mercredi 24 juillet 2013

On the Egyptian street, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the issue of democracy

Recent events in Egypt, in the successive chapters since 30 June, carry myriad political and social implications as well as problematic questions related to the issue of democracy, the role of the military, the status of the Muslim Brotherhood and its brief experience in power in the largest Arab and Mediterranean country.
The following text presents five observations on what has occurred and the circumstances and paradoxes that both accompanied and continue to accompany ongoing events.

The first observation is connected with the most prominent transformations that were brought about by the revolution of January 2011 in the form of direct political expression in Egypt, in terms of collective willingness to periodically take to the streets, as a space for the serious work and decision making of citizens, and through the appropriation of public freedoms and the removal of the barriers of fear and censorship. What stands out in this area is the ability of youth forces to take the initiative, coordinate, and call for action separate from “professional” party leaderships, and without the requirement of programmatic complementarity or intellectual harmonization to justify the convergence. This includes what appears to be an aspect of mutability in their approach to politics, that is, the capacity of the new generation to adapt and take action quickly, which has been made possible by experience with “networking” in the field, in the media, and on social networking sites.

The second observation is connected to the end of a long ascendant assessment that the ability to mobilize the Egyptian street (and the Arab street generally) is limited to Islamists, and that there is no popular presence of other political orientations. The millions that took to the streets against the Brotherhood illustrate the hastiness of this assessment, although a distinction must be made between organized political forces, where the Islamists hold a significant superiority, and the wider public who are not members in political party formations. The general mood appears to reject all political excess, including excessive religionization of politics or politicization of religion.

The third observation is related to what can be considered the harsh political, media, and social assessment of the Brotherhood’s experience in ruling Egypt, as the Brotherhood was only in power for a bit more than one year, during which they faced serious crises, most of which existed for decades or at least took root years before their election. They likewise faced heightened expectations and major hopes for positive change, typical in the stages directly following revolutions, most of which face setbacks as a result of political and economic faltering. Of course, one can say that the Brotherhood’s behavior which appeared monopolistic and egotistical, and their weak performance and simplistic approaches to problems and challenges made it difficult for broad sectors of public opinion to accept the slowness of change and lack of follow up on crises, which of course fueled and broadened the opposition camp or those hostile to the Brotherhood.

However, another issue can be added to this question of the assessment by some segments of Egyptians, which is the class dimensions related to the rural origins of the majority of Muslim Brothers, who are viewed by some urban groups with a suspicion that borders on contempt. Perhaps the essential elements of the derision faced by Mursi were connected with his personal behavior, linguistic weakness, and social “stereotyping” affecting him and his wife, as well as the Brotherhood elite more generally, who went from prisons and pulpits in villages and lower-class neighborhoods to the clubs of authority that had previously been perceived as “modernized” (and sometimes bourgeois), for decades. All of this provided rich material for a number of entertainment programs and satirical websites, often going beyond politics or just an assessment of Mursi’s performance, creating a general atmosphere where the president became seen as an insult to the presidency itself.

The fourth observation is at the heart of the debate over what is called “the Islamic failure in power.” Writings in this tendency have proliferated, taking the fierce popular uprising against Mursi and the Brotherhood as proof that the project of political Islam has hit a dead end. But it is useful in this context to pause to consider two issues:

The first is whether there is actually such a project of political Islam. The second is the length of time needed to allow judgment of this project, if there is one.

On the first issue, talking about a political project does not appear to be supported by clear data or by programs and economic visions offered. This is because the Brothers - and they are who is meant here - did not present an economic project, and neither they nor any others have financial and tax programs that differ from the reigning “consensus”. Likewise, they have not adopted a governing philosophy different from constitutionalism (presidential or parliamentary), and they have not formulated a foreign policy or substantially changed the relationship to donor countries and institutions from existing policy. Most of what differentiates them and other Islamists are issues of social legislation that mainly focuses on controlling their central obsession: women, which in any case, is a discussion deserving extensive attention beyond the scope of this current article. So it does not seem that there is an actual Islamist project that was implemented (or present) to be judged. Even if what is intended is the claims by Islamists of holding their own solutions and alternative to what has prevailed in the previous eras since national independences, and even if they say that in the examples of the ancestors (Salaf) they can find a value system and culture of governance, it is not possible to consider their presence in power for one year as a sufficient basis to launch judgements of success or failure. This is even if the indications tend toward the likelihood of their failure in administering Egypt, on both objective and subjective bases. The situation and the circumstances are complex, and their well-practiced nature as opposition forces did not give them the expertise to rule or qualify them for good political and economic governance.

The fifth observation is directly connected to the issue of democracy and the coup that was executed by the military whose impact was to “sequester” the elected president and arrest him. There is no evading this characterization and the adoption of the appropriate terminology. The enormous demonstrations and popular mobilization, unprecedented in previous Egyptian history, against the rule of Mursi, do not change the fact that the actions of the military (beginning with the Minister of Defense General al-Sisi delivering a warning to Mursi and to all political forces to agree within 48 hours, continuing with the deployment of fighter planes, helicopters over, and tanks in strategic areas of the major cities, and finally storming the presidential headquarters, forcing the president to step aside, and arresting him, then closing most of the media loyal to him and detaining some of their workers, and placing a travel ban on the Brotherhood leadership and “requesting” that the judiciary move against them) constitute a military coup as described above, even under the pretext of responding to the will of the masses, and even if these actions were acclaimed by some crowds. However, what is more important than continuing the debate over the characterization is the path things will take in the coming weeks and months, and the balance of forces that will impose settlements and trade-offs, and limit the role that will be played by the military in determining these outcomes and the shape of the coming conflict with the Brotherhood.

In the end, it can be said that the “aesthetics” of the popular scene on 30 June and its celebrated implications are insufficient to cover another scene of the utmost complexity: the political scene, which is occupied by the military in part, and in part by the Muslim Brotherhood, as if we have returned to the extortionary binary formula that was used for so long by authoritarian rulers to justify their permanence and to prevent change, while acknowledging there is now a totally different set of circumstances (not only because it is accompanied by a popular movement that is one of the most significant successes of the Arab revolutions, but also because it comes after relatively free parliamentary and then presidential elections, which were the first of their kind in the history of Egypt, which were won by the Brotherhood). And we will soon find ourselves before a narrative of “the oppressiveness of the Brotherhood” recalling Egyptian and Arab precedents (like the Algerian and Palestinian cases), and it is possible if the conflict intensifies and its actors continue to demonize and dehumanize the other (and occasionally justifying violence and oppression against them) that some of the Brotherhood constituents will tend toward extremism, militancy, and rejection of the political process, and thus threaten the stability of Egypt as a whole.

The Egyptian path, therefore, is one that in the coming weeks may become even less straightforward. The two certainties are (a-) that the “street” can remain influential and capable of mobilizing to pressure for peaceful change only if the clash between the military and the Brotherhood is prevented, and (b-) that citizens don't forget that the control of the military over politics is no less dangerous to democracy than the excess of any elected ruler beyond the limits of his mandate, whether in the name of the sacred or in the name of the profane.

Ziad Majed

Translated from Arabic (first published in Al-Hayat) by Jeff Reger