A manifesto for Egypt’s future

 
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By Khaled Diab

As Egypt risks another disastrous transition, it is time to create a unique model for Egyptian democracy. No president, no parties, direct democracy.

Wednesday 10 July 2013

The past few days in Egypt have been filled with tension, uncertainty, ever-greater polarisation, growing violence and recrimination. The army’s handling of pro-Morsi protests, its arrest of leading  Muslim Brotherhood members and the killing of dozens of protesters is reprehensible and must be condemned unequivocally by all Egypt’s political and revolutionary forces.

Some have seen in the army’s disproportionate actions and excessive use of force confirmation of the gross miscalculation and hypocrisy of Egypt’s opposition and revolutionary forces by backing the forcible removal of Egypt’s “legitimate” and “democratically elected” leader.

But I see the army’s actions and the clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi supporters not as the product of political legitimacy undermined but as a symptom of illegitimacy compounded until the entire house of cards came tumbling down.

Morsi, as I argued in my previous article, lost any claims to legitimacy that he may have once had. But the problem runs much, much deeper than that. Egypt’s botched transition towards democracy excluded or sidelined most of the revolutionary youth movements due to restrictive and prohibitive conditions for party formation, which favoured the established and highly organised, such as the Brotherhood.

Over and above this, the transitional constitution was seriously flawed, as was the idea that Egypt’s new constitution should be drafted by parliament. This left Egypt in a ‘cart before the horse’ situation, in which the race was being run before the rules had been set. More importantly and surreally, the players, especially those on the winning side, were given the chance to write their own rules.

This, as critics pointed out, would favour whoever managed to come out on top in parliament and would enable them to load the rules of the game in their own favour. And so it came to bear, and the Brotherhood and Salafis created a document which declared that all Egyptians were “equal” but some Egyptians – middle-aged, conservative Muslim men, to be precise – were far, far more equal than others. More chillingly, it empowered the state to “safeguard and protect morality and public decency” and to “maintain a refined level of upbringing”.

Furthermore, next to nothing was done during the transition to reform the office of the president, which retained most of its powers, and to strengthen other institutions against it, in order to create the kinds of checks and balances that would avoid the emergence of another Mubarak.

This was amply demonstrated in November 2012 when Morsi, confusing himself for Superman, transferred to himself, with the simple flourish of a pen, unlimited powers to “protect” Egypt and legislate without any oversight, which he was later forced to repeal due to a massive wave of protests.

And then there is the murky, antidemocratic role of the military. Some mistakenly see the removal of Morsi by the army as a dangerous sign that the military had come out of its barracks to interfere in politics once again. But the point is that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had never withdrawn from the political arena; it just retreated tactically behind the facade of a subservient political system largely of its own making.

Revolutionaries had warned the Brotherhood against this and asked them to join in the struggle to push the SCAF out of politics, but the Freedom and Justice Party and Morsi chose ‘pragmatism’ and self-interest over principle, even as demonstrators and protesters were being killed and arrested by the military. They made a pact with the devil and the devil won.

Egypt’s political woes are not just structural and institutional. There is also the country’s leadership challenge. Six decades of dictatorship left Egypt without a clear pool of competent leadership material. That is not to say that there are no competent leaders but just that they are inexperienced, untested and often even unknown to the public.

Someone with Morsi’s obvious absence of calibre, who could have authored the Islamist version of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, is a sad manifestation of this. The disarray, division and disastrous infighting in revolutionary and opposition ranks is partly a symptom of this, and partly a manifestation of the dilemma of any mass revolutionary movement which unites disparate groups with ultimately divergent goals.

In addition, the disparity in organisational competence and reach between the Brotherhood and the so-called ‘official opposition’ is often attributed to the superior skills of this Islamist movement, undoubtedly good as they are, or is seen as a product of some kind of traditional affinity Egyptians have with religious conservatism.

However, it is often forgotten that the Brotherhood’s conservative religious agenda was once anathema to large swathes of the Egyptian population, even in the countryside. For example, in a rare film featuring former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser talking about the Brotherhood, a witty farmer suggests that the movement’s Supreme Guide should be the one to don a hijab, rather than Egyptian women!

Some argue that had it not been for Nasser’s repression, the Brothers would’ve ruled Egypt a long time ago. Personally, I’m not so sure. Nasser was an equal opportunities tyrant who, if anything, crushed his secular opposition, which represented a more direct threat to his rule, more ruthlessly and brutally than the Islamists, who at the very least had the mosque to retreat to.

And had it not been for the blowback of Nasser’s torture chambers, Sadat’s dangerous game of empowering the Islamists to crush his secular opponents, and Mubarak’s penchant for giving the Islamists some leeway to scare the outside world, the Brotherhood might have remained an effective charitable and social movement, rather than a dangerous and divisive political one.

But with their boundless reserves of creativity, Egypt’s young revolutionaries – who sometimes seem to be rebelling also against the very concept of leadership – turned a weakness into a powerful political weapon which decapitated the Egyptian regime three times in two and a half years. The leaderless protests created a hydra with millions of heads which the regime could not contain and keep down.

