How did we get here? — Evan Hill

A great piece looking at the journey from January 25 to June 30 2013 by Cairo-based journalist Evan Hill — here's the bit that looks at the crucial role of the November 27 2012 constitutional declaration, the point where I agree with Evan it was over for Morsi's claim to leadership beyond his core base:  

The beginning of the end came in November, almost a year to the day after the Mohamed Mahmoud battle, when Morsi issued a package of sovereign decrees - just four months into his term - that essentially placed himself and assembly above judicial review. He and his allies argued that to stand by and do nothing would leave courts packed with Mubarak appointees free to undermine every step of the transition. The opposition, which may have once been inclined to agree, did not take his side. There had been too many betrayals, trust had evaporated. To the apparent surprise of Morsi’s administration, they were outraged. Protesters took to the streets, calling the president a “new pharaoh.” The remaining liberals, progressives, leftists and Christians in the constituent assembly walked out. Morsi gave them two extra months to resolve their differences, but the assembly rushed the draft constitution through an overnight session and passed it. Opposition politicians increasingly believed that Morsi did not even call his own shots; that decisions of national import were made in the Brotherhood's secretive Guidance Bureau. In Egypt's new constitution, human rights groups and other critics saw gaping loopholes, lax protections for minorities, women and children, and troubling roles for religious oversight from conservative Sunni institutions.

The November crisis awakened the opposition to a harsh reality: they were going to keep losing this game, and the Brotherhood was not going to stop playing. The only solution was to change the rules. They united, for the first time, under the banner of the National Salvation Front. Their faltering effort to boycott and then vote down the new constitution failed, but the unexpectedly tight result convinced them that Morsi’s base was shrinking. Soon after, the NSF declared that it would boycott upcoming parliamentary elections unless many of the rules - written by the nearly wholly Islamist upper house - were changed. Improbably, filled with inflated egos and highly oppositional parties, the NSF held its front.

In December, after Morsi supporters ransacked a small sit-in outside the presidential palace and sparked deadly street battles, a more extreme wing of the opposition began to wield influence inside the coalition. They argued that Morsi had lost all legitimacy. He would have to go, voluntarily or by force. Violent anti-Brotherhood protests became the order of the day. Instability worked in the opposition’s favor. The economy was nose-diving, and security forces - becoming more openly vocal in their disdain for the Brotherhood government - could not or would not do their jobs. They took no pleasure facing the brunt of public ire for protecting a conservative, formerly clandestine movement that had stood against the state for so long. Social media and independent television stations lit up with images of Brotherhood members beating away protesters. Newspapers openly mocked Morsi’s government for its inability to right the ship. Rumors and anonymously sourced news reports spread about the Brotherhood’s ambitions to Islamize the army and police and carve off critical swaths of sovereign assets, such as those along the Suez Canal, to sell to benefactors in Qatar. Morsi - one of the more deeply uncharismatic leaders in modern Arab history - proved incapable of rallying anyone outside his base. Nearly everything he said became gas on the fire of the opposition’s anger.

Do read the whole thing.

Today's Egyptian newspaper headlines

 State-owned:

al-Ahram: "Egypt abandoned to fear"

al-Akhbar: "Egypt on fire" 

al-Gomhoureya: "The longest day in the history of Egypt" 

Rose al-Youssef: "The people wants to decide its own fate" 

 Private press (mostly anti-Morsi):

al-Masri al-Youm: "Revolutionaries to Morsi: one year was enough"

al-Shorouk al-Jadid: "30 June: Egypt delivered to its fate" 

Youm al-Saba3e: "Red card for the president: 22 million signatures for Tamarrod" 

Al-Tahrir: "Leave!" 

al-Destour: "Today is the end of Morsi and of his gang"

The delegitimization of Mohamed Morsi

I have a piece in The National   looking the three battling types of legitimacy in Egypt — revolutionary, electoral and institutional — and how they have played out in the last two years. The piece offers no predictions on the outcome of June 30, as there are too many variables and unknowns, but I do feel grimly confident of the following: 

