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Egypt’s Sisyphean quest for freedom, dignity and democracy

Hamdi Hassan

Islam och Politik


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“The MB is accused of attempting to reproduce the regime of Mubarak in a more crude and provincial fashion”

Banner Icon Egyptian politics With the regime failing to reach a political consensus with the opposition and deliver on their promises, the prospect for moving Egypt out of the impasse looks very bleak, writes Hamdi Hassan.

At the center of Egyptian life lies a severe sense of disillusionment. The pride of modern Egypt among its people has been far greater than the deed of its consecutive rulers. After the popular uprising, Egypt’s political landscape still allows for a single political force to monopolize political power and diminish all potential rivals. Massive protests, often resulting in violent clashes, continue to be seen almost on a daily basis.

Egypt will rapidly degenerate into a failed state if there are no serious attempt to deal with deep political polarization, fatal security breaches and the imminent economic collapse. Egypt, as Hazem Kandil puts it, “is trapped in a balance of weakness. None of the key actors have the power to consolidate a new regime or even to resurrect the old one.” Nevertheless, ordinary Egyptians continue to hope for political reform, freedom and social justice.

The Muslim Brotherhood and the opposition

When it comes to the first flank in the “balance of weakness,” there is a near consensus that President Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood (MB) are losing legitimacy by virtue of their inability to deliver on, for example reconciliation, economic reforms, meaningful democracy. While seeking a monopoly of power, the MB lacks the necessary expertise to rule a country as large as Egypt with so many problems.

This failing to rule and deliver has triggered something akin to a MB-phobia among many Egyptians. For many, Egypt seems less modern – certainly less liberal and less tolerant – than it used to be. In fact, Egypt is in limbo with forces pulling in both directions – government is neither secular enough for secularists nor Islamic enough for Islamists! Therefore, it is important to see the battle for modernity as taking place in part through the lens of religion in public affairs.

The political reform process should have begun with building inclusive political institutions. Inclusive institutions distribute political power in a pluralistic manner, helping to achieve sustained economic growth based on the rule of law in the long-term. However, with the MB in power, political pluralism is lacking in Egypt. The MB has failed to deliver on electoral promises, and to live up to their commitment to a truly participatory politics. Western governments are increasingly concerned that Egypt’s government will exhaust the country’s foreign reserves rather than adopt necessary painful austerity measures.

Moreover, it went into open-ended confrontation with the judiciary, pitting various institutions of the state against one another. The performance of Morsi is discrediting the MB’s Islamic project. The survival of this project is conditioned on a few key steps: a true process of revision and reform; a decision by the MB to act like they are part of the existing system rather than trying to overthrow it to bring in a new one; and to come to terms with the fact that democracy is not a one-off electoral process, but rather a complex, multi-layered mechanism. The Islamists have to step beyond preaching Sharia and offer solutions to serious problems. They need to realize that when in power they have to serve all citizens. The danger of an economic collapse is real, but it is not the only threat on the horizon.

The other flank in the balance is the opposition National Salvation Front (NSF), which has been facing increasing criticism over its responses to political developments, but its main challenge appears to run deeper. Indeed, the NSF is perceived as only being an anti-Islamist coalition that lacks a credible internal political structure. The NSF has no comprehensive proposal for dealing with Egypt’s tribulation; its stance has been by and large opportunistic. Neither has it developed strong organizational links with the labor movement. Instead, it remains heavily reliant on the support of urban-middle-upper classes. The NSF’s political platform reflects this as it barely contains any genuine social and economic elements.

Serious questions are asked about the ability of the NSF to establish solid foundations in Egypt’s political life. Given the economic difficulties and the senseless timing of MB austerity measures, the NSF is “investing” in the crisis of the economy and seems to be counting on the MB’s damaged reputation and sinking popularity, awaiting the long-anticipated explosion of the poor and degeneration into chaos. However, a political explosion of sorts is actually unlikely to lead to gains for the opposition, since it is most likely that it is the army that will be in charge. All players in the political game will be disadvantaged.

