Is Egypt going to make it? That’s a question we get all the time from outsiders—and from many Egyptians, too. Will Mohammed Morsi, the first Islamist president, turn Egypt into an Islamic state? An American pundit recently went so far as to suggest that the Morsi administration condones the destruction of the Pyramids of Giza—as called for by a handful ultra-conservative sheikhs who consider the 4,500-year-old pharaonic burial monuments to be symbols of paganism.
To play our part for a clearer understanding, this issue of the Cairo Review presents Special Report: Egypt Today and Tomorrow. Perhaps Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby sets a wisely cautious tone with his comment, “I don’t have a crystal ball,” in response to a question about the Arab Spring in The Cairo Review Interview. What is clear from the thirty-five essays and articles in this issue is that assessments of change in the Middle East cannot be reduced to simplistic judgments.
In his essay on Egypt’s new president, Shadi Hamid says that the Muslim Brotherhood will have to perform a balancing act in the struggle for political supremacy. Author Zeinab Abul-Magd believes that the Brotherhood and the military are effectively joined in a “marriage of convenience” for the foreseeable future. Tarek Osman argues that the January 25 revolution produced an unstoppable, youth-led wave of energy for a more open and efficient political system. Nabil Fahmy, a former Egyptian ambassador to the United States, presents a blueprint for a foreign policy aimed at regaining Egypt’s place in the world.
We are extremely indebted to all our writers, who include several professors and students on our own campus. For their special contributions and support, I would like to extend my deep appreciation to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Brundtland, Nobel laureate Ahmed Zewail, PIMCO Chief Executive Officer Mohamed A. El-Erian, novelist Ahdaf Soueif, and former Le Monde journalist Éric Rouleau.
I hope that our Special Report provides you with a richer appreciation of the complex political, economic, and social changes taking place in Egypt. I’ll go out on a limb and make one prediction about Egypt’s future: notwithstanding the bombast of a few fiery preachers and the gullible foreigners who take them too seriously, the Pyramids of Giza are going to be around for quite awhile.
The New Lineup
Mohammed Morsi is not the closest male descendant of the last Pharaoh, nor an heir of the Mohammed Ali dynasty, nor is he from the ‘superior breed’ of military men who overthrew the last monarch. His election as president in June amounted to a dramatic shakeup of political tradition: Mohammed Morsi is Egypt’s first democratically chosen leader since the beginning of history.
Yet the unusual ceremonial protocol around his assumption of office reflects the bruising new political lineup that has taken shape since the sudden collapse of Hosni Mubarak’s thirty-year rule. At the insistence of the generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Morsi took the office not before the elected parliament—which had been dissolved by a court ruling—but at the Supreme Constitutional Court. Morsi, in turn, orchestrated a symbolic swearing-in before the revolutionary throngs in Tahrir Square.
Indicating the real power in the new lineup, one of Morsi’s first acts as president was to pay a call on SCAF chairman Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, rather than the other way around. The two men represent the main political powers in the ‘new’ Egypt: the eighty-four-year-old Muslim Brotherhood, by far the best organized political group in the country, and the military establishment, deeply entrenched in Egyptian society since the 1952 Free Officers coup against King Farouk.
Thus far, SCAF and the Brotherhood broadly cooperate. Unlike the military crackdown after Islamists sought power through the ballot box in Algeria twenty years ago, SCAF has accepted the Brotherhood’s political rise. For its part, the Brotherhood is cautious about calling for an Islamic revolution or uprooting Mubarak’s old guard. But the two forces have been on a collision course since January, when the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafi Al-Nour Party captured 70 percent of the seats in the People’s Assembly.
SCAF and a SCAF-appointed government hindered the independence and legislative efforts of the People’s Assembly, whose ineffectiveness in turn seriously dented the Brotherhood’s popularity. Disillusion among supporters and increased worries among non-supporters about Islamist hegemony over all state institutions dealt a major electoral blow to the Brotherhood in the first round of the presidential balloting in May: compared to the 10.1 million Egyptians who voted for the Brotherhood’s list in the parliamentary election, only 5.7 million cast ballots for Morsi just four months later.
But the coup de grâce, which exposed what SCAF may have been planning all along, came when the judiciary stepped in to further compound the chaotic transition and effectively become SCAF’s proxy in the struggle against the Brotherhood. Days before the presidential election run-off between Morsi and Ahmed Shafik, a former Air Force commander, the Supreme Constitutional Court ordered the dissolution of the Islamist-controlled parliament on a legal technicality: security forces immediately surrounded the assembly to bar MPs from entering.
A soft coup seemed to be underway. Under the pretext of filling the legislative vacuum, SCAF issued an addendum to the interim constitution giving itself far-reaching executive and legislative powers including power over the state budget and the right to form an entirely new constituent assembly to draft the new constitution. SCAF’s decree also gave the military veto power over the future constitution.
In this power struggle, Morsi is not only confronting top generals who have no intention of losing their economic empire and veto power over national security and sensitive foreign policy. He also faces the considerable weight of the feloul, the remnants of the former regime. These include business tycoons, former National Democratic Party leaders, senior media powerhouses, and government officials who reach far and deep into state bureaucracy.
In addition, a review of Egypt’s emerging political lineup remains incomplete without noting that in the June run-off more than twelve million Egyptians registered their preference for the man who served as Mubarak’s last prime minister (compared to just over thirteen million for Morsi). Shafik’s supporters cannot be pigeonholed as pro-Mubarak counter-revolutionaries, and the most powerful among them, including those who backed Shafik with money and political influence, are clearly not going gently into the night.
Another element in the mix is the community of Egyptian liberals who welcomed the revolution but have recoiled at the prospect that democracy would privilege the illiberal Islamist movement. After performing abysmally at the polls, and fragmenting as a political force, some liberals filed court challenges to Morsi’s decree reinstating the Islamist-dominated People’s Assembly. (Morsi later withdrew his decree.) The contradictions in their earnest advocacy of a civil state are evident in their preference for a military dictatorship over an Islamist democracy.
Much legal and constitutional wrangling is still to come. One of the most difficult challenges facing the constituent assembly is unequivocally guaranteeing the separation of powers in Egypt’s new constitution. Yet the work of drafting and approving a new constitution will take place in the context of SCAF’s continuing heavy hand in Egyptian politics and government.
After his inauguration, Morsi appeared side by side with Tantawi at an Air Force display marking the graduation of a new class of pilots. No doubt a customary ceremonial act for any nation’s democratically elected president. But it highlights the absurdity of how—despite a popular revolution followed by a free election for parliament and another to replace a deposed dictator as the nation’s chief executive—there are effectively two presidents in the ‘new’ Egypt.
Rania Al Malky is the editor of Egypt Monocle, a multi-platform media outlet launched in 2012. She was the editor of the Daily News Egypt.
A TV show recently invited me to talk about the history of Egyptian constitutions, and the lessons we can draw from this history in our efforts to draft a new constitution. I was immediately struck by how little I knew. We were taught nothing about our constitutional rights in civics classes in school, and our history classes stressed the victories of our nation rather than our rights as citizens.
So, I have been struggling to catch up. I learned from a colleague, for example, that the so-called liberal constitution of 1923 had many non-liberal features. It was written in the wake of the popular 1919 revolution, which had been ignited by the British arrest and exiling of independence leader Saad Zaghloul. Many of Egypt’s best legal minds served on its drafting committee, and Zaghloul would become the first prime minister under this constitution. Yet it was also written under the tutelage of an oppressive colonial occupation. The constituent assembly that drafted the constitution discovered that a Consultative Committee for Legislation staffed by British administrators and mandated to “revise” the draft ostensibly on technical grounds only, actually exceeded its mandate. It had tampered both with the text and spirit of the draft, and inserted many clauses that curtailed basic freedoms and rights, most importantly those of free speech and free assembly.
I also learned that the constituent assembly that drafted the 1971 Constitution was stunned to see that the text they had presented to President Anwar Sadat after months of careful preparation had little connection to the one that was eventually presented to the people to vote on in a national referendum. Sadat, victorious from his power struggle against Nasser’s men, had managed to alter the draft, and the final text reflected the expansive presidential powers that he’d won from his enemies—powers he wanted enshrined in the constitution.
Considering these precedents, I fully appreciate this current truly historic moment. Never before have we, the Egyptian people, been given the opportunity to write a constitution following a popular revolution. We have no British occupying power to dictate to us how we should manage our country, nor a tyrant who wants to twist the constitution to protect his privileges.
Our revolution deserves a revolutionary constitution, one that reflects the positive, self-confident mood of the millions who made it happen. We expect our new constituent assembly to enshrine in our constitution the principles that inspired our revolution: liberty, justice, and human dignity. Rights such as free speech, free belief, public assembly, and gender equality, among many others, should be expressly stated in the constitution in a clear, categorical way that is not open for subsequent curtailment by executive fiat or legislative act.
Like all revolutions, ours is a messy one, and we are realizing how much more difficult it is to build a new system than it is to bring down an old one. Moreover, our revolution has not yielded a clear winner. The political scene is suffering from a division among three main camps: the remnants of the old regime, the feloul, who, together with the army and the institutions of the ‘deep state,’ did badly in the parliamentary election, and whose candidate, Ahmed Shafik, lost the presidential election; the Islamists, who won a huge majority in the parliamentary election and whose largest faction, the Muslim Brotherhood, succeeded in winning the presidency for its candidate, Mohammed Morsi; and finally, the revolutionary forces who triggered Egypt’s revolt but whose lack of organizational structure resulted in their losing both the parliamentary and presidential elections.
Each of these three forces has different expectations of the constitution. The remnants of the former regime, most notably the army, managed just a few days before handing over power to the elected president, to insert into the constitution such language as to protect its significant privileges and effectively establish the army above the law and the constitution. The Islamists, for their part, believe deeply that their victory in the parliamentary election gives them a mandate to implement Islamic law. Finally, the revolutionary forces are determined that the coming constitution should defend the ‘civilian’ nature of the state, insisting that the Arabic word for civilian, madaniyya, is symbolically both non-military and non-religious.
Interestingly, the protracted struggle surrounding the formation of the constituent assembly did not reflect this tripartite division—it was merely a bipartite one. The key issue was whether or not the constituent assembly should include elected members of parliament. Given that Islamists had won some 70 percent of parliamentary seats, non-Islamists were anxious that allowing MPs to elect themselves to the constituent assembly would result in an Islamist domination of the constitution-drafting body. There was also the question as to whether or not the Islamists were correct in their argument that winning the parliamentary elections actually gave them a mandate to write the constitution. After the Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved parliament on a legal technicality and the Administrative Court also dissolved the first constituent assembly, Egyptians are currently preoccupied in debating the ideal ratio of Islamists versus non-Islamists in the assembly.
There is no doubt that public concern about the religious leaning of the constituent assembly is an important one. But a more important question surrounds the very nature of the constitution. Should it be a document that merely reflects society as it is? Or should it strive to draw a picture of society as it should be? Should our constitution refer to the values, common beliefs, history, and past struggles of the Egyptian people? Or should it, rather, aspire to a society that we still do not have, to dreams we cherish, to values that we need to inculcate, and to hopes we want to achieve?
Any constitution should strike a balance between the shared values of a people as they are, and their common image of themselves as they wish to be. Accordingly, the question should not be “What is the religious persuasion of the members of the constituent assembly?” but, rather, “Are they simply drafters who translate the shared values of the Egyptian people into constitutional texts, or are they visionaries who can transcend the lowest common denominator and aspire to loftier goals agreed upon by few but dreamed of by many?”
Our revolutionary moment requires us to abandon the “Islamists versus non-Islamists” criterion when thinking of how to form our new constitutional assembly. We should ask whether our new constitution should be written by drafters or by dreamers.
Khaled Fahmy is a professor of history and the chair of the History department at the American University in Cairo. He is the author of several books, most recently Mehmed Ali: From Ottoman Governor to Ruler of Egypt. He has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, andWashington Post, and contributes regularly to the Egypt Independent.
Assault on Human Rights
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has governed Egypt since the fall of Hosni Mubarak—and apparently wants to hold on indefinitely—can’t justify itself on its record. Especially when it comes to human rights.
SCAF presented itself as the shepherd of Egypt’s transition to democracy. Instead, SCAF trampled rights of Egyptians across the board, repressing speech and public gatherings and preserving an unfair justice system. In some areas, SCAF has outdone Mubarak.
Take the Emergency Law instituted in Mubarak’s first year in power and maintained ever throughout his rule, which, among other things, allowed officials from the Interior Ministry to detain people indefinitely without charge. It also permitted trials in state security courts that did not provide the right to an appeal, did not allow defendants adequate access to lawyers outside of the courtroom, and did not investigate allegations of torture. In 2011 alone, more than twelve thousand civilians, including children, faced unfair military trials that failed to provide the basic due process rights of civilian courts—that is more than the number of military trials of civilians during Mubarak’s entire thirty-year rule.
Just two weeks after Egypt’s newly elected parliament let the Emergency Law finally expire at the end of May this year, the SCAF-appointed Ministry of Justice decreed that members of the military police and intelligence services have the right to arrest civilians. This would also give them jurisdiction to bring those civilians before a military court—effectively reinstating key aspects of the Emergency Law. A court overturned the decree.
SCAF took steps to expand its reach into government with a vague decree resuscitating the National Defense Council, an institution from the past with an undefined mandate. Eleven of its sixteen members would come from the military and decisions would only be taken by absolute majority, theoretically prolonging SCAF by another name. In June, right after dissolving parliament following a court ruling, SCAF granted itself legislative powers and removed the control of the military from presidential purview.
If evidence was needed that military justice cannot be trusted to hold military law enforcement officers accountable for abusing citizens, one only has to recall the acquittal in April of a military officer who administered so-called “virginity tests” on unmarried women detainees following their arrests at a demonstration.
When mostly Christian demonstrators protested at the state television headquarters in Maspero last October, a pair of armored cars drove into peaceful crowds along Cairo’s Nile-side road, crushing, as autopsies later showed, at least ten people to death.
Throughout last year and into 2012, police and soldiers still habitually beat and tortured peaceful demonstrators. As recently as May, soldiers beat detainees as they dragged them from Tahrir Square and again in detention. Whips, sticks, and boots are the favored tools although some detainees also receive electric shocks. Soldiers have arrested medics and journalists as well.
The SCAF interregnum also features assaults on free speech and the press, including military trials of protesters and bloggers, numerous interrogations of journalists, and the suspension of granting new satellite television licenses.
The importance of human rights in Egypt’s power struggle should be clear: no Egyptian constitution has protected citizen rights against a secretive and unelected military operating as the real power in the state. A new constitution should clearly and unequivocally defend all Egyptians from arbitrary arrest, torture, indefinite detention, and a host of other long-standing abuses. And laws should punish such wrongdoing.
SCAF has shown a single-minded approach to keeping power while tossing civil liberties aside. Yet, the divided groups that overthrew Mubarak—Islamic and secular, left, right and center—have never set out their notions of the immutable rights of Egyptians.
The elected president, Mohammed Morsi, ought to be leading the way in this. It is not enough to tell Egyptians he loves them all, as he did in his unofficial inaugural address in Tahrir Square on June 29. Morsi has defied SCAF by trying to reinstate parliament but he should now apply equal energy to insuring that any future government respects human rights.
In all dealings with SCAF, its post-uprising record should be kept firmly in mind. And Egyptians of all political stripes should come together to support the rights of free expression, assembly, and independent, fair and open justice.
Daniel Williams is a senior researcher in the Emergencies Division of Human Rights Watch. He was previously a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, and Bloomberg News.
Now, the Education Revolution
Despite attempts at reform, as in most authoritarian systems, education during the past decades in Egypt largely trained students to be obedient citizens. Oppression was administered through rote memorization, the unrestricted practice of violence in schools, the dilapidated and overcrowded classrooms in many of the underprivileged communities, the disrespect for both children’s and teachers’ rights, the large numbers of children not only out of school but ‘out of learning,’ the rapid proliferation of privatized education both through generalized and rampant private tutoring—what some have called the shadow educational system—and through for-profit education for those able to afford it. All this denied Egyptians access to quality learning, and thus to the right to dignity and equity, which became a core demand of the January 25 revolution.
Today, it is essential that a new vision for education be discussed and adopted—and this should occur as part of the process of drafting a new constitution. This will not be an easy task, given the political polarization in Egypt. Yet, make no mistake: the future shape of the educational system will have a profound impact on the country’s political, economic, and cultural development. The new debate will force Egyptians to address difficult questions in order to articulate a broad vision for society. What is the nature of the economic system and the relationship between private, cooperative, and public property? Is education to remain a ‘public good’? What is the nature of the democracy we are striving for? What is the role of civil society? What is the nature of citizenship and what are the fundamental values and skills the educational system hopes to contribute?
Egypt’s nation-builders should follow a six-point strategy in order to accomplish a paradigm shift in education in line with the rightful demands of the revolutionaries:
- Investment. There must be the political will to provide funding for education. The constitution should commit the state to an annual investment of no less than 7 percent of GDP. Constitutional articles that ensure compulsory, free, basic education should be reinforced. A new strategic plan should be developed with a comprehensive vision for education, including parameters for the relationship between the public and private educational sectors.
- Participation. A National Council for Education should be established to give the domain greater political prominence and importance, and facilitate consultation with all sectors of society. It would serve as a think tank accountable to citizens, communities, parents, and students. Professional academies, learner communities, and local school boards should be given enhanced roles. Education must no longer be the purview solely of the Ministry of Education.
- Empowerment. New pedagogical practices that empower students must be adopted. For the development of critical thinking abilities, Egyptians need to become active participants in creating knowledge and be responsible for their own learning and research. Dialogue should become central to the way young people learn and develop the necessary skills to become independent, lifelong learners. Another essential element of change is a shift to cooperative learning, where students are encouraged to work together in preparation for becoming citizens who collaborate for the good of society. This is of particular relevance given the atomization that Egyptian society has undergone in the last half century. The vision should emphasize that education is a pathway to life and not merely to the labor market.
- Equity and Inclusiveness. Constitutional articles ensuring equity and inclusiveness must be translated into actual policies serving constituencies such as girls, the poor, and children in geographically remote areas. Parliament should provide investments in education that are largely in favor of the poor.
- Management. A comprehensive education management information system must be developed to ensure information is made available to the public in keeping with the state’s responsibility to pursue equity, social justice, and effective governance. Such a system will assist the creation of poverty maps that help identify and assist disenfranchised populations. In addition, budgets, teaching practices, and learning processes as well as the outcomes of learning should be made easily accessible to the general public including parents, school boards, and local communities. The system would help highlight the importance of research in policy-making and public accountability.
- Leadership. The Thanaweya Amma (final secondary school examination) has long been the traumatic rite of passage to adulthood for many adolescents and young people in Egypt. Secondary education must be transformed to recognize adolescents as agents of change and impart them with the liberating and empowering skills required for making informed decisions and participating in society. Likewise, educators themselves must be given sufficient opportunities for professional development so that they may take their rightful place in building their nation.
Malak Zaalouk is a professor of practice and director of the Middle East Institute for Higher Education at the American University in Cairo. From 2005 to 2010, she served as regional senior education adviser for the Middle East and North Africa at the United Nations Children’s Fund. She is the author of The Pedagogy of Empowerment: Community Schools as a Social Movement in Egypt.
In Alexandria, a car is totaled in a collision with a tram as pedestrians watch in astonishment. A week earlier, two vehicles plunge off a major bridge in Cairo, sending their drivers into the Nile River. And not far away, a truck flips on Cairo’s Ring Road, one of the Egyptian capital’s key arteries, blocking traffic for hours.
Road accidents are common everywhere, but what is striking in Egypt is how little the government seems to care, despite the high human and economic costs to society. An estimated 12,000 die and another 154,000 are injured in crashes each year, making Egypt’s roads among the most dangerous in the world. Accidents also cost Egypt as much as 30 billion L.E. ($5 billion) a year, according to some sources. Government neglect in road safety is yet another part of the legacy of misrule and unaccountability following decades of dictatorship.
Since the 1970s, the government embraced the private car, by allowing imported vehicles to flood the market and by subsidizing petrol, while investing little in public transport infrastructure. Yet the government has simultaneously and continuously failed to create mechanisms for enforcing road safety or even monitoring injuries and fatalities. Accidents often go unreported, and recorded incidents are reduced to an undifferentiated number with few details documenting the cause.
Nor has the government addressed basic traffic problems. It has failed to provide an effective public transport system for the vast majority of Egyptians who do not own a private car. This has spawned alternative modes of transport such as minibuses and toktoks, whose now ubiquitous presence adds to the congestion and safety risks.
Khaled Mostafa, an expert in automotive, forensic and road safety engineering based in Florida, has been trying for years to highlight road safety issues in Egypt. He begins presentations by revisiting the word ‘accident,’ the term commonly used by Egyptians. Accident, or hadtha in Arabic, connotes fate, and suggests that the event was bound to happen and therefore could not be prevented. Responsibility, therefore, is evaded. The word, crash, however, or sedam in Arabic, implies responsibility of one or more of the involved persons or elements in causing the crash. With responsibility comes accountability, law, and enforcement. This has not been the case in Egypt.
Badly designed roads and poor upkeep, as well as a general tolerance of reckless driving, are elements of the government’s neglect. Road design is often arbitrary and fails to follow set standards. Residents constantly point out that certain roads are paved, or even new roads and overpasses constructed, simply to serve some big-shot politician or businessman.
Roads must be designed within an integrated and comprehensive master plan. There is a common misconception that building more roads alone eases congestion. That argument is being used for the proposed removal of the tram system in the Cairo suburbs of Heliopolis and Nasr City. Rather than investing in making the tram a more effective means of transport for thousands of riders, the plan argues for removing the tracks and making an extra lane for cars. And the city’s road designers have never given priority to pedestrian safety.
Part of the problem is the centralized nature of the authoritarian governance system that has dominated Egypt for decades. If Cairo had a functioning municipality, it would have had its own department of transportation responsible for roads across the city. Instead, a central government ministry is in charge of transportation issues for thousands of localities throughout the country—an enormous task that it is clearly incapable of handling effectively.
Some 15,000 Egyptians have died on the roads since the 2011 revolution—around fifteen times more than the deaths in the revolution itself—and yet even Egypt’s emerging leaders have ignored the problem. Road safety should be a priority for the new government, for any government.
In addition to immediate steps to improve safety and traffic flow, long-term plans should be implemented by professionals and experts, not retired policemen and army generals who have no experience in the sector. An independent entity must be established and tasked with recording road incidents in great detail in order to create a database of information that will help future planners and researchers. Without proper data, road safety will continue to hang in the balance and Egyptians will remain vulnerable to the faceless road designers who have long been unaccountable for their mistakes.
Mohammed Elshahed is the founding editor of the Cairobserver, a publication on Egypt’s architectural heritage and urban planning. He is a doctoral student in the Middle East and Islamic Studies Department at New York University. He has written for the Egypt Independent, Jadaliyya, Design Observer, and Al Jazeera English.
Midan El-Tahrir—I prefer the Arabic word, ‘midan’, because, like ‘piazza’, it does not tie you down to a shape but describes an open urban space in a central position in a city, and the space we call Midan El-Tahrir, the central point of Greater Cairo, is not a square or a circle but more like a massive curved rectangle covering about 45,000 square meters and connecting Downtown and older Cairo to the east, with the river and Giza and the newer districts to the west; its southern boundary is the Mugamma building and its northern is the 6 October Flyover–
The Midan has been our Holy Grail for forty years. Since 1972 when (then President Anwar) Sadat’s forces dragged the student protestors at dawn from around the empty plinth at its center and into jail, demonstrations and marches have tried and failed to get into Tahrir. Two years ago we managed to hold a corner of a traffic island in front of the Mugamma3 building for an hour. We were fewer than fifty people, and the government surrounded us with maybe 2,000 Central Security soldiers, the chests and shoulders of their officers heavy with brass.
