Stephen M. Walt

Letter from Cairo

The following guest post is an edited version of an email I received from a friend in Cairo who prefers to remain anonymous. Note that it was written prior to the Egyptian Army’s July 1 "ultimatum" to President Mohamed Morsy. A view from the Nile, 30 June 2013 I have moved along a spectrum of ...

MAHMUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images
MAHMUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images

The following guest post is an edited version of an email I received from a friend in Cairo who prefers to remain anonymous. Note that it was written prior to the Egyptian Army’s July 1 "ultimatum" to President Mohamed Morsy.

A view from the Nile, 30 June 2013

I have moved along a spectrum of opinion on how Egyptians see their nation and their situation, and I want to share a few impressions about how Egyptians view how change can occur in their country.

Organizing for the anniversary of their first presidential election

I began both excited and dismayed at their naivete when the Tamarod ("Rebel") campaign began gathering signatures around a month ago to pressure President Mohamed Morsy to resign. Egypt has no impeachment process, so to a foreign political scientist, it seemed a bit pointless to gather signatures that could have no legal effect on removing Morsy from office. "Perhaps they were also gathering email or Facebook addresses in order to develop a more organized movement?" I thought. But no, it was mostly a mobilizing effort.

Over the months since the last big anti-government protests on the second anniversary of the revolution’s start, Jan. 25, much activity outside government had fallen to a lull. People had gotten tired, and the Tamarod campaign was an effort to re-energize and develop a base — to tap into the "undecideds," that range of Egyptians — mostly urban in Cairo and a number of the larger Nile delta cities — who were relatively neutral about what was happening in politics. Over this month, Tamarod collected its goal of 15 million signatures (it announced 22 million signatures gathered yesterday) and during the process gained attention and a seat at the table with the established anti-government political opposition parties. (Note: At the same time, a pro-government signature-gathering campaign began and is now claiming to have gathered 25 million signatures.)

Still, I questioned Tamarod’s effectiveness — how could it accomplish anything except for having people in the streets? — until a little over a week ago.

Whom do you trust?

One of the two core challenges in this current dynamic is the fact that there are only two institutions that its people trust. While Americans have trust and confidence (at various times) in the media, the president, elections, the Supreme Court, local elected officials, and maybe even their police, Egyptians really only have two: the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF — often just referred to as the Army for shorthand, but it includes a navy and an air force among a few other services) and their devout faith for Islam. This is not a political Islam for a majority but a spirituality that, at most, imbues their every action in life and, at least, encourages a sense of surrender and acceptance — the idea that there are many things beyond one’s control and the best you can do is to do your best.

The EAF and their faith are the two institutions that they feel they can rely on, trust, and believe in. They have been the constants — before and after the revolution — and the ones that they hope will "come to their rescue" against the current difficult situation. When foreigners tell them "trust in your institutions," they think we are telling them to trust in the current corruptness — which includes their courts, elections, police, presidency, etc — which they don’t see changing. As a result, our message "sent" is not the message "received." Instead, they believe that we are telling them to stay with something that is unacceptable to them.

The second challenge of the current dynamic is Egyptians’ perception that the only way they have been able to achieve any real change in their system — and in their elected government’s behavior — has been through street protests and demonstrations. Hosni Mubarak fell due to 18 days of protest. Morsy changed his stance on extensive presidential oversight and power in the draft of the Egyptian Constitution only after massive street protests last November and early December. The decision to call for earlier parliamentary elections (which later was undone) was achieved after the Jan. 25 protests this year. Hence, Egyptians’ almost supernatural belief in the ability of the demonstrations — starting June 28 — to force a change in the government.

For non-Egyptian government officials watching from Berlin or Washington, this is a recipe for extreme civil unrest at best and civil war at worst. Yet again, for the anti-government protesters, they feel, they believe, that they have their deus ex machina to pluck Egypt from chaos and into, hopefully, a do-over. The Egyptian Armed Forces have very clearly said that they exist to protect the nation of Egypt and its people. In the most obvious form, this is protecting vital national infrastructure and resources — the Suez Canal, the power supply system, the water system, the communications system. Statements by Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi over the past weeks also indicate his and the EAF’s dismay and disappointment at the inability of the civilian elected government, political opposition, and media to come to agreements on how to run and support the country. At the same time, Sisi and his messengers have been very clear that they really truly do not want to return to their role of running the country as they did during the 18 months after the fall of Mubarak.

The stated scenario (some might call fantasy) of many opposing the current government is a temporary military takeover that cleans out the Muslim Brotherhood leadership and sets the stage for a temporary caretaker government (the media has reported on a council of three), a rewriting of the Constitution, the election of a house of representatives (their lower house of parliament), and then the presidential election. This scenario has enormous support among the population that opposes the current government. For them, this is not a coup d’etat — it is how Egypt can save itself. For the rest of Egypt, who voted for and still support President Morsy (slightly dwindling in the delta area but still at around 43 percent overall), this would be an undoing of a legitimate political process of elections — and one that those in the United States and Europe endorse and hold as the standard for the transfer of power.

A wide range of Egyptians is planning to turn out for the demonstrations. Tamarod has helped educate and mobilize them. They feel it is another "January 25" moment. They want to be counted because they want to believe their numbers will affect the decisions of President Morsy. In retrospect, they now think that if Mubarak had addressed the public’s demands within the first few days after Jan. 25, 2011, he could have retained power and started to change the system. Some of them are hoping for such an inspired moment of compromise by Morsy and his government. The only prediction that I have been willing to make is that I expect the demonstrations to be relatively peaceful (and in Egypt, that is a relative word) on June 30. But if change doesn’t occur within the first few days, then I could see violence developing by the end of the week. I could see the presidency declaring emergency law (essentially martial law) and then the question for the Army will be "Who’s side are you on?"

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