The Struggle for Egypt’s Soul

CounterPunch, October 15, 2012

When the official announcement of Mohamed Morsi’s election as Egypt’s president was made following a tantalizing period of uncertainty, I had raised some questions about the country’s constitutional future. I had also suggested that a multilayered battle between the military and civilians, Islamists and secularists, and conservatives and liberals was likely (Palestine Chronicle, July 3, 2012). An example of such conflict has been witnessed at Tahrir Square in recent days. Clashes between liberals and Muslim Brotherhood supporters show simmering discontent in a polarized society as Morsi walks a political tightrope.

In his first hundred days in office, President Morsi has exercised caution, but also made some bold moves in a bid to keep many sides happy. On October 8, he announced a “blanket pardon” for all political prisoners arrested since the beginning of the uprising which overthrew Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and finally led to free elections in which Morsi won the presidency. The announcement said that all those serving prison sentences or still awaiting trial on charges to do with supporting the revolution would be released and charges against them would be dropped. The decree excludes those convicted of murder, but pointedly includes military officers arrested for taking part in demonstrations against Mubarak’s dictatorship.

Pressure had been growing on Mubarak’s successors to announce an amnesty and Morsi could hardly have ignored it after his election as the candidate of the Freedom and Justice Party formed by the Muslim Brotherhood in the wake of the anti-Mubarak uprising. That he was careful to address wider sections of society, including the military, was hardly surprising. The move was aimed at helping the new administration in several ways. For forty years under Hosni Mubarak’s and his predecessor Anwar Sadat’s rule, mostly with American support, Egypt’s military-dominated ruling elite had alienated the opposition and much of Egyptian society. The new administration must demonstrate different priorities.

On closer scrutiny, however, his “blanket pardon” was described by some commentators as insufficient. The presidential decree’s first article said that the pardon was “for all felony convictions and misdemeanor convictions or attempted crimes committed to support the revolution and the fulfillment of this goal.” Amnesty International has now said that “all Egyptians tried in front of military courts need retrials, including those whose offenses did not relate to the revolution.”

Morsi’s political base is the Muslim Brotherhood, a major force in Egyptian society for decades. But his narrow victory in the 2012 election against Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister of the Mubarak era and regarded as the military’s favorite, was made possible with support from moderate and secular voters. Morsi cannot shake off the Muslim Brotherhood label, perhaps he does not need to, but he was careful enough to declare that he was going to represent all Egyptians.

The task of a president in post-Mubarak Egypt is extraordinarily delicate. He has to establish civilian control over the military, which has dominated the country’s power structure for decades. Yet he has to work with the generals. He must not alienate other sections of the population as he remains a Muslim Brotherhood figure above all. He must respond to raised expectations following the old regime’s demise and his election. At the same time, he should ensure continuity and avoid a dramatic break from the past, for Egypt lives in a volatile environment.

President Morsi’s move against the military top brass, particularly ordering the retirement of Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi from his posts as commander of the armed forces and defense minister in August, seemed to have been executed with remarkable ease. But recent clashes at Tahrir Square highlight the continuing tensions between secularists and minorities on one hand, and Muslim Brotherhood supporters on the other. It is too soon to say that the task of reshaping the military into a force compliant to the democratically-elected government is complete. For the middle ranking and junior officers are bound to take longer to change. Meanwhile, the president needs their help to maintain order.

If Morsi’s move to change the military’s top leadership was executed with ease, his attempt to remove the state prosecutor general, Abdel Meguid Mahmud, has run into difficulties. The president announced Mahmud’s removal and appointment as Egypt’s envoy to the Vatican after a court acquitted more than twenty senior Mubarak era officials of organizing an attack on protestors during the uprising. Mahmud’s office was held responsible for presenting “weak evidence” against the accused. But the presidential order resulted in an outcry from the judges, who complained that Morsi had exceeded his powers in dismissing the state prosecutor general. In a setback to the president’s authority, the prosecutor general said that he was going to stay in his job. And the president was forced to back down.

Another controversy is brewing over the draft constitution released for discussion. This time, Human Rights Watch has called on the Egyptian Constituent Assembly to “amend articles in the draft constitution that undermine human rights in post-Mubarak Egypt,” The draft, it said, provides for some basic political and economic rights but falls far short of international law on women’s and children’s rights, freedom of religion and expression, and torture and trafficking.

The fall of Hosni Mubarak was an historic victory for the people, but the outcome of the struggle for the soul of the Egyptian nation is far from certain.


Old State Instruments Are Still in Place: What’s Changed in Egypt?

CounterPunch, June 5, 2012; Palestine Chronicle, June 4, 2012

The day of judgment for Hosni Mubarak arrived on June 2. The 84-year-old deposed president was given a life sentence with his interior minister Habib al-Adly for the killing of hundreds of protesters during last year’s uprising. Mubarak and his sons, Gamal and Alaa, were acquitted of corruption charges. The court also acquitted a number of key interior ministry officials and security chiefs. Some Egyptians celebrated immediately after the verdicts were announced. Soon, however, the mood turned angry, because many thought that the verdicts were too lenient. Both Mubarak and Adly will have the right to appeal. Other factors, too, continue to foment anxiety in the country.

