[Review essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books]
SOMETIME IN THE SUMMER of 2011, I was sitting with a few friends at a café on the edge of a cliff overlooking Cairo. We were smoking shisha and drinking tea and beer, watching the sun set over the taupe tableau when we spotted two tall, blond men on the other side of the terrace with a digital camera, filming the sun’s descent through the smog. After a little while, I decided to make conversation. In thick Dutch accents they explained what they were doing: They wanted to film the sunrise over Cairo but, because it was too early in the morning and they only had a limited time in Egypt to shoot, they were filming the sunset instead, which they would play backward. They were making a documentary about the Egyptian revolution.
In the year after the Tahrir uprising that took place in January and February 2011, Cairo was crawling with good-natured documentarians. Having watched the inspiring 18-day “Arab Spring” revolution on television, they clamored to come see the action themselves, and maybe get a taste of the utopia and possibility that was Tahrir Square. Dutch filmmakers on shoestring budgets weren’t the only ones, of course. American anarchists, British journalists, French photographers all wanted a piece of what was going on in Egypt. Many of them left shortly after, taking with them their short films, their articles, blog posts, and think pieces, glorifying the revolution and telling the world that radical political change could be more than just a dream. Egypt had a perfect revolution: horizontal, spontaneous, inspiring. A radical’s fairy tale — or so it seemed.
Some observers stayed longer. Thanassis Cambanis watched not only the sunrise but also the sunset. The product is his book Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story, a comprehensive, straightforward — and sympathetic — accounting of the Egyptian revolution from its percolations in the anti-police brutality movement that began in Cairo and Alexandria in the summer of 2011 up through the brutal start of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s presidency, making stops along the way to various elections, constitutions, and protests.
Once Upon a Revolution provides a detailed timeline for people with a keen interest in the sequence of events in Egypt in the early years after the Tahrir uprising: the book is a methodical, unforgiving, nearly day-by-day account of mismanaged political parties, state repression, chaos, and fear. But it is more than just a primer. Whether Cambanis intended it or not, his book practically reads as a manual — a cautionary and instructive tale that should be required reading for would-be revolutionaries everywhere, Wall Street Occupiers and Hong Kong umbrella-holders alike, on the extent to which the powerful will go to prevent change and the pitfalls of decentralized revolutionary movements.
The book is loosely centered on two characters, both committed revolutionaries. Basem Kamel is a secular liberal, a middle-class architect with a family, living on the outskirts of Cairo. Moaz Abdelkarim is an idiosyncratic Islamist, a poorly dressed and perpetually tardy pharmacist who makes friends with the leftists and liberals in the tent camps in Tahrir Square during the 18-day “Arab Spring” uprising and eventually breaks with the Muslim Brotherhood over its exclusivist policies. They serve as imperfect stand-ins for the main strains of the Egyptian opposition and, over the course of the book, they become familiar if never truly deep characters. It’s the story of the revolution itself that drives Once Upon a Revolution’s narrative along.
Anyone who follows news from the Middle East knows the horrific ending (at least for now) to the story. Today, in Egypt, revolutionaries are jailed while officials from the former regime run for parliament. To understand how the country got from that to this, it helps to dwell a bit in the details, in the small missteps and sown chaos that took place between February 11, 2012, when President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, and August 14, 2013, the date when the army murdered some 600 Muslim Brotherhood supporters and began a crackdown that lasts until today. That’s precisely what Cambanis does, and the results are useful.
After the initial protests forced President Hosni Mubarak from power, a military junta known as the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) took control of Egypt. The generals vociferously claimed they were the defenders of the revolution, but they did everything in their power to stymy radical change. They fast-tracked constitutions and dissolved parliaments, they cut backroom deals and initiated prosecutions. Most of all, they sowed fear and chaos that ultimately served them perfectly.
Once Upon a Revolution devotes an entire chapter to the night of October 9, 2011, and the days afterward. That evening, a protest of Coptic Christians demanding equal rights marched from a north Cairo neighborhood to the headquarters of the state media, known as Maspero. The march was met with unexpected brutality: Armored personnel carriers barreled into unarmed protesters. Military police fired live bullets into the crowd. Twenty-eight died. Reports emerged of the army tossing bodies into the nearby Nile. That night, Egyptian state media spewed sectarian incitement against the Christian minority community. In the aftermath, the generals made pitiful attempts to spin the facts: the Copts had killed each other, the APC’s collision course was an accident.
At the time, the impact of the massacre wasn’t even completely evident to Egyptians themselves, much less outside observers. Cambanis writes, “In the weeks that followed the massacre, Egypt went about business as usual. The organized political class rallied the cadres. Maspero hardly affected the calculations of the SCAF, the Wafd Party, the Brothers, and the Salafis.” On the surface that’s true, but the effect was more subtle and more profound. The Maspero massacre — along with the police’s repeated crushing of anti-SCAF protests and even the February 2012 soccer riot in Port Said that left more than 70 people dead — became part of a patchwork of violence that created a climate of instability, fear, and paranoia. Compared with Mubarak’s resignation or the July 3, 2013 military coup, the Maspero massacre may appear a minor sideshow. And yet these events — whether they were at the behest of the SCAF or not we may never know — helped lay the groundwork for the military’s takeover.
But the military wouldn’t have been able to launch its power grab had it not been for political conditions on the ground, something on which Cambanis keeps an equally close eye. Recounting the opposition’s incompetence is just as crucial for understanding why Sisi’s retrenchment was possible. The Muslim Brotherhood deserves perhaps as much blame as the military for the revolution’s failure to achieve its goals. The group was famously Egypt’s best-organized political organization and one of the few actors with enough clout to negotiate with the military. It did so repeatedly and in the process betrayed the fundamental aims of the revolution. The Brotherhood leadership cut deals with the army to bring itself to power, as when it backed the SCAF-written constitution and helped push forward premature elections.
The Brotherhood’s politicking succeeded — for a time. Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood candidate, won the 2012 presidential election. But the Islamists’ missteps and overreaches helped turn Egyptians away from the democratic experiment and, in the end, straight back into the army’s waiting hands. Cambanis’s chapter on Morsi’s rule is titled “The Enemy Within.” It recounts exactly what the Brotherhood did to make its sometimes-allies, the revolutionaries, so completely distrustful: cutting deals with the SCAF and standing by the military and police while they cracked down on anti-government protests. By the summer of 2012, when Morsi became the president, the Brotherhood had no credibility. Morsi’s rule only undermined it further, seemingly proving everyone’s worst fears by proposing banning alcohol to issuing a radical decree in November 2012 that gave himself nearly unlimited powers as president over the judiciary and the constitution-writing process.
It was more or less inevitable that the anti-authoritarians would join forces with the anti-Islamist reactionaries to oppose Morsi. Many among the revolutionaries — including the social democrat Basem, one of Cambanis’s protagonists — backed a June 30, 2013 protest calling for Morsi’s removal. Three days later, the anti-Morsi protests culminated with a military takeover.
The revolutionaries — the leftists and liberals who formed the core of the uprising and tried to keep its goals alive amid military massacres and Brotherhood backroom dealing — do not emerge blameless from the tumultuous 2011–2013 period. Cambanis is unabashedly sympathetic to them. (I was, and am, too.) But he can’t help but point out their foibles. The revolutionaries failed to take advantage of electoral politics; they neglected political organizing in the countryside and the small cities in favor of Cairo and Alexandria (and Tahrir Square in particular); they made demands on the government that were at times unreasonable; they squandered opportunities to have their voices heard by those who held power; far too often they fought among themselves. (Something that some — such as the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, of which Moaz, one of Cambanis’s central characters, was a member — came to admit only too late.)
Nothing exemplifies the revolutionaries’ pitfalls and failures as well as the ill-fated Tahrir Square sit-in of July 2011. Amid feelings that the revolution had stalled under military rule, the revolutionary groups repaired to their favorite tactic: a tent camp in the center of Cairo. But unlike the initial uprising demanding Mubarak leave the presidency, this time the goals were diffuse and hazy. Protesters called for prosecution of members of the former regime, including hanging Mubarak, but other arguments were presented poorly. The protesters gathered under the conveniently ambiguous slogan “The Revolution First.” Once they were stuck in the square — in the sweltering weather of Cairo in July — they couldn’t back down. Each group was concerned about looking somehow less revolutionary than the others. The sit-in lacked public support and petered out. The memory of the July sit-in, like so much from that decisive year, will likely wither into oblivion. It was one of many missteps. But by focusing a chapter around it (“Stuck in the Square”), by describing the way the revolutionaries argued among themselves and aimlessly checked social media on their iPhones from the center of Tahrir, Cambanis makes clear what exactly went wrong, giving a microcosmic preview of the ways the revolution would falter. Every political organizing meeting in Cairo that devolved into pointless bickering under a cloud of cigarette smoke feels like a tragic missed connection — what if that one had only worked out?
Maybe those are lessons that can be learned for the next time around. Cambanis ends his book discussing the possibility of the revolution continuing in some form, at some point in the future. “The revolution continues,” was a common slogan during the years covered in the book, it was spray painted on walls, uttered in conversations, chanted at protests. It was even the name of a short-lived political party. It’s a hard mantra to keep alive these days. But optimism in itself can be revolutionary. President Sisi’s rule won’t last forever. And when the revolution continues — Egypt’s or any of the many uprisings that Tahrir inspired — a close reading of the history of Egypt from 2011 to 2013 could help the revolutionaries understand how to move forward.
That history shows the lengths to which entrenched elites will go to hold on to power: how they will manipulate, obfuscate, censor, and squash the opposition. At the same time, this recent history demonstrates for would-be revolutionaries the importance not just of learning how to protest and break down structures of power, but how new ones must be built from the ground up. The start of Egypt’s revolution was telegenic and inspiring; its demise, for now, at the hands of General Sisi has been hideous and demoralizing. But it’s important to know what happens between the sunrise and the sunset.
Basem Kamel in Cairo. Photo: Rena Effendi/Institut/DER SPIEGEL
[Der Spiegel published this update on a trio of revolutionaries four years after Tahrir Square. I extended the reporting for Once Upon a Revolution with followups in Cairo and Istanbul this winter. The story has been translated from English into German and then back again.]
On the fourth anniversary of the revolution, jailed blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah weighs 72 kilograms (159 pounds). It’s the 84th day of his hunger strike. Former Muslim Brother Moaz Abdelkarim has fled to Turkey. And architect Basem Kamel plans on running for parliament this spring.
For 18 days, the three men served as the protagonists in a grand historical drama. They wanted to reinvent their country and indeed the entire Middle East, with the world looking on enthusiastically. Without these three men — a Muslim Brother, an architect and a blogger who represent the heart, soul and brawn of the insurgency — the Egyptian revolution might never have happened.
The three activists camped out almost every day on Tahrir Square, helping the wounded and coordinating the protests. When Hosni Mubarak announced his resignation on Feb. 11, 2011, millions in Tahrir — and across the country — screamed, prayed and danced. “Never again can the regime ignore the people,” architect Basem said, barely audible over the euphoric chanting. He was confident that the generals who had seized power in Mubarak’s wake would be quickly dispatched by people power.
But four years later, there is little left of the revolution — its heroes have either fled, been jailed or receded into insignificance. Despite all this, they still haven’t given up.
When the Tahrir uprising began, Alaa Abdel Fattah was in South Africa, where he’d moved to take a computer programming job. He quickly returned, and when I first met him in February 2011, he was staring wistfully at the state media headquarters, the Maspero Building on the Nile River. “It’s impossible to take over this building,” he said, pointing at the row of tanks protecting it from the thousands of young unarmed demonstrators out front. “They could kill us all.”
Fattah was 29 at the time. He had a potbelly, long curly hair and a smile that pushed out his cheeks. He dressed like a programmer and brought brainy discourse to Tahrir, but he was also equally committed to the fight, standing firm in the face of regime attacks. His father was a well-known human rights lawyer and Abdel Fattah seemed to be born with the spirit of resistance in his blood.
Hosni Mubarak was still in power the first time he got sent to jail. The second came after the revolution in 2011. He got hauled in for a third time at the end of 2013. A fourth arrest occurred during the summer of 2014. On August 18, 2014, Abdel Fattah began a hunger strike in his prison cell.
At Abdel Fattah’s trial in September, the absurdity of the paranoid police state was on full display. He stood accused of crimes against the state and was sentenced to 15 years in jail. The defendant was put in a glass cage, his microphone silenced. Prosecutors, clearly unable to prove that Abdel Fattah committed any crimes against the state, showed a video illegally seized during his arrest. It showed his wife belly dancing at a private gathering. He was released on bail, but only briefly.
“My temporary release is a conspiracy like the case with my imprisonment,” Abdel Fattah wrote on Facebook after he got let out of jail. He was arrested again only a few weeks later. The conviction has since been overturned due to procedural errors, but he remains in prison awaiting retrial. Abdel Fattah’s younger sister, Sanaa Seif, is also in jail, serving out a two-year sentence for protesting her brother’s detention.
This is the situation in Egypt today, four years after the revolution, which began on Jan. 25, 2011 and ultimately forced the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, who had been the country’s president for decades. After the military unseated Muslim Brother Mohammed Morsi as the country’s first elected civilian president in July 2013, the brief phase of freedom came to an abrupt end. In the time that has passed since, the Muslim Brotherhood has been outlawed. Court proceedings against Mubarak didn’t lead anywhere; and his sons, who also faced charges, have just been released from jail. Meanwhile, most of the influential revolutionary activists are either in jail or have fled into exile abroad. In Cairo, the military is ruling again with a strongman at its helm.
Today there are even fewer avenues for dissent than there were before the revolution. No public gatherings are allowed; the secret police exerts a tighter grip than ever; parliament has been disbanded; and the media cheers on President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Moaz Abdelkarim in Istanbul.
A Failed Revolution
There are also court proceedings against Moaz Abdelkarim in Cairo, but he managed to flee the country in time. The pharmacist and former Muslim Brother now lives in Istanbul and has shaved his light beard. “It doesn’t look like a revolution,” he says. “It looks like a failure.”
During the revolution, Abdelkarim was a young Muslim Brother who dressed like an old Islamist, with pleated pants and plaid shirts. He had a youthful grin and was a bit naive, but he also had an iron rebellious streak. He had grown up inside the disciplined Islamist movement as a third-generation Muslim Brother, but he chafed at its dictatorial traditions. Brotherhood leaders ordered their members to stay away from the uprising, but Abdelkarim ignored them, instead joining a group of opposition activists who met in secret apartments and later formed the seeds of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition.
After the revolution, Abdelkarim and other young Muslim Brothers formed the new Egyptian Current party. They were Islamists, but they believed passionately in a liberal, secular government and were committed to democratic principles and separation of religion and state. “I am Islamic,” he said in the spring of 2011. “But I don’t want an Islamic state. A state can’t be Islamic any more than a chair can be Islamic.” He attacked the Muslim Brotherhood in public when its members decided to found a party. The organizers responded by initiating disciplinary proceedings against Abdelkarim and expelling him.
On two different occasions, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces invited Revolutionary Youth Coalition leaders to meetings, and Abdelkarim also attended. The bemused generals listened to what the young activists had to say, but then politely ignored all their proposals and appeals. It quickly became clear to Abdelkarim that the generals had no intention of changing anything and that the old regime was still in power.
He nevertheless still believed the revolution stood a chance right up until the point when security forces invaded the Islamist encampment at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square on August 14, 2013. Supporters of Morsi had camped out and called for the reinstatement of their president. The security forces could have dispersed the sit-in with teargas and water cannons as they had done so often. But this time, they came in with guns blazing with live ammunition, at point blank range. The massacre lasted almost a day and, in the end, at least 800 people died — perhaps as many as 2,600, according to the Muslim Brotherhood’s estimates.
On Twitter, his friend Basem Kamel placed the blame for the massacre on Muslim Brotherhood leaders for putting their followers on a path to confrontation.
Abdelkarim drove the injured to the hospital, organized clandestine meetings and joined the team that lined the bloody corpses in a mosque, including those of many of his friends. One man bled to death in the backseat of his car. Exhausted, he cried as he drove. Abdelkarim lived out of his car for five days. He saw how friends who had survived were arrested within days of the massacre. The justice system also prepared cases against him, including the charge that he allegedly plotted together with the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah.
When he returned home five days after the massacre, his mother cried. She thought he had died. He packed his things and boarded a plane to Turkey shortly thereafter.
