievances. To the bemusement of American media commentators, both the Muslim Brotherhood side and the liberal secular side seem to be critical of U.S. foreign policy at the moment, and each side is accusing the other of being the ‘teacher’s pet.’ The unfortunate fact is that there is a widespread perception, regardless of political bent, that the ‘West’ is carrying through a long-term strategy of destabilizing and fragmenting the Arab Middle East, with Iraq and today Syria as the prime examples. Until that perception is changed, whatever the U.S. does, it will be damned if it does and damned if it does not.
But the West is right to point out that the newly re-enfranchised liberals are displaying heedless triumphalism and attempting to marginalize the Muslim Brotherhood too harshly. Returning to the repressive measures of the past and settling of accounts can only exacerbate the fractures in Egyptian society and lead to more instability. The Brotherhood and their supporters are not going away; the only option- difficult, distasteful, and uncertain as it may be- is to attempt to co-opt and re-engage the more moderate currents among the MB in the democratic process, while containing the more extremist currents. Bassem Youssef, Egypt’s Jon Stewart and the Islamists’ bĂȘte noir, made that same point in an article recently.

Hubris brought Mubarak down, and hubris brought Morsi down. That is a lesson that should not be lost on the new liberal/secular administration of Egypt. Or it will be ‘everybody coups,’ again.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

A Time to Kill: Egypt's Tragic Ramadan

Rarely has Ramadan come at a more tragic time for Egyptians, or for that matter for Syrians. The spirit of the season is intended to be a holy month of peace and worship; of turning away from the material world and tuning in to the spiritual; of seeking forgiveness and redemption through fasting and self-abnegation. And yet the new moon that announces the advent of this year’s Ramadan shines a grim light on Egyptians killing Egyptians in the streets.
The elation was short-lived for the millions who marched to oust Morsi and his catastrophic administration on June 30th. First there was the backlash from the Muslim Brotherhood, echoed by a chorus in the international media accusing 'a coup against Egypt’s first democratically elected president.' The fact is that the Islamists, notably the Brotherhood and the Salafis, cannot lay claim to the Revolution of January 25th , a revolution they initially boycotted, and whose ideals they neither subscribed to nor sacrificed for. If anyone stole the revolution, they did. Similarly Morsi supporters’ mantra of ‘legitimacy’ rings hollow: he acted illegitimately in office from the day he was elected, grabbing power, riding roughshod over the institutions of government, putting himself above the law, and stuffing his administration with incompetent cronies.    
On the other hand, the liberal/secular camp- for want of a better catch-all designation for the diverse factions forming the opposition to the Islamist parties- the liberal camp exaggerates the role U.S. foreign policy played, or could have played, or should have played, during the past year and in the days leading to the June 30th uprising. Had American policy openly supported an uprising backed by a military coup against Egypt’s first democratically-elected, Islamist president, how would that American support have played domestically in Egypt and in the Arab/Muslim world? It is hard to imagine that the Muslim Brotherhood camp would have failed to make propaganda of the fact that the Egyptian military is the United States closest interlocutor, and that the ousting of an Islamist regime in Egypt is welcome news in Israel.
There has been much criticism of how the aftermath of the ‘coup’ was handled, with house arrest of leading Muslim Brotherhood leaders, and taking Islamist television channels off the air. But these media were being used to enrage and incite the mass of Morsi supporters, who shouted into the cameras blood-curdling threats of revenge and killing, particularly against the Christian minority. By any measure, in any country, these threats constitute hate speech and incitement to violence, and would have been taken off the air.
Nevertheless, the deaths of fifty-plus Morsi supporters demonstrating before a mosque at dawn on Monday is a sickening and tragic development. It should never have happened. Even if there had been provocation on the part of the Brotherhood supporters, the military should have been ready to control and contain a confrontation, not overreach with lethal force. The same use of deadly military force against protesters resulted in the deaths of more than 25 protesters, mostly Coptic Christians, during the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces' eighteen-month rule in the transition from Mubarak to Morsi. It was such incidents that turned public opinion against the military and brought thousands into the streets chanting ‘Down, down with Military Rule’. How could that lesson have gone to waste?
The path to a positive future for Egypt is anything but straightforward. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties cannot and should not be excluded again from political life, but it is not at all clear that their participation, now or in the near future, can take a constructive turn. Egypt’s Islamist parties have shown that they do not subscribe to the spirit of democracy, as opposed to the ballot box. In fact they do not even claim to subscribe to it. For them, the separation of politics from religion is illegitimate, and a plurality of opinion is heresy. For them, the ballot box is only a means to an end, and once that end is achieved, the box is to be discarded once and for all.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Egypt: Buyer's Remorse over Morsi