Millions of Egyptians had voted in the first round of the presidential election only a few days before. Just who will become president after the final round in a fortnight is not certain, but the drift of Egyptian politics is clear enough. The two leading candidates who emerged from the first round and will fight it out for the presidency of the most important Arab state are poles apart; the moderates have been eliminated from the race. One candidate to emerge from the first round was Muhammed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Just behind Mursi was Ahmed Shafiq, a former military officer and briefly prime minister in the final days of the Mubarak presidency.

Shafiq was initially disqualified under a law prohibiting figures associated with the previous regime, but hastily reinstated as a presidential candidate. He received favorable coverage in the state media in the run-up to the first round. When the votes had been counted, the difference between Mursi and Shafiq was no more than one percent and both went into the second round.

The most fundamental question to arise at this juncture is what has changed in Egypt? The Egyptian uprising that saw the end of Hosni Mubarak’s presidency in 2011 was largely bloodless as far as the protesting millions were concerned. The same could not be said about gangs, said to be associated with Mubarak’s security services, who attacked peaceful crowds, killing and wounding hundreds of people.

Events have since included attacks on Egypt’s Coptic Christians, their churches and other members of the public. The military has maintained, even consolidated, its hold while Islamic parties have come to dominate the new parliament after recent elections. There is inevitably a tacit understanding between the Muslim Brotherhood, the most organized political force, and Egypt’s ruling Military Council. It is a familiar scenario in which two equally powerful sides learn to live with each other in the same environment.

Those eliminated include some high profile figures like Amr Mousa, former Arab League Secretary General and one-time cabinet minister under Mubarak. Supporters of the Egyptian Spring were bitterly disappointed after their vote split between Hamdin Sabbahi, a leftist, and Abdul Moneim Aboul Fatouh, a physician and lawyer renowned for years of opposition to Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. Fatouh had broken from the Muslim Brotherhood last year and stood as an independent. Together, Sabbahi and Fatouh secured forty percent of the vote, but found themselves eliminated. The feeling among many Egyptians is that the forces of real change were so close, yet so far and will have to wait for another day. The instruments of state power are still in the same place.

Their bitterness was summed up by a spokesman of the secular liberal Free Egyptians Party, Ahmed Khairy. He described Mursi as an “Islamic fascist” and Shafiq as a “military fascist.” And he lamented that the outcome of the first round was “the worst case scenario.”

For a country which endured long years of brutal dictatorship, helped by one superpower or the other, and then went through a spring which brought optimism on the horizon, the future looks far from promising. Certainly insofar as the moderate majority of nearly 60 percent Egyptians is concerned.

Thousands came out to demonstrate at Tahrir Square in Cairo after the results of the first round were confirmed. Protests are continuing in other parts of the country. Egypt’s semi-official newspaper Al-Ahram acknowledged that crowds vented their anger outside the Constitutional Court, insisting that they would never accept Shafiq––describing him as the “second Mubarak.” Amid ugly scenes, protesters were attacked by unidentified thugs. Shafiq’s headquarters was set ablaze after being ransacked and his home came under attack.

Against the background of these developments, large numbers of Egyptians continue to feel disenfranchised. To them, the second round promises one of two unwelcome scenarios and neither candidate’s victory may bring genuine change in a country yearning for democracy. The election of Shafiq would mean a continuation of the old era. It would suit the Egyptian armed forces, the United States and Israel much more than a victory for Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

There have been episodes in the past, both during Hosni Mubarak’s and his predecessor Anwar Sadat’s rule, when the regime entered into a tacit understanding with the Muslim Brotherhood. Now, though, the Islamists dominate the Egyptian parliament, but real power remains with the armed forces. Egypt still does not have a new constitution and the powers of the president and parliament are yet to be defined. Powerful internal and external players are still in the game. Like the deposed strongman Hosni Mubarak and his associates, Egypt’s emerging system is on trial.


The Meaning of the Egyptian People’s Revolution

History News Network (February 11, 2011)

Day seventeen of the Egyptian people’s uprising (February 10, 2011) brought a new dangerous twist to the crisis at the heart of the Middle East. Beleaguered President Hosni Mubarak gave a television address, but expectations that he would leave were once again thwarted. He patronized the people, calling them his children; he apologized for the state-sponsored violence of recent days; he attacked foreign powers, clearly meaning the United States, for trying to dictate to Egypt; he asserted, denying an obvious reality, that he would never turn the country into a satellite; he would devolve some of the presidential powers to the longstanding intelligence chief and now vice president Omar Suleiman; however, he would not resign and stay on until the end of his current term in September.

As he continued in this vein, determined to cling on to power, the popular mood of expectation turned into anger. People chanted “Go, Go, Go.” Shoes were seen flying in air. It reminded me of a speech of Romania’s dictator Nicolai Ceausescu in 1989. Before his fall, Ceausescu tried to address a crowd from the balcony of his palace. The people booed him in response. Imagine if Mubarak tried to face the Egyptian people instead of addressing them on state television? What is surely the final phase of Mubarak’s three-decade dictatorship reminds us of the most tumultuous events in recent history. The fall of the pro-U.S. Shah of Iran in 1979, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 symbolizing the end of the Soviet Empire and the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991.

