As incredible as it may seem, the ostensible beginnings of the Arab Spring are the best part of four years in the past; while many elements of this phenomenon are still somewhat opaque, there is little doubt that life in Egypt – the Arab world’s most populous country – is degenerating into an eerie parody of decades gone by. A recent open-editorial NYT piece by the Al Shorouk journalist Sara Khorshid (Egypt’s New Police State, 16th November 2014) confirms that something as innocent as a conversation with a foreigner in a café can set a person on the course to being denounced and detained.
Khorshid and her sister were chatting with Alain Gresh – editor of the venerable Le Monde Diplomatique periodical – in a Cairo dining establishment on 11th November 2014 when their exchanges were interrupted by someone claiming that they were ‘ruining Egypt’; on leaving the eatery, the trio were stopped by a security officer who informed them of some of their own autobiographical information in a similar manner to a stalker-type character in a cheap 1990s American psychological thriller. Their ordeal continued until their eventual release two hours later, following a couple of telephone calls from M. Gresh to the French Embassy and the top man at the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate; that this episode took place in one of Cairo’s more genteel neighbourhoods is a stark illustration of the prevailing climate in the country.
But assuming that Khorshid is correct in describing today’s Egypt as reminiscent of the very worst of Nasser’s hyper-nationalist, paranoid police state, the question on everybody’s lips should be: is this sustainable? Authoritarian politics can work – after a fashion – in today’s über-connected societies, but meaningful financial incentives have to be present within the system. As many of Egypt’s neighbours – as well as states like Russia and China – are swiftly discovering, it is hard work for authoritarian ruling classes (and those in democracies) to stay one step ahead of the populace, even assuming rapid economic growth; in its absence, wrapping one’s compatriots in an increasingly tattered flag is barely a strategy. (Former) General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi would do well to prioritise spreading the benefits of his country’s notoriously unevenly-distributed wealth lest he risks resembling the star of Egypt’s famous Panda cheese commercials: a take-no-prisoners bear who responds to any insinuation of ‘disloyalty’ with brute and inapposite force.
With the euphoria of both the evenings of 25th January 2011 and 3rd July 2013 presently resembling something of a surreal dream, discussing the medium-term future of Egypt – a potentially pivotal, transcontinental nation – may seem absurd if not downright impossible. But as blood flows like water, places of worship are burnt to the ground and some commentators are predicting full-blown civil war, we at Mediolana sense that this is precisely the time to analyse the possible constructive ways forward for the three major entities within Egyptian society: the military; the Muslim Brotherhood; and the general public.
1. The Egyptian Army. This institution – which has ruled Egypt largely unfettered since 1952, notwithstanding the revolution of 2011 – is presently in the ascendancy, having been a key and broadly popular actor in the recent deposition of kidnapped ex-president, Mohamed Morsi. However, this rise is a fragile one. The extreme brutality of the manner in which sit-ins in support of Mr Morsi have been abrogated – many hundreds dead, thousands injured – risks undermining the legitimacy of the armed forces in the eyes of a significant minority – perhaps even a plurality – of Egyptians. Exercising restraint, respecting pluralism and conceding that they will have to be subject to some kind of constitutional oversight would appear to be essential conditions to fulfil for the future of Egypt.
2. The Muslim Brotherhood. As detailed on more than one occasion in this very blog, the Muslim Brotherhood – to be precise, the Freedom and Justice Party, their main political wing – have been haemorrhaging support since since the end of 2011 as the performance of both their parliamentarians and their president has disillusioned even many of their (erstwhile) voters. Fatally, they appear to have drastically overestimated the level of backing they enjoy within the population at large, forgetting that Mr Morsi, despite the advantage of a formidable organisational machine, polled just 24.78% in the first round of the 2012 presidential elections; that the 2013 Egyptian coup d’état enjoyed genuine mass appeal is a serious indictment of their record. Engendering some really compelling and pragmatic ideas which will help the lot of all their compatriots without exception should assume the highest priority.
3. The General Public. The Egyptian public seems to be the meat in the Army-Brotherhood sandwich; in 2012, a majority did not vote for either the ancien régime candidate nor Mr Morsi in the first round, yet this was ultimately the choice they were presented with. To avoid being eaten alive, this bloc simply must find sane, compassionate and smart representatives from within its ranks; impress upon the authorities their desire for peaceful coexistence; and come up with a gradualist and inspiring roadmap to attaining democratic, constitutional government that the vast majority of the Egyptian population can accept. As the last few weeks have shown, the alternatives are not just unpalatable, but the stuff of nightmares.
Self-congratulatory blog posts are one of the banes of the Internet, and we at Mediolana do not intend to add to this burgeoning corpus of perverse reflexivity. That said, this blog is one of the few outlets which can look at the events in Egypt during the last week or so with little more than a shrug of the shoulders. On a number of occasions, we pointed to what most pundits are only now discovering: that the arguably dominant Arab Spring narrative which views a ‘normal’ democracy as a distant fantasy in the context on MENA is basically flawed. If the following was not abundantly clear previously, it should be by now: democratisation does not necessarily lead to ‘Islamist’ rule, and if it does, that rule is by no means immutable or permanent.
1. Results Matter. The collapse of the presidency led by the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Freedom and Justice Party’s (‘FJP’) Mohamed Morsi at the hands of a military-street symbiosis was not inevitable. But having expended hundreds of lives and incurred thousands of injuries to overthrow one omnipotent dictator in Q1 2011, the Egyptian public were hardly likely to be happy with an eerily similar incumbency. Garbage-defined streets, an eroding currency and unchecked, self-awarded legislative power is not a recipe for sustainable rule.
2. Military Concessions. Egypt’s powerful army is unlikely to depart the political (or perhaps even more saliently, economic) scene anytime soon. Nevertheless, General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi’s 3rd July 2013 televised address was particularly notable, in our analysis, for one thing: the promise of imminent elections, and the fact that the keeping of this promise (if not the exact conditions under which it will be honoured) is not seriously in doubt. The contrast with the situation for much of 2011, where the military’s keenness to kick the elections years into the future seemed almost unlimited, is obvious: this basic mechanism of democracy is no longer contested.
3. Determinism Sucks. Paradigms that construct monolithic mass entities are not only frankly played, but belong to a command-and-control era that arguably no longer exists. How else to explain the intense (particularly intergenerational) internal debates and schisms within (and beyond) the Muslim Brotherhood, the muted reaction to Morsi’s overthrow and the sharply shrinking share of the FJP’s vote over a matter of months from Q4 2011 to Q2 2012?