The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged opposition
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.

As I sat silently considering the consequences of whispering “The army and the people are one hand” to a cranky Tamarod campaigner, who was collecting signatures in front of me, to spark a riot (just to make sure that one can be sparked), my target began arguing with a fellow Tamarod campaigner. Something about him being a man of a few warnings.

Cowed, I redirected my attention to the conference, which was meant to raise awareness of the dangers of the Suez Canal Development Project’s draft law, as suggested by the poorly-photoshopped poster of the canal, which looked more like an underdeveloped construction site than an underdeveloped sea-level waterway, captioned with “The canal is for the people...not a governmen’...or a group...or a party."

The speakers, who ranged from experts to journalists to lawyers and politicians, took turns screaming into the microphone at the crowd of about 400 Ismailia residents, the lonely al-Nahar TV camera and the woman hanging wet laundry in her balcony, half-listening to how Zionist Qataris are going to buy her town, while keeping a close eye on her half-naked children throwing firecrackers at each other in the street.

The main purpose of the conference was served in the first 15 minutes, which can be summed up in one paragraph:

Morsi plagiarized Mubarak’s Law 83 of 2002 and slapped the word ‘development’ on it. If you want to see the effects of the law, visit the 19 industrial cities that were formed thanks to it, where working conditions make Bangladesh garment factory workers look privileged. For instance, the law states that 80% of the workforce needs to be Egyptian but doesn't mention their wages, or even imply the existence of any. Also, the fact that Morsi is the only one who can appoint, dismiss or hold the 14-person committee in charge of the canal accountable is a disaster. So let’s topple Morsi. See you on the 30th.

Everything from that point forth, however, was a repetition of unverified “facts” and name-calling. In addition to a crash course in Western parenting.  

“Did you know that Hamas issues orders on papers saying ‘Sinai and Gaza’? Like Sinai is theirs,” bellowed a speaker, whose name card read “Magda Rashwan,” despite him being an old bald man. I approached the man, who turned out to be Mohamed Bayoumi, the general-secretary of al-Karama party, later to find out where he learned that particular piece of information, which he was confidently disseminating as if he had these “Hamas papers” in his back pocket. 

"Some guy told me that...ahh, a major general told me that in a some conference...I don't really remember his name," he answered with a shrug.

Meanwhile, another overly enthusiastic speaker wondered how much money Morsi got off Ethiopia in exchange for the Nile. “One billion dollars,” a woman in the audience yelled back at her. “Nonsense,” a man shot back at the woman. “No less than two billion!”

“(Morsi) lost (his) legitimacy when his people, the sheep, the lowly, the ignorant...attacked our sons in Etihadia,” another speaker added, provoking a woman in the audience to stand up and chant against Morsi, “the agent of Pakistan.”

Shortly after, another speaker began miming the act of slapping one’s own face, urging the audience to follow suit to warn everyone they know of the Chinese businessmen, who are going to come enslave the workers of Suez.

“Don’t get must stay aware,” the speaker begged. “You know, Morsi and his people met Obama in 2008 before his speech at the Cairo University and they told him ‘We are your men!’” she continued, swearing that Morsi promised to give the Palestinians a part of Sinai to settle in to put an end to "this whole Arab-Israeli conflict," as the audience yawned agreement and disappointment.

“This (conference) sucks,” a Tamarod campaigner mouthed to her friend. “We should have done this in Cairo instead,” her friend replied.

“Cairo doesn’t care much. They are depending on the canal cities to reignite the revolution,” interjected a retired major general, who was abruptly shushed when the microphone was passed to Dr. Manal Omar, a child-psychologist-turned-political-analyst and frequent guest on Mahmoud Saad’s show, who enjoys near-rockstar-status.

“I read western books,” Dr. Omar informed the audience. “Do you know how they raise their children in the west?” She asked, rhetorically. “They teach them that it’s not all-or-nothing…they tell them that they are moderate...they teach them to question authority,” she said before employing an analogy where Morsi was a teacher and Egypt was his classroom, during which she advised the teacher to quit blaming the students for his educational failure. 

"But what if the students are stupid?" a heckler interrupted her.

"So what, everyone is stupid except the teacher? If so, where did we get the teacher from? Didn't he graduate from the same stupid class?" she asked sarcastically, to the great pleasure of the audience, which had finally begun showing signs of wakefulness.