A little over a year ago today, millions of Egyptians voted for Mohamed Morsi, in spite of severe misgivings about the man and his Muslim Brotherhood, because they could not in good conscience vote for his Mubarak-redux opponent, General Shafiq. They reasoned that the devil you don’t know is better than the devil you do, and they gave the new president a chance, although Morsi, a pinch-hitter candidate brought in by the Brotherhood at the last minute when the party boss was disqualified, lacked stature or charisma for the job. In the year since he was elected, many of those who cast reluctant ballots for him have had time to suffer severe buyer’s remorse, and today they cheered his ouster. 
That explains the paradox that bemuses Western media observers: why 22 million Egyptians signed a petition withdrawing confidence from Morsi only a year into his administration, and why millions thronged the streets for the better part of a week calling for his departure, and why they cheered wildly when the military staged a bloodless coup to oust the first democratically-elected president in Egyptian history. The Morsi administration has not only proved disastrously inept, it has also turned out to be insular, divisive, and shockingly power-hungry. He acted, not as a president for all Egyptians, but as if his mandate came from the Muslim Brotherhood alone. He put himself above the law while he forced through an overnight constitution, against massive opposition; and rigged Parliament to consolidate a permanent majority for his Muslim Brotherhood party. He was kicking away the ladder that brought him to power, oblivious to the evidence that millions of Egyptians, who found his ideology repugnant but had nevertheless entrusted him with their votes, were feeling betrayed.
And Egypt- that majority of Egyptians, those who voted for him reluctantly a year ago and those who voted against him- Egypt today clamored for an annulment from its commitment to the Muslim Brotherhood administration. If the January 25th Revolution was a long-drawn, painful, bittersweet divorce from the Mubarak regime after a long marriage that had seen happier days, the June 30th Rebellion was a visceral rejection of a regrettable mistake, a correction in direction: an annulment.
That the annulment had to come at the hands of the military is worrying to many who wonder if this will be back to the future. The sight of armored tanks on the streets is less reassuring than it was during the days of innocence of the January 25th revolution, before the SCAF abused its powers during eighteen months of rule. The sight of white-uniformed police being hoisted above the crowd and hailed by demonstrators is even more disturbing to a nation who remembers the abusive, loathsome role the police and security forces played under Mubarak and the brutality with which they repressed the revolution of 2011.
Those who warn of a back to the future scenario might think of another analogy: in Muslim religious law, if a man divorces his wife three times, he may not take her back, even if it is their joint wish, before she has married another husband in the interim. The name for this intermediate husband who makes the remarriage of the divorced couple legal is a ‘legitimizer’; the brief one-year Morsi regime may be regarded as having played the role of ‘legitimizer’ that allows Egypt to go back to its military-backed autocracy.
But the ‘legitimizer’ regime may not go quietly. To the Muslim Brotherhood and their considerable base around the country, this defeat is bitter, and extremists among them may be plotting insurrection and violence. That would be a mistake, just as it would be a mistake by the newly-triumphant, liberal, secular majority of the country to try to shut the Islamists out of the democratic process in future elections. The Brotherhood was not ready to rule in June of 2012, but Islamist parties are entitled to have a voice in the politics of Egypt, as long as they respect the spirit and not just the letter of the democratic process.   
To those who mutter that Egypt is only jumping out of the frying pan of Islamist misrule into the fire of military dictatorship, that Egypt can only be ruled by a strongman, perhaps the answer is this: we don’t need another hero. Whoever comes to power in Egypt at the next election or whoever make seek to take advantage of the military's role as kingmaker, will have to deal with a new reality: the masses of Egypt have found their way out of the thunder-dome, not once but twice, and will find their way out again if need be. The people have spoken, and their voice may be loud, chaotic, and divided, but above all, it will not be silenced.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Chronicle of a Coup Foretold: Egypt's Millions Rebel