With popular rage sweeping the country, the pressure on the Mubarak regime, and uncertainty with it, were bound to increase. Friday would be another day of massive demonstrations. Already labor unions, government employees, judges and medical staff had been joining the protestors. The trend was likely to grow, but Mubarak had failed to judge the nation’s mood. Al Jazeera and Press TV reported about military officers at the Liberation Square in Cairo dropping their weapons and joining the demonstrators. The loyalties of Egypt’s most important institution, the armed forces, to Mubarak and his regime look less certain. The game seems to be up. What legacy would Mubarak leave when he finally departs? For we are witnessing a phenomenon that is irreversible.

Egyptians living under a suppressive regime have broken the fear barrier. The masses have realized their collective strength and resolved to end their long nightmare. People have lived through atrocities and pain, economic and political hardships without any obvious recourse, distrust of their rulers and pessimism about their future long enough. They have reflected on what they must endure if things remained unchanged, examined their own worth and concluded that the system cheats them in every way. Their rage has broken the threshold of tolerance. They have decided that the existence of permanent humiliation is not worthy of continuation. The point of inevitability has been reached in the people’s revolt in Egypt.

The inevitability of a revolution, once the dynamic has reached that point, is no longer in doubt. However, exact prophecy is trickier. Juan Cole warns against the temptation to compare Egypt’s popular uprising to Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution (Why Egypt 2011 is not Iran 1979, Informed Comment, February 2, 2011). A number of observers have made alarmist predictions that the Muslim Brotherhood (i.e. radical Islamists) would take over power if Egypt’s military-dominated regime is swept away by popular revolt. What a betrayal of eighty million people?

The Muslim Brotherhood is neither a dominant entity in Egyptian polity nor is the movement in collaboration with the radical movements like the Islamic Jihad. There are secular, left-wing and right-wing parties, religious forces and labor activists in considerable numbers. Contrary to national elections and referendums to extend military-led rule under President Hosni Mubarak over three decades, the outcome of a free and fair election, if it were held, cannot be predetermined. However, with more than twenty parties, the scenario of a radical Islamist seizer of power looks unlikely.

Anti-Americanism in Egypt, the heart of the Arab world, is a different matter. Political machinations by the ruling elites in and outside Egypt to keep the established character of regime in place will only serve to reinforce the anti-American feeling. Egypt’s uprising has both differences from, and parallels with, earlier civil revolts elsewhere. The local context of the events in Egypt is different. However, it is important to recognize what these events mean for the United States, Israel and their strategic designs in the Middle East. They mean something akin to what the Iranian Revolution meant back in 1978-79. Mubarak’s desperate attempts to cling on to power look similar to those of Iran’s dictator, the shah, in his final days before he left the country in January 1979.

In the early stages of the Iranian Revolution, a weak American president Jimmy Carter in a moment of fatal misjudgment, described Iran as a “free country” and an “oasis of peace and stability.” As the current Egyptian uprising started more than two weeks ago, the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that the regime in Cairo was “stable.” That only days after Clinton was moved to acknowledge the region being battered by a “perfect storm” demonstrated a crisis in Washington’s understanding of the Middle East similar to the one three decades before. America’s misjudgment and confusion about how to deal with the crisis does not stop there. The way ahead is littered with political landmines.

President Obama’s soaring rhetoric proved much stronger than his leadership in office. Today he looks like a weak president in the mold of Jimmy Carter. In July 2009, he embarked on his Middle East political journey in Cairo with a celebrated speech seeking “a new beginning” with Muslims based on mutual interests and mutual respect, justice and tolerance. That rhetorical promise now faces a severe test. Obama seems clueless while American policy is hijacked by hawkish secretaries of state and defense, with the uniformed military top brass openly meddling in Egypt’s affairs; and voices from the United States and Israel declare utter disrespect for the Egyptian people and the reasons for this uprising. Obama demands that a transition “must be quick, must be peaceful and must start now.” President Mubarak refuses to resign, promises to go in September 2011 at the end of his current term (thirty year in all) and offers instead committees to discuss reforms and bribes in the form of pay rises.

No matter what comes out of Egypt’s tumultuous events, the U.S. Empire is collapsing. The Camp David Treaty that bought Egypt to the American camp for billions of dollars is in crisis. Israel, which has used Mubarak to maintain the blockade of Gaza and divisions in the Arab world, has every reason to be extremely worried. Autocratic ruling elites of other countries in the region – Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the smaller Gulf emirates and beyond – must be nervous. The Egyptian people have all but ensured the end of Hosni Mubarak’s rule and the prospects of a Mubarak dynasty. However, this is only a partial victory. The real victory will be the establishment of democracy in Egypt as its people demand. However, machinations in Israel, the United States and its European allies continue, and real victory is not certain – yet. Is it to happen soon? Or the people’s will to be thwarted – again? Attempts to cheat them this time will leave a legacy of anger and bitterness that will have consequences far more serious and long term than the events in Iran in 1979.