Prior to Dr. Omar’s talk was that of Islam el-Katatni, the nephew of the FJP Chairman, Saad el-Katatni, and former member of the MB, who made everyone's day when he said that "the great city of Ismailia, the place where Hassan al-Banna’s call began, is where it’s all going to end - not the call, but the--”

Once the euphoric cheering died down, he made it clear that the end he was referring to was that of the MB's political life, and not the lives of its members.

“They are welcome to continue their da’wah...but no more politics!” said el-Katatni, who assumed the air of a coma patient who recently regained consciousness and is now recommending others give it a try. “The MB youth must question (the leadership), let your conscience be the judge,” he said. “Stand up to the leadership,” which lies so often, it's shocking and just un-islamic," according to him.

Near the end, the cranky Tamarod campaigner grabbed the small black sign that was on stage and posed for the cameras. The sign read: “O rebels, despair is betrayal.”

And what about boredom?  

Carrothers: Egypt’s Dismal Opposition: A Second Look

Thomas Carrothers of Carnegie had a good piece on the over-dissing of Egypt's opposition:

Overly harsh views of the Egyptian opposition—combined with a lack of recognition that many once-weak opposition actors in countries emerging from authoritarian rule have gone on to win elections—fuel the unhelpful idea that the Muslim Brotherhood is the only political force likely to hold power in Egypt for the foreseeable future. And that idea in turn encourages the problematic belief evident in U.S. policy in the past year that no alternative to the Brotherhood is likely to be viable for many years and the resultant tendency to downplay the Brotherhood’s significant political flaws.

The United States and other Western powers should not make it their business to actively support the opposition. But they should at least approach Egypt’s new political landscape with an open mind, informed by experiences from elsewhere.

Listening to U.S. officials and political analysts pillory the Egyptian opposition, it is hard not to wonder what gives American observers so much judgmental self-confidence. The United States has more than two-hundred years of democratic history, the finest institutions of higher education in the world, and one of the highest standards of living, Yet, in last year’s U.S. presidential elections, the country produced a slate of political opposition figures that as a group did not compare favorably to Egypt’s major opposition leaders in intelligence, integrity, or capability.

He makes many good points, but the central one — that the Egyptian opposition is complete mess, but that this is not unusual in these situations and that it's not as hapless as its critics contend — is very much worth bearing in mind. US and EU officials I've heard complain about "whiny liberals" who are "useless" are putting out self-serving arguments that attempt to excuse their support for SCAF and, later, Morsi during the constitutional declaration crisis of November 2012. One American diplomat, I remember, condemned some in the opposition for having supported Ahmed Shafiq's candidacy — perhaps unaware that the government he represented had supported Hosni Mubarak for 30 years. I've been critical of this opposition's often tenuous hold on reality, but they're not the only one with the problem.

Even more on the opposition

I just want to add a few links to Issandr's detailed breakdrown of the Egyptian anti-MB opposition's quandaries and inconsistencies.

In a recent column in Al Youm Al Sabaa by Ahmad Maher, the April 6 leader, he summarizes the reactive attitude of the opposition as "Act now, decide later" and its clinging to the methods of the revolution, two years on, as "eating soup with a fork." He ends thus:

Marches, sit-ins and demonstrations are important means, despite the presence of tens and perhaps hundreds of other means, but they miss the decisive factor for the equation: “the people."
The January 25 revolution did not succeed without the people, people are the decisive factor [...]. The battle to overthrow the regime is not only the departure of Mubarak or the departure of the military power or even the departure of Morsi, but it is a long-term battle that will not be resolved in one round, but in fact it is waves and battle points, a battle primarily with the forces of the past and the forces of tyranny in various forms. A long-term battle against the ideas of the past, methods of the past, rules of the past, parties of the past and behaviors of the past.
The people are crucial in that battle, as they were crucial in the beginning of the revolution, and we have to look around a little and ask ourselves: Is Tahrir Square the same Tahrir Square ? Are the marches still marches ? Are the sit-ins the same ? Is the “violence and chaos followed by army rule scenario” the revolution?
People are a crucial element, a maker of change, and in order to move forward they must be reached, talked to and convinced of the importance of defeating the forces of the past for a new future. But the “act first, decide later” approach will only cause further loss of time, effort, and the lives of young people .

It's worth noting that April 6 has not yet decided whether to support a boycott.

