Egypt back to square one: Tahrir or dictatorship?

Dr Muhammad Mursi’s presidential election win on Sunday marks a watershed moment in the modern history of the Arab world. The Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest Islamist

organisation in the region which has been banned for most of its existence, now holds the presidency in the most populous and powerful of the Arab states. As a historian, I have to pause and ponder over that last sentence, because it is so incredible.

Since its foundation in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna, the Muslim Brothers (Jama’at al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin) has been the archetypal opposition group in Egyptian politics. With its fierce anti-colonialist stance and resistance to the British-backed monarchy, it gained countrywide support through the 1930s and ’40s. By the time of the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, the Muslim Brothers were powerful enough to send their own volunteers (mujahidin) to Palestine to fight on the Arab side. Soon branches spread to neighbouring Jordan, Syria and Palestine.

This is when the organisation first seriously tangled with the Egyptian state. Rumours of an imminent Brotherhood coup in December 1948 prompted the authorities to launch the first of many vicious crackdowns on the organisation, forcing it to dissolve. In retaliation, the Prime Minister who had ordered the arrests was assassinated by a member of the Brotherhood. A few months later, in February 1949, al-Banna was gunned down in a drive-by shooting on the streets of Cairo.

Following the violent takeover in a military coup by members of a secretive organisation within the Egyptian army – the so-called ‘Free Officers’ – and the subsequent establishment of a nationalist and fiercely secularist regime under Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Muslim Brotherhood’s relations with the state deteriorated even further. Accused of plotting to assassinate Nasser, the Brothers yet again found themselves at the wrong end of a massive government clampdown, which saw thousands of their members thrown in prison.

Nasser’s repressive style of government could not accept any opposition to his power; those who refused to toe the line and join the only officially sanctioned political organisation – the Arab Socialist Union – were politically and socially ostracised or simply thrown in jail. Until Nasser’s death in 1970, the Muslim Brothers were severely restrained by the regime. Most of their senior leaders had been sentenced to indefinite prison terms, and their most influential theorist and political thinker, Sayyid Qutb, who inspired people like the current al-Qa’idah leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, was executed in 1966.

Yet, Anwar al-Sadat pursued a markedly different policy vis-à-vis the Muslim Brothers. As he opened up to the West and was keen to differentiate himself from his predecessor, he released many of the Muslim Brothers and gave them a comparatively free rein. As happened in many countries in the region during this period, Sadat utilised the politically conservative Brothers in his fight against the Left, who he regarded as a greater threat than the Islamists.

The opportunity for semi-legal work caused an existential crisis within the movement; the older generation who had been through decades of persecution favoured a non-violent road whereas a younger, more radical generation advocated the use of force to obtain political objectives. When Sadat signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1979, he aroused the ire of the radical young generation. In October 1981, Sadat was assassinated during a military parade by a group calling itself Tanzim al-Jihad.

Sadat was succeeded by Hosni Mubarak who, as a result of the new Islamist militancy, resumed Nasser’s harsher stance towards the Brothers. Again, scores of their members were thrown into jail. Nevertheless, the old guard leadership was bent on pursuing a non-violent path and continued to press for political liberalisation. Meanwhile, several radical splinter groups went on to carry out terrorist attacks throughout the 1990s (the most spectacular of which was the assault on the Temple of Hatshepsut in November 1997 by al-Gama’ah al-Islamiyyah which saw 62 people killed).

Under the system set up by Mubarak, which gradually allowed more freedom of movement for the non-violent mainstream organisation, while clamping down on the radicals, the Muslim Brothers went from strength to strength. Despite facing a political ban, the organisation was able to expand its social, cultural and religious activities throughout the 1990s and 2000s. In the 2005 parliamentary elections, despite being banned from running as a political party, independent candidates linked to the Brothers gained more than 20% of the vote – an indication of their growing political importance and a taste of what was to come after Mubarak’s fall.

Viewed in this historical light, the ascent of the Muslim Brothers to the top position in Egyptian politics is remarkable. Of course, no one knows whether the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) – the group of military men who have been running things behind the scenes since Mubarak’s ousting – will allow the presidency under the Muslim Brothers to wield real power. Nevertheless, the sight of Dr Muhammad Mursi being presented as Ra’is al-Jumhuriyyah (President of the Republic) was something I never thought I would see, and regardless of the future course of Egyptian politics it marked a truly historic moment.

