north africa

Egypt: another recycled revolution?

19/07/2013 9:32 am

Dr Harry Hagopian, the Bishops' Consultant on the Middle East

The Bishops' Middle East North Africa (MENA) consultant, Dr Harry Hagopian, recently published an in-depth article on the situation in Egypt.

The piece is taken from Dr Hagopian's epektasis.net website.

Harry Hagopian is our main studio guest for the popular podcast series Middle East Analysis.

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Starting with 25 January 2011, symbolic date of the Egyptian revolution, and 30 June 2013, symptomatic date of a ‘coup’ or ‘second revolution’, the blogosphere has been replete with observations, cogitations, explanations and justifications about events in Cairo, Ismailia, Suez, Alexandria, Sinai and other parts of this history-rich country.

Some of the questions from pundits and denizens alike have also been veritable political, socio-economic and religious nuggets whilst others have been sheer piffle. Had Egypt witnessed a coup or undergone a popular revolution? Was the Morsi presidency legal but had nonetheless lost its legitimacy? Were we witnessing a rending of the social fabric of Egypt between two diametrically opposed camps and inching toward an all-out civil strife? Are the Christian communities of Egypt - mostly Copts, but also Greek Orthodox and Armenian - being led toward a future of doom and gloom as the Muslim Brotherhood wreaks collective revenge? Have the Salafists checkmated the Muslim Brothers in the way they played the political moment? Has the military suddenly metamorphosed from a social bane to a popular blessing? When will the next revolution happen and who will lead it?

So many questions boggle so many minds. No wonder the USA and the EU are being blamed mutatis mutandis for naïveté on the one hand and wile on the other in their foreign policy toward Egypt and the whole MENA region. But whether one uses euphemisms such as ouster, removal or deposal, the fact remains that Egypt underwent a coup - there is no other way for my legal mind to reconcile with what occurred in Cairo a few weeks ago.

However, a coup by any name was also inevitable:

Ever since their birth in Ismailia in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood have been working toward the moment when they would hold the political levers of power - principally in Egypt but also in Jordan and other neighbouring countries. However, once they achieved their goal with the - admittedly - proto-democratic election of former president Mohamed Morsi, they used every possible rule to consolidate let alone expand their own powerbase at the expense of everyone else - Salafists, liberals, secular Egyptian men and women or Christians and other minorities. But Egypt is not the UK or Sweden, and at this critical period of its history, such a manic grab of the executive, legislative and judicial organs of state was not only scabrous to the whole argument of institutional democracy but also ruinous for the future of the country.

Hand-in-hand with this unquenchable and exclusivist thirst for power came also the tell-tale signs of an ailing economy. As David Kenner blogged in Foreign Policy recently, Egypt suffers from double-digit unemployment, 17% of Egyptians struggle to secure enough food and 31% of children five years of age or younger suffer from malnutrition. Add the inflationary increase in the prices of basic commodities or main ingredients like petrol and electricity, and most ordinary Egyptians were aptly disappointed when the Muslim Brotherhood did not match its long-held rhetoric with action by addressing those needs but focused instead on their own politico-religious constituency.

Moreover, and trying to learn how one plays a political game of chess, the Muslim Brotherhood used their Freedom & Justice party to issue a whole cornucopia of nods, winks and blandishments to their former protagonists - and gaolers - in the army or police in a sly effort to firm up their own staying power. They also became obsessed with the fulul (remnants) of the Mubarak regime as well as with any person or movement they suspected was trying to dislodge or challenge their hold on power.

But all this is somewhat familiar territory for many students of Egypt and the broader MENA region. What struck me personally is the critical role played time and again by the younger and professional generations of Egypt - an inexhaustible pool of men and women at the vanguard of the mass movements congregating under umbrellas such as 6 April, Tamarod (Rebellion) or Mosireen (Resolute) - who poured out into the streets in their millions to demand the removal of Morsi and the dismantlement of his structures of governance. However, they realised that they could not do it alone and so resorted to the military in relieving Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood hold in order to correct the political compass of their revolution. The army - previously loathed for its vile excesses against Egyptian citizens - wanted to preserve its own huge economic interests in Egypt (roughly 25% of the GNP) and so used those millions in the streets as the plausible justification to muscle in and stamp its authority again.

But this is where I disacquiesce fundamentally with a piece in The New York Times by David D Kirkpatrick who suggested that the ‘Egyptian liberals embrace the military, brooking no dissent’. I would maintain that this coming together of the military and those movements - erstwhile foes in 2011 and sudden bedfellows in 2013 - was tactical and almost compulsory for both sides. However, thinking that this is a natural alliance between two polarities is simply misunderstanding the whole nature of those uprisings. Crudely put, what we observe today is not an end per se but a means to an end. In fact, I am confident that those civil society movements in Egypt struggling to create an aperture for democracy that is neither henpecked by the military nor abused by religious radicalism will rise up against the army (and police) or against any other group that attempts to manipulate the political circumstances to their advantage and strive to reinstate the status quo ante of 2011 or mould a replica of that broken chapter.

Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood are now maintaining their own sit-in in front of the Rabi’a al-Adawiya Mosque in Nasr City as a counterpoint to the protestors’ longstanding epicentre at Tahrir Square. This standoff cannot continue sine die as it inexorably bleeds Egypt of the two key ingredients that epitomise this revolution so well: economy and security. If the army manages to use its vantage point sensitively to midwife a system of governance that is inclusive of all political currents, including the Muslim Brotherhood (despite their own diatribes or the expostulations of others) then it will have accomplished its promethean task and should then withdraw to the barracks again. However, if it tries to manipulate the unrest by extending its clamp on Egyptian society, those millions of young men and women who rose up against it in 2011 and against the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 - and as such copyrighted the revolution to their image - will not hesitate to pick up the gauntlet once more.

What I believe needs to happen politically in the short run is not too remote from the roadmap on offer already. It consists of amending the constitution so that the separation of powers as much as definition of rights and responsibilities for all citizens are clearly drafted in the revised document. Subsequently, there should be internationally-monitored legislative and presidential elections. What such a process could help achieve is the emergence of an Egypt whose future will not only become steadier after many turbulent years but also one where the concepts of legality and legitimacy will no longer contradict each other but coalesce under one political roof.

By definition, revolutions are lengthy and painful processes - just cast a historical eye at the excesses and uncertainties in the UK, France and the USA - and it is quite true that the future of Egypt can easily skid in any direction. After all, leopards do not lose their spots so easily. Yet, if applied judiciously and with a sense of patriotism that is harnessed toward the public good rather than geared toward feckless factionalism or religious bias, the eventual outcome ahead could well affect Egypt as much as the future of a topsy-turvy MENA region.

As Egyptians recycle their revolution by ushering in a new phase or else simply by improving its priorities, they should recall the repressive regimes that have been controlling Egypt in one form or another since the 1950’s, the wanton behaviour of the military with its humiliating and offensive practices or else the preternatural dereliction of stately duty by the Morsi government. From Khaled Saeed in 2010 to the Maspero killings and ‘the girl in the blue bra’ of 2011, all Egyptians should come together to overcome their grievances and pull together.

Otherwise, history has a knack of repeating itself - and not always for the better.