Since Egypt’s ruler Khedive Ismail established it in 1860—its core modeled on Paris’ Étoile, six main roads leading out of its center and a further six out of the larger space surrounding it—control of Tahrir has seemed central to controlling the country. Ismail himself stationed the Egyptian army and the Ministry of Defense here, and when the British occupied Egypt in 1882 their army took over the barracks and the Ministry on one side of Qasr El-Nil Bridge and they put their embassy on the other. The Americans were to follow suit and put their increasingly fortress-like embassy next to the British. Then in Nasser’s revolutionary times Egypt put a statue of Simón Bolívar between the two embassies; the Arab League building and the headquarters of the Arab Socialist Union went up in place of the British barracks, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs faced them from the (nationalized) palace of the Princess Nimet Kamal across Tahrir Street.
But, as well as housing the symbols of military and political power, Tahrir is home to the civic spirit of Egypt. The Egyptian Antiquities Museum (1902) marks the northern end of the Midan, and when in 1908 the Egyptian national movement founded—through public donations—the first secular Egyptian University, they rented the palace of Khawaga Gianaclis—now the old campus of the American University in Cairo—at the other end. In 1951 the government decided to consolidate all its departments that the citizens directly dealt with in one central building, and so Mugamma3 Al-Tahrir was built. And, early in the 1952 revolution, the small mosque near the Mugamma3 was enlarged and dedicated to Sheikh Omar Makram, the popular leader against Napoleon’s French Expedition in 1798, the British ‘Fraser’ Expedition of 1807 and, later, against Muhammad Ali himself when he felt the ruler was taxing the people unfairly. Omar Makram died in exile but his statue was part of our revolution; a meeting place, an inspiration, a bearer of flags and microphones and balloons.
In 1962, the first modern international hotel in Egypt, the Nile Hilton, opened in Tahrir, next to the Arab League. Eight years later, on the evening of 27 September, 1970, and having just closed the two days of negotiations and arm-twisting that ended Black September and killed him, President Gamal Abdel Nasser—whose picture was raised by many during the revolution—stood on the balcony of the thirteenth-floor suite he had occupied for a few nights and gazed at the Nile. He turned, smiling, to Abdel Meguid Farid, the Secretary to the Presidency: “How come I’ve never seen this amazing sight before? Look at it. I’m buried alive out in Heliopolis.” Then he went home. And it was from a window in the Arab Socialist Union next door that, two days later, his wife and daughters watched his funeral surge across Qasr El-Nil Bridge towards Tahrir. This is the building that became Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party headquarters—the only building in Tahrir to be torched by the revolutionaries.
The Hilton—now bearing the Ritz-Carlton sign—has been undergoing renovation for years. In front of it is a waste ground surrounded by sheets of corrugated iron—which we will use in the battles for the Midan. This massive space in the central midan of our city has been in this ruined condition for twenty years. We are told it’s to do with the construction of the Metro. Also to do with the Metro, we’re told, was the removal of the empty plinth in the middle of the garden of the central roundabout, the plinth around which the students gathered in 1972 on the night Amal Dunqul wrote of in The Stone Cake:
Five o’clock struck
with soldiers a circle of shields and helmets
drawing closer slowly… slowly…
from every direction
and the singers in the stone cake clenching
like a heartbeat!
Lighting their throats
for warmth against the cold and the biting dark
Lifting the anthem in the face of the approaching guard.
Linking their young, hopeless hands
a shield against lead
Now, the whole country is gathered around that central, plinthless garden. In one of the most moving moments of the revolution—and there were to be many—the people’s delegations that had come in from the cities and the provinces to the Midan set up their banners and set up the chant: “El-shar3eyya m’nel-Tahrir”—legitimacy comes from Tahrir.
Excerpt from Cairo: My City, Our Revolution by Adhaf Soueif, published in 2012 by Bloomsburg Publishing. Text © Ahdaf Soueif, 2012. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
Ahdaf Soueif is the author of Aisha, Sandpiper, In the Eye of the Sun, I Think of You, and other novels. Her novel The Map of Love was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1999. Her non-fiction work on political upheaval in Egypt, Cairo: My City, Our Revolution, was published in 2012.
Speak, O Egyptians
On a spring evening hundreds of people are gathered in a public garden in Upper Egypt. At the request of an organizer the boisterous crowd shushes obediently—a rare occurrence at public events—and a young girl on a makeshift stage belts out an ode to lost love. The next act up is a group of teenagers extolling the virtues of presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. Next comes a well-coiffed twenty-something with a guitar who serenades the audience with an Enrique Iglesias song in perfect English.
This is an open mic night—the ninth of its kind—in Minya, a city on the Nile some two hundred kilometers south of Cairo. The performances range from the comic and the poignant to the explicitly political, but all have the same purpose in mind: to reclaim Egypt’s public space after the fall of the dictator. “When someone decides to speak their mind in public, even to tell a joke,” explains organizer Shady Khalil as he watches from the sidelines, “that’s political participation.”
Khalil is part of a local arts group called Oyoon, which launched these public performance programs here in April 2011. It’s an offshoot of Mashrou3 Al-Mareekh, or The Mars Project, a group that began holding open mic nights in homes and private venues in Cairo in 2009. The idea was to enable Egyptians to express themselves in whatever medium they chose, without fear of judgmentor reprisal. Mashrou3 Al-Mareekh co-founder Mohammed El-Quessny worked to spread these open mic nights around the country after the revolution. “We’re trying to regain ownership of the streets again,” says El-Quessny. “We want to return public space to its rightful owners, the people.”
Mashrou3 Al-Mareekh is just one of a surge of such initiatives, which include workshops, exhibitions, and public lectures.For example, El-Fann Midan is a monthly day-long festival held in Cairo’s Abdeen Square that promotes various arts, organized by the Coalition of Revolutionary Artists. The Tahrir Monologues encourages people to share their personal stories from the revolution in front of a live audience. Tweet nadwas, or forums, another initiative, bring celebrated Twitter users to public debates on current issues, often held in the street.
Mashrou3 Al-Mareekh is conspicuous for its do-it-yourself ethos. Toolkits that walk like-minded activists through a how-to on staging their own open mic nights are available to download from its website. The website recently launched a section inviting Egyptians to upload videos of local open mic nights so public performances are shared with as wide an audience as possible.
Less than two years ago, this evening’s gathering would have been either banned or closely monitored by the police. As Egyptians become more accustomed to voicing their opinions in public, topics once considered taboo are being addressed. Some of those who take the stage raise concerns about Egypt’s political future. Others bemoan the state of education, or health care. One brave man takes the mic to candidly discuss his marital problems.
“What’s going on here?” asks one passerby, a man with graying hair and carrying his small granddaughter. Minutes later, he is on stage, the child still perched on his shoulder, reciting verses by an Egyptian poet Sheikh Imam.
Sons of our homeland from the south to the east,
You, with your sleeves rolled up,
The light has embraced our country,
And the sun has ascended with confidence in the hardworking.
Good morning, all you workers.
American Media Bias
I was in the United States when an Egyptian national popular uprising forced Hosni Mubarak to quit his presidency, and I was in the United States again when Mohammed Morsi was elected as the new Egyptian president. Now, as then, Americans remain unsure about how to react to the popular revolutions that have felled their long-time autocratic Arab allies, who in most cases were replaced by more legitimate, Islamist-led governments.
At the same time though, Americans—who helped define the modern revolutionary and democratic era in the twentieth century—instinctively tend to support national populist revolutions that create government systems based on the consent of the governed and democratic electoral pluralism. When it is Arabs who carry out these revolutionary and democratic endeavors, however, American society reacts with obvious hesitancy alongside the flashes of enthusiasm. It is important for Americans and Arabs alike to understand this phenomenon, because it reflects much deeper perceptions, sentiments, and biases that will continue to haunt relations between Arabs and Americans and prevent them from ever fully embracing one another—or even from developing normal relations.
My own sense is that two main underlying problems are to blame: the intrusion of the Arab-Israeli conflict and Washington’s deep pro-Israel bias into American-Arab relations, and the lingering consequences of several unpleasant encounters between the United States and various Arab, Iranian, or South Asian parties that defined themselves in Islamist terms (Iran, Hizbollah, Al-Qaeda, and others).
This was evident when I read through some ‘quality’ American press coverage of the Mohammed Morsi election victory (the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle). One story in the Wall Street Journal’s coverage on June 25, 2012, was a textbook case of the bias and confusion that regularly recur in American reactions to the current transformational events in the Arab world. And one sentence in particular captured this phenomenon succinctly: a front page story on the Morsi victory noted that “Many secular Egyptians watched uneasily, wondering what Islamist rule will mean for a country that has long been a bulwark of secular, moderate, and pro-American governance.”
Many things are wrong with this sentence and the perceptions that underpin it.
What is a “secular Egyptian”? These phrases are used too easily to have much meaning, because they do not capture the reality that most Egyptians (according to recent polls) are very religious and want their public life and governance to reflect the best of their religious values. But they do not want religious figures to run the government. The Arab Middle East is defined by populations who respect religious values but also want secular governments run by competent managers, who are themselves simultaneously secular and religious.
What in the world is “Islamist rule”? This is another term that American and other media throw around without either defining it clearly or validating it within the political realities of the countries they are talking about. Morsi and his colleagues have explained how they will run the presidency as an institution that reflects all Egyptians. They do not speak of ‘Islamic rule,’ and nor do Egyptians generally.
Egypt’s many decades as “a country that has long been a bulwark of secular, moderate, and pro-American governance,” more or less explain why the anti-Mubarak revolution took place. The American media and political culture regularly use such facile and even hollow phrases to describe Egypt and other ‘moderate’ Arab countries that are soft on Israel and carry out American directives and preferences in the region, especially in the security and economic arenas. Moderate? Egypt has been deeply immoderate and extremist in running a security state that so badly demeaned and disfigured its own people for over half a century that they finally rose up in revolt.
The same article also quotes American, Israeli, and Arab officials as being concerned that the Muslim Brotherhood victory could be “a complication to efforts at Arab-Israeli peace talks.” If any Wall Street Journal correspondents or editors believe there are serious Arab-Israeli peace efforts underway, they are professionally obligated either to document and verify that fact (which they cannot do because there are no such serious efforts) or come clean and stop living in the world of childish, hallucinatory, and propagandistic illusions that have come to define Middle East policy in Washington and Israel.
These few examples are from just one news story, plucked from a vast American media and political universe. This widespread tendency in the United States to view the Arab world through such a distorted lens makes doubt, hesitancy, mistrust, and skepticism the most common reactions to our political transformations.
The Arab world is changing in dramatic ways. And it is time that Americans—and others who deal with the Arabs—also change commensurately, if accuracy and honesty are in fact part of their own world.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.
We Must Dream
When I came to the United States in 1969, I was not dreaming of a Nobel Prize, nor was I dreaming of acquiring a Bill Gates fortune. Armed with the excellent education I received in Egypt, I was simply on a quest for knowledge and a PhD degree from a reputable institution in the United States. At the time, my English was so poor that at restaurants I used to order “deserts” instead of desserts. America was a magnet for many members of my generation because of its leadership in science and technology and its unique democratic values. The historic landing of Neil Armstrong on the moon in 1969 was enough to demonstrate America’s outlook regarding the frontiers of revolutionary knowledge.
I was aware of Edison’s dictum, “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration,” and I took advantage of being in the right place at the right time—of being in America and at the California Institute of Technology, or Caltech. In fact, it was Caltech’s ambiance and the country’s system of support that made it possible for a young assistant professor to carry out, with his team, research that in only ten years’ time would define a discipline that was recognized by the Nobel Prize in 1999.
People often ask me, “How does one get a Nobel Prize, and what is the secret to success?” I believe it was passion for science that supplied the energy, and it was optimism that made the almost-impossible possible. Success comes to the prepared mind. Success is not like rain that falls from the sky equally upon everyone: success is what you reap when you sow with passion and optimism.
Times have changed, the world is more complex, and the America of today is not the one I came to in the 1960s. We are now in the so-called global age, threatened by chemical, biological, and nuclear disasters. The United States is facing real challenges: the rise of economic superpowers such as China and India, the conflicts and wars overseas, and—most importantly, in my view—the change in cultural, educational, and political values.
Yes, there are challenges and changes. But, if I take today’s Caltech graduates as an example, they can still make their own success in their own way. I would add that they are fortunate to have received an exceptional education in a twenty-first century, developed society. The education they received is unaffordable to at least 80 percent of the seven billion people on the planet who make less than ten dollars a day. And, just as importantly, America continues to provide them with opportunities that still cannot be found elsewhere in the world. And they are free to speak and worship as they please. And they can sleep at night without fear of the government or police. These fundamental values are embedded in the foundation of the American constitution, which is built on the pillars of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Our world today is full of opportunity, and graduates have a unique role to play because of the special education they receive in the sciences and the rational thinking that this education has instilled. We should not listen to pessimists; but rather forge ahead to share the experience in whatever field we are passionate about, which could be business, government, law, art, or science.
I do not know the future of business or politics, but I know the future of science. This generation and the ones to come will continue to seek a basic understanding of nature and will make the many exciting discoveries that lie ahead—from deciphering and controlling the most fundamental constituents of matter to discoveries at our universe’s boundaries and the unveiling of our origin and the miracle of life.
This generation will also explore other planets and possibly reach out to other galaxies. Part of Caltech’s research is being done at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which developed the Mars Science Lab rover named Curiosity. In August, Curiosity will perform the first-ever precision landing on Mars and help us assess whether the planet can harbor (microbial) life.
Beyond these and other intellectual achievements, there are direct benefits to people’s liberty. From early in history, the quest for knowledge has been a driving force of revolutionary change, not only causing paradigm shifts in our understanding of the cosmos but also acting as an agent for the naissance and renaissance of human societies. The European Renaissance would have been impossible without the enlightenment regarding the significance of knowledge and rational thinking. I think too much credit is given to the impact of politics on the progress of society. Without science there is no development, and politicians would be unable to promise prosperity.
Just think: What would our world be like without electricity, penicillin, and the airplane? From the agricultural and industrial revolutions to today’s genomics and IT revolutions, science has always been at center stage for societal advancement, and graduates must surely play a leading role in conquering the next frontiers of discovery, innovation, and progress.
Even in politics, technology is becoming the new weapon for transformative change in society. The youth of this generation are now harnessing information technology to do what those of my generation thought impossible. Elsewhere in the world oppression, occupation, and human suffering still exist but young people are rising up to acquire liberty from repressive regimes. The hope I witnessed—and am witnessing—in Egypt is a telling indication of a new role for science in democracy.
A people’s revolution is sweeping the Middle East. I witnessed in real time the Egyptian uprising that began on January 25, 2011, and, remarkably led to the removal of Mr. Hosni Mubarak in only eighteen days. I saw university students in the hundreds of thousands, and then people in the millions, marching toward Tahrir Square in Cairo. The name of the square means “liberty” and that is precisely what the youth wanted from a thirty-year-old regime. They demonstrated peacefully, with impeccable organizational skills, and in unison. In my generation, we would probably have had to use stones, sticks, and guns in order to rise up; in this generation, they used Facebook, Twitter, and SMS. Without the development of the chip, wireless technology, and the Internet, this revolution may never have succeeded as a peaceful and civilized transformation.
Although the road ahead is bumpy, I am optimistic that, with investment in education and development through science, a democratic Egypt will emerge. Only a few months after the revolution began, Egypt announced the establishment of a new city for science and technology on three hundred acres of land, a national project that I have personally pushed for more than a decade.
When people in the Middle East ultimately gain their freedom, the world will be better off. Some scholars argue that the world is destined always to be embroiled in conflict and war. But this bleak picture is surely not the result of any natural phenomenon. We, the people, cause such conflicts and we, the people, can either kindle the fire or help extinguish it. The United States cannot change the culture of other people, and nations are responsible for their own plights, but it is the kismet of the United States to lead in the world by utilizing its most crucial force: the American value system of individual liberty, justice, and human rights. I believe that much can be achieved not by hegemony but by the strategic use of the real force of America—its soft power.
The soft power of science has the potential to reshape global diplomacy—and at significantly lower expense than that needed for use of the hard power of military involvement. I am hopeful that a new policy will be chartered for leadership in innovation. This policy should be inclusive of international science diplomacy for partnerships in development. Some may argue that it is naïve to think of applying such idealistic values in our imperfect world, but directing the influence of science diplomacy is in the best interest of the United States. Through the power of knowledge, we can efface ignorance and shape a future that binds cultures and civilizations.
In his 2009 Cairo speech, President Barack Obama articulated a new initiative for cooperation and partnership that emphasizes the role of science in diplomacy, particularly with Muslim-majority countries. Earlier, the president appointed me to his Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and later I became the first U.S. Science Envoy to the Middle East. I embarked on a diplomatic mission that took me back to where I came from, but now with a different objective. From touring and seeing the state of science and education, not only in the region but also globally, I believe we will come to face serious consequences if we do not choose to act.
I recently read an important study that left me awestruck by the demographics of knowledge across our planet’s population. In their book, Educating All Children: A Global Agenda, Joel Cohen and David Bloom argue that the aim of achieving primary and secondary schooling for all children is urgent and feasible, and yet more than 300 million children will still not be in school in the year 2015. Every effort should be made to change this state of affairs so that we may hope for a better future for our world.
However, education in the twenty-first century is far-reaching. It reaches beyond classical boundaries—not just across so-called interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary fields, but also between nations and maybe soon even across planets. Perhaps the best words to describe the value of education and knowledge are those written by Thomas Jefferson in 1782 [Notes on the State of Virginia, Q. XIV, 1782. ME 2:204]:
“The general objects [of a bill to diffuse knowledge more generally through the mass of the people] are to provide an education adapted to the years, to the capacity, and the condition of everyone, and directed to their freedom and happiness.”
Remarkably, Jefferson, more than two centuries ago, saw the virtue of education on the individual and global level. And education remains a continuous process. Even university graduates are in the initial stage of a long voyage. During this journey, the wealth of knowledge should be wisely forged in place and time and opportunity. Having a dream and working hard to realize that dream, gives a meaning to life. Martin Luther King Jr. and other great men and women have realized these values. Without hard work, we are not entitled to a good life—and without compassion we will not attain the good life in a population dominated by have-nots. The investments of our families and our countries in education were made for good reason. We all need a good education to lead a fuller, richer life; our countries need educated citizens to build the future; and the world will be a better place when knowledge replaces ignorance.
My message to young people is simple: always be guided by the light of knowledge and wisdom to shape your future, the future of your country, and the future of the world.
This essay is adapted from Dr. Ahmed Zewail’s commencement address at the California Institution of Technology on June 10, 2011.
Ahmed Zewail is the Linus Pauling Chair Professor of Chemistry and professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology. He serves on President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and is the first U.S. Science Envoy to the Middle East. Zewail received the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his pioneering work in the field of femtoscience. He has received many other distinguished awards, including the Grand Collar of the Nile, Egypt’s highest state honor. Zewail, who was born in Egypt, is featured as the fourth Giza pyramid on an Egyptian postage stamp.
Democracy is Inevitable
Events over the last year or more have been a credit to the people of Egypt. You have been able to overcome enormous obstacles. Developments have been sometimes uncertain, sometimes positive, sometimes negative, but there has been progress. If Egyptians are successful in their democratic transition, not only will you correct the problems that have existed in this country, but you’ll set an example for other countries, Arab and non-Arab, that are moving from dictatorship or totalitarianism to freedom and democracy.
To succeed, it is important that you demonstrate that Christians and Muslims can live together in harmony and with mutual respect, and that Arabs and Jews, Palestinians, Americans like me, can work together for the common good. Human beings, no matter the color of their skin, no matter their religious beliefs, no matter whether they are a man or woman, are equal in the eyes of God and should be treated equally by government as well. Freedom, democracy, human rights, the alleviation of suffering, peace––that’s what I see in the future.
I believe that many aspects of the revolution have been remarkably successful. But, there also have been a lot of problems. There have been some doubts about the future—the duties and authority of the president, the stature of the Parliament compared to the president, the role of a prime minister, the role of the military, for example.
If asked about the role of the military, my advice would be to adopt a model similar to ours in America. We respect the military greatly. All Americans trust and revere and admire our military, so the military leaders don’t have to be worried about respect. But the civilian elected leaders, the president, and those in Congress, make the decisions about the military, and military leaders serve under the president. As president, I was the commander in chief of all the military forces—the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines, the Coast Guard. They had to do what I said. And that’s the way it ought to be in democratic societies with civilian authorities, and hopefully in Egypt. The elected president should be the commander in chief. Laws that would establish the budget for the military, the salaries for the officers and men, the retirement benefits for the veterans, the kind of weapons they have, should be made by elected civilian leaders.
While there has been undeniable progress, I am deeply troubled by events that indicate that Egypt’s transition has taken an undemocratic turn. The dissolution of the democratically-elected parliament in June and the proposed reinstatement of elements of martial law generated uncertainty before the election. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ addendum to the Constitutional Declaration, in which they carved out special privileges for the military and injected themselves into the constitution drafting process, violated their prior commitment to me personally and to the Egyptian people to make a full transfer of power to an elected civilian government.
A constitution is a permanent foundation for the nation and must be fully inclusive and legitimate. An unelected military body should not interfere in the constitution drafting process.
Transitions to genuine democracy can be difficult and time-consuming, and they don’t always move forward in straight lines. Egypt and the Egyptian people still have a way to go to complete the transition. Many questions still have to be answered. But based on what has happened already, and on the Egyptians’ collective ability to resolve those issues not only peacefully, but successfully, I have much confidence in the future of your great country. I believe that you will continue to do right and to demand a democratic society that respects human rights and enables broad participation in political affairs. I believe the trend toward democracy in Egypt is inevitable.
This essay is adapted from Jimmy Carter’s lecture, “Reflections on Democracy, Human Rights and Peace,” at the American University in Cairo’s John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement, on May 26, 2012, and subsequent public statements.
Jimmy Carter served as the 39th President of the United States and later founded the Carter Center. He was the recipient of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize.
Completing the Revolution
Most Egyptians are impatient, and understandably so. They are eager to see their revolution achieve its goals of social justice, democracy, and a better livelihood for all their countrymen and women. They are suspicious of forces seeking to hijack it. They are tired of waiting for security to be restored to their streets and neighborhoods. And they are looking for an immediate lifting of the other impediments to growth, jobs, and financial stability.
I too wish to see all this happen and happen very quickly in the context of a vibrant and inclusive post-revolutionary Egypt. And, like many others, I worry that the longer it takes to materialize, the higher the risk that the revolution may fall victim to narrow vested interests, thus undermining one of the most inspirational and impressive popular uprisings in history.
The challenge for Egyptian society is to reconcile these genuine feelings and legitimate aspirations with the post-revolutionary realities on the ground and, more broadly, in the global economy. This requires four conditions to be met: a better all-around understanding of Egypt’s transition and the historic pivots facing the country; a clearer vision of the country’s medium-term economic destination; immediate steps to restore the country’s growth and employment engines and to stabilize its finances; and steady progress in the multi-year efforts to establish strong, more transparent, and highly accountable institutions.
After an impressive popular uprising and the remarkable overthrow of President Mubarak, Egypt has faced difficulties in transitioning to the next phase of historic revolutionary change—namely, pivoting from dismantling the past to the even more challenging phase of putting in place sustainable drivers of a better future.
While both disappointing and frustrating, these difficulties should not come as a great surprise, judging from the experience of many other major revolutionary movements. Indeed, history reminds us that the process of positive change takes time and effort, especially as countries and societies emerge from repressive regimes that co-opted both public and private institutions, distorted resource allocation, and removed accountability and transparency.
It is not easy to instantaneously set up institutions that are both credible and effective—especially if the effort de facto starts from scratch. Strong political leadership is required, one that is able and willing to secure legitimate broad-based support. And the population must buy into a medium-term vision that, preferably, also includes some early and visible wins.
In the immediate aftermath of overthrowing President Mubarak, Egypt faced these challenges in droves. Years of repressive governance sucked awareness, responsiveness, and inclusiveness out of the country’s key institutions. Post-revolutionary political leaderships—on a standalone manner and in what was feasible collaboratively—did not have the organization and standing to, using the famous South African example of Nelson Mandela, urge citizens to move forward by “forgiving but not forgetting the past.” And the population experienced few early gains beyond the greater ability for self-expression and freer organization—a critical step, but one that does not feed stomachs or provide greater assurances about future wellbeing.