However, though leaderless mass uprisings can topple regimes rapidly, they are far less capable of building a viable and robust alternative. And we are witnessing this again, as the army steps into the void and shows signs of attempting to engineer the same kind of short-sighted “transition” that got us to this impasse in the first place.

So, how can we overcome this weakness and the other challenges outlined above?

The current situation provides a golden opportunity to reinvent Egypt’s political system and to create a unique model of Egyptian democracy that is tailored to this reality in which there is no clear leadership, institutions are weak and there is an overriding public desire for direct democratic participation.

And this new system should be shaped through an inclusive national conversation that involves not only all of Egypt’s political currents, but all interested citizens who wish to contribute their views.

As one of those citizens, here is my vision for creating a uniquely Egyptian democracy. First, given the abuse to which it has been put over the decades and the temptation for all its occupants to turn to dictatorship, I suggest that the Egyptian presidency be stripped of all its powers and transformed into a ceremonial position.

The shambled remains of Egypt’s first democratically elected parliament increase my conviction that Egypt should do away with parties altogether. Given that political parties are the cornerstone upon which most governments around the world, whether democratic or not, are built, this may sound radical, bizarre or even bonkers.

But not only does Egypt not have a strong party political tradition, abolishing parties will allow the country to create a democratic parliament in the truest sense of the word, and overcome the current destructive factionalism that sees people forced to choose sides in a polarised and explosive standoff.

Moreover, parties have certain antidemocratic tendencies, such as forcing members to vote along party lines, regardless of their individual convictions. Then, there is the ‘tyranny’ of the party system, which can concentrate power and hinder change, due to the antidemocratic inertia exerted by the mainstream parties. This is a particularly severe problem in the first-past-the-post system, such as in the United States and Britain, where voters may be hungry for change but will almost never vote for small parties because they believe they cannot win.

Little wonder, then, that some of America’s founding fathers warned against the dangers of party politics. “[Parties] serve to organise faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community,” George Washington cautioned in his farewell address.

For that reason, Egypt would be better served with a flexible non-party representative democracy in which individual candidates run, whether for parliament or the presidency, on their own merit and personal manifesto.

This will provide individual politicians with the flexibility to vote according to their conscience and the will of their constituents, while organising informally around certain issues of the day. For example, on certain key matters – such as youth unemployment, gender rights, social policy, trade, foreign policy questions, etc. – groups of politicians of similar conviction can form temporary, unofficial alliances, rather like the Egyptian opposition has already been doing for numerous years, such as with the Kefaya movement.

Over and above this, in order to avoid the emergence unrepresentative ‘representative democracy,’ politicians’ power can be kept in check through a hybrid direct democracy in which, like in Switzerland, the people are consulted directly on vital issues.

In addition, to move mass protest out of the streets and into the formal political arena, and to respond to Egyptians’ newfound hunger for direct political participation, concerned citizens who are unhappy with certain decisions taken by their representatives or wish to launch their own initiatives should have recourse to a formal mechanism that enables immediate action, if they gather enough signatures.

This also moves us away from the condescending idea in representative democracy that voters should be seen every four years at the ballot box but not heard the rest of the time, and towards the idea that every citizen is a partner and player in the political process.

Egyptians have a golden opportunity to put in place a true democracy of the people and for the people. And, above all, it will be created by the people.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated version of an article which first appeared in The Daily News Egypt on 7 July 2013.

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Egypt’s coup de quoi!?

 
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By Khaled Diab

The millions on the streets, not dressed in khaki, democratically ejected Mohamed Morsi. Now it’s time to remove the military from Egypt’s politics. 

Wednesday 10 July 2013

As an Egyptian abroad, I cannot but bow my head in admiration and appreciation at what my compatriots have achieved back home… again. In the space of less than two-and-a-half years, millions and millions of ordinary men and women with no previous experience in revolt have bravely and unflinchingly stared down and defied authority… and shaken its authority to the core.

They endured hardship, intimidation, violence and constant uncertainty to topple a tyrant, send the generals scurrying to take cover behind the veil of a flawed democracy, and bring down a would-be dictator-in-the-making.

The sight of millions and millions of people setting aside their daily worries and rivalries to come out again and again and again to tell their leaders – Hosni Mubarak, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the Muslim Brotherhood – never again will we tolerate dictatorship has been truly inspiring to behold.

And it is not just the big picture. Zoom into the imposing, awe-inspiring crowds and you witness thousands of individual stories that can bring a tear to your eye, swell pride in your chest, storm your brain, flood your emotions, raise your spirits with a chuckle and even restore your faith in humanity (at least for a while).

And all this from a people who, until 25 January 2011, were seen, and saw themselves, as apathetic, even docile, in the face of authority. “Why do the Egyptian people not rise up,” was a common question, famously asked by Alaa al-Aswani, but also other concerned Egyptians, including myself.