For months, the state media covered nothing except “Islamist terror.” In November, three months after the massacre, the regime imposed severe restrictions on protests and arrested numerous critics under the pretense they represented a threat to national security. Blogger Abdel Fattah also ended up in jail again. In January 2014, el-Sisi tested the waters with a constitutional referendum that passed with 98 percent support. In May, he ran for president and won 97 percent of the vote.
Moaz Abdelkarim has since lived in Turkey, but he has to leave every 30 days in order to obtain a new tourist visa. His life is adrift in exile, and he is constantly on the go. Given that the trial against him is continuing, with charges that include terrorism, it’s possible he will never be able to return to Egypt. “They want to keep us busy with made-up cases so we have no time to fight the regime,” he says.
‘The Revolution Will End Like it Began’
These days, he’s focusing his efforts on reconciliation between secularists and Islamists that can serve as the basis for the start of the next revolution. He does this because he believes Egyptians will soon grow tired of el-Sisi’s rule. But on this wintry night, another of his mediation efforts between secularist government critics and Muslim Brothers in exile hasn’t gotten anywhere. The mistrust between them is so great that the two sides won’t even meet face to face.
“We need to start a dialogue and agree on things we can fight for,” Abdelkarim says. The only success story in the Arab spring came in Tunisia, where secular and Islamist activists had already engaged in dialogue in exile. He’s now trying to do that himself as a member of the leadership board of the small but well-known Al Ghad Al Thawra Party, one of the only secular parties to maintain cordial relations with the Muslim Brotherhood. But the party’s leaders are scattered in exile and are powerless against the regime’s propaganda. Abdelkarim studies Turkish and is toying with the idea of returning to work as a pharmacist. If he does, it’s likely he’ll be making a final break from politics.
Of the three revolutionaries, Basem Kamel is the only who is still able to participate in Egyptian political life without fear. After the revolution, he helped found the Social Democratic Party. He was one of only four Tahrir activists who got elected to parliament three years ago — a day he celebrated by changing his profession on Facebook from “architect” to “politician”.
When the newly elected parliament met shortly before the first anniversary of the uprising, Downtown Cairo looked like a war zone. The military had sealed the roads around Tahrir with concrete walls, and barbed wire marked the path to parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists had secured a majority, but Kamel remained optimistic. “Revolution, finally, is politics,” he told me as he walked to the parliament.
At the same time, Moaz Abdelkarim was protesting outside against torture, arbitrary arrests and censorship that should no longer have been taking place. “The revolution will end like it began, with the same tiny group,” Abdelkarim said, standing before a wall of masked police. “A few hundred people will protest and nobody will pay attention.”
Kamel was one of the last to join the activists and he was older than most. He was 41 years old at the time — a tall, thin, balding man and father of three. His grandparents had been poor farmers, and he himself had studied architecture. During his university studies, he designed modern buildings using sustainable materials. But he earned his money with cheap cement block apartments that could cram in as many residents as possible. It helped him to rise to middle-class respectability in a tower on Cairo’s humble outskirts. But even toiling for 16 hours a day as he did, his family still had a hard time making ends meet. It angered him, and it was this anger that drove him — first to meet with Mohammed al-Baradei and soon afterwards to Tahrir.
The End of Democracy
The politicization of people like Kamel, who had studiously avoided politics for most of their lives, was one of the great achievements of the revolution at Tahrir Square. In that sense, he represents all Egyptians who otherwise would have preferred to hold back. Their support proved to be decisive in the revolution’s success. Ultimately, however, they were also the first to defect and support the military government.
“Aren’t you concerned about military rule?” I asked him after the generals toppled Muslim Brother Morsi in the summer of 2013.
“We know how to deal with the military,” Kamel said. “It’s the Islamists we’re worried about.”
Even though he had spent three years of his life fighting authoritarianism, he was buoyed by the end of democracy in Egypt. “It’s a revolution, not a coup,” he told me. “If you insist on calling it a coup, it’s a popularly legitimate coup.”
It’s still possible to meet with Kamel today at his Social Democratic Party headquarters, located in an imposing but rundown building in Downtown Cairo. It used to be teeming with people and energy, but today it is nearly empty. He says most Egyptians no longer support the party. “The problem in Egypt now is not the regimes,” he explains. “It is the people. We have to convince them.”
Even a year later, he still doesn’t regret that Morsi got ousted. What he does rue, however, is the return of a full-blown dictatorship in Egypt. “Today there is only one kind of politics allowed: Sisi’s politics,” he says. He believes el-Sisi will serve at least two terms as president. “Then we’ll be back in the game.”
Despite everything — including the fact that he lost his own position in the revolutionary parliament after it was dissolved in 2012 — he still wants to run again in parliamentary elections planned for this spring, even if 80 percent of the seats are reserved for independent individual candidates and only 20 percent are for the parties. That weakens the parties and strengthens those who are well-connected politically and can raise money for expensive campaigns.
Kamel is still convinced that Egypt can become a democracy, even if it takes decades for that to happen. He also believes it was the egomania of politicians and public apathy that doomed the revolution. He argues that the opposition parties should merge in order to increase their influence, but instead they are battling each other. All the parties founded after the revolution, he says with a sigh, are going the way of the ineffectual opposition parties that limped through the Mubarak years.
Kamel now wants to place more of a focus on his architecture business, which he neglected in recent years. He has lost his customer base and now his family is struggling to get by. “Today, my first priority is business,” he says. “Politics comes second.”
Alaa Abdel Fattah. Photo: DPA
‘We’re Fed Up’
Meanwhile, Alaa Abdel Fattah remains on a hunger strike and has just been taken to the prison hospital. Many activists have joined him in fasting. But so far, their joint action hasn’t done much to change things. It’s a last act of protest, a symbol of the dead-end road the revolution is heading in.
“What’s important now is that we organize ourselves and pressure the authorities that conspire against us,” Abdel Fattah said before he stopped eating. “I will not play the role they have written for me. We’re fed up.”
A great session in Washington that featured retired General Jim Matthis, then the panel discussing the CAP report on Egypt (Brian Katulis, Mokhtar Awad, Amy Hawthorne, Michael Hanna), and then a discussion of my book with Steven Cook and Hardin Lang. The link below should lead to a YouTube video of the panel if the embedded file doesn’t work.
An anti-Mubarak protester in Tahrir Square, in November 2014 (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)
CAIRO—Four years after the revolution he helped lead, Basem Kamel has noticeably scaled back his ambitions. The regime he and his friends thought they overthrew after storming Tahrir Square has returned. In the face of relentless pressure and violence from the authorities, most of the revolutionary movements have been sidelined or snuffed out.
Egypt’s new strongman, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has injected new zeal and energy into the military establishment. He has established his rule using unprecedented amounts of force, including mass arrests and death sentences, and the elimination of freedoms that existed even under previous dictatorships. But he has also won considerable popularity, leading Egypt’s revolutionaries to seek new routes to change.
“Maybe in 12 years we will be back in the game,” Kamel told me during the January Coptic Christmas holidays, wearing a sweatsuit as he shuttled his kids to after-school sports. After some thought, the 45-year-old architect, who lives in southern Cairo, added a caveat: “Unless Sisi changes the rules.”
There’s been a dramatic downsizing of expectations since Sisi came to power in a military coup in July 2013 (he retired from the military and was elected president without any meaningful challenger in May 2014). But if the mood is grim among the activists who so recently turned Egypt’s power structure on its head, historical trends suggest that the victorious military establishment has plenty to worry about as well.
Sisi is younger, sharper, and more vigorous than Hosni Mubarak, but he’s applying the same tools to the same problems. A small, insular group of men makes all important decisions, from drafting the country’s new parliamentary-election law to managing the economy to deciding how to prosecute political prisoners. Foreign aid is a key pillar of support for the government. The main difference is in the faces around the top. Whereas Mubarak’s cabal included some rich civilians, Sisi relies almost exclusively on military men.
The problems are daunting no matter who leads Egypt. Unemployment is endemic. The nation can’t grow enough crops to feed itself, is running low on foreign currency, and runs up hefty bills importing energy and grain that it sells at heavily subsidized prices. There is no longer a free media in Egypt, and a regressive new law makes it almost impossible for independent NGOs to do their work. Political parties that don’t pay fealty to Sisi’s order are hounded and persecuted. One result of this repression is that there is no scrutiny of government policy, no new sources of ideas, and not even symbolic accountability for corruption, incompetence, and bad government decisions.
Egypt’s new ruler has made some shrewd moves. He has tweaked the food-subsidy system to reduce waste and corruption in bakeries, introducing a card system with points that allows consumers to spend their allowance on a variety of goods rather than lining up for bread that they end up throwing away. He paid a Christmas visit to the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, the first time any Egyptian leader has done so since Gamal Abdel Nasser, reassuring some Christians after decades of increased marginalization of and violence against the beleaguered minority.
But unless he miraculously resolves the country’s underlying economic plight—a product of the previous six decades of authoritarian rule, most of it dominated by the military—Egypt will snap again sooner or later.
“Six months ago there was huge popular happiness with Sisi’s performance. Now already it is less,” said Ahmed Imam, a spokesman for Strong Egypt, one of the few active political opposition parties left in the country. “I believe in another six months you will find rage, and the rage will become public.”
* * *
The simplest way to understand the January 25, 2011 uprising against Mubarak’s military rule is as a rejection of a government that was both abusive and incompetent. Since the military coup that ended the monarchy and brought Nasser to power in 1952, Egyptian authoritarians have fared well enough when they provided tangible quality-of-life improvements, or when they leavened the disappointment of growing poverty with an increased margin of freedom. But by the end of his three decades in power, Mubarak provided neither: His corrupt government gutted services and the treasury, while his unaccountable military and police establishment freely meted out torture, arbitrary detention, and unfair trials.
According to his supporters and advisors, Sisi is gambling that he’ll pull off the kind of economic feats that characterized the apex periods of Egypt’s three major leaders in the modern era: Mubarak, Anwar Sadat, and Nasser.
So far, however, Sisi has needed to deploy draconian measures to keep control even at his moment of peak popularity. He has outlawed demonstrations. He has imprisoned tens of thousands, many for the simple offense of protesting. Old state security agents have returned to their old ways, humiliating dissidents by leaking their private phone calls to the media. Crackdowns target homosexuals, atheists, and blasphemers. Judges have sentenced to death hundreds of Muslim Brothers—until recently, members of an elected civilian ruling party—in shotgun trials that lasted a day or two and have made a mockery of Egypt’s once-respected judiciary. An activist from the secular April 6 Youth Movement recently had three years tacked on to his sentence because he dared ask about a Facebook page where the judge in his case had openly identified with Sisi’s regime and denigrated the revolutionaries, casting aside any pretense of judicial impartiality.
Such hardline tactics could reflect a military confidently in charge; many activists who subscribe to this view have chosen exile or a hiatus from public life. But the tactics also could reflect desperation: The old regime has won a reprieve, but it has to work much harder than before to keep a tenuous grip on power. In that case, the overwhelming chorus of support for Sisi could be just the prelude to another period of bitter disappointment and revolt.
Critical human-rights monitors continue to track government abuses, some from within Egypt despite the constant risk of arrest. A few youth and political movements continue to operate as well. The Revolutionary Socialists, the Youth Movement for Freedom and Justice, and April 6 all continue to organize, albeit on a modest scale; gone are the mass protests of 2011-2013. The Constitution Party, which includes some leading secular liberals, has been outspoken in its criticism of military rule. So has the Strong Egypt party, led by a former presidential contender and ex-Muslim Brother named Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who has the distinction of having equally opposed abuses by Islamist and secular military regimes since Mubarak.
“Either the regime is reformed and resumes a democratic course, or its bad performance will provoke a revolution that will explode in its face,” Aboul Fotouh said in a recent interview in his home in a Cairo suburb. His party might run parliamentary candidates in the elections scheduled for March and April, but state security agents have made it impossible for the party to operate normally, canceling all 27 conference-room reservations it has made in the last three months—a favorite tactic resuscitated from Mubarak’s time.
* * *
Most of the leaders of the original uprising are in prison or exile. Some have been silenced, and some like, Kamel, seem willing to accept military repression as the necessary price for getting rid of the Muslim Brotherhood, which they considered the bigger threat. “Even knowing what I know today, I would say the Brotherhood is worse,” Kamel said.
Today, private and state media channels have become no-go zones for dissenting voices. Independent presenters like Yosri Fouda and comedian Bassem Youssef have gone off the air, and other one-time revolutionaries like Ibrahim Eissa have become shrill advocates for the regime.
In the four years that I’ve been reporting closely on Egypt’s transition from revolution to restoration, I’ve seen young activists go from stunned to euphoric to traumatized and sometimes defeated. I’ve seen stalwarts of the old regime go from arrogant and complacent to frightened and unsure to bullying and triumphalist. And yet, so far, the core grievances that drew frustrated Egyptians to Tahrir Square in the first place remain unaddressed. Police operate with complete impunity and disrespect for citizens, routinely using torture. Courts are whimsical, uneven, at times absurdly unjust and capricious. The military controls a state within a state, removed from any oversight or scrutiny, with authority over a vast portion of the national economy and Egypt’s public land. Poverty and unemployment continue to rise, while crises in housing, education, and health care have grown even worse than the most dire predictions of development experts. Corruption has largely gone unpunished, and Sisi has begun to roll back an initial wave of prosecutions against Mubarak, his sons, and his oligarchs.
Kamel has abandoned his revolutionary rhetoric of 2011 for a more modest platform of reform, working within the system. He was one of just four revolutionary youth who made it into the short-lived revolutionary parliament of 2012, and he helped found the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, one of the most promising new political parties after the fall of Mubarak.
He expects to run for parliament again with his party, but the odds are longer and the stakes lower. The parliament will have hardly any power under Sisi’s setup. Most of the seats are slated for “independents,” which in practice means well-funded establishment candidates run by the former ruling party network. The Muslim Brotherhood, the nation’s largest opposition group, is now illegal. Existing political parties can only compete for 20 percent of the seats, and most of them, like Kamel’s have dramatically tamed their criticisms.
“I think Sisi is in control of everything,” Kamel said. “Of course I am not with Sisi, but I am not against the state.”
That’s why he’s devoting his efforts to a training program for Social Democratic cadres, a sort of political science-and-organizing academy for activists and operatives that will take years to bear fruit. “It’s long-term work,” he said.
Still, something fundamental changed in January 2011, and no amount of state brutality can reverse it. Many people who before 2011 cowered or kept their ideas to themselves now feel unafraid.
“We want accountability, not miracles,” said Khaled Dawoud, spokesman for the Constitution Party. “We’re not asking for gay rights and legalized marijuana. We’re asking to stop torture in prisons.” Dawoud is a secular liberal activist who kept his integrity even during the period after Sisi’s coup when many of his peers cast their lot with the generals against the Islamists. He has been harassed by every faction, facing death threats and even a murder attempt by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In three years’ time, Egyptians took to the streets and saw three heads of state in a row flee from power: Mubarak, his successor Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and President Mohammed Morsi. The legacies of the revolution are hotly contested, but one is indisputable: Large numbers of Egyptians believe they’re entitled to political rights and power. That remains a potent idea even if revolutionary forces and their aspiration for a more just and equitable order seem beaten for now.
In the worst of times under Mubarak, and before him Sadat and Nasser, mass arrests, executions, and the banning of political life kept the country quiet. But as Egypt heads toward the fourth anniversary of the January 25th uprisings, things are anything but quiet, despite the best efforts of Sisi’s state. Dissidents are smuggling letters out of jail. Muslim Brothers protest weekly for the restoration of civilian rule. Secular activists are working on detailed plans so that next time around, they’ll be able to present an alternative to the status-quo power. No one believes that this means another revolution is imminent, but the percolating dissatisfaction, and the ongoing work of political resistance, suggest that it won’t wait 30 years either.
“That’s our homework: to prepare a substitute,” said Mohamed Nabil, a leader in the April 6 movement who still speaks openly even though his group is now banned. “At the end Sisi is lying, and the Egyptian people will react. You never know when.”
Khalil Hamra/AP photo
Back in the spring of 2011, the vistas of possibility lay wide open. What kind of new government would Egyptians decide after they shocked the body politic out of its stupor with their history-defying revolution?
Today’s post-Tahrir system hasn’t reinvented anything; it’s more like the old butcher shop with sharpened knives and a more expensive burglar alarm. But that moment isn’t that far distant when Egyptians were empowered to draw the blueprint of a completely new system. Remembering the ideas that percolated then reminds us that the prospect for something different has not been foreclosed, despite the status quo today.
