Tag Archives: Egypt
Back in the days when the term ‘Arab Spring’ referred to a dubious brand of mineral water, one of the main arguments for Western support of Middle Eastern dictatorships posited by some experts in the field of International Relations (‘IR’) was that no matter how bad the incumbent in the presidential seat (or royal throne), the alternative would be infinitely worse – and there was only ever one alternative, a Muslim fundamentalist (later ‘Islamist’) theocrat whose despotism would not be tempered by sensitivity to the energy needs of the (then) industrialised world.
Barely two years after the commencement of the political upheavals in the MENA region, this longstanding thesis – like many a Mediterranean economy – is on the verge of total bankruptcy, even though relatively few commentators appear to have realised this.
1. Theocracy? What Theocracy? Any reasonable awareness of post-1990 trends in political thought within the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (‘OIC’) member countries would lead to the conclusion that the popularity of the paradoxically modern theocratic model – even amongst conservative Islamists – was on the wane. Particularly after the end of the Cold War and the rise of satellite television, autocratic models of all hues have been increasingly under pressures they cannot easily control, as well as being unfashionable; by the mid-2000s, even some of the most socially radical groups had embraced political democracy as an ideal – which, crucially, meant embracing political competition.
2. Bread and Games. While people cannot be content with flatbread and football alone, any government which fails to provide these goods is likely to find itself in trouble. The main Islamist parties in Egypt and Tunisia, which enjoyed considerable logistical and organisational advantages over both their ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ rivals, have seen political capital accrued over many decades squandered in a matter of months because they have not managed to fulfil the basic expectations of their populations. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has seen its affiliated Freedom and Justice Party plummet from an expected near-monopoly of power at various stages in 2011 to a 24.78% share of the vote in the first round of the summer 2012 presidential elections, with the FJP widely expected to fare considerably worse during this April’s parliamentary polls as the cost of living and soccer behind closed doors take their toll; Tunisia’s Ennahda Movement formed a coalition government in 2011, and with its popularity eroding is now likely to form a government of national unity. Full-spectrum dominance this is not.
3. Second Thoughts. With the erratic performance of the Freedom and Justice Party all-too-obvious, the idea that Muslim Brotherhood-populated or inspired political parties would sweep all before them in a democratising region does not appear credible, with Jordan’s recent parliamentary elections proving instructive: the Islamic Action Front’s boycott (together with that of several other smaller parties of various ideological hues) did little to dampen the final turnout, reported as being 56.6%.
As we have noted before on this blog, the Financial Times appears to have comprehensively displaced The Times as the United Kingdom’s newspaper of record, with its unrivalled quality of precise reporting and stimulating comment proving that there is still space in today’s market for news in paper format. Yet a recent editorial – Morsi’s Mistake, from November 24th-25th’s FT Weekend – illustrated the broader problem of cultural presumptions that even the very best struggle to transcend. The editorial – correctly and rather uncontroversially – noted the disproportionate nature of the measures taken by the current President of Egypt, a bespectacled former assistant professor at California State University, to exempt his actions from judicial review via a decree issued on 22nd November 2012, a roundly-condemned legal stratagem that appears to have backfired spectacularly.
However, the FT then posited a bizarre corollary, namely that Mohamed Morsi’s government constitues ‘the test for whether democratic Islam has a future’. After some serious consideration of this ultimately broad claim, we would postulate the following:
1. The FJP ≠ Democratic Islam. Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party (‘FJP’) is but one of a great many political parties in OIC member states which claim or are claimed to represent a synthesis between Islam and democracy; moreover, it is a very new organisation, having only been legalised since 6th June 2011, and it is unclear how it will be perceived in a year or two’s time. To equate the FJP to the entire experience of democracy in the Islamic world is fundamentally mistaken.