Today, Egyptians have not only rewritten their political rule book, they need to think about revising their phrasebook of popular proverbs. Out will go such defeatist sayings as “Keep away from harm and sing to it”, “Shut the door that brings in a draught” and “The eye cannot rise above the brow”.

With all this in mind, it is unsurprising that millions were swept up in an irresistible tsunami of elation, and partied all night long. But a collective hangover is bound to set in once people wake up to the Herculean tasks still ahead – and the worrying signs of new clouds forming up above and on the horizon.

But not everyone was celebrating. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), and their supporters were, in contrast, actively grieving. This is, of course, understandable. After decades of waiting underground and then in the wings, they not only lost their newfound grip on power, they also saw their president arrested, as well as other leading Brothers, and a number of Islamist broadcasters shut down, not to mention Al Jazeera Mubashir.

This sends out troubling signals of a return to the bad old days when the Brotherhood was barely tolerated, outlawed or outright persecuted. We must be vigilant that this never occurs, that the Islamists remain part of Egypt’s political landscape and that they are allowed to make future bids for power. Not only is this what freedom and equality is about, it also avoids their grievances boiling over to create a more toxic conflict.

Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers are understandably – though hypocritically, given how Mohamed Morsi tried to turn the presidency into a Brotherhood fiefdom and all the antidemocratic measures he passed – crying foul, and claiming that what happened in Egypt was a ‘military coup d’etat’.

While I can see why Brotherhood/FJP supporters would use such a charged term in this context. Less understandable is why the term is being bandied around by so many in the Arab and Western media. In fact, given how much blood, sweat and tears millions have invested in ousting Mohamed Morsi, many Egyptians must feel insulted that their defiant efforts are being so apparently denigrated.

Although some who use the ‘C’ word do so out of vested interests, many others do so out of genuine concern. Coups are usually antidemocratic and lead to the rise of dictators and authoritarianism. And I see where the confusion is coming from: the army serves a 48-hour ultimatum and then deposes the democratically elected leader.

Indeed, the army did forcibly remove Morsi from office, but this was not the product of a secret plot in murky underground sleeper cells, but was the response to what have been described as the biggest protests in Egyptian, some say human, history. And the millions of people out on the streets who forced the military to take such drastic action were not wearing khaki, as far as I could see.

If we’re going to describe the events of the past days as a ‘coup’, should we also call the entire Egyptian revolution a ‘palace coup’. After all, even if the 18 days of protest put the sword in front of Mubarak, it was the Supreme Council of the Armed Force (SCAF) which pushed him to fall on it. Moreover, the army has not yet really gone away, given that it set the rules of the ‘democratic’ game during the transitional phase, laid down red lines to protect its interests, dissolved parliament and how it is believed to still hold major backroom influence over Egypt’s political machinery.

Besides, all the hand-wringing over the unceremonious jettisoning of Egypt’s first democratically elected leader overlooks the crucial rider that Morsi was also democratically ejected. Democracy is ultimately about the will of the people. Just as voters give politicians mandates, they can withdraw them – and they don’t need to wait to do it via the ballot box if the need is pressing, and they can deliver their vote of no confidence via the streets.

And what a spectacular vote of no confidence it was. When he was voted into office last year, Morsi managed only a puny 13.2 million votes, even though he was running only against one candidate, Ahmed Shafiq. Meanwhile, with turnout at just over half and many actively boycotting the vote, the ‘no’ candidate got about as many votes as the two hopefuls combined.

Contrast this with the estimated 17 million people who took to the streets on 30 June, and the millions more after. That’s not to mention the 22 million signatures the Tamrod petition managed to collect.

Those who argue that the electorate should have kept their grievances for the ballot box ignore the fact that the street is a legitimate democratic forum – in fact, it is the purest form of direct democracy – as reflected by the constitutional protection of people’s right to protest in every mature democracy.

And those who refuse to acknowledge that Egyptians don’t yet live in a stable system like the UK’s – which hasn’t experienced a coup since Oliver Cromwell dissolved the Rump parliament in 1653 – do not generally offer much of an alternative. What was the population to do in the face of Morsi’s stubborn refusal to cede power? Storm the Bastille, so to speak, with all the loss of life that would have involved? Descend into civil war like Syria and Libya did? Perhaps had Syria’s generals forced Bashar al-Assad out, the situation there would be imperfect but far better than today.

While concerns over the potentially dangerous precedent this sets are valid, if a future president faces the same level of widespread and sustained opposition, (s)he deserves to go. In addition, a neglected flip side is that if Morsi had been left to nourish his pseudo-dictatorial tendencies, that would have also set a perhaps more dangerous precedent in a country where the spectre of dictatorship has still not gone away.

Some might see this as little more than a debate over semantics. But this is hugely politicised terminology, which can be used, in the wrong hands, to de-legitimise the revolution and the unprecedented opposition to Morsi.