  • The army will wait it out to the last minute (possibly disastrously so as early intervention might be better in cases of large-scale violence) and may be internally divided about how to proceed (hence the hesitation).
  • Should Morsi be toppled, it will create an enormous problem with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists for years to come. They will feel cheated of legitimately gained power and Egyptian politics will only grow more divisive and violent. 
  • Whatever alliance came together behind the Tamarrod protests will fall apart the day after its successful, because its components are as incompatible as the alliance that toppled Hosni Mubarak.
  • The leadership around the NSF (ElBaradei, Moussa, Sabahi etc.) has followed rather than led Tamarrod and will not be able to provide effective leadership in the coming days. Only the army can. 
  • If Morsi remains and the protests are repressed or simply die out, the country will nonetheless remain as difficult to govern considering Morsi's lack of engagement with the opposition. 

I'd like, time permitting, to do a series of short posts on the current crisis over the next day or two. I have not been in Egypt since late May as I'm spending the summer in Morocco, but do want to note some of the more long-term trends that led to this moment.  

What is most striking about June 30 is how effectively Mohamed Morsi has been delegitimized despite his election, a year ago, having been largely considered free and fair by the public. Part of that is his own fault, of course: his November 27, 2012, constitutional declaration was probably illegal and ended any benefit of the doubt the opposition was ready to give to him. The rushing of the constitution was likewise a slap in the face that created the opportunity of the current moment, with revolutionaries, liberals and old regime members temporarily collaborating against what they perceive as the greater evil of the Muslim Brotherhood. And he has made at least one disastrous decision, in the context of last December's crisis, that has significantly worsened the economic outlook of the country by postponing reforms that had been planned as part of the IMF rescue package. I do not think it is fair, however, to blame Morsi for the more general economic situation (he inherited massive debt, an electricity crisis, a subsidies crisis, etc.) but it is true that save from raising loans from Qatar and elsewhere he has done little to stem it — and indeed his profligate spending on civil service salaries has worsened things to some extent.

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Even the financial types are freaking out

From this morning Beltone Financial newsletter, by an Egypt-based regional investment bank that does a pretty good roundup of local news:  

The size of masses to protest against Morsi, the duration and intensity of the protests, the role of the army, and the support of the west including the US will all determine the outcome of the protests. We are inclined to believe that the end of Morsi’s presidency is looming, but that it will likely take deadly clashes and continued civil disobedience. This may extend beyond the week of June 30th, thus extending the length of political instability in Egypt. We also believe that it would take army intervention to control the Muslim Brotherhood before and after Morsi steps down. The Brotherhood’s dream of a caliphate in the region and beyond is at stake and they will not give up that easily. The West will stop supporting President Morsi only when they see the Egyptians themselves all turn against him. The lack of US and western support of President Morsi will definitely turn the table against him and will result in the end of his rule. The army will intervene when the clashes become deadly and widespread, yet it is unclear whether their role will end there or if they will aspire for more power and thus the scenario whereby the Egyptians turn against the army starts again.

Yup - but it's a tall order to align those conditions. So far, the army is waiting and Obama is supportive of Morsi as legitimately elected leader. But that could change fast.

Morsi regrets constitutional declaration - kinda

From the Guardian's interview with Mohamed Morsi:  

In a rare moment of contrition, Morsi admitted for the first time in the English-language media that he regretted using unilateral powers to force through Egypt's controversial new constitution – a move that the opposition saw as dictatorial. This was the pivotal moment of his first year, sowing the seeds for widespread dissent against his administration.

"It contributed to some kind of misconception in society," Morsi said, distancing himself from one of the most divisive clauses in the new Islamist-slanted constitution, which allows for greater religious input into Egyptian legislation. "It's not me who changed this article. I didn't interfere in this constitutional committee's work. Absolutely not."

The president added that once MPs were finally elected to Egypt's currently empty lower house of parliamentary, he would personally submit constitutional amendments for debate in the house's very first session.