Mohammed Morsi’s victory over Ahmed Shafik in the Egyptian presidential election is a political triumph for the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned organization for most of the years since the country became a republic in 1953. It is likewise an important victory for Egyptian and Middle East democracy. Having edged perilously close to the brink of political chaos in recent weeks, due to repeated bungling of the transition process, Egypt has taken a very significant stride forward.

Morsi and his group have earned a substantial role in Egyptian public life. The Muslim Brotherhood has borne the brunt of state repression throughout the regimes of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. Its leaders and members persevered against difficult odds. They managed to create a strong grassroots movement that provided social services and gave a voice to the voiceless. They provided some hope during long, dark years when Egyptian presidents offered none. In the face of intolerable state violence spanning decades, the Brothers remained tolerant. They eschewed violence and exhibited super human patience.

Thus, for Morsi, a U.S.-educated engineer, and the Brotherhood, the results are a spectacular political achievement, attached with profound symbolism. After 60 years of military rule upholding secular values, Egypt has elected the first civilian president in its history, and its first Islamist president, too. Morsi’s victory is testimony to the Brotherhood’s ability to mobilize Egyptians against a deeply entrenched political system, and to convince Egyptians that its candidate was the most capable of taking the helm after Mubarak’s removal from power. If it rises to its responsibilities, the Brotherhood can be the hope of Egypt and of the Arab Spring.

The reason why Morsi’s win is also a triumph for Egyptian and Arab democracy is because of the critical, historic choice it represents. When Egyptians went to the polls in the June 16-17 runoff election, they were not primarily voting between a military candidate and an Islamist candidate. They were choosing between the past and the future: a continuation of the 60-year-old Egyptian military regime, or a new system built on genuine democratic participation.

Shafik is a man of doubtless abilities, having served as air force commander, minister of civil aviation, and, finally, as Mubarak’s last prime minister. Yet, Shafik’s resume was more a liability than an asset in a country raising thundering demands for change. The millions who chose Shafik wished that his iron fist and close ties to the military could restore stability. His supporters are disappointed by the results, but that is nothing compared to the rage that would have been expressed by millions of Egyptians demanding an end to six decades of military rule if Shafik had won. At worst, the perception of an election stolen by the military might have edged Egypt toward an Algeria scenario; that country experienced a terrible civil war triggered in 1991 when the military abruptly canceled elections Islamists were poised to win.

By contrast, the Morsi victory is the kind of outcome that elections in a democracy are supposed to produce — a winner who finds himself in a political arena that promotes and requires negotiation, compromise, concession and conciliation for the greater good of the nation. During the previous era, when Mubarak regularly received 90 percent of the votes, elections were nothing more than a farcical means of legitimizing the continuation of a state security regime. Any negotiation with other sectors of society- it occurred rarely-was on the regime’s terms. That is what led to the absolute ossification of Egyptian life, and, eventually, a revolution.

Instead, Morsi and the Brotherhood will find themselves in perpetual negotiation with all of Egypt’s players — with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Salafists, Coptic Christians, liberals, and even with Shafik and his supporters. The process formally began last week, when Morsi announced the formation of a national political front and proposed the establishment of a national unity government. These moves underline the Brotherhood’s understanding of democratic concepts like consensus building and inclusiveness.

It is clear to most Egyptians that Morsi is doomed to fail if he turns out to be a president who represents only the Brothers. Or, if he thinks the Brotherhood could or should somehow hijack a revolution that involves a wide cross section of Egyptians. Many Egyptians have serious and valid questions about the Brotherhood’s abilities, policies, and intentions-on issues from women’s rights and the role of religion in the state to readiness for foreign investment and other forms of cooperation with outsiders. (Let’s not forget, though, the problems Egyptians had with the former regime that led them to revolt last year-political repression, police torture, corruption, appalling medical care, horrendous education system, the list goes on.)

The importance of representing all Egyptians can’t be lost on Morsi or his group’s strategists. In the parliamentary elections earlier this year, the Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, garnered an impressive 10.1 million votes. In the first round of presidential balloting just five months later, however, Morsi, the Brotherhood candidate, won only 5.7 million — a downward slump indicating strong disillusionment with the Islamists’ performance in office. If we suppose that those 5.7 million voters constitute the Brotherhood’s core of diehard support, then Morsi’s 13.2 million total in the runoff election means that he gained the backing of 7.7 million Egyptians who can easily desert the Brotherhood and vote for an alternative the next time.