2. Egypt ≠ the Centre of the Universe. With the historic events in Tahrir Square during Q1 2011 still fresh in the memory, it has become fashionable to regard Egypt as a pivotal country in the region and even the world at large. However, despite its large size and population, proximity to geopolitically prominent countries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, and close ties to the United States, Egypt is not a particularly important country in every context, not least that of Islam and democracy. States such as Indonesia, Turkey and Senegal have had far longer and qualitatively richer experiences in this domain and tell us much more about the interactions, overlaps and tensions between Islamic religious beliefs and democratic institutions than Egypt, although this may change in the future.
3. Democracy ≠ Institutions. Democracy cannot be reduced to formal institutions: the value people attribute to democracy is not always matched by their corresponding legislatures, judiciaries and executives. As we noted in our 1st February 2011 piece Reform in the Middle East: should we be surprised?, the gargantuan Gallup survey Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think found that the desire for democracy amongst lay populations in predominantly Muslim countries is high; within this context, the Arab Spring should not be viewed as a surprise.
With the saturation of the media by celebritisation and trivia there is no shortage of non-stories to be consumed by participants both willing and incidental, but the past week has engendered one of the year’s more unlikely ones: a female newscaster sporting a hijab has been spotted on Egyptian state television. Prima facie this is a development of genuine significance insofar as it marks a liberalisation of state policy towards those who up until recently have been excluded from the country’s official narrative: in the entirety of Egypt’s fifty-two year televisual age, Fatima Nabil is the first presenter to wear a headscarf identified with religion; the relaxation of a protocol which forbade this in spite of court rulings to the contrary can be viewed as a positive development in terms of advancement of the rule of law.
Yet away from Cairene television studios – though not that far away at all – the continuation of a very different ‘protocol’ serves as a stark reminder as to where the true challenges in this substantial republic straddling Africa and Asia lie: organic rubbish is clogging the streets of urban Egypt. Despite the inception of a ‘Clean Homeland’ campaign by the nation’s first elected president – the bespectacled, media-unfriendly Mohamed Morsi – the issue of stray waste, a problem that was promised to be solved within 100 days of Morsi taking office, shows no sign of disappearing.
The contrast between the relative ease of addressing a simple issue pertaining to religious identity and solving a large-scale practical problem is unflattering to Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party (‘FJP’), a political organisation created and backed by the Muslim Brotherhood which performed strongly in the January 2012 elections to the lower house of the Egyptian People’s Assembly but has since seen its support erode alarmingly in subsequent months; the advancement of the FJP’s Morsi to the presidency this summer could not disguise a sobering 24.78% first round showing in a contest dominated by a liberal vote condemned by its failure to unite behind a single candidate.
As those familiar with waste management issues will doubtless be aware, there are potentially many ways to address the problem of rubbish collection, sorting and recycling: the training and employment of state employees specialising in refuse collection activities; the outsourcing of this same function to private corporations such as Veolia Environnement S.A.; the involvement of local stakeholders, in this case Cairo’s Zabaleen (lit. ‘garbage people’), in recycling operations; or combinations of these or other methods.
To deal with this issue successfully, however, requires both political will and technocratic skill, with the dysfunctional example of Hosni Mubarak’s administration – during which European companies were awarded lucrative contracts with limited obligations, and the Zabaleen needlessly incapacitated following an apocalyptic mass hog cull – and its ultimate fate still fresh in the memory. No variety of head couture on television can veil the reality of sewer-like streets – but will the powers-that-be in Egypt recognise this before their electoral credibility erodes yet further?
Long before the phrase ‘Arab Spring’ had been coined, one of the principal justifications given in some Western countries for supporting the often violently authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa (‘MENA’) region during the post-1945 period was the purported danger of Islamic fundamentalist (or, in more recent times, Islamist) rule. Now-deposed presidents such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali were said to be bulwarks against a ‘Green Peril’ of radicalised zealots that would sweep all before it en route to transforming the Greater Middle East into a cauldron of ideological extremism.
