The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged mb
Puppet regime: A few more notes on Egypt and paranoia
Scott Long, excellent as always on the latest risible/deeply demoralizing media controversy in Egypt, in which a rapper/conspiracy theorist/useful fool Ahmad Spider has accused puppets in a mobile telephone company ad of carrying encoded terrorist messages (and the public prosecutor has actually decided to investigate). 
Another channel hosted Abla Fahita herself to refute the allegations. Ahmed Spider called in to the show. A newspaper article reports that he ”refused to directly address the puppet, saying, ‘This is an imaginary character and nobody knows who is behind it.’” Abla Fahita asked him, “Would it be fair to say that Ahmed Spider is a spy because there is the word ‘spy’ in ‘spider’?” But the state takes Spider seriously.

As a friend commented on Facebook: "This is what the death of politics look like." 

ElBaradei and his detractors

Mohammed ElBaradei -- now Egypt's vice-president for foreign affairs -- has taken to the Western and Arab media lately to defend the July 3 coup but also to make the case for negotiating with the Brotherhood and taking their fears and grievances at least partly into consideration. Here he is in the Washington Post: 

People are very angry. People are very angry with me because I am saying, “Let’s take time, let’s talk to them” [The Brotherhood]. The mood right now is, “Let’s crush them, let’s not talk to them.” That would last for one week, and then they would come back. It would be a disaster everywhere, inside Egypt and outside Egypt. We need to get a long-range view based on restoring order and based on national consensus and reconciliation. I hope the Brotherhood understands that time is not on their side. I’m holding the fort, but I can’t hold it for very long.

ElBaradei clearly does not have the support of the deep state (which would apparently like nothing better than an endless cycle of violence/repression) or of a considerable portion of the political and media elite, which sees this as its chance to keep Islamists out of politics for the foreseeable future. Witness the fresh onslaught of attacks on him. Here is a presenter on Tahrir TV (once a "revolutionary" channel, now apparently a mouthpiece for the intelligence and police) tearing up ElBaradei WPost interview on the air and berating him for "submitting to terrorism."


Get it straight

I've been following the way the crisis Egypt is being narrated and discussed, and there are some tropes and arguments that I think need refuting. 

- The opposition won't negotiate.

All the Egypt media coverage I saw yesterday had the same headline: Egypt opposition rejects Morsi's call to dialogue. But dialogue about what? Morsi either would or wouldn't rescind his November 22 decree (he did, at the end of the day, ending an untenable situation in which he was entitled to issue legislation by decree, with no judicial review or appeal possible).

But he'd already said he would not postpone the rushed referendum and would not negotiate on the content of this very contentious constitution. So what was on the table to negotiate? Not to mention that it is hard for the opposition to accept an invitation to dialogue from someone who has just accused them on national TV of being paid saboteurs, based on false confession extorted under duress by his own cadres during extra-judicial interrogations. Morsi seems to have been bizzarrely acknowledging the fact that he is far from an honest broker when he decided to *skip* the negotiations to ensure their "neutrality."

- Morsi was democratically elected. Opposition to him is undemocratic.

Yes, Morsi was democratically elected (we think -- there were few observers and they weren't allowed to witness the final count). But being democratically elected doesn't mean everythign you do thereafter is by definition democratic. There is no overstating how seriously Morsi undermined his own legitimacy with his authoritarian decree (imagine a US president who, because the courts are politicized, decides that he will just put himself above the law). Morsi took immediate advantage of his new power by issuing a law that seems designed to increase FJP control over labour unions the day after his November 22 decree. 

- Morsi and the constitution represent the will of the majority of Egyptians. Again, opposition to him is undemocratic. 

There is no doubt that many Egyptians support Islamists and their project. But Morsi was elected with 51% of the vote (and in the first round, he got only about a quarter of the vote). A lot of people voted for him, holding their noses, to prevent a return of the old regime in the form of Ahmad Shafiq. Morsi's mandate, for some of his supporters, was to establish Sharia. But for many others, Morsi's mandate was just NOT to be Ahmad Shafiq -- not to restore the old order, not to be authoritarian, and to carry out some basic reforms. He has not delivered yet, and nearly half the country voted for his opponent.

- Which bring us to: All the Brotherhood's opponents are filul (regime remnants). 

Yes, the MB has faced resistance from former NDP figures; from the courts; from the state bureaucracy and from the media (although it is the right of the private free media to say whatever it pleases, and the MB -- which seems to have Al Jazeera's fullsome support as well its own partisan and propagandist media channels -- is hardly unable to make its voice heard). Almost anyone new in charge of the country would have to deal with some of this, by the way. 

And yes, there are certainly plenty of filul supporting the protests against the president. But as others have argued, it is ridiculous for the MB, which has cut a deal with Mubarak's army and failed to reform Mubarak's Ministry of Interior (and has started aping Mubarak-era tactics), to accuse the opposition of being a tool of the ancien regime. Both sides have their distasteful and reactionary elements (I'm thinking of some of the extremist Salafi sheikhs the MB gives top billing to at its rallies). 

- Egyptians can vote on the constitution and end this whole debate. Let the democratic process work. 