To boycott or not to boycott, that is the opposition's question. Elections were used, almost from the start and quite explicitly, to contain the revolution, not to advance it. The suspicion of the "democratic" process is not unjustified. And it is evident in writing such as this column, in which activist Amr Ezzat notes that these days "the broad public conversation around the 'value of democracy' and the 'choice' of army intervention seems very 'democratic,' to the point that one can imagine 'military coup' as one of the available choices in the upcoming elections. Why not? Doesn't democracy just mean letting the ballot box decide?" Ezzat goes on to argue, tongue in cheek, that since Islamist feel free to redefine democracy to match their own concept of cultural identity and "Islamist authoritarianism," then supporters of a military coup can certainly manage to find a way to similarly stretch the concept of democracy far enough to fit army rule. Ezzat coins a clever new word,  sunduqratiya ("boxocracy") to describe many non-Islamists' view of democracy in Egypt so far: purely electoral competition, where victory gives the winner the right to excercise power in the same old authoritarian ways. 

Yet it's hard to see how non-Islamist groups can survive, let alone develop, in the future political landcape if they don't compete in elections (I for one am happy most No voters didn't boycott the referendum on the constitution and think if turnout had been higher, so would the proportion of the No vote. As is the opposition learned the extent -- and geographic location -- of its strength, which is useful information to have). Unless, of course, they are hoping for another earthquake to change that landscape altogether. The problem is the opposition -- which is divided along ideological and especially generational lines, doesn't quite know what it wants.

In dreaming of more revolution rather than preparing for elections -- in wanting to go back and have things turn out differently, in wanting to start over, in wanting to recapture a moment when everything seemed possible (and probably, even then, wasn't) -- is the opposition squandering the much narrower, practical, political room for action and leverage? 

I was sitting in a revolutionary planning meeting recently, and as speakers took turns making short, impassioned, vague speeches about what needed to be done, I thought of the enormous advantage the Muslim Brotherhood has in having a tested, efficient (and largely autocratic) decision-making apparatus. The oppositoin has to re-invent the wheel each time. It was kind of thrilling to see this happening 2 years ago but now, with so much at stake and so much already lost, it's also demoralizing.

The other problem the opposition has is its fundamental misreading of the revolution. The 18 days were the most amazing moment I've ever lived through, but "the people" didn't bring down the regime -- or at least, not on their own. The army encouraged and abetted them in doing so. So one elephant in the room is that to recreate the revolution and its result (a change in leadership) requires army intervention. 


On the Egyptian opposition

The National Salvation Front’s recent decision to boycott the upcoming parliamentary elections in Egypt that reminded me I have been thinking of writing a post on the subject of the Egyptian opposition for weeks. Warning: it's a long post.

Anyone who follows Egyptian politics will have probably made two broad conclusions by now. First, that the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohammed Morsi, out of a combination poor judgement, paranoia and greed, have made the choice of sacrificing the possibility of a stable and inclusive transition for the sake of consolidating their control over the old regime machinery rather than reforming it. Second, that the “liberal” or secular opposition gathered under the banner of the National Salvation Front (NSF) is missing a golden opportunity to benefit from the Brotherhood’s actions and the public indignation they have caused by behaving in an utterly politically clueless manner. Let us deal with the second part of that equation.

Whatever bluster the MB is making about having a mandate from the parliamentary and presidential elections — and I believe it does have a mandate, albeit not one to act as they have done — its actions as of November 22, 2012 (when Morsi enacted his constitutional decree) and thereafter (its humiliating rushing of the constitution) have sent the opposition into spinning hysteria. It appeared, at first, that the move would unite a disparate group — after all the NSF was formed — but today, despite the united position on a boycott, there is still a good chance individual politicians and parties will still participate. I’ll get back to the wisdom of a boycott later.

The NSF may be right to be angry, and it is not the only political actor to share in that anger (look at the Salafis’ recent blistering critique of the MB as power-hungry and bent on appointing supporters in local administration for electoral advantage) but the anger has not been channelled constructively. Dissonant voices inside the NSF (ranging from ones which claimed, at least until a few days ago, respect Morsi’s legitimacy but ask him to mend his ways to those who want to overthrow him), a growing disconnect with protestors, changing demands and lack of organizational savvy are causing the opposition to appear totally out of touch and incapable of representating a viable alternative. Rarely are politicians handed such a golden opportunity as the opposition was on November 22, and while it got the secularists (mostly) under one umbrella, the NSF has squandered it.