Post-revolutionary Egypt was also encumbered by the circumstances of entities looking to fill new political vacuums. For example, aspirants started with very different initial conditions with respect to networks and coordination—from the grassroots organization of the Muslim Brotherhood and the traditional dominance of the armed forces to the scramble among new youth and secular movements to organize into effective political parties. Many also questioned the extent to which, after having served an important transitional role, the armed forces would go back to the barracks—and under what conditions.
Egypt’s relatively peaceful revolution would not have materialized without the decisions taken by the armed forces in the initial phases. These decisions earned them respect and admiration among citizens from all socio-economic backgrounds, religions, and ages—and rightly so. Yet the longer the bumpy and uncertain transition persisted under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the greater the questions that arose about the armed forces’ ultimate objectives and political aspirations.
All these differences in “initial conditions” inevitably contributed to an uneven playing field—in both reality and perception—for the range of political forces competing for influence in the new Egypt. As such, the format and timing of every important political step involved distinct winners and losers. And with that, suspicions inescapably arise. And all this made the critical historic transition and pivots even more challenging
Then, there are the everyday realities of the economic and financial dislocations. Many months after the overthrow of President Mubarak, Egypt still lacked a properly functioning economy and strong finances. Production and income generation remained well below the nation’s potential—let alone what is required to address the acute problems of poverty and unemployment. Domestic and foreign investments slumped thus withdrawing even more oxygen from the economy, the recovery of tourism was painfully slow, and the risk of disruptive capital flight remained uncomfortably high.
With high income and wealth inequality, Egypt’s poor economic conditions quickly translated into worrisome social problems—and this at a time when already millions of citizens were poor and had no financial cushions to speak of (of their own or through government-supplied safety nets).
Lastly, we must not forget the current highly unsettled global environment. Europe’s deepening debt crisis, along with America’s sluggish economic growth, translates into even less trade and tourism for Egypt. Growth also slowed in systemically important emerging countries, such as Brazil, China, and India. All this makes it more difficult for Egypt to export, and to attract external aid and secure the debt forgiveness needed to provide the country with financial breathing space.
These are all legitimate reasons why the revolution had and is having difficulties moving from the overthrow of former President Mubarak to the creation of an inclusive future for the many. And, inescapably, this fuels concerns that the revolution could be hijacked and/or derailed.
Yet there are reasons to remain hopeful. And this starts with the recognition that Egypt has embarked on a multi-year process that less than two years ago was deemed improbable if not unthinkable.
It is not just a multi-year process. It is also a multi-staged and multi-faceted one that involves individual and collective learning and adaptation.
Judging from its important attributes and areas of agility, Egypt will continue to move forward. Yes, it will be bumpy, uneven, and at times even messy. But good governance will steadily increase. Better institutions will continue to emerge. New networks and organizations will form. Alliances will be established and re-established. And the economic and financial situation will improve.
All this takes us to the four major conditions that could facilitate the quicker emergence of a stable destination for the country, and help avoid some of the potholes in the journey.
First, it is critical for the political process to be more open with the population about the challenges of Egypt’s historic transition. Understandably, all political forces are eager to use the excesses of the past to legitimize their claim for influence and power in the new Egypt. They must also be open about the real challenges of the immediate future, through continuous and frank communication and a better assessment of the inevitable difficulties.
Second, political leaderships have an obligation to set out a concrete and realistic economic vision for the next three to five years. And this goes well beyond slogans that no reasonable person can disagree with. It is also about a detailed and coherent medium-term plan that specifically answers questions such as: How many jobs can and will be created? How quickly will the internal financial situation stabilize? How effectively can public spending be oriented to provide better services and support for the many (as opposed to the few)? What does subsidy reform look like? What is the role of external donors and creditors?
Third, Egypt must take immediate steps to stabilize its economic and financial situation. Key impediments to regaining pre-revolutionary production and employment levels must and can be removed. Legal and operational uncertainties, many of which have been associated with the abuse of existing procedures, should and can be minimized. Also, and notwithstanding the admirable and correct aspiration for self-reliance, the country needs to consider whether and how to quickly mobilize sufficient external financing on appropriate terms.
Finally, none of this will be fully effective without properly functioning institutions that are legitimate and accountable. This is the only way to create a durable counter against the corruption that, for so many years, has eaten away at the integrity and vibrancy of Egypt—as well as at its international standing and reputation.
After a bumpy start, the country has recorded some important gains in this respect, starting with the holding of relatively free and fair elections, including one for Egypt’s first civilian president. This must and can be used as a building block for reforming moribund institutions of state, as well as those that were co-opted by privileged minority interests.
This is not an easy list of tasks. Will it prove too demanding for an Egyptian society that was repressed for so long and functions in an increasingly unstable global economic environment?
It is certainly a risk, and one that must be managed carefully especially in light of the country’s initial economic, financial, political, and social conditions. I strongly believe that Egypt has both the ability and willingness to move forward and realize the objectives of the revolution.
I say this not in a naïve and idealistic fashion but as an individual who, through both personal experiences and a professional career, has been exposed to change in countries around the world. Observing closely the developments in Egypt, I cannot but be impressed by the multitude of people who feel—and strongly believe—that finally they now “own” their country.
We see this admirable trait in the robustness of political discourse, and in the willingness to get involved. We also see it in the sprouting of civic engagement and volunteerism all over this proud country.
Many Egyptians citizens, and the youth in particular, also feel that after many decades, they again have a legitimate and effective claim on the street. They have the organizational ability to maintain it and the inspirational drive to persevere.
That alone will provide a set of checks and balances that pre-revolutionary Egypt sorely lacked. And while it is not a guarantee of a specific outcome in a precise timeframe, it is an important pushback against the minority of vested interests that seeks to disrupt a revolution that has rightly earned the admiration and respect of millions around the world.
Mohamed A. El-Erian is Chief Executive Officer and co-Chief Investment Officer of PIMCO, the global investment management firm. He is author of When Markets Collide, a New York Times andWall Street Journal best seller that was named as the Financial Times Goldman Sachs best business book of 2008, a book of the year by the Economist, and one of the best business books of all time by the Independent.
View from Washington
When Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi declared it his “duty” to free Omar Abdel Rahman—the man behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center that killed six and injured one thousand—it was not a very auspicious beginning for relations between the United States and the ‘new’ Egypt. The U.S. Congress, particularly the delegation from the New York City area, expressed outrage.
Egypt watchers and Middle East analysts sought to put the new president’s words in context. Morsi is weak. He needs to secure his base and play to public sentiment while he consolidates his power. He does not really intend to pursue Abdel Rahman’s release from U.S. federal prison. Washington would be better served to disregard what was clearly a calculated political move. There are more pressing issues in the U.S.-Egypt relationship than a sick and aging militant.
This sober analysis is entirely accurate, but it sidesteps the central change that has occurred in Egypt since the revolution. Hosni Mubarak could largely ignore public opinion because Egyptian citizens did not have a mechanism for holding their leaders accountable. Now they do. Current and future leaders who disregard public sentiment will do so at their own risk.
The consequence for the United States is likely to be a greatly changed relationship with Egypt. The strategic alignment and the partnership in pursuing Arab-Israeli peace are at best going to get more difficult to manage. At worst, this cooperation will come to an end altogether. Although some analysts are quick to claim that the coming transformation of the U.S.-Egypt relationship is a function of the Muslim Brotherhood’s longstanding anti-American posture, it is more accurately a result of politics and a reflection of Egyptian public opinion. Cairo-Washington ties and the relationship between Mubarak’s Egypt and Israel were profoundly unpopular among Egyptians. In a more open era of Egyptian politics, Washington will discover that over time Cairo will be considerably less willing to support American goals and interests in the Middle East.
The United States (and by extension Israel) have long been important and generally negative factors in Egyptian politics. The January 25 uprising was not about the United States, although it was about national empowerment. For Egyptian revolutionaries, leftists, Islamists, and many liberals, the strategic ties between Washington and Cairo made no sense on both nationalist and strategic grounds. Indeed, the regime that Mubarak led, which had been handed down to him from Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser, was founded in part on opposition to foreign domination.
In addition, as time went by, the Egyptian-American relationship had, in the words of the Muslim Brotherhood’s 2010 electoral platform, “rendered Egypt a secondary power” in a region that it had previously led. Shrewdly, Egypt’s opposition, especially the Brotherhood, used the Cairo-Washington connection to undermine Mubarak’s regime. The burden on Morsi—if he would like to be re-elected—is to demonstrate that he represents a clean break. The fact that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) gutted the president’s powers through a constitutional decree means that Morsi’s only source of authority is his ability to appeal to the street and subsequently harvest votes. That partly explains his rhetoric on Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman. The issue will not lead to a breach in relations with the U.S., but it does add a certain amount of tension.
More broadly, Mubarak’s Egypt was a linchpin in a regional political order—that also included Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the small Gulf states—that helped the United States realize its regional and even global interests. It’s unlikely that President Morsi, unlike Mubarak, will order Egypt’s security services to stop and literally take apart a North Korean vessel transiting through the Suez Canal based on an American suspicion that the ship was carrying missiles destined for Syria. Whereas Mubarak seemed willing—albeit with a measure of reluctance and public protestation—to do America’s bidding, Morsi simply cannot. He has to be a better nationalist, a better steward of Egypt’s interests, and more mindful of Egypt’s place in the Middle East. If he is not, Morsi will become a short-lived local experiment in Islamist power and be replaced by someone who can approximate the deeply held ideals and aspirations of the newly empowered Egyptian electorate.
President Barack Obama and his administration handled the Egyptian uprising about as well as could be expected. What was happening on the streets of Egypt during those eighteen days in early 2011 was unprecedented. To be sure, Egypt has seen mass protests before but, with the exception of a brief moment during the 1977 bread riots, the regime’s durability never seemed in doubt. From the very start, the January 25 protests seemed different, which is why the accusation that Obama “lost Egypt” is so misplaced. The United States had no way of altering the trajectory of events once the uprising began. It was impossible to “save Mubarak”—as valuable an ally as he may have been over the previous thirty years—without encouraging massive bloodshed. This was not something that Obama was prepared to do. So, the United States threw its support behind those who want to live in a more democratic society.
Until Morsi’s election in June, U.S. policy was more an aspiration—the development of a democratic Egypt—than an actual policy. To the extent that Washington has a policy toward a more democratic Egypt, it is to engage, adjust, and hope that its interests—over-flight rights, expedited transit through the Suez Canal and other security-related logistical support, and peace along the Egyptian-Israeli frontier—will remain intact.
It is unclear how the United States will go about securing these interests. U.S. policy has been predicated on a deal with President Mubarak and the Egyptian military that conflicted with Washington’s stated desire to see democracy take root on the banks of the Nile. If Washington pursues a similar approach where it relies on the military to help achieve its goals, this contradiction will once again make the United States an important, but essentially negative, factor in Egyptian politics. In the short run, SCAF is intent on maintaining its autonomy and seems willing to continue to accept U.S. aid, but that does not mean that Washington has leverage over the generals. Washington needs them as much as the Egyptian Ministry of Defense needs the Pentagon.
Indeed, assistance—both military and economic—cuts both ways for the United States. Washington’s annual $1.3 billion aid package does appear to have some influence over important players at critical moments, but it is largely a negative factor, and will likely have diminishing returns in a more democratic Egypt. In addition, the U.S. Congress is wary of both the Muslim Brotherhood and SCAF. This will almost certainly result in a bruising battle on Capitol Hill about the future of the aid—something most Egyptians seem to be ambivalent about, anyway.
As much as official Washington hopes it can muddle through Egypt’s prolonged transition with its interests intact, the American position in Egypt will change and it will wane. And any side deal–which would have the elected civilian government tending to domestic issues while Egypt’s generals ensure U.S. strategic interests—will prove unsustainable. Washington must fully come to terms with a new and perhaps democratic Egypt.
Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he publishes the blog “From the Potomac to the Euphrates.” He has written for Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and Financial Times. His most recent book is The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He can be followed on Twitter at @stevenacook.
A Need for Justice
The incoherent and problematic verdicts in the case against former President Hosni Mubarak and his sons and associates are an important measure of Egypt’s troubled and chaotic transition. How a nation in transition accounts for past injustices is a telling indicator of the overall health of transition. Egypt has changed in tangible and consequential ways. Yet, the initial promise and the sense of transformational possibility that marked the fall of Mubarak is now something of a distant memory. The Mubarak trial encapsulates many of the flaws that have undermined the prospects for fundamental change in Egypt.
In the prosecution’s central case related to the violent crackdown against protesters, Mubarak and his former minister of Interior, Habib El-Adly, were both found guilty in relation to those killings, but only as a result of their negligence in failing to stop the crackdown. Senior operational decision-makers within the Ministry of Interior, however, were exonerated for their roles and found not guilty. These verdicts staked out an implausible ground, shrinking the scope and nature of culpability while leaving unaddressed the fundamental question of how the decision to use lethal force against protesters was made and who made that fateful decision. In keeping with the tale told by the verdicts, it seems no one in all of Egypt was actually responsible.
This outcome was reflective of an ill-conceived process and a lack of fidelity to the possibility of justice. Security institutions chose not to cooperate with investigators and prosecutors—depriving them of irreplaceable evidence—and thus remained free to act with impunity.
Thorough-going transitional justice has been preempted by a reconfigured variant of the old regime, which has moved to consolidate its power. The modalities of transitional justice have consequently been tightly harnessed to this internal re-ordering. The absence of accountability is a sign of the failures of political change.
The struggle to establish accountability and come to terms with Egypt’s repressive past will almost certainly carry on. Its ultimate success or failure will be tied to the political fortunes of those segments of society that continue to push for a program of genuine reform. If those forces are eventually successful, then transitional justice may be deferred, but it will not be abandoned. Documenting the reality, mechanics, and legacy of repression may take years, decades even, as other transitioning societies have demonstrated. However, the very existence of a continued push to end impunity, establish mechanisms for accountability, and address the rights of victims is a critical facet of any effort to create a more open and responsive political culture and lay the foundations for a sustainable political process.
While the decision to prosecute Mubarak is an important one, it has, as things turned out, served as a prophylactic to change, too. The soap opera of the Mubarak trial—with the former president wheeled in on a gurney and confined in a courtroom cage with his two once-powerful sons, Gamal and Alaa—has obscured the continuity of Egypt’s post-revolution military rulers and the omnipresent state bureaucracy with the former Mubarak regime. By appearing to heed the demands of Tahrir for justice, the trial undoubtedly slowed the momentum for revolutionary change—including broader efforts to examine the legacy of authoritarian rule.
The outcome of the Mubarak trial was a reflection of a reorganized and revitalized old regime that has become increasingly confident in asserting its authority and hindering pathways to accountability and reform. The fragmentation of the Egyptian political class is partly responsible for this unfortunate state of affairs, which has facilitated the retrenchment of military rule. With the transition period dominated by the struggle for political power, the animating rationales that sustained the Egyptian uprising have largely been put aside.
To the extent that transitional justice modalities have been brought to bear, they have almost exclusively hewed to the political imperatives of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The pattern points to the military’s efforts to diminish rivals while ensuring a stable but minimalist transition. Successful prosecutions have largely been limited to the business elite that grew up around Gamal Mubarak and the tight inner circle of advisors surrounding the former president. There has been a lack of serious vetting within the Ministry of Interior to bar police officials responsible for past abuses from continued participation in government service. There has also been an unwillingness to hold police accountable for the deaths of protesters—even the senior leaders charged and prosecuted alongside the former president. These omissions have similarly played an important role in cementing a hierarchy of power that has placed SCAF in a position of clear superiority to the police while limiting any possibilities for retaliation from within that ministry.
Prosecutions by their very nature are selective, and may raise rule of law quandaries. They may exacerbate the polarization of a divided society. They are also time-consuming and resource-intensive. They cannot, as a matter of practicality, shoulder the entire burden of transitional justice. There should be other elements, such as the convening of truth commissions and victims’ rights processes. Nonetheless, the initial decision to prosecute Mubarak was important and correct. Accountability remains a core goal of transitional justice. A methodical investigation coupled with the scrupulous application of existing Egyptian law would have been extremely laudable first steps in the effort to lay the foundations for a rule of law culture and would have had cascading effects on political reform.
There is a lack of consensus in Egyptian society about the meaning of the revolution. Nearly half of Egyptian voters cast ballots for a man who served as Mubarak’s last prime minister. Certain segments of the population are in denial about January 25, allowing some Egyptians to attribute regime-perpetrated violence to outside infiltrators and to the protest leaders themselves.
The fate of one man and of his close associates pales in comparison with the enormous challenges facing Egypt. But prosecuting Mubarak, and producing the beginnings of an unimpeachable historical record of abuse, repression, and criminality, would have created a genuine and necessary basis upon which national reconciliation could proceed.
The struggle for power is not over. Nor is the pressing need to expand the boundaries of inquiry to include the broader historical framework in which the Mubarak regime was simply the most recent stage. The normalization of repression and its systemization over decades must be acknowledged through prosecutions and other mechanisms of transitional justice if Egypt is ever to fulfill the promise of January 25. Expedient amnesia will further the possibility for the entrenchment of authoritarianism, which will in turn undermine the prospects for democracy and kill the chance of realizing liberal political goals.
Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow at The Century Foundation. He focuses on international security, human rights, post-conflict justice, and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. He is a regular contributor to the Atlantic and Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel, and can be followed on Twitter at @mwhanna1.
Test of Faith
Over the last few decades, Copts—and most other Egyptians—have experienced various forms of political, social, and religious repression. But the Copts’ particular victimization as Christians became clearly highlighted just a few weeks before the outbreak of the January 25 revolution. On New Year’s Day 2011, the Two Saints Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria was targeted by a car bomb, which killed twenty-three people and injured close to a hundred. In the televised funerals following the attack, Coptic mourners chanted “mish ‘ayzino” (“we don’t want you”) at the governor of Alexandria and his deputies, who had come to pay their respects. Soon after, protests broke out in Cairo and Alexandria, where Copts—and even on occasion their Muslim supporters—battled police forces in an eerie prelude to the revolution. The boldness and the anti-government tenor of the demonstrations reflected widespread frustration with the status quo. It seemed mish ‘ayzino resonated with all Egyptians.
Christians in Egypt trace their history back to Saint Mark’s arrival in Alexandria in the early days of Christianity. There are an estimated eight million Coptic Christians, roughly 10 percent of the population, plus perhaps 100,000 other Christians adhering to a variety of denominations. When the revolution erupted on January 25, many Christians were readily prepared to join the protests despite calls from the Coptic Orthodox Church leadership to abstain from participation. The late Pope Shenouda III’s caution regarding the protests reflected the church’s longstanding position to maintain the status quo and also captured a widespread belief among Copts that a power change or vacuum would create an opening for Islamist groups whose agendas were either unclear or were outright hostile towards non-Muslims. Conversely, several Coptic intellectuals and activists argued that the Pope should eschew politics and that the church should not speak on behalf of Copts in non-spiritual matters. Regardless, and before long, numerous Christians were marching on Tahrir as the world watched the square transform into a utopian space where Muslims and Christians prayed side by side, protecting each other from harm. This Tahrir moment allowed Copts, perhaps for the first time in decades, to imagine that they too could have a meaningful role as equal citizens of a democratic Egypt and that they need not look to their clerical elders for political leadership and guidance.
But the excitement quickly gave way to uncertainty. For Copts, the first political battle came in March 2011 during the vote on the constitutional referendum. Many joined with revolutionary activists in opposition to the Islamists and called for a re-writing of the entire constitution prior to parliamentary or presidential elections. Echoing the unifying spirit from the earliest days of the revolution, activists challenged Article 2, which states that Egypt’s official religion is Islam and that Islamic legal principles are the main source of legislation. However, a referendum to implement limited modifications onto (rather than repeal) the constitution passed with 77 percent of the vote, and hastened an electoral process that favored, as activists had correctly anticipated, the election of established political groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Then, within a few months of the revolution, a series of sectarian-motivated attacks against persons and properties, as well as church burnings, rattled the community and called into question the Copts’ place in a future Egypt. Among the most prominent and divisive of these acts was the burning of churches in Sol (March 2011), Imbaba (May 2011), and Al-Marinab (September 2011). The rising tensions and feelings of increased political marginalization led to the formation of the Maspero Youth Union, an umbrella group that mobilized Copts to demand justice and accountability for the ongoing violence being committed against Christians. The group, whose name derives from its protest hub near the state television building in the Maspero area of downtown Cairo, represented an emerging style of Coptic political activism, one that was autonomous from the Orthodox clerical leadership. Following the revolution, the Church, for its part, seemed out of step. In October, the Maspero Youth Union and the Free Copts movement staged a demonstration in Maspero that was violently dispersed by security forces, resulting in the deaths of twenty-seven people and the wounding of more than two hundred. Coptic Church leaders condemned the violence and mourned the fallen “martyrs” but they remained conspicuously silent about the role of the military in these attacks.
In a few short months, many Egyptians, particularly Christians, were beginning to lose hope in the realization of equality, freedom, and accountability, the very ideals of social justice promised by the revolution. Following the Maspero attacks, then-Prime Minister Essam Sharaf promised that a Unified Law for the Places of Worship protecting Christian churches would be promulgated within thirty days, but the law never materialized. After the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists scored an overwhelming victory for Islamists in the parliamentary election in December and January, Coptic hopes for basic rights seemed even more tenuous. The new parliament mostly ignored stipulations for Christian-Muslim equality: for the fair and just enforcement of laws regarding freedom of worship and freedom of religion; for the removal of one’s religious identification from Egyptian identity cards; and for the institution of anti-discriminatory provisions in the workplace, among others. The fear that Egypt would turn into a religious state, where Muslim rights and roles were privileged over those of non-Muslims, seemed more immediate than ever.
The presidential election in May and June was another political battle for Copts. Christian volunteers visited rural areas and urban slums in a muwatana campaign (roughly, “instilling citizenship”), a sort of informal civic program to educate their coreligionists about candidates and the voting process. In the first round, most Copts opted for secular candidates with votes well distributed between Hamdeen Sabahi, Amr Moussa, and Ahmed Shafik. The voting pattern reflected the same generational divide present among Egyptians at large, with many youth casting their votes for the Nasserist-socialist Sabahi. In the runoff, Copts voted in large numbers for Shafik, the former Air Force commander who stressed security, and greeted Mohammed Morsi’s victory with concern. Although Morsi has vowed to be a president for all Egyptians, his affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, which has historically sent mixed messages regarding the rights of non-Muslims and women, elicits mistrust from many Egyptians. Morsi’s promise to appoint Coptic and female vice presidents brought condemnation from his Salafi supporters, some of whom have allegedly called for the implementation of the jizya tax on non-Muslims in a new Egypt. These developments have prompted many Copts to contemplate or pursue emigration to the West. Upper and middle class Copts might be increasingly motivated to leave, though their less fortunate coreligionists who also tend to bear the brunt of discrimination and sectarian tensions have fewer prospects. Coptic sources report that as many as one hundred thousand Copts have left Egypt since the revolution, although the the figure has not been well corroborated.
These events also occurred in the context of the death of Pope Shenouda in March at the age of eighty-eight. For the last forty years he was the public face of the Coptic community. Some Copts have argued that his role resulted in the community being more isolated, that Copts came to be seen as a separate part of Egyptian society by just having one figurehead—and a religious one—as their spokesman.
The future patriarch’s attitudes and policies will likely be vital in shepherding the millions who still see the papal seat as representing the Coptic voice. Yet, the Orthodox Church’s political wane during the revolution has created new loci of Christian leadership. Aside from the burgeoning youth movement, an important space has been opened for other Christians to emerge as dynamic and forward-thinking leaders. In particular, the Kasr Al-Dobara Evangelical (Presbyterian) Church in the vicinity of Tahrir Square has come into greater prominence and has been dubbed by many as the “Church of Liberation.” The church’s pastoral and youth leaders were active from the earliest days of the revolution, and the church served as a makeshift hospital for some of the wounded during the numerous skirmishes that followed in later months. Kasr Al-Dobara was also the first to host a commemorative service for those killed during the revolution and to honor the families of the fallen—both Muslim and Christian.
