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.