The movement that cropped up time and again in this analysis was the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt (‘the MB’, ‘the Brotherhood’), a rather opaque organisation that was at once an integral part of the dictatorial system – particularly under Hosni Mubarak – and regularly terrorised by it. A 1928 establishment, the Brotherhood – with its considerable network of businesses, significant membership from the professional classes and organisational capacity built up over decades of operation – was, in the absence of a stern dictator such as Mubarak, destined to rule Egypt apparently ad infinitum, transforming it (one presumes) into some kind of emirate in the process.
Yet within eighteen months of Mubarak’s ousting, this narrative already seems to be highly questionable:
1. An Underwhelming Start. The first clear signs that the conventional wisdom might not be so wise occurred in the Q4 2011/Q1 2012 elections to the People’s Assembly of Egypt and the Shura or Consultation Council, the respective lower and upper houses of Egypt’s bicameral parliament: the MB’s newly-founded political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (‘the FJP’), polled 37.5% in the People’s Assembly ballot and 45.0% in the Consultation Council counterpart – good figures, but hardly the stuff of full-spectrum domination. These numbers begin to look slightly disappointing when one bears in mind that many other entities that are sure to be powerful electoral forces in the future had not yet coalesced into anything like coherent platforms; in other words, in this sense the Brotherhood may already have peaked.
2. Electoral Slide. This impression of the Muslim Brotherhood’s distinct fallibility only grew with the recent first round of the 2012 presidential contest (23rd-24th May 2012). The MB’s eventual candidate – the bespectacled engineer Mohamed Morsi, put forward following the banning from running of furniture salesman Khairat El-Shater by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – is estimated to have only just crept over the 25% mark, with none of the four candidates positioned closely behind Morsi in the polls holding political positions analogous to the Brotherhood.
3. Parliamentary Performance. An excellent recent report by Al Jazeera English icon Sherine Tadros illustrated why the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral performance has slid so dramatically in a matter of a few months: even to their natural sympathisers, their performance in parliament has been anything but inspiring; they are acknowledged as ‘good people’, but not necessarily the solution to coax Egypt out of its economic malaise. And herein lies the crux of the matter: no party in Egypt – whether it be Islamist, liberal, liberal Islamist, socialist or radical – is likely to enjoy much support for long if it does not implement solid policies to remedy the country’s chronic youth unemployment, acute security deficit and hopelessly inadequate public services.
A Mediterranean country that straddles two continents, today Egypt added a new dimension to its strategic value: democracy, or to be more precise, its first ever presidential election which historians are likely to judge as worthy of bearing the label ‘free and fair’. With over 50 million voters eligible to indicate their electoral preferences over no less than two days of balloting action, it is no exaggeration to term this one of the most significant occasions in the Middle East’s modern epoch.
One of the more intriguing aspects of this contest is the enthusiastic use of technology in the campaigns of the various presidential campaigns, with the social networking sites that played such an integral part in the downfall of the previous incumbent very much to the fore. The candidature of frontrunner Dr. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh – a former senior member of the somewhat unwieldy Muslim Brotherhood movement who has forged a unique electoral umbrella including Tahrir Square revolutionaries, Coptic Christians and disaffected Salafis – was to our mind particularly eye-catching, but not necessarily for obvious reasons.
Yes, at the time of writing Dr. Aboul Fotouh’s Facebook page has an eye-watering 540,000 ‘likes’, a figure high enough to make almost anyone familiar with the exceptional slog involved in obtaining even a handful of such approvals incandescent with jealousy; yes, his Twitter following:followers ratio of 1:237,860 is something that appears beyond even our own collective appeal.
But even Dr. Aboul Fotouh’s Internet presence is not flawless.
As evidenced by the above picture, he has forgotten to change his Joomla! favicon, meaning that the world at large can see that his traffic-heavy homepage is built using one of the world’s most popular open source content management systems. Could some open-source governance be too much to expect from the physician who could possibly be the next president of Egypt, and who has been publicly endorsed by one Wael Ghonim?