Morsi will need all the negotiating and consensus building skills he can muster in the weeks and months ahead. Despite Morsi’s victory — and SCAF’s evident and necessary acquiescence in allowing it to stand — Egypt’s revolution is hardly finished. The ruling generals are showing extreme reluctance to hand over power to elected civilians by July 1 as they once pledged to do. In the midst of the presidential campaigning, SCAF enforced a court ruling dissolving the Islamist-controlled parliament, issued a decree granting the military executive powers and sharply curbing the authority of the new president, and gave itself a central role in approving a new constitution being drafted by a 100-member constituent assembly. Morsi’s challenge is to use his powerful mandate as Egypt’s first popularly elected leader to guide all Egyptians, including the reluctant generals, into a democratic future.

Egyptians are faced with a choice between the Brotherhood’s Morsi, or former PM Shafik [GALLO/GETTY]
coup by the judiciary – not the military – may be a new concept, but its reverberations will be felt beyond Egypt, the Arab Spring geography and the rest of the region.

Egypt’s judgement rendering the Lower House elections unconstitutional may be legal; but it may not be “right”, due to the motivations behind it and the parties that made it possible. There may also be reasons to question the legality of the very judges who administered the decision – they belonged to the ousted regime’s legal system, which may not be seen as impartial.

The long and bitter battle with the remnants of the old guard and revolutionary forces is about to come to a climax. Confusion, disarray, contests, protests and tension have marked the labour of new Egypt’s birth. This is politics at its best.

However, just as Egypt is bracing itself for the most meaningful election in its political history as a republic, the Supreme Constitutional Court’s judgement that the parliamentary elections were illegitimate marks a return to square one: to have or not to have a revolution.

‘Coup’ by law?

The rulings made by the court brought home the judiciary’s authority to render legitimate or illegitimate polity, politicians, the political process and its results in Egypt. These rulings have changed the direction of a post-Mubarak political order in two ways. First, one-third of the seats elected to Majlis al-Shaab, the Lower House, are deemed to be unconstitutional, and thus null. Secondly, the Political Disenfranchisement Law drafted by the very same body is now judged illegitimate.

“What is decided by voters in multi-stage elections goes up in smoke. It makes a mockery of the democratic process.”

What is decided by voters in multi-stage elections goes up in smoke. It makes a mockery of the democratic process and throws the entire future of democratic transition in the Arab region in disarray.

From November 2011 until January 2012, nearly 30 million Egyptians, from all walks of life, took to the ballot box for the first time in living memory in a free and fair election. Political parties of all ideological stripes, new and old, participated, and the results were astounding – giving the Freedom and Justice party, al-Nour and Wafd al-Jadidabout 40 per cent, 30 per cent and ten per cent of votes respectively. It resulted in the most diverse parliament post-independence Egypt had seen.

However, a constitutional bone of contention was raised concerning the proportion of individual lists to party lists. After a stormy debate, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces declared that a third of the chamber’s seats would be allocated to independent lists, with the rest for political parties to contest – although independents affiliated to political parties did, in fact, also contest upon the individual lists. This was a practice the former ruling party deployed in all elections.

Fast-forwarding to June 2012, in the middle of one of the most highly charged elections in the Arab world, the ruling against the legislature also implies that the bicameral structure of the parliament may be completely dissolved, and new elections fixed at a later date to choose legislators.

At the very same Supreme Court session that handed down this decision, the Political Disenfranchisement Law was rejected, with Ahmed Shafik’s lawyer present to argue his client’s case, and the law’s “unconstitutionality”.

Now the stage is set for Ahmed Shafik, the last of Hosni Mubarak’s prime ministers, to contest the second round presidential elections against the Freedom and Justice party’s Muhammad Morsi. Meanwhile, Mubarak has been sentenced to 25 years in jail for failing to stop the killing of protesters during the January 25 revolution, and is now languishing in the hospital of Tora prison.

SCAF’s position as the exclusive maker of laws in Egypt has been restored, and one may legitimately ask the following questions: What are the implications for the formation of the constitution? What kind of powers will the future president enjoy in an Egypt with neither a constitution nor a legislature? And in what direction is democracy heading in Egypt?

A ‘passive revolution’?

A fitting idea for what has been unfolding in Egypt may be borrowed from Gramsci’s idea of “passive revolution”. In the womb of Egypt’s January 25 revolution lie the felool [“the remnants”], side by side with the new and late-comers to the country’s politics.