Coptic Evangelical leaders have also become ubiquitous on Christian satellite channels, calling for national unity and for solidarity against all forms of oppression. On November 11, 2011, a twelve-hour prayer marathon, broadcast live on SAT-7, was organized in one of Cairo’s largest churches in Muqattam and was reportedly attended by tens of thousands. This inter-denominational and charismatic service was infused with praise, song, and tearful worship. It revealed that as Egyptian Christians feel increasingly threatened in the uncertain political climate, they have become more willing, at least on a grassroots level, to overcome traditional denominational differences for the sake of unity and communal coherence.
The diverse forms of political activism, inter-denominational grassroots mobilization, and increased media attention illustrate how Copts are trying to become agents of their future, even as they feel targeted, alienated, and rightfully uncertain of that same future. Many Christians—young and old, men and women, Evangelical, Catholic, and Orthodox—believe that Egypt’s revolution was dependent, in great part, on their courage and their ongoing activism against injustice. They now wonder whether a new Egypt, dominated by an Islamist agenda, can safeguard and accommodate their rights as equal citizens.
Women have played a prominent role, under very different circumstances, in all of the countries embroiled in the Arab Awakening, including Egypt. This is the promising side of the coin. But, a negative dimension also appears to be emerging. Gains made previously by women in societies in the Middle East and North Africa are being challenged. There are reports that women who played decisive roles in democracy movements are being excluded from negotiations on future systems of governments.
For those of us who followed the uprising in Egypt with keen interest, the recent parliamentary elections were a disappointing setback. Women won only 3 percent of seats. This is like Norway three generations ago. If Egypt is to develop into a peaceful society with a prosperous economy and a social system that can provide a better life for all, Egyptian women cannot be marginalized from the political process.
It is important to draw on all parts of society and all groups, including minorities, to ensure that their voices are heard, and to ensure that you draw on the talents of as many people as possible. Only in that way will they feel they have a stake in the success of their society and country. If I can use a football analogy, you cannot build the best team if you exclude at least half your potential players from even being considered for selection.
Why, then, is the participation of women so important? Certainly, because it is a fundamental human right, enshrined in United Nations conventions and declarations to which Egypt is a signatory. A representative democracy must fully include women—in the same way that it must also represent the voices of all citizens regardless of religion or ethnicity.
Women are also crucial for any country’s effort to promote economic and social development. The World Bank’s latest World Development Report argues, quite convincingly, that gender equality is also smart economics. A few years ago, a pioneering study, the Arab Human Development Report produced by the United Nations, first spotlighted the issue of gender as a key factor in holding back the development of most Arab societies. Egyptian economists took part in producing that landmark report.
Their conclusions are now widely accepted: countries that create better opportunities and conditions for women and girls can raise productivity, improve outcomes for children, and advance development prospects for all. Well-functioning societies need to be able to provide for women and men to be able to participate at all levels and sectors of society.
This is not something that changes overnight, of course. In my own country, Norway, women got the right to vote one hundred years ago. Today we are very well off in economic terms, and at the top spot of the UN Human Development Index. You might think this is just because of the wealth generated by oil and gas from the North Sea. That certainly helps, but as we know in this region, large oil and gas revenues do not guarantee broad economic and social development. The reverse is sometimes the case.
A main reason for Norway’s development has been that we have managed to mobilize and put to good use all our human resources. The participation of women in the labor market in Norway is among the highest in the world. Women have doubled the pool of intelligence and talent in the workforce. They have created new jobs and generate tax revenue, enabling us to continue investments in welfare and opportunities for all.
Women also have a strong voice in decision-making. I was proud to be elected the first female prime minister in Norway. And, back in 1986, when I formed my second government, 40 percent of cabinet ministers, eight out of eighteen, were women. Not all of the public, including many women, were in favor of such a prominent presence of women in government. They were just not used to it. After twenty-five years, it has become commonplace and uncontested. And I believe the decisions we make are better—because we benefit from listening to more perspectives in making them.
Of course, sometimes you need more than voluntary action. In the boardrooms of private sector companies in Norway, progress was rather slow. As a result, a law was adopted to ensure there were at least 40 percent women on corporate boards. Initially viewed with distrust, this is also now broadly accepted and has not adversely affected balance sheets, as critics had said it would.
In the Middle East, at least half of all university students are now female. So why are women not equally represented in government, or in leadership roles in the private sector? Is it because many women feel more comfortable filling traditional roles at home? Or is it that they don’t dare to challenge their male peers? Or is it because they are not given the opportunity to compete on equal terms? Perhaps the answer is a combination of all the three. Now, certainly, is the time to ensure that women’s rights and participation is fully guaranteed in the new constitution and to ensure that discriminatory laws are removed.
This essay is adapted from Gro Brundtland’s Nadia Younes Memorial Lecture on March 12, 2012, at the American University in Cairo.
Gro Brundtland is a former prime minister of Norway, a former director general of the World Health Organization, and is the special envoy on Climate Change for the UN Secretary General. She is a founding member of The Elders, a group of independent world leaders working for peace and human rights.
Inside the Cage
If defending justice is a crime, then long live criminality! I found those words scribbled on the wall of my prisoner cage in the courtroom where I stood trial with fourteen other defendants in the case against foreign funding of non-governmental organizations, or NGOs.
Like many, I had great hopes for change in Egypt after the revolution. I was excited to move back to Cairo as the new country director for Freedom House, an NGO that supports democratic change, monitors freedom, and advocates for democracy and human rights across the globe. In August 2011, I packed up my life and my two-year-old twins and left England, where I had been living while working on my PhD, to return to my homeland. I was not naïve enough to believe that it would be an easy job. But I never imagined that just a few months later I would be in a cage.
I have always been committed to making Egypt a better place. I began my career in organizations such as the World Bank and United Nations Development Programme. I also worked with Saad Eddin Ibrahim at the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, a pro-democracy organization, where my colleagues and I faced constant harassment by state security. I even spent some time working at the Egyptian Ministry of International Cooperation in a sincere effort to reform the government from within. Ironically, it was this ministry, under Minister Fayza Abul Naga, that would later bring the case against NGOs that put me in that cage. It became clear to me that individual attempts for change in the face of Mubarak’s dictatorship and the corruption within his regime were futile.
When I returned to Egypt, I thought that the dynamics had changed. Yet soon afterwards, I was subjected to harassing phone calls by local authorities. Beginning in early December I was interrogated regularly by state prosecutors and threatened with prison if I publicly spoke about their investigation. The December 29 raids on NGOs came as a surprise to those who were not aware of our harassment and intimidation. I became one of forty-three NGO staff, including seventeen Americans, who were charged with operating an organization and receiving funds from a foreign government without a license. The maximum sentence for these charges is five years in prison with hard labor.
Many aspects of this case represent a microcosm of the broader challenges Egypt has faced during its transition. The case was designed and orchestrated by the executive branch of government, a fact that casts doubt on judicial independence, which is itself critical for true democratic transition. Despite the potential peril, I was proud to be in that cage, standing up for our right to justice and with a firm belief in our cause and our innocence. Unfortunately, the world’s attention waned after the charged foreigners were allowed to leave Egypt in March. The pressure that we continue to face from authorities, far from lessening, has become much worse. The defendants who remain in Egypt feel very isolated and have no confidence that this trial, political in nature from the very beginning, will have a fair outcome.
The still-powerful state media has demonized the protesters in Tahrir Square, saying they are working against the country’s best interest. Similarly, it portrays us as spies in the service of a foreign agenda and petitions have been presented to the judges requesting the case be reframed to involve espionage, which could in theory lead to a life sentence or execution.
One of the most devastating developments was the decision by the United States to use a waiver to keep $1.3 billion in military funding flowing to Egypt without condition, despite the failure of the Egyptian authorities to exhibit the required progress towards a genuine transition to democracy. This has shown Egyptian authorities that, even if they ignore fundamental human rights, there will be no negative consequences in their relationship with Washington.
Thus Islamists who won elections for the now-disbanded parliament seem to care very little about our situation. They are engaged in a power struggle with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and choose their battles and prioritize their interests. Despite claiming to preserve the dignity of women, they did not raise a single voice to protest the fact that three of us women defendants were squashed in a thirty-seven-square-foot cage with more than twenty men, including accused arms traffickers and drug smugglers.
The only real support we receive in Egypt has been from other NGOs, which have issued strong statements condemning the crackdown on civil society. These are the same groups that maintain the selfless struggle to save the revolution and they may still face our fate. Those who remain unmentioned are our families and friends. Crammed on court benches, they sit quietly at every hearing, shedding tears and listening to calls for our execution during a process that has shown no sign of going in the right direction. All they wish is for our nightmare to be over.
We still hope justice will prevail in our case but we have all paid a high price already. I will never forget the sound of the iron doors of the courtroom cage being slammed behind us, making an example of those who dared to stand up for democracy.
Nancy Okail is the director of Freedom House Egypt, a non-governmental organization that supports human rights and open government. She can be followed on Twitter at @NancyGEO.
In Cairo, a young Sudanese man, his wife, and their newborn baby girl emerge from a taxi. They are arriving from the hospital to the apartment of a cousin where they have been staying since being evicted from their own home following the revolution. Some young Egyptian men spot the family, pull the man away, and proceed to taunt and beat him. “You’re not welcome here anymore,” one of them barks. “Mubarak is gone. You should go, too.”
Refugees are among the most vulnerable, marginalized, and disadvantaged people in any society. They endure traumatic experiences including arduous journeys that often affect their mental health and physical wellbeing. They live with the insecurity that comes with being a refugee in a foreign land. They lack the legal protection afforded by citizenship and the traditional support structures and channels for recourse in cases of abuse or exploitation. And these woes become compounded many times over in periods of crisis—such as the upheaval that Egypt has undergone since the January 25 revolution.
Despite expectations that the revolution would bring wider respect for human dignity, refugees in Egypt are arguably facing greater discrimination, xenophobia, restrictions on movement, evictions from homes, and an overall hostility. Previous Egyptian governments did officially tolerate the presence of refugees. Some 44,600 people, mainly fleeing the conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Iraq, are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; there are also an estimated 70,000 unregistered Palestinians. But Egypt has never established a proper framework for asylum: the vital human right of people to seek international protection when they face persecution in their home country. Egypt has no institution to govern asylum, nor legislation to regulate the rights and obligations of refugees. In general, the approach to refugees has been one of monitoring and control, rather than of providing rights and protection. Thus, refugees in Egypt found themselves in precarious, unpredictable, and untenable conditions.
Does a democratic transition ensure the advancement of human rights? Not necessarily. Therefore, there is an urgent need to address this issue through formal as well as informal structures and in a manner that will be mutually reinforcing. The government must develop mechanisms to handle refugees, while informal practices and the de facto policies that currently assist refugees need to be codified. For their part, refugee advocates should engage with the broader human rights movement to influence new policies and raise public awareness about the plight of refugees.
Some argue that societies undergoing massive transformation become too inwardly focused, and that the nationalist sentiment in the Egyptian revolution contributed to a rise in xenophobia. Yet, there is room for some optimism. The widespread demand for justice and a new rights-based approach to governance may well lead to improvements in the lives of refugees in Egypt in the long run.
Shaden Khallaf teaches at the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo. She served in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from 1998 to 2010, most recently as an advisor on Middle Eastern humanitarian and political affairs.
A Woman’s Place
Merna Thomas, a twenty-four-year-old activist, heads out for another day of revolution. Armed with brushes and small buckets of paint, her goal today is not the overthrow of a regime, but something perhaps even more daring: to change Egyptian attitudes toward women. On the side of a downtown building, she puts her graffiti skills to work with an illustration of Samira Ibrahim—hailed for bravely speaking out after becoming one of the victims of the infamous virginity tests that Egyptian security forces performed on detained female protesters in 2011. Passersby mumble streams of complaints. “Surprisingly, women were against the idea,” Thomas recalls. “One woman started yelling.”
Thomas is the co-founder of a feminist group called Noon El-Neswa, or Her, which aims to harness the bourgeoning use of street art as a protest tool to challenge gender stereotypes and generally ignite debate about the place of women in Egypt. One of the most striking images produced by Noon El-Neswa activists is a stenciled triptych of three women wearing no veil, a hijab, and a face veil, respectively, with the admonition: “Don’t label me.” Sometimes a few words of text cry out against misogyny, such as the scrawl declaring “Nothing is for men only” seen around Cairo lately.
Perhaps Noon El-Neswa’s most important goal is to boost women’s pride and confidence. The messages, Thomas explains, are intended to fight the sense of being degraded by society, to convey that sexual harassment should not leave them feeling passive and inferior to men. The group has painted portraits of women achievers on walls all around the city; Egyptian icons such as the diva Umm Kalthoum and famed actress Faten Hamama. Their heroes come not only from the past but include remarkable Egyptian women of the present, like factory worker Wedad El-Demerdash, one of the leaders of the 2008 labor strike in the city of Mahalla al-Kubra that presaged the January 25 revolution. To locate inspirational sayings by Egyptian women that can be appropriated for graffiti, activists pour through literature and history books and even watch old Egyptian films with famous actresses portraying strong women characters.
Noon El-Neswa is intentionally provocative, pushing out beyond the revolutionary scene around Tahrir Square and into neighborhoods where promoting women’s empowerment is bound to be even more controversial. One day, in the impoverished district of Dar El-Salaam, an aggressive group of men circled Thomas as she was daubing her opinions on the side of a police station. A more dangerous situation developed in May when Noon El-Neswa had to completely abandon a graffiti initiative in Mahalla Al-Kubra; earlier, residents there assaulted graffiti artists who were part of a “Liar Muslim Brotherhood” campaign. To Shady Khalil, another co-founder, the hostile reaction is expected and plays a useful function. “If someone comes and rubs out the graffiti, it means that I stimulated their stagnant ideas,” he explains.
Thomas literally embodies one of Noon El-Neswa’s core objectives—to see more women out in the streets, reclaiming public space, both as women protesters and simply as Egyptian women. She helped come up with the idea of establishing Noon El-Neswa as an activist group for women’s empowerment after she came across a disturbing graffiti image in downtown Cairo. It portrayed the American Statue of Liberty wearing a face veil, emblazoned with the words “You are not free.”
“Many things in our heritage convey the powerful role of women,” Thomas says. “I want women to get the feeling of, ‘I exist.’”
On a weeknight in May, Tamer Qenawy, a thirty-year-old revolutionary, is pacing in El-Hosary Square in 6th October City, a satellite of Cairo. He and friends are setting up a film screening. They have tied a white screen to a fence right by a minibus stop. The projector and laptop are here but Qenawy is waiting for some other guys to bring the sound system. A crowd gathers and then the program begins: a screening of homemade videos depicting violent attacks on protesters during a demonstration outside the Ministry of Defense three weeks earlier.
The makeshift event is part of an imaginative campaign to raise public awareness about the ongoing struggle of Egypt’s revolutionaries and the repressive measures implemented by Egypt’s interim military rulers. It is called 3askar Kazeboon, which translates as “Military Liars.”
Activists launched 3askar Kazeboon partly to counter coverage in the still-powerful state television, radio, and newspapers that depict protesters as violent elements being directed by foreign enemies. The idea was inspired by the so-called “Blue Bra” incident in December 2011. After police beat a woman protester and stripped off her clothes, the incident was scarcely mentioned by the Egyptian media but a mobile phone video of it went viral on the Internet and sparked international outrage.
Organizers believe that public screenings of such footage are a way of bringing the truth to Egyptians who may only see and believe what the state media presents. It is also a way of bridging the gap between Egypt’s relatively small online community and the vast majority of Egyptians who lack Internet access. “Each and everyone of us, from organized groups to individuals who believe in the revolution, downloaded the footage and organized a screening in their neighborhood,” Qenawy explains.
3askar Kazeboon proved to be an effective mobilization tool as well. “We won a huge number of people to our side through our work,” says co-founder Ahmed Ezzat. He recalls the first anniversary of January 25, 2011. “Instead of celebrating, like the Muslim Brotherhood and the military council called for, millions of people joined us in one of five memorial marches in Cairo remembering the martyrs of the revolution and chanting against the military rule,” he says.
Such is 3askar Kazeboon’s success that it has gone into Season 2 with the support of a citizen journalism collective called Mosireen, Arabic for adamant. The group produces videos to raise awareness about social justice, focusing on citizen rights, and the military’s role in the economy, and education and health systems. Says Ezzat: “All you need is a video, a laptop, a projector, and a screen.”
After sixty years of enduring a military regime, the post-colonial state in Egypt is finally witnessing a transition. Independence from British occupation gave birth to a militarized autocracy that survived through repression for decades, led by a succession of four presidents coming from the military and, recently, a ruling council of generals. Since 1952, the armed forces have enjoyed a high degree of control over the economy, the bureaucracy, and the legal system. In June, when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) officially handed over power to the first civilian president, Mohammed Morsi, the handover signaled a fundamental shift that came after a long historical wait.
Clearly it is not a complete transition to democracy—given the omnipotent constitutional status that SCAF has bestowed upon itself and the resulting conflict between the new president and the old military institution. Yet, in spite of the dispute, the rhetoric of Morsi, a faithful member of the Muslim Brotherhood, has not broached the issue of demilitarizing the Egyptian state.
A better understanding of the meaning of Egypt’s transition and what it portends for Egypt’s generals requires an overview of the long historical process of militarizing Egypt’s political and economic structures. When SCAF carried out its so-called “good” coup after the January 25 revolution, it was merely the latest chapter in a long story of the military’s deep involvement in Egyptian politics and society. It is important to review Egypt’s national myths related to the opposition to colonialism, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s coup and his militarized socialism, Anwar Sadat’s attempt at demilitarization, and the expansion of the military’s economic influence in the Hosni Mubarak era. In light of this past, will President Morsi be able to challenge the military’s hegemony?
A National Myth
Egyptian history maintains a myth about noble coups that aimed at genuine ‘nationalist’ goals. The origin of the myth of ‘good coups’ goes back to the ‘Urabi revolt of 1881. The notion resurfaced in 1952 with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Free Officers coup against the monarchy, and again during the 2011 revolution that was supported by SCAF. The nationalistic ruling elites and intellectuals of Cairo forged the myth, and have perpetuated it for decades.
In 1881, when Colonel Ahmed ‘Urabi led his fellow officers and overthrew the government of the day, contemporary writers insisted it was a revolution that represented the native Egyptian masses rising up against the Turkish ruling elite and foreign financial dominance. In reality, ‘Urabi’s movement had a very specific demand—basically installing equality between army officers from native and Turkish origins—and it primarily represented the interests of the ‘landed gentry’ within the country. The allies of ‘Urabi’s coup were mainly of the Cairo bourgeoisie, landowners, and the educated urban middle class. For these social groups the ‘Urabi revolt amounted to a blow for reform against foreign financial hegemony. ‘Urabi’s short-lived coup did create a new cabinet of ministers and a new parliament and both dominated by the military. These ministers belonged to the same social class as Turkish pashas and, consequently, only the rich enjoyed any suffrage. ‘Urabi’s reformed parliament brought back the same major landowners to their old seats.
In 1952, when Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser successfully led the next coup, he revived ‘Urabi’s narrative—the myth of national heroes in uniform—and re-introduced it to the lower classes. To foster the public image of ‘good coups’ for the sake of military propaganda, Nasser also republished the 1937 book by the nationalist historian ‘Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rafi’i, which glorified ‘Urabi as the man who founded a parliament “to represent the power of the nation and secure the rights and freedoms of the Egyptians.” The state publisher made sure to place Nasser’s photo in full military garb next to ‘Urabi’s on the first page of the reprint of Al-Rafi’i’s book.
In 1957, an Egyptian movie titled Rudda Qalbi (Return my Heart) narrated the romantic epic of a poor, young army officer who falls in love with the daughter of an aristocratic pasha in colonial Egypt. As his father is but a humble gardener in the Turkish pasha’s palace, the officer cannot marry his sweetheart, who is also in love with him. Then came the fateful year of 1952, and this young soldier joins the Free Officers—who in real life were led by Nasser and took down the dynasty of Mohammed Ali, the Turkish aristocracy, and the British in one blow. Our male protagonist’s influence increases after Nasser’s ‘revolution,’ and he finally manages to marry the aristocratic young lady, but only after the military regime had confiscated her wealth. She is thrilled to be able, finally, to wed her childhood love. In this classic romance repeated annually on state television for the anniversary of Nasser’s coup, this apparently innocent love story actually reflects the new socio-economic realities of Egypt following militarization. And the marriage is a marriage of convenience, which did emerge between the old aristocracy, recently bereft of their property, and the new ruling elite, bearing uniforms and with low and middle class origins and seeking social refinement. This officer’s marriage reflected the reality of military personnel’s rapid social mobility.
A few years later, in 1962, the military ruling elite decided to adopt socialism and turned the coup into a social revolution by embracing the demands of the masses. Young putschists gained legitimacy and the rest of the story is history. During this era, the state came to own all economic assets through nationalization, and then built numerous public enterprises, aiming for an ambitious goal of industrialization. Army officers installed themselves as the managers of these state-owned enterprises—a task for which they were largely unqualified. The military issued a new socialist constitution that stated that “the people control all means of production,” and army officers were the self-appointed deputies of the people in controlling these means. As corruption and mismanagement proliferated throughout the public sector, Nasser’s project ultimately failed to deliver the promise of economic prosperity. And after neglecting their main task of defending national security—and instead interfering in economic and political affairs—the Egyptian military was struck by the humiliating defeat and massive loss of territory at the hands of Israel in the 1967 war.
Once he ascended to power as president, Anwar Sadat staged his own coup against Nasser’s regime by demilitarizing the state. In order to consolidate his authority against the remaining influential figures from Nasser’s years, Sadat reversed the policies of the 1960s by taking measures that marginalized the military in politics. These measures were also applied in order to bring professionalism back to the military and regain the Sinai Peninsula from Israel. Despite being a military man himself, Sadat applied a policy that increased the number of civilian technocrats in bureaucracy and the cabinet. Furthermore, the army’s control further declined because Sadat decided to liberalize the economy. Through his “open door” policy, he took steps to privatize parts of the state-owned sector that military leaders had previously dominated. Military leaders then had to share influence with a rising community of crony capitalists.
Fortunately, from the perspective of the military leaders, this situation did not last very long. The 1979 peace treaty with Israel came to rescue their position, and helped them recover some of the economic influence they had lost during Sadat’s presidency. After ending the state of war with Israel, Egyptian leaders reasoned that laying-off thousands of well-trained army officers was politically undesirable. Thus, the state founded an economic body known as the National Services Projects Organization (NSPO), which established different commercial enterprises run by retired generals and colonels. Through various subsidies and tax exemptions, the state granted military-owned enterprises privileges not enjoyed by any other company in the public or private sectors. The military’s enterprises were not accountable to any government body, and were above the laws and regulations applied to all other companies.
Return of the Generals
The years of Hosni Mubarak, the fourth military president of the Egyptian post-colonial state, witnessed a conspicuous return of the military to dominance. A highly militarized state evolved during Mubarak’s thirty years in power through three different phases. The last phase in particular saw the military rise to an impressive hegemony—on the eve of the January 2011 uprising.
The first phase was in the 1980s. Following Sadat’s move to marginalize the generals, the military institution continued to play a relatively humble role in the economy and politics. Its economic role was mainly through NSPO’s contribution to public infrastructure projects and positively engaging in the national economy at large through producing cheap goods. The second phase was in the 1990s, after Mubarak applied a full-fledged economic liberalization plan. The military men were allowed to expand their business enterprises with the establishment of new companies and factories that had the status of public sector enterprises but on the margin of the privatized economy. Finally, the last ten years of Mubarak’s reign witnessed a considerable presence of army officers, especially retired generals, in bureaucracy and the public sector. The military institution had expanded considerably its profitable enterprises. Mubarak granted the generals such influence in order appease the military and to realize a dream: engineering the eventual succession of his son, Gamal, to the presidency.
