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Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (I): Egypt Victorious?
Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (I): Egypt Victorious?
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  1. Executive Summary
Report 101 / Middle East & North Africa

Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (I): Egypt Victorious?

If Egypt’s popular uprising is to achieve its aspirations for a truly democratic society, street activism will need to be converted into inclusive, institutional politics.

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Executive Summary

It is early days, and the true measure of what the Egyptian people have accomplished has yet to fully sink in. Some achievements are as clear as they are stunning. Over a period of less than three weeks, they challenged conventional chestnuts about Arab lethargy; transformed national politics; opened up the political space to new actors; massively reinforced protests throughout the region; and called into question fundamental pillars of the Middle East order. They did this without foreign help and, indeed, with much of the world timidly watching and waffling according to shifting daily predictions of their allies’ fortunes. The challenge now is to translate street activism into inclusive, democratic institutional politics so that a popular protest that culminated in a military coup does not end there.

The backdrop to the uprising has a familiar ring. Egypt suffered from decades of authoritarian rule, a lifeless political environment virtually monopolised by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP); widespread corruption, cronyism and glaring inequities; and a pattern of abuse at the hands of unaccountable security forces. For years, agitation against the regime spread and, without any credible mechanism to express or channel public discontent, increasingly took the shape of protest movements and labour unrest.

What, ultimately, made the difference? While the fraudulent November 2010 legislative elections persuaded many of the need for extra-institutional action, the January 2011 toppling of Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali persuaded them it could succeed. Accumulated resentment against a sclerotic, ageing regime that, far from serving a national purpose, ended up serving only itself reached a tipping point. The increasingly likely prospect of another Mubarak presidency after the September 2011 election (either the incumbent himself or his son, Gamal) removed any faith that this process of decay would soon stop.

The story of what actually transpired between 25 January and 11 February remains to be told. This account is incomplete. Field work was done principally in Cairo, which became the epicentre of the uprising but was not a microcosm of the nation. Regime deliberations and actions took place behind closed doors and remain shrouded in secrecy. The drama is not near its final act. A military council is in control. The new government bears a striking resemblance to the old. Strikes continue. Protesters show persistent ability to mobilise hundreds of thousands.

There already are important lessons, nonetheless, as Egypt moves from the heady days of upheaval to the job of designing a different polity. Post-Mubarak Egypt largely will be shaped by features that characterised the uprising:

  • This was a popular revolt. But its denouement was a military coup, and the duality that marked Hosni Mubarak’s undoing persists to this day. The tug of war between a hierarchical, stability-obsessed institution keen to protect its interests and the spontaneous and largely unorganised popular movement will play out on a number of fronts – among them: who will govern during the interim period and with what competencies; who controls the constitution-writing exercise and how comprehensive will it be; who decides on the rules for the next elections and when they will be held; and how much will the political environment change and open up before then?
  • The military played a central, decisive and ambivalent role. It was worried about instability and not eager to see political developments dictated by protesting crowds. It also was determined to protect its popular credibility and no less substantial business and institutional interests. At some point it concluded the only way to reconcile these competing considerations was to step in. That ambiguity is at play today: the soldiers who rule by decree, without parliamentary oversight or genuine opposition input, are the same who worked closely with the former president; they appear to have no interest in remaining directly in charge, preferring to exit the stage as soon as they can and revert to the background where they can enjoy their privileges without incurring popular resentment when disappointment inevitably sets in; and yet they want to control the pace and scope of change.
  • The opposition’s principal assets could become liabilities as the transition unfolds. It lacked an identifiable leader or representatives and mostly coalesced around the straightforward demand to get rid of Mubarak. During the protests, this meant it could bridge social, religious, ideological and generational divides, bringing together a wide array along the economic spectrum, as well as young activists and the more traditional opposition, notably the Muslim Brotherhood. Its principal inspiration was moral and ethical, not programmatic, a protest against a regime synonymous with rapaciousness and shame. The regime’s traditional tools could not dent the protesters’ momentum: it could not peel off some opposition parties and exploit divisions, since they were not the motors of the movement; concessions short of Mubarak’s removal failed to meet the minimum threshold; and repression only further validated the protesters’ perception of the regime and consolidated international sympathy for them.