I should stress that all of the above does not mean that Egyptians should trust, much less express undying devotion to, the military, as a worrying number of people are doing. The people and the army are not a “single hand”. After six decades of military or ex-military dictators, we can safely say that the army got us into this mess in the first place. Moreover, while some in the SCAF undoubtedly act out of an interest in the greater good, collectively the generals are out to preserve, as much as they can, what is left of the military’s privileged status.

This underscores the crucial point that Egyptians should not just say ‘no’ to Morsi, but also to the military. Egypt is under new management, and that management is the people.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Daily News Egypt on 4 July 2013.

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Egypt without the hype… and away from Cairo

 
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By Josephine Littlejohn

Contrary to the distorted and Cairo-centric media view of Egypt, Egyptians have an extraordinary breadth of views about  revolutionising their country.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

I have been horrified by some of the Western news coverage of Egypt. It seemed from British and American outlets that the Salafis were in power, that the pyramids were about to be blown up, the temples covered in wax, tourism brought to an end… the shock-horror stories abounded and no-one seemed to question the reality of these rather creative ‘reports’.

I love Egypt, for a variety of reasons, so I decided to find out for myself. I began to read Arab and Western news, Arab blogs of all persuasions, and two striking realisations became immediately obvious. One was that the news could not be trusted (duh!) and the other was a more complex realisation: Egypt now has elbow room for political discussion, but no real practical political experience or knowledge to draw upon.

It was like reading the idealistic debates of middle-class, first year political science undergraduates with no life experience. Add to the pot the constant silly declarations from rather smug religious ‘spokesmen’ intent on displaying how ‘pure’ they are… It made for pretty depressing reading.

So the crunch came: I had to go back and see for myself, hear the voices, look at the situation on the ground and come to my own conclusions. I went with no political or religious agenda: I have no political alignment, and I am not active in any particular religion, but I am not an atheist either. I felt, deep in my gut, that it was really important not to judge the situation based on these superficial presentations, not to have preformed ideas and to try and listen to the voices without filtering them through my own cultural and spiritual values. The voices need to be understood from within the struggle….after all the solution comes from within, not from without.

I talked to members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), to Catholics, Copts, secularists, people in the souk, the bus drivers, expats, regular visitors and I even managed to find a neo-fascist white supremacist. I talked to whoever I could, which caused a bit of a stir to action by the tourist police and the security services at one point. Needless to say I was not hauled off and slung in jail and after a couple of hours of fevered phone calls, furtive discussions and sideways glances, I was off the hook. Phew.

The voices on the street told me of the joy of freedom finally and the growing unease regarding the gradual collapse of law and order, the piles of rubbish, fear of the growing sense of power and arrogance among the Salafis, and the lack of tourists and their money. The feeling on the streets lurched from desperation to euphoria and then seemed to settle into a slow dawn of understanding of just how hard it is going to be to get Egypt on its feet.

I went through similar swings of emotion and the enormity of the task Egypt has ahead of her is still unfolding itself before me, as my understanding of the complexity of the situation grows. In reality, there is no real government, but there are technocrats put in place to keep the wheels turning while Egypt decides her next move. Although President Mohamed Morsi was heavily criticised for the appointments in his cabinet, in truth there was little else he could have done. Few people outside of the old regime know how to actually run the country, and the nearest contender is the Muslim Brotherhood with their long experience in social work. A situation oft described as being stuck between a rock and a hard place.

The secularists wanted a revolutionary government but what do they mean by that? They wanted new ideas people. What new ideas? Who would implement them and how? The country is currently teetering on the edge of collapse. It does not need experimental ideas for now, but requires the kind of stability that can act as a foundation upon which new ideas, once properly and practically formed, can be cemented. And those new ideas need to come from a place of understanding, of knowing the long-term effects and ramifications of the practical application of a specific policy. I was truly saddened to see just how fragmented, politically illiterate (in terms of actual application) and out of touch the secular opposition is. A strong opposition keeps a government in check and prepares to become a government itself.

The dizzying array of various socialist workers parties, their parroting of outdated Marxist speak acquired from text books and their complete inability to truly connect with and understand the vast voting underbelly of the country brought to mind a scene from the 1979 Monty Python comedy film The Life of Brian. There is a wonderful scene in which the Jewish underclass, straining under Roman military rule, are assembled for a day at the Colosseum and begin a discussion about revolution. It quickly dissolves into spats between the People’s Front of Judea, the Judean People’s Front, the Judean Popular People’s Front… you get the idea.

I mean really? A 19th century political theory dreamed up by a couple of Germans and expanded upon by the Russians (who immediately began squabbling and fragmenting into factions)? And you think anything born out of that era and culture is going to even remotely fit in Egypt? It would be like feeding Russian boiled cabbage to Sicilians. Similarly, Adam Smith’s free market economic theory would fit Egypt like a round peg in a square hole. And don’t get me started on the remote possibility of a theocracy…shudder…. Egypt needs its own structure: take a lesson from the West… we made a mess, don’t copy us; grow your own sustainable future, that way it will last.