Some loss of unity and autonomy within the revolutionary bloc has been due to use of fear: the tactic of spreading ‘fear’ of a Brotherhood-led Egypt.

It involves a counter-revolution, a revolution in reverse from the remnants. In one sense, this is the huge difference between Tunisia and Libya, on one hand, and Egypt, on the other. A great deal of the old system outlived Mubarak – not just the army but also the capital that profited from the Mubarak era, the judiciary and branches of the security apparatus.

A passive revolution, in this case, has involved mobilisation by the remnants to counter-attack. Classically, capital, laws, and the use of legislation were amongst the instruments used to re-socialise society into hegemonic practices. In this instance, society is segmented or compartmentalised, geared towards the creation of preferential treatment.

The picture is slightly different in Egypt. Some loss of unity and autonomy within the revolutionary bloc has been due to use of fear: the tactic of spreading “fear” of a Brotherhood-led Egypt – which has understandably worked even in the first round of the presidential elections: Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh took votes from Mohamed Morsi, and Hamdeen Sabahi took votes from Abol Fotouh – all based on calculations of fear of Islamism. The Copts give a more exaggerated example of this.

In fact, the revolutionary forces needed a single candidate; instead, naively presuming the revolution was safe, they opted for competition instead of solidarity: Sabahi, Abol Fotouh, ElBaradei, Ahmad Maher or even Moussa could have given the revolution a single candidate.

I have excluded an Ikhwan candidate from this for one reason: that was the gamble and the risk the Brotherhood took by fielding a presidential candidate to beef up their power against SCAF. Upping the ante was not going to work with the military: they had designs on the executive, and this is where Shafik has come in handy.

SCAF is made up of “old dogs” with many tricks in their inventory of weapons: they have opted for a juridical “white coup”, and not a classic junta-led putsch. For now, they seem to have flattened the Muslim Brotherhood with a fatal blow: getting the judiciary to declare the Ikhwan-dominated legislature illegitimate.

The longest week in Egyptian politics

The idea of a “military coup” must have crossed the minds of millions pondering the next chapter in Egypt’s revolution.

Instead, of late, the coups have been coming from an unlikely source: the judiciary. Judges sentenced the ousted president to life imprisonment – judicially that is a coup too. Except for the counter-coup that absolved Mubarak’s sons and a powerful businessman (noted for his close association with Mubarak) of serious corrupt charges.

On the back of these events, pressure from SCAF for a quick decision on the composition of the Constituent Assembly (CA) tightened the screws on the new post-Mubarak polity.

It is legitimate to ask whether a military coup by judicial bench is indeed what has engulfed Egypt since the Supreme Court decision.

The latest judgement, in theory, should not affect the Constituent Assembly. However, right now, this body, tasked with drafting a constitution, may itself face an uncertain future. This is in spite of a second composition of the CA, endorsed on June 12 by legislators, following agreement between the main political parties. However, even this development met with opposition, often by the same minor political parties and MPs whose share of the public vote was minimal and who, understandably, vie for a say on the historic document which will define the rules of political engagement in Egypt.

The presidential run-off is an epic culmination to a week drenched in political dramas and twists that do not bode well for Egypt’s bifurcated polity, now threatened with uncertainty, sclerosis and the potential for violence.

There are reasons to be concerned: with the military’s personnel being given the power to arrest citizens, it is legitimate to ask whether a military coup by judicial bench is indeed what has engulfed Egypt since the Supreme Court decision.

If it is, this is brinkmanship. The revolutionary bloc’s leaders have now one final basket to save Egypt’s revolution: to resort to the ballot. It is one way of sparing Egypt the bullets of an army, now seemingly intent on derailing the full civilianisation of politics. A fight of sorts may be looming and can no longer be dismissed as unrealistic.

Egypt may be tottering close to the edge, but it will be an ongoing game of chess among a variety of political actors, by no means a winner-takes-all equation. The clock cannot be turned back. Nonetheless, some scenarios – some more far-fetched than others – must be pondered.

The legal route

Rule of law is, for now, the main guarantor of social peace. One must note that, even in Mubarak’s era, whole elections were invalidated because of regime manipulation. So this is one reason why the Supreme Court’s decision must be respected.