In no particular order, here is what I see as the main problems:

  • The NSF is being led by the protest movement rather than leading it. Despite the best efforts of the Muslim Brothers to paint the NSF as the ringmaster of the protest circus, it is painfully obvious its influence is diminishing. Still, the NSF could have a calming effect (and, contrary to MB claims, has consistently denounced violence, even if it could have been more forceful in its condemnation of attacks on MB offices and figures). Its positions and rhetoric changes day to day depending on public mood (as defined by a private media that is hysterically anti-MB and exaggerates issues that are grave enough in reality). So one day they are into negotiating and the next the Morsi regime cannot be dealt with. Which one is it?
  • The NSF’s demands took over one month to coalesce — and then they allowed themselves to be trapped by their own positions (the main reason for the boycott, without a thought to long-term consequences). There were good demands in there, notably the focus on ensuring the forthcoming elections are free and fair, the electoral law a matter of consensus, and domestic and international observers being allowed unfettered access. That last point is particularly important since the NSF is unlikely to have the MB’s army of party observers that proved so effective during the presidential election, but has many allies in civil society — and the Morsi administration appears to be ready to grant the request, since some international monitors have already been approved.
  • One the main demands, for a National Unity Government (NUG) to be formed, seems of dubious necessity to me. What, precisely, was being envisaged? ElBaradei gets the ministry of trade, Moussa the ministry of labor, Sabahi the ministry of education? Are they after specific portfolios? Or are they in fact looking for a super-prime minister who would co-rule with Morsi? There is a case to be made for the sacking of particular ministers — Egypt could use an interior minister really dedicated to reform and a team of economic ministers, led by a economically-savvy PM, that makes the government’s primary focus redressing the economy. But, if elections are to be held in 2–3 months, do you really need a NUG? And according to what standards would you staff it? It’s pretty clear the reason the Nour Party supports a NUG is to get its own foothold in the cabinet, probably for the education portfolio that it wanted before. But the current cabinet is necessarily temporary, the elections’ results will demand a new cabinet, and now is not the time for long-term projects (remember the temporary Ganzouri cabinet’s ridiculous 10-year plan?)
  • Likewise, Amr Moussa’s demand that elections be postponed made no sense to me. Postponed to what purpose? There may be decent reasons, but they never made them clear. And who governs in the interim — an all-powerful president and an Islamist-dominated Shura Council that has sole legislative authority even though it was never elected with that authority in mind? Elections may have returned (relatively) poor results for the non-Islamists so far, but they can’t be avoided forever, and I’m not sure more time with a contested government helps matters.
  • The NSF wants the constitution amended, and Morsi agrees in principle. But it has not specified the mechanism by which the constitution should be amended. The MB’s choice, backed by the constitution, is that a committee could be formed to identify articles to change (i.e. limit the scope of changes) and that the modifications could be put to the next parliament. I doubt that this is what the NSF wants, but we have not heard its ideas — does it want a deal whereby the constitution is quickly amended and the Brothers promise to adopt the committee’s recommendations? Fat chance. More importantly, we have yet to see a serious document produced by the NSF regarding the 40 or so articles it claims to find problematic. What are its proposals? Or is is playing its cards close to its chest because it might need to leave the “Islamic” component of the new constitution aline to secure the backing of the Nour Party?
  • The NSF criticizes Morsi for not “achieving the revolution’s goals” yet does not put forward proposals to do so itself. Not a single political force in Egypt has offered what every outside expert, and much of Egyptian civil society, said would be desirable for a more democratic Egypt. Such as a transitional justice process that foregoes the dozens of trials of former regime figures on very specific charges for a trial of the regime itself, by an extraordinary tribunal. Transitional justice is not about punishment as much as it is about truth-telling and healing. Is Hosni Mubarak’s crime that he authorized the killing protestors, that he was corrupt, or — as I see it — chiefly that he criminally misgoverned the country for three decades? And what of his predecessors? Where is the soul-searching about where Egypt is coming from and where it should be headed? The attitude towards transitional justice by officials (at least in the civil service, perhaps not in the Morsi administration although they have not shown otherwise) can be summed up by something a friend who works in the field told me recently. After approaching the authorities about implementing a transitional justice framework (for instance on the South African model), he was told point blank: “We are not a post-conflict society. If you want transitional justice, go to Congo.”
  • Another issue they could raise is security sector reform, where again there is much agreement but zero implementation. The Morsi administration appears to be eschewing reform for co-optation and, over time, infiltration of the ministry of the interior. It now has a minister of interior believed to be sympathetic to its goals, but he is facing an unprecedented rebellion from the ranks of police NCOs (currently on strike in several provinces) and the opposition of much of his officer corps. Conscripts who form the bottom tier of the police force, and especially the Central Security Forces riot police, may not be very happy about being used as cannon fodder against protestors for much longer, either. In the last two years, no political force in Egypt has presented a coherent plan for security sector reform (although many party platforms mention it) or even expressed the desire to seek international expertise on the matter (after all many other countries have gone through such a process). Why not change that and offer some concrete yet radical?
  • The NSF has not capitalized on the grievances around issues of social justice and governance, have not offered their own take on whether an IMF deal is desirable and if so what kind of austerity measures should be taken to improve Egypt’s fiscal balance. Too often, it will simply criticize what the Morsi administration does without suggesting an alternative — and sometimes individuals in the opposition even criticize things they really back, simply for the sake of embarrassing the government. This reminds me of the way the Brotherhood often conducted itself under Mubarak, criticizing the NDP on everything simply as a positioning tactic. This tactical approach, permanently short-term and reactive, has made the elaboration of a longer-term strategy impossible, particularly when NSF leaders seem to predict (bank on?) game-changing events such as the rise of chaos or a military intervention. Let’s say those happen — what will be their goals then? What do they stand for?

