Egypt’s revolution in the breaking

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By Khaled Diab

Although Egypt has been eclipsed on the Western media radar, it remains caught in a deadly bind between popular jingoism and religious demagoguery.

Monday 14 September 2013

No news is good news, the adage tells us. But just because something does not make it on to the evening news that does not mean the situation has improved, as demonstrated by the US-sparked civil war in Iraq, which continues to exact a heavy toll.

Though the situation is nowhere near as bad, Egypt, too, has been eclipsed in the United States‘ and much of the Western media by the ongoing carnage in Syria, and by the new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s conciliatory gestures and charm offensive towards the West, not to mention the weekend’s US raids in Somalia and Libya.

But it is still very much news for us Egyptians and those who take a deep interest in the future of the country. In fact, as my four-year-old and I embark on a trip home to his “fatherland”, I am plagued by worries and dogged by questions.

How much further will the violence escalate? Where will the clash between pro-military jingoism and divine demagoguery lead the country?

Borrowing from the neocon American lexicon once so despised in Egypt,General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s “war on terror” has, like its US counterpart, mushroomed into a war of terror, as reflected in the recent death of at least 50 people during pro-Morsi protests.

That is not to say there hasn’t been terrorism. There has been plenty of it. Not only have prominent Muslim Brotherhood members incited violence, but their sympathisers have torched churches across the country, and are mounting an insurgency in the already restive Sinai.

In addition, while pleading “legitimacy” and “democracy” abroad, Muslim Brotherhood leaders have falsely accused Christians of being behindMohamed Morsi‘s downfall. This has fanned the flames of hatred towards an already vulnerable minority, leading even as far as murder.

But the Muslim Brotherhood does not have a monopoly on demonisation and false accusations. Though I am a secularist to the core and, being an “infidel”, am vulnerable to the Islamist project, I have been distressed and alarmed by the fever pitch that mainstream hostility towards Brotherhood sympathisers has reached.

For example, the idea that they are all terrorists and that the Raba’a al-Adawiya protest camp was a terrorist den, which goes against the evidence of my own eyes, has gained a surprising amount of traction. Besides which, the situation in Sinai is far more complex than the official narrative allows. The local Bedouins have been sidelined, forgotten and neglected for decades, leading to a lot of grievances that Islamists can exploit; and the military has allegedly targeted civilians, not just militants.

Then, there are Egypt’s rebels who lost their cause. The Tamarod movement did a great job of highlighting Morsi’s loss of legitimacy and channelling public anger at his dictatorial ways. Yet, the movement today sounds like a cheerleading squad for the military and its man of the moment, al-Sisi – even going so far as to defend the military trialsagainst civilians it once opposed.

Little wonder that the revolutionaries who have not taken leave of their senses and principles are despondent. As Ahmed Maher of the April 6 Youth Movement, one of the main driving forces behind the 2011 uprising against Mubarak, said: “We are at square one as a revolution.”

What can America do, some might wonder? Probably not that much, in light of Washington’s squandering – by propping up dictators and engaging in military misadventures – of what remained of the goodwill and credibility it once enjoyed, long ago.

There is one trump card Washington holds, though. It can threaten to cut off military aid if the army does not end its crackdown, release political detainees, and implement serious reform rapidly. (In fact, I would argue that Washington should also make military aid to Israel contingent on reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians.)

But the truth is that the situation is in the hands of the Egyptian people.

At a certain level, I understand why Egypt has reached this point. For me and other desktop revolutionaries outside the country, it’s easy to talk ideals when we’re not confronted with the bitter daily reality. After nearly three years of revolt, with precious little to show for it, Egyptians are suffering a sort of revolution fatigue.

Nevertheless, if Egypt does not change course, all the blood, sweat and tears Egyptians shed in their quest for freedom may prove to have been for nothing. Morsi and the Brotherhood peddled the illusion that they had a divine, magical solution to all Egypt’s problems. Instead, they proved to be a bearded version of the Mubarak regime. They talked democracy, but they walked theocracy.

But it is a grave error to believe that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. The army may have learnt to speak democracy, but autocracy is still in its blood. Six decades of military dictatorship, a disastrous first transition following Mubarak’s ouster and a campaign that seems bent of purging Egypt of the Brotherhood – which could push Egypt over the abyss into civil strife – are not promising signs.

More troubling still, al-Sisi has become a cult hero, with campaigns petitioning him to run for president and polls showing he would win, if he ran. Even if we give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he is a man of integrity, the temptations of excessive power and popularity could potentially doom Egypt to decades more of dictatorship.

For that reason, I hope Egyptians reject both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, and reject violence, no matter whom its target is.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Guardian on 9 October 2013.

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Should Arabs treat Erdoğan as a hero?

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By Khaled Diab

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan received a hero’s welcome across the Arab world. But should Arabs welcome or be weary of Turkey’s greater engagement in the Middle East?

Friday 23 September 2011

For Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, encountering cheering crowds and mass adulation on what some have described as his rock star tour of Arab countries must have brought back memories of his early life as a semi-professional footballer, though his success as a political coach, striker, defender and dribbler rolled into one surpasses anything he ever achieved on the football pitch. 