Thus, by the end Mubarak’s reign, Egypt had become a country run by retired generals and colonels, who filled numerous high-ranking positions almost everywhere in the state structure. A distinct class of military administrators and managers grew in bureaucracy, the public sector, and military enterprises. While the former army officers took positions in every part of the country, they preferred certain locations where influence and wealth were concentrated. For example, eighteen of the twenty-seven provincial governors are retired army generals. Typically they run administrations in key places such as the tourist regions of Upper Egypt, all the Suez Canal provinces, the two Sinai provinces, the major Nile Delta areas, and Alexandria. And if they don’t make governor, then they serve as governors’ chiefs-of-staff, or as directors of small towns, or heads of both the wealthy and the poor but highly populated districts in Cairo. The state-owned oil sector also became highly militarized as retired generals were put in charge of many natural gas and oil companies. They also tend to control commercial transportation. The head of the Suez Canal is a former military chief-of-staff. The heads of the Red Sea ports are retired generals, as is the manager of the maritime and land transport company.
The military’s economic enterprises that were engaged in civilian products became rich fields of opportunity for ex-officers. The military expanded their enterprises during the last years of Mubarak to incorporate hundreds of factories, companies, farms, and hotels. Generally, there are three major military bodies engaged in civil production: the Ministry of Military Production, the Arab Organization for Industrialization, and, of course, the NSPO. The first owns eight manufacturing plants and 40 percent of their production is geared toward civilian markets. The Arab Organization for Industrialization owns eleven factories and companies, with 70 percent of their production going to civilian markets. And the NSPO is engaged in civil manufacturing and service industries, producing a wide variety of goods including luxury jeeps, infant incubators, butane gas cylinders, and even a variety of food. It also provides services such as domestic cleaning and gas station management.
Despite Mubarak’s efforts at co-option, the military both in and out of service largely disapproved of the “Washington Consensus” style of economic reform as advocated by Gamal Mubarak. They quietly resented his plans for privatization in Egypt’s public sector. Two 2008 cables revealed by Wikileaks indicated that Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and the Egyptian military hierarchy were largely critical of economic liberalization because it undermined state control. The military views the government’s privatization efforts “as a threat to its economic position, and therefore generally opposes economic reforms,” said Margaret Scobey, the then U.S. ambassador to Egypt, according to Wikileaks. She continued, “We see the military’s role in the economy as a force that generally stifles free market reform by increasing direct government involvement in the markets.” Tantawi clearly resisted privatization due to the threat that it would pose to the military’s economic empire.
Above all, the military under Mubarak enjoyed great leverage in politics through its maintenance of a close relationship with Washington and the U.S. military establishment. In accordance with the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement, the Egyptian military receives $1.3 billion dollars in annual aid. As part of the military aid program, Egyptian army leaders and young officers travel regularly to the U.S. to study in American military schools and receive training. And by developing relations with their counterparts in the Pentagon, Egyptian military officers gained power in Egyptian foreign relations.
A Coup and Democracy
In February of 2011, protesters in Tahrir Square celebrated the ousting of Mubarak. SCAF offered to run the country for a transitional period of six months. Grateful for its support in the fall of the dictator, Egyptians chanted: “The army and the people are one hand.” State-owned media played the patriotic songs of Nasser’s era, and its talk shows enthusiastically revived the historical myth of ‘good coups.’ The army always comes at the right time to rescue the nation from distress, state TV repeated and the cheering masses believed SCAF’s move was yet another great event in Egyptian history where the army intervened for the good of the nation. Victorious protesters and ordinary families took photos next to army tanks and smiling officers.
It was indeed a coup, but far from being a good coup. SCAF stayed in complete power for a full seventeen months, and proceeded to entrench its control over essential institutions of the state. The main pillars of a successful coup are all there: control over the media, the bureaucracy, security apparatus, and the legal system. Yet this was a coup that relied less on tanks and guns, and relied much more on democratic features. After giving Mubarak the final shove from power, SCAF immediately adopted a democratic discourse and held elections. It oversaw four different elections: a referendum to amend the constitution, ballots for both the lower and upper houses of parliament, and the presidential election.
As a matter of fact, the Egyptian coup in the guise of democracy fits a global pattern. A recent study,Coups and Democracy, by the North American Congress on Latin America, draws distinctions between old and new coups. During the Cold War, old-fashioned military takeovers became stigmatized as anti-democratic. Whether these coups were backed by the U.S. or the Soviet Union, they usually installed armed leaders as presidents—or dictators, rather—until they died or another coup removed them. From 1990 to the present day, putschists have increasingly adorned their coups with the trappings of democracy.
That is especially true if substantial military aid originated from the United States. In a unipolar global system where the U.S. is the only hegemonic power and benevolent patron of Third World regimes, adhering to the American rhetoric on democracy—such as the Bush Doctrine of the 2000s—is essential to the survival of any coup. Federal law in the U.S. prohibits granting any financial assistance “to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.” The Egyptian military, nonetheless, has resorted to overt violence on several occasions and there have been no immediate repercussions on American aid. The number of civilians killed by security forces since SCAF came to power is unknown, but many assert that it far exceeds the number of dead during the eighteen-day uprising that led to Mubarak’s ousting.
To legitimize their coup—via presidential and legislative authority—the ruling generals installed loyalists in civilian posts within the bureaucracy and took legal measures to protect their economic empire. They appointed two weak prime ministers, Essam Sharaf and Kamal El-Ganzouri, who signed letters of appointment for an ever-increasing number of retired army generals at almost every level of the state bureaucracy and the public sector. And by assigning itself the powers of the legislature, SCAF issued a law giving allegedly corrupt army officers, even after retirement, immunity from prosecution even in civilian courts. After SCAF issued this law—Decree of Law No. 45 of 2011—many whistleblowers’ documents against retired army generals who held civilian positions such as governor, simply disappeared after reaching the military prosecutor.
After SCAF’s ‘good coup,’ a wave of labor protests and strikes spread throughout the country. The military accused the striking workers of stalling the wheel of production and harming the national economy. In reality, the actions mainly threatened the military’s immediate economic interests. The largest labor strikes targeted entities run by retired generals, either in the public sector or in enterprises owned by the military. The protesters were demonstrating against corruption and mismanagement; while the retired generals in many instances called on the military police to repress the strikers.
For example, some two thousand workers and engineers in the petroleum sector protested their poor conditions and the increasing militarization of jobs in the sector. The retired army generals at the top were receiving thousands of pounds while the workers were earning very little. Within this sector, workers rebelled in companies like Petrojet and Petrotrade and the military’s response was aggressive. It sent protesters to military trials, and then sentenced them to prison. The Suez Canal workers also staged a series of protests against unjust treatment. In one of the protests, the workers blocked trains. And in a similar response, the Suez Canal Authority referred some of the workers to military prosecution in order to intimidate the rest into silence.
After months of repression, economic crises, and bloodshed under the SCAF regime, Mohammed Morsi became Egypt’s first civilian and democratically elected president. Afterwards, SCAF brought Morsi to view a military parade in celebration of delivering him power. Under a burning June sun, SCAF bestowed Morsi with an army shield and had a group picture taken. The spectacle, some say, symbolizes the marriage of convenience that SCAF has made with the Muslim Brotherhood.
By accident or design, thus far all the ballot results since the revolution have favored the position of Egypt’s Islamists. In a dramatic reversal of the policy of the Mubarak era, the Egyptian military acquiesced to the rise of Islamist power through democratic elections. In turn, a reading of Morsi’s rhetoric and performance raises serious doubts that a process of demilitarization might begin anytime soon. This is in conspicuous conflict with the demands of the protest movement, which has called for the removal of SCAF from power. Demilitarization was absent from Morsi’s electoral platform as well as from his campaign rhetoric. Severe disputes have arisen between the Muslim Brotherhood and SCAF—such as over the court order dissolving the Islamist-dominated parliament. Yet, never has Morsi questioned the military budget or raised the issue of military domination over high-ranking civilian positions throughout the country.
The election of Morsi is, undoubtedly, a colossal event for the post-colonial state of Egypt. After sixty years of dominance by a military that seized power in a coup, finally the first civilian president has arrived. We are witnessing an initial, principal step of transition from a military regime to democracy. Nevertheless, Egypt has not been demilitarized yet. Morsi is a civilian president, but he is the adopted son of the latest coup that loves ballot boxes and adheres to discourses on democracy. SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood might contest and confront one another, but the two parties have developed a relatively stable power sharing arrangement since the revolution. They are the de facto power in the country; liberals have significantly weakened and the protest movement still lacks centralized organization. Despite jockeying for advantage, SCAF and the Brotherhood seemed to have unified in opposing groups that want neither a military regime nor a theocracy in Egypt.
However, this alliance between the civilian president and the military institution is a complex one. Each side has a different vision of how their relationship should operate in practice. The military would favor the so-called Pakistani model, where the army owns a vast economic empire and installs Islamists in places of power through elections. Islamist parties in Pakistan largely follow the rules of the game set by military intelligence, except when extremists disturb the harmonious order of things. In applying the Pakistani model, the Egyptian military would rely on the Supreme Constitutional Court and the law at large to force the Muslim Brotherhood to observe the rules of their game. On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood could be imagining the Turkish model, where an Islamist party won elections and gradually, over the course of ten years, changed the composition of the constitutional court and saw military leaders, who staged old coups against fellow Islamists, sent off to jail. Despite the contrasting outlooks, the two parties will observe some ‘red lines’ in respect of each others’ prerogatives. The Muslim Brotherhood will never raise the issue of the budget and the economic empire of the military institution, and it will ignore the retired generals’ penetration into the bureaucratic structure of the state. For its part, the military institution handed back commercial enterprises and capital that Mubarak’s regime confiscated from the Brotherhood through military trials, and has let the group win elections.
The prospects for demilitarization may seem bleak for the moment. The Egyptian military is entrenched, but at least the cycle of military autocrats has been broken. SCAF will continue to feel pressure from the street over its continued role in governing. Morsi, for his part, will also face discontent from different social groups, especially if his “Renaissance Project” fails to reverse Egypt’s serious economic slump. While Mohammed Morsi’s election is a significant step, it is only part of a transformation that will last many years, and most likely will take another, non-Islamist, president to complete.
Zeinab Abul-Magd is an assistant professor in the History department at Oberlin College and Conservatory. She writes for the Egypt Independent and Foreign Policy.
Egypt’s revolution is transforming the country’s Islamist landscape. The first wave of protests, which lasted for eighteen days and successfully ousted President Hosni Mubarak after three decades in office, triggered revolutionary changes within the country’s Islamist movement. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB), Egypt’s largest organized political group, serves as a good example. The group—which stood united despite (or because of) oppression for long decades—witnessed major transformations in just a few months. After years of of insisting on the all-encompassing nature of the organization, it was only a few days after Mubarak’s ousting that the group announced its intention to establish an independent political party and to retreat from politics and focus on social activities.
The MB-aligned Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) was soon established, and its leaders had to resign from the MB’s executive council. The party’s platform avoided controversial stances adopted earlier by the draft manifesto released by the Brotherhood in 2007, including banning women and Copts from running for president. Within a few months, and parallel to the establishment of the FJP, some major splits took place within the MB; most important was the dismissal of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the group’s iconic reformist leader, after he announced his candidacy for president. This was followed by the dismissal of many young cadres who had played a role during the eighteen days in Tahrir Square and who later came to form their own party: the Egyptian Current.
Revolutionary impact was not limited to the MB. Traditionally apolitical Salafi groups began to seek a political role in revolutionary Egypt. With no significant participation in the early days of protests, some Salafi groups joined the uprising a few days before Mubarak stepped down. Their politicization became more obvious later, when they started institutionalizing their political activities and formed different political parties the potential of which is yet to be seen.
Attempting to understand these changes requires proper scrutiny of both movements’ internal dynamics and ideology, as well as the governing external context. Two sets of variables affect Islamist movements’ political outlook: perceived identity threat and political opportunity. The definition of the former varies due to differences in ideological orientation and political maturity, and its presence leads to Islamists’ increased detachment from society and—consequently—their stagnation and unity. The latter, on the contrary, leads to inclusion and attachment that breeds diversity stemming from the emergence of more sophisticated forms of affiliation to Islamic identity. Post-revolutionary Islamism is therefore likely to witness further sliding transformation that will eventually lead to the transcendence of identity-based Islamism and the emergence of a new wave of diverse, policy-based Islamist activism.
The landscape of Islamist organizations prior to the Egyptian revolution was comprised of five main groups. First among them was the official religious establishment, at the heart of which lies Al-Azhar. Despite its legacy of centuries of scholarship, the institution had been increasingly disempowered and discredited since the 1950s. The MB, established in the late 1920s, represents along with its offshoots the second key player in the pre-revolution Islamist domain, being the country’s largest opposition group and the world’s oldest Islamist group. Third was the Salafi trend, which has been on the ascent in Egypt since the 1970s. Despite having a handful of institutional incubators, Salafism remains a largely social movement, with the vast majority of Salafis not being attached to any organization prior to the revolution. Fourth were the Sufi orders. While dominating the socio-religious scene until the turn of the nineteenth century, Sufi orders have been on the decline ever since, as they have come increasingly under the control of the state and lost social legitimacy. Neoliberal Islam—manifested in the discourse and audience of new preachers—represents the last group of pre-revolutionary Islamist actors. The trend emerged in Egypt in the 1990s and developed a strong presence among urban upper-middle classes. Other groups, including Al-Jama‘a Al-Islamiya and Al-Jihad, were significant during the 1980s and 1990s, but have been on the decline ever since, and have established close ties with either Salafi or MB groups.
The trend of neoliberal Islam emerged with the emergence of ‘new preachers’ in the 1990s. With fewer scholarly qualifications and less training, a more modern facade, moderate discourse, and strong interpersonal skills, new preachers were “thick on ritual and remarkably thin on dissent,” focusing primarily on “personal salvation, ethical enhancement and self-actualization.”1 Televangelist preachers soon became popular among the conservative upper middle classes. Operating on the same modern, materialist paradigm of Salafism, advocates of neoliberal Islam stressed integration more than identity, leading to a complete shift in discourse that matched their audience, which was “inclined toward a piety that could accommodate their privilege and power.”2 Their discourse provided a ‘safe alternative’ for conservative upper-middle-class families and the Islamist business community.3 On the one hand, a focus on morality and individual salvation meant detachment from the ‘un-Islamic’ aspects of their ‘globalized’ lifestyle. On the other hand, the Protestant-like neoliberal discourse provided them with enough legitimacy to sustain their lifestyle and retain their social networks despite their new religiosity. In other words, new preachers advocated a form of Islam that provided its followers with “safe religiosity which entails no confrontation with the state or society.”4
Guided by audience interests, new preachers adopted an apolitical discourse that focused on charity and development efforts. Over the past decade, a few attempts have been made by some new preachers to step into the political domain. These attempts were met with fierce opposition from the regime, which attempted to use new preachers as a stabilizing force, both because they operated within the dominant neoliberal paradigm and hence provided the regime with Islamic legitimacy, and because their charitable and development activities compensated for the regime’s failures at a very low political price, especially when compared to the MB. New preachers and their neoliberal Islamic audience were therefore operating on the margins of politics, focused more on covering the regime’s shortcomings than on challenging the regime or questioning its very legitimacy. This stance has consistently put neoliberal Islamists at odds with other Islamists, who have deemed them to be government elements that corrupt Islam. While the neoliberal preachers, who were focused on integration, had programs on liberal satellite channels, other Islamists, who focused on identity, were increasingly retreating from this public sphere, choosing to present their shows on ‘Islamist’ satellite channels. Eventually, new preachers were not welcome to appear on Islamist channels, and were left with no option but to increasingly side with the regime’s business cronies and other elements maintaining the status quo. Their neoliberal discourse, lack of scholarly qualifications, focus on integration (which seemed to jeopardize or dilute their Islamist identity), and mild stance toward the regime have provoked Sufis, Azharis, Salafis, and Muslim Brothers respectively. Criticism by these groups delegitimized the new preachers, who with their audience were then pushed further away from the other Islamists. Conflict between the new preachers and other Islamist groups escalated in the months preceding the revolution. Being more attached to the regime, some new preachers supported the ruling National Democratic Party candidates against the MB in the 2010 parliamentary elections, further widening this schism.
The Salafi Movement
Scholars argue that Salafism is “par excellence a modern phenomenon and the result of the objectification of religion.”5 Egypt’s first wave of Salafism came in the early twentieth century at the hands of Sheikh Hamed Al-Fiqi, who established Gam‘iyyat Ansar Al-Sunna in 1926 with the intention of reviving ‘orthodox’ Islam. While that planted the movement’s first seeds, it was only in the 1970s that Salafism became a popular movement. A few reasons contributed to the Salafi rise. Besides the disempowerment of Al-Azhar, Egypt’s 1967 defeat in the war against Israel created an identity crisis, which caused many Egyptians to turn to Islamism. During his presidency, Anwar Sadat encouraged Salafism as an apolitical discourse that would nonetheless delegitimize both Nasserists and Muslim Brothers, especially after the latter reorganized. The return of Egyptian workers and professionals who had exiled themselves to the Gulf during Nasser’s presidency further contributed to the rise of Salafism, alongside the ‘petrodollar effect.’ (The term ‘petrodollar effect’ refers to the sponsorship of religious textbooks and the like by rich Gulf States, and the resulting export of Salafi ideology.)
Salafism grew in Egypt as a ‘new social movement.’ Instead of relying on an organization—as the MB did—Salafis relied on a multi-polar network of preachers, largely connected to Saudi Wahhabi scholars.6 While the number of organizations proliferated, only a few had real significance. Most important are the Ansarul-Sunna organization—with branches all over Egypt—and Al-Da‘wa Al-Salafiya in Alexandria (DSA). Due to the way it was revived under Sadat, Salafism had no significant political presence; its role was limited to the socio-religious domains. Most Salafi scholars preached political quietism and kept themselves away from the contentious issues, focusing instead on ritual and individual salvation in their proselytizing. The attacks of September 11, 2001, swiftly transformed their relationship with the Egyptian regime, as their intellectual ties with Salafi jihadists were more closely scrutinized, leading to aggressive interrogation and recurrent imprisonment for Salafi leaders and members.
With the evident failure of Mubarak’s regime in the months preceding the 2011 revolution, socio-religious tensions emerged which triggered the politicization of Salafis. Lack of transparency and rule of law transformed the tensions which surrounded the case of Kamilia Shehata in September and October 2010 into serious religious strife, where Salafi antagonism was targeted at the Church instead of the failed state.7 It was only a few months later that terrorist attacks targeted a Coptic church in Alexandria, a Salafi stronghold, on New Year’s Eve. State Security soon assumed a link between earlier Salafi protests and these attacks, and hundreds of Salafi activists were rounded up and held in custody. Some were seriously tortured during interrogation, and one follower of DSA—Sayed Belal—died in prison.
Fearing a confrontation with the regime, key DSA figures decided not to join the protests denouncing the murder of Belal. Only a few days later—and following the ousting of President Ben Ali in Tunisia—Abdel Moneim Al-Shahhat, DSA spokesman, made a statement rejecting calls for protests on January 25, raising questions about the organizers’ aims and insisting that they would cause more damage to the Salafis and to the country.8 DSA and other Salafi groups maintained their hostility towards revolutionaries until the second week of protests.
The Muslim Brotherhood
The MB is Egypt’s largest opposition group, and the world’s oldest existing Islamist movement. Over time, at least four different schools of thought, or what could be seen as ideological leanings, have come to coexist within the MB.9 First is the founder’s school: a relatively modernist school that existed on the margins of Al-Azhar in the early twentieth century. It rejects turath (the accumulated heritage of Islamic knowledge) as the defining authority, and calls for a return to the Quran and Sunna as original sources, and to practicing ijtihad (independent judgment) with guidance rather than with slavish adherence to the ideas in turath. Second is the traditionalist school, championed by Al-Azhar’s long history of scholarship. It is characterized by heavy reliance on turath and acceptance of the full authenticity of the four main Sunni schools of jurisprudence. The traditionalist school also promotes the notion of ‘balanced identity,’ arguing that each individual belongs to different circles of affiliation, including schools of jurisprudence and theology, Sufi order, hometown, profession, guild, family, and so on. Qutbism, the third school, is characterized by its highly politicized and revolutionary interpretation of the Quran, which divides people into those who belong to/support Islam/Islamism and those who oppose it, with no gray areas in between. This school emphasizes the necessity of developing a detached vanguard that focuses on recruitment and ways to empower the organization while postponing all intellectual questions. While hardcore Qutbism opens doors for political violence, Qutbis within the MB follow a demilitarized version of the ideology, clearly distancing themselves from notions of takfir (disbelief) and violence. The Salafi/Wahhabi school made its way to the MB (and to broader Egyptian society) in the 1970s, forming the fourth leaning within the organization. It is a modernist Islamist ideology that has minimal respect for turath, relying instead on “a direct interface with the texts of revelation,” which leads to “a relatively shallow and limited hierarchy of scholarly authorities.”10 Salafism is characterized by a conservative reading of sharia because it relies on “a textual approach, which uses text more than wisdom and reason in understanding it, and adage more than opinion,”11 leaving only small room for diversity. Salafi and Qutbi acceptance of notions like democracy and diversity are minimal, and they generally believe in a strong, broad central state that plays a major role in defining and upholding public morality.
The MB responded to years of threats and actual persecution by state authorities by developing a “pyramid-shaped hierarchy [which] ensures that members dutifully execute the aims of its national leadership at the local level.”12 Through its strategy of centralizing decision-making and decentralizing implementation, the MB has sought to sustain unity within the organization. Centralized decision-making was intended to keep disputes contained in limited domains, while decentralization was an attempt to avoid the possible consequences of security crackdowns, to create a sense of belonging and empowerment among members, and to develop members’ executive capabilities. This was reflected in the group’s recruitment and promotion criteria, which are based on standards of religious practice and organizational discipline. Observers note that “becoming a full-fledged Muslim Brother is a five-to-eight year process during which aspiring members are closely watched for their loyalty.”13
Arguably, only a few principles kept the MB united as an organization despite the varied ideological leanings of its members: a belief that Islam is an all-encompassing system; rejecting violence as a means of political change in domestic politics; accepting democracy as a political system; consequently accepting political pluralism; and supporting resistance movements operating against foreign occupation.
This search for common grounds among the different MB factions had a structural impact on the Brotherhood. It led to the emergence of a heavy-weight organization, with exponentially growing membership and enormous room to maneuver due to the diversity of activities in which the group is engaged. Yet, with the high centralization of its decision-making, the MB was easily pressured by successive regimes who wanted to control its decisions. Over the course of decades, this led to the emergence of unspoken rules of engagement that enabled the MB to oppose the regime while not seriously challenging it.14
Over the past decade, the MB has had to undergo serious transformations. It was part of the opposition that united around a “common foreign policy agenda” following the Palestinian Intifada in 2000 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Its domestic agenda has also increasingly prioritized democracy since 2005. After the Brotherhood secured 20 percent of parliamentary seats in the 2005 elections, it faced a vicious crackdown from the regime. This swift change from inclusion to exclusion sparked dissent among members as they became more focused on questions of policy and reform. While some chose to resign, others remained in the group and added their critical discourse to its internal dynamics.
Another wave of Brotherhood changes came from within. In mid-2009, former chairman Mahdi Akef announced his decision to step down. This was significant not just because of the precedent it set, but also because Akef was the last MB leader with the historical legitimacy gained by joining the group at an early stage and working directly with its founder. Mohammed Badie, Akef’s successor, who follows the Qutbi tendency, belongs to another generation that lacks the gravitas of Akef and his predecessors,15 a quality which had helped them to resolve internal disputes within the MB. Without this authority among its leaders, it became more difficult for the MB to postpone intellectual and political debates while maintaining unity, particularly in light of the narrow decision-making structures and the absence of proper internal governance structures.16
The subsequent executive council elections took the competition between different MB factions to another level. Elections took place in a context of exclusion, where the regime was fiercely cracking down on the organization and the path for integration seemed occluded. The Salafi-Qutbi faction—being the most powerful, as it was operating in its ideal historical moment—adopted an exclusionary position, fearing that diversity in decision-making would lead to organizational splits. The newly elected executive council did not include key reformist figures like Aboul Fotouh and Mohammed Habib, the former deputy chairman. The chairman’s selection of deputies also reflected this trend: all three belonged to the Salafi–Qutbi school.