As the process moves from the street to the corridors of power, these strengths could become burdensome. Opposition rivalries are likely to re-emerge, as are conflicts of interest between various social groups; the absence of either empowered representatives or an agreed, positive agenda will harm effectiveness; the main form of leverage – street protests – is a diminishing asset. A key question is whether the movement will find ways to institutionalise its presence and pressure.

  • Throughout these events public opinion frequently wavered. Many expressed distaste for the regime but also concern about instability and disorder wrought by the protests. Many reportedly deemed Mubarak’s concessions sufficient and his wish for dignified departure understandable but were alarmed at violence by regime thugs. The most widespread aspiration was for a return to normality and resumption of regular economic life given instability’s huge costs. At times, that translated into hope protests would end; at others, into the wish the regime would cease violent, provocative measures. This ambivalence will impact the coming period. Although many Egyptians will fear normalisation, in the sense of maintaining the principal pillars of Mubarak’s regime, many more are likely to crave a different normalisation: ensuring order, security and jobs. The challenge will be to combine functioning, stable institutions with a genuine process of political and socio-economic transformation.
  • Western commentators split into camps: those who saw Muslim Brotherhood fingerprints all over the uprising and those who saw it as a triumph of a young, Western-educated generation that had discarded Islamist and anti-American outlooks. Both interpretations are off the mark. Modern communication played a role, particularly in the early stages, as did mainly young, energised members of the middle classes. The Brotherhood initially watched uneasily, fearful of the crackdown that would follow involvement in a failed revolt. But it soon shifted, in reaction to pressure from its younger, more cosmopolitan members in Tahrir Square and the protests’ surprising strength. Once it committed to battle, it may well have decided there could be no turning back: Mubarak had to be brought down or reta­liation would be merciless. The role of Islamist activists grew as the confrontation became more violent and as one moved away from Cairo; in the Delta in particular, their deep roots and the secular opposition’s relative weakness gave them a leading part.
  • Here too are lessons. The Brotherhood will not push quickly or forcefully; it is far more sober and prudent than that, prefers to invest in the longer-term and almost certainly does not enjoy anywhere near majority support. But its message will resonate widely and be well served by superior organisation, particularly compared to the state of secular parties. As its political involvement deepens, it also will have to contend with tensions the uprising exacerbated: between generations; between traditional hierarchical structures and modern forms of mobilisation; between a more conservative and a more reformist outlook; between Cairo, urban and rural areas.
  • The West neither expected these events nor, at least at the outset, hoped for them. Mubarak had been a loyal ally; the speed with which it celebrated his fall as a triumph of democracy was slightly anomalous if not unseemly. The more important point is that it apparently had little say over events, as illustrated by the rhetorical catch-up in which it engaged. Egyptians were not in the mood for outside advice during the uprising and are unlikely to care for it now. The most important contribution was stern warnings against violence. Now, Western powers can help by providing economic assistance, avoiding attempts to micromanage the transition, select favourites or react too negatively to a more assertive, independent foreign policy. Egypt’s new rulers will be more receptive to public opinion, which is less submissive to Western demands; that is the price to pay for the democratic polity which the U.S. and Europe claim they wish to see.

With these dynamics in mind, several core principles might help steer the transition:

  • If the military is to overcome scepticism of its willingness to truly change the nature of the regime, it will need either to share power with representative civilian forces by creating a new interim, representative authority or ensure decisions are made transparently after broad consultation, perhaps with a transitional advisory council.
  • Some immediate measures could help reassure the civilian political forces: lifting the state of emergency; releasing prisoners detained under its provisions; and respecting basic rights, including freedom of speech, association and assembly, including the rights of independent trade unions.
  • Independent, credible bodies might be set up to investigate charges of corruption and other malfeasance against ex-regime officials. Investigations must be thorough, but non-politicised to avoid score-settling. There will need to be guarantees of fair judicial process. Independent and credible criminal investigations also could be held to probe abuse by all security forces, together with a comprehensive security sector review to promote professionalism.
  • The democratic movement would be well served by continued coordination and consensus around the most important of its positive and strategic political demands. This could be helped by forming an inclusive and diverse body tasked with prioritising these demands and pressing them on the military authorities.

