Fahmy Howeidy on Egypt's political crisis

I have in recent weeks neglected the blog, including the regular In Translation feature provided by the wonderful people at Industry Arabic, your go-to place on quick and quality translations from or to the language of the ض. I'll be posting some delayed pieces over the next few days. The first one is by the man generally regarded as Egypt's, and one of the Arab world's, most influential columnists, Fahmy Howeidy. It dates from a few weeks ago but the themes it raises are still relevant.

Howeidy is generally seen as an Islamist intellectual, but has not been an all-out partisan of the Muslim Brotherhood, even though he is sympathetic to them. In the piece below, his critique of the opposition mirrors that of many Islamists, and he also offers a critique of the Morsi administration striking lack of political deftness in handling a country still in transition. And he offers some suggestions for handling the coming time period leading to new parliamentary elections, including that the Brotherhood should steer clear of ministries involved in elections (thus echoing NSF demands). It's an interesting balancing act.

Read on.

Thoughts on a Way Out of the Crisis

Fahmi Howeidy, al-Shorouk, 26 March 2012

My greatest hope at the present time is that President Morsi's calm does not mean that he accepts the situation in Egypt, since if he were seeing what we are seeing, he would be stricken with worry and lose sleep over it.

(1)

Last week, an Egyptian worker wept while talking about the condition of his country during a chance meeting with some of my colleagues in the media, who had gone to a famous restaurant to have dinner. He rebuked them, saying that the image of the country shown by the Egyptian media disparages Egypt and Egyptians. He said that he personally had begun to suffer from such degradation every day due to the caustic and insulting remarks made by those who follow Egyptian television channels, which provoke sadness among Egyptians and ridicule among those from abroad. While he was speaking, this man got carried away and broke into tears.

You do not need to go to Doha to realize that the sorrow that Egyptians have begun to feel is real. While it is true that the private television channels and opposition newspapers spread a significant amount of grief, frustration and depression, these stories are hunted down and exploited for just such a purpose. I may not be exaggerating if I say that feelings of confusion, sadness and discontent have begun to reign over various sectors of society. Not long ago, the question on everyone's minds was: where are we headed? But now things have changed and the question has become: when will the deterioration in the security situation and the economy come to a halt? To be more frank, we must recognize that two years after the revolution, signs of hope have become fewer, the horizon has narrowed and the future has become dimmer. If this summation is correct, we must not acquiesce to it, but resist it by all means possible – not just to save the Egyptian revolution, but to defend the Arab dream that gleamed in the horizon when the popular revolutions were launched, declaring their rejection of authoritarianism and social injustice and insisting on taking back their countries from those who had despoiled them.

(2)

If we want to look for a way out of the crisis, it may be useful to start by identifying the factions that are acting on the Egyptian scene right now, which are at least three: President Mohamed Morsi, and his team and supporters; Morsi's opponents; and those who are in combined opposition to both of the preceding factions, i.e. they oppose the revolution itself and are leading the counter-revolution. I will hold off from speaking about Morsi for the moment since as the main person in charge, he is supposed to hold decision-making power and so the hypothetical solution should start with him.

The opposition in Egypt is distinguished by two things. The first is that they only agree on one thing, which is their rejection of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular. The second thing is that its main interest is in toppling the government, in the sense that it does not try to correct the President's mistakes or find middle ground with him, but from the beginning it has deliberately tried to put pressure on him to cause him to fail and then topple him. It casts doubts on the impartiality of the election that brought Morsi to power and contests the legitimacy of every step he takes to establish institutions for a new system. It withdraws from the Constitutional Assembly after the articles were approved. It boycotts dialogue just as it boycotts elections, and explicitly calls for the army to assume power. At the same time, it does not stop sending messages of protest by inciting street protests and giving them political cover, although the street protestors and people sitting-in in Tahrir Square do not constitute the base of support behind opposition figures. Even still, they both benefit from and exploit one another.

In addition to the political opposition the media, lying in wait and ready to pounce, uses its pulpit not just to promote, intimidate and counter-mobilize, but also to tarnish the President's image, attack him and insult his dignity.

On the same side, we find the politicized judiciary, some institutions of which can be counted among the tools of the former regime. This has become clear through several actions, such as some rulings of the Supreme Constitutional Court and the district attorneys’ protest that tried to force the Public Prosecutor to resign. We have also observed this in the positions of some leaders who have openly challenged authority, as well as in the acquittal of those responsible for killing protestors and the release of those accused of using violence in demonstrations.

Are we classing some elements and security agencies – especially the Interior Ministry – among the opponents of President Morsi? There are several connections that indicate that at the very least, they are not on his side. In this regard, no researcher can expect otherwise from a security apparatus that operated for more than 30 years in a state of emergency and above the law, with the Muslim Brotherhood to which Morsi belongs as the "strategic enemy." This apparatus was what pursued them, tortured them and fabricated charges against them. With this background, it is hard for us to expect them to offer their loyalty to a president from the Brotherhood in just two years. In this context, speaking with an official about the security deficiency, I asked him whether the security apparatus was unable, uncooperative or exhausted, and he responded that all three were the case.