During my visit, there was so much information, so many voices that had important and valuable things to say that it is impossible to do them justice in one article. So over the next few weeks, I will be posting a series of articles and two in-depth interviews (on with an FJP parliamentarian and the other with a secularist). I want to cover the many political, religious, economic and gender issues that emerged from the conversations: people spoke passionately, honestly and from the heart and I want these voices, voices from the streets and villages far away from Cairo to have a chance to be heard.

 

This is part of a series of articles on Egypt’s political transformation as seen from the rural and provincial grassroots. Below is the full list of articles in the series:

1. Egypt without the hype… and away from Cairo

2. Egypt needs are human, social and educational, not religious, says Islamist MP

3. Minority voices in Upper Egypt

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Egypt’s Mursi and the risk of friendly fire

 
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By Osama Diab

By courting his rivals, Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi could turn former allies into foes and bring to the fore the divisions among Islamists.

Monday 2 July 2012

Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Mursi, realises that he stands on shaky ground. He probably senses that many political groups, segments of the police state, the former regime, and regular members of the public would love to see him fail.

This is why he was quick to try and win the public’s hearts and minds by working to counter fears many people would naturally have about an Islamist president. He met with artists and novelists, while promising to appoint a Copt and a woman as vice-presidents. He also reassured the security services that not much will change by stating clearly in his meeting with police leaders that he rejects the term ‘cleanse’ when it comes to police reform.

One thing is for sure, both his opponents and proponents will be closely watching his performance. There is great hope to see him succeed and burning desire to witness him fail. Someone even established an online barometer, the ‘Morsi Meter’, to monitor and measure his actual performance against his pledges.

Of course, it is to be expected that the predators out for Mursi’s hide include secularists, liberals, summer holidaymakers at the North coast’s gated resorts, club-goers, whiskey drinkers, vodka sippers, opposition parties, perhaps members of the old regime, not to mention the Armed Forces. However, against all expectations, the main and most serious opposition might come from his own backyard: some factions of what is referred to as the Islamist movement.

Early signs of the kinds of clashes that might occur in the future can be seen in the Salafist al-Nour party’s rejection of Mursi’s decision to appoint Coptic and female vice-presidents, because such moves would contradict their interpretation of Sharia. They have reportedly threatened to withdraw from the presidential team if Mursi insists on taking these steps.

The full participation of Islamists in political and public life is a reality many still find hard to digest, which is why many people can’t get their head around the deep ideological divides between the different shades of political Islam. As a result, they think of them as a homogeneous force.

Centrist Islamist parties, such as al-Wasat and the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, could be better compared to the Christian Democratic parties in Europe, which are mainly characterised by their liberal, or neo-liberal, economic policies, but they remain moderately conservative on social matters, which are a lesser priority. The Brotherhood’s focus on the economy and their long history of working with all other political groups, including leftists, Arab nationalists, and liberals allowed them to develop a more pragmatic and moderate approach to certain ideological issues.

This was clear in Mursi’s visits, meetings and speeches after he was announced the winner. His reception of prominent author Alaa Al-Aswany, who is known for his progressive views, sexually explicit novels and his criticism of political Islam, shows that the Islamist organisation is willing to make concessions and extend a hand of cooperation even to those who sit at the opposite end of the political spectrum.

On the other hand, Salafi Islamist groups are more concerned with moral and social matters, and maintaining certain religious demographics. They wouldn’t shy away from resorting to violence and radical politics if needed. Unlike reformist Islamists, they don’t always work their way up the existing political system and institutions.

Salafists lack the Brotherhood’s pragmatism. This could be due to their strict ideological stances, their relatively short political history, or a combination of the two. It seems inevitable that Salafist rigidity will affect Mursi, accusing him of warming up too much to liberals and not staying true to his promise of establishing their own definition of an ‘Islamic society’. It’s not only priorities that differ, but Islamists also disagree on many fundamental juristic issues related to women’s rights, freedom of religion, corporal punishment, and so on.

This deep intrinsic ideological difference within what is collectively referred to as political Islam will rise to the surface now that the Muslim Brotherhood faces, for the first time, the pressures of making real political decisions after long decades of abstract ideas and mere talk. The Brotherhood is too pragmatic and economy-oriented to want to scare away tourists and investors and create enemies at home and abroad in the early days of their rule. But in the process of trying to make his traditional rivals happy, it is very possible that Mursi might accidentally turn old mates into new foes.

 

This article first appeared in The Daily News on 1 July 2012. Republished here with the author’s permission.

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Egypt: from revolution to evolution

 
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By Khaled Diab

Egypt’s next president is likely to be against the revolution, so revolutionaries must forge a viable opposition and push for social and economic change.

Friday 15 June 2012

The culmination of the race for the Egyptian presidency should be a proud moment for Egypt, yet paradoxically the country’s nascent democratic process has delivered an apparently anti-democratic outcome.