Whatever the outcome, history will record that June 30th not only lived up to its hype but wildly exceeded it. As Egypt’s millions marched into the streets and the squares of every major city in the land on Sunday, stunned observers estimated that the human tide blackening every public space represented the largest demonstrations in history.
The most powerful grievance against the Morsi regime seem to stem from the sense of betrayal expressed repeatedly by the protesters from all walks of life. Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood came to power not through ordinary elections- their specious claim to legitimacy- but through an extraordinary revolution for which hundreds of martyrs sacrificed their lives. The Islamists who had not sacrificed for the revolution reaped its fruit, and then they proceeded to betray the sacred trust handed to them by the Egyptian people. Instead of ruling for the good of Egypt and all Egyptians, the Morsi administration in its first year in office pursued a single-minded agenda of concentrating power in the hands of Islamist cronies, sidelining the opposition, emasculating the judiciary, and ramrodding through a controversial constitution.  It ignored the crashing economy and alarming insecurity that afflicted citizens at large while trying to impose a regressive, sectarian ideology that resonated with few outside of its base.
The blatant disconnect between the Morsi administration and public opinion is highlighted, during the current demonstrations, by Brotherhood supporters’ choice of green flags and bandanas with ‘Islamic’ slogans, while the opposition waved Egyptian flags. The very name, ‘Islamic Alliance’, adopted by the Islamist coalition supporting Morsi, confirms a widespread suspicion that the Muslim Brotherhood are unpatriotic, an organization that puts its international ideology before its Egyptian nationalism. There have been rumors for months that the Brotherhood were planning to give over parts of the Egyptian Sinai for settlement by non-Egyptians, and that only the military stood in the way.  
Today, the military gave the Morsi administration an ultimatum of forty-eight hours to get the country under control or else the Generals will intervene. Ironically, that pronouncement by General El-Sissi was greeted with cheers by the same protesters who a few months ago had demonstrated against a military takeover of power. But June 30th has been the chronicle of a coup foretold; for the past year, as some lamented the deterioration of the economic and social fabric of the country under the Morsi administration, others advised them to be patient, that further deterioration, indeed a complete breakdown, would be necessary to bring about a welcome intervention by the military and the ousting of Morsi.
Yesterday’s enemies are today’s allies, and vice versa. The anyone-but-Mubarak coalition is now the anyone-but-Morsi coalition. The irony is symptomatic of the desperate situation in which the country finds itself: in a game of shifting alliances, it is no longer civilian society against the military, or even against the loathed police, but secular Egypt against the Islamists.
As for U.S. policy, it is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. If it supports Morsi on the principle of the inviolable legitimacy of elections, it will be seen as supporting an undemocratic, incompetent, ideological Islamist regime rejected by the majority of Egyptians, as the millions on the street attest. If it supports the ouster of the Morsi administration, it will be seen as supporting a military coup against a democratically elected president. President Obama, on tour in Africa, felt he needed to address the events himself. It is not clear whether or not his uncomfortable balancing act was helpful, as he tried to simultaneously 'press for peace' on all sides while 'supporting democracy' but 'not counting heads in a protest.' 
But the real significance of June 30th goes beyond Egypt, and beyond these protests. This is how the Arab Spring might play out: not a confirmation of the hoary conventional wisdom that, in the Middle East, it is either the rock of an autocratic strongman or the hard place of an Islamist takeover, but rather a protest-driven process of trial-and-error, as countries try out and reject one form of autocracy and incompetence after another. Perhaps, as the joke making the round in Egypt these days goes, the Muslim Brotherhood are like the measles, you have to catch it once to never get it again. In the long run, the convulsive process might actually lead to a democratic compromise on a reasonably competent form of governance, but  it will be, undeniably, a long ordeal.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

