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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?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Egypt Conflict Alert
Egypt Conflict Alert
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 Conflict Alert

It is difficult to know which is most dangerous: the serious uptick in street violence; President Morsi’s and the Muslim Brotherhood’s serial inability to reach out to the rest of the political class inclusively; or the opposition clinging to the hope of some extraneous event (demonstrations, foreign pressure, judicial rulings or military intervention) allowing it to gain power while bypassing arduous compromise and politics. They are tied of course: the president’s cavalier treatment of the constitution-writing process and the judiciary and the opposition’s lethargic approach to politics and rejection of Islamist legitimacy alike have eroded the authority of state institutions. This encourages in turn unrest and contributes to the economic slide. Together, these heighten risks of a complete breakdown of law and order. For two years, political factions repeatedly have failed to reach consensus on basic rules of the game, producing a transition persistently threatening to veer off the road. It is past time for the president and opposition to reach an accommodation to restore and preserve the state’s integrity.

Since President Mubarak’s ouster, the level of violence has ebbed and flowed, yet each new wave brings the country closer to tipping point. Already, some police officers, beleaguered by attacks on their headquarters, are considering removing their uniforms and going home; there is talk of brewing discontent among Central Security Forces, the riot control police; and criminal gangs along with looters profit from the chaos. There are new shocking images of police brutality. Many young Egyptians increasingly appear disillusioned with electoral politics, and some are drawn to anarchical violence.

The situation is made worse by deteriorating economic conditions. As foreign currency reserves decline, the government finds it ever more difficult to prop up the Egypt's pound or maintain fuel and food subsidies. One should not be surprised to see larger segments of the population joining in socio-economic riots. By current trends, Egypt could find itself in a vicious cycle of economic under-performance and political instability, the one fuelling the other.

At first glance, the immediate trigger of the current crisis might appear to be entirely local. The violence that claimed the lives of dozens in Port Said began as a reaction to death sentences for 21 soccer fans charged with killing a rival team’s fans.  Yet, the events are symptomatic of a larger trend — erosion of respect for governing institutions. In the Suez Canal Zone and the Nile Delta, protestors have violently targeted administrative buildings, symbols of an authority viewed as removed, arbitrary and impotent. The collapse of the police and increased porosity of borders with Libya and Sudan, thus a marked increase in the illegal trafficking of light arms, further enable street violence.

Overshadowing this is a broader political context: a persistent, perilous standoff between on one side the president and his Islamist backers for whom elections appear to mean everything, and, on the other, opposition forces for whom they seem to mean nothing; between those in power who deny adversaries respect and those not in power who deny Islamists legitimacy. The constitution-writing process was a sad microcosm: Islamist contempt in forcing through what ought to have been a carefully constructed, consensual document; opposition recklessness in seeking to exploit the moment to topple the Brotherhood; one celebrating a narrow conception of majority rule, the other holding to a counter-productive notion of street politics.

In the absence of a shared view of the foundations of a future political system, Islamists are pressing their vision, while their opponents play spoilers. This has the makings of a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more the opposition obstructs and calls for Morsi's ouster, the more it validates the Islamists' conviction it will never recognise their right to govern; the more the Brotherhood charges ahead, the more it confirms the others' belief of its monopolistic designs over power. Even if leaders back away from the brink, this could quickly get out of hand, as their ability to control the rank and file — and, in the case of the opposition, ability to represent the rank and file — dwindles.

Reversing these dynamics requires efforts on two fronts. Politically, the key is mutual acceptance of two realities: that the Brotherhood's electoral victories give their rule legitimacy, but that a historic, complex transition in a challenging security and economic context requires exercise of power to be tempered by meaningful consensus-building.

Several steps would help: an end to opposition calls for the president to step down and agreement by Morsi that the constitution, whose adoption was marred by boycotts and low voter turn-out, ought to be revised to allay the apprehensions of non-Islamists and notably the Coptic community. Likewise, the process for designing the elections law — another topic of sharp disagreement, especially on district boundaries and the representation of women — should be revisited to reflect broader agreement among factions. Finally, after parliamentary elections are held, parties should form a coalition government, a result that would serve both the Muslim Brotherhood (which would gain from the opposition becoming a responsible stakeholder) and the opposition (which would be better positioned to impede what it views as efforts to institute single party rule).

The National Dialogue the president proposes is a possible forum.  It should build upon the 31 January Azhar memorandum in which all sides disavowed violence and promised serious discussion; its agenda — to find a way to amend the constitution and set the legal framework for legislative elections — needs to be clearly defined in advance; participation should be expanded to include representatives of youth activists and protesters. Parties should commit that, for decisions requiring legislative action, their future elected legislators would vote consistent with understandings reached in the dialogue.

The second set of challenges relates to the security environment. Security sector reform broadly construed — including mechanisms to ensure accountability and justice for victims of police brutality; training in crowd control; but also measures to restore law and order — needs to be tackled, and soon.

The alternative could well be a downward spiral toward greater insecurity, violence, social unrest and economic collapse. It also could be failure of a transition to which all eyes are turned and whose fate would reverberate far beyond its boundaries.

Brussels/Cairo