For today’s installment of the Wayback Machine, I offer this story I filed almost four years ago and which I came across while organizing my files for New Year’s.
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The next version of Egypt could set an example for the Arab world. Inside the struggle to imagine a new state.
May 29, 2011
CAIRO — Traffic stopped in Tahrir Square during the revolution, but four months later, the torrent of marching humans that briefly made Cairo a world symbol of the thirst for justice has been replaced by the familiar, endless stream of grumbling cars.
The tricolor paint on the city’s trees, applied with gusto in the immediate weeks after President Hosni Mubarak resigned, has already begun to fade. As the wilting heat approaches its summertime averages in the 90s, vendors here do a brisk business selling “I [heart] Egypt” T-shirts, mock license plates commemorating the date of the uprising, and posters of the young martyrs to Mubarak’s security forces.
Schools have reopened; births and deaths are once again registered by Egypt’s ubiquitous bureaucracy; and the machinery of state continues to deliver the basic services that make this nation of 80 million function. The military junta that replaced Mubarak polices the streets and censors the media, though with a touch slightly lighter than Mubarak’s. There are still street demonstrations; on most Fridays, small factions chant in Tahrir Square and distribute leaflets demanding to put figures of the old regime on trial, fix the broken economy, or allow greater freedom to criticize the government.
Most of the nation’s energy, however, has shifted to a new debate: what should come next. Egyptians are realizing that they now face a challenge perhaps even more historic than its revolution. They need to design, nearly from scratch, a legitimate state to govern the most populous Arab nation in the world.
Egyptians are supposed to write a new constitution sometime this fall. And although no one is sure precisely how this will occur — the schedule is controlled by the military junta, which communicates chiefly through updates on its Facebook page — the public conversation has already metamorphosed into raging debate over what the government should look like. The outpouring of public frustration that reached a crescendo
in Tahrir Square on Feb. 11 has now moved onto a crowded lineup of television talk shows and the cafes. As youth activist Ahmed Maher put it over a demitasse at the Coffee Bean this week: “Before the revolution, everyone talked about soccer and drugs. Now they talk only about politics.”
Emboldened newspapers obstreperously editorialize about the path toward democratic elections. On TV, academics, activists, and cultural personalities wax about the best structure for a future Egyptian state. Once-submissive veteran politicians now rail in public meetings against “counter-revolutionary” officials sympathetic to the old regime.
The task they face is enormous. Like most of the Arab world, Egypt’s entire post-colonial experience of government has been authoritarian: first a monarchy, and then nearly 60 years of rule by three military dictators in a row. And there’s simply no road map available: no example of another government in the region that reflects the aspirations of its population and rules by consent rather than through a police state.
Over the last three months, the debate over Egypt’s future has taken shape as a tug-of-war among a few big visions. Should Egypt have a broad but weak state, one that touches people’s lives pervasively but with power diluted to prevent the rise of another strongman? Or should it deliberately rely on the country’s most powerful institution, the military, to guide the state, as Turkey did during its recent rise? A libertarian school seeks a minimalist constitution, more like America’s, and a vastly downsized state that rethinks the old corporatist model; and a cohort of nationalists want to start revitalizing Egypt by turning outward, forging partnerships with Turkey and Iran to give Egypt a foundation in a new regional power structure.
In the last century, Egypt led the rest of the Arab world in throwing off colonialism, in embracing the excesses of Arab nationalism, and then to a cold peace with Israel and a long spell of provincial stagnation. Today, as Egypt struggles to formulate a vision for what will come next, its people are well aware that at stake is not only their own future, but also a potential new model for what an Arab state can be.
The question of what a new Egypt should be might seem impossibly large, but Egyptians agree on a few broad principles: a sovereign state, not dependent on foreign largesse, and not ruled by cult of personality. Whatever comes next might borrow from Western models, but primarily will draw on Arab views of justice, popular sovereignty, social harmony, and consensus. That starting point still leaves gaping room for uncertainty.
“This is like reinventing the wheel,” groused an elderly lawyer at an early national brainstorming session for a new constitution.
“It’s exactly what we should be doing,” snapped back Tahani El Gebali, the first woman judge on the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court, and a prominent voice in the debate over Egypt’s future.
There aren’t many helpful examples. The modern Arab world has only seen glimmers of viable, democratically accountable states: Iraq, briefly in the 1970s before it became Saddam Hussein’s fiefdom; Egypt itself, in moments when its economy was growing and it could project military power in the region. For the most part, however, the region has been plagued by one-man misrule, historically propped up by Cold War-legacy superpower giveaways.
Most of the elites arguing over the smartest path to Egyptian democracy agree that first will come a parlous adjustment period. Gebali and other liberalizers talk a lot about “democratic literacy,” arguing that it will take years to teach the Egyptian public about its rights in a genuinely representative system. Authoritarians and others sympathetic to the status quo phrase it differently: They argue that Egyptians “aren’t ready” for an open political system and that representative democracy would yield only chaos.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given Egypt’s recent history, the strongest group of democracy advocates is arguing for a system designed to have a weak president and multiple checks on state authority. By their logic, it’s less important to have a streamlined and highly effective state than it is to thwart the next aspiring Mubarak. Egypt, for all its problems, has the luxury of coherent, functional institutions — it’s neither a failed state nor a crumbling one. Therefore it can afford a transitional phase with a fractious government whose main purpose is to liberalize the state and instill the notion of popular sovereignty.
“We always have had one man ruling alone,” Gebali explained in an interview. “Now we need alternate centers of power.”
Egypt has a well-developed liberal intelligentsia, and some of its most established legal scholars have embraced this approach. Their notion, broadly speaking, is to build on the ideas of revolutionary America and France, but to separate powers even further — by their reckoning, a US-style presidential system is also vulnerable to dictatorial impulses. Their proposals incorporate many ideas unique to Egypt and which speak to the Arab Spring’s particular blend of concerns — not just for democracy, but for social justice, transparency, and economic progress led by the state, rather than by free markets. So they don’t talk of abolishing the considerable and costly subsidies that keep food and fuel affordable to Egyptians, nearly a quarter of whom live below the poverty line. The education and health care systems are rife with failure, but the consensus holds that the central government should be responsible for fixing them. And though the economy is moribund, virtually all Egyptian political players support a heavy state role in setting wages and employment terms.
Within the wider liberal community runs a small strain of what might be called libertarian minimalism: thinkers who share the same views about rights and civil authority, but who want to see Egypt’s vast state seriously downsized. Many economists and government technocrats see their bloated state policies as costly and unsustainable, but are loath to say so in public. (Understandably so: The vast majority of Egyptians like these state subsidies and entitlements.) They want to undo the philosophical and legal clutter caused by decades of inept governance.
“We need a very short constitution,” said Ibrahim Darwish, an American-trained expert in constitutional law. “The US Constitution has only seven articles and has lasted two and half centuries.” His position carries moral authority — Darwish helped draft Egypt’s 1971 constitution, and is currently advising the Turkish government on its new constitution — but he admits it is unlikely to get much of a hearing among Egyptians, even liberals, because of their deep attachment to complex state structures and legal regimes.
Another broad line of thinking in the debate, one associated with traditionalists rather than liberal modernizers, emphasizes Egypt’s existing strengths, its military establishment and historic regional clout.
A school that might be called neo-nationalists is pushing for Egypt to reform itself first by cultivating international power. In their view, Egypt has atrophied as a country because it has spent decades subserviently implementing the foreign policy agendas of the United States and Israel. The key to Egypt’s future, by this thinking, lies less in its form of government than in shoring up its position in the world.
The foreign policy school argues that Egypt can join Iran and Turkey to form a “triangle of power.” The Egyptian writer and analyst Fahmy Howeidy has even visited Tehran to promote the idea that a coordinated foreign policy by the three regional powers could change the balance of power between Israelis and Palestinians, and curtail American influence in the region.
For these thinkers, the past few months have been galvanizing: Egypt’s first post-revolution foreign minister, a career diplomat named Nabil Al-Araby, quickly shook up the Arab world’s arithmetic by brokering an agreement between Fatah and Hamas, signaling that Israel would get a more skeptical hearing in Cairo, and irritating the oil-rich monarchies of the Persian Gulf by vowing to “open a new page” of warm relations with Iran. Like many of the exponents of this school, Al-Araby comes from a ruling party background inspired by the example of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s leadership and the ideology of Arab nationalism, which propelled Egypt onto the global stage from the 1950s until the 1970s.
The final important school of thought in Egypt’s state-building wars is the status quo militarists. In their view, Egypt has functioned as a security state for almost the entirety of its post-colonial history, and the military — as guardians of the state and of the people — is the only institution suited to transition Egypt into a new age. They point to the example of Turkey, where for most of the past 50 years the military has repeatedly checked what it saw as the excesses of elected governments by stepping in and temporarily taking power. Although it sounds like anathema in Western politics, Turkey has enjoyed a long-term stability rare in the region, culminating in a renaissance of civilian authority over the last decade.
In Egypt, it’s not only self-interested military officers who turn to the Turkish model. Many secular Egyptians, along with the country’s Christian minority, fear that electoral democracy would empower Islamic fundamentalists, and see the military as guarantor of a secular state. Even after the current junta yields to a new constitution, many of the military’s supporters would like to see a permanent role for it as a sort of trustee for the essence of Egypt.
Such trust in the military worries academics who’ve studied other nations making the transition from dictatorship to democracy; in places like Latin America and Asia, clear subordination of the military to civilian control has proved a necessary step to a stable modern state. But the popularity of this view in Egypt makes it a serious possibility.
For all the high philosophy at its heart, the constitutional debate in Egypt is unmistakably a proxy for the domestic power struggle afoot between the still-ruling military establishment and the liberals who want to build in Egypt, for the first time, a truly civilian state. Abstract terms like revolution and counter-revolution translate into very concrete positions — a military junta cut off at the knees, or a reconstituted deep state in which the military ultimately steers the government.
But in its sense of potential, the Egyptian conversation today also suggests a little bit of what it must have felt like in America in the age of the Federalist Papers. In revolutionary America, the founders self-consciously thought about the global implications of their effort to forge the first state built on Enlightenment ideals. Similarly, Egyptians are aware they have embarked on a project that could fashion a new social compact for the Arab world and beyond.
That ambition is evident in the small ideas also percolating through the society, as people reconsider issues from the role of religion in society and the philosophical origins of law, the rights of women and minorities, to uniquely Egyptian institutions like the half of all seats in parliament reserved for the peasantry.
On the current timetable, Egyptians are scheduled to vote for a new parliament in September, which will in turn choose the drafters of the next constitution. If all goes according to this plan, by the end of the year Egypt will have a new president and a new constitution. All this could change, of course, with a single pronouncement from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
At the Coffee Bean last week, members of Maher’s April 6 movement — one of the pivotal activist groups that sparked the January uprising — strategized for the year ahead. They argued about the right mix of presidential and parliamentary authority for Egypt, and how to market political engagement through the bread-and-butter questions of economic survival that most concern the average Egyptian. Dozens of similar meetings of every conceivable stripe, from reactionary monarchists to anarcho-syndicalist, take place every night across a country that finds itself at the exact midpoint between the opening act of its revolution and what might be the first truly fair elections in its history.
“The situation in our country is critical,” Maher said quietly. “This transition will take at least two or three years. It will be a long time before we will have a stable form of government that we can trust.”
Young people and youthful energy propelled the Arab uprisings that began in 2010. And while the cohesion and impact of vaguely defined “youth” movements have been overstated, they remain the most important potential source of change—the Arab world’s best hope. The small vanguard that drove the original uprisings is growing more organized and more ideologically sophisticated even as, for the time being, it has lost political ground.
Egypt has always set regional trends in political thought. Its Tahrir Square uprising raised expectations for democratic transitions throughout the region, although the other Arab revolts brought wildly divergent results, especially for youth. Today the military appears to have won in Egypt, but the long-term outcome of the struggle there between revolutionary and reactionary forces is still in question; how it unfolds will be a bellwether for the Arab world.
Youth Is a State of Mind
Basem Kamel makes an unlikely revolutionary youth activist. I first met him four years ago, inside the small tent erected by the Revolutionary Youth Coalition to house its big-tent deliberations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. He seemed decidedly middle-aged and established: balding, evenly shaved despite his sleep-deprived gaze, slightly stooped, his scruffy protest clothes accented with a knotted orange scarf. He was 41, father to three children, proprietor of an architecture firm. “Youth is a state of mind,” he laughed when I arched my eyebrows at his age.
But like the Revolutionary Youth Coalition and the fractious panoply of movements for which it briefly served as the umbrella, Kamel represented a radical challenge to the status quo. Against the mores of the ruling party, Kamel appeared young, pluralistic, open-minded, radically experimental and egalitarian. So were the other “revolutionary youth” I encountered in Tahrir Square, ranging in age from children to grandparents.
Kamel had gone within a year from apolitical observer to revolutionary policy wonk. He wanted to throw out the entire regime’s way of doing business along with then-President Hosni Mubarak. He wanted a rules-based social welfare state that encouraged entrepreneurship and initiative while efficiently taking care of the poor and vulnerable. He wanted justice for Egyptian citizens who had been abused by police and military personnel, and he wanted to see his fellow citizens learn to take responsibility for everything from litter to voting. “If we succeed, everything will have to change,” he said then. “It will take a long time.”
The Revolutionary Youth Coalition is no more. It collapsed a year and a half after its founding, because its secular and Islamist members lost trust in each other. It was the sole institution in Egypt that tried systematically to bridge the gap between Islamist and secular political actors. Elsewhere in the Arab world, only Tunisia’s Parliament has attempted the same feat, with equivocal success.
Yet despite its noble aims, the coalition also embodied the region’s political identity crisis in its very name. “Youth” and “revolution” are virtually meaningless as explanatory categories for what is taking place in Egypt and elsewhere across the Middle East. The Arab world today is in the grip of a regional struggle for control—and in some cases a fundamental redesign of government—being waged among many contesting visions: hereditary monarchs, old-fashioned nationalist states, incremental Islamists, nihilist jihadists, socialist reformers, anarchists and others. The young can be found in almost every one of these locales and movements, including the most reactionary establishment political parties and statist institutions. Similarly, some of the most creative and constructive political forces feature middle-aged or even old activists in inspiring roles.
The particular problems facing youth as demographically defined—completing secondary or higher education, finding a first job or career and establishing a family—are economic and social. And while young people have a special kind of energy that dissipates with age, none of these factors predispose the young toward any particular political tendency. Throughout the Arab region, as throughout the rest of the world, they are just as likely to be apathetic as political, or reformist as conservative.
Nevertheless, a set of new political ideas and processes has been unleashed in the Arab revolts. The energy of young street protesters catalyzed a moment of revolutionary potential, a moment that shattered the assumption of regime staying power and opened the way for competitive politics and new ideologies. That fundamental idea—that a peaceful popular movement can replace a repressive state with a responsive, democratic, just and egalitarian polity—has survived today in a battered condition.
In Egypt, the country with the greatest potential and the greatest political impact on other Arab countries, the idea of change survives mainly in the beleaguered family of “revolutionary youth” movements, for which the country’s broken political system has made no room. The story is different elsewhere. Tunisia, for instance, has a plethora of young activists but no predominant set of youth movements, most likely because the existing political structure, with its parties and trade unions, engaged in meaningful negotiation that was able to harness the energy of young revolutionaries and channel it into a successful transition to democracy. Lebanon offers a third alternative—a paralyzed dysfunctional state where established sectarian parties have managed to absorb and dissipate youthful energy and momentum for reform, without making any improvements in governance or way of life.
A close and honest look at the condition of the Arab youth movements tells us a great deal about the prospect for systemic change in the region. At the core of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia was a group of movements that espoused an agenda much more about revolution than about youth. Its supporters were concerned with political and economic injustice, and they touted democracy in a local vernacular, refusing the notion that it is a tainted or premature import from the west.
The revolutionary youth have been roundly defeated in Egypt. Tunisia’s more successful uprising has subsumed most of its youth activists into mainstream parties, perhaps a sign that political life is healthy or diverse enough not to require a binary external category such as youth to advocate for reform. Elsewhere, youth movements have remained marginal, as in Lebanon, or been sidelined by violence, as in Syria, Libya and Yemen.
But there is a clear and admirable agenda, one quite threatening to the region’s status quo regimes, articulated under the banner of revolutionary youth. Any Arab state that doesn’t grapple with its central claims and aspirations will remain fundamentally insecure, under threat any time circumstances conspire to make an opening for the latent uprising incubating in the warmth of their misrule.
