Egypt’s Second Revolution?

30 June, 2013

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Crowds approaching Cairo’s Tahrir Square, June 30

Today, June 30, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of Egyptians flooded the streets of every major urban center in the country to demand the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi. The Egyptian Army, whose APCs, tanks and soldiers have swarmed every government building since late last week, declared that the protests are the largest in the country’s history- including the Jan.-Feb. 2011 demonstrations that eventually forced out Hosni Mubarak.

The outcome of these protests is far from apparent. This is not going to end tomorrow or even the next day, and the weeks ahead will be extremely fraught with high tension. While June 30 hasn’t been as violent or chaotic as the protests in June 28 (which saw our former home of Alexandria look like something out of Syria for much of the day), the situation has much potential to worsen in the next few days. Here’s why:

1. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are in an enormous bind. On one hand, popular anger has clearly swung against them, and not undeservedly so. The economy has ground to a halt, fuel shortages and electrical blackouts are rampant across Cairo, and people are incredibly disillusioned by Morsi’s fecklessness in his approach to governance. Despite plaintive apologia from the Brotherhood’s ever-smiling English language press offensives, Morsi has largely eschewed any semblance of working with the opposition and failed to uphold the pluralist rhetoric he offered after his election and inauguration. The situation he inherited was daunting for sure, but it’s indisputable that the average Egyptian is worse off now than he or she was on January 24, 2011. Morsi and the Brotherhood deserve much of the blame for this.

On the other hand, the Brotherhood is going to have to search hard for an outcome that allows itself to survive this while placating the street. The Brotherhood and its Islamist backers are correct to note that Morsi is the legitimately and democratically elected ruler of Egypt, and consequently are likely to resist his removal to the very end. Were Morsi to resign, it would be the single most damaging incident in the Brotherhood’s history- far worse than the wide-scale arrests of Islamists after assassination of Anwar Sadat or the repression they endured under Mubarak. The organization would lose its credibility amongst the country’s myriad new Islamist parties, and would threaten their status as the vanguard of political Islam. This could cause them to be outflanked by the various ultraconservative Salafist parties or other Islamist groups in parliamentary elections (tentatively scheduled for October, but who knows anymore), and may prove to be the end of the Brotherhood as a political force.

Perhaps one way in which the group could defuse things is broker a deal with the opposition that would allow Morsi to finish the remaining three years of his term while dismissing his cabinet in lieu of a technocratic body, and sacking the Upper House of Parliament. Such an arrangement could persist until parliamentary elections are held and a new Constituent Assembly is drafted (the body that created and then rammed through the most recent constitution before the courts could challenge it) in pursuit of creating a new constitution that offers the pluralism and protection of women and minorities devoid of the current one. This kind of hypothetical arrangement would at least allow the Brotherhood to demonstrate that it can safeguard its leadership while recognizing public pressure, and while the risk of being outflanked by other Islamist groups is still there, this arrangement would at least prevent the country from tearing itself to pieces. If the current deadlock persists, the risk of that grows with each day.

As an aside, it’s ironic to see the Brotherhood circling the wagons around Morsi this way- he was never their preferred candidate (Khairat al-Shater, the millionaire businessman, was the group’s anointed one before being disqualified during the 2012 elections), and even the Brotherhood’s few internal critics referred to him derisively as the “spare tire.”

2. The military is going to be a player in whatever situation develops. However, I don’t think they’re going to overtly govern the country as they did from February 2011 to June 2012- they demonstrated their inability to manage the country’s nascent political forces, lost a lot of their prestige, and came close to losing their status as the country’s most coherent institution. That being said, they still are major players, and have an interest in seeing the country return to stability. Both sides have interpreted Defense Chief Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s June 23 remarks in which he referenced the army’s “sacred duty” to prevent chaos as supportive of them- although given the decades-old antipathy between Islamists and the security forces, I’d suspect that they’re more aligned with the opposition than the Brotherhood.

3. The one thing that unites the opposition right now is that they want Morsi out (the exact same thing was said in winter 2011 about those seeking Mubarak’s ouster…) The opposition is an uneasy alliance of revolutionary forces (who organized the 2011 uprising and remnants of the former regime (the so-called felool.) This coalition is not likely to survive the period immediately following a hypothetical ouster of Morsi, just as how the marriage of convenience between the revolutionaries, the Brotherhood and the military fell apart in mid-2011. The opposition groups are going to have to balance their competing interests and agendas in order to reshape a level playing field. If there is one criticism that applies uniformly to any post-revolutionary political force in Egypt, it’s that they’ve largely conflated democracy as majoritarianism- the winner takes all and the losers do what they can to survive in the new system. This mindset has to be dispersed immediately if anything productive is ever to happen.

4. While Egypt remains a nominal regional ally of the US, this is not a fight that the US government has ANY business inserting itself. For too long, we’ve sought after “stability” in the Middle East, and a lot of people in the opposition view the USG’s support for the Brotherhood’s government (read: respecting their election results and keeping the military aid flowing despite our diplomatic flaps) as counter-revolutionary. Simply put, we should let the Egyptians handle this on their own, and not set any “red lines” or wave carrots and sticks at them. This is not a drama in which our government should play a part.

At the end of the day, I watch this with equal parts trepidation and optimism. I want Egypt, a beautiful country with wonderful people, to succeed in building a new state in which everyone’s rights are respected, and political forces are free to compete in the marketplace of ideas in order to build a future representative of what the populace wants. Morsi, democratically elected though he may be, has failed to deliver anything resembling this. At the same time, the opposition must offer the country its own path and not let its competing agendas to prompt another circular firing squad inherent in so many other revolutions. After two and a half years of sustained unrest, the price of failure is simply too high.

On a personal note- on June 28, Andrew Driscoll Pochter, a 21-year old US citizen, was slain on the streets of Alexandria after being stabbed in the chest as the Muslim Brotherhood’s city headquarters burned nearby. While I didn’t know Andrew, he was a summer intern at AMIDEAST- Set and I’s former employer in Alexandria- and from what I have read about him, he was motivated by many of the same reasons that drew Set and I to Egypt nearly four years ago. His spirit and his ideals represent the best of what humanity can pursue- shared cultural understanding and a willingness to reach across the world to others. I’m humbled by his legacy, and dedicate this entry to his memory.

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