The new leadership was soon faced with a wide range of challenges. The start of 2010 saw the return of Mohammad ElBaradei, former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the establishment of the National Association for Change (NAC). The MB’s political calculation inspired it to keep one foot in time with ElBaradei and the NAC, who were focused on challenging the regime, and the other in line with its own social activities.17 The year ended with parliamentary elections in which the MB won no seats, which had a serious impact on its membership. Having no parliamentary representatives for the next five years meant that street presence was the only way for the organization—officially outlawed—to remain heard. This, in turn, meant that the MB needed to move one step closer to the NAC and other opposition groups. Occlusion of political opportunity was met with despair and helplessness by senior MB members, but the reaction of MB juniors was fury—and this anger was soon transformed into hope with the ousting of Ben Ali in Tunisia.
Conclusions on the Pre-Revolutionary Scene
Islamists were generally excluded from the Egyptian polity prior to the 2011 revolution. Not a single Islamist political group was legally recognized, and tolerance for their extralegal integration was dictated by the regime’s need for legitimacy. During the 1980s, Mubarak’s regime “needed a measure of legitimacy to help it maintain stability,”18 and sought it partially by tolerating nonviolent groups. Islamists—primarily the MB—exploited the opportunity by strengthening their organization and securing de facto legitimacy by participating in parliamentary, student union, and syndicate elections. Other symptoms of Islamic ascent included the rise of a ‘parallel Islamic sector,’ which “had begun to coalesce in the interstices of Egypt’s authoritarian state,”19 and an unprecedented boom in the number of private mosques and Islamic associations, as well as growth of a parallel Islamic banking sector. Islamic revival had “reached its peak by the early 1990s.”20 Islamists started “politicizing their achievements of social legitimacy in society,”21 which contributed to the gradual erosion of the regime’s legitimacy.
The Islamists’ threat to the regime’s legitimacy inspired a strategic transformation during the 1990s: while crushing radical Islamists, the regime resorted to less violent measures to sideline moderates. Components of the exclusion strategy included “divide-and-rule tactics to break the ranks of the opposition and prevent sustainable alliance building between Islamists and non-Islamists,” and adopting policies that “significantly raised the costs of cooperation with Islamists.”22 This was coupled with crackdowns on Islamist strongholds, including student unions, syndicates, private mosques, the banking sector, and private enterprise. The alignment of some secularitsts with the regime legitimized these efforts, leading to both the exclusion of Islamists and the emergence of a dual public sphere phenomenon that defined both the political and socio-religious domains. The exclusion of moderate Islamists created space for more extreme elements to flourish. Apolitical Salafism capitalized on its historical moment and grew steadily—alongside neoliberal Islam—during the second half of the 1990s. This, in turn, led to further divisions between Islamist and non-Islamist opposition factions.
The new millennium witnessed the ascent of a new generation to the frontlines of Egyptian politics. Disenchanted with established political divisions, this generation (usually referred to as the ‘1970s generation’) was more focused on issues of national consensus. Its ascent increased “the prospects for effective alliance building… [as activists] demonstrated a greater propensity for pragmatism and compromise, despite their varying ideological commitments.”23 Islamists belonging to this generation were challenging the tactics of their respective organizations and their focus on divisive identity politics instead of uniting lines to achieve nationwide goals. Operating against the backdrop of their own historical moment, these activists were increasingly marginalized within Islamist circles, only to regain their influence in post-revolutionary Egypt.
Islamists in the Revolution
Inspired by Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation sparked that country’s revolution, a few Egyptians set themselves on fire in front of the parliament, to protest their living conditions and the country’s socioeconomic problems. Politicians and activists soon followed by calling for a massive demonstration on Police Day, January 25—a call which had different responses from different Islamist groups.
While some Salafi groups were fast in their denunciation of the call for protest (including the influential DSA), the relatively insignificant Salafi group Hafs issued a statement encouraging Egyptians to participate.24 Consistent with the regime’s strategy to downplay the significance of calls to protest, Sufi orders and the official religious establishment remained silent.
The Brotherhood’s reaction was more sophisticated. The group’s leadership was cornered between two choices: extreme provocation of the regime, or detachment from the broader nationalist movement. It therefore issued three statements between January 15 and January 23 in escalating tones. The first statement congratulated the Tunisian people for the successful ousting of Ben Ali and called upon Arab regimes to “listen to the voice of wisdom” from their people calling for reform; the second statement, issued January 19, included a ten-point roadmap for reform to be enacted immediately; the third condemned the interrogation and threats faced by MB leaders being pressured to boycott the protests, and called for dialogue.25 While these official statements remained ambiguous about the degree of the group’s own participation, a group of MB youth members were quick to endorse the protest calls and begin rallying for the cause.
The turnout on January 25 exceeded expectations and thereby altered the political calculation of the various parties. Between January 25 and 28, the co-opted official religious institution and politically inexperienced Salafis were slow to react, while the MB was modifying its position around the clock. In a statement on January 26, the Brotherhood asserted that its members were participating in their personal capacity and that the regime should “comply to people’s will,”26 and on the eve of January 28, the group announced its endorsement of the calls for nationwide demonstrations. The regime responded by preemptively arresting a large number of key MB leaders and activists, including a handful of executive council members.
Islamists responded differently to the unprecedented clashes that took place on January 28, and their shocking death toll. Despite its conservative nature, the MB’s political experience facilitated a swift change of rhetoric. Four increasingly strident statements were made between January 29 and February 1, the last outspokenly calling for Mubarak to step down. Meanwhile, a statement issued by the DSA on January 30 condemned the “destruction of public property,” while not declaring a stance vis-à-vis the protests, a position that the group maintained in its statement following Mubarak’s second television appearance. Again, the official religious establishment and Sufi orders remained largely silent.
When Mubarak addressed the nation in his second televised speech, following the million man march on February 1, he made some minor concessions.27 He offered a roadmap for change that was more aligned with Islamists’ conservative thinking, as the apparent ‘unconstitutionality’ of his stepping down made calls for him to do so seem irrational, especially given the absence of a clear alternative. The official establishment used the pro-Mubarak demonstrations that followed this speech to confirm its loyalty to the regime. Both the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar and the Grand Mufti issued statements hailing the president’s speech and the changes it promised. The Sufi establishment remained silent, although some Sufi sheikhs and Al-Azhar scholars joined the protests, giving rise to dissent within the institutions upon which the regime depended.
The positions taken by the MB during this period reflected an internal divide. On-the-ground activists played an instrumental role in defending revolutionaries when thugs attacked Tahrir Square the following day; they chanted alongside other protesters and rejected talks with regime officials, thereby moving closer to the core of the revolutionary movement. The MB leadership, however, was shaken by Vice President Omar Suleiman’s carrot-and-stick interview in which he offered the Brotherhood a seat in negotiations while accusing it of political opportunism and jeopardizing the country’s national interests. The MB statement of February 3 reflected a return to their earlier conservative position: while it clearly rejected the regime’s threats and endorsed the revolutionary demands, it opened the door to a “constructive, productive, and sincere dialogue,” with the regime. The persistence of the revolutionaries was shaking the balance of power, however, and caused the retreat of MB leaders from talks with Suleiman after only one round.
Salafis emerged in support of the protests only a few days before Mubarak stepped down. Clearly departing from its earlier anti-revolutionary stance, the DSA issued two statements on February 2. While the first condemned violence by protesters, the second outlined a rather conservative roadmap for reform that including abolishing the Emergency Law, combating corruption, and hiring the competent and the pious. A few iconic Salafi figures began to appear at protests.28 The official religious establishment remained all the while silent, while facing serious pressure from those among its scholars who joined the demonstrators.
Immediate Revolutionary Impact on Islamists
The eighteen days preceding Mubarak’s fall had a deep impact on the Islamists who took part in protests. Most significantly, it pushed them beyond the borders of identity politics. Through their interactions with other groups and activists, Islamists realized that their social and political counterparts were not hostile toward Islam, and that their agendas were not anti-Islamic. Although legal barriers to inclusion were removed, allowing the MB to form a legal political party, this inclusive dynamic lasted no longer than a few weeks. A few days after Mubarak’s resignation, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) established a committee to draft constitutional amendments that would facilitate the transition process. The committee was headed by retired judge Tariq Al-Bishri and included a handful of judges and law professors, as well as Subhi Salih, lawyer and former MB parliamentarian.29 While the MB accepted the proposed roadmap, other political groups remained opposed. Soon, the procedural debate was transformed into an ideological one: supporters of the amendments were considered Islamists; those who opposed it were branded anti-Islamists. This re-polarization revived the split in the public sphere, which in turn had its impact on Islamists.30
The short era of inclusion had a significant impact on all different Islamist groups, but most importantly on the MB, which had relied on identity politics to maintain its organizational unity. One week after Mubarak’s fall, the Brotherhood declared its intention to establish a political party, and the FJP was born. While the nomination of leaders (all of whom were members of the MB executive council) raised serious questions about the party’s autonomy, the establishment of a political party reflected a major shift in the group’s political thinking.
The structure and leadership of the FJP was met with dismay by different reformist figures within the group. Ibrahim Al-Za‘farani, Khaled Dawood, and Hamid Al-Dafrawi—three prominent reformist figures from Alexandria, all considered disciples of Aboul Fotouh—decided to split with the MB and form their own political party. Soon enough, and as they moved beyond identity politics, they realized that the question of religious moderation was not the only one governing the political domain: political orientation was also crucial. They consequently split into three different political groups: two consider themselves center-right (the Nahda and Riyada parties); the third (the Society of Peace and Development Party) considers itself center-left.
Younger members who had operated for a far shorter time in the context of oppression found it much easier to move beyond identity politics and to rediscover Egypt’s political landscape in light of revolutionary inclusiveness. A first wave of protest came from a group of Cairene youth, who called for a nationwide conference for MB youth with workshops that would focus on two main themes: transforming the MB from an organization to an institution, and discussing different scenarios for the relationship between socio-religious and political activities.31 This conference, held on March 26, was followed by the dismissal of key figures, young and old, who refused to join the FJP and formed their own parties, or who joined Aboul Fotouh’s presidential campaign.32
If the moment of inclusion was the main trigger for change within the MB, it was a combination of perceived identity threat and political opportunity that altered Salafi dynamics. Dozens of secular activists gathered in a demonstration in late February and called for the second article of the constitution, establishing the principles of sharia as the primary source of legislation, to be amended. Salafis, who perceived this as a threat, responded with a massive demonstration after prayers in Abbasiya the following Friday—the first Salafi demonstration since January 25. The widening split in the public sphere that emerged during the referendum on constitutional amendments further politicized Salafis. With the MB supporting the amendments and most ‘secular’ political forces rejecting them, Salafis—operating on identity politics—decided to side with the MB. This decision was further encouraged by some marginal voices on the ‘No’ campaign calling for the wholesale removal of Article 2, and other, more significant voices, basing their opposition to the amendments in the assumption that a ‘Yes’ vote would empower Islamists. Over 77 percent of Egyptians voted for the constitutional amendments. And instead of reading these figures as representing the broader public’s choice of a less risky path to change, mainstream media insisted that the outcome reflected the overwhelming electoral power of Islamists. This, in turn, fed into the Salafis’ perception of themselves and highlighted the opportunities that appeared to be associated with political integration. Initially, however, and aware of their political inexperience, Salafis were still hesitant to establish their own political parties and instead announced their support of the MB.33
Subsequent events, however, illustrated the divergence of MB and Salafi positions. The resurfacing of the case of Kamilia Shehata and the state’s failure to resolve it provoked Salafis to demonstrate again, calling for the Shehata’s release from ‘church arrest.’ Demonstrations in front of the Coptic Church in Abbasiya led to clashes between Salafi and Coptic youth. The silence of the MB provoked Salafis to pursue an independent political track. They started establishing their own political parties, most significantly Al-Noor Party (NP), which was affiliated with leaders of the DSA. Despite these moves, Salafis remained marginal on Egypt’s political scene as the MB retained its hegemony over the political Islamist discourse. But, with the increasingly loud call by some secular intellectuals and public figures for a set of supra-constitutional articles, Islamists who viewed this as threat decided to respond. Salafis, resorting again to identity politics, magnified the practically nonexistent fear of the marginalization of sharia—the adoption of supra-constitutional articles that would restrict the application of sharia. And on July 29, hundreds of thousands of pro-Islamist activists responded to a call by the DSA for a demonstration in Tahrir Square opposing these supra-constitutional principles, and were joined by other Islamist factions including the MB.34 The predominantly Salafi parade sent alarming signals to some political and social groups, who feared that a Salafi ascent would jeopardize their civil liberties and alter the political system in undesirable ways.
The ousting of Mubarak took Egypt’s religious establishment by surprise. Its primary challenge in the revolution’s aftermath was to regain both its political and its scholarly legitimacy. Al-Azhar’s Grand Sheikh adopted a multidimensional strategy for personal and institutional re-legitimization. On the one hand, he reversed his position while insisting that he had always been a strong supporter of the revolution, citing incidents such as sending an imam to lead the Friday prayers in Tahrir Square as proof. To avoid scrutiny of these claims, a key component of his strategy was to divert attention to other issues. He formed a committee to revise the laws governing Al-Azhar, and pledged to revitalize the organization in order to enable it to regain its position as a leading scholarly institution. This was welcomed by observers who feared Salafi assimilation into the institution after long years of institutional disempowerment. He also relied on independent credible experts to revisit laws regulating Al-Azhar and propose new legislation that would offer a wider margin of financial and administrative independence. A shift was also effected in the broader discourse, with Al-Azhar and the Grand Sheikh’s bureau issuing statements supporting Arab revolutions and condemning the dictatorship of Arab regimes.
Meanwhile, Al-Azhar’s efforts to increase its legitimacy as an academic institution were based on positioning itself as the guardian of religious authenticity and moderation, and the patriarch of Islamists. Hence it launched initiatives that brought together iconic figures from all Islamist groups, including Salafis and the MB. It also embarked on a discussion about the ‘nature of the state,’ which provoked significant debate in the public sphere. Al-Azhar contributed to this debate by issuing a declaration representing its perception of the role and nature of the state.35 Egypt’s Grand Mufti, who had initially waged intellectual battles against Salafis, later followed in the footsteps of the Grand Sheikh and hosted Salafi preachers in his office, emphasizing the need for unity and cooperation.
The Sufis, like the Salafis, were politicized as a result of the perceived threat to their identity. The split in the public sphere between Islamists and secularists catalyzed their politicization. Realizing there was an opportunity to oppose the Salafis on a more moderate and inclusive platform while still enjoying Islamist authenticity, Sufi orders began to increase their political presence.36 Following a similar strategy to Al-Azhar, their politically active elements chose to align themselves more closely with secularists than with Islamists, since their identity was constantly threatened by their religious rivals, the Salafis. This rivalry was further fueled by the Salafis’ show of force in the July 29 demonstration, which the Sufis avoided. To no one’s surprise, the first Sufi political party was formed by the sheikh of the Azmiya order, who had been growing increasingly politicized in recent years. With little political experience and limited capacity to organize and mobilize, the party has not yet left the margins of Egypt’s political landscape.
Islamists’ Post-Revolutionary Challenges
The split in the public sphere has led to an identity-based polarization, with political actors characterized on one side as Islamist, and on the other, as secular. This polarization has had the effect of marginalizing serious questions of reform and policy which Islamists will have to face in post-revolutionary Egypt. These include the relationships between state and religion, authenticity and modernity, as well as the challenge of developing a coherent political program and the unprecedented empowerment of individuals within organizations.
Various scholarly attempts have been made to define the term ‘secular’ and assess how it relates to religious values. Of these attempts, perhaps the most important in the Egyptian context is that of Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri, who distinguishes between two layers of secularism: the procedural and the absolute. While procedural secularism amends procedures without challenging the governing value system, absolute secularism aims at constructing its own frame of reference, challenging the transcendental religious values that governed societies in pre-secular times. For Elmessiri, these forms exist on a continuum, with theocracies at one end, procedural secularism somewhere in the middle, and absolute secularism at the other end. This clustering has a much greater illustrative capacity than traditional Islamist-secular polarization. Arguably, the notion of ‘absolute secularism’ has only marginal (if any) presence in Egypt’s public debate. The question is therefore not whether religion should have a role in the political system, but rather how this role should be managed, and which domains it should cover.
Islamists have responded differently to these questions. While Salafis refuse terms designed to bridge the gap (such as the ‘civil state,’ a vaguely defined term coined to end the secular-Islamist dichotomy, and intended to mean a state that is neither hostile towards religion nor theocratic), Sufis tend to bypass the entire question in their political discourse by avoiding any discussion on the matter. The MB and Al-Azhar, meanwhile, demonstrate higher levels of sophistication. With the experience of years of debate and discussion on the matter, the MB presented its vision for a ‘civil state with an Islamic frame of reference.’ While this articulation is still considerably vague, the group has successfully distanced itself from the traditional Salafi stance and is working hard to present itself as mainstream movement capable of acting as a bridge between both sides of the political spectrum.37 Al-Azhar—with solid academic credentials, insufficient political experience, and a dire need to re-legitimize the institution—took part in the debate through its declaration on the political system. The declaration successfully grabbed the attention of both secular and Islamist activists, yet was harshly criticized by Islamists on both political and scholarly grounds.38 An earlier attempt by Al-Azhar to approach this rather contentious question had been made by Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa before the revolution. Focusing on the ‘uniqueness’ of Egyptians’ understanding of religion, Gomaa examined modern history arguing that “Egypt had not detached itself from Islam, but was only trying to respond to contemporary challenges” through its legislation.39 He argued that the contemporary Egyptian legal system presents a successful model for a civil state that upholds sharia.
This question of the relationship between religion and politics will play an instrumental role in shaping the future for Islamist groups. The scholarly question of what constitutes sharia and the political question of how much the state—rather than the individual and society—should be involved in the application of sharia are likely to spark real debates amongst Islamists. Upcoming events will encourage Islamists to scrutinize this relationship between religion and politics, and will eventually lead to the redefinition of the Islamist landscape.
Another major factor that will affect the future of Islamism is the authenticity-modernity dialectic. Long decades of exclusion from the polity have hindered Islamist scholarship in sociopolitical domains. However, since authenticity is such an integral component of Islamism, Islamists cannot simply discard authenticity and unconditionally accept modern notions such as democracy. If more politically experienced groups do so, they are criticized by less experienced, more stagnant ones as ‘inauthentic,’ and their ‘Islamist legitimacy’ is consequently jeopardized.
This authenticity-modernity dialectic is most clearly manifested in the relationship between neoliberal Islamists and all the others. While the neoliberals’ unconditional pursuit of relevance to modern societies has boosted their popularity among globalized, modern segments of the society, their lack of focus on authenticity has almost completely discredited them among other Islamists.
Striking a balance between authenticity and sociopolitical relevance is a major challenge for different Islamist groups. Attitudes toward notions like ‘democracy’ and ‘the state’ reflect different groups’ positions on the matter. Al-Azhar—the symbol of authenticity—issued a statement outlining the principles of an ‘Islamically acceptable’ political system. While the definition was widely accepted by different social groups and by intellectuals, signaling success on the moderation parameter, it was criticized by Islamists, and particularly by Salafis. More significantly, none of the Islamic activists or intellectuals were invited to the first round of talks and workshops that Al-Azhar held in the run-up to the publication of this key declaration. Arguably, Al-Azhar made a political calculation—influenced by long years of disempowerment and state control and the difficulty of fighting Islamists in the struggle for legitimacy—to side with other social actors, and to win the battle for religious authenticity and representation on non-Islamist grounds.
The MB, being the most experienced political Islamist group, approached the challenge differently. The group resorted to the writings of Yusuf Al-Qaradawi40 and other credible scholars to justify its acceptance of a ‘civil’ state and emphasize the authenticity of that position. On other matters, including questions of public morality, the group’s position remains vague, as they attempt to appease audiences on both sides. The separation of the FJP from the MB has given the group more room for political maneuvering, wherein the party could adopt a politically correct stance while the Brotherhood as a whole stresses religious authenticity.
The question of identity governs the Salafi approach to this dilemma. Salafi leaders seize every possible opportunity to highlight differences between their position and those of other sociopolitical forces—including other Islamists—always attempting to emphasize their own authenticity. On the question of the nature of the state, for instance, they continue to reject the ‘civil’ state, promote the ‘Islamic’ state, and stress their rejection of democracy.41 It is the lack of Al-Azhar’s credibility that allows Salafis—arguably presenting less scholarly sound and religiously authentic stances—to play the identity card in post-revolutionary Egypt.
Sufis, meanwhile, have adopted a stance contradictory to that of Salafis. Attempting to emphasize their moderation—their key political strength—Sufis seem to endorse democracy while emphasizing their authenticity in other domains, including their reliance on Al-Azhar as a reference in religious practice. Consequently, their rhetoric is hardly competitive on Islamist grounds, as they make no serious attempts to authenticate their political stances. On the question of the nature of the state, they too emphasize their acceptance of the ‘civil state’ with equal citizenship rights for all citizens regardless of religion and gender. They do not, however, provide any religious authority for this stance.
Neoliberal Islamists, operating through Al-Hadara Party, have adopted more progressive political stances (in contrast to their conservative economic ones): one party spokesman announced his rejection of state intervention in cultural and moral affairs, and insisted that movies and art should not be censored.42 Credibility of this discourse among Islamists is minimal as it is hardly viewed as religiously authentic.
Developing coherent political programs is a key challenge for Islamists in the aftermath of the revolution. While the current polarization of the Egyptian public sphere is causing the retreat of most into identity politics, some remain persistent in their focus on policy and reform. As events progress, however, more Islamists are likely to be forced out of identity politics. With the abolishment of legal barriers to participation and legal recognition already being granted to a handful of Islamist parties, public debate will eventually reshape alliances in a way that shifts the focus to policy rather than identity. Questions of economy and foreign policy, among others, will prove to be more important to Egypt’s public debate than Islamist identity politics. Nonetheless, Islamist movements venturing beyond identity domains will have to be cautious as they move into these new fields. A too-sudden shift will cause it to lose its constituency, which would then resort to more rigid forms of Islamism.
The current scene suggests that Al-Azhar together with the more sophisticated elements of the MB would be better able to navigate this path than other Islamist groups. Al-Azhar’s authenticity and historical legacy, alongside its pursuit of moderation and social reconciliation, with the MB’s political experience and credibility among Islamists could serve toward that end. Nonetheless, the political thinking of the current MB leadership seems to be more concerned with identity and organization, and consequently allies itself with more conservative elements. This kind of alliance therefore seems unlikely.
Egypt’s revolution has caused a major shift in the thinking of Islamist organizations. The pre-revolutionary context—with its identity politics, split public sphere, and state oppression—led to the emergence of autocratic organizations, in which leaders wielded tremendous power. This power was challenged by the decision of individual members to join the mass protests, usually against the will of their leaders, as highlighted in earlier sections. This decision by MB youth altered the group’s chain-of-command legitimacy, with events proving the youth to have been right. Small, marginal Salafi groups, and junior members of the more prominent ones, who joined the protest in its earlier days came to be viewed by Salafis as political lifesavers: preachers who had begun by denouncing the demonstrations later pointed to a few martyrs broadly identified as Salafis as evidence of Salafi participation. The same applies to junior Al-Azhar scholars who participated in the demonstrations from the beginning, as well as the former spokesman of the Grand Sheikh, who resigned and joined the protests. These and other incidents have challenged the governing perceptions of leadership and led to a redistribution of power within Islamist groups, whereby individual choice will have a major role in their decision-making and limit top-down authority. The power of initiative-taking has been inspired and magnified by the revolution, and poses a clear challenge to the leadership of Islamist factions.
This essay is adapted by permission from “Islamism in and after Egypt’s Revolution,” by Ibrahim El-Houdaiby in Arab Spring in Egypt: Revolution and Beyond, edited by Bahgat Korany and Rabab El-Mahdi, The American University in Cairo Press, 2012.
