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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
Keeping Egypt’s Politics on the Agenda
Keeping Egypt’s Politics on the Agenda
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

 

Keeping Egypt’s Politics on the Agenda

Still grappling with its post-2011 turbulence, Egypt's economy and politics require urgent stabilisation. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – First Update early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to balance support for Egypt's economic reform with a strategy that seeks to fix the country's broken political system.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – First Update.

Europe’s approach to Egypt has focused on accompanying economic reform, a massive challenge for a country of 90 million still reeling from the effects of post-2011 political instability. However, doing this at the expense of addressing the troubling and dangerous state of Egypt’s domestic politics would be self-defeating.

Egypt’s Economy Under Stress

Egypt’s economy, under severe stress, is arguably the country’s single greatest source of potential instability. Six months into the three-year, $12 billion deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) inked in November 2016, its reforms are already taking a toll. The decision to free float the Egyptian pound (EGP) has diminished the currency’s value against the dollar (USD) by over 50 per cent, and inflation has skyrocketed. In February 2016, CAPMAS, the government’s statistics agency, found that food-price inflation reached 41 per cent year-on-year. Though the government also reduced fuel and energy subsidies in November 2016, the devaluation cancelled out much of the savings, since in EGP terms imports are now much more expensive.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s economic decision-making has at times been decisive but often imprudent. He has invested scarce resources in prestige projects with uncertain returns, such as a costly widening of the Suez Canal, and significantly boosted arms imports. He has postponed important decisions, including the EGP’s free-float, a delay that many experts say exacerbated the currency’s fall. Overall, Sisi’s behaviour suggests a reactive approach to economic reform, moving ahead only when under duress, such as when he needed to quickly secure the IMF loan. A $12.9 billion debt repayment scheduled for 2018 (even if some of it, owed to Gulf countries, is likely to be quietly written off) and a public debt that has officially reached 98 per cent of GDP (though many experts believe it is higher) present other looming crises.

EU-Egypt relations are beginning to bear a striking resemblance to what they were during President Hosni Mubarak’s era.

More importantly, the government appears to be pursuing economic reforms – many of which are likely to cause short-term pain and be contested by large segments of society – in an exclusively top-down, dirigiste manner. On the economy as in other matters, important decisions are often made with little to no consultation among stakeholders, without transparency or an adequate communications strategy. Even Sisi’s supporters among Egypt’s business elite appear sidelined, while the military has taken on an outsized role in implementing certain major economic projects, often without coordinating with private sector partners: the government announced a promising industrial zone in the Suez Canal zone but without consulting potential investors about their needs.

Simultaneously, the military and security services have tended to micromanage the use of foreign aid, the result often being either long delays in the implementation of projects or the blocking of those they do not like. The economy is relatively advanced, and the country enjoys both extremely successful private sector personalities and talented technocrats. Yet, as part of the wider reversal of the democratic opening of 2011-2013, the government is turning its back on consensus-building on major socio-economic issues. It often appears more concerned about securing foreign aid, especially direct budget support, than genuinely thinking through what its reform plan should be and how to implement donor agendas.

The top-down model notwithstanding, some major reforms have been avoided or blocked because of political resistance from within state institutions. This may seem paradoxical in light of the regime’s generally undemocratic nature, yet Egypt’s state is both authoritarian and plural. The European Union (EU) should keep this in mind as it seeks to accompany Egypt’s economic reforms; it cannot simply rely on a partnership with the executive.

Examples abound. For instance, parliament, despite being overwhelmingly supportive of Sisi, for the past year obstructed and ultimately watered down a civil service reform that sought to address the problem of a bloated bureaucracy. Although the private sector supported the reform, and the presidency sought to impose it, parliamentarians (most of whom have no party affiliation and were elected as independents) had to take into account the seven million civil servants (and voters) whose salaries amount to a quarter of the annual budget. That many of these parliamentarians themselves are former civil servants is another reason for their obstructionism. A proposed new investment law is likely to suffer the same fate. The judiciary, too, is battling attempts at executive encroachment. The presidency’s resort to emergency law to bypass the ordinary judiciary, as well as direct pressure on judges, can have a negative impact on the rule of law and the investment environment.

The EU’s dilemma: stability over reform?

Egypt presents a difficult dilemma. Since the 3 July 2013 coup that deposed President Mohamed Morsi, the EU, after an initial period of caution, largely normalised relations with the military-led regime. Several member states publicly embraced Sisi despite his regime’s repressive rule, judging that the priority was to help strengthen Egypt so it could better withstand domestic and external turmoil. This approach has been reinforced by the strong view among several key countries – notably Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and, more recently, the U.S. under the Trump administration – that stabilising Egypt is more important than reforming it.