But Morsi's contrition only went so far. Amid opposition claims that the failure to achieve consensus had led to Egypt's current polarisation, Morsi blamed the refusal of secular politicians to participate in the political process for the impasse. He denied that his government was unduly loaded with Islamists. He went on to list numerous offers he claimed he had made to bring non-Islamists on board, while simultaneously defending the right of a popularly-elected president to promote his allies. "This is the concept of real democracy," he said.

Back to the Margins

Lina Attalah, observing June 30 uncomfortably from the margins, which is where the 25 January 2011 uprising started: 

For one, those assigned the job of articulating street politics, namely the formal opposition, are excelling in their own bankruptcy and decadence. Figures that were once broadly associated with the revolutionary camp, as they fell outside the Islamists-Mubarak regime binary in the presidential elections, are now the ones declaring today that there is no solution to end the Brothers’ rule but a military takeover. In juxtaposition, the Brotherhood elites in power and their self-appointed spokespersons added one more item to their list of sins: they have successfully contaminated the realm of contentious politics with their clan-based practices and their overall inability to enunciate genuine propositions that would put an end to the current stalemate. In other words, they rid the political space of meaning, and hence killed all possibilities for meaningful engagement by the opposition.

This also translates on discursive levels. The Islamist elites have in a way generated some of the counter-discourses of their opponents, who now say “let them go back to their prison cells.” After all, it is people like al-Jamaa al-Islamiyya leader Assem Abd El Magued who say things like, “we will cut your throats and come to you with a thousand men, each of them worth a thousand men.”

So, lesson learned, after a three-year-old revolution: let us not demonize the people, and let us not fall into our repeated failure to understand where they come from. The fight for what we imagine are our revolutionary ideals will need to take a different shape. I still engage in conversations with neighbors, friends, and family members who lament the economic failures, the political debacle, and the sectarianism, while I keep reminding them that all of these were also attributes of the Mubarak regime and the military junta that followed it. But I often also disengage when they start guilt tripping me about my decision to vote for Morsi in the presidential election’s runoffs, when he faced off against Mubarak regime figure Ahmed Shafiq. As soon as these accusations begin, I find myself enumerating in my head the list of groceries I need to buy. 

But the question remains: How do we take a position, those of us with clarity around the rejection of the very nature of the Egyptian state as a militaristic/security state? How do we handle our sense of possession of a revolution that we wanted so much to be against an unjust, exclusionary state, as manifested in its robust military and security apparatuses, and not simply against a regime? How do we grapple with a revolution transcending our dreams, our aspirations, and even ourselves, while possibly putting us in its camp of adversaries in its new configuration? 

 

Why efforts to broker a compromise in Egypt failed

Nathan Brown writes: 

Yet these maximal positions are not the core of the problem. An agreement may actually have been possible but the political will was simply missing. There were a series of quiet efforts undertaken in the past few months to bring the government and opposition together. These efforts (some domestic, some international) all centered around a set of proposals to form a new cabinet with credible national figures, consider constitutional amendments, and move toward an agreed electoral framework. Those involved in these efforts reported considerable progress the major (and perhaps only) missing ingredient was a willingness to sign on the dotted line. While the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) sent mixed signals, ultimately its judgment seemed to be that agreement offered few benefits and too high a cost. They had too many forces to contend with, and ultimately those within the state apparatus (military, security forces, judiciary, bureaucracy) absorbed all their energy. For divided opposition leaders unwilling to be seen as negotiating, mistrust of their sporadic interlocutors ran just as deep.
And now attitudes have grown hard indeed. I asked one leading FJP parliamentarian -- a figure I have come to respect as level headed, calm, introspective, and patient -- whether he thought he wished his side had done anything differently (referring specifically to the crisis over Morsi's November 2012 constitutional declaration and the subsequent clashes). He replied with visible anger that not only did he think they would do it all over again but that in fact they will do it all over again if necessary. And when I remarked to a friend in a responsible position that I did not think Morsi would leave office voluntarily, he replied that he thought the Egyptian people would deal with him as Libyans had dealt with Muammar al-Qaddafi.
Calmer language was used in Europe in the summer of 1914.