One need only look at what already is happening in Yemen, Bahrain or Libya to appreciate the degree to which success can inspire. But disenchantment can be contagious too. Mubarak’s ouster was a huge step. What follows will be just as fateful. Whether they asked for it or not, all eyes once again will be on the Egyptian people.

Cairo/Brussels, 24 February 2011


Egypt’s Quest for Itself

Originally published in Orient XXI

Egypt’s transition is as contradictory and tempestuous as the current state of its society, and tells us much about it. What is still lacking is a sense of direction that could reassure both Egyptians and onlookers on where it is heading. Instead, a whirlwind of reversals, about-faces, and false starts has locked Egypt into a revolving cycle, if not a downward spiral.

Since President Mohammad Mursi was deposed last July, the coalition leading the transition may not be liberal and inclusive, but it does enjoy (for now) broad popular support, is committed to a clear electoral roadmap and, in any event, is a reality on the ground; “let us deal with it on that basis”, say most of its Western partners. The trouble is the same was said of the military when they ruled after President Hosni Mubarak’s removal in February 2011, and of the Muslim Brotherhood when they assumed power in June 2012. Both experiments ended ignominiously, and left Egyptians in a frantic search for an alternative. Throughout these phases, the levels of violence and repression have tended to escalate – leading to almost unprecedented waves of arrests in recent weeks. Meanwhile, polarized narratives are hardening.

If Egypt is to stand a chance for a more stable, more prosperous and more democratic future, one needs to reflect on the recent past. In particular, was the Brotherhood’s brief stint in office an anomaly – a mere parenthesis – or part of a cycle that their departure in itself will not end?

The Brotherhood’s Egyptian critics would posit the former, alleging that they treated the country as their loot, literally sold off parts of it to others, attempted to subvert its identity and merge it into a larger Muslim Umma, killed opponents in cold blood, and so on. The Brotherhood’s treachery runs so deep, they say, as to support opponents of the national football team. A kinder, rarer view among their critics is that their ascension introduced far too many changes for a traditionalist Egyptian society to stomach, thus calling for a reset to a slower transition.

For observers such as ourselves, engaging the Brotherhood during their year in power distilled, by contrast, a powerful sentiment of continuity. Policies – both foreign and domestic – seemed mostly aligned with past practices: they departed from them at times, but not spectacularly. Some appointments were shockingly partisan; most followed the norm. While the Brotherhood challenged the judiciary, it worked hard to placate and co-opt other key institutions, such as the ministries of defense and interior. Their style of government failed to be inclusive; but their predecessors were no better and their successors are arguably worse.

In fact, the Muslim Brothers’ narrative in private was astonishingly similar to what military officials used to tell us before them: we are the real Egypt, our finger is on the people’s pulse, and our opposition is a fringe of trouble-makers and spoilers. For their many failings the Brothers, just like the generals, would blame a grand but implausible conspiracy. Both posit that their own understanding of Egypt’s national interests and national security reflects the truest part of Egyptian identity.

The Brotherhood sees itself and its Egypt as a standard-bearer of like-minded Islamists across the region, natural allies that need to be abided, supported, and led. This meant, at times, irresponsible indulgence of Sinai-based militants and, at others, formal endorsement of jihad in Syria. In the Brotherhood narrative, focusing solely on Egypt is betraying the country’s greater, eschatological destiny.

Security institutions, notably the military, restrict their vision to Egypt’s borders despite often wrapping themselves in pseudo-Nasserist nostalgia. They are inclined to perceive Islamists of all shades as fundamentally unpatriotic, and distinguish them from “honorable citizens” who need to be protected from them at all costs.