A Clash of Two Egypts: Tamarod Tomorrow

Tomorrow, June 30th, is the fateful day for the showdown between the Islamists, and the rest. The stakes couldn’t be higher: a battle for the very soul of Egypt. Who speaks for Egypt?
The Tamarod, or Rebellion, movement claims to speak for the real Egypt: an Egypt of all Egyptians, regardless of sect; perhaps pious in private but secular in politics; moderate, forward-looking, eager to rejoin world economy and culture. Their critics say they speak only for the Egypt of tourist resorts and gated communities; megamalls and ballet at the Opera House; and Jon Stewart on the Bassem Youssef show. Not so, retort their defenders, they also speak for the millions of Egyptians whose livelihood depends on work in the tourism sector and on the construction sites, for the increasingly desperate man in the street who is suffering most from an economy in free fall. Tamarod is counting on them to flood the streets and the squares tomorrow; twenty million Egyptians are reported to have signed the petition withdrawing confidence from the Morsi administration and demanding that the president and his cabinet step down, paving the way for new elections as soon as possible. 
On the other hand, Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood Party, along with their extremist allies the Salafis, have mobilized massive demonstrations of their own, to bolster their claim to speak for the real Egypt. An Egypt of bearded men and veiled women professing an ideology that rejects the separation of state and religion and demonizes westernization, secularism and all sects and religions other than their own. It is an ideology, their defenders say, they share with millions of like-minded fundamentalists across the Islamic world; and a party, the Muslim Brotherhood, that came to power through relatively legitimate elections and has no intention of ceding that power to pressure from the street.
In other words, what we are witnessing is an immovable object confronting an irresistible force. The resulting confrontation can only be brutal. Already, the day before the scheduled June 30th protest, thousands upon thousands of demonstrators have flooded public spaces in cities across the country, both in revolt against Morsi and in his support. Clashes between them have already led to several deaths, including the tragic, senseless stabbing of an American college student who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time on a street in Alexandria.   
The two sides of the conflict have this in common: both sides profess not to trust the role of the U.S. Rumors and counter-rumors abound, about American policy directives in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East. The Morsi administration does not trust the police, with good reason; it has officially devolved police peace-keeping duties to the armed forces. But what role will the military play? That is the real question. Who speaks for Egypt? Perhaps, in the final analysis, the tank does.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Egypt's Last Chance Revolution: June 30th

When I told an American friend recently about the millions-strong revolt against President Morsi’s Islamist administration planned for June 30th, she asked: “And does the regime know about it?” “Of course,” I retorted, “it’s been advertised for weeks!” In Egypt as elsewhere these days, revolutions are not only televised, they are advertised weeks ahead on social media to build momentum and pressure. The entire strategy is built on mobilizing a public response so massive it would overwhelm any attempt by the regime in power to thwart it.
That strategy worked in ousting Hosni Mubarak in January 2011, and many of the same elements that organized that successful revolt are now making a last ditch effort to reclaim their revolution from the Islamists who seem to have hijacked it when Muslim Brotherhood candidate Morsi was elected president a year ago on June 30th.  Fifteen million people, by some counts, have pledged to participate in the demonstrations to force the abdication of President Morsi. The plan has already been released on social media: sit-ins are to begin two days earlier, on Friday and Saturday, and Tahrir Square is no longer the focus, the Presidential Itihadiya Palace is. Other key locations for launching demonstrations- Egypt’s Supreme Court, the Ministry of Defense, and the syndicate headquarters of the Judges, Lawyers, Journalists, and Police- represent groups with long-standing antipathy to the Muslim Brotherhood in general and more recently inflamed conflicts with the Morsi administration in particular.  
Marching orders are clear: protest only against Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood Party, and its ideological ‘Guidance Bureau’. Protest in the name of Egypt only, not in the name of any person, party, candidate, sect or group. Peaceful protest only: no incitement against police or military or engagement in any altercations with either or with any opposing demonstrators. Women to march only in the center of a demonstration, where they can best be protected. That last instruction is necessary given the alarming record of increased assaults on women demonstrators during the past two years. This time, the call-to-arms on Face Book stresses, this is the Last Chance Revolution. We must dig in for the long-haul; we must go into it with the mindset of ‘in it to win it.’ Failure means rule by the Muslim Brotherhood, forever and ever.
To an outside observer in the West, this might seem like hyperbole. Morsi was elected in a relatively free election, these observers point out, and ‘elections have consequences’ if democracy is to be respected. And yet, the notion of post-election, postmortem protest seems to be gaining ground right here in the United States, indeed right here in my backyard of North Carolina. The ‘Moral Monday’ movement  protests against what it perceives as regressive social and economic policies launched by the conservative Republicans who were elected in 2012 and now control the state- from the Governor’s mansion to the Legislature. ‘Moral Monday’ stages civil disobedience every week in which as many people as possible, and as many public figures as possible, try to get themselves arrested protesting against the reversal of civil rights and other issues.
Granted, trying to get arrested is not a problem for the Egyptian protesters taking their lives in their hands when they take to the streets on June 30th. But the analogy holds: in some cases, election results, and their consequences, are deemed to be too disastrous to wait for the next round of elections. The stakes are infinitely higher in Egypt, where the consensus seems to be that the next elections, if they take place with the Muslim Brotherhood in power, will be a sham.
The big question, of course, is whether Morsi will resign in response to public pressure, however intense. And the answer seems to be that he will not, unless the military intervene to force his hand. That intervention, even a few months ago, would have been seen as a regression to the military dictatorship of the past sixty years; today it is seen by many as the lesser of two evils. The last straw, for many, was the shocking Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence two days ago that left four Shiite men dead. Shiites are so rare in Egypt today that most Egyptians are unaware of their existence, even if the more educated remember from their schoolbooks that the Fatimid Caliphate that ruled Egypt for two centuries, a thousand years ago, was Shia. Such sectarian conflict is unprecedented, and signals an extremist Salafi mindset that makes ‘infidels’ not just of Egyptian Copts but Shia Muslims as well.   

