The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged may27
Where Egypt is at

The #May 27 "Second Revolution" came and went this weekend without the drama that many had expected. Turnout was pretty good — good enough to show that the ranks of those unsatisfied with the current state of affairs is plenty big, and big enough to show that the Muslim Brothers' participation is not essential to getting a decent number of people protesting. Impressive also was that the protests took place across the country, as Zeinobia points out with her gallery of videos. Get more videos and an account at Jadaliyya. It may not be a second revolution but it's enough to keep the SCAF on its toes and give media traction to multiple grievances: high-ranking corruption, insecurity, slow justice, heavy-handedness of the military, etc. 

Although many of these grievances are indeed worthwhile, this opposition movement should start coalescing over one or two core demands with regards to the transition. It has already been a tragedy of Egypt's revolution that the revolutionaries did not have a clear aim beyond the removal of Mubarak and that the post-Mubarak transition has been handled poorly, to say the least, by a SCAF that is guilty of bumbling incompetence perhaps more than malice. In particular, the transition process could have been more along the lines of Tunisia's, with an elected constituent assembly rather than one appointed by parliament and independent commissions to investigate corruption as well as violence. The real drama, it seems to me, is that right now transitional justice consists of immediately going after certain persons (those close to Gamal Mubarak) yet only going after older apparatchiks (NDP apparatchiks, etc.) after popular pressure forced the SCAF to. And, most of all, a piecemeal approach to trying former officials: consider that Hosni Mubarak has just been fined for cutting off the internet, and may only be tried for the violence during the revolution, while not being held accountable for 30 years of autocracy.

To me, this should be the focus of the opposition: obtaining a real truth and reconciliation process that holds the regime, as a system, accountable and features the televised testimony of both its victims and participants. If Egyptians try to gloss over the Mubarak era as a question of a few bad apples and then quickly move on, they risk losing a more important understanding of what was the Mubarak regime (and institutions like State Security) and lose the chance of making a clean break. The other demand may be about postponement of elections, but then it has to make on sound grounds (as I discussed a few days ago) with concrete proposals on who will rule in the meantime — including explaining what would make a transitional presidential council more legitimate than the SCAF.

Instead, the range of reasons given for taking part in the protests was fairly wide. Here's a sample:

Another interesting angle to the protests was the decision by the Muslim Brothers (and others) not to participate. The SCAF had already made one of its offensive statements echoing the Mubarak era, talking about foreign plotting and so on (old habits die hard I guess) although it did not carry out another crackdown even if some activists were detained. But it was shocking to see the MB use similar language in its violently-worded statement, which basically called protestors traitors. Even the Salafist statement against participation was milder and more reasonable. 

Where does this leave us? Pretty much in the same place, except that a market has been put down that the SCAF does not have the public's complete trust and needs to get its act together. There is too much uncertainty today about the transitional process, the next constitution, and the place the military will take after the elections. It is hard to make educated guesses because the SCAF does not consult very thoroughly and seems to dither endlessly rather than provide a clear, reasonable blueprint for a return to constitutional rule. Hence the current feeling of unease in Egypt: no one is quite sure what's going on.

Some clarity make come in the next few months, but in the meantime the snap analysts are feeling bearish. Several American commentators are very pessimistic, some without even visiting Egypt. Robert Dreyfus does not shy from predicting:

The emerging alliance between the Egyptian army and the right-wing Muslim Brotherhood seems to be in control, and it’s likely that the elections for parliament will produce an assembly dominated by the Brotherhood and the (military-linked) National Democratic Party, the remade party that controlled the country during the Mubarak era.

There is no evidence that the National Party (the successor to the NDP) is "military-linked" although presumably it would like to be. Its new leader, Talaat Sadat, is a joke who is often compared to the television clown Shikiko. The NP is not the NDP: it has none of the latter's assets, nor its access to the state. As for the MB, no doubt it will do well, but there is no indication yet that it will dominate the next parliament.