In this sense, EU-Egypt relations are beginning to bear a striking resemblance to what they were during President Hosni Mubarak’s era. This could well be a mistake: the country’s polarised politics and resurgent authoritarianism are at the core of its inability to defuse the threat of extremism and embark on a sustainable path to reform of sclerotic state institutions. The 9 April twin bombings of Coptic Orthodox churches and their aftermath are tragic but telling symptoms. Despite three years of counter-insurgency in Sinai and ever more draconian counter-terrorism legislation, the Islamic State (ISIS, whose main local branch is called Sinai Province) now appears more confident and daring in its efforts to stir up sectarianism. The security services are widely perceived as inefficient, even as the Sisi regime has doubled down on an all-security approach by declaring a state of emergency and threatening to shut down critical media. This bodes ill for Egypt’s appeal to tourists and investors and risks deepening a vicious cycle of repression and extremist violence without addressing underlying political factors, all against the backdrop of rising socio-economic tensions.

Growing Polarisation

Ultimately, stabilising Egypt in a sustainable manner will not be achievable without a government willing to address the widening chasm between the regime’s defence of an ersatz secularism and its Islamist opponents’ increasing radicalisation. While the former remains rigid and autocratic in the name of defending the “prestige of the state”, the latter has embraced an irresponsible “revolutionary” discourse that, in essence, is banking on state failure. Voices calling for conciliation on both sides are marginalised; to date the EU and some of its members unfortunately appear, by and large, to have relinquished their early efforts at mediation. One result is the government’s growing rejection of human rights and rule of law and resurgence of an ugly sectarianism on the part of the opposition, particularly among members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies.

Allowing this polarisation to fester has consequences beyond Egypt’s borders. This is especially true in areas where Cairo tends to project its own domestic brand of politics, as in Libya. There, Egypt’s stridently anti-Islamist approach and unconditional backing for General Khalifa Haftar inevitably may complicate resolution of the conflict and managing its consequences, including the central Mediterranean migration crisis.

Supporting Economic Reform and More Inclusive Politics

Egypt and the EU will adopt their partnership priorities for 2017-2020 at the next Association Council in June 2017. These are expected to include support for Egypt’s sustainable economic and social development, as well as strengthened cooperation on foreign policy, in particular in the fields of democratic governance, security and migration. The EU will also implement a new assistance program to support these jointly agreed priorities. In the past few months of negotiations, Egypt has resisted what it sees as political interference in its domestic affairs, especially on questions of human rights, civil society and political pluralism – even though these issues are covered under the Egypt-EU Association Agreement. Moreover, many European officials believe they have little leverage over Egypt given its rulers’ determination to maintain their current approach at all costs. Both the EU and its member states appear inclined to revert to the pre-2011 status quo despite facing a very different Egypt. This could well amount to an ostrich strategy.

The alternative for the EU, with the support of member states, would be to place far more emphasis on Egypt’s broken politics. A presidential election is due in 2018, with parliamentary elections following in 2020; for their part, municipal elections are long overdue. Sisi supporters are pushing through constitutional amendments to remove term limits and otherwise strengthen an already extremely powerful presidency. All of these represent potential political flashpoints. It would be unwise and unrealistic to support Egyptian economic reforms – or partner on issues such as migration control or counter-terrorism – without taking this context into account and push for a more inclusive environment that could help defuse these potential crises. Several broad principles could be followed.

Stabilising Egypt in a sustainable manner will not be achievable without a government willing to address the widening chasm between the regime’s defence of an ersatz secularism and its Islamist opponents’ increasing radicalisation.

First, European governments ought to press for progress on issues that have been taken up by Egyptian political parties and civil society, such as pushing back on restrictions on civil society funding (especially foreign but also local) and organising, a draconian protest law, or suspension of the rule of law under the state of emergency. As a corollary, they should ensure continued engagement with segments of Egyptian society other than the state and insist that political parties and civil society organisations be able to operate with some degree of safety.

Second, Europe should keep channels of communication (even discreet ones) open with the more intransigent opposition, including elements toward which it has little affinity – and that the Egyptian regime has labelled terrorist groups – such as the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as members of the “anti-coup alliance” it leads. It should use those channels to push those elements toward moderation and an eventual reconciliation with the regime, however implausible that might seem today. These groups continue to enjoy sizable local support. To ignore or, worse, adopt the regime’s stance toward them, would be both short-sighted and counterproductive.

In this sense, Europe should seek to use its financial support to persuade Egypt to move in a more constructive political direction. The idea that it has little leverage over Egypt is an untested proposition; unlike in 2013-2014, Egypt can no longer expect automatic financial support from Arab Gulf states. At a minimum, Europe should ensure that core political issues remain at the top of its agenda, and that it maintains contacts with the full spectrum of Egyptian actors.