All told, how did the Brotherhood rally against itself, within a year, such a large number of Egyptians as to make its undoing possible? How could so many of those who had elected them into power, or broadly accepted the polls’ results, reject them with such vitriol? How could the oldest, most established Islamist movement in the region become so quickly alienated in a religiously conservative society, to the point of being castigated as un-Egyptian?

Our sense is that the Brotherhood paid the price less for what it did, than for what it is. Although it presents itself and is perceived as a blend between religious movement and political party, it is mostly something else: a “secret society” and a vehicle for social mobility. By secret society we allude not to a scheming cabal but to a closed community. One does not simply join the Brotherhood, but fuses with it, marries into it, comes of age within it, and belongs to it profoundly.

There are nuances, debates, tensions even, within the organization, but being a Brother is a form of socialization, a frame of mind, a chain of command, and a perimeter within which one cultivates a distinction with the rest of society. The Brotherhood’s project, as conceptualized and proselytized by its founder Hassan al-Banna, is a dogma to which members wholeheartedly subscribe and are actively discouraged from questioning. It is a hierarchical organization where respect for (read complete obedience to) more senior leaders is a welcome sign of piety and dedication.

As such, the Brotherhood offers its members status, support and opportunities for social ascension – not least within its own ranks – in a broader environment that is not conducive to success via merit or other means. This is why leaving the Brotherhood bears such a trauma: you do not merely quit, but divorce yourself from its social, religious and business networks. For those who have gone through it, it is often a heart-wrenching process, in which one’s entire social world can turn its back. For its devoted members, therefore, the Brotherhood is more than a religious movement and a political party: it is a way of life that runs parallel to a larger society perceived as insufficiently pious and generally dysfunctional.

Egypt’s post-Mubarak transition put these features in a new light. On the one hand, the Brotherhood revealed itself structurally and culturally incapable of embracing genuinely inclusive politics – or even recognizing that it needed to construct a broader base of support. On the other, its accession to power transformed its traditional role as a vehicle for social ascension into a threat to well-established elites in a particularly rigid, almost caste-like society, where sons most often follow their fathers’ professional careers, social prejudices are deeply rooted, and endless commuting is about as much as one can hope for in terms of “mobility”.

That is not all. This is also a society that is being subjected to an unbearable amount of economic and other stress. The social contract that bound Egyptians, since Nasser, is one where the state guarantees education, healthcare, food, energy and even jobs to all citizens, in exchange for their unconditional retreat from politics and matters of governance. It has been unraveling for decades, and is now utterly frayed. Egyptians, more than others around the region, are right to panic at the thought of persistent instability occurring as a result: over 80 million people squeezed into a small habitable territory, endowed with limited resources, cannot afford any major breakdown.

As a result, Egyptians find solace in a sense of unity and uniformity, always elusive, ever sought after. If any slogan best encapsulated the specificity of Egypt’s transition, “one hand” or “all one” would be it: all one, against the former regime; against interim military rule; and, finally, against the Muslim Brotherhood. Yesterday’s worst enemies rejoice at being today’s best friends in a series of dizzying reconfigurations, while the paradox of being “all one” against the other seemingly is lost on all.

Egypt’s fear of generalized conflict or collective collapse appears to prompt a collective purging instinct, in which society consolidates around the need to rid itself of one of its components, perceived as threatening to the whole. Typically, this category is first re-categorized as foreign. The Brotherhood set themselves up to being treated as such, not least by encouraging jihad in Syria – a provocative break with a more cautious and mature foreign policy for the pure sake of rallying an Islamist base. But there is a pattern here that runs deeper, albeit on different scales.

Before protests gained decisive momentum in the early days of the 2011 uprising, many Egyptians saw demonstrators as paid agents provocateurs that deserved no better than to be crushed. This sentiment has returned at various stages of the transition. Coptic Christians suddenly faced frantic government and communal violence as they marched past the Maspero state television building in October 2011. Sudden spikes of xenophobia – against Westerners, Palestinians or Syrian refugees accused of the most outrageous plots against the country’s integrity – fit into the same pattern. Egyptians compulsively seek a scapegoat to blame for the country’s ill fortunes. Most media outlets, both state-controlled and privately owned, whip up campaigns of intolerance that the public largely buys into, finding comfort in groupthink.