The fact that President Morsi tolerated a tirade against the Shia by a Salafi extremist during a recent rally days before the murderous attack adds fuel to the fire of the opposition in Egypt, already banking on despair over the worsening living conditions of the average man in the street. On the other hand, the plight of Coptic Christians seems to have turned the tide of Western public opinion against Morsi’s administration abroad.  With internal and external pressure mounting against the Islamists in power, it remains to be seen if June 30th turns out to be the Chronicle of a Coup Foretold, or a bloody mess.  

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Egypt: The Most Dangerous Moment of a Revolution

The most dangerous moment in a revolution, history teaches us, is not when the new rulers first come to power, but later when they are faced with their first serious opposition. That is when the new ruling forces are likely to turn most violent in repressing dissent, and often give way to more radical, bloodier elements. The French Revolution, the Russian, all followed that seemingly inexorable dynamic, leading to their form of ‘the Terror.’ Right on time, right on target, two and a half years after the January 25th revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak, Egypt is set to face a major attempt at a countercoup. This time, the revolution will be televised. The Vendee is on!
June 30th has been announced, for weeks now, as the date when fifteen million Egyptians who have signed the ‘Tamarod’ (Rebellion) petition have vowed to take to the streets to force the ouster of President Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood party rule. Whenever you talk to anyone living in Egypt today, you get the impression that their lives are on hold as they brace for the fatal day. June 30th marks a year to the day when Morsi was inaugurated, the first president elected in relatively free elections against actual opposing candidates. His narrow margin of victory in that election is largely attributed to the anathema that prevented the secular/liberal revolutionary forces from voting for Morsi’s opponent, Mubarak loyalist and hardliner General Ahmed Shafiq. 
In an ironic reversal, today that same secular/liberal coalition that had organized the January 25th uprising, toppled Mubarak, and- holding its nose- voted for Morsi over Shafiq, is preparing to attempt to force the resignation of Morsi and his cohort. The way the secular opposition see it, they are trying to win their revolution back from the Islamist forces that hijacked it. But as Doctor Frankenstein could attest, second thoughts may come too late.
It may or may not be too late already, the opposition forces argue, but it will certainly be too late if they wait until President Morsi comes up for re-election in another three years, and try to oust him at the ballot box. By then, the opposition believes, not only will the power-grabbing, judiciary-gutting Islamist party be too firmly entrenched to dislodge by peaceful means, but the deterioration of the country will be too far advanced to stanch the bleeding and reverse course. The economy is in free fall, and the daily life of the average citizen is plagued by power and water shortages, traffic nightmares and rampant insecurity. The boiling discontent will be harnessed, the organizers of June 30th hope, to put pressure on President Morsi to resign.  
Beyond that point, the plans are not clear for the post-Morsi transition until a new round of early presidential elections yields a new president. The interim government, according to the opposition, might be a council broadly representing the opposition coalition but also the Islamist elements in the country, a sort of Directoire, headed by the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court. To ensure that this governing council oversees free and fair elections, any member who agrees to serve on the council forfeits his right to run for presidential election, and that includes Nobel Prize winner Mohamed Baradei.
But even the most optimistic are not counting on Morsi resigning in response to street pressure alone, so the intervention of the army and police will be crucial, particularly since the Islamist parties have also vowed their own counter-demonstrations, so violent clashes between opposing street protests are guaranteed. At the moment the roles of the army and police, those two historically quasi-independent forces, are unclear. The minister of the interior, responsible for the police, has made ambiguous pronouncements about who and what the police will protect. The Muslim Brotherhood has vowed to take into its own hands the protection of the president and the party headquarters. The military is known to have serious issues with the Islamists in power, and might intervene, but on the other hand, it might choose to stand on the sidelines.
If June 30th sounds like January 25 redux, it is because the same scenario seems to be preparing to play out, with changes in some of the principal actors. Except that this time, after the success of the first revolution, the hopes may be higher, but so are the stakes, and, in the current desperate state of national polarization and economic meltdown, the danger is even greater.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Egypt's Jon Stewart Bassem Youssef