“Erdoğan is now the hero of the Egyptian street,” one Egyptian blogger observed, complaining that Egypt was suffering from a severe shortage of national heroes.

This partly relates to the Middle Eastern “cult hero” phenomenon which I examined a few years ago, whereby leaders seen to be defying the west or Israel, no matter how recklessly or for whatever selfish reasons, are elevated to heroes in the eyes of millions. 

Although the Arab uprisings have created thousands, even millions, of everyday heroes, in a region whose leaders are more often than not villains, the vacancy for a political hero remains unfilled. Erdoğan has skilfully positioned himself to fit this bill, though his advocacy of secularism and democracy as the solution has incensed the conservative wing of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and made them rethink their welcome of him. 

But it is not just about the person of Erdoğan. Egypt and many other parts of the Arab world, who see in Turkey’s success – despite its recent crackdowns on free speech – a possible model for their own futures, are in the grips of what some have described as “Ottomania”. 

With the Ottoman empire’s repeated refusal and failure to grant Arabs their rights to self-determination a distant and dim memory, enough generations now seem to have passed for a savvy Turkey to re-enter the regional fold from which it was pushed out by military defeat and Arab nationalism, and which it abandoned when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk decided to abolish the caliphate – a traumatic moment for the region’s Islamists – and turn his new republic westward. 

Should Arabs be suspicious of Turkey’s Ottoman legacy or is that simply ancient history?

Since Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the propping up of self-serving dictators and despots over the decades, Arabs are, in many ways, justifiably suspicious of Western action in the region, no matter how nobly packaged.

But is Turkey, despite its geographical and cultural proximity, actually any better? After all, it has centuries of previous form when it comes to imperial meddling in Arab affairs, and client and vassal rulers – long before the west discovered their usefulness – were a popular means by which it exercised its control. 

In Turkey’s defence, it has taken many principled positions towards the Arab revolutions, such as being among the first to call for the departure of Egypt’s former president, Hosni Mubarak. 

The country is also stuck between the rock of continued rejection of its bid to become a full member of the European club to which it has aspired for decades and the hard place of being cold-shouldered by the former members of its empire. 

So, pushed away by the West, it seems to have decided, at least partly, to jump east and try to cosy up to countries with which it shared many good years, despite all the bad ones. In addition, like Iran, Turkey’s regional standing has been amplified by Washington’s gung-ho, sledge-hammer approach to the Middle East which has led Arabs to seek alternatives to counterbalance the West’s increasingly deadly hegemony in the region.

Part of Erdoğan’s interest in the Middle East has been to vindicate his Justice and Development party’s focus on Turkey’s long-neglected Islamic identity and demonstrate that it can be a political and economic boon for the country. And it seems to be paying off.

Despite widespread secular concern over his alleged Islamisation agenda, he has also received praise for raising Turkey’s regional standing and profile. “Even if we are mad at him and think he is out of line, we, as people, love him,” one Turkish columnist wrote. “For the first time, we are proud of being citizens of a big country that adopts an ethical standpoint.” 

Ethical standpoints notwithstanding, there are some troubling signs that Turkey’s re-emergence is increasingly part of a neo-imperial scramble for influence in the new Arab order. 

Accompanying the rhetoric and window dressing of a common history and heritage which has played so well to Arab ears has been a clear and visible economic and geopolitical bottom line. For instance, during Erdogan’s visit to Egypt, he signed agreements to increase trade between the two countries from $3bn to $5bn and raise foreign direct investment in Egypt by Turkey from $1.5bn to $5bn.

In recent years, Turkey also invested heavily in Gaddafi’s Libya. Bilateral trade was $2.3bn in 2010 and the Turkish ministry of foreign affairs confidently predicted that it would reach $10bn within five years.

Despite its expressed support for the Arab uprisings, Turkey has exhibited some signs of favouring self-interest over principle. For example, until recently, Erdogan was reluctant to criticise his close ally, Bashar al-Assad, even though the Syrian regime’s suppression of protests has been among the most brutal and ruthless in a region whose political elites are not known for their squeamishness. 

Moreover, when push comes to shove, Turkey is unlikely to jettison its long-standing alliance with the west in order to champion Arab causes.

Despite the favourable Arab reaction towards Turkey’s more muscular approach to Israel, what many overlook is that the greater economic and military might that enabled Turkey to downgrade relations after Israel’s refusal to apologise for its attack on the flotilla is likely to constrain Turkey’s future appetite to act resolutely, especially when its own citizens are not involved. 

After all, how likely is Turkey to jeopardise its relationship with its NATO allies and with the EU in defence of the Palestinian cause, particularly with charges of double standards being thrown about when it comes to Turkey’s treatment of the Kurds?

I am personally an advocate of Turkey becoming one of the main engines of a more integrated region, which borrows the most attractive elements of the Ottoman past – tolerance of diversity, the rule of law and the absence of borders – and adapts them to a secular and fairer future. Alongside this, Turkey could become a useful and unifying bridgehead between Europe and the Middle East. 

But for this to happen requires an enlightened mix of realism and pragmatism on the part of Turkey, the Arab world and Europe.

This article first appeared in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section on 22 September 2011. Read the related discussion.

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