Furthermore, it is worth noting that regime-toppling tactics and plans are well-known. Studies have documented them, their steps have been identified, they have been tried out and their goals were achieved in several Latin American countries in the 1970s. These tactics involve sowing chaos in the country, plunging it into rumors that cause instability and render the state incapable of defending the country, then wearing it down economically through a high cost of living and high rates of unemployment. This causes the state to fail and enables its overthrow.

(3)

Those opposed to the revolution – and not just President Morsi – are found both inside and outside Egypt. On a previous occasion, I mentioned that the deep state had not yet formed in Egypt, but was in the process of formation and its pillars were actually in place. These pillars are the remnants of the old regime whose political and economic interests have been harmed. If we bring to mind the model of the established deep state in Turkey, we notice that the agents of this state exist within the bureaucracy itself, and the security apparatus in particular.

In addition to these people, we cannot ignore the role of foreign countries whose interests have been harmed as a result of the revolution. In this context, forgive me for repeating my previous remarks that it cannot reasonably be expected that Americans and Israelis — who have found rich pasture in Egypt over at least the past 30 years – have withdrawn and abandoned their role after the revolution. Although we have not been able to point our finger at any particular act, that does not necessarily mean that they are absent.

What is new on the scene is that some Arab countries have been disturbed by the revolution out of fear that its contagion will spread to them. Then there are others who are worried by the Islamist victory in the elections that took place after the revolution. I have information that a senior Arab official rebuked Maj. Gen. Omar Suleiman for this on one occasion, and that he replied that he was not responsible for what had happened. At the time, Field Marshal Tantawi was head of the Military Council, and the Arab official informed Suleiman of two things: first, that his country considered him and Tantawi responsible for the Muslim Brotherhood's ascent to power. The second is that Egypt would not receive any assistance from them as long as the Muslim Brotherhood was in power. And this is what happened.

(4)

In any case, Mohamed Morsi's responsibility is greater than that of any other faction. The experience of the nine months that he has spent in power has revealed several gaps in his performance, the most significant of which are as follows: - Inability to communicate with society and lack of interest in convincing people through his vision or the background to his decisions. - Sluggish response in dealing with crises. - Weak presidential team assisting him, which has led to the resignation of a good number of his assistants, as well as confusion in some of his decisions. - Rumors of a climate of mistrust between him and the political class, which had received promises from him that he did not carry out, without any explanation. - Failure to establish political coalitions with forces and currents that are allied with him (the Salafis, for example) or sympathetic to him (Strong Egypt Party and Ghad al-Thawra). This is besides the number of independents who were not against him and we ready to cooperate, but who then left his side. - Whatever our reservations about the performance of others, or about the domestic or foreign elements that are plotting against or hostile to the revolution, President Mohamed Morsi is the main figure called on to put forth initiatives to get out of the crisis and defuse the current tension.

In this regard, I am claiming that the initiative should proceed on two parallel tracks. The first is to recover the trust of the elite and the national forces in Egypt. The second is to restore optimism in society and reassure it about the future, so as to dispel the current climate of frustration. This can be achieved as follows: - The trust of the elite can be recovered by expressing respect for them on one hand, and inviting them for consultation about how to solve the crisis on the other. This entails responding to the observations made on the election laws and examining controversial articles in the constitution. This response should take a practical form by including a representative of the opposition in steps dealing with outstanding issues. - Parallel with this, it has become necessary to enforce a separation between the Freedom and Justice Party and its political role on the one hand, and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other. Now that the Brotherhood has declared itself an NGO it has become a proselytizing association that has nothing to do with the political process. While this may weaken the party in the present circumstances and cause it to lose, it must do this in order to run without suspicion that it is getting a leg up from the Muslim Brotherhood or is under their tutelage. - In order to regain society's trust, reforming the current government is necessary and indispensable. This trust will be strengthened if this government is headed by an independent figure that has greater weight in society and if it includes a number of technocratic experts. If the Muslim Brotherhood must be represented in it, then this should be outside of ministries relevant to the upcoming elections.

At the same time, it is necessary to convince public opinion that the steps taken toward reform are serious and that clear action is being taken with regards to economic reform, transitional justice and restructuring the police force by holding conferences with Egyptian experts and specialists in each of these fields.

Of course, this is not the last word on the subject; these are only broad outlines. Most importantly, they represent an attempt to emerge from the crisis and get past the state of calm reigning in decision-making circles, while the street is full of rage and emotion and people are swinging between frustration and sadness. We want every citizen to be proud of his revolution, not to weep over what it has come to.