Uncertainty and optimism in Egypt
After briefly sizing me up as I surveyed his offerings, the street bookseller near Cairo’s Tahrir Square approached me and asked: “Muslim Brotherhood books or revolution books?” I suppose the concerns of Americans scanning Arabic books in Cairo are just that obvious. Of course, I bought both. But polarization over the role of Islamists in ...
After briefly sizing me up as I surveyed his offerings, the street bookseller near Cairo’s Tahrir Square approached me and asked: “Muslim Brotherhood books or revolution books?” I suppose the concerns of Americans scanning Arabic books in Cairo are just that obvious. Of course, I bought both. But polarization over the role of Islamists in the new Egypt and questions about the future of the revolution are on the minds of Egyptians, too. Answers to those questions are being hammered out in ways which frustrate many, infuriate some, and satisfy virtually no Egyptians.
After a week in Cairo talking to a wide range of activists, academics, political figures, Islamists, journalists, and many others — while also taking part in this exceptional conference which I helped organize at the American University of Cairo (video here) — I came away sharing many of the concerns I encountered in the vibrant political discussions I heard, but broadly optimistic about Egypt’s prospects. It is impossible to not be impressed with the energy, enthusiasm, and talent of the diverse array of activists and social forces which came together to make Tahrir possible. While I found plenty of reasons for concern about the intentions of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, I found myself more impressed by their relative incompetence than by their malevolent genius. I found the Muslim Brotherhood confident but clearly grappling with a wide range of unfamiliar issues and challenges which have the Islamists on shaky ground. I also found deep, if unsurprising, skepticism that the U.S. could or would play a positive role in shaping a new Egypt, a public sentiment with which the U.S. appears to be doing too little to engage.
Cairo feels surprisingly normal these days, after this year’s whirlwind of revolutionary fervor. But the deep uncertainty shaping all of its political life seems to be taking a toll. Elections to Parliament are supposed by held in September, but there is still no electoral law. Recent violent clashes between salafi Islamists and Copts have set religious tensions on edge, feeding an intense and growing polarization between Islamists and secular trends. Parts of the revolutionary coalition seem determined to continue taking to the streets, as the only way to put any serious pressure on the SCAF or as a project of pushing for a deeper revolution, while others warn of the risk of alienating mainstream Egyptians who crave a return to normal life and of the urgency of turning now to the hard work of building political parties. Most everybody is unhappy with the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces.
The question currently consuming the protest movement is a demand to postpone elections in favor of first drafting a constitution. There is some logic to their demands, given the obvious problems with moving forward in the absence of clear rules governing political life. What is the sense of electing a Parliament before Egyptians know whether they will be operating within a presidential or parliamentary system?
At the same time, there is something off-putting about self-declared liberals and democrats arguing in favor of continued military rule and against elections. Egypt just held a referendum on precisely this question, in which 77% of voters in a high turnout voted in favor of constitutional amendments and moving to parliamentary and presidential elections before redrafting the constitution. The legal arguments offered by the coalition issuing the call for “Constitution First” are unpersuasive, given the outcome of the referendum. Those who voted "yes" on the referendum, including but not by any means limited to the Muslim Brotherhood, see this new call for "Constitution First" as a thinly veiled end-run around democracy.
The underlying argument, of course, is that early elections would unfairly privilege the Muslim Brotherhood. Because other trends have not had time to organize for elections, this would be an unfair advantage for the Islamists. This would be more compelling were there any sign that the grab-bag of other trends were doing much by way of organizing their own ranks. It is far too easy to imagine that waiting for the secularists to get their acts together and form parties able to compete with the Muslim Brotherhood would mean waiting many years. How cruel an irony would it be to abort the transition to democracy out of fear that the “liberals” would lose?
The Muslim Brotherhood itself has been careful to insist that it would neither field a candidate for president nor seek a parliamentary majority. The leaders I met with consistently pointed out that they were aiming for 30% of the seats in Parliament, and the MB leadership has been insisting over the last weeks that it would expel from its ranks any member which stood for president. Its leaders understand well the risks of over-reaching at this transitional stage, with several citing during our conversations the lessons of Algeria (where Islamist electoral success triggered military coup and a horrific civil war) and Gaza (where the victory by Hamas triggered international sanctions and a deep Palestinian political divide). But its leaders seem increasingly annoyed with their counterparts. Why should the MB be punished, they ask, for spending the last few months organizing for a political campaign while its rivals did little but talk? They are also furious over what they see as an unfair and distorting media campaign against them across much of the press and TV.
For all its overt confidence, the Muslim Brotherhood is not necessarily the behemoth which it is perceived to be. While it eagerly projects the image of power, it is struggling to navigate a confusing new environment after decades of repression. Its chief advantage is its ability to mobilize voters, but this may not matter as much if there is extremely high turnout in Egypt’s first free elections. The MB will no longer benefit from being the sole outlet for a protest vote against Mubarak. The rise of the salafi trend has frightened many Egyptians (and the West), who do not necessarily make the fine distinctions among competing Islamist trends which they themselves do. Much of the media has been mobilizing against the Brotherhood, pouncing upon inflammatory or misguided statements by various spokesmen and fanning the flames of anti-Islamist anger. Some of the most prominent of the Muslim Brotherhood youth who played a key role in Tahrir during the revolution have been publicly critical of their leadership. (I will have more on all of this in a later post.)
The role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the ranks of Tahrir points to one of the greatest and most sharply contested legacies of the revolution: Who can legitimately claim to speak for the revolution? The loose coalition of youth activists and liberal politicians warn loudly that the Islamists might “hijack” the revolution. But the Muslim Brotherhood youth were in Tahrir as well, fighting hard. So were a wide coalition of workers, ordinary people, and the "Ultras" which have been receiving a bit of attention of late. Indeed, that diversity is precisely what made Tahrir so amazing. But if the Brothers were a key part of the assembled forces on Tahrir, then why do they not have equal claim on its legacy? Why should prominent and media-savvy young activists have a greater claim than the labor union leaders and ordinary people whose participation in the uprising helped it succeed where a decade of internet-led activism had mostly failed?
I remain broadly optimistic about Egypt, and deeply impressed by the quality of its civil society and emergent political class. The new political environment is drawing new actors into the political realm, engaging mass publics in active debates about the basic principles of Egyptian political order, and changing long-existing political movements. It is fantastic to watch Egyptians in a cafe excitedly discussing Yosri Fouda’s talk show in the same way I used to see them debate al-Jazeera talk shows about issues and ideas far from Cairo.
I was interviewed by the Egyptian daily al-Masry Al-Youm on the visit (in Arabic). What I told them was that I think that the most urgent strategic priority should be moving quickly towards elections and legitimate civilian rule. I see the arguments for "Constitution First" but don’t find them as compelling. The SCAF should not be allowed to grow comfortable in power, or excuses made to repeatedly extend the date of elections. Waiting for the scales to tip against the Islamists is a political strategy, not a constitutional or legal one, and will likely mean perpetual delay and the squandering of an historically unique opportunity for a democratic Egypt.
The only way to get a transition to democracy is to hold elections and transition to democracy. Victory in those elections will not be conferred by loud claims of revolutionary legitimacy, but through effective organization and by speaking credibly to the identities and interests of likely voters. Rather than complaining about their organizational disadvantages, secularists and liberals and leftists and all other political trends should get on with the hard work of building parties and preparing for the elections. They could work to highlight economic and social issues which resonate with ordinary Egyptians — schools, hospitals, jobs, labor conditions — which are the traditional focus of the left. When liberals and activists find themselves advocating a course which would keep the Egyptian military in power indefinitely, it may be time to re-evaluate.