The Arab world is disproportionately young; more than half of the population is under 25. Education systems are failing. Young people make up almost all the new entrants to the labor market, and the Arab region leads the world in youth unemploymentaccording to the United Nations. Demographers and economists who look at the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have rightly called attention to the youth bulge, including a looming one in Egypt, coupled with the region-wide systemic failures to educate citizens and provide them jobs.
The considerable scholarship about the demographic and economic implications of the youth bulge explains one of the many dispiriting constraints on growth and quality of life in the MENA region. A recent United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) paper summarizes the reams of demographic and economic analysis of the Arab youth imbroglio: “Without noticeable improvements in their economies or employment prospects, especially for much of the frustrated youth, rising demonstrations, unrest and violence appear unavoidable for the nearly half a billion people in the Arab world by 2025.”
But “demographic destiny” and the depressing economic conundrums of the Arab economies tell us nothing about the likelihood of political explosions, transitions or repression. Poor states that have little concern with the rights and welfare of their citizens can still perform at dramatically different points along a spectrum from murderous and self-destructive, like Syria; to aggressively indifferent, like Egypt; to muddling but occasionally passable, like Jordan. Regimes with massive youth bulges can successfully crush dissent, as Iran did to the uprising known as the “Green Revolution” in 2009, or escape it altogether with minor adjustments, as Saudi Arabia has done since the Arab uprisings. Demographics are not destiny, politically speaking.
Egypt’s Movement Youth
The past two years have brought a crescendo of terrible news for supporters of pluralism, rights and democracy in Egypt. The country’s first and only elected civilian president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, ruled erratically and eroded civil freedoms. He was deposed in a popularly acclaimed coup in July 2013.
Reflecting the general patterns of society, an apparent majority of young people, including many activists, supported the anti-Morsi Tammarod protests. Only a tiny number of them immediately criticized the military’s direct takeover of power, although dissent quickened after the military regime massacred at least 1,150 Morsi supporters in Cairo’s Rabaa Square on Aug. 14. Egypt’s new leader, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, swiftly moved to outlaw protest and ban the Muslim Brotherhood, and over time has arrested almost all the leading dissidents across the political spectrum. He has restored and intensified the repressive methods of the old regime and has banned critical figures from appearing in the media.
In one sense, the playing field looks like it did under Mubarak: A state behemoth that is terrible at governance uses a heavy hand to crush opposition, and faces a very small but committed activist community that includes old veterans and youthful newcomers.
But Sissi, a general who resigned from the military when he decided to seek the presidency almost a year after his coup, may face open revolt much earlier in his tenure than Mubarak, unless he indefinitely maintains his unprecedented levels of violent suppression. The generation of activists that propelled Tahrir has gone on to establish political parties, youth movements and other institutions. Its ranks have gained invaluable organizational experience. They have built vast interpersonal networks, bound by the shared experience of torture, detention, long prison sentences, exile and mourning. The brightest of the revolutionary leaders and movements have slowly begun to address their biggest failings; they are creating clearer, more compelling alternative ideas of governance, and they are developing strategies that take into account the volatility of mass public opinion.
Moreover, a significant portion of the socially conservative elite—the centrists who leaned slightly toward the revolution in 2011 and toward Sissi in 2013—has experienced political mobilization and the sense of power that comes with overthrowing a regime. Egyptians have acquired a taste for political empowerment and accountability.
A survey of the current state of the activist youth movements, as well as the widespread apathy among the youth demographic, can invite depression. Yet it is remarkable, especially when compared with the period before 2011, that in the face of historically unprecedented violent repression of all dissenters, from human rights lawyers to Muslim Brothers to bourgeois middle-aged civil society activists, a wide array of movements has persisted in opposition to the state.
Public opinion has gone into a version of political hibernation. Protests against Sissi’s government are small, and polls suggest transition fatigue. Some individuals who casually participated in protests or politics from 2011-2013 told me they had “lost faith in politicians,” “no longer trusted activists,” or were “ready for stability so I can get a job and have my life back.”
However, among the most dedicated activists, only a few have defected from politics entirely, while many have made notable shifts. Top among them are the organized revolutionary youth who have shifted allegiance entirely, best represented by the anti-Morsi Tammarod movement. Its original founders were five youth activists, including veterans from the April 6 Youth Movement and from former presidential candidate Ayman Nour’s Ghad (Tomorrow) Party. They mobilized a signature campaign against Morsi, and after the coup they became stalwart cheerleaders for Sissi’s elevation from junta leader to elected president. Tammarod is undeniably a reactionary force that has benefited at times from state support, but it is also undeniably a youth movement toward which Sissi’s government has turned a jaded eye.
Basem Kamel, the 41-year-old revolutionary “youth” I met in Tahrir four years ago, went on to co-found the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, which has now positioned itself to the right of its revolutionary roots as a traditional liberal party. He became one of just a handful of revolutionaries elected to the short-lived parliament of 2012. After the Sissi coup, Kamel and his party supported Sissi’s transitional government, prioritizing secularism and a fight against the Muslim Brotherhood over opposition to military rule. “I didn’t support Sissi, I opposed Morsi,” he told me this winter. “Whatever we are now, it is better than the Muslim Brotherhood.” He now sounds like a cautious reformer rather than a principled revolutionary.
Kamel opposes Sissi’s crackdown on protest and free speech, but he believes it will take years or decades for vanguard activists to convince the Egyptian public to support a genuine move away from military rule. He has chosen to work within a political party that has been allowed to continue operating by the regime as part of a trusted or permitted opposition.
Youth and revolutionary politics continue to exist, despite the crackdown under Sissi, because of systemic state failures. Police still torture with impunity; runaway judges make a mockery of the rule of law; army officers control political life; and the economy continues to fail the vast majority of its citizens, while a corrupt elite connected to the army and a ruling clique rakes in rentier profits.
And the most visible independent activists have continued to agitate, demonstrate or write treatises even from prison. Alaa Abdel Fattah, an independent leftist who helped form a revolutionary coalition after the Rabaa massacre, has produced a powerful oeuvre from his jail cell. Most recently, this fall he spurred a wave of partial hunger strikes under the slogan “We’re fed up.”
Meanwhile, the April 6 Youth Movement, a grassroots movement that has made deep inroads among working-class Egyptians, has survived a concerted effort by the state to dismantle it, in part because the movement’s leaders and members have in fact collaborated with right-leaning nationalists. These positions drew enmity to the movement, but they also put it more closely in step with the Egyptian mainstream. Perhaps for this reason, April 6’s grassroots network has survived the imprisonment of its leadership. As recently as November, it was able to muster a sizable protest in Tahrir Square, along with other secular, non-Islamist revolutionary groups angered by a judicial verdict clearing Mubarak of further charges.
Egypt’s Islamist Revolutionaries
The final locus of continuing resistance activity in Egypt comes from the Islamist space. Always the largest, most organized and best-funded opposition to the state, Islamist groups have always had formidable youth wings. During the revolutionary period, the Islamist political space fragmented. Today it still includes the largest number of active opponents to the Egyptian regime, although many of those activists are young Muslim Brotherhood members calling for Morsi’s reinstatement. They are increasingly isolated not only by the state, but from revolutionary movements who view Morsi’s autocratic tenure as a betrayal.
Yet a principled group of former Muslim Brotherhood members forms one of the most interesting revolutionary cohorts. Hundreds of young men and women who were among the elite of the Brotherhood’s official youth movement defied their hierarchical organization bosses and took part in the original Jan. 25 uprising in 2011. Most of them believed the Brotherhood should stay out of politics and remain a social and religious organization. These were pious and committed Islamic youth who believed in a secular, pluralistic state. Three of them were founding members of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition; they were among the first Brotherhood youth officially expelled by the hierarchical Islamist group.
They founded a political party, the Egyptian Current, which failed to attract wide membership. Some of its members work as independent activists or have joined secular political parties. Many of its best-known leaders now work with Strong Egypt, the political party of an ex-Muslim Brotherhood leader and presidential candidate, Abdel Monem Aboul Fotouh. Strong Egypt has been one of the only political organizations to condemn authoritarianism quickly and consistently, whether practiced by liberal civilian politicians, Morsi or Sissi. It forms the only existing bridge between secular revolutionaries and the powerful Islamist bloc, which for now has distanced itself from a project of pluralism, reform or revolt.
But the distrust between the two camps runs too deep for the kind of cooperation it would take to effect meaningful change in Egypt, and continuing efforts to mediate between anti-regime revolutionaries and Islamists have failed so far. Moaz Abdel Kareem, a former Brother and Revolutionary Youth Coalition member, has been one of the most persistent advocates of secular-Islamist collaboration. “It is crazy to think we can have a revolution without the Islamists,” he told me recently over a water pipe in a cafe in Istanbul. “We need to start a dialogue and agree on things we can fight for.” His own predicament suggests the impossibility of unity now; his old Islamist colleagues reject him as far too secular, while his revolutionary colleagues suspect he’s still secretly a Muslim Brother.
Illustrating the divide, in late November, secular revolutionaries rebuffed a public call from the Brotherhood for “revolutionary unity.” An April 6 spokesperson told Mada Masr, an independent Egyptian publication, that his organization would never again trust the Islamists, while a member of Strong Egypt said it was waiting for the Brotherhood to revise it positions and prove it could “keep its word.” In a further illustration of the exclusion of political “youth” dynamism by established political players, the Muslim Brotherhood itself criticized its own young members for going too far in their efforts to forge a united front with secular activists. The Brotherhood’s paternalistic tone echoes that of first Mubarak and now Sissi, with its patronizing dismissal of youth politics as naive, subversive or outright traitorous.
Sissi is unlikely to address Egypt’s core failures: the collapsing economy, the utter lack of justice or rule of law and the smothering of political life. In Tahrir Square in 2011, many people told me they had finally been motivated to protest because the state “humiliated” them: It prevented them from supporting their families, and it didn’t allow them the slightest political voice. The implication is clear. A regime might be able to get away with corruption and misrule if it allows some democratic expression, or it might get away with oppression as long as it delivers basic quality of life. But it will have trouble keeping its population quiescent if it fails on both counts.
The Role of Youth Beyond Egypt
Beyond Egypt, the entire Arab state system has been called into question, which is why powerful vested interests from the Gulf monarchies to the region’s nationalist militaries have engaged so fully in what they rightly view as an existential struggle. Nearly every country in the region has responded to these profound forces, although it is still early in their historical lifespan. Each Arab state offers a model of how to crush, harness or coopt revolutionary energy.
Short of war, there are three general approaches. The first is to deploy a police state to marginalize revolutionary ideas; Egypt is the leading example, but Bahrain and to some extent Jordan have followed a similar approach. The second is to embrace revolutionary energy within the system and attempt a transition: Tunisia has done this most successfully, although at periods Yemen and Libya seemed to have managed some degree of systemic change. The third is to redirect or absorb the revolutionary energy with neither a frontal clash nor a sincere effort to respond to its demands: Lebanon is the quintessential master of this sort of twisted jujitsu approach, although its principles can be seen at work in the maneuvers of regimes in Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. A closer look at Tunisia and Lebanon, as alternatives to Egypt’s course, also highlights the problem with relying on youth as an organizing principle to explain Arab politics.
Tunisia, Model or Exception?
Increasingly, Tunisia seems like an outlier in the Arab world. Its peaceful uprising was disproportionately younger than Egypt’s, and it was quickly supported by key institutional players, including the military. The biggest political blocs, the Muslim Brothers and the secular trade unionists, managed to negotiate a consensual constitution and a balanced transitional government despite their divergent visions. Islamists voluntarily ceded power after losing in Tunisia’s second elections. Not everyone is satisfied, but none of the key constituencies profess to have been locked out of the political transition, in contrast to Egypt. Perhaps most important in the context of the current discussion is the fact that “youth” were not ghettoized, but rather dispersed across the spectrum of politics and civil society.
Tunisia is a small nation whose relative wealth and education levels make it hard to compare to other Arab countries. Yet activists elsewhere in the region have drawn some key lessons. Tunisia benefited from a balance of power that included trade unions with a sizable, organized following, and also from a wise provision in the transitional electoral system preventing the winning party from amassing an absolute parliamentary majority. The main parties engaged in sincere, if occasionally acrimonious, negotiations. Islamists repudiated violence committed by their supporters, while secularists have avoided the taint of military authoritarianism that has come to characterize so many of their Egyptian counterparts.
This is perhaps a result of the fact that, while in exile years before Tunisia’s uprising, Muslim Brotherhood leader Rachid Ghannouchi and liberal dissident Moncef Marzouki met regularly, despite their profound ideological differences. Their relationship produced a level of institutional trust during Tunisia’s initial transition period, when Marzouki was president and Ghannouchi’s party controlled the government.
The Lebanese Alternative
For better and often for worse, Lebanon’s muddle-through system of compromise and patronage has become a regional model. Once dismissed as dysfunctional and corrupt, Lebanon’s solution to its 1975-1991 civil war has come to be seen by many other regional actors as a lesser evil, often worth emulating. Iraq might have accelerated the path to sectarian civil war by adopting a Lebanon-style sectarian ethnic quota system, but many there still see “Lebanonization” as a palliative and a preferable alternative to a bloodbath. Syrian activists who in 2011 swore they would never be “another Lebanon” now tell me that ending up like Lebanon after a decade of fighting might be the best hope they’ve got.
Lebanon’s volatile stalemate has staved off civil war and internal political revolt despite myriad systemic failures to address the concerns of ordinary citizens, especially unemployed or underemployed youth. In this, Lebanon might once again suggest a somewhat distasteful workaround.
Interestingly, no substantive youth or revolutionary or reform movement has emerged in Lebanon since the Arab Spring uprisings. Polling and anecdotal evidence suggest that the majority of Lebanese resent the spoils system of governance, controlled by the same major warlords who have dominated politics since the civil war. Yet their economic energy has been dissipated, either absorbed into the corrupt spoils system at home or dispersed into Lebanon’s vast diaspora, the proceeds from which prop up the country’s crippled economy.
Youth are freer in Lebanon than anywhere else in the Arab world to engage in cultural activity, although state security censors still carefully police the boundaries of free expression to silence radical critiques of the power structure. But that freedom doesn’t extend to politics. Young Lebanese are free to harness their political energy into the vibrant youth wings of the existing political parties, but not to challenge the status quo. All the major factions have intricate institutions to tap into youthful energy, including scouts, paramilitaries, social clubs, student council elections, fundraising work and ultimately party membership. Opportunities for political participation are limited to the existing sectarian parties.
One exception is the on-again, off-again movement in support of civil marriage, which remains elite, small and, while threatening to the sectarian spoils system, neither radically revolutionary nor inherently political. Presently, the civil marriage cause appears dormant. In times of heightened security fears, the demands of civil society in Lebanon tend to be drowned out, although a dedicated core group of civil society activists has persisted in the face of decades of pressure and ups and downs.
The political movements that challenged the Arab world’s established order in 2010 and 2011 are still in the process of developing. Their ideas and platforms are inchoate, and their leaders and core members are often under attack. In multiple countries, including Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain, proponents of even nonviolent incremental reform have been subject to terrifying levels of state violence. Elsewhere they have been systematically but less bloodily silenced or co-opted, including in Jordan, Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
But it seems obvious that these movements are not going away, just as the Muslim Brotherhood, with its compelling ideology and disciplined organization, has never disappeared—despite repeated attempts at state-sponsored eradication—since its founding in 1928.
The great energy and aspirations that drove the revolts haven’t disappeared, even if the revolutionary leaders in Egypt have been marginalized for now. There on the margins, they are still working.
Kamel has concluded that the fault lies not with Egypt’s stars, but its citizens. “We have fought four regimes in a row, but most of the people of Egypt are not with us,” he told me this fall. “The problem in Egypt now is not the regimes. It is the people. We have to convince them.”
Some still believe that Sissi’s overreach will drive people together again, just like Mubarak’s abuse of power did in January 2011. “The Mubarak verdict shocked people,” Abdelkareem, the ex-Muslim Brother and Egyptian Current founder currently in exile, told me. “Now the youth are starting to cooperate again.”
Throughout the region, the same force that drove the uprisings has been redirected. Some of it simmers out of sight. Some of it has poured into the call for violent takfiri jihad in Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Egypt and perhaps elsewhere. Some of it has flowed into the quiet, continuing organizing of the political parties, youth movements and civil society groups that challenged status quo power. In Egypt, Sissi’s regime will either have to address these aspirations or fight a constant rear-guard war against dissent. The harder it fights, the more dissenters it will find.
