Boredom and Loathing in Ismailia

The Arabist's secret asset, Nour The Intern, visited Ismailiya last week and wrote this dispatch about an anti-Morsi rally (specifically focused on a proposed Suez Canal development law). Enjoy.  

 “They are as bored as they are politically divided,” I thought as I watched a group of young bearded men walk right past the wooden stage of the anti-MB “Da’ Canaly” (which translates to “Leave my canal”) public conference in Ismailia. They just shook their heads and waved their hands dismissively, apparently not provoked enough to mention Allah's take on infidels.

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Carrothers: Egypt’s Dismal Opposition: A Second Look

Thomas Carrothers of Carnegie had a good piece on the over-dissing of Egypt's opposition:

Overly harsh views of the Egyptian opposition—combined with a lack of recognition that many once-weak opposition actors in countries emerging from authoritarian rule have gone on to win elections—fuel the unhelpful idea that the Muslim Brotherhood is the only political force likely to hold power in Egypt for the foreseeable future. And that idea in turn encourages the problematic belief evident in U.S. policy in the past year that no alternative to the Brotherhood is likely to be viable for many years and the resultant tendency to downplay the Brotherhood’s significant political flaws.

The United States and other Western powers should not make it their business to actively support the opposition. But they should at least approach Egypt’s new political landscape with an open mind, informed by experiences from elsewhere.

Listening to U.S. officials and political analysts pillory the Egyptian opposition, it is hard not to wonder what gives American observers so much judgmental self-confidence. The United States has more than two-hundred years of democratic history, the finest institutions of higher education in the world, and one of the highest standards of living, Yet, in last year’s U.S. presidential elections, the country produced a slate of political opposition figures that as a group did not compare favorably to Egypt’s major opposition leaders in intelligence, integrity, or capability.

He makes many good points, but the central one — that the Egyptian opposition is complete mess, but that this is not unusual in these situations and that it's not as hapless as its critics contend — is very much worth bearing in mind. US and EU officials I've heard complain about "whiny liberals" who are "useless" are putting out self-serving arguments that attempt to excuse their support for SCAF and, later, Morsi during the constitutional declaration crisis of November 2012. One American diplomat, I remember, condemned some in the opposition for having supported Ahmed Shafiq's candidacy — perhaps unaware that the government he represented had supported Hosni Mubarak for 30 years. I've been critical of this opposition's often tenuous hold on reality, but they're not the only one with the problem.

Even more on the opposition

I just want to add a few links to Issandr's detailed breakdrown of the Egyptian anti-MB opposition's quandaries and inconsistencies.

In a recent column in Al Youm Al Sabaa by Ahmad Maher, the April 6 leader, he summarized the reactive attitude of the oppositoin as "Act now, decide later" and its clinging to the methods of the revolution, two years on, as "eating soup with a fork." He ends thus:

Marches, sit-ins and demonstrations are important means, despite the presence of tens and perhaps hundreds of other means, but they miss the decisive factor for the equation: “the people."
The January 25 revolution did not succeed without the people, people are the decisive factor [...]. The battle to overthrow the regime is not only the departure of Mubarak or the departure of the military power or even the departure of Morsi, but it is a long-term battle that will not be resolved in one round, but in fact it is waves and battle points, a battle primarily with the forces of the past and the forces of tyranny in various forms. A long-term battle against the ideas of the past, methods of the past, rules of the past, parties of the past and behaviors of the past.
The people are crucial in that battle, as they were crucial in the beginning of the revolution, and we have to look around a little and ask ourselves: Is Tahrir Square the same Tahrir Square ? Are the marches still marches ? Are the sit-ins the same ? Is the “violence and chaos followed by army rule scenario” the revolution?
People are a crucial element, a maker of change, and in order to move forward they must be reached, talked to and convinced of the importance of defeating the forces of the past for a new future. But the “act first, decide later” approach will only cause further loss of time, effort, and the lives of young people .

It's worth noting that April 6 has not yet decided whether to support a boycott.