Although Egyptians are finally getting the unprecedented opportunity to pick their next leader, voters now have the unenviable dilemma of choosing between an anti-revolutionary, neo-liberal military man (Ahmed Shafiq) and a counterrevolutionary, neo-liberal Islamist (Mohamed Mursi).

This has left revolutionaries and supporters of the revolution in a double bind: participate and effectively vote against the revolution or boycott the elections and potentially undermine the democratic process you have been advocating.

Like Odysseus, Egypt’s revolutionaries have to find a way to navigate, without shipwrecking the revolution, between the multi-headed Scylla that symbolises the remnants of the Mubarak regime and the mysterious and treacherous depths of the whirlpool-inducing Charybdis of the Muslim Brotherhood.

One way of circumnavigating these two perils is to boycott the runoff elections, as many activists and some of the defeated candidates have been urging, in order to show that neither Mursi nor Shafiq enjoy a real mandate. As one protester on Tahrir Square put it, “It does not make sense to choose between two wrongs.”

One effective and creative way of doing this would be to turn up at the voting stations anyway and cast a spoilt ballot – say by writing “Mickey Mouse for president” on their ballot paper. If the number of invalid, or Mickey Mouse, votes outnumber those for Shafiq and Mursi, this would be a powerful message to Egypt’s future president that a Disney character enjoys more support than him.

While people have the right not to vote, such a course of action does involve certain risks. First and foremost, it enables opponents of the revolution to continue the long smear campaign against Egypt’s revolutionaries by suggesting that the boycott is undemocratic and motivated not by principle but by spite.

Pointing to the abuses committed during the transitional period, the unclear powers of the next president and the murky backstage role the junta will play once it officially hands over power, many revolutionaries have become so disillusioned that they plan to shun the entire political process and continue their struggle on the streets.

But this would be a grave error. While there will be a need for the protest-oriented ‘democracy of Tahrir’ for many years to come, the revolution should continue by all means possible – and that includes becoming part of the political process, imperfect as it may be.

Although the generals loaded the dice against the revolutionaries from the start, that was not the only reason behind their poor showing in both the parliamentary and presidential races. The low turnout, of around 47%, for the unique spectacle of 13 men vying for Egypt’s hitherto unavailable top job was effectively a vote of little-to-no confidence in all the candidates.

This failure to inspire is partly a result of the absence of inspiring leaders in the new electoral political brought about by decades of repressive rule, but it is also due to the disarray and fragmentation of the revolutionary movement.

For example, on Tuesday, I read that the 6 April Youth Movement, one of the main driving forces behind the revolution, was backing Mursi’s candidacy after the Islamist candidate had signed on to a ‘National Consensus Document’ and promised to appoint a vice-president who was not connected to the Brotherhood.

The very next day, I read that 6 April was calling for a boycott of the presidential election. Had the young revolutionaries changed their mind so quickly or was this some mistake? Neither, as it turns out. The first announcement was made by the so-called ‘Ahmed Maher Front’, led by one of the group’s co-founders, while the second was released by a splinter group known as the ‘Democratic Front’.

Instead of this infighting and political intrigue, Egypt’s progressive, secular revolutionary forces need to find a way to consolidate themselves and forge a viable opposition to the well-organised and disciplined Islamists over the coming four years if they are to stand a chance at the next election.

In addition, the Egyptian revolution is not just a political one, but is also social, cultural and economic. This is recognised in the revolutionary slogan of ‘bread, freedom and social justice’, but has not been acted upon sufficiently, except rather sporadically at the local level, mainly by workers and trade unions.

If more ordinary Egyptians are to be won over to the cause of the revolution, they need to be persuaded that there is something in it for them, that it can deliver them social and economic justice. Beyond this, creating a secular, liberal, tolerant and egalitarian society requires the removal of ignorance through decent education, and the combating of corruption, nepotism, patronage and the authoritarianism that bedevils Egyptian society not just at the top of the pyramid, but at almost every stratum.

Part of the Muslim Brotherhood’s success can be traced back to more than 80 years of nationwide grassroots social and cultural activism and charitable work. Secularists can learn, and are learning, a lot from the Brotherhood about instigating change from the bottom, up. Egypt does not just need revolution, it also need gradual evolution.

Note: Since this article was written, the Supreme Constitutional Court has dissolved the Egyptian parliament, which has been described by some as a “military coup” and raises worrying questions about exactly how much power the generals truly intend to hand over and whether this ill-conceived decision could spiral out of control and lead to instability and bloodshed. This verdict appears to be politically motivated, which not only undermines the Egyptian judiciaries hard-earned credibility but is also bound to boost the Islamists’ flagging popularity by transforming them into martyrs of political injustice.

 

This is an extended version of an article which appeared in The National on 15 June 2012.

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Egyptian presidential election: Anti-revolution v counterrevolution

 
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 By Khaled Diab

Should Egyptians side with the anti-revolutionary military old guard or the counterrevolutionary Islamist vanguard when choosing their next president?