[Briefing for World Politics Review.]
Egypt’s Tahrir Square uprising in January 2011 sent waves of anxiety coursing through the Israeli establishment. By mid-February, a close partner had been deposed in Cairo, and popular Egyptian sentiment demanded a tough, polemical line against Israel: no more gas deals, no security cooperation, no political collaboration. The strategic relationship reached its nadir that fall, when a crowd in September stormed the Israeli Embassy while the Egyptian military stood by. A phone call from Washington was required to resolve that crisis, prompting the Egyptians to intervene before any Israelis were injured.
Fast-forward to today, and the Israel-Egypt strategic relationship appears to be back on the same consistent if occasionally bumpy track it followed for most of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s three decades in power.
Egypt is poised for another round of outright military rule, this time by retired Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a strongman who for now can ignore public opinion along with complicating factors like political parties and open dissent. Moreover, el-Sissi, expected to sweep to the presidency in elections May 26-27, appears to hate Islamists as much as Israel does; under his management, Egypt has pursued the Muslim Brotherhood perhaps more intensively than Israel has gone after Hamas.
But beneath the surface, significant factors are tugging at the relationship. Unless it is renegotiated, it is likely to suffer from continued strategic drift, tactical challenges and political misunderstandings. Strategically, leaders in Egypt and Israel will have to articulate whether they see their partnership as a union of minority regimes against Islamist masses, or whether there is a broader and more compelling basis for the partnership. Tactically, both countries desperately need a more effective way to get a grip on the Sinai Peninsula. And politically, both governments will find the relationship under increasing pressure because of public opposition and strains with Washington, which provides the relationship’s ballast and cornerstone.
Strategically, the relationship between Egypt and Israel revolves around a shared interest in managing rather than resolving the Palestinian question. The two states also share a common aversion to Islamist politics, and, except during the short-lived presidency of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, both have viewed the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas as a threat. These shared interests drive the Israel-Egypt relationship more than does the military aid from Washington that grew out of the Camp David Accords, which amounted to $3.1 billion to Israel and $1.5 billion to Egypt last year. Today, the security establishments of both Israel and Egypt view their U.S. subsidies as an earned right rather than a bribe, and would continue to see shared interests between their countries in the unlikely event that U.S. aid payments ceased. Nevertheless, a shared aversion to Islamists and a common line of credit from a U.S. government widely disparaged in both Egypt and Israel is hardly a robust basis for a strategic partnership.
The tactical problems multiply the pressure. Israel needs a quiet border with Egypt and can still rely on the Egyptian army to act as an ally rather than an enemy. But the Egyptian state has proved incapable of either pacifying or modernizing Sinai, and often engages in behavior that intensifies the threat from the region. Egypt’s current counterinsurgency campaign on the peninsula is a case in point; so far it has radicalized and alienated even more of Sinai’s inhabitants while doing little to curb the violent jihadist groups that have armed and trained there and launched attacks from the peninsula into the rest of Egypt as well as Gaza and Israel. A quiet Sinai is something Egypt wants and simply cannot deliver. This failure creates real security pressure for Egypt and Israel both.
Finally, political accountability within each state serves as a strong countervailing pressure against the relationship between them. In Israel, an increasingly right-wing public expresses skepticism of the “cold peace” with Israel’s Arab partners in the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Egypt. In Egypt, public sentiment runs strongly against the relationship with Israel and in favor of a Palestinian state. Outside of the security establishment, few Egyptians see any reason to provide help to Israel; they oppose Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, and they see no direct dividends to Egypt for its support of Israel.
Politically, Israel’s maximalist stance toward the Palestinians makes it all but impossible for an Arab leader to enjoy an amicable and open relationship with Israel; only undemocratic leaders who are not concerned with domestic accountability can do so. Today Egypt’s relationship with Israel depends on stifling Egyptian public opinion, which remains unconvinced of the utility of a peace treaty entering its fourth decade.
For now, the security establishments of Egypt and Israel still cooperate closely. But profound distrust has flared on both sides, among both the public and the political elite. Both governments need to find a more compelling basis for the relationship and do more legwork to create a narrative of public support, especially in Egypt. If not, the relationship will continue to degrade, fueling illiberalism and authoritarianism while delivering diminishing returns in military cooperation and anti-jihadi operations.
Israel and Egypt are not likely to return to the state of conflict between them that lasted from 1948 until 1978. But the dysfunctional relationship has relied excessively on secretive military-military contacts, which have failed to make headway on the most pressing security concern that joins Egypt and Israel. The storming of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo in 2011 was a prelude to today’s implosion in Sinai, which affects Egypt even more than Israel. If the two governments can’t find a way to manage this shared threat, it augurs poorly for the prospects for cooperation in the future.
Thanassis Cambanis is a fellow at The Century Foundation. His next book, “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story,” chronicles political activism after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, and will be published in January.
Alaa Abdel Fattah has been one of the most interesting thinkers and actors of the Egyptian revolution. He knows politics, history and street activism, and he’s put his body and his mind fully into the struggle against authoritarianism for his entire life. He’s not always right, but he never has stopped thinking strategically and philosophically about the revolution, with a sincere willingness to admit mistakes and learn from them. He’s done so at every juncture in good faith and with an unerring moral compass. (I think along with Amr Hamzawy he’s been unique in trying to think in historical-political terms while also partaking directly in the struggle.) Fresh out of prison, he talked to Sherif Abdel Kouddous on Democracy Now! yesterday. The whole hour is worth listening to, but I was drawn to Alaa’s final comments about why he uses the word “defeat”:
But for it to be a revolution, you have to have a narrative that brings all the different forms of resistance together, and you have to have hope. You know, you have to be—it has to be that people are mobilizing, not out of desperation, but out of a clear sense that something other than this life of despair is possible. And that’s, right now, a tough one, so that’s why right now I talk about defeat. I talk about defeat because I cannot even express hope anymore, but hopefully that’s temporary.
While finishing work on my book manuscript I came across this video from an October 2013 talk I gave at Claremont MacKenna College. I share it here mainly so that my mother can watch it, but it captures my thinking at a moment when the forces of reaction were consolidating power and crushing dissent across the Arab region. This talk was one of my first attempts to synthesize the different regional events and at the same time find some reason to remain hopeful. Four months later there’s even less reason to retain even a shred of optimism.
Supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi protested at the Republican Guard building in Nasr City, Cairo. AP PHOTO/HASSAN AMMAR
IS DEMOCRACY POSSIBLE in the Middle East? When observers worry about the future of the region, it’s in part because of the dispiriting political narrative that has held sway for much of the last half century.
The conventional wisdom is that secular liberalism has been all but wiped out as a political idea in the Middle East. The strains of the 20th century—Western colonial interference, wars with Israel, windfall oil profits, impoverished populations—long ago extinguished any meaningful tradition of openness in its young nations. Totalitarian ideas won the day, whether in the form of repressive Islamic rule, capricious secular dictatorships, or hereditary oligarchs. As a result, the recent flowerings of democracy are planted in such thin soil they may be hopeless.
This understanding shapes policy not only in the West, but in the Middle East itself. The American government approaches “democracy promotion” in the Middle East as if it’s introducing some exotic foreign species. Reformists in the Arab world often repeat the canard that politicized Islam is incompatible with democracy to justify savage repression of religious activists. And even after the revolts that began in 2010, a majority of the power brokers in the wider Middle East govern as if popular forces were a nuisance to be placated rather than the source of sovereignty.
An alternative strain of thinking, however, is starting to turn those long-held assumptions on their head. Historians and activists are unearthing forgotten chapters of the region’s history, and reassessing well-known figures and incidents, to find a long, deep, indigenous history of democracy, justice, and constitutionalism. They see the recent uprisings in the Arab world as part of a thread that has run through its story for more than a century—and not, as often depicted, a historical fluke.
The case is most clearly and recently laid out in a new book called “Justice Interrupted: The Struggle for Constitutional Government in the Middle East” by Elizabeth F. Thompson, a historian at the University of Virginia, who tries to provide a scholarly historical foundation to a view gaining traction among activists, politicians, and scholars.
Thompson sees the thirst for justice and reform blossoming as long as 400 years ago, when the region was in the hands of the Ottoman Empire. In the generations since, bureaucrats, intellectuals, workers, and peasants have seized on the language of empire, law, and even Islam to agitate for rights and due process. Though Thompson is an academic historian, she sees her work as not just descriptive but useful, helping Arabs and Iranians revive stories that were deliberately suppressed by political and religious leaders. “A goal of this book is to give people a toolkit to take up strands of their own history that have been dropped,” Thompson said in an interview.
Not everyone agrees with her view: Canonical Middle Eastern history, exemplified by Albert Hourani’s 1962 study “Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age,” holds that liberalism did flourish briefly, but was extinguished as a meaningful force in the early years of the Cold War. Even today Hourani’s analysis is invoked to argue that there’s no authentic democratic current to fuel contemporary Arab politics.
But Thompson’s work resonates with a host of Middle Eastern academics, as well as activists, who are advocating new forms of government and who see their efforts as consistent with local culture and history. It may offer a way out of the pessimism gripping many Arab political activists today, finding connections between apparently disparate reformist forces in the region, and political ideas that are often seen as irreconcilably opposed. Most intriguing, she finds elements of this constitutional liberalism even within fundamentalist Islamist movements that democratizers most worry about. These threads suggest a possible way forward, a way to build a constitutional, democratic consensus on indigenous if often overlooked traditions. Islamists and secular Arabs, it turns out, have found common ground in the past, even written constitutions together. The same could happen again now.
NO ONE , including Thompson, would claim that democracy and individual freedom have been the main driver of Middle Eastern politics. Before World War I, almost the entire region lay under the dominion of absolute monarchs claiming a mandate from God—either the Ottoman Sultan, or the Shah of Iran. Later, Western colonial powers divided up the region in search of cheap resources and markets for their goods.
Yet lost in this history of despots and corrupt dealers is a long stream of democratizing ideas, sometimes percolating from common citizens and sometimes from among the ruling elite. In the 19th and 20th centuries, western countries were beginning to move away from authoritarian monarchies and toward the belief that more people deserved legal rights. During this same time period in the Middle East, a similar conversation about law, sovereignty, and democracy was taking place, encompassing everything from the role of religion in the state to the right of women to vote.
Although authoritarian governments largely won the day, Thompson argues that the story doesn’t end there: Instead, she weaves together a series of biographies to trace the persistence of more liberal notions of Middle Eastern society. She begins with an Ottoman civil servant named Mustafa Ali who, in 1599, wrote a passionate memo exhorting the Sultan to reform endemic corruption and judicial mismanagement, because injustices were causing subjects to revolt—thus making the empire less profitable.
From 1858 to 2011, a series of leaders—most of them politicians and also prolific writers—amassed substantial public followings and pushed, though usually without success, for constitutional reforms, transparent accountable governments, and the institutions key to a sustainable democracy. Thompson was surprised, she said, to find the case for liberal democracy and rights in the writings of Iranian clerics, Zionist Jews, Palestinian militants, and early Arab Islamists.
With support from the Maronite church, a group of Lebanese peasants formed a short-lived breakaway mountain republic in 1858, dedicated to egalitarian principles. The blacksmith who led the revolt, Tanyus Shahin, insisted on fair taxation and equal protection of the law. His followers took over the great estates and evicted the landlords, but their main demand was for legal equality between peasants and landowners.
An Egyptian colonel named Ahmed Urabi led a revolt against the Ottoman ruler in 1882, inaugurating a tradition of mass revolt that had its echo in Tahrir Square in 2011. Urabi in his memoir recounts that when the Ottoman monarch dismissed his demands for popular sovereignty in their final confrontation, Urabi replied: “We are God’s creation and free. He did not create us as your property.” Decades later, in 1951, Akram Hourani rallied 10,000 peasants to resist Western colonialism and local corruption in Syria. Eventually, he and his followers in the Baath Party were sidelined by generals who turned the party into a military vehicle.
Some of the stories that Thompson tells are less obscure, like those of the founders of modern Turkey—the one sizable Islamic democracy to emerge from the former Ottoman empire or the Iraqi Communist Party, which had its heyday in the decade after World War II, and whose constitutional traditions remain an important force today even if the party itself is almost completely irrelevant.
Perhaps most encouragingly, in a region known for clashes of absolutes, she finds an encouraging strain of compromise—in particular in the early 20th century, when secular nationalists negotiated with Islamists in Syria to hammer out a constitution they could both support. It was swept aside when France took over in 1923.
“The Middle East is going to see these crises in Tahrir and Taksim and Iran until it can get back to a moment of compromise, which existed a hundred years ago with Islamic liberalism, where you can have your religion and your democracy, too,” Thompson said.
Thompson said she was surprised to find support for constitutionalism and due process in the writings of Hassan El-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and even Sayyid Qutb, the ideologue whose writings inspired Al Qaeda. They believed that consensual constitutions could achieve even their religious aims, without disenfranchising citizens who opposed them.
Some of the characters in this tale have largely vanished to history. Others remain hotly contested symbols in today’s politics. The name of Halide Edib, a feminist and avatar of Turkish nationalism in the early 1900s, is still invoked by the governing Islamist party as well as its secular critics. In Egypt, which enjoyed a period of boisterous liberal parliamentary politics between the two world wars, activists today are trying to revive the writings of early Islamists who believed that an accountable constitutional state, with rights for all, would be better than theocracy.
IN THOMPSON’S VIEW , this world did not simply vanish: It lives on in contemporary Arab political thought, most interestingly in Islamist politics.
It’s easy to assume that religiously driven movements are all antidemocratic—and indeed, some have proven so in practice, like the ayatollahs in Iran or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. But Thompson offers a more nuanced view, showing that many of these religious movements have internalized central elements of liberal discourse. The Muslim Brothers wanted to dominate Egypt, but they attempted to do so not by fiat but through a new constitution and a free-market economy.
Princeton historian Max Weiss says his own study of the Levant backs Thompson’s central argument that constitutionalism thrives in the Middle East: For more than a century, a powerful contingent of thinkers, activists, and politicians in the region have embraced rule of law, constitutional checks and balances, and liberal economics. Even when they’ve lost the political struggles of the day, they’ve remained active, shaped institutions like courts and universities, and provided an important pole within national debates.
For those in power, “constitutional” government can often be used as a fig leaf: Nathan Brown, an expert on Islamism and Arab legal systems at The George Washington University, observes that leaders like the monarchs in the Persian Gulf have often wielded constitutions as just another means of extending their absolute rule. And they’re not alone: Egyptian judges, Syrian rebels, and Gulf sheikhs often use law and constitution to “entrench and regularize authoritarianism, not to limit it,” he says.
But among the people themselves, there is a longstanding hope for the rule of law rather than the rule of generals, or of imams. Knowing this history is important, Thompson argues, because it establishes that democracy is a local tradition, with roots among secular as well as religious Middle Easterners. Reformers, liberals, even otherwise conservative advocates for transparency and human rights are often tainted as “foreign” or “Western agents,” imposing alien ideas on Middle Eastern culture. This slur is especially potent given the West’s checkered history in the region, which more often than not involved intervention on behalf of despots rather than reformers.
Even if democracy is far from winning the race, its supporters can take courage from how many Middle Easterners have demanded it in their own vernacular. As Thompson’s book demonstrates, it’s very much a local legacy to claim.
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]
CAIRO — The troop of bearded Islamists carried wooden clubs and wore motorcycle helmets. They marched in time beneath a sweltering noonday sun, rehearsing for the clashes they expected any minute with the Egyptian army. A military ultimatum was set to expire that evening, and the president was about to be deposed.
When they finished their drill, however, they didn’t want to talk about street fighting. Instead, they started a heated debate over a point of political theory—specifically, whether it is acceptable to question the legitimacy of a popularly elected leader.
“If they threaten President Morsi’s legitimacy, everyone will pay for it. There will be an Islamic revolution,” said a 49-year-old construction worker named Taha Sayed Ali, a lifelong member of Gamaa Islamiya, the group that waged an armed insurgency in Egypt in the 1990s.
What grants legitimacy to a leader? The question usually arises in the abstract realm of political theory, but in today’s Egypt, it has become one of visceral, daily importance. How big does a crowd of protesters have to be to indicate an elected leader is no longer the voice of his people? When do self-interested or authoritarian policy decisions go so far as to invalidate the mandate of an elected government? On the streets of Cairo, these questions have come to occupy the center of a serious, messy conversation about how to build a healthy and accountable new state.