Ibrahim El-Houdaiby is a senior researcher at the House of Wisdom Foundation for Strategic Studies, an independent research center in Cairo. He was previously a board member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s English website, Ikhwanweb. He writes a weekly column for the Al-Shorouk, and is a contributor to Al-Ahram Online.
1-2 Asef Bayat. Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007.
3 Patrick Haenni and Husam Tammam. “Egypt’s Air Conditioned Islam.” Le Monde Diplomatique, 3 September 2003. http://mondediplo.com/2003/09/03egyptislam.
4 Ibrahim El-Houdaiby. “Trends in Political Islam in Egypt.” In Islamist Radicalisation: The Challenge for Euro-Mediterranean Relations, edited by Michael Emerson, Kristina Kausch, and Richard Youngs, pp. 25–51. Brussels: Centre for European Policy Studies; Madrid: FRIDE, 2009.
5 Roel Meijer. introduction to Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement, edited by Roel Meijer. London: Hurst and Company, 2009.
6 Wahhabism is a school of Islamism that follows Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Al-Wahhab. It calls for the rejection of accumulated turath (accumulated heritage of Islamic sciences) and the return to the original sources of Islam to understand them. It is widely viewed as rigid, and while it claims to represent orthodox Islam, its authenticity is contested by various competing schools, including Al-Azhar.
7 Kamilia Shehata was the wife of a Coptic priest who allegedly converted to Islam, but was held in custody by the regime before being sent back to the Church. Salafi groups started mobilizing their supporters and staged demonstrations calling for her ‘release’ from church.
8 Abdel Moneim Al-Shahhat, “Lan Nataraja‘, Lan Nustadraj, Lan Nuwazzaf,” 19 January 2011, http:// www.salafvoice.com/article.php?a=5105.
9 For more on the MB’s version of Qutbism, see Bayat 2007, 36–42, and Ibrahim El Houdaiby, “Four Decades after Sayyid Qutb’s Execution,” Daily Star Egypt, 28 August 2008, http://dailystaregypt. com/article.aspx?ArticleID=16062.
10 Bernard Haykel. “On the Nature of Salafi Thought and Action,” in Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement, edited by Roel Meijer. London: Hurst and Company, 2009.
11 Mohammad Emara, “Tayarat Al-Fikr Al-Islamy.” Cairo: Al Shorouk, 2008
12-13 Eric Trager. “The Unbreakable Muslim Brotherhood: Grim Prospects for a Liberal Egypt,” Foreign Affairs 90, No. 5 (September/October), 2011.
14 For more on the ‘rules of the game,’ see, for example, Khalil Al-Anani, “Al-Nizam wa-l-Ikhwan fi Misr: Hal Tataghayyar Qawa‘id Al-Lu‘ba?,” Al-Jazeera, 3 August 2009, http://www.aljazeera. net/NR/exeres/D25AB80C-7A5B-41B9-893E-23A8FFCE1727.htm; and Ibrahim El-Houdaiby, “Al-Mawqef Al-Estrateigy li-l-Ikhwan,” Al-Shorouk, 23 July 2010.
15 Sayed Zayed. “Hossam Tammam: Tayyar Al-Du‘ah Al-Judud Lan Yantahi,” Al-Nahar, 10 February 2010.
16 For more on the impact of leadership change in the MB, see Ibrahim El-Houdaiby,
“Egypt’s Brotherhood Faces Leadership Challenges,” Arab Reform Bulletin, Carnegie Endowment, 10 November 2010, http://www.carnegieendowment.org/2009/11/10/ egypt-s-brotherhood-faces-leadership-challenge/9k8.
17 Abigail Hauslohner, “Egypt’s Opposition: Will the Islamists Join ElBaradei?,” TIME World, 14 April 2010, http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1981368,00.html.
18 Hesham Al-Awadi. In Pursuit of Legitimacy: The Muslim Brothers and Mubarak, 1982-2000. London: I.B.Tauris, 2005.
19 Carrie Rosefsky Wickham. Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism, and Political Change in Egypt. New York: Columbia Press, 2002.
20 Bayat, 2007.
21 Al-Awadi, 2005.
22-23 Dina Shehata. “Islamists and Non-Islamists in Egyptian Opposition.” In Conflict, Identity and Reform in the Muslim World: Changes for U.S. Engagement, pp. 309-26. Washington, DC: U.S. Institute of Peace, 2009.
24 Eman Abdelmonem, “Harakat Hafs Al-Salafiya Tad‘u li-l-Musharaka Yawm 25 Yanayir Wa-Tu’Akkid: Al-Nizam Wasal li-Mada Ba‘Id fi-l-Zulm,” Al-Dustur, 20 January 2011, http://www.dostor.org/ politics/egypt/11/january/20/35443.
25-26 Amr Hamid Rabie. Watha’iq 100 Yam ‘ala Thawrat 25 Yanayer. Cairo: Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, 2011.
27 In his televised statement, Mubarak made it clear that he would not be running for a sixth presiden- tial term, nor would his son Gamal run for the presidency. He also announced that he intended to make some constitutional changes.
28 Mohammed Hassan, an iconic Salafi television preacher, appeared in the square, and was inter- viewed by Al Arabiya on 31 January 2011: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DZInCkm5vm8.
29 The committee suggested that nine articles of the constitution be amended, and that the transition begin with the election of a new parliament. That parliament would name a committee to draft a new constitution. A new president would be elected as a final step.
30 On the controversy preceding the referendum, see, for example, Salma Shukrallah, “Will Egypt Vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to Constitutional Amendments?,” Ahram Online, 15 March 2011, http://english. ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/0/7707/Egypt/0/Will-Egypt-vote-Yes-or-No-to-constitutional-%20 %20amendm.aspx.
31 Hanaa Souliman, “The Muslim Brotherhood’s New Guard Rocks the Boat,” Daily News Egypt, 3 April 2011, http://www.thedailynewsegypt.com/egypt/the-muslim-brotherhoods-new-guard- rocks-the-boat.html.
32 Jeffrey Fleishman, “In Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood Showing Cracks in Its Solidarity,” Los Angeles Times, 6 July 2011, http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jul/06/world/ la-fg-egypt-brotherhood-expelled-20110706.
33 Key figures, including Al-Shahhat and Hassan, openly declared their intent to support the MB
(see, for example, “‘Abdel Moneim al-Shahhat, al-mutahaddith bi-ism al-Jama‘a al-Salafiya bi-l-Iskindiriya: Sa nad‘am al-Ikhwan fi-l-intikhabat,” Umma wahda, 20 April 2011, http://ummah- wahda.blogspot.com/2011/04/blog-post.html).
34 Anthony Shadid, “Islamists Flood Square in Cairo in Show of Strength,” New York Times, 30 July 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/30/world/middleeast/30egypt.html.
35 Comprising eleven points, the declaration supported the establishment of a national, constitutional, democratic modern state with respect for civil liberties; emphasized Al-Azhar’s role as the key scholarly Islamic institution; and announced its support for the Palestinian struggle. A copy of the declaration can be found at http://www.jusur.net/index-Dateien/image/azhar.pdf.
36 Ammar Ali Hassan. “Al-Darsal-siyasili-l-turuqal-sufiyaba‘dthawrat25yanayir,”Aljazeera.net, 30 July 2011, http://www.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/21FA3618-C1B2-4D1B-82E6-00699D58A650.htm.
37 The MB’s attempts to outline the role of state can be traced in their political documents. The most
significant attempts include the 2004 reform initiative, the draft manifesto of 2007, and platforms presented in different parliamentary elections. Main ideas of these arguments are summarized in Essam el-Erian, “Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimun wa-mafhum al-dawla,” Sina‘at Al-Fikr, 30 November 2010, http://www.fikercenter.com/fiker/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=141:%D8% A7%D9%84%D8%A5%D8%AE%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%8 5%D8%B3%D9%84%D9%85%D9%88%D9%86-%D9%88%D9%85%D9%81%D9%87% D9%88%D9%85-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AF%D9%88%D9%84%D8%A9-/-%D8%AF- %D8%B9%D8%B5%D8%A7%D9%85-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%B1%D9%8A% D8%A7%D9%86&Itemid=72.
38 Mohammed Anz, “Al-Jadal hawl wathiqat al-Azhar yastammir bi-raghm al-tawafuq,” Al-Ahram, 19 August 2011, http://www.ahram.org.eg/Al-Mashhad-Al-Syiassy/News/96106.aspx.
39 Ali Gomaa. Al-Tajruba Al-Misriyya. Cairo: Nahdet Misr, 2008.
40 A reputable Al-Azhar scholar and former member of the MB who fled the country to Qatar in the late 1960s and later resigned from the group to become the Mufti of Qatar, and the chairman and founder of the International Union of Muslim Scholars.
41 Prominent Salafi figures, including Al-Shahhat, Yasir Burhani, and Abu Ishaq Al-Huwayni, have made recurring appearances denouncing democracy, and insisting that it violates the sovereignty of God. The most frequently cited examples include the legalization of gay marriage and extramarital sexual relations in democratic countries.
42 For more insights on different views of Islamists on this matter, see Reem Magued’s interview with representatives of four Islamist parties at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5F6e1LwlQoY.
“I don’t have a crystal ball”
The Arab League headquarters is a stately structure on the eastern bank of the Nile River. The corridor leading to the office of Secretary General Nabil Elaraby is neatly lined with framed photographs of Arab leaders at summit meetings. The situation outside the building, indeed across the Arab world, is anything but orderly. Practically outside Elaraby’s window, a group of Syrian activists is staging a sit-in decrying Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad as a killer and demanding that the League take action against his regime. Never has the Arab League faced so many challenges—leaders deposed in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and strife continuing in Syria, Sudan, Lebanon, and elsewhere.
Elaraby, seventy-seven, stepped into the maelstrom as secretary general in July 2011, after a brief stint as Egyptian foreign minister in the first post-Mubarak government. It is not easy to serve as head of an Arab institution at a time when the Arab world is in flux, but Elaraby has won plaudits from Western capitals and Arab revolutionaries alike for his support for democratic movements and emphasis on the rule of law. He has had a long career in Egyptian as well as international diplomacy and law, including service as an advisor at the Camp David peace talks, Egyptian ambassador to the United Nations and judge on the International Court of Justice. Cairo Review Managing Editor Scott MacLeod interviewed Elaraby at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo on June 4, 2012.
CAIRO REVIEW: How would you explain this period that the Middle East is going through since December 2010?
NABIL ELARABY: No doubt what has been going on in the Middle East or some countries in the Middle East since last year or maybe a bit earlier is a genuine reaction by people who were governed by some form of dictatorship without legitimacy. If you look at the common denominator between Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Yemen, it is that all have been governed for a number of years by regimes that came to power by coup d’etat. Military regimes that came to power by coup d’etat. And they promised a lot for the people. Time passed, and they could not deliver. Even the Egyptian revolution, or whatever it’s called, of 1952, which really had achievements. But everything stopped at a certain moment. Under [Gamal Abdel] Nasser, there were a lot of achievements that really changed the substance of the Egyptian life. Agrarian reform, standing against colonialism, industrialization. But there was no political reform at all. Under [Anwar] Sadat, he had achievements—enough to say “1973” [Egyptian attack on Israel]. I would say also getting Israel out of Sinai was an achievement. Maybe I don’t like the conditions, and I have made that very clear before, but the net result is positive. Under [Hosni] Mubarak, yes there were at the beginning some achievements. Definitely reconciliation with the Arab world. But then stagnation, political stagnation, economic development that never trickled down to the man and woman in the street. And then this question of “inheritance,” that the son would inherit the throne, it was said. But people were suffering for a long time without any liberty or democratization. And then the economic situation was really dire and people couldn’t take it anymore. So, these are different phases, but it affected five countries. I read a very interesting article the other day in Al-Hayat about why republics are failing and monarchies are not. Monarchies got the lesson and all of them—all of them— tried to improve the situation. Maybe not full democracy, but at least in the economic side. Because what prompted really the explosion in a country like Egypt and others was the economic situation. And no social justice.
CAIRO REVIEW: I was about to ask you to explain why the monarchies have not suffered the same kind of upheavals.
NABIL ELARABY: First of all, the Gulf countries have enough resources to please the man in the street. They doubled and tripled salaries, and everybody is happy from that point of view. When they realize that maybe they want a better political system, it will take time. People may be satisfied like that. The only problem is in Bahrain and for different reasons completely. But in Morocco and in Jordan, they are monarchies but they are improving the situation. They have difficulties, but they are improving the situation.
CAIRO REVIEW: Do monarchies have a certain legitimacy that is different than the legitimacy that republics tried to build? Because of the tribal system, traditions, the religious connections in some cases?
NABIL ELARABY: You can say that. In Morocco, definitely the religious connotation has a role to play.
CAIRO REVIEW: The anti-colonial coup d’etat, the revolution in Egypt in 1952, was legitimate, but at a certain point the legitimacy became untenable, maybe long before 2011?
NABIL ELARABY: You can point to one indicator: continuation in ruling for a very long time. Even if they have the legitimacy. You cannot say “I’m going to govern the country for thirty years.” It’s not acceptable. I left New York as an ambassador there in 1999. In my farewells, people would ask me about Mubarak. How long has he been in power? When I say eighteen years, they couldn’t believe it. They could not believe in the United States that someone would be in power for eighteen years. They did not have more than eight in their history. The only exception is [Franklin] Roosevelt. It’s very normal to have rotation and to have change of power. Even without everything else, people were supposed to do that. So the longevity of the ruling class, or ruler—you have no way of changing that. All elections were rigged. The only way to do it was to go to Tahrir Square.
CAIRO REVIEW: Why didn’t the Arab world have democratization, much longer ago? Is there something inherently undemocratic about Arabs?
NABIL ELARABY: No, you cannot say that with respect to Arabs or any people. You had democracy working in Lebanon. The problem in Lebanon, in my view at least, is the constitution, which is sectarian, mainly put by the French before they left. Syria had democracy. Egypt had democracy. But then the coups d’etat came. It started in Syria in 1949, and now it’s clear and accepted that the CIA was behind it. There has been democracy working sufficiently well in Egypt and Syria, in Lebanon.
CAIRO REVIEW: So you consider the 1952 “revolution” in Egypt as an interruption of democracy?
NABIL ELARABY: Yes, definitely. Listen, I was for it, for many reasons: it changed the thinking in the area, for the role that Egypt played against colonialism, for de-colonization in Africa. African leaders say till now that Egypt at that time was the Mecca of Africa and they all came here. Even Mandela was imprisoned so that he would not come here. There are achievements that should be recognized and to be proud of. But political development, liberalization, democracy, were missing.
CAIRO REVIEW: Some say that it’s the Arab society being a traditional society.
NABIL ELARABY: Arab society, traditional society, tribal society—that’s only in the Gulf. It doesn’t apply to Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Syria, Lebanon.
CAIRO REVIEW: Is the region capable of emerging from the Arab Spring in a peaceful and positive manner? Or do you see risk of permanent state of chaos and destabilization?
NABIL ELARABY: You cannot jump from dictatorship that has been in power for a long time to full democracy overnight. Just let’s look at the Eastern Europeans. Last year, when I was [Egyptian] foreign minister, four foreign ministers from Eastern Europe came. To give you an example, Poland. They said it took two to three years, and then we had elections and we had the Communists back [in power]. And they are more advanced economically and culturally and so on. So, it takes time. I was in Riyadh a couple of days ago. There was a meeting with the friends of Yemen, and next to me was the vice president of the World Bank. She is from Bulgaria. We were discussing this matter and she said “Listen, believe me, it will take ten years.” That’s what she said. “You will not have a normal life again for several years and you will have to be going through many upheavals.”
CAIRO REVIEW: What do you think?
NABIL ELARABY: I hope not, [laughs] because I don’t think I’ll be here in ten years to see what will happen.
CAIRO REVIEW: I’m trying to pinpoint if you feel that the region is on the cusp of renaissance, or we actually watching the region go over the brink.
NABIL ELARABY: No, no. It’s a renaissance, but it will take time. I’ll say this. Let’s take Egypt. Had the [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] accepted to [draft] the constitution first, many things would have changed. Why do I say that? For a very simple reason. What is a president? Or what is a parliament? They are part of the general framework of a country. This general framework which says what parliament can do, what the president, what the prime minister, is written on a piece of paper called the constitution. So, if you go to certain aspects of it without having the whole picture in front of you, it will not work. It will not work. Now the parliament is dominated by the Islamists and they all want a parliamentary system that the president will be a figurehead. But you cannot run a country unless there is a certain balance. The best thing in the American Constitution is the checks and balances. And we don’t know what the checks and balances are going to be in Egypt. A new president will be elected two weeks from today but we have no idea. So we are entering into the unknown.
CAIRO REVIEW: What are the three biggest challenges that the region is facing now?
NABIL ELARABY: Each country has its own internal balances. You can’t compare them, from my point of view. In Egypt here we do have an Islamic movement. We Egyptians underestimated their numbers, but there is one. We also we have large Coptic population. And they are all Egyptians, like the others. But also you have others, whether Muslims or Christians, who cannot accept an Islamic rule. Because it boils down to a very important choice. Do we want a modern secular state where there is a division between state and church, as happened in Europe at a certain moment. Or would we like to go back to—I consider it the unknown, because we have never had in the Islamic heritage a clear form of government called “Islamic government.” Only those after the Prophet—four of them—and they were great men but three of them were assassinated for one reason or another. So, we cannot say it was a clear-cut form of government. And the government at that time was very much limited in its authority, in its responsibilities and in the kind of challenges that a government faces in the modern times. So, what is needed in all Arab Spring countries is a modern secular state that will be able to run things for the sake of the people. By the people and for the people.
CAIRO REVIEW: How do you get there?
NABIL ELARABY: I don’t know. Don’t ask me this question. I don’t know. Nobody knows.
CAIRO REVIEW: We need your wisdom!
NABIL ELARABY: No, no. I hate to say, I really don’t know. The main thing is for people to realize that nothing is going to come overnight. What I would say to the people who are to going to Tahrir Square —and I was in Tahrir Square last year, my children were there, even my fourteen-year-old granddaughter was there—is that nothing will come overnight. Yes, people are suffering. Definitely. And something has to be done. It’s all on the economic side. You cannot get enough money to meet the demands unless the country works in normal way and tourists will come and investment will come. And the conditions that are being created now do not help investment and do not help the economy at all.
CAIRO REVIEW: You were in Tahrir Square? Protesting?
NABIL ELARABY: Yes, of course.
CAIRO REVIEW: Against the regime in Egypt?
NABIL ELARABY: Yes.
CAIRO REVIEW: And what were you thinking?
NABIL ELARABY: No, no. At that time, I must admit, maybe I should explain this. With a group of friends, some from my age group and older, like Kamal Aboul Magd and others, and some younger people like Amr Hamzawy and Nabil Fahmy. We created a group where we used to meet, and the paper said it was the “committee of wise men,” and kept thinking about what should we do. The revolutionaries contacted us and they asked for our assistance. I was asked to go and meet [Ahmed] Shafik as prime minister and raise with him some matters, which I did with Kamal Aboul Magd. The two of us again were asked to go and meet Omar Suleiman and raise with him that, no way, the president has to leave. He cannot continue like that. In this context, I came to Tahrir.
CAIRO REVIEW: But you were not protesting as a protester?
NABIL ELARABY: No, I was not there all time. I went twice, that’s all.
CAIRO REVIEW: But your children?
NABIL ELARABY: My youngest son was in the Camel Battle that day. Yes, of course, he was there, with his American-Egyptian fiancée.
CAIRO REVIEW: When I asked you about challenges, I’m thinking about things like the constitution, development, transitional justice. Do you see any of these as more important or less important than the others?
NABIL ELARABY: All are important. I cannot pick one really. Because you will not have a stable community unless they know that there is social justice and freedom, unless they know that they can exercise their rights in a normal way. What is needed in all the Arab countries and here, I can say—very few countries have what I think is the ultimate objective: good governance. If you ask me if I have any comments about all the programs of the thirteen candidates who were running for [Egyptian president], I will tell you that they were promising everything under the sky, even over the sky, and maybe someone promised the moon. But this is not it. They did not really articulate a system of good governance. What is needed is a system of good governance. It’s not a question that once you elect a president, it’s over. Even the best man in the world, or the best woman in the world. No, it’s a question of how is he going to deal with other institutions. You need institutions, not a one-man show. What is needed here is creating an institution that can work in modern times.
CAIRO REVIEW: There has just been a verdict in the case of the former Egyptian president. How important is transitional justice in your view, and how much is it being addressed in Egypt?
NABIL ELARABY: I am by tradition a lawyer. I was a judge on the International Court of Justice, and whenever a court has a judgment, I don’t comment on it.
CAIRO REVIEW: What is your view about the concept of transitional justice?
NABIL ELARABY: I have been contacted by many while here [at the Arab League] or when I was foreign minister, even the secretary of state, telling me, “Why don’t you try to copy what South Africa did in the question of truth and reconciliation? And look to the future, not only to the past?” I think there is an element of truth in that.
CAIRO REVIEW: Is anything serious being done in this region for transitional justice? What would you recommend be done?
NABIL ELARABY: You cannot recommend certain measures unless people would calm down. The reaction to the verdicts the other day, I could not understand it, really. But I’m not going to comment on it. But what you need is a system, and everything cannot be worked out unless there is a constitution. The constitution will lay down the foundation for justice, transitional justice, for everything. Otherwise, it will not work.
CAIRO REVIEW: Do you believe there has to be an exercise in transitional justice to account for the past, in all of these countries that have had revolutions or uprisings? Can the region move on without it?
NABIL ELARABY: It’s not black and white. Every country has its own system and its own way of thinking. You cannot generalize here. But to me, the most important thing is to create a system that can govern. The question of transitional justice and everything else will be part of that. It’s not the main objective, in my view.
CAIRO REVIEW: To what extent is a military role in governance going forward an obstacle to political development?
NABIL ELARABY: Let me go from the beginning. On the eleventh of February, President Mubarak did not step down according to the constitution. And there was, you can even say, a form of military coup. He stepped down but he decided to give the country on a silver plate to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. That was wrong. What the next step should have been was that the Supreme Council would form a government and ask the government to prepare for drafting the constitution. And many, including myself, have said that. But they thought they went step by step and I don’t understand why. And I am not going to comment on that more than that.
CAIRO REVIEW: Can these countries move forward in their political development in light of the fact that you still have strong military roles in governance?
NABIL ELARABY: Yes, but military role in government—every country has its own peculiar dealing with the military. Yes, in the United States, civilian authority is really above. But everyone pays tribute to the armed forces. In countries which went through several wars, like Egypt, there is some kind of pedestal where you can put the armed forces. You cannot say anything more than that. But they should not really play any role in governing the country. Maybe civilian rule should not interfere in limiting their budget, or trying to tell them what kinds of arms development they should have, or stop them from having an air force, or navy, or [say] you should not put armed forces here or there. You should not intervene in that. But they should not really govern the country.
CAIRO REVIEW: But how much is it an obstacle to democratic development, the fact that you have these entrenched militaries?
NABIL ELARABY: I am not speaking about the military. I’m speaking about how the Supreme Council handled the situation since last February. But the military is part of the government and has to be handled like every other part. It has to be part of the government and under the prime minister’s order, and under the president’s order.
CAIRO REVIEW: Is it going to be possible in these countries?
NABIL ELARABY: We have to wait and see. I don’t have a crystal ball, so I don’t know.
CAIRO REVIEW: The situation in Syria is horrifying, the news gets worse and worse. You’ve called on the UN again to do what it can to stop the killing. How do you see—without a crystal ball—developments going forward in Syria?
