Two years of a shrunken state

January 25 marked the two-year anniversary of the start of Egypt’s democratic uprising. Tomorrow we mark another date that is nearly as significant -- the drastic reduction of state authority in Egypt. It is not year clear how it will be rebuilt.

Several things happened on January 28, 2011: Mubarak’s feared police force was defeated on Qasr al-Aini bridge and saw its stations stormed across the city, breaking the state’s aura of power and the police's own confidence. Both police and citizens now know that a neighborhood or city, if sufficiently outraged, can overrun stations again, as we have seen this weekend in Port Said.

Secondly, many of the estimated 800 to 1000 violent deaths during the uprising happened that day, often in chaotic circumstances that would make it hard to ever prove to courtroom standards who was responsible for their deaths -- even if prosecutors and police had done a proper job investigating. Over the next two years, judges’ inability to convict any top security officials helped break the state's credibility.  Egyptians have lost faith in their legal system -- a problem exemplified by the upheaval triggered by Port Said case, where pretty much any set of verdicts would be rejected, violently, by one side or the other.

Thirdly, the Muslim Brothers joined the uprising, giving the Islamist group enough revolutionary credentials to contest and win elections. This set the stage for the polarization that now dominates Egyptian politics and discourages political factions from cooperating, even in a limited way, to reconstruct the state.

After two years of seeing unrest grow familiar, it’s worth reflecting on just how remarkable today's status quo is: the central traffic circle in the national capital has for most of the past two years been a state-free protest zone and a theater for street fighting -- and a constant annoying reminder to Egypt's successive post-uprising governments that they are not fully in control of the country. Usually this kind of situation ends in some way after a few days, weeks, or in rare cases months: the protesters give up, or they achieve their goals, or there's a crackdown, or civil war, or people agree to resolve their differences in a formal institution with rules like a parliament, or something.

Nothing like this has happened in Egypt. The ongoing clashes in Cairo, Port Said, and elsewhere in the country show that we are still in a period of exceptional politics. The Brothers, who now sit in the driver's seat of government, are too insecure to impose their will by force, while the opposition has no respect for the constitution that is the legal basis of the new government, so a combination of legal maneuvering and street posturing continues. In the background, the army -- in normal times above the fray -- has indicated that it still wants to be considered a political player. Legislators, guns, and money -- and crowds -- are all still in play.

Perception becomes reality quickly in politics, so when the state looks beleaguered, it is beleaguered. Government institutions hostile to President Mohammed Morsi have the confidence to resist his authority. The police, who are technically supposed to ignore the directives of the government, ignore it. Prosecutors and the state media, who in theory are independent but have a long history of subservience, take the opportunity to push for their autonomy.

Analysts assumed that, given Egypt's history of authoritarianism, the Mubarak regime would be replaced fairly quickly by an equally hegemonic regime. Instead, two years into the revolution, we have reached a state of paralysis in which neither control of the state bodies, nor of the security apparatus, nor of the streets can trump each other. The Arab Spring has upended most of the assumptions about how power could be exercised in the region. A review of the strategies that have been used in the past by states trying to rebuild their authority shows that the Brothers -- or any other group that might fill their shoes -- have actually fairly limited options in trying to reassert control.

 

FORCE: It has always been possible -- in theory -- for anyone atop the Egyptian military's chain of command to remove the challenge posed by Tahrir and its spin-off rallies to simply crush them, Tiananmen-style. But very early on, the military's top brass (Tantawi, in this case) indicated they did not want to go down this path, and the experience of Libya's Muammar Qaddafi and Syria's Bashar al-Assad show why any future Egyptian leader is unlikely to try this course. Qaddafi applied force in the crudest way, and had the most dramatic failure. He sent regular army units to fire on crowds in Benghazi. They obeyed orders, for one day, and mutinied the next. Such guilt-driven mutinies go back to Russia's February 1917 revolution, but they appear to be even more likely in the era of camera phones and the internet -- technological advances that seem to be changing revolutions as dramatically as repeating rifles or the combustion engine changed conventional warfare. (I spoke to one Qaddafi-partisan-turned-rebel in Tripoli who said that, when the uprising began in the east, he went to a pro-regime rally because he believed the demonstrators were al-Qaida. Then he saw, through the electronic jamming on al-Jazeera, footage of troops firing on unarmed protesters. He joined the insurgents.)