Many supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, who was ousted just after the demonstration, argue that an election confers a legitimacy that only another fair election can take away. They are challenged by a coalition of secular liberals and nationalists, who suggest that even a fairly elected ruler can lose his legitimacy if he fails to deliver on his responsibilities to his citizens. The result, in Egypt, has been a popularly elected leader ousted by what many are calling a “legitimate coup”—an idea that would be almost unimaginable in the longstanding democracies of the West.
“People must believe that we are legitimate, that we represent the majority, or else there is no hope,” said Basem Kamel, a liberal politician who supported the unseating of Morsi and who is determined that the military’s intervention not be seen as a coup. “The only guarantee is the people.”
The Egyptian people are aware that if they’re going to establish a government they all can believe in, they’ll need to settle on a shared understanding of what gives a leader authority and how to determine when a government has lost it. They aren’t there yet. In his final speech before being deposed, ex-president Morsi used the Arabic word for legitimacy—shar’iya —56 times, as though it might serve as a protective cloak against mounting public unrest. With Morsi out and the clashes that followed injuring hundreds and killing dozens, it’s clear that his mere insistence was not enough.
As the debate over legitimacy plays out in Morsi’s wake, the questions at stake resonate far beyond Egypt. The same issues apply in other Arab states in transition, as well as in other countries that have some trappings of democratic rule but are plagued by weak checks and balances and corrupt, authoritarian rulers. As Egypt sorts it out, the country is blazing a path forward that Egyptians, political theorists, and others in the Arab world are watching anxiously.
FOR MUCH OF world history, “legitimacy” wasn’t a question at all—kings ruled by force and claimed legitimacy from a divine order. The modern belief that “legitimacy” can be defined by the people themselves—even that it derives from their consent—dates back at least to the influential writings of John Locke in the 17th century. Political philosophers have debated how legitimacy is created ever since, but a common idea runs through all the different views: To establish its legitimacy, a government must fulfill its core obligations to protect its people and help them thrive.
Today the broad consensus in the West is that legitimacy arises from the voting booth. Citizens should be able to have profound, even violent, disagreements about the direction of their nation without questioning the basic legitimacy of the government; if they want to depose the party in power, they can do so in the next election.
The revolutionary forces that overthrew Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011 tried to establish a new system that might enjoy this kind of popular legitimacy. There would be elections and a process to write a constitution. The president, duly elected, was the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi. Voters also chose an overwhelming Islamist majority for Parliament.
In the presidential runoff, Morsi explicitly appealed to voters who hadn’t chosen an Islamist in the first round but were convinced by his promise that he would govern with everyone’s interests in mind. At the time, even critics of the Brotherhood and the revolution conceded that the ballot was fair and the new president legitimate.
That, however, is where agreement ended. The president proceeded to push through laws—and, ultimately, a new national constitution—without buy-in or input from the opposition. Morsi ditched all his non-Islamist allies. The ruling Muslim Brotherhood and its even more conservative Salafi allies believed they had public support to enact their platform, which among other things called for a doctrinaire application of Islam to the law. In effect, they claimed both God and the electorate on their side. At one point, after the Parliament had already been disbanded, Morsi tried to put himself above judicial review, which would have left his authority with no check at all.
To the politically broad spectrum of Egyptians who had helped overthrow the previous absolute leader, the president had overstepped. On the one-year anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration, at the behest of the Tamarod, or Rebel, campaign, millions took to the streets. In advance, the Tamarod organizers claimed to have gathered 22 million signatures of citizens demanding Morsi’s ouster—significantly more than the 13.2 million who voted for him. By failing to rule either effectively or inclusively, the organizers of the Tamarod petition said, Morsi had lost “ethical, legal, and popular legitimacy.” Their petition cited his administration’s practical failures and the fact that it had rammed through a new constitution with no regard for the objections of sizable chunks of his own citizenry, including secularists, Christians, and women. They even coined a new term to describe the authoritarianism of a fairly elected leader: “ballotocracy.”
By this definition of legitimacy, the ballot box isn’t the last word. In essence, the Egyptian protesters were turning to a tradition that sees the roots of legitimacy in justice and in tangible results. The American Civil Rights movement made similar arguments: It didn’t matter if Jim Crow followed the letter of the law in Mississippi, or had the support of a majority; in failing so many of its citizens, it forfeited legitimacy. This broader notion of legitimacy underlay the original rebellion against Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship, and prompted the June 30 uprising and the coup that followed. By this way of thinking, how a leader rules may matter more than how that leader came to power.
IT MIGHT SEEM strange to have to choose between majority rule or inclusive governance as sources for legitimacy; one tends to think legitimacy requires both. But in the kind of government Egypt is trying to establish, which will have to satisfy a significant Islamist constituency, that balance is not so easy. A state can’t be driven purely by majority interest and also protect the rights of its minority groups. It cannot be both Islamic and secular. And, yet somehow, the various factions must agree to respect the governance of whoever ends up in power, or the messy business of writing laws and addressing the nation’s ills will never get underway.
Esam Haddad, one of Morsi’s closest advisers, wrote in a posting on his Facebook page that the coup interrupted a legitimate political process. “In a democracy, there are simple consequences for the situation we see in Egypt: the President loses the next election or his party gets penalized in the upcoming parliamentary elections,” Haddad said. “Anything else is mob rule.”
Others think that in Egypt right now, proper electoral process isn’t enough. Critics of Brotherhood rule, like Brookings Institution fellow H.A. Hellyer (who coined the term “popularly legitimate coup”), argue that any ruler of Egypt today needs to at least address, if not solve, the country’s vast economic crisis while also appearing sensitive to popular opinion. Morsi, Hellyer says, had legal legitimacy but lost all popular legitimacy. “With theoretical legal legitimacy alone, no executive can function,” Hellyer said. Now, the transitional president appointed by the military faces the same challenge.
With enough will to cooperate, some of the problems of the Egyptian state may be reconciled. The experience of the West suggests that, given enough checks and balances, majority rule through popular elections is compatible with minority rights. Other directions for the state may be mutually exclusive, like theocratic concepts of justice and secular law.
How Egypt attempts to resolve these tensions could prove pathbreaking. In modern times, there have been cases like Iran, where an Islamist majority simply overwhelmed the country’s secular faction; or like India and Indonesia, where pluralism and minority rights were instituted initially by fiat, and haven’t always survived intact when put to electoral test.
In the coming months, whether Egypt manages to confer a lasting legitimacy on any particular governmental arrangement will go a long way to foretelling where the country is headed. Arguments over legitimacy quickly veer into dangerous territory; once the discussion is about who is morally right, rather than a simple power struggle or policy disagreement, it becomes hard to give the other side any credit whatsoever. Ultimately Egypt will settle on some governmental solution and see its constitution harden into established practice. But so long as the sole arbiter is not law but legitimacy, the people will remain on high alert, ready to spill back out into the street.
The government installed by the coup doesn’t include any Islamist members, repeating the exclusionary practice of the Muslim Brothers it replaced—a move that is sure to leave all this government’s decisions subject to a legitimacy challenge by Islamists. This toxic cycle will continue until legitimacy becomes not a rhetorical feint but a reality. It’s the first and most vital step toward a viable rule of law.
Some standouts from the 40 open tabs in my browser: Baheyya pins down the nefarious rhetoric of Sisi and the coup-sters: she observes that the meaningless cheerleading phrase “legitimacy of the people” has replaced the more important and actionable concept of “sovereignty of the people.” One of the activists I’ve been following for my book, the Social Democratic Party’s Basem Kamel, said to me last week when we talked about the coup-revolution debate, “The military has had the same power the whole time.” If Sisi tries to take direct power, Basem Kamel said, people would have to take to the streets. But I think Baheyya very succintly shows that the military is winning a long-term game, in which its narrative will prevail and it will remain Egypt’s ultimate arbiter. Sadly.
This builds on her previous post, which argues (convincingly, in my view) that Egypt’s deep state is engineering a wholesale rejection of messy politics in favor of neat military rule.
With their July 3 coup, Egypt’s new military overlords and their staunch American backers are playing an age-old game, the game of turning the public against the ineluctable bickering, inefficiency, gridlock, and intense conflict that is part and parcel of a free political life, so that a disillusioned, fatigued people will pine for the stability and order that the military then swoops in to provide.
Meanwhile Farah at Rebel Economy grounds us in the unrelenting horror show of Egyptian reality. She neatly portrays the crises that keep quality of life so low, and which are sure to bedevil all of Egypt’s successive governments, and observes that Sisi’s SCAF has taken possession of a rotting hot potato.
Ignore the economy at your peril. That is the lesson Arab leaders of transitional countries should learn from the Egyptian military’s removal of Mohammed Morsi from power, but one that continues to fall on deaf ears.
There’s tons more worth reading.
A member of the Tamarod petition drive against Morsi gestures with an Egyptian flag in front of army soldiers in Cairo on July 3, 2013. (Amr Dalsh/Reuters)
[Originally published in The Atlantic.]
Egypt’s struggle today features two flawed and irreconcilable elitist groups, neither of which speak for the popular revolution that upended the status quo. So long as organized Islamists are competing with the resilient deep state, the contest for Egypt will continue to push the country in a reactionary and divisive direction.
Meanwhile, the popular revolutionary forces that seek a reinvented covenant between citizens and their government will continue to play a critical role as a check on tyranny. So long as revolutionaries are excluded from the drafting table of Egypt’s new constitutional order, the country will remain unstable and autocratic. Only when revolutionaries and sincere reformists are represented in a new constitution and a new government will Egypt begin its transition away from authoritarian rule.
The institutional power struggle between Islamists and the Military complex leaves out the most important development in Egypt over the last decade: people power, with an articulated philosophy embodied by the slogan “bread, freedom, social justice.” Until now, the country’s prolific revolutionary impulse remains hostage to the factions competing for the machinery and spoils of government.
Today in Egypt, on one side stand the Islamists, who can plausibly claim to represent a popular majority and who possess an articulated project to Islamicize the state, but whose style and substance runs roughshod over the rights and aspirations of many Egyptians, including Christians, women and those of a secular bent. The Islamists have the only organized popular movements with cohesive leadership and cadres.
On the other side stand the forces of the old order, whose byword is stability. It boasts undeniable resources: the army, the police, most of the state bureaucracy including the judiciary, the financiers of the deposed regime, and a powerful elite that benefited from President Hosni Mubarak’s rule and is loathe to erode their privileges. This coalition pays lip service to freedom for minorities and secularists, but has little interest authentic liberalism and liberty.
The ultimate arbiter for all factions remains the military.
Both lay claims to represent the majority, although the Islamists have the edge in the results of the rounds of elections since the Tahrir uprising. Neither of these poles speaks for genuine liberals, revolutionaries, or the idealistic youth movements who provided the heart, if not all the manpower, of the January 25, 2011 uprising. The long-term fight is between adherents of majoritarian revolution and revolutionary pluralism, a distinction made by the scholar Ellis Goldberg.)
Right now we’re caught up in a momentary conflict between the military complex and its reactionary supporters on one side and the Muslim Brotherhood and some religious extremists on the other, leaving out a major and perhaps decisive swath of the population that supports neither.
In this unenviable contest, the likely outcome is an illiberal, authoritarian government that will lay no claim to consensus, and which will be viewed as anathema, even treacherous, by nearly half the population. If the deep state prevails, it will never have the loyalty of the population. If the Islamists prevail, they will never control the security apparatus and the institutions of state.
The original Tamarod movement is not party to this conflict, but is still on stage, at times driving events. They are the constituency for pluralism, due process, political consensus-making, and accountable, transparent, civilian authority.
The deposed Muslim Brothers have been making an opportunistic appeal to the most superficial elements of the democratic process: elections and elections alone. Their arguments eerily echo those of Mubarak’s regime before it toppled. “There are a million people in Tahrir Square against Mubarak, but there are 79 million at home who support the regime,” a deluded police officer told me just before Mubarak resigned. President Mohamed Morsi lost his mandate to rule because of the unforced errors he committed in office, which alienated almost every constituency in the country.
Equally opportunistic are the military and police, which perhaps out of different institutional imperatives, have piggybacked on the outraged masses of June 30. Sure, there is a distasteful faction that applauds military rule and which is comfortable with the return of a corrupt, abusive police force that has not faced a single consequence for decades of corruption, criminality, and oppression. But we can’t forget that the millions who signed the Tamarod petition and demonstrated on June 30 and July 2 were demanding Morsi’s ouster; they weren’t demanding a military coup, or a return to Mubarak’s system.
Now, we’ll never know what would have happened had the Muslim Brotherhood government been allowed to confront, dismiss, or negotiate with people power. We’ll never know what the Islamists would have done had they continued to push their agenda and fail politically. We’ll never know how Egyptian politicians and civilians would have responded to the latest showdown absent military intervention. In some ways, the coup has absolved the Brotherhood of some of its share of the blame.
The Islamist threat is real — and so are the dangers of military rule. The most dangerous blow comes from the absence of political evolution. Why is it natural for Islamists to threaten jihad and generalized violence in the face of a coup? Why is it natural for liberals to turn to an abusive, totalitarian, corrupt, and inept military for protection? Both are suicidal moves.
For all the fears of Islamist totalitarian rule, the Brotherhood could never control Egypt; in a year in power, it made scarcely any inroads within the military and police.
Incredibly, some Brotherhood supporters now claim they’re justified in resorting to violence since the system failed them, as if the millions of other Egyptians whose aspirations were stymied by the security state over the years should have been building bombs instead of movements.
Yet the nasty outcome — military coup and Islamist resistance — doesn’t erase the vast and thirsty popular current, which is sizable and real. Its core has been the reformists and revolutionaries, but at different junctures it found allies among Islamists, former regime supporters, and the mostly apathetic citizens known in Egypt as the “Sofa Party.” This popular current felled Mubarak. It pushed the military junta from power in 2012, long before it intended to pass authority to an elected civilian. And now it has ousted Morsi.
It’s a critical problem that the revolutionary fervor has not found its expression in a coherent political movement that can agitate for a tangible system of checks and balances, rule of law, minority rights, economic reforms, and government policies. It is not yet, however, a fatal flaw, nor a weaknesses that justifies dismissing Egyptian people power.
Egypt can survive many more waves of revolt, election and coup, and it will, until the political order begins to reflect more of the will of the people. The latest roadmap repeats most of the mistakes of 2011 (for detailed explanations of how, readNathan Brown and Zaid Al-Ali). The Egyptian public has developed a profound intolerance for arbitrary authoritarian rule; for opaque, paranoid leaders; for governments that ignore the country’s collapsing economy and standard of living.
Revolutionaries might not represent the majority, but they are now a maturing, key constituency. They are unlikely to embrace fascism or fiats from anyone: not the military, not the Brotherhood, not the old political parties. That’s the underlying signal of Egypt’s latest revolt. Until Egypt’s power brokers recognize the core demands of the public and begin to address them, the public isn’t likely to go away.
Egyptian security forces strip and beat a protester in the Cabinet clashes of December 2011.
[Originally published in The Atlantic.]
CAIRO – History doesn’t operate in perfect analogies, but I couldn’t help comparing the celebration that marked President Morsi’s overthrow to the more exuberant outbreak when Hosni Mubarak fell.
Last week as I pushed past families, men blowing vuvuzelas, and candy peddlers, a policeman swaggered past in his white uniform, his belly and chin thrust forward, smiling ever so slightly. A man leapt toward him and brushed his forearm. “Congratulations, ya basha,” he said, in an almost feudal show of respect. The cop nodded in acknowledgement without breaking stride. He walked like a man with authority.
Two and a half years ago, one of the signal triumphs of the revolution was the expulsion not only of Mubarak, but of the detested police. They had strutted all over the rights and dignity of Egyptians. They had tortured with impunity, beaten the innocent and the guilty, detained at a whim, demanded bribes, colluded with common criminals. At the beginning of the uprising, the public had enshrined a magnanimous principle of people power; they won a street war and then declined to lynch the defeated policemen, instead in one instance releasing them to skulk home in their underwear.
On the night Mubarak fled the presidential palace, a 20-year-old engineering student named Mohammed Ayman murmured with awe and pleasure: “The policemen now speak more softly in the streets. People are waking up. We know our rights.”