It does not seem to occurr to the Brotherhood that a referendum on a national charter is fundamentally different from a general election. You don't want to just narrowly win, or even substantially win. You want to rally the largest majoritiy possible around a shared set of principles. You want the country's future constitution to pass by the most significant margin. The result of the presidential election suggests that half the country is anti-Islamist. But even if the constitution passes with say, 70 percent of the vote, there will be a significant proportion of the population that will not be on board and will not recognize the legitimacy of the new political system -- and there will be the continued temptation, which we've already seen the Brotherhood succumb to, to resort to the same readily available arsenal of tactics to smear and repress this "minority." 

Not to mention that the rushed way in which this constitution was slapped together and in which the country is proceeding towards the referendum is a disgrace and a logistical nightmare. Shouldn't responsible leadership want to give citizens the chance to acquaint themselves with the document they are voting on? 

The Brotherhood is displaying an ineptitude and an impatience that belies its reputation as a far-thinking organization. It also is very quickly eroding its credibility among all but its core supporters and among those (often, rural poor and/or illiterate) who can be mobilized through religious and identitarian discourse. Being good at winning elections doesn't make you democratic. And facing resistance doesn't give you an excuse to be dictatorial. 


Questions for the Muslim Brotherhood
As I read Muslim Brothers defend their current actions as the only way to safeguard Egyptian democracy and paint all their opponents as destructive filool, there are a whole bunch of questions I wish they would answer: 
  • Morsi gave the CA a 2-month extension to work on the constitution in his November 22 decree. Why did the assembly rush to finalize their draft on November 29? Why did they need two extra months to get the job done right, and one week later suddenly they didn't? 
  • The MB keeps saying that the courts were going to dissolve the CA, the Shura council and even countermand Morsi's August 12 decree and bring back SCAF.  What proof do they have for these claims? Is there even a case before the courts regarding the August 12 decree? (There isn't that I know of). 
  • If such a verdict had been handed down, the same constituency that elected Morsi to end military rule would have taken to the streets. Why not bet on his electoral legitimacy -- on democracy -- rather than opting for extraordinary extra-legal measures? 
  • Even if a court had dissolved the constituent assembly, Morsi had the right to form a new one immediately. Presumably, he had given himself that right (in his August 12 decree) precisely in case of deadlock or judicial interference. Why not exercise it? 
  • The MB has championed judicial supervision of elections for years, as the only guarantee of free elections. Will there be judicial supervision of the referendum and of future elections? 
  • A year ago, the MB indignantly protested against the Silmi document and the privileges and protections it gave the army. Why did it finally give the army most of those same prerogatives in the new constitution?
  • Most importantly: What happens if Egyptians vote down the constitution? Is there even a plan? (and if there isn't, what kind of a "choice" is this?) 
Brothers against the ropes

Get your Muslim Brotherhood T-shirt while stocks last!

A conciliatory attitude by the new Guide, Mohamed Badie, has not protected the Muslim Brothers from another string of arrests. That they include people from five provinces and a key electoral planner — Essam al-Erian — and an organizational strongman — First Deputy Guide Mahmoud Ezzat — suggests that it's largely to do with forthcoming elections. This arrest is notable because Ezzat had not been arrested in years, as most top leadership rarely are. It may have also to do with the state noting his ascendancy, and wanting to send disruptions into the group: many have suspected in the past that the regime selects who it arrests in partly in function of the MB's internal politics, to allow an opportunity for rival factions to dominate.1 As for Al-Erian, one of the key planners of the MB's 2005 electoral strategy, it's clear he's long been one of the leaders most intent in contesting elections as widely as possible. 

Can the regime push the MB, by this fall, into a strategic withdrawal from the electoral field? Not a total one, but one that reduces the numbers of seats it has in parliament to around the level they won in 2000 (i.e. 17)? A few NDP and government figures have suggested that they expect the MB to return to the levels of that time, but it's a hard thing to guarantee unless you have very rigged elections. This is tricky this time around not so much because of the Obama administration, which has systematically downplayed the importance elections in its concept of democracy-promotion, but perhaps because Mohamed el-Baradei had focused much attention on the electoral system and may gain domestic and foreign traction over the next few months if he finds support for his project. So the alternative would be to push the MB into a deal whereby they present fewer candidates and restrict themselves.2

At this point the regime appears to be less looking for a deal with the Brothers than a kow-tow from them. The MB has already for all intents and purpose frozen its reform process, put aside its political party program, and reduced the influence of those most attached to the idea of a political party (aside from al-Erian). The next questions will be, will it drop its new policy of contesting all elections and not run for the Shura Council (most likely) and reduce its footprint in the next parliament (inevitable, but the question is how?)   

1. Some Brothers believe this was the idea behind the prison sentence handed to Khayrat al-Shater in 2007.   

2. With the caveat that it can't be about the Muslim Brothers' electoral strategy alone. It is also about the NDP's ability to impose discipline on its members to avoid the pattern of the last few elections where NDP independents ran against the party's official candidates, thus splitting the pro-government vote and giving candidates from the MB a fighting chance. I would venture that, for now, we have no indication that the NDP will be any more disciplined, since government policy has basically moved the intense competition for seats from the public competition into one inside the NDP.