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.