This week, the policemen weren’t speaking softly at all. They were basking in the adoration of the latest, complicated wave of the Egyptian revolution. They joined the anti-Morsi protests, and stood by while Muslim Brotherhood facilities were attacked. In keeping with their motley history, rule of law still wasn’t on the police agenda. President Morsi was swept from power by vast reserves of popular anger at an inept and dictatorial Muslim Brotherhood government. But the June 30 uprising was by no means a purely organic revolt, like January 25; crucially, it was buttressed by the machinery of the old regime and the reactionaries who loved and missed it.
A few years hence, we’ll know for sure whether the July 2 military intervention represented a salutatory alliance between revolutionaries, the military, and the bureaucracy, or whether it marked the dawn of a full restoration of the old order, of Mubarak’s state without Mubarak. But revolutionaries and reformists obsessed today with convincing their fellow citizens and the world that Egypt just experienced a second revolution rather than a coup could more wisely concentrate on the omnipresent danger signs, which in the slim best-case scenario might not prove fatal..
If revolutionaries want to build a new better state, they now must quickly articulate their vision of a pluralistic society of rights and accountable government, free from the tyrannies they have overthrown in short order: those of Mubarak, the military junta that replaced him, and the elected Islamists who ruled as if their slim electoral majority entitled them to absolute, unchecked power. And they must be just as willing to challenge military rulers as they were to toss out Morsi and the Brotherhood.
* * *
Egypt’s revolution is in danger, as it has been at many turns since it burst forth in January 2011. Its best asset is people power and the creative, resilient activists who have gone to the streets over and over, and against three different kinds of regime so far. Its greatest vulnerabilities are the institutions of Mubarak’s authoritarian police state, which have bided their time and are still pushing for a restoration, and the profound strain of reactionary thought that courses through certain powerful sectors of Egyptian society.
There are vibrant forces in Egypt that want to chart an indigenous, authentic course toward Egypt’s own version of pluralistic, transparent, accountable governance. They aren’t interested in Western timetables or Western ideas about elections as the path to enlightened rule. It is crucial, if these forces are to succeed, that they see and describe clearly the terrible impasse that led to June 30 and the highly flawed, imperfect military intervention that broke it.
With a clear-eyed, unsentimental assessment, Egyptian progressives might yet bend the country to their will. A positive long-term outcome requires honesty about the Brotherhood’s errors as well as the unseemly alliance struggling to tame Egypt now — in short, the whole halting attempt at revolution so farThe Brotherhood abused Egypt and its electoral prerogative. Most insulting was the constitution that was rammed through in a single overnight session, with only Islamist participation, in an obscene savagery of the political process. There was also the state-sanctioned torture and vigilantism against the anti-Morsi protesters outside the presidential palace in December 2012, committed by Muslim Brotherhood members with the knowledge of presidential advisers. In less dramatic fashion, the Brotherhood scoffed in lawmaking at the idea of consensus or negotiation, insisting again and again that the fact they’d been elected justified any and all actions, including the president’s abortive attempt to dissolve judicial oversight, the last remaining check on executive authority after the parliament had been sent packing by the courts.
The Brotherhood’s failures exhausted their warrant to govern in the eyes of many Egyptians, prompting the June 30 Tamarod, or “Rebel” revolt, which brought more people to the streets from more strains of the public than any previous Egyptian protest. But while the Muslim Brotherhood’s behavior might justify its eviction from power, it doesn’t excuse the misbehavior of the opposition, which is now the adjunct to the second interim military authority to set rules for Egypt’s political transition after Mubarak. The opposition has yet to settle on a constructive vision. It opposed Islamists, but as a body it hasn’t stood in favor of an alternate idea for Egypt. Some reconciliation is necessary with the felool, the remnants of the old regime. But accommodation is one thing; a full embrace another. Worse still, many of the Tamarod supporters actively called for a coup, declaring that military rule would be preferable to that of electoral Islamists. In fact, both have proved corrosive to Egyptian well-being, and will prove so again in the period to come. The latest machinations over the next government, along with the continuing violence between “rebels” and Brothers, underscore the precarious state of Egypt today, a mess out of which only the military is guaranteed to emerge stronger.
“We are starting from square zero,” said Basem Kamel, an activist who helped organize the January 25 uprising, and who joined the organizers of June 30. He conditionally supported this week’s military intervention, along with the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, for whom he served as a member of parliament in 2012. But he also condemned the arrest of Muslim Brotherhood leaders this week and the closure of their media. He doesn’t want anybody’s authoritarianism.
“This time,” he said, “we must get it right.”
Perhaps people power is a good enough argument for those who supported this people’s putsch. And the violence of Muslim Brotherhood followers only buttresses the argument that old regime remnants, the felool, might be illiberal fascists, but the Islamists hold a greater danger still. The Tamarod/June 30/Revolution-not-a-coup school seems to believe that their role is simply to expel any leader who doesn’t serve Egypt. Their argument appears to be that the people don’t need to write the blueprint, but will stand in reserve to veto any regime that misrules. Somebody else needs to come up with an idea for how to extricate Egypt from the practical morass into which it has sunk. Meanwhile, the people will overthrow executive after executive until one does a good job.
Yet, many ideals that imbued the original January 25 uprising have yet to gain a wider purchase. Revolutionaries rightly mistrusted authority, including that of the military. They rejected state propaganda that held divisions between secular and religious, Christian and Muslim, made Egypt ungovernable except by a heavy hand. They trusted the public, the amorphous “people,” to choose its own rules and write its own constitution, so long as everyone had a seat at the table and the strong couldn’t silence the weak. They espoused rights and due process for all, including accused criminals and thugs, even for those who had tortured and repressed them. They forswore the paranoia and xenophobia with which the old regime had tarred as foreign agents Egypt’s admirable community of human rights defenders, election monitors, and community organizers.
And now, at a moment of both pride and shame, when the people rose up against an authoritarian if elected Muslim Brotherhood governance and unseated a callous, incompetent president with the help of the military, the revolutionary ideas are drowning in a torrent of reactionary sentiment. “We want a military man to rule us,” a middle-aged woman with a bouffant hairdo exulted to me outside the presidential palace.
Yes, revolutionaries and common folk and apolitical Egyptians took to the streets on June 30, and again later in the week to celebrate Morsi’s imprisonment by the military. But they were joined, and perhaps overwhelmed in numbers, by the felool, the reactionaries. Families of soldiers and policemen strolled among the protesters. Christians and proud members of the “sofa party,” who had sat out every previous demonstration of the last two and a half years, trumpeted their support for Mubarak, for his preferred successor, presidential runner up and retired General Ahmed Shafiq, and now, for military rule. Whether the original revolutionaries wanted it or not, their latest revolution has the support of some of their worst, most persistent enemies: the military and the police.
At the airport on Friday evening, a half-dozen uniformed police officers stood watching the Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide’s speech, televised on a set mounted at the Coffeeshop Company. The Supreme Guide called for supporters of Morsi to “bring him back bearing him on our necks, sacrifice our souls for him.” Within hours, that cry would result in thousands marching to Tahrir Square and engaging in a bloody, deadly and avoidable clash with opponents of the Brotherhood.
As the Brotherhood leader spoke, the policemen laughed, while others looked on anxiously, mirroring the divisions within Egyptian society. Not everyone hates the Islamists, and not everyone loves the police.
On TV, the camera panned over the shouting Brotherhood supporters a few miles away, mourning a protester just shot dead. At the airport, an officer with three bars on his shoulder laughed. “Morsi’s finished,” he said, bringing his heel down and slowly savoring the crushing motion. “In two more days, the Brotherhood will be finished too.”
Beside him a stone-faced man winced.
A reader peruses the front cover of the revolutionary Tahrir newspaper (Photo: Amr Dalsh/Reuters)
As the Arab uprisings continue, war and state repression aren’t the only threats to free expression. Egypt in the last week saw two other factors impinging on the independent media: bad finances and malignant bureaucracy. They pose a potent threat that could drastically worsen the dimming prospects for a transition away from authoritarianism.
The traditional print media’s business model has suffered all over the world, and Arab countries undergoing political transitions are not immune. Throw into the mix the fact that bloated state agencies control many of the major publishing conglomerates and television networks, and you have a gargantuan set of problems above and beyond efforts by the government to punish dissent and restrict speech (read my recent Internationalist column in The Boston Globe for more about Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s exertions on that front).
This week, the dismal economics of the print media nearly forced the closure of the Egypt Independent, one of the best sources of critical and feature reportage about Egypt. The editors were told this week that their paper, formerly known as Al Masry Al Youm English, would be closed because it loses too much money. They persuaded management to give them a stay of execution while they made their publication financially viable, but it seems only a matter of time before they face the prospect of closure again. (Another English-language paper, The Daily News Egypt, folded in 2012 although investors have since brought it back.)
Meanwhile, the dismal values of the Muslim Brotherhood’s media commissioners have driven out the editor of Al Ahram Online, an odd bright spot of breaking news and dissenting journalism that thrived, in English, within the otherwise moribund state publishing conglomerate. Ahram Online’s editor Hani Shukrallah is a secular leftist with Christian origins. He was forced into early retirement by the new Ahram supervisors put in place by the Muslim Brotherhood. Shukrallah believes it’s a purely political decision, and spoke out only after his salary was cut and his chosen successor passed over. “The object of course is humiliation,” he wrote in a Facebook note. “Fools! I have something immeasurably more precious: my dignity and self-respect. What do you have?” So far, his successor hasn’t been named and his staff continues its impressive work. A Muslim Brotherhood loyalist has already been put in charge of Ahram’s daily Arabic edition, and prospects don’t look good for the independent editorial line of Ahram Online in English.
The English-language local press served an important function before the uprisings that broke out two years ago. Its reporters had more leeway than the Arabic press, and pushed boundaries in their reporting on torture, corruption and incompetent governance. They have extended that role in the two years since Mubarak fell. Egypt Independent and Ahram Online are read by people all over the world, and by activists in Egypt as well. They shape opinions in the international policy community, and have been invaluable forums for Egyptians in Egypt and the diaspora.
Ahram Online might revert to regime control, but that’s not irreversible. It could be a temporary setback in a multi-year transition. If Egypt Independent closes, many of its talented journalists will have to seek employment elsewhere or leave journalism – but the publication could be resuscitated by an angel investor. This has all happened before, and unlike in Mubarak’s Egypt, there’s now a boisterous Arabic-language media that’s pushing the limits of oppressive state regulation. While there’s considerable pressure from the state, there’s also more limit-testing and more free speech than ever before.
Even before the financial woes that struck her paper, Egypt Independent editor-in-chief Lina Attalah was worried about the unprecedented amount of attention the new Muslim Brotherhood regime was paying to the English language press. “They’re concerned about their image abroad, and they do not yet own the state,” she told me. “So they feel they have to resort to other methods of control.”
Elsewhere in the region things there was grim news for free speech over the last week. Officials in Iraqi Kurdistan detained without warrant people who wrote critically about the government. An Australian outlet broke the news of a secret prisoner who died in Israeli custody in 2010, forcing the ridiculous spectacle of Israeli journalists, still facing prosecution if they talked about the gag order on the case, speculating about the case in the subjunctive. And in what passed for a bright spot Kuwaiti courts acquitted five online activists who had been charged with “offending the emir.”
All critics of the newly-elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt face a concerted campaign by the presidency to shut them up. For journalists, there are two extra dangers: a bureaucracy with tentacles through much of the publishing and broadcasting industry, and a dangerously deflated economy that is bankrupting all kinds of businesses, including the media. It’s a potentially lethal triple threat, and it couldn’t come at worse time. There are plenty of scurrilous journalists-for-hire making up slanderous and polarizing stories, but the dedicated and courageous Egyptian press corps – not least including the staffs of Egypt Independent and Ahram Online – have provided inspiration and, crucially, information. Let’s hope they’re able to continue doing their jobs.
A street poster from Cairo that reads, “My God, my freedom, O my country.” Photo: NEMO.
CAIRO — Every night, Egypt’s current comedic sensation, a doctor hailed as his country’s Jon Stewart, lambastes the nation’s president on TV, mocking his authoritarian dictates and airing montages that reveal apparent lies. On talk shows, opposition politicians hold forth for hours, excoriating government policy and new Islamist president Mohammed Morsi. Protesters use the earthiest of language to compare their political leaders to donkeys, clowns, and worse. Meanwhile, the president’s supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood respond in kind on their new satellite television station and in mass counter-rallies.
Before Egypt’s uprising two years ago, this kind of open debate about the president would have been unthinkable. For nearly three decades, former president Hosni Mubarak exerted near total control over the public sphere. In the twilight of his term, he imprisoned a famous newspaper editor who dared to publish speculation about the ailing president’s declining health. No one else touched the story again.
To Western observers, the freewheeling back-and-forth in Egypt right now might sound like the flowering of a young open society, one of the revolution’s few unalloyed triumphs. But amid the explosion of debate, something less wholesome has begun to arise as well. Though speech is far more open, it now carries a new and different kind of risk, one more unpredictable and sudden. Islamist officials and citizens have begun going after individuals for crimes such as blasphemy and insulting the president, and vaguer charges like sedition and serving foreign interests. The elected Islamist ruling party, the Muslim Brotherhood, pushed a new constitution through Egypt’s constituent assembly in December that expanded the number of possible free speech offenses—including insults to “all prophets.”
Worryingly, a recent report showed that President Morsi—a Brotherhood member, and Egypt’s first-ever genuinely elected, civilian leader—has invoked the law against insulting the presidency far more frequently than any of the dictators who preceded him, and has even directed a full-time prosecutor to summon journalists and others suspected of that crime.
The Muslim Brotherhood, as it rises to power, is playing host to conflicting ideas. It wants the United States to view it as a tolerant modern movement that doesn’t arbitrarily silence critics, but at the same time it needs to show its political base of socially conservative constituents in rural Egypt that it won’t tolerate irreligious speech at home. And it wants to argue that despite its religious pedigree, it is behaving within the constraints of the law.
For the time being, Egypt’s proliferating free expression still outstrips government efforts to shut it down. But as the new open society engenders pushback, what’s happening here is in many ways a test case for Islamist rule over a secular state. What’s at stake is whether Islamists—who are vying for elected power in countries around the Muslim world—really only respect the rules until they have enough clout to ignore them.
The text on this Cairo street poster reads, “As they breathe, they lie.” Photo: NEMO
EGYPTIANS ARE RENOWNED throughout the Arab world for jokes and wordplay, as likely to fall from the mouth of a sweet potato peddler as a society journalist. Much of daily life takes place in the crowded public social spaces where people shop, drink hand-pressed sugarcane juice, loiter with friends, or picnic with their families. But under the stifling police state built by Mubarak, that vitality was undercut by fear of the undercover police and informants who lurked everywhere, declaring themselves at sheesha joints or cafes when the conversation veered toward politics.
As a result, a prudent self-censorship ruled the day. State security officials had desks at all the major newspapers, but top editors usually saved them the trouble, restraining their own reporters in advance. In 2005, when one publisher took the bold step of publishing a judge’s letter critical of the regime, he confiscated the cellphones of all his editors and sequestered them in a conference room so they couldn’t tip off authorities before the paper reached the streets.
It wasn’t technically illegal to be a dissident in Egypt; that the paper could be published at all was testament to the fact that some tolerance existed. Egypt’s system was less draconian and violent than the police states in Syria and Iraq, where dissidents were routinely assassinated and tortured. But the limits of public speech were well understood, and Egyptians who cared to criticize the state carefully stayed on the accepted side of the line. Activists would speak out about electoral fraud by the ministry of the interior or against corruption by businesspeople, for example, but would carefully refrain from criticizing the military or Mubarak’s family. Political life as we understand it barely existed.
Egypt’s uprising marked an abrupt break in this long cultural balancing act. For the first time, millions of Egyptians expressed themselves freely and in public, openly defying the intelligence minions and the guns of the police. It was shocking when people in the streets called directly for the fall of the regime. Within weeks, previously unimaginable acts had become commonplace. Mubarak’s effigy hung in Tahrir Square. Military generals were mocked as corrupt, sadistic toadies in cartoons and banners. Establishment figures called for trials of former officials and limits on renegade security officials.
In the two years since, free speech has spread with dizzying speed—on buses, during marches, around grocery stalls, everywhere that people congregate. Today there are fewer sacred cows, although even at the peak of revolutionary fervor few Egyptians were willing to risk publicly impugning the military, which was imprisoning thousands without any due process. (An elected member of parliament faced charges when he compared the interim military dictator to a donkey.)