 

The mood in Cairo

We asked Nour The Intern to send us a ground-level view of the mood in Cairo ahead of #June30mageddon. This is her response. 

Well, the atmosphere in Cairo is relatively calm, as opposed to other governorates, like Sharqia, Alexandria, Assiut, Suez, where unrest arrived a few days early. Whether it’s the kind of calm that comes before the storm or one that could last beyond June 30, no one knows.

The weather has officially lost its spot as the number one topic for small talk to June 30. Asking someone about their views of, or plans for, June 30 is the new "Very humid today, worse than yesterday, right?" and saying "God save us on June 30," or things to that effect, has all but replaced goodbyes.

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Morsi's year

Seeking to head off the planned June 30 mass protest campaign to push him from the presidency, Mohammmed Morsi delivered a speech last night that, far from being conciliatory, appeared to be an attempt to rally his base and remind voters why they may have cast their ballots for him.  Much of it was dedicated to listing what he considered to be his achievements. Morsi's opponents accuse him of trying to apply a radical agenda dictated by the Muslim Brotherhood. But it was striking that, for an Islamist trying to fire up other Islamists, few of the achievements he mentioned had much to do with Sharia or Islam. Also, for someone who came to power in the aftermath of a revolution, little of what  he mentioned was particularly revolutionary.

Rather, Morsi's achievements were largely a list of his government's additions to Egypt's social welfare programs. It could have come from the front pages of al-Ahram back when Ganzouri was prime minister the first time around. This seemed aimed at that considerable proportion of the population who had responded to the Brothers' implied message in presidential and parliamentary elections: there's nothing fundamentally unsound about the system, the problem is it hemorrhages money through corruption. Because we fear God, we won't do that.

This is a popular message -- the great middle ground of Egyptian politics, which is no doubt why Morsi chose to emphasize it. Beyond it, Egypt is a divided country: some want an Islamic state, others a more secular-leaning one. It is also divided among revolutionaries -- those who want government agencies accountable to the public -- and the considerable number of Egyptians who work for one of these institutions who want to be left to do as they please. 

Morsi 's decision to fall back on social welfare in defining his presidency in his pre-June 30 speech, like much of the other signature decisions of his presidency, is largely an attempt to chart a course through this particular political terrain. To define Egypt's problems as the fault of a high-ranking feloul left over from the Mubarak era avoids tackling any of the thornier questions about the future identity of the Egyptian state, where you can't take a strong side without alienating one group of the other.  Whatever one thinks of the job Morsi has done, any future government of Egypt will face most of the same challenges.

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Wael Ghonim asks Morsi to step down

And the build-up to anti-Morsi protests in Egypt on June 30th continues... Here is a video message by world-famous activist Wael Ghonim, taking the Islamist president to task for allegedly breaking the promises he made a year ago. Translated transcript by Nour. 

In the name of God, the Merciful. Allah Almighty said: “And fulfill (every) covenant. Verily! The covenant will be questioned about.”
Last year during the runoff presidential elections, the then-presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi emerged with a number of pledges to the Egyptian people to win their votes. These promises did, in fact, make a difference for him  -- as evidenced by him winning the elections by a very small margin, thanks to many people, a great many of whom are now considered agents of the West and haters of religion. 
Three days after the elections, just like today, I attended the Fairmont (hotel) meeting with the president before the official result was announced, when the Muslim Brothers were afraid of forgery, and so decided to confirm their commitments to their promises. That day, the president promised us to be a president for all Egyptians, he promised to honor his campaign slogan: "Our strength, in our unity.”  But, unfortunately, a year later the slogan is now “Our strength, in our Brotherhood.” The president, that day, promised us to respect the opposition and shared decision-making, but (now) we find that we have replaced a ruling party that considered whoever opposes it to be a traitor and an agent with another ruling party that considers whoever opposes it to be a traitor, an agent and a hater of religion. The president at the Fairmont meeting promised retribution for (the killers) of those who died in the revolution, but what we have seen is that people are still dying under his rule. The youth that took to Tahrir Sq. to chant the day (Morsi) won -- their mothers are now crying with sadness, (grieving) their (youth’s) martyrdom when they took to (the streets) to oppose him. 
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From ECFR: regional views on Syria

The European Council of Foreign Relations' website is hosting a roundtable of views from around the region on the Syrian conflict that's very much worth reading to get a hold of the complexity of its regional dimension.