Monday 4 June 2012

The counterrevolution is gathering pace in Egypt.

After initial elation at the spectacle of millions of Egyptians queuing patiently, in a country where jumping the queue is a national pastime, to cast their ballot for one of more than a dozen candidates in unprecedented presidential elections in which the winner was not known in advance, a by-now familiar feeling of disillusionment set in when the results of the first round were announced.

In a turn of events that proved surprising to just about everyone, the last two candidates left standing were Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s conservative wing and “Mubarak’s man” Ahmed Shafiq, one-time air force commander, ex-aviation minister, and Mubarak’s unpopular first choice for prime minister when the revolution broke out early last year.

Neither Mursi nor Shafiq were the pundits’ favourites. In fact, both men were hovering low in most polls prior to the elections. The early favourites were the reform-minded, pluralist and relatively liberal former Muslim Brother Abdel-Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Amr Moussa, the popular one-time foreign minister who emerged from the revolution relatively unscathed, because of his personal incorruptibility and the distance he took from some of the Mubarak regimes most notorious and abusive years during his decade-long tenure as secretary-general of the Arab League.

Though I, in common with most young revolutionaries, opposed Moussa’s candidacy because of his close association with the former regime, some long-time dissidents have expressed their support for him. One example is Hisham Kassem, the veteran independent publisher and human rights activist. “I want a strong president,” he told me prior to the elections while seated at a dusty desk amid the bare concrete at the Cairo offices of his soon-to-be-launched newspaper which he has optimistically named al-Gumhoriya al-Gadida (The New Republic) to reflect Egypt’s changing reality. “I don’t want Egypt to enter a Latin American scenario of political collapse and a new president every six months.”

While Moussa had the support of “stability-seeking” reformers like Kassem, Aboul Fotouh had the vote of many in the antiestablishment but pragmatic middle ground, who sought a consensus candidate. “Aboul Fotouh genuinely believes in equality,” the prominent human rights activist Hossam Bahgat, who founded the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, reflected as a number of shishas or waterpipes bubbled thoughtfully around us.

However, these two men confounded expectations, with Aboul Fotouh ending up fourth and Moussa fifth, with third place going to the late-starting favourite for the secular, revolutionary vote, Hamdeen Sabahi, a reform-minded leftist and diehard Nasserist.

With the race for the presidency now reduced to a contest between a counterrevolutionary, neo-liberal Islamist and an anti-revolutionary, neo-liberal general, revolutionaries and pro-revolution Egyptians have been left with an extremely bitter pill to swallow and a stark choice to make at the ballot box: vote for “felloul” (remnants of the old regime) or conservative Islamism.

A heated debate is taking place between secular revolutionaries about which of the two candidates to vote for in order to best preserve the  aims of the revolution, or whether it would be more principled to boycott the second-round vote altogether to show that neither man enjoys a sufficient mandate.

But what brought about this “nightmare scenario”, as it has come to be described in revolutionary circles?

Well, both men appear to have been helped by the fragmentation and disarray of the revolutionaries and the low turnout of just over 40%, which is tiny considering that this election was Egypt’s first truly free presidential race and some had hoped it would mark the birth of the “second republic”. This low turnout was reflective of the paucity of good candidates, the disillusionment felt by pro-revolutionaries that their revolution had been “stolen” or “hijacked”, and disappointment at the revolution’s failure to deliver concrete socio-economic results following high initial expectations.

Ahmed Shafiq, who has the tacit backing of the army and the police, managed to steal votes from the Moussa “stability” camp but also capitalised on the “fear” vote, drawing support from those who harboured Mubarak sympathies and those who are terrified by the prospect of an Islamist takeover in Egypt, including the country’s vulnerable Christian minority. For his part, Mohamed Mursi seems to have walked away with the conservative Islamic vote, particularly in the more traditional rural areas in the south of the country.

Does the victory of these two contenders who have questionable democratic credentials mean that Egyptians do not prize freedom? There are certainly some Egyptians who seem enamoured of authoritarianism, as reflected by the surprising number of people I met in Cairo who voiced support for Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s shadowy and dangerous intelligence chief, as Egypt’s next president, but he was later disqualified from the race.

That said, candidates who represent the vanguard of the Egyptian revolution walked away with around two-fifths of the vote. Furthermore, quite a lot of those who voted for the top two candidates did so not out of some anti-freedom platform but because they have other, more immediate fears and priorities for the transitional phase.

But if Egyptians vote for Mursi to oppose Shafiq as the symbol of the old regime that would mean that the Islamists will win the double whammy of the parliament and presidency. What would be the consequences of such an outcome on the future of Egypt?

As someone who believes wholeheartedly in a new Egypt of full freedom, equality and economic and social justice, I fear what impact this conservative current will have on society. But in order to understand its possible consequences, we need to delve into its causes.