Even while pro-democracy demonstrators still gather in Tahrir Square, the Egyptian electorate are set to commence voting tomorrow in the country’s first free elections since the beginning of the 1950s: the destiny of 498 seats in the lower house of the People’s Assembly of Egypt will be decided by this process, with those in the remaining ten seats being subject to the curious anomaly of being placements by the much-criticised Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (‘SCAF’). Despite the dizzying number of parties competing for office – movements that represent a huge cross-section of ideological and social strands – much of the attention of the international media has focused on the role that the al-ʾIhwān al-Muslimūn or Muslim Brotherhood (‘MB’) may have to play in a post-Mubarak and ultimately post-SCAF Egypt.
Some have posited that, given a good showing in the forthcoming elections, the MB is poised to transform Egypt into Saudi Arabia on the Nile; others point to a supremely pragmatic and politically cautious bloc that is far more comfortable with the established order in Egypt than they would publicly admit. But such evaluations, while interesting, perhaps miss the most essential points about the Muslim Brotherhood, which include the following:
1. Complexity. The MB is a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon. It is not, as much of the coverage appears to be suggesting, limited to the Freedom and Justice Party (‘FJP’), a socially conservative political force that appears likely to win a considerable slice of the vote; conversely, it does not have any official or semi-official affiliation to many other parties bearing the ‘Islamist’ label, including the Salafist, ideologically extreme Al-Nour. Additionally, political parties that are in many ways as ‘mainstream’ as they come and which are rarely identified by observers as being anything to do with the MB – the liberal New Centre Party comes to mind – are actually founded by those with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood.
2. Dynamism. Only a relatively short time ago, the Muslim Brotherhood was characterised by an anti-Western narrative which fused various elements of religious fundamentalism, economic nationalism and revolutionary violence. However, in recent years these trends have ceded ground to newer trends to such a point that in a recent interview with Al Jazeera English’s Mike Hanna, Mohamed Saad Katatni, the secretary-general of the FJP, went out of his way to characterise his party not even as a religious party, but rather a civil one with religious reference points. Moreover, there are huge differences between the MB’s older generation and those aged 30 and under: the latter arguably have far more in common with their contemporaries in ostensibly ‘secular’ parties in terms of their views on democracy, human rights and gender, than with the senior figures in their own movement.
Batons crunch and bullets fly as Tahrir Square, the symbolic epicentre of the Arab Spring, is once again the scene of historic protests. Incredible numbers of people are once again thronging the centre of Cairo, demanding an end to a period of military rule which has stretched the credibility of the word ‘interim’ far beyond breaking point. In echoes of the mass demonstrations against Hosni Mubarak earlier this year, Egyptians are chanting for the resignation of the increasingly reviled ruling Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, a man who despite his relatively brief tenure may already have too much blood on his hands to remain in power for very much longer. Major international actors and commentators are struggling to react in anything other than meaningless – and outmoded – platitudes.
Yet our subscribers and readers will, in all likelihood, be amongst the least fazed of all observers. As our blog post of 9th October 2011 spelt out with no little irony, ‘Revolution 2.0′ has been on the cards in Egypt for quite some time now. But if this was fairly obvious to us, why has it caught so many people by surprise?
While we cannot speak for everybody, we at Mediolana do believe that most analysts failed to recognise one crucial fact: the Egyptian Revolution is a qualitative movement. Like most people in most historical eras, citizens in today’s Egypt have a desire to exercise basic freedoms. In epochs where the power of the state was highly circumscribed by technological limitations, the state and its acolytes were rarely in a position to shape public opinion, let alone institute regimes characterised by systemised brutality along high modernist lines. By taking to the streets of Cairo and Alexandria once more, urban Egypt is rebelling against not just the despotic rule of one man or a single strata of society; rather, it is attempting to demolish the apparatus of oppression that has defined life in the country for much of twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
By overlooking this vital element to the protests – that they were not merely about economic factors such as the excruciating cost of living and a paucity of jobs – many of those who were meant to be able to anticipate and perhaps drive the news agenda have been caught unawares. The burgeoning readership of Mediolana cannot be counted amongst them.