To boycott or not to boycott, that is the opposition's question. Elections were used, almost from the start and quite explicitly, to contain the revolution, not to advance it. The suspicion of the "democratic" process is not unjustified. And it is evident in writing such as this column, in which activist Amr Ezzat notes that these days "the broad public conversation around the 'value of democracy' and the 'choice' of army intervention seems very 'democratic,' to the point that one can imagine 'military coup' as one of the available choices in the upcoming elections. Why not? Doesn't democracy just mean letting the ballot box decide?" Ezzat goes on to argue, tongue in cheek, that since Islamist feel free to redefine democracy to match their own concept of cultural identity and "Islamist authoritarianism," then supporters of a military coup can certainly manage to find a way to similarly stretch the concept of democracy far enough to fit army rule. Ezzat coins a clever new word,  sunduqratiya ("boxocracy") to describe many non-Islamists' view of democracy in Egypt so far: purely electoral competition, where victory gives the winner the right to excercise power in the same old authoritarian ways. 

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On the Egyptian opposition

The National Salvation Front’s recent decision to boycott the upcoming parliamentary elections in Egypt that reminded me I have been thinking of writing a post on the subject of the Egyptian opposition for weeks. Warning: it's a long post.

Anyone who follows Egyptian politics will have probably made two broad conclusions by now. First, that the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohammed Morsi, out of a combination poor judgement, paranoia and greed, have made the choice of sacrificing the possibility of a stable and inclusive transition for the sake of consolidating their control over the old regime machinery rather than reforming it. Second, that the “liberal” or secular opposition gathered under the banner of the National Salvation Front (NSF) is missing a golden opportunity to benefit from the Brotherhood’s actions and the public indignation they have caused by behaving in an utterly politically clueless manner. Let us deal with the second part of that equation.

Whatever bluster the MB is making about having a mandate from the parliamentary and presidential elections — and I believe it does have a mandate, albeit not one to act as they have done — its actions as of November 22, 2012 (when Morsi enacted his constitutional decree) and thereafter (its humiliating rushing of the constitution) have sent the opposition into spinning hysteria. It appeared, at first, that the move would unite a disparate group — after all the NSF was formed — but today, despite the united position on a boycott, there is still a good chance individual politicians and parties will still participate. I’ll get back to the wisdom of a boycott later.

The NSF may be right to be angry, and it is not the only political actor to share in that anger (look at the Salafis’ recent blistering critique of the MB as power-hungry and bent on appointing supporters in local administration for electoral advantage) but the anger has not been channelled constructively. Dissonant voices inside the NSF (ranging from ones which claimed, at least until a few days ago, respect Morsi’s legitimacy but ask him to mend his ways to those who want to overthrow him), a growing disconnect with protestors, changing demands and lack of organizational savvy are causing the opposition to appear totally out of touch and incapable of representating a viable alternative. Rarely are politicians handed such a golden opportunity as the opposition was on November 22, and while it got the secularists (mostly) under one umbrella, the NSF has squandered it.

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The opposition makes its first move

Screengrab by Sultan Qassemi

Above is a picture of al-Sayed Badawi, the president of the Wafd party (the most established of Egypt's legal opposition parties) appearing on al-Jazeera and making the following demands:

  1. A new national unity government
  2. The dissolution of parliament
  3. New elections under a proportional representation system

The full announcement is here [Arabic].

My gut reaction: this is either a significant break with the Wafd's behavior for over 30 years, or he is making this announcement on behalf of the regime. Why the conspiracy theory? Because he doesn't mention the question of the presidency, a chief demand of the protestors. Perhaps he should be given the benefit of the doubt.

Meanwhile, the National Association for Change has made its own demands, including asking Mubarak to step down and Gamal to be disqualified from the presidency, as well as the dissolution of the parliament. Other groups have other demands, including a new minimum wage and the firing of the interior minister. 

These people should be coordinating — and remember they are not the ones who protested tonight.

P.S. Interesting timing.

Tips for the Egyptian opposition

From Brookings' Shadi Hamid:

The Egyptian opposition needed a newcomer like Kifaya to energize it, and give it a renewed sense of purpose. But it also needed a traditional giant like the Brotherhood to amplify this new voice and extend it throughout Egypt and among the mass of Egyptians. In this respect, the old opposition and the new one were not mutually exclusive. They were two sides of the same coin – both necessary but in different, complimentary ways.

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Links February 20th to February 21st

Links for February 20th through February 21st:

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Links February 13th to February 15th

Links for February 13th through February 15th:

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