Fundamentalist Islam, like fundamentalist Judaism and Christianity, is partly a response to the onslaught of modernity and the insecurity it has engendered. In Egypt, it is also a backlash against the corruption, nepotism, oppression and failure of the country’s secular regimes, as well as the unequal global order, to deliver prosperity, equality and dignity to ordinary people. Also, in situations of grinding poverty, poor education and stark inequality, people often fall back on the safety cushion of religion.

Moreover, part of the appeal Islamists enjoy is due to the fact that they have always been in opposition, and the few months they have been at the wheel of parliament has already corroded their popularity and turned many former supporters against them, who accuse them of being a religious version of Mubarak’s now-defunct National Democratic Party. If Islamists fail to deliver visible improvements on crucial bread-and-butter issues, such as employment, health and education, then the electorate is likely to conclude that Islam, or at least Islamism, is not the solution to their woes, and may turn to the secular revolutionaries as an alternative.

But what if these elections turn out to be “one person, one vote, one time”, as Western critics of Islamism claim? “Don’t panic”, is Hisham Kassem’s attitude. “I don’t think the Islamists are powerful enough to change the identity of the state,” he says.

Many Egyptians also believe that the Islamists-secularists fault line is exaggerated and even a distraction. While it certainly does exist, it is not a black-and-white division, with a significant proportion of secularists supporting traditional values and religious intolerance, while many Islamists, particularly younger ones, believing in democracy, religious freedom and individual rights. Also, the ranks of the rightwing and leftwing, the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary, the progressive and reactionary are to be found on both sides of the Islamist-secularist border.

“It’s much more comfortable for the two sides to engage in a culture war,” observes Hossam Bahgat. “But the real issue is building a democratic system, and striving for social justice and economic justice. The battle over identity is just polemics.”

 

This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 30 May 2012.

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Revolution: the ‘third way’ in Egypt

 
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By Osama Diab

With little representation in official politics, Egypt’s revolutionary forces must continue to create a political third way on the streets.

Friday 1 June 2012

Following the announcement of the official results of the Egyptian presidential elections on Monday, Tahrir square, the epicentre and the unofficial headquarters of the revolution, drew thousands of protesters who expressed their dissatisfaction that Ahmed Shafiq, Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister and Mohamed Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, would face each other in the final round. Many felt the outcome was predecided to give voters a choice between bad and worse.

The chants against both the military and the Brotherhood demonstrate that many Egyptians are not happy with the choice they have been left with. After all, the majority of Egyptians voted for candidates other than Morsi and Shafiq.

This regime-Brotherhood dichotomy has a relatively long history in Egypt. The overthrown president Hosni Mubarak mastered playing this card to help him stay in power for almost three decades. He demonised the Brotherhood while giving them some power to qualify them as a tangible threat. The state media machine cast them in the role of Egypt’s political bogeyman while portraying the regime as the stable status quo.

Mubarak played the demon Brotherhood card until the last day of his rule. In his last interview with ABC’s Christiana Amanpour a few days before he was forced to step down, he warned omniously that if he left office the Muslim Brotherhood would take power in Egypt.

This ornamental bipartisanship benefited both parties and they both have vested interests in maintaining this favourable status quo. This was evident and clear in their statements about the post-election protests against the results. They both described the protesters as pro-Hamdeen Sabahi (the candidate who came in third). Though there were protesters who had voted for Sabahi, I can tell you, as an eyewitness to the demonstration, that the protest had very little to do with the man himself, but casting it in this light gives the impression that the protesters are nothing more than a bunch of sore losers who have no genuine grievances.

Maintaining this regime-Brotherhood dichotomy is harmful. It stagnates Egypt’s political life and hinders progress, while promoting the politics of fear. It also establishes a tradition of tactical voting “against” rather than “for”, with each side trying to convince the voter that they are the lesser evil.

This framework of politics puts very little pressure on the parties to deliver any actual results. In fact, both the regime and the Brotherhood presented no vision for ending the political deadlock and economic meltdown the country is experiencing.

In addition, the majority of Egyptians have expressed their rejection of this tired political formula, through both street politics and the ballot box. The problem is that the revolutionary votes were divided due to the lack of coordination and the lack of political and electoral experience. Despite all this, candidates who clearly represented the revolution won more then 40% of the votes.

Since this massive voting bloc has very little representation in official politics, it is left with no choice but to try to influence decision-making through street politics, lobbying and forming coalition. Eventually, it will evolve into some form of organised political force that can present a third choice and break the regime-Brotherhood dichotomy once and for all. Until this happens, people who are not happy with the choice they have in the run-off should boycott the elections. A very low turnout will embarrass the regime, take away some legitimacy from the next president and put more pressure on him to compromise. It will also encourage a new political force to emerge to win and represent this forsaken voting bloc.

Hope for an egalitarian society lies with pressure the revolution can exert from the grassroots, and its ability to consolidate and institutionalise in the near future. The revolution’s principles of “bread, freedom and social justice” could constitute a viable third way in Egyptian politics and provide a counterbalance to the disastrous and divisive rightwing politics of the Islamists and the military-backed secular regime.

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