I spend much of my time, on this blog and elsewhere, criticizing the Brotherhood’s disastrous handling of politics in the last two months. They deserve full blame for the situation of the country, and should be the ones making concessions to get out of the current situation. And too often others, notably outsiders, make excuses for them. But the NSF’s ineffectual leadership has made this all the more easy, with no clear alternative being proposed to counter the narrative that the “opposition” are just a bunch of spoilers. I don’t believe it’s that simple, but they are unable to counter that idea without putting forward some serious, well-thought-out proposals.

On the question of the boycott, I can partly understand the position: the Morsi administration has sent the country into pronounced uncertainty, is unable to provide security, is making terrible economic decisions, and is unwilling to make concessions to the opposition when they do propose something concrete that would not affect its electoral chances, such as promoting women in elections or engaging in (mutually acceptable) redistricting. Having asked for the wrong things initially, and threatened not to participate if it doesn’t get what it wants, the NSF is now stuck with having to carry out its threat or back down. It thus now appears to be betting that the boycott and protests will eventually force the Morsi regime’s hand. Such a strategy is doubly risky: it opens the NSF to accusations of destabilization and unwillingness to compete (in elections which may turn out to have, at least, unprecedented foreign and domestic monitoring), and does not give it a backup plan should the current instability recede and elections take place with some participation from the rest of the opposition (Salafi, felool, etc.)

The danger is thus that, while the elections will take place in a turbulent context, they will nonetheless be generally seen as good enough (like previous partly flawed polls) and the NSF and its components will be left on the outside — and it will have ceded its current status as “the opposition” to either the Salafis should their current tiff with the Brothers continue, or the felool if they make a strong comeback (a distinct possibility).

Was there an alternative that still enabled them to put pressure on the Brotherhood? Probably. One course of action would be to build a broad alliance (with the felool and possibly the Salafis, at least on some issues) that is anti-MB. They could have even campaigned to impeach Morsi and rewrite the constitution (unlikely since 67% of parliament would be needed, but still a potent threat.) Such a campaign would have leveraged the current polarization to their advantage, and if unsuccessful might still give them a large presence in parliament and an opportunity to change tack towards Morsi once elected, should prospects for negotiations reopen. On the constitution, they could have found at least areas of agreement with the Salafis, who might not want its Islamic components changed but are open to changing other areas — and putting pressure on Morsi to include them (and other political forces) in cabinet positions.

Even without such deal-making, a presence in the next parliament (and there is no reason to believe they could not at least reproduce the decent results of 2011, when they controlled about 25% of seats) would have been useful in a myriad of ways. Certainly a lot more useful than their current political existence, restricted to TV studios and press conferences.

The opposition makes its first move

Screengrab by Sultan Qassemi

Above is a picture of al-Sayed Badawi, the president of the Wafd party (the most established of Egypt's legal opposition parties) appearing on al-Jazeera and making the following demands:

  1. A new national unity government
  2. The dissolution of parliament
  3. New elections under a proportional representation system

The full announcement is here [Arabic].

My gut reaction: this is either a significant break with the Wafd's behavior for over 30 years, or he is making this announcement on behalf of the regime. Why the conspiracy theory? Because he doesn't mention the question of the presidency, a chief demand of the protestors. Perhaps he should be given the benefit of the doubt.

Meanwhile, the National Association for Change has made its own demands, including asking Mubarak to step down and Gamal to be disqualified from the presidency, as well as the dissolution of the parliament. Other groups have other demands, including a new minimum wage and the firing of the interior minister. 

These people should be coordinating — and remember they are not the ones who protested tonight.

P.S. Interesting timing.