Assad seems to have applied force somewhat more carefully, if no less ruthlessly. Most units appear to have been restricted to barracks or posted on the outskirts of cities, with only the more politically reliable troops, or pro-regime shabiha militia, sent to shoot up demonstrators or conduct punitive raids after the fact. But there were too few of these to control Syria's scattered villages, and meanwhile the soldiers started to desert. They joined the rebels -- one by one rather than wholesale as in Libya, but the effect was the same. (Syria's bloody conflict, incidentally, gives a good idea of what might have happened in Libya had NATO not intervened.)

 

PERCEIVED INVINCIBILITY: Mubarak never relied on repression alone. Egypt never had the religious or tribal cleavages that would allow the formation of reliable Syrian- or Libyan-style regime-protection units. Mubarak recognized this, and his security forces usually tried to avoid making new enemies by being careful about whom they killed. Police were given license to be as harsh as they wanted with groups who are were already deadly enemies or on the social margins: radical Islamist groups, Sinai tribes, and certain families who were "registered dangerous" -- that is to say, administratively designated as habitual criminals. But others, particularly if they were of a middle class family or above, were treated somewhat more gently. "Somewhat" being the operative word, as activists from all classes were tortured or received lengthy prison sentences. But they were rarely treated so harshly that they or their families would seek revenge.

In the Mubarakist strategy of power, repression as a tool of power came second to the sheer weight of authority. His strategy was to demonize the opposition, or, if that was not possible, to make them look pathetic. You didn't have to like Mubarak; you just weren't supposed to be able to imagine any of his opponents ever toppling him or being a viable president. The archetypal image of politics under Mubarak was the handful of activists in a square surrounded by phalanxes of riot troops. The Mubarak-era security forces left just enough of a window for political activity so that those who truly lived and breathed politics could have something to do. They ensured that politics was too hopeless, and boring, to draw in larger numbers.

This is no longer a viable strategy in Egypt -- it ceased to be the moment that the revolution in Tunisia showed that street marches were neither boring nor hopeless. At this point, also, enough youth have a taste for street fighting that it is difficult to imagine protesters failing to achieve a critical mass for the foreseeable future.

 

ELECTIONS: The Brothers have one asset that Mubarak did not -- their legitimacy of having won elections generally viewed as free and fair. The Brothers have consistently reminded their opponents: the majority has spoken through the mechanism of elections, and we are its representatives. (This message -- we are responsible rulers, and you are troublemakers -- presumably influenced the groups' decision to spend January 25 planting trees and organizing discount vegetable markets).

In a more established democracy, opponents would accept the outcome of elections in determining who should wield state authority.

But Egypt’s elections are too new, and the stakes in this early process are too high, for victories to carry much weight. The liberals from the very beginning of the constitutional drafting process argued that a single vote in a country that had not voted freely before should not determine the final makeup of a permanent charter. In each election, both turn-out and the Islamists share of the vote have decline granting them less and less of a mandate. They went from winning virtually half of the votes in the 2011 parliamentary vote, to winning in a who-do-you-fear-least show-down with Ahmed Shafiq in the 2012 presidential vote after taking less than 25 percent in the five-way vote in the first round. Also, the Morsi administration exceeded what most of his opponents believed that an elected president has the right to do: firing the head prosecutor in an ostensibly independent judiciary, granting himself new far-reaching powers, and rushing through a constitution that liberals believed impinged on their personal rights.

The Brothers' majorities have also been silent -- very hard to notice between elections, which means they don't counterbalance the perception of a beleaguered state. Election returns suggest that the group has done disproportionately well in villages, particularly in Upper Egypt -- areas where there is not much of a tradition of political activism, and which tend to be invisible to people living elsewhere in the country. The anti-Islamist opposition draws its strength from representation in mostly formal institutions based in Cairo, Alexandria, or Delta and Canal Zone cities -- groups ranging from the judiciary, to the media, to the dispersed activist movement, to football clubs. These groups are vocal, and their opposition to the regime reinforces each other. Revolutions traditionally make strange bedfellows, but it's hard to imagine an odder couple than the somewhat starchy Mubarak-era leadership of the Judges' Club and the Ultras. What these groups have in common is a desire to protect their independence from the Brothers. (I'd say they have a certain secular-leaning outlook in common too, but Salafis have also sometimes jumped on the Brothersceptic bandwagon, notably during Abdel Moneim Aboul Futouh's campaign). It's a pretty potent combination -- no one beats a judge for conferring respectability on your side, and no one beats an Ultra in terms of an appetite for street-fighting.