The military and the popular discontent with Islamists

The political forecast in Egypt looks bleak and the atmosphere is boiling. In pursuit of their “Islamist project,” observers believe that the MB is seriously underestimating the public anger and the force of street mobilization and they confuse it with the opposition failure to come forward with a political alternative to them. It was the street protests that compelled the Supreme Council for Armed Forces (SCAF) to go ahead with political reform and election. Two years on, the intensity of continued protests illuminates the depth of the political impasse in Egypt and reflects the socioeconomic injustices that have afflicted Egyptians for decades. Rage is simmering among a wide spectrum of the population in Egypt. Egyptians have grappled with decades of political tyranny and trauma through continued and resolved demonstrations to achieve political reform.

There are reasons to believe that these protests will only escalate, due to the stagnation of political reforms and lack of confidence in government. The MB government is perceived by many as being utterly incompetent and there are calls for the army to step in to save the country from breakdown. All over Egypt, people are urging Defense Minister El-Sessi to replace president Morsi due to his failure to rule effectively. Due to heavy criticism for its failures while leading the transitional period, the military seems to only care about its autonomy from the political system. Nevertheless, it will not be able to isolate itself entirely—something understood by a number of commanders. The army has clearly hinted that it needs undisputed popular legitimacy to step in as they did before. However, the fragile and unsustainable political, economic and social situation creates risks for the army’s intervention.

The implicit agreement that the army had with Egypt’s military rulers (Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak) is enshrined in the new constitution and this creates severe pressures on the MB, which will have a hard time to keep the military out of politics. The relationship between the MB and the army is complex. The MB correctly realizes the danger that the military’s interests and power represent. Nevertheless, their strategy to contain this threat remains contingent and short-sighted. The MB seems to confine the political struggle to one that is only with the military. Since the MB does not take the NSF as a credible opponent, they seem to forget that the military does not seek a leading role in politics.

The MB is looking fervently for a general within the military commanders who would help them work out their wishes to control the army, or at least to keep it outside the political game. They initially thought that El-Sessi would be their general, it turned out he put the interest of the army above anything else and he also reflects the military’s age-old suspicions of Islamists. The MB is very nervous of how the army would react in case of a wide popular protest or if Islamist militias commit serious acts of violence. On their meeting with Morsi on April 11, the generals made clear that they will never tolerate the existence of any militia and that they would eradicate Hamas and jihadi infiltrators into Sinai.

The flooding of Gaza’s tunnels by the military may have some bearing on this relationship and be taken as indicative of pressures being exerted on Hamas, and by implication the MB. It might also be a message to both the MB and Hamas. The military consider Hamas to be a serious threat to national security, which negatively affected its relationship with the MB. It seems that the army is securing the Sinai area from jihadi threat and also making sure to prevent Hamas fighters to join forces with MB in case of future army deployment to street.

Where is Egypt heading?

With Morsi and the MB failing to reach a political consensus with the opposition and deliver on their promises, the prospect for moving Egypt out of the impasse looks very bleak. The MB is accused of attempting to reproduce the regime of Mubarak in a more crude and provincial fashion. The MB might believe that the world community would tolerate and accept this proto-authoritarian modus operandi in the name of stability. However, the opposition, youth movements and the popular resistance to the MB’s Islamist project are intensifying with violence on the rise.

If the economic collapse triggers rioting and social violence by the poor, according to the constitution the army will fulfill its duty and deploy into the streets. As El-Sessi has hinted time and again, the army has vowed to side with the people and protect the integrity of the state. There are those within the army who believe that the MB and Morsi will not survive the political impasse and deepening economic crisis. Unless significant steps are taken by the ruling Islamists on reaching out to their opponents and to deliver in terms of the economy and security, Egypt is heading to a bleak future with the army stepping once more into the forefront of political life. By the same token, democratization processes will suffer a serious setback.

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