Fareed Zakariya similarly writes that Egypt is still run by a military dictatorship — well, yes, but it's a dictatorship that has been repeatedly pushed into giving concessions and has a fairly weak sense of authority for the moment. He asks about the expectation (widely shared in Egypt) that the MB will get around 30% of the vote:

Everyone tells me the Muslim Brotherhood will get 30% of the vote. I asked a lot of people, “Where does this number come from? How did you decide it was 30% and not 45% and not 20%?”

Nobody had a good answer. There were a couple of polls that had been done and then there was an election that took place in which the Muslim Brotherhood was not allowed to run and so its candidates ran as independents. If you read all the tea leaves, 30% is what you come to. But it's not based on anything like what we would call robust polls.

That's true, there are no robust polls. There is also no meaningful data from previous elections — the next one will be a new baseline. But right now there is a logic to the claims of 30% for the MB: since it is (for now) running candidates in only 50% of districts, it's not unreasonable to predict that it will only be successful in two-thirds of its campaigns. But the truth is we can't be sure, these elections are likely to be so different than previous ones, with many more people participating and an entirely new political landscape. We are in uncharted waters. 

I have a bone to pick with him over a bit on the role of the US, too:

What I was struck by is how the U.S. has gotten no credit for helping in the ousting of Mubarak, which is I think quite unfair. I think it’s understandable that people resent America's support for Mubarak over so many decades.

But the truth is it took Bill Clinton a year and a half to abandon Suharto. It took Ronald Reagan two years to abandon Marcos. It took Obama two weeks to abandon Mubarak.

Let's think through this. No doubt there was US pressure, public and private, against a violent crackdown on protestors. But the emerging picture of the events of January 25-28 was that it was the army — as a whole as well as its sub-unit, notably the Third Army even prior to January 28 — that refused to act. Perhaps its commanders were thinking of Egypt's isolation vis-a-vis Washington, but surely they were also thinking that firing on civilians could send the country into chaos. Zakariya takes the US-centric view that Obama was the decisive factor here. It played a role for sure, but the actions of the army itself, for internal Egyptian reasons, were surely more important.

A much more subtle piece of reportage is a long article by Robert Worth in today's NYT magazine titled Egypt's Next Crisis that captures the feeling of uncertainty and is well worth reading. I particularly liked this passage, as Worth follows General Tarek Mahdy of the SCAF into a backroom after an appearance in a cathedral in support of Copts:

But minutes later, as the general retreated from the cameras to a reception room behind the church, his air of uniformed authority seemed to collapse into weary bafflement: an Arab Wizard of Oz. He sat down heavily, nudging his rectangular glasses and looking around at the paintings of Jesus and the photographs of staff-bearing Coptic bishops. An aide gestured for me to sit down next to him. “You should see the folders on my desk,” the general said to me in English. “They just pile up. A community project? We don’t know how to administer a community project!” He seemed keenly aware that he and his fellow generals were expected to somehow make manifest the popular will, and he was clearly uneasy about it. “We don’t want this situation to continue,” he said. “We want to go back to our barracks.” A delegation of young Tahrir Square protesters arrived in the room, and the general greeted them warmly. “As everybody knows, the people are the source of power, and we are deeply appreciating this fact,” he said.

Later, as I got up to leave, the general smiled and warned me not to misquote him. “Or else I will kill you,” he said with a giddy grin. “We are the power now, and no one can come after me!” Then he touched my forearm and said, as if in apology: “You see, we have not moved from past to present as fast as all that.”

In the first days after Mubarak fell, many Egyptians feared that the Supreme Council would enshrine itself as a permanent ruling junta. Instead, the generals seem anxious to please the crowd, fearful, perhaps, that they may become the next target. Egypt’s real rulers, in a sense, are the youth of Tahrir Square, whose periodic protests have continued to push the council toward greater concessions. Even the interim prime minister, Essam Sharaf, seems captive to them. After the council appointed him in March, he went straight to Tahrir Square, where crowds carried him on their shoulders as he declared, “I am here to draw my legitimacy from you.”

Worth overstates the case that "Egypt's real rulers, in a sense, are the youth of Tahrir Square." But he captures the various uncertainties quite well — recommended reading.