If the Brothers and alliance-minded Salafis score an overwhelming victory in coming parliamentary elections, it will be a signal to state bodies that the Morsi presidency and the constitution are here to stay. But if anti-Morsi groups do as well as they did in the first round of the presidential vote -- taking 75 percent of the vote between them -- this may reduce the status of Morsi to a lame duck, increasing his incentive to compromise.

 

CROWD VERSUS CROWDS: A regime can assert its authority is by bringing out its own partisans and organizing demonstrations to counterbalance the opposition's -- or to bully them off the street. The advantage of contesting the streets this way, as opposed to using a uniformed force like the army or police, is that when violence breaks out the waters are somewhat muddy as to who is to blame. Partisan crowds are often more enthusiastic than police, particularly Egypt’s largely conscripted security forces, about wading into the melee and risking life and limb.

Mubarak, SCAF, and the Brothers all gave counter-demonstrations a try. The Brothers' attempt in early December 2012 was one of the most ambitious attempts, and its failure illustrates the limits of the strategy. On December 1, it announced it would try to hold its own march on Tahrir to match the opposition rally, but later backed down. The Brothers’ backup venue -- in front of Cairo University -- was probably as large as most anti-Brother rallies, but it was only one compared to several opposition protests held that week. A movement with a largely provincial support base has problems concentrating its partisans in a single place. Today, the Brotherhood has essentially conceded Tahrir -- the most powerfully symbolic space in the country -- to its opponents.

Even this limited use of counter-crowds in Egypt backfired on the state. Whenever pro-SCAF or pro-Brother crowds collided with revolutionaries and clashes broke out, the side aligned with the state was, rightly or wrongly, held to blame. The reports that emerged of impromptu Brotherhood-organized beating sessions at the presidential palace badly tarnished Morsi's administration, no doubt contributing to the decision of a number of his non-Brotherhood aides and advisors to quit.

 

CONSENSUS: Perhaps the only viable way to get the state to function is for the Brothers to offer the opposition enough reassurance that major political forces together could reach consensus on the illegitimacy of violent protest. If Egypt’s political forces acted in unison -- a general appeal for order, or for justice to take its course, or for disputes to be resolved in parliament rather than in the street -- these have a powerful calming effect. The Interior Ministry, for example, has called for such an appeal to “patriotic forces” to calm Port Said.

The opposition would probably not try to coax protesters out of Tahrir, nor would it be necessary -- the square can probably remain an open-air museum of the revolution as the state rebuilds itself elsewhere. But a joint appeal for order would at least contain street violence and push Egypt’s flare-ups of violence to become less frequent and bloody.

The opposition knows however that to stand alongside the Brothers would be handing Morsi a major concession. The National Salvation Front has demanded as the price for its cooperation that a committee be empowered to amend the constitution. If Morsi's objective in pushing through the constitution in December was to provide some security for his administration -- ie, to prevent the Supreme Court's from topping off its dissolution of parliament by pushing Morsi out of office, as Brothers said they suspected might happen -- then perhaps he would take that risk.

But the first articles targeted would be ones that circumscribe civil rights with religion. The Brothers have in theory agreed to revisiting the constitution. If the Brothers are committed to aggressively Islamicizing society, or if they are worried about having their Islamic credentials challenged by the Salafis, they aren’t going to give the opposition what it wants.

This may become moot if the Islamists were dealt a stunning defeat in the parliamentary elections. If a revision of the constitution then produces a charter than both Brothers and non-Islamists could live with, then the stakes would drop for both parties and politics would be less volatile. Scaling back the constitution's Islamist principles could of course mean that some of the more radical Salafis take up arms as they did in the 1980s and 1990s -- there is already a localized insurgency in the Sinai.  But they could probably be politically isolated and defeated, as they were then.

Still, consensus -- for all the hurdles it must overcome -- remains the most likely way out. For all its political polarization, Egypt still has a genuine abhorrence for violence that makes a civil war unlikely -- for now. The experience with one dictatorship means that the country may be reluctant to go back to another, and this makes a coup unlikely -- for now.

Both the Brothers and their opposition must realize at some point that they probably have it within their power, if they are maximalist, to seriously discredit parliamentary democracy.  Every year in which the protests continue, traffic is paralyzed, the pound devalues, and voters shake their heads at the flames and bodies on their television screen increases a public desire for some resolution, any resolution, at whatever cost. More widespread violence or a return to military rule, currently barely imaginable, may become real possibilities. This specter, the more likely it becomes, will bring Egypt's factions to work together to rebuild state authority. They still have some time.