Mohammed Morsi was inaugurated in June, after a tight election that pitted him against a former Mubarak crony. Morsi campaigned on a promise to excise the old regime’s ways from the state, and on a grandiose Islamist platform called “The Renaissance.” His regime has fared poorly in its efforts to take control of the police and judiciary. Nor has it made much progress on its sweeping but impractical proposals to end poverty and save the Egyptian economy. It has proven easier to talk about Islamic social issues: allegations of blasphemy by Christians and atheist bloggers; alcohol consumption and the sexual norms of secular Egyptians; and the idea, widely held among Brotherhood supporters, that a godless cabal of old-regime supporters is secretly plotting to seize power.
Before it won the presidency, the Muslim Brotherhood emphasized it had been fairly elected; the party was Islamist, it said, but from the pragmatic, democratic end of the spectrum. But in recent months, there’s been more than a whiff of Big Brother about the Brotherhood. Supposed volunteers attacked demonstrators outside Morsi’s presidential palace—and then were videotaped turning over their victims to Brotherhood operatives. Allegations of torture, illegal detention, and murder by state agents pile up uninvestigated.
As revolutionaries and other critical Egyptians have turned their ire from the old regime to the new, the Brotherhood also has begun targeting political speech. The new constitution, authored by the Brotherhood and forced through Egypt’s constituent assembly in an overnight session over the objections of the secular opposition and even some mainstream religious clerics, criminalized blasphemy and expanded older statutes against insults to leaders, state institutions like the courts, and religious figures. Popular journalists have been threatened with arrest, while less famous individuals, including children improbably accused of desecrating a Koran, have been thrown into detention. Morsi’s presidential advisers regularly contact human rights activists and journalists to challenge their reports, a level of attention and pressure previously unknown here.
In addition to the old legal tools to limit free expression, which are now more heavily used by the Islamists than they were by Mubarak, the new constitution has added criminal penalties for insulting all religions and empowers courts to shut down media outlets that don’t “respect the sanctity of the private lives of citizens and the requirements of national security.”
The Egyptian government began an investigation of TV comedian Baseem Yousef but dropped its charges after a public outcry.
Egyptian human rights monitors have tracked dozens of such cases, including three that were filed by the president’s own legal team. Gamal Eid at the Arab Network for Human Rights Information charted 40 cases that prosecuted political critics for what amounted to dissenting speech in the first 200 days of Morsi’s regime. That’s more, he claims, than during Mubarak’s entire reign, and more charges of insulting the president than were filed since 1909, when the law was first written.
IT’S A WELL-KNOWN PRECEPT in politics that times of transition are the most unstable, and that the fight to establish civil liberties carries risks. The current speech crackdown may just be an expected symptom of the shift from an effective authoritarian state to competitive politics. Mubarak, of course, had less need to prosecute a population that mostly kept quiet.
It could also be a sign of desperation on the part of the Brotherhood, as it struggles to rule without buy-in from the police and state bureaucracy. Or it could, more alarmingly, mark a transition to a genuine new era of censorship in the most populous Arab country, this time driven as much by the Islamist cultural agenda as by the quest to keep a grip on power.
It is that last prospect that makes the path Egypt takes so important. By dint of its size and cultural heft, the country remains a major influence across the Arab world, and both in Egypt and elsewhere, the Muslim Brotherhood is at the front lines of political Islam—trying to balance the cultural conservatism of its rank-and-file supporters with the openness the world expects from democratic society.
There are signs that the Brotherhood wants to at least make gestures toward Western norms, though it remains hard to gauge exactly how open an Egypt its members would like to see. At one point the government began an investigation of Baseem Yousef, the Jon Stewart-like TV comedian, but abruptly dropped its charges in January after a public outcry.
During the wave of bad publicity around the investigation, one of President Morsi’s advisers issued a statement claiming that the state would never interfere in free speech—so long as citizens and the press worked to raise their “level of credibility.”
“Human dignity has been a core demand of the revolution and should not be undermined under the guise of ‘free speech,’” presidential adviser Esam El-Haddad said in a statement that placed ominous boundaries on the very idea of free speech that it purported to advance. “Rather, with freedom of speech comes responsibility to fellow citizens.”
What scares many people, is how they define “responsibility.” A widely watched video clip portrays a Salafi cleric lecturing his followers about how Egypt’s new constitution will allow pious Muslims to limit Christian freedoms and silence secular critics (the cleric, Sheikh Yasser Borhami, is from a more fundamentalist current, separate from but allied with the Brotherhood). When critics look at the Brotherhood’s current spate of investigations and threatened prosecutions, they see the political manifestation of the same exclusionary impulse: the polarizing notion that the Islamists’ actions are blessed by God and, by implication, that to criticize them is sacrilege.
Modern Islamism hasn’t reckoned with this implicit conflict yet, even internally. Officially, one current of the Brotherhood’s ideology prioritizes social activism over politics, and eschews coercion in religious matters. But another, perhaps more popular strain in Brotherhood thinking agitates for a religious revolution in people’s daily lives, and that strain appears to be driving the behavior of the Brothers suddenly in charge of the nation. Their fervor is colliding squarely with the secular responsibility of running a state like Egypt, which for all its shortcomings has real institutions, laws, and a civil society that expects modern freedoms and protections. The first stage of Egypt’s transition from military dictatorship has ended, but the great clash between religious and secular politics is just beginning to unfold.
David Alpern’s show this weekend wonders what on earth Morsi is thinking, and what really happened with Israel’s airstrikes on Syria. Listen to our conversation here.
President Obama struck a powerful chord last night when asked about Egypt’s tepid response to the incursion on the American Embassy in Cairo. “I don’t think that we would consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy,” Obama told Telemundo. The American president’s pointed observation balanced the need to put Egypt on notice against the importance, in diplomacy, of not sounding like a scold.
In this case, Egypt’s president Mohamed Morsi has behaved like a recalcitrant populist, trying to benefit domestically from anger over a private American film that insulted Islam, while not losing any of America’s vital support for Egypt. Perhaps Morsi has read recent Egyptian history and concluded that Cairo’s support is so important that Washington will bear any humiliation in order to retain the special military and security relationship. Yet all international relations have their limits; and Morsi might have forgotten that America accepted a great amount of bad behavior by the SCAF during the 18-month transitional period that followed Mubarak’s fall — but now we’re dealing with an elected sovereign government with a popular mandate and popular accountability. This is the real thing, a democratically governed Egypt. Its president is now responsible for his behavior and for his country’s policy.
In a chat yesterday on Capital New York, I said that Obama would need to pointedly express America’s anger toward Egypt.
Don’t get me wrong: he needs to “engage” the Brotherhood, which means, “have relations” with it. In this case, the engagement should consist of a cold, angry, demand: that they immediately condemn the invasion of the embassy grounds, and that they act responsibly to cool anti-American sentiment—if they expect our financial aid, our military aid, and our indispensable support in getting the IMF and other international assistance vital to Egypt’s economic survival. … I think it will hurt Obama if he doesn’t criticize Egypt aggressively, and in public. And I think the damage could grow if people connect these breaches to America’s broader directionless in the wake of the Arab uprisings.
That’s the real problem, by the way—not the stuff Romney is bringing up.
Obama might finally be making some progress, a year and a half late, in coining a coherent response to the Arab uprisings. His comments about Egypt suggest that Washington is mature and wise enough to begin navigating that gray area between subservient client state and outright enemy; most of the post-uprising Arab world will fall somewhere in that confusing terrain that houses most sovereign states, neither “with us” nor “against us.”
America is contemplating an Egypt that won’t march in lockstep with all its interests. Egypt doesn’t want to go to war with Israel for its own reasons, but it’s likely to be much more hostile and less cooperative there. Same on defense and counter-terrorism. Cairo and Washington will have to negotiate their limited shared interests. The flip side, however, might not yet have dawned on Egypt’s new leaders; America is under no obligation to underwrite Egypt’s military and to a lesser degree is economy with no-strings-attached billions. An independent Egyptian government (or depending on your perspective, an irritating one) will surely be a boon to Egypt’s sense of honor, pride, and autonomy. But it won’t come without consequences. Angering an American government, even a patient one, still carries costs.
A very interesting conversation on Warren Olney’s To the Point over the implications of Morsi trying to take control. On the one hand, he actually has a mandate, public support, and a known ideology. On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood and now Morsi, during the transition, have time and again made self-serving power grabs and exhibited a propensity for authoritarianism. Listen here for a sometimes sharp debate involving me, Marc Lynch, Ehud Yaari, and Kareem Fahim.
The case that a political term has outlived its usefulness
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]
To watch the Arab world’s political transformation over the past year has been, in part, to track the inexorable rise of Islamism. Islamist groups—that is, parties favoring a more religious society—are dominating elections. Secular politicians and thinkers in the Arab world complain about the “Islamicization” of public life; scholars study the sociology of Islamist movements, while theologians pick apart the ideological dimensions of Islamism. This March, the US Institute for Peace published a collection of essays surveying the recent changes in the Arab world, entitled “The Islamists Are Coming: Who They Really Are.”
From all this, you might assume that “Islamism” is the most important term to understand in world politics right now. In fact, the Islamist ascendancy is making it increasingly meaningless.
In Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, the most important factions are led overwhelmingly by religious politicians—all of them “Islamist” in the conventional sense, and many in sharp disagreement with one another over the most basic practical questions of how to govern. Explicitly secular groups are an exception, and where they have any traction at all they represent a fragmented minority. As electoral democracy makes its impact felt on the Arab world for the first time in history, it is becoming clear that it is the Islamist parties that are charting the future course of the Arab world.
As they do, “Islamist” is quickly becoming a term as broadly applicable—and as useless—as “Judeo-Christian” in American and European politics. If important distinctions are emerging within Islamism, that suggests that the lifespan of “Islamist” as a useful term is almost at an end—that we’ve reached the moment when it’s time to craft a new language to talk about Arab politics, one that looks beyond “Islamist” to the meaningful differences among groups that would once have been lumped together under that banner.
Some thinkers already are looking for new terms that offer a more sophisticated way to talk about the changes set in motion by the Arab Spring. At stake is more than a label; it’s a better understanding of the political order emerging not just in the Middle East, but around the world.
THE TERM “ISLAMIST” came into common use in the 1980s to describe all those forces pushing societies in the Islamic world to be more religious. It was deployed by outsiders (and often by political rivals) to describe the revival of faith that flowered after the Arab world’s defeat in the 1967 war with Israel and subsequent reflective inward turn. Islamist preachers called for a renewal of piety and religious study; Islamist social service groups filled the gaps left by inept governments, organizing health care, education, and food rations for the poor. In the political realm, “Islamist” applied to both Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which disavowed violence in its pursuit of a wealthier and more powerful Islamic middle class, and radical underground cells that were precursors to Al Qaeda.
What they had in common was that they saw a more religious leadership, and more explicitly Islamic society, as the antidote to the oppressive rule of secular strongmen such as Hafez al-Assad, Hosni Mubarak, and Saddam Hussein.
Over the years, the term “Islamist” continued to be a useful catchall to describe the range of groups that embraced religion as a source of political authority. So long as the Islamist camp was out of power, the one-size-fits-all nature of the term seemed of secondary importance.
But in today’s ferment, such a broad term is no longer so useful. Elections have shown that broad electoral majorities support Islamism in one flavor or another. The most critical matters in the Arab world—such as the design of new constitutional orders in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya—are now being hashed out among groups with competing interpretations of political Islam. In Egypt, the non-Islamic political forces are so shy about their desire to separate mosque from government that many eschew the term “secular,” requesting instead a “civil” state.
In Tunisia’s elections last fall, the Islamist Ennahda Party—an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood—swept to victory, but is having trouble dealing with its more doctrinaire Islamist allies to the right. In Libya, virtually every politician is a socially conservative Muslim. The country’s recent elections were won by a party whose leaders believe in Islamic law as a main reference point for legislation and support polygamy as prescribed by Islamic sharia law, but who also believe in a secular state—unlike their more Islamist rivals, who would like a direct application of sharia in drafting a new constitutional framework.
In Egypt, the two best-organized political groups since the fall of Mubarak have been the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi Noor Party—both “Islamist” in the broad sense, but dramatically different in nearly all practical respects. The Brotherhood has been around for 84 years, with a bourgeois leadership that supports liberal economics and preaches a gospel of success and education. The rival Salafi Noor Party, on the other hand, includes leaders who support a Saudi-style extremist view of Islam that holds the religious should live as much as possible in a pre-modern lifestyle, and that non-Muslims should live under a special Islamic dispensation for minorities. A third Islamist wing in Egypt includes the jihadists—the organization that assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981, which has officially renounced violence and has surfaced as a political party. (Its main agenda item is to advocate the release of “the blind sheikh,” Omar Abdel-Rahman imprisoned in the United States as the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.)
“ISLAMIST” MIGHT BE an accurate label for all these parties, but as a way to understand the real distinctions among them it’s becoming more a hindrance than a help. A useful new terminology will need to capture the fracture lines and substantive differences among Islamic ideologies.
In Egypt, for example, both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis believe in the ultimate goal of a perfect society with full implementation of Islamic sharia. Yet most Brothers say that’s an abstract and unattainable aim, and in practice are willing to ignore many provisions of Islamic law—like those that would limit modern finance, or those that would outright ban alcohol—in the interest of prosperity and societal peace. The Salafis, by contrast, would shut down Egypt’s liquor industry and mixed-gender beaches, regardless of the consequences for tourism or the country’s Christian minority.
There’s a cleavage between Islamists who still believe in a secular definition of citizenship that doesn’t distinguish between Muslims and non-Muslims, and those who believe that citizenship should be defined by Islamic law, which in effect privileges Muslims. (Under Saudi Arabia’s strict brand of Islamist government, the practice of Christianity and Shiite Islam is actually illegal.) And there’s the matter of who would interpret religious law: Is it a personal matter, with each Muslim free to choose which cleric’s rulings to follow? Or should citizens be legally required to defer to doctrinaire Salafi clerics?
Many thinkers are trying to craft a new language for the emerging distinctions within Islamism. Issandr El Amrani, who edits The Arabist blog and has just started a new column for the news site Al-Monitor about Islamists in power, suggests we use the names of the organizations themselves to distinguish the competing trends: Ikhwani Islamists for the establishment Muslim Brothers and organizations that share its traditions and philosophy; Salafi Islamists for Salafis, whose name means “the predecessors” and refers to following in the path of the Prophet Mohammed’s original companions; and Wasati Islamists for the pluralistic democrats that broke away from the Brotherhood to form centrist parties in Egypt.
Gilles Kepel, the French political scientist who helped popularize the term “Islamist” in his writings on the Islamic revival in the 1980s, grew dissatisfied with its limits the more he learned about the diversity within the Islamist space. By the 1990s, he shifted to the more academic term “re-Islamification movements.” Today he suggests that it’s more helpful to look at the Islamist spectrum as coalescing around competing poles of “jihad,” those who seek to forcibly change the system and condemn those who don’t share those views, and “legalism,” those who would use instruments of sharia law to gradually shift it. But he’s still frustrated with the terminology’s ability to capture politics as they evolve. “I’ve tried to remain open-eyed,” he said.
It’s also helpful to look at what Islamists call themselves, but that only offers a perfunctory guide, since many Islamists consider religion so integral to their thinking that it doesn’t merit a name. Others might seek for domestic political reasons to downplay their religious aims. For example, Turkey’s ruling party, a coterie of veteran Islamists who adapted and subordinated their religious principles to their embrace of neoliberal economics, describes itself as a party of “values,” rather than of Islam. In Libya, the new government will be led by the personally conservative technocrat Mahmoud Jibril; though his party could be considered “Islamist” in the traditional sense, it’s often identified as secular in Western press reports, to distinguish it from its more religious rivals. Jibril himself prefers “moderate Islamic.”
The efforts to come up with a new language to talk about Islamic politics are just beginning, and are sure to evolve as competing movements sharpen their ideologies, and as the lofty rhetoric of religion meets the hard road of governing. The importance of moving beyond “Islamism” will only grow as these changes make themselves felt: What we call the “Islamic world” includes about a quarter of the world’s population, stretching from Muslim-majority nations in the Arab world, along with Turkey, Pakistan, and Indonesia, to sizable communities from China to the United States. For Islam, the current political moment could be likened to the aftermath of 1848 in Europe, when liberal democracy coalesced as an alternative to absolute monarchy. Only after that, once virtually every political movement was a “liberal” one, did it become important to distinguish between socialists and capitalists, libertarians and statists—the distinctions that have seemed essential ever since.