The Emperor had no clothes. Or rather, the Emperor was wearing one too many, according to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-dominated administration. The last straw that got television comedian and chat show host Bassem Youssef arrested was a satire on President Morsi wearing an outsize ceremonial hat bestowed on him during an official visit to Pakistan recently.
Youssef’s avowed idol and inspiration, Jon Stewart, pointed out on The Daily Show that he spent much of the eight years of the Bush administration making fun of the President wearing big funny hats- cowboy hats. But Egypt is not the U.S., and never has been. Bassem Youssef would not even have been allowed to go on air with his show under Mubarak, let alone make fun of the President and the Muslim Brotherhood Party week after week. After the revolution of January 2011, Youssef went from doing ten minute video clip spoofs on YouTube to hosting a two-hour, must-see TV show every Friday night, with millions around the Arab world tuning in.
As the popularity of his show grew exponentially every week, Bassem Youssef, a practicing heart surgeon by profession who first started producing his skits in his own basement, went on to host on glossy studio sets on the most widely-watched cable channels in Egypt. He self-consciously modeled himself on his idol Jon Stewart: from Stewart’s mannerisms and self-depreciation to the format of the show to the host’s trademark irreverence and lewd innuendos- par for the course for an American comedian but shocking in a socially conservative country like Egypt.
And like Jon Stewart, Bassem Youssef at his best could be excruciatingly funny while debunking false claims and exposing the hypocrisy of the party in power with the deadly precision of a surgeon’s scalpel. Until the authorities, forced to acknowledge the power of ridicule, were no longer able to ignore him. More than once, he was warned and ordered to cease and desist, to no avail. If, once or twice, his program seemed to be pulling its punches, dissatisfied viewers threatened to tune out in droves, and he returned in full force. Finally Youssef was arrested last week and interrogated, while thousands stood vigil outside the Attorney General’s office and millions more stood vigil on the social media. Even the U.S. Embassy in Egypt tweeted about the topic. And in the U.S., not only Jon Stewart but NBC, CBS, and television world-wide reported on the Bassem Youssef cause celebre.
 No doubt domestic and international pressure played their part in the decision of the Attorney General to release Youssef. That same night, Bassem Youssef put on a show that pulled no punches. But he was the first to acknowledge that he had the luxury of relative impunity on account of his celebrity, and if that were lifted, so would his immunity. And he acknowledged, by name, the many dissident media figures now in jail who were victims of the public’s fickle span of attention. If you forget them and don’t speak out for them, he said, one day no one will speak out for you. He seemed to be speaking for himself.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

The Plagues of Egypt

One of Egypt’s nicknames, along with ‘mother of the world’, is al-mahroussa, « the protected », as if the Almighty keeps a special eye on the country. Lately, though, Providence seems to have cast a malevolent eye on Egypt, raining down plague after plague. Most recently there was an actual plague of locusts sweeping in from Africa and decimating crops before moving on to Egypt’s biblical neighbor, Israel. That same week, the terrible accident of the hot air balloon going up in flames over Luxor made sure to drive away the last diehard tourists who had braved endless revolution and instability to visit the unique monuments of the country.
But acts of God or ineptness of Man are not the worst plagues of Egypt: the worst wounds are self-inflicted. Egypt today has turned into a Tower of Babel where no one understands the language of the other. Islamist and secular, army and police, leftist and rightist, each group speaks its own language and neither hears nor is heard by the other. In a country that long prided itself on its cohesiveness and its sense of historical unity, artificial schisms are breaking out along the fault lines of religion, sect, ideology, and even, unbelievably, regionalism. That the Suez Canal cities of Port Said, Ismailiya and Suez are in open revolt against the central authority of Cairo is mind-boggling. Even more so is the cause of that civil disobedience: the trial and sentencing of Port Said football fans who are accused of causing the deaths of seventy plus fans of the rival, Cairo-based team Ahli during the horrific ‘soccer massacre’ in Port Said in February of 2012.  
Today, the court sentenced 21 Port Said fans to death, and also sentenced the two top generals responsible for security and police to fifteen-year jail sentences. Wherever the responsibility lies for the terrible events of the soccer massacre, the truth is now the victim of political football and tug of war between ‘Cairo’ and the Suez province.
Even the last bastions of national solidarity and security, the army and the police, have now turned into power centers and special interest groups who stage ‘million-man’ marches of their own to support their ‘cause.’
Yet this terrible state of affairs is not enough in the eyes of many who wish to see the Muslim Brotherhood dislodged from the positions of power they are grabbing hand over fist, often illegitimately in the eyes of their opponents. Today, a broad coalition of opposition to the Brotherhood sees no alternative to defeat their encroaching monopoly of power but for there to be even greater turmoil, greater civil disobedience, more bloodshed in the streets, and complete collapse of the economy. When will the plagues of Egypt end?


