Egypt’s Identity Crisis

The mood in Tahrir Square may be gloomy, but Egypt is right where it should be.


It may be hard to believe — with the weekly Friday protests, last week’s teachers strike, student sit-ins, and the Sept. 9 storming of the Israeli embassy — but there is something languid about Cairo these days. Perhaps it was the long, hot, and very tense summer, but the creativity and positive energy that marked Egypt between January and June seems sapped. Whatever is going on in the streets, and recently at the campus of the American University in Cairo, seems forced — a strained effort to do something, anything, to once again capture the lightning in a bottle that was those 18 days in Tahrir Square. It is not working, though. Last Friday’s protest (dubbed, "No to Emergency Law") only drew only hundreds to the square.

It is not so much that one group is ascendant at the expense of others. Everyone seems to be struggling with the complexities of the present moment. Egyptian liberals are despondent over what they fear will be a Muslim Brotherhood rout in the November elections; revolutionary groups are having trouble gaining traction with a fatigued population; Islamists are confident, but have flailed tactically in an unfamiliar political environment; Prime Minister Essam Sharaf’s government is a non-factor; and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces seems to be staggering under the pressure of a political role for which they were never trained. This bleak atmosphere is a stunning turnaround from the post-uprising mantra of "Anything has got to be better than the Mubarak regime."

So, is the revolution over? It is tempting to throw one’s hands up and declare that the combined weight of a persistent counter-revolution, economic realities, revolutionary narcissism, and incompetence thwarted the chance to build a new Egypt. Beyond the "hopes dashed" narrative, however, Egypt’s seemingly tortured present actually reveals something relatively healthy — the normalization of politics.

Egyptians have long conducted an intense national debate about what Egypt is, what it stands for, and its place in the world. However, this conversation was always conducted within the circumscribed contours of an authoritarian political system. Former Presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak plugged narratives that they hoped would elicit the loyalties of large numbers of Egyptians. Egypt has thus lurched from a vaguely socialist standard-bearer of the Third World, to late Cold War strategic partner of the United States, to emerging market darling of Wall Street — all in the pursuit of national power, prosperity, and peace.

None of these narratives, however, managed to bridge the gap between what Egyptians were being told about their lives and how they actually experienced them. How many Egyptians actually internalized Mubarak’s "stability for the sake of development," because they personally felt wealthier, healthier, and more eductated as a result of his neo-liberal reforms? Not too many.

But for over a half century, those who publicly objected to Nasser’s vaguely socialist drift, questioned Sadat’s embrace of the United States on nationalist grounds, and decried the economic reforms of the late Mubarak period did so at great personal risk. It was not until the Jan. 25 protests, when demonstrators declared that they were no longer afraid, were these critiques potent enough to bring down the regime.

Now, for all the problems and complexities of the new political order, Egyptians are getting an opportunity to debate the central questions of their national life in a free and unfettered manner. There has been an explosion of new magazines, newspapers, and television channels devoted almost exclusively to exploring the important political issues of the day. The intense discussion of a bill of rights, supra-constitutional principles, and the meaning of a "civil state"  are positive developments. To be sure, there are excesses. The student strike at the American University in Cairo (AUC), with its contradictory demands and calls to "storm Lisa’s [Anderson, the president of AUC] palace" seemed like a vainglorious effort to remain relevant seven months after Tahrir, rather than a genuine effort to address whatever concerns the strikers believe exist at the  university.

Even with the self-indulgence of some revolutionary groups, the cacophony of the press, half-developed party platforms, the preening of certain politicians, and the emergence of dozens of new political parties and coalitions, the ferocious debates of the last months will be critical in helping shape Egypt’s political trajectory. These fundamental "identity" questions are, in fact, more important than the execution and outcome of the country’s upcoming election to the People’s Assembly, which are now scheduled for November.

Unless the antecedent questions about Egypt’s identity are answered in a way that makes sense to the vast majority of Egyptians, the quality of the upcoming poll matters less than many believe. The eye-rolling clichés of American expert analysis during those heady days in January and February — "now the hard work begins," "we are only in the first inning," and "the situation is fluid" — are no less annoying today, but they happen to have a ring of truth.

There is no doubt that the next People’s Assembly, which will be responsible for choosing a committee of 100 to draft a new constitution, will have an important influence on Egyptian politics. But there seem to be two misconceptions about the process: First, that the assembly will take place in a vacuum, free of the conflict and debates that are currently roiling the Egyptian political arena. Second, that this group will come up with an acceptable document in a few months. These exepectations defy both historical precedent and the political realities of present-day Egypt. The danger is not so much that the constitution writing will take a long time or that the Muslim Brotherhood may dominate the process, but rather that the new constitution will be rushed and, as a result, will not adequately address what Egypt is, what it stands for, and its place in the world.

Egyptians and outside observers have been preaching patience, but they are are not exhibiting any. Without the development of a set of positive myths about Egypt’s future, any group, party, or leader will be politically vulnerable, heralding instability and the potential return of authoritarian politics. Uncertainty and contestation are precisely what political transitions are all about. They may be hard to accept, given all the challenges Egypt now confronts, but Egyptians are exactly where they should be.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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