Hassan Hassan starts off with what the Gulf states want:

The potential demise of the pro-Iranian regime in Damascus offers the Gulf states the possibility of extending their regional influence. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in particular, believe that a friendly regime in Syria will give them influence over Shia-dominated Baghdad, over whom they have had little sway, but which is seen as a critical player in the regional balance of power. Iraq’s post-2003 alliance with Iran is perceived as one of the key reasons. for Tehran’s growing regional influence over the past decade. A Sunni state in Syria could serve to strengthen currently marginalised Iraqi Sunni forces, giving them – and their Gulf backers – greater influence in Baghdad. At the same time, regime change in Damascus would help the Gulf states bolster their standing in Lebanon, already economically dependent on the Gulf, by strengthening pro-Sunni Gulf actors at the expense of the dominant pro-Assad Hezbollah movement. For the Gulf States, the Syria conflict is thus a critical battle for control of a key pivot state in the region. Drawing Damascus away from the Iranian camp is seen as a way of cementing broader regional influence in the Levant, and reestablishing the more favorable regional balance of power that they lost following the US occupation of Iraq in 2003.

And from Haydar al-Khoei's piece on the view from Iraq:

A diplomatic incident in Damascus sheds some light on how events in Syria are being seen by Baghdad. In the summer of 2011, the Qatari ambassador to Syria invited several Arab ambassadors as well as the Syrian foreign minister to his residence. Whilst sitting around the dinner table the Iraqi ambassador remarked, “The same people who conspired against Iraq are now conspiring against Syria.” This enraged the Saudi Arabian ambassador, who responded, “I dare you to name them. I dare you!” The Syrian foreign minister attempted to calm the situation by saying, “The Iraqi ambassador is referring to al-Qaeda and the Salafis, not Saudi Arabia,” but the undertone of the message was clear.

There's much more to read there - check it out. ECFR's latest report on Syria stakes out the wise position, in my view, that any alternative to diplomacy would be disastrous.

From slaughterhouse to art house?

Here is another post about culture in the Arab world. When I was last in Morocco, I discovered Casablanca's Culture Factory, an amazing project to re-purpose the city's abandoned old slaughterhouse as a cultural center. I went back recently and was surprised to discover that although artists have continued to hold all sorts of activities there, the project remains in legal limbo, because the city won't grant it any formal recognition. I wrote about it here

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Culture protests

Culture protests

We have a guest post from occasional (and valued) contributor Parastou Hassouri on the protests by artists and intellectuals that have been going on for some time now at the Ministry of Culture in Cairo.  

Over the past week, I have been attending, with some regularity, the protests that are being staged in front of the Culture Ministry in Zamalek. 

The protests/sit-in have been taking place on a daily basis since June 5th, when the demonstrators, many of them members of the artistic community, broke into and occupied the Culture Ministry building to demand the removal of the newly-appointed Minister of Culture, Alaa Abdel Aziz, whom they see as trying to “Ikhwanize” the arts.  Alaa Abdel Aziz, who was appointed by President Morsi during a cabinet shake-up in early May, promptly alienated the artistic community (often referred to as the muthaqafeen, literally “the cultured”) by firing the heads of the General Egyptian Book Organization, the Fine Arts Sector, the Cairo Opera House, and the National Library and Archives.  His firing of the Opera House Director Ines Abdel Dayem, in particular, aggrieved the artistic community and catalyzed them into action.  On May 27, the opening night of Aida, the Opera House curtains lifted on performers and staff in full costume holding anti-brotherhood signs and chanting for the downfall of the regime. 