This troubling cycle has been fueled by the nature of the political game: exclusionary, rudderless, confrontational and highly stressful, given the uncertainty, the violence, and the economic pressure to which it has given rise. Egyptians struggle, tellingly, to define a narrative that could help them make sense of events. The instant revolution fiction of early 2011 was quickly dispelled. The Brotherhood’s credo, “Islam is the solution”, soon came to be seen as part of the problem. It has now become remarkably mainstream to draw on a peculiar “pseudo-Nasserist” discourse that purports the revival of the military-led republic’s bygone spirit. This myth will not stand the test of reality any better than previous ones.

But then what? Egyptians sport both an unshakable faith in their country’s greatness and a gripping anxiety at its failure to meet their already lowered expectations. The ill-defined, stuttering transition they find themselves caught in has a knack of reigniting their fears about their collective destiny.

Egypt has both Sunnis and Copts, but it also has Shia, Baha’is and even atheists, however few they may be. It has the privileged secular-leaning urban elites, but also the destitute and the poor in its countryside and in the shantytowns encircling its major cities. The poor are a fertile ground in which charity and service-providing Islamists flourish. Some Egyptians think greater freedoms are needed; others would like to see a more effective brand of repression. Both the countryside and an urbanized underclass are growing in numbers (and in need), but the established elites still enjoy all the levers of power. The latter are bent on keeping the former in check, respectful of an ancestral order of affairs, but fail to deliver on the minimal levels of governance and redistribution required to do so.

Egypt’s greatest challenge is to recognize and regulate the pluralism within its society – to transition from a desperate quest for unity to a confident acceptance of diversity and what it would entail in terms of representation, competition and redistribution via the political system. It is unclear how Egypt or any other country ultimately achieves this. The tensions increasingly manifest in its society have been decades in the making, and addressing them is neither easy nor straight-forward. Sadly but realistically, some of these fault lines simply may not be bridgeable politically before they run their course on the streets.

Egypt also has much going for it. Fear of collapse hopefully will continue to serve as a powerful safeguard; state institutions are dysfunctional but resilient; and much support, whether benevolent or biased, can still be expected from sympathetic states in the Gulf and the West. The country’s traditional elites – be they generals, secular intellectuals or Islamist figures – are not up to the task, squandering one opportunity at coexistence and reform after another, but a new generation is rising, slowly but surely. It has no patience for the mummified political culture of its forebears.

But Egypt also urgently needs to buy time. The economy is dangerously eroding, in a society whose coping mechanisms have been stretched too thin and for too long. Numerous anecdotes of declining charitable contributions are but one sign of economic distress in a society where at least a quarter of the population is already under the poverty line. A generous lifeline from oil monarchies, which is mostly spent on subsidized fuels and commodities, will only keep the country afloat for so long. Egypt’s bloated and staggeringly inefficient public sector, the generous subsidies programs and the towering levels of inflation and unemployment set the country on an unsustainable path.

The belief that more arrests of dissidents and a couple of elections will finally help Egypt turn the corner, complete its transition and move on, is hazardous, if not delusional. This will help stave off neither a looming economic crisis nor a perilous drift toward more repressive policies . To shift from vicious cycle to virtuous cycle, Egypt must combine economic competence with some political level-headedness.

A more constructive posture on the part of the outside world — instead of rushing to endorse this or that leadership, hailing the sacrosanct political roadmap, and hoping for the best — would combine healthy political skepticism, a more consistent approach to the issue of individual liberties, and a clearer economic roadmap that would tie together Gulf money, Western aid, international loans and a much delayed reform program. The country’s rulers need the kind of support that helps them break with the cycle their predecessors fell victim to, not lock themselves into it.


Former Project Director, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria and Senior Middle East and North Africa Adviser
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Form Analyst, Egypt