Saturday, June 29, 2013

Tension Tonight in Egypt

This post was published the evening before the June 30 demonstrations which were non-violent and of historic proportions. Overwhelming masses of people all over Cairo (and I presume the rest of Egypt) took to the streets in a spectacular display of displeasure with the Muslim Brotherhood in general and President Morsi in particular.  
I collected a stream of Twitter messages as they came into my timeline. They can be found in the post after this.

June 30 marks Egyptian president Morsi's first year in office and it's been one helluva a tough time for him and the Muslim Brotherhood. The lofty expectations of the young revolutionaries whose protests led to the end of the Mubarak era have been followed by political instability and economic challenges that have brought the country to the edge of becoming a failed state. The only source of stability remaining appears to be the military.

Egypt, Its Streets a Tinderbox, Braces for a Spark
Supporters of President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt held
signs saying “We support the popular revolution”
during a protest in Cairo on Friday.
Protests against Mr. Morsi are scheduled for Sunday.
CAIRO — Thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, many wearing hard hats and armed with makeshift clubs, are camped near the presidential palace in anticipation of a battle to defend their ally, President Mohamed Morsi. In three days of protests against him around the Nile Delta, gunmen have killed at least five Brotherhood members and set fire to several of its offices.

The use of firearms is becoming more common on all sides. Activists who once chanted, “Peaceful, peaceful,” now joke darkly about the inevitability of violence: “Peaceful is dead.” 
With a new wave of protests scheduled for Sunday, Egypt’s pre-eminent Muslim religious authority, Al Azhar, warned in a statement this weekend of potential “civil war.”
A year after Egypt’s first credible presidential election, the ballot box has failed to deliver on promises of unquestioned legitimacy or the nonviolent resolution of political disputes. In more than two years of post-revolutionary crises, the streets have never felt so tense. 
Mismanagement or sabotage by the institutions of the old government has stunted the transition to democracy. Egypt’s new Islamist leaders all but gave up on building support beyond their faction. And now long-suppressed conflicts over questions of national identity or entrenched interests are threatening to tear apart the national cohesion that was a hallmark of the 18-day uprising in 2011 against President Hosni Mubarak. The strife is beginning to challenge the historic sense of nationhood that long distinguished Egypt from volatile neighbors whose borders were carved out by colonial powers.
The Times article is excellent. But as you read, make a few mental notes then go to another much longer reading I came across earlier today by independent journalist Khaled Diab. 
His three thousand word essay eighteen months ago reads almost like a screen play for what is now unfolding in Egypt. 
Al-Nour (The Light), the coalition of Salafist parties, emerged, almost out of the blue, to eclipse partially the dawn of Egyptian democracy by garnering an impressive quarter of the first phase vote, almost double what the secular leftist Egyptian Bloc – a major force in the revolution which was expected to come second – managed to salvage from their electoral train wreck.

Khaled Diab is a freelance journalist,
blogger and writer. Until recently
based in Jerusalem, he now
flits between Geneva and Ghent.
Despite its bright name, if al-Nour ever has its way completely, Egypt would be run according to its ultra-conservative interpretation of shari’a, albeit in a “gradual way that suits the nature of society”, because, in their fundamentalist view, Islam cannot be separated from the state and secularism is tantamount to atheism (a common misconception among Egyptians). 
[Does this remind anyone of American religious fundamentalists? JB]

The unexpectedly strong performance of the Salafists and poor showing of the secularists has been the subject of frenzied and worried debate in liberal and progressive Egyptian circles, including among my friends and acquaintances. Overseas, the early fears that Egypt would become the next Iran have been reawakened, and some Western friends who have been terrified by the prospect of an Islamist takeover of Egypt have been wagging an “I told you so” finger at my alleged naivety.


Some months ago, I cautioned that the revolution and the interim regime ignored or downplayed the economic aspect of the uprising, what I called the revolution’s bottom line, at their peril. “You can have all the democracy and personal freedoms in the world, but without addressing the bread and butter issues of poverty and economic injustice, reform will be incomplete and hollow,” I wrote.

Given Egypt’s pressing practical socio-economic issues, we may actually find that the first parliament is not preoccupied with identity politics but rather with more urgent bread-and-butter issues (at least, any sensible parliament should be). This may, paradoxically, lead to some weird alliances of convenience forming not around cultural or identity issues but around economic outlook. So, just as the Muslim Brotherhood has allied itself to al-Ghad partly based of the similarity in their economic outlook, so too might al-Nour, if it is sincere about its economic programme, find itself in an uncomfortable partnership with secular leftists, at least on issues of economic justice.


...the SCAF’s policy of obfuscation and delay since the revolution erupted harmed the electoral chances of the revolutionaries because it enabled the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood to convince quite a number of Egyptians that the resulting instability was the fault of the activists and not the old guard. Had the army handed over power immediately to an interim “Council of the Wise” and had genuine elections been held during the early period of euphoria following Mubarak’s downfall, then the courageous and visionary revolutionary youth could well have led the political pack in Egypt’s parliament, rather than being left with almost nothing.

But why would the SCAF form an unholy alliance with the Islamists? For a number of reasons. Pragmatically, the generals realised that the Brotherhood, particularly its old and conservative leadership, was the lesser of two evils. The revolutionaries want complete regime change. In contrast, the Brotherhood – whose current leadership has been saying for years that good Muslims are obliged to obey their leaders even if they are tyrants – is willing to compromise and live with a power-sharing arrangement.

Additionally, there is an element of intergenerational conflict: the young revolutionaries, including the younger members of the Brotherhood itself, appeared to be a common enemy both to the ageing generals and the ageing Islamists at the top of the movement. And with the Brotherhood’s commitment to free market economics and its reassurances that it would not rock the boat with Egypt’s allies, the FJP must seem like the best guarantor of the elusive “stability” Washington so covets.


So, even without Islamist domination of the next parliament, it will take years of effort, dialogue, education and trust building to slay the dragon of sectarianism and rebuild the confidence of Christians that they are full and equal citizens of the country. Of course, an Islamist victory could well delay or set back such a process.

Likewise, the Islamists have succeeded in setting in motion a counter-feminist revolution which has reversed or frozen many of the gains made by women in their struggle for equality. And, paradoxically, as more and more women go out into the workplace and public sphere, they must do so heavily cloaked in piety and “decency” and, hence, not as equals to men. So, as misogyny is not limited to Islamists in Egypt and the sex divide has reached an unsustainable level, it is unclear whether matters will actually get worse for women.


That last snip qualifies as serious understatement. Take a look at my earlier post about women's rights in Egypt.

And here is a video posted yesterday.

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