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Interview with Amr Darrag

One more link to my own work: I sat down for an interview with senior Muslim Brother and secretary general of the constituent assembly that gave us Egypt's current constitution Amr Darrag in the Spring (Mr. Darrag has since become Egypt's Minister of Planning and International Cooperation). The interview is now up on the Middle East Institute's Arab Transitions channel, a valuable new resource. 

Mr. Darrag is an articulate and personable man and in the interview he gives the Freedom and Justice Party's view on the NGO Law (which he admits is draconian); Egypt's role on Palestinian-Israeli negotiations; and the IMF negotiations.

But there were some strange moments in the interview, such as when he insisted that the current government (appointed by President Morsi) was "not an MB government;" when he suggested the NGO law was not proposed or backed by the FJP, even though it controls the legislature; and -- more strikingly -- when he insisted that the FJP and the MB were too completely separate organization, with almost no coordination between them.   

UL: The FJP recently issued a strong dissent to a statement by the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Some members of the party also question the international human rights conventions to which Egypt is signatory, saying that these rights should be shaped by the commitment to Shariah found in the constitution.
AD: First of all, the FJP did not issue the statement. It was the Muslim Brotherhood, and that was based on a misunderstanding. There was the perception in the Brotherhood that the document was final, whereas it was just a draft. Someone got carried away and issued the statement.
UL: But the criticism is still there on the website.
AD: Well, you should go to the Muslim Brotherhood and ask them. As a party we are totally against that statement.
UL: But aren't you also the Muslim Brotherhood?
AD: No, we're not. We're an independent organization. You have to realize this.

I actually went on to ask him: "But aren't you a member  of the MB?" To which he replied: "I'm a member of many things! I don't necessarily agree with everything they do." 

 

The Arab world in translation

I wrote this story recently for the Al Fanar site (a new site dedicated to covering higher education and academic and intellectual issues in the Middle East) : an overview of interesting developments and ventures in translation to and from Arabic. The article has an optimistic title, and certainly the interest in Arabic literature in translation -- which I have seen grow in the 10 years I've lived in Cairo -- is heartening to those of us who know how much great writing there is in Arabic, and who believe that a greater familiarity with it might nuance Western views of this part of the world. That said translation of other fields of knowledge, to and from Arabic, remains dispiritingly low. We included a list of references at the end of the article -- do write in to signal any others you think should be featured. 

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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In Morocco

One of the strangest things about traveling from Egypt to Morocco is exiting a news maelstrom and entering a low-news-pressure zone. Egypt is so full of news these days, and so the focus of international media, that it is almost shocking to me to be in a country that, when Google-searched, does not even return any news stories. And yet, of course, things are happening here too. I was also shocked, for example, to find out that 80 people have set themselves on fire in Morocco since 2011.

I was traveling last weekend (to Fez, which after the devastation that Aleppo has suffered is probably the most amazing medieval Arab city in the region) so I have just found time to link to this post, for the NYTime's Latitude blog, about Morocco's political scene. 

 

More on the Rubik's Cube

In response to a remark on Twitter by Amira Howeidy, Nathan Brown is updating his take on the SCC's rulings we recently published. Here is a (lengthy) addendum.

A closer reading of the second (Constituent Assembly) ruling suggests I got one thing absolutely right and one thing absolutely wrong.  But this is a very complicated ruling, because the SCC is sorting through all sorts of issues (standing, jurisdiction, governing constitutional text, etc).  So I would love to hear others weigh in!

What I said before was that the SCC struck down the law by which the Constituent Assembly was elected that this had little effect on the constitution. That is what I got right.

What I now think I got wrong was that I said this tossed the matter back to the administrative courts but did so too late to make any difference.  But a closer reading suggests the ruling does not toss the matter back to the administrative courts; it seems to argue they shouldn’t have been involved in the first place. And if I read the ruling right (and I may not!) the implication is that the first Constituent Assembly should never have been dissolved—which is again, the opposite of how I read the verdict first.

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