Friday, 1 February 2013

Friday of Salvation rather than Friday of Anger?

Enough is enough. Finally that seems to be the consensus of everyone with a modicum of sense of responsibility in Egypt. The liberal opposition initiated a national dialogue to which the Islamists were invited to participate- under the aegis of the Azhar, with the support of the Coptic Church. The Azhar? That was unexpected! The traditional Muslim religious establishment of Egypt, the Azhar, influential well beyond Egypt around the Muslim world, has kept such a low profile recently, and kept its distance from its historic antagonists, the Botherhood. Interesting development, bears watching.
But the real relief is that today's demonstrations are announced to be peaceful rather than violent- if, that is, the unpredictable and ungovernable angry young men in the street follow the scenario.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Egypt Burning: Back to the Future?

Photo: Egypt is bracing for the second anniversary of the January 25th revolution. In 2011, it was 'Down down with Hosni Mubarak'; in 2012 it was 'Down down with Military Rule'; in 2013 it will be 'Down Down with Brotherhood Rule'.

Beyond the worst violence of the revolution of January 25th, beyond anything in living memory, what is going on in Egypt today is shocking, horrifying, catastrophic. Beyond words. Egyptians killing Egyptians- over what?
A year after the Port Said soccer massacre in which seventy-some supporters of the Cairo-based Ahli team lost their lives a year ago, Egypt braced for the verdict of the court trying the Port Said hooligans who were allegedly behind the violence. If they were acquitted, the Ahli ‘Ultras’- diehard fans- threatened massive disruption and violence. When twenty one of the Port Said accused were sentenced to death, their families and friends saw the verdict as bowing to the pressure of the Ahli and vowed in return to show ‘Cairo’ the mayhem that Port Said could wreck. The numbers of the dead in the ensuing fighting between natives of those three cities and the police has nearly equaled the number of original victims of the soccer massacre. Meantime other cities far and wide in the country are up in arms, and Cairo itself is the scene of rioting and traffic-stopping street protests.
How can this be happening in a country where civil war is unknown, where regionalism and secession are unheard of, where the control of the central government has been the overpowering paradigm of the past five thousand years? Three eastern port cities with a history of patriotism against invaders- Port Said, Ismailiya, Suez- are in bloody revolt against ‘Cairo’, and the Morsi government has called in the army and imposed a thirty-day martial law and curfew crack down.
To complicate matters, no one really knows who or what is behind the scenes, or who is being manipulated and by whom. Is this the counter-revolution so long threatened or promised? Is this chaos a calculated, necessary preliminary to the intervention of the military and a military take-over, this time for good, openly, and with no opposition? Is it a repeat of the scenario of January 26, 1952, when Cairo was set aflame, and Colonels Nasser and company staged their coup the following July, setting the stage for uninterrupted rule by military men for the next sixty years? January 25, 2011, was in a sense a revolution against the regime that came to power in 1952. Two years later, in 2013, is it back to the future? For so many Egyptians disgusted and terrified by the power grab of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government, that scenario may be the lesser of two evils.
Regardless. Enough. Enough is enough. Enough of the madness of Egyptians destroying each other, destroying their country, destroying their revolution, destroying their economy. Enough. They should take a step back to sanity and behold what they have wrought.