Egypt, like other Arab Spring states, is torn between two sets of competing but interchangeable sets of legitimacy: democratic and revolutionary. Personally, I have always believed, perhaps romantically, that revolutionary legitimacy is the conscience of politics in societies where the informal was invalidated by 50 years of tyranny. Democratic legitimacy seeks formal structures, procedures and contracts that frame politics.

The Ikhwan and the main political stakeholders, understandably, sought secure futures through institutionalisation.

“Rationalising” politics must not, in the current Arab Spring geography, kill revolution. There is a price for this: continuous tension, disarray and even varying forms of violence (such as in Libya) and never-ending contests as in Egypt and Tunisia. SCAF and the old guard sought from the outset to extinguish the revolutionary flame.

The Ikhwan and the main political stakeholders, understandably, sought secure futures through institutionalisation, complacently relying on political formalism, thus generally acting without the protection of a revolutionary bulwark against the old guard. After Shafik emerged as a rival to the Islamist candidate, Dr Morsi’s campaign had to be re-packaged as the “revolution’s candidate”.

The Brotherhood’s Shura Council vote, rightly, endorsed by a 90 per cent majority the decision to accept the court ruling. Not to do so would play into the hands of many a “conspirator” against the Muslim Brotherhood. This means Morsi goes ahead and contests the run-off elections as a legal route to rescue whatever is left of Egypt’s revolution.

The Ikhwan gambled first when they decided to run for the presidency; and now they are sticking to their guns. It is another gamble: if Shafik wins then it will have been, in the absence of fraudulence, a democratic contest which the Brotherhood has rendered legitimate. If Morsi wins – and that is another gamble – he will face a grim prospect of being a lame-duck president without the backing of a democratic constitution defining his powers and, after this week’s verdict, without the protection of a democratically elected parliament. SCAF would be in possession of him, and the entire political process, including having control of constitution-framing.

Downsizing the Ikhwan

The Muslim Brotherhood, despite a history of struggle and good intentions to serve people and country, has perhaps miscalculated by contesting power on all fronts. This has made it the natural rival of SCAF and the second pole of power in Egypt.

Downsizing the Ikhwan

The Muslim Brotherhood, despite a history of struggle and good intentions to serve people and country, has perhaps miscalculated by contesting power on all fronts. This has made it the natural rival of SCAF and the second pole of power in Egypt.In this bi-polar state of affairs, the “conspirators”, including some among the country’s fragile “liberals”, have multiplied every step of the way in the post-Mubarak democratic reconstruction. Not only were the walkouts from the CA by various parties and members resulting from countertendencies against the Brotherhood, but the democratic process and the revolution in its entirety were deployed effectively to fragment polity and produce the kind of political paralysis that is today playing into the hands of the old guard.
The Ikhwan, in particular being a non-licensed organisation, may be targeted as one way of downsizing the Islamists and stemming the tide of a Brotherhood-led North Africa. Partly, the game is no longer about winning back Egypt from Islamists. It may be about nipping in the bud a tide in which Egypt is an ideological epicentre, Libya its source of wealth and Tunisia its trend-setter.

Now that the army has given powers to police the public, all pro-revolution figures are represented with the grim scenario of restraint and the draconian management of the current crisis.

Egypt here will need the solidarity of its people and reformers – ElBaradei for example, among thousands of others – to provide vision and quick responses as fluidity engulfs the most important Arab state.

Back to square one: Tahrir

The public will speak out on this epic weekend, during which the run-off presidential election decides the fate of a region, and not just of Egypt. Voters are most likely going this time to exercise their right as never before: the youth’s revolution is at stake – not simply the fate of a few candidates, parties or political elites.

The mobilisation that preceded Egypt’s longest week in politics might have been calculated as a rehearsal for taking on the might of an old guard not only rejecting its new inferior status, but also fighting back for lost privileges. Like the Ikhwan, SCAF has gambled – and gamblers lose some of the time. SCAF’s fight with the Islamists is one thing – however, its fight with the youth of Egypt and the revolution is something else. It is a fight that cannot be solely decided through conventional politics.

It may well be decided once and for all in the public square: a mother of all revolutions that buries the old guard and stamps tahrir [“freedom”] with permanence. The “public square” dynamic is not tied to partisan politics or to political figures or formal processes.

It obeys only one law: that of freedom and dignity. So it could be that, in Egypt, renewed resistance from below for freedom and dignity in Tahrir Square, as well as other people’s arenas, could still decide the law of the land.



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