NABIL ELARABY: I’ll start by telling you it’s extremely unpredictable, and it’s very bad. The problem, let me put it that way, is internal. President [Bashar] Assad is always trying to say that it’s a—I met him one week after I took over here. I called Syria and asked to see the foreign minister and they told me, “No, you’ll see the president.” I saw the president on the thirteenth of July last year. What I told him is exactly what I am saying now: stop the fighting, release the prisoners, and enter into meaningful and genuine political reform. Nothing happened from that. But his argument is interesting, because to him, there is nothing in Syria itself. Everything is fine. It’s only some border town under foreign influence. So, he’s presenting what happens as the outside world trying to change Syria because they don’t like Syria because Syria is one of the countries that stood up to Israel, and so on. I’m not going to comment on that. I would have if I was not in this position. And he would say, “Look, you are now in Damascus”—he told me that three times—“you are in Damascus. Go around. Nothing is happening here. Go to Aleppo. Nothing is happening there. The two of them are more than half the country. It’s only the border.” And he would repeat it. Now he is still staying it’s an outside conspiracy. The problem in Syria is internal. This regime has been powerful for a long time and people are entitled like every people in the world to go to the streets and ask for freedom, democracy, and social justice and so on. But I realize that resolving it will not be internal. Resolving the situation in Syria, stopping the fighting and changing the—I don’t want to say the government—changing the system itself and improving it and opening it up and having democracy and so on, yes, that definitely requires the Syrians to reach agreement. They have to reach agreement on that. But it will never happen without outside intervention, and I’m not speaking about military intervention at all. This is a peaceful organization, we don’t speak about anything military. But outside intervention, an agreement between the five permanent members of the Security Council.
CAIRO REVIEW: Is the situation in Syria solvable.
NABIL ELARABY: Everything is solvable. Even the question of Palestine is solvable.
CAIRO REVIEW: And, if so, what’s holding up the solution?
NABIL ELARABY: What’s holding up the solution very frankly is that the government in Syria is in a state of denial about what’s going on and will not change their minds unless there will be pressure from the five permanent members, particularly Russia and China.
CAIRO REVIEW: So what’s holding that up?
NABIL ELARABY: You go and ask them in Moscow. I’m telling you that.
CAIRO REVIEW: How do you analyze it?
NABIL ELARABY: The only analysis I can present is that there are two issues. One of them was made very bluntly by the Russians and to lesser extent by the Chinese: “We have been duped and fooled in Libya, and we will not accept a change of government without our acquiescence.” Secondly, they have certain interests there.
CAIRO REVIEW: Do you think the regime there is salvageable?
NABIL ELARABY: No, no, no. What will happen to the regime is up to Syrians. I’ll never comment on that. The Syrians will have to decide what happens: the Syrian opposition, the regime, they all will have to work this out.
CAIRO REVIEW: Why did the Arab world accept Western military support for the rebels in Libya but it doesn’t seem to be on the cards at all, even as a proposal, in Syria. Wouldn’t this make a difference if there was air cover for the rebels in Syria?
NABIL ELARABY: I will not say “this is a very good question.” I expected that. Why? Because I thought that you would know the answer and it’s very clear. First of all, what prompted the urgent decision taken in early March last year was that there was a clear threat from the Gadhafi regime that they are going to annihilate Benghazi. Secondly, everybody knows that Syria has a strong army. It will not be a picnic like in Libya. Already in Libya, I do not know how many tens of thousands have died, nobody wants to repeat that. But Syria has a strong army and professional army that has commanders. Many of them have been in war, have been trained in sophisticated ways. In Libya there was no army, there were militias headed by the children of Gadhafi who had no idea what they were doing. They thought they were shooting ducks or something like that. They had no idea what they are doing. This is completely different. The arms in Syria are completely different than in Libya. Libya has not been in the center of the Arab world. But in Syria, it’ll be very different. And whatever happens could affect key countries around there: Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, all of them could be affected. Even Egypt, even Saudi Arabia. Moreover, I say it always jokingly and I’m saying it now jokingly, there is no oil in Syria. Even more than that, and it’s related maybe to the question of oil or something else, I don’t know: in Libya’s case, there were countries ready and eager to intervene. Here no single country is eager to intervene. Even Turkey made some noises, but doesn’t do it anymore.
CAIRO REVIEW: You are not in favor, yourself, of military intervention?
NABIL ELARABY: I’m always against military intervention. It could happen, circumstances could do it, but this organization does not speak about military intervention.
CAIRO REVIEW: How do you protect civilians in Syria?
NABIL ELARABY: Well, I’ve been saying that for a long time, that’s why I want to change the mandate of the observers to go from observers to peacekeeping, like the peacekeeping forces which were established for the first time in Egypt in 1956 to supervise the cessation of hostilities. To make sure that the parties will not shoot at each other. And will stop, let’s say, the use of heavy artillery and tanks and so on in shooting at people.
CAIRO REVIEW: How would you evaluate the reactions and policies of the United States toward the Arab Spring in general?
NABIL ELARABY: Well-established governments of big countries, of super powers, it always takes time for them to realize how to react for such event. For thirty years—or may be if you go back ten more years under Sadat, for forty years—the United States thought that everything is settled in Egypt and that they know what’s happening. All of a sudden, there is an explosion and it took them some time, but I think they are reacting very well, at least here in Egypt and in other countries. The reaction from the United States is very rational.
CAIRO REVIEW: What do you mean by that?
NABIL ELARABY: They accept the situation. They met the Muslim Brotherhood. I had lunch last Friday with President Carter. He was praising the Muslim Brotherhood. They have to accept, if it’s the majority, they have to accept the majority.
CAIRO REVIEW: How do you think ultimately the rise of these Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood, the most significant party in Egypt now, will affect the Egyptian-American relations?
NABIL ELARABY: Not necessarily. But I have no personal point of view about the rise of this trend. I will not answer the question.
CAIRO REVIEW: How has the Arab Spring affected Israel?
NABIL ELARABY: Before the Arab Spring, I have written many articles in newspapers here that we are acting in a very wrong way against our interest with respect to Israel. There is a peace treaty, that’s fine. You don’t have to abrogate the peace treaty. Why? No one abrogates peace treaties. There were reasons to fight and then the countries were at peace and they have to establish their relations. Now, Israel is violating every day what they have committed themselves to do. What I’ve been asking is look at every step taken by Israel and see whether it really fits with its commitments. I’ll tell you: no. I’ll just give you one example: Camp David, and I was there. They committed themselves that [UN Resolution] 242 will apply to every single front, or to every single country, which accepts to live in peace with Israel. Fine. Palestinians have said for twenty years now we have recognized Israel, but they don’t want to apply 242, they don’t want to withdraw, they don’t want to stop the settlement activities. They have tens of thousands of prisoners who have been there for over twenty years. They are acting in a wrong way. They claim that they have withdrawn from Gaza, but they are surrounding Gaza and any day they will go and kill people in Gaza and go out. They are the occupiers. It’s not necessary in occupying a territory to be in every single yard of territory. They are outside but they are occupying it. So, everything is wrong. You need to rectify the relations. This is not going to work at all. You need to rectify the relations to have a healthy relationship in the future.
CAIRO REVIEW: Will the Arab Spring change this dynamic?
NABIL ELARABY: That depends on Israel and the international world. That depends again on the position of the United States in particular.
CAIRO REVIEW: What’s your estimation?
NABIL ELARABY: I give up on the United States changing its positions, but always there is a possibility in the second term of the president.
CAIRO REVIEW: You gave up on what?
NABIL ELARABY: To see a change. Every four years, we have the same thing. The cycle goes every four years: a president will come, for the first year he will do nothing because he’s still working on what he should do. Second year, he’ll make up his mind. Maybe in the third year he will do something. Forth year, it’s out. Then we have to stay to the next term. It’s going on since 1967.
CAIRO REVIEW: You seem to have hope with President Obama’s second term.
NABIL ELARABY: In every second term, there is always a window of opportunity. Whether it will be seized by Obama or not if he gets a second term, I don’t know.
CAIRO REVIEW: You were personally present at Camp David, in the Egyptian delegation.
NABIL ELARABY: Yes, I was there as an advisor.
CAIRO REVIEW: Since the Camp David Accords and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, you’ve had a certain security arrangement in the region. Now you have the Arab Spring, the rise of Islamist governments in Tunisia, in Egypt, and in other countries. Is this going to change the dynamic of the Arab-Israeli conflict?
NABIL ELARABY: Definitely.
CAIRO REVIEW: How?
NABIL ELARABY: It should make Israel look back, read the writing on the wall, and realize that they have to change their policies. The way that they were using brute force and not taking into consideration the rights of the people around them, particularly the Palestinians, will have to change. But they are reading it wrongly.
CAIRO REVIEW: How are they reading it?
NABIL ELARABY: They are claiming to the Americans, to the Europeans, “It is changing here. We don’t know what will happen. We will not talk unless they accept our conditions.” They should’ve realized, this will not last. They have to change. They have been pursuing very aggressive policies for the last forty to fifty years. They have to change that. They have to realize that if they want to live in peace with their neighbors, they have a chance to do that. But they have to live in peace, they have to act according to the rules of international law everywhere. [The Arab peace plan] is there ten years there now, and it’s still there. The resolution we adopted on Saturday, we repeated that again. Ten years, they’ve not reacted to it.
CAIRO REVIEW: Is it survival?
NABIL ELARABY: The only reaction that I know of was last May, when I was a foreign minister. I was contacted by a group from Israel, they wanted to see me. They called themselves the Israeli Peace Initiative and they came. Former high officials, directors of Mossad, Shin Bet, all these organizations, former ambassadors, some lawyers, some journalists. They came and said we are a group of very well respected Israelis and we are willing to work for the implementation of the 2002 peace plan. But we would like Egypt, being the first country to make peace with Israel, to get the Arab countries to implement the peace plan, their obligation under the peace plan, so that we can try to convince the Israeli people to carry out their obligation. I told them thank you very much, nice meeting you. I offered them coffee.
CAIRO REVIEW: On the peace treaty, almost all Egyptian politicians are saying this should be amended. What’s your view on this?
NABIL ELARABY: Listen, every agreement, every treaty, has to have a balance between the interests and the rights of both sides. The treaty has reference to the security arrangements. There are two aspects. One of them is security arrangements. The treaty has a clear-cut provision that they could be amended. The second is that people in Egypt under the former regime have added things which are not in the treaty. People say Camp David requires Egypt to sell gas to Israel. Gas was not there at that time. Camp David and the treaty speak about the right of Israel to bid for oil which Egypt does not need. But people think that it contains obligations on Egypt to sell oil to Israel, which is not true.
CAIRO REVIEW: From a legal point of view, is it a non-starter to amend the treaty?
NABIL ELARABY: No, no. Every treaty, I said, has to maintain a balance between the rights and obligations of the parties. If this balance is tilted, it has to be rectified. And in this particular treaty, due to the activity of Israel, like neglecting completely the Palestinian rights, we have a bilateral obligation to tell them, apply your bargain in the treaty. And they are not doing it. Without amending the peace treaty we can say that.
CAIRO REVIEW: How would amending the peace treaty help that?
NABIL ELARABY: Amending may have to do with security arrangements, that’s all.
CAIRO REVIEW: But you would agree with that, to amend the peace treaty?
NABIL ELARABY: Yes, definitely yes. If I had stayed as foreign minister, I would’ve worked on that.
CAIRO REVIEW: And what specifically is the amendment?
NABIL ELARABY: The peace treaty speaks about certain security arrangements. About limitation of arms. And it says this should be reviewed. I never participated in that, the military did it. The military should come again and study the situation. But what should be needed and what should be amended definitely in my view is adding something which is not in the treaty, that is to have the MFO [Multinational Force & Observers]. The MFO is not in the treaty. The treaty says “United Nations peace keeping force.” So this should’ve been done. It has cost us a lot of money. I wrote several memos when I was in the foreign ministry on that. My estimate now is since 1982 till today, maybe Egypt has paid maybe a billion dollars for the MFO. While it should have been UN force, it would’ve cost Egypt in all this time maybe $50 million. So, there is a big difference here. This should be done without amendments. If the militaries will meet together and see that the limitations of armaments will require change, they will decide that.
CAIRO REVIEW: What is the Arab view on Iran’s intentions in its nuclear project? Is Iran building an atomic bomb to threaten the region or have a strategic hegemony over the region? Do you believe Israel will attack Iran?
NABIL ELARABY: The last question, I don’t answer. Nobody knows that. Not even President Obama knows what Israel will do, so I won’t answer that. First question, our position here in the Arab League and as Egypt also and as every single Arab country is that we want to create a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. That will apply to both Iran and Israel.
CAIRO REVIEW: What do you think Iran’s intentions are?
NABIL ELARABY: I don’t know about Iran’s intentions.
CAIRO REVIEW: Are you concerned about them?
NABIL ELARABY: I’m always concerned about intentions.
CAIRO REVIEW: America was an important partner for some of regimes in this region up until 2011. Where is all this leaving the United States and its position with the governments and the people in the region?
NABIL ELARABY: Well, I think they will wait and see. They don’t know how things are going to develop. But I think their reaction is very intelligent. They are trying to find out what’s happened. They have good relations. The U.S. ambassador and I had dinner yesterday and she has asked for a meeting to see Dr. [Mohammed] Morsi [of the Muslim Brotherhood] and I think they are acting in a very dignified and rational way. I think they are making up their mind. You don’t know what the end result will be. So, they are preparing themselves and they are satisfied with what’s going on. You ask the Americans.
CAIRO REVIEW: Has America lost out in this Arab Spring?
NABIL ELARABY: No, no, no. I will not accept that because we don’t know what the end result will be. We are still going through a transitional period.
Cairo: A Memoir
Raised in France from early childhood and educated in the republic’s public schools, including the Alliance Israelite Universelle, my father naturally supported the country’s concept of “laïcité,” (secularism), the complete integration of Jewish citizens into their homeland, and was therefore opposed to all forms of Jewish nationalism. Although he was an atheist, or perhaps a deist—I never knew precisely—he nonetheless remained committed to the traditions of Judaism. He celebrated all the major holidays—Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—despite allowing generous portions of liturgical prayers to be skipped. He didn’t object, except to taunt me playfully, when during my teenage identity crisis I decided to take evening courses at a synagogue to study the sacred texts like the Talmud as the precursor to a rabbinical career. Then I lost my faith.
Nor did he object to my decision to join Hashomer Hatzair (literally, “The Young Guard”), the Zionist youth movement with Marxist influences. I suspect that like me, my father was ignorant of nearly everything about Zionism and Marxism, two ideologies completely absent from his intellectual universe. I left the movement a year later, disappointed by its attempt to reconcile Jewish nationalism with international Marxism.
Every five years, my father would save up enough money for us to take vacations in Lebanon where to our delight, the abundance of water, the exuberance of its flora, and the bounty of its orchards contrasted with arid and dry Egypt. From Cairo, a ramshackle train from a bygone era, with deafening clatter of iron, would slowly bring us across the Sinai. A bus then drove us to Tel Aviv where we visited my brother who’d emigrated to Palestine before World War II, less by idealism than a taste for adventure. Nothing else drew me to the Holy Land, where we spent only two or three days before taking three months of vacation in Lebanon.
We were well integrated into Egyptian society where Jews held a privileged position. In the center of Cairo, the business districts would fall into a deep lethargy on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Many of the department stores, boutiques, banks, companies as well as the Stock Exchange stayed closed. Cafes, restaurants and cinemas operated at a slower pace. All one needed to do was walk down the main streets of the capital to see the glittering names of the upscale department stores like Cicurel, Chemla, Gattegno, Orosdi Back, Adès, Oreco, Le Salon Vert, La Petite Reine—all belonging to rich Sephardic families. There was only one other department store comparable to them, Sednaoui, which was owned by Christians of the same name who’d emigrated from Syria.
Leading the Jewish community was Haim Nahum Effendi, Egypt’s chief rabbi, from 1925 to 1960. He was a senator and member of the royal academy, a position that was worth his exceptional erudition. An accomplished polyglot, he spoke as well in literary Arabic as he did in Hebrew, Turkish, French and English. Thanks to diplomatic missions he undertook for the sultan of the Ottoman Empire until 1920, at a time when he occupied the functions of chief rabbi for the entire empire, he maintained close relations with European political circles—an advantage he used while serving the Egyptian authorities and the Jewish community. A product of the Alliance Israelite Universelle in Paris where he spent his early years, he shared with most Egyptian Jews “integrationist” or assimilationist convictions, and with them, their reticence over emigration (Aliyah) to Palestine. For a long time, Egyptian Jews confused Zionism with philanthropy, believing that their small donations helped Jews fleeing European persecution, much to the chagrin of Zionist movement leaders.
Furthermore, the notable figures of the community, led by the chief rabbi, began to slowly become aware that the Palestine conflict could have serious consequences for Jews in a country where the majority of the population could only be hostile to the Zionist project. Thus their constant need to proclaim themselves loud and clear as “both Jews and patriotic Egyptians.” It was a declaration of faith that earned them the support and protection of the palace and the government and even the goodwill of the Muslim elite, before the escalation of the Judeo-Palestinian conflict. Egyptians naturally felt a unique sympathy toward Palestinians, their neighbors who had been stripped of a part of their territory by a minority of foreign colonialists.
Interviewing Hassan El-Banna
Before his assassination on February 12, 1949, I had the opportunity to interview Hassan El-Banna for the Egyptian Gazette, an English-language daily newspaper where I worked as a journalist. The supreme leader of the Muslim Brotherhood had led the campaign against the creation of a Jewish state and provoked in me a feeling of indescribable anxiety.
Stocky and wearing a loose red tunic for the occasion rather than a suit, his face framed by a messy black necklace of a beard, he received his guest with a clerical smoothness, staring at him with a piercing gaze. He was clearly trying to seduce his interlocutor using a playful sort of cunning as well as flowery language and well-structured analyses supported with a host of quotes and apparently inexhaustible anecdotes. He seemed indifferent to the fact that I was Jewish.
A brilliant and passionate orator, his demagoguery, with its prophetic overtones, made large crowds go wild with enthusiasm. He believed that only Islam could cure the ills that the people suffered from. His main targets were, aside from Zionism, British colonialism, the “moral turpitude” of Westerners, “infidels” who held all the economic power along with the wealthy, who he denounced for their selfishness and greed. He unforgivingly condemned socialism and communism as foreign doctrines that were incompatible with the message of the Prophet. He attracted admirers and supporters thanks to the many networks he controlled around the country and the social, athletic and charitable associations, as well as the free clinics and schools that he had built—thus overcoming the failures of the state while at the same time using them as a cover for plots and terrorist operations. Two years after our interview, government agents killed El-Banna as revenge for the assassination of Prime Minister Mahmoud Fahmy Nokrashy Pasha by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In the years that followed the second World War, the national movement’s priority wasn’t the fight against Zionism, but rather resistance to British occupation, against which activists from the leftist Wafd party, along with Communists, organized public meetings, sit-ins and protests.
I participated in one of them in February 1946, the largest ever organized by the National Committee of Workers and Students. It led to a bloodbath. Faced with a sea of tightly packed and boisterous protesters rushing onto the Ismailia Square (which became Tahrir Square after the Nasserist Revolution) where the British military barracks were, security forces opened fire on the crowd, killing some twenty people and wounded hundreds more. A bullet ended the life of a young student marching beside me. The scene of this massacre would burn itself into my memory. The prime minister, Ismail Sedki Pasha, who also happened to be a major figure in the business world, had dozens of Wafdist and communist figures arrested and banned from the clubs and publications they led. However, the event gave powerful momentum to the national movement, which, six years later, brought about the fall of the monarchy— a prelude to the evacuation of the British bases in the Suez Canal Zone.
Zionists and Communists
The political climate further deteriorated beginning in November 1947 when the United Nations General Assembly decreed the partition of Palestine into two states—one Jewish, the other Palestinian Arab. The decision would cause a surge in anger and mark the beginning of a Judeophobic campaign. The press, which until then had exercised restraint, began attacking Jews, accusing them of being both “Zionists” and “communists.” The creation of the State of Israel signaled the divorce between Jews and their compatriots around the Arab world. Zionist officials saw it as confirmation of their argument that non-Muslim minorities had no future in Islamic countries. Emigration to Israel surged once again. And yet my family like many others decided not to leave the country, still holding out hope for a return to normal.
The government of King Farouk exploited the situation to discredit the Marxists, calling them “Zionists in disguise.” Beyond the Jewish background of many communist leaders, their decision to support the partition of Palestine made them highly suspect; they had thus implicitly endorsed the objective of the Zionist movement, whereas for years they had considered it “reactionary” and “racist.” In fact, Egyptian communists, like most of their comrades around the Arab world, supported the decision of the Soviet Union to vote in the United Nations General Assembly in favor of partition and thus the creation of a Jewish state. This blind conformity would cost them for years, despite remaining deeply hostile to Zionist ideology. The Jewish Anti-Zionist League, for example, was dissolved by Egyptian Authorities, its leaders arrested and its publications seized. An offshoot of a communist organization, the league also had defended the creation of a Jewish state.
The reaction by authorities was even more brutal during the invasion of Israel by the Arab armies. On May 15, 1948, hundreds of supposed “communists,” and “Zionists” were held in two separate internment camps near Cairo. Many among the communist leadership, both foreigners and Egyptian citizens, were expelled from the country. They had more luck than their Iraqi counterparts, though, where three were hanged in Baghdad on the pretense that they supported the partition of Palestine. Eventually, I too was arrested, and subject to intense questioning about my political positions before being released on bail a month later while the pre-trial investigation continued. Given that martial law was in place, my imprisonment could have lasted indefinitely. Under threat of a double conviction for Zionism and communism, unemployed and without financial resources, I decided to leave Egypt. The police did not prevent my departure, but would only issue me an “exit without return” visa. Unwanted by my native land, deprived of my family, my friends and acquaintances, I left with two feelings: the sadness of emigrating and the joy at moving to France, the country so loved by my father. There a second life awaited me, one full of so many surprises. Several months later, on July 23, 1952, the “Free Officers” led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, seized power and one year after that, founded the republic.
Return to Cairo
Threatened with prosecution for “Zionist and communist activities” and expelled from Egypt, my exile lasted twelve years, and was the source of the surreal aspect of the welcome reserved for me upon my arrival at the Cairo airport. Accompanied by my wife Rosy, a news photographer, we were received by a senior official from the Information Ministry with unusual consideration, driven in an official limousine to a grand Cairo hotel where a suite had been reserved for us. A large flower arrangement was there, with a card indicating that “the president of the republic” welcomed us. All these honors were certainly enough to surprise this former persona non grata.
The genesis of these events took place in Paris several months earlier, in the spring of 1963. I was the editor of the Middle East section for Le Monde newspaper, a position that had been bestowed on me in the face of all logic, since at the time all Arab states refused to issue entry visas to Jews. The newspaper’s management trusted me no doubt due to my previous reporting in sub-Saharan Africa, at a time when it was not easy to work there since the decolonization movement was in full swing. Certainly my knowledge of Arabic and English could also have explained their odd choice, but that wasn’t enough to open the doors to me in most of the countries of the region. My investigations in Israel, Iran and Turkey may have suggested an ability to knock down walls of the “Arab fortress,” but I had no illusions, given the serious hostility that Israel provoked in the region. I even thought of resigning from the position to devote myself to another region where my background would be of no consequence.
A ray of hope would shine three years later when an Egyptian journalist visiting Paris asked to meet with me. I knew Loutfi El-Kholy by reputation—he was a talented columnist at the daily paper Al-Ahram, an essayist, playwright, and leftist. Over the course of the lunch I had invited him to, he made me a proposition that would lead to a major turning point in my professional life. He told me that he had been given the task by Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram and friend and confidante of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, of extending an invitation to me to visit Egypt. All of its amenities would be at my disposal, he assured me, to carry out an investigation, and I would be free to travel wherever I wished and speak to whomever I wished, even members of the opposition, and free to publish my writings with no censorship of any kind. An entry visa would be immediately issued to me for whatever length of time I needed—the very privileges that the Nasserist Egypt of the time virtually never granted to foreign journalists. Made aware of the offer, the management of Le Monde, authorized me to accept the invitation on one condition: all costs of the trip would be paid for by Le Monde, and not the Egyptian paper.
Several decades passed before I was able to penetrate the mystery around the odd invitation from the editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram. Speaking with several confidantes of Nasser after his death, in particularly his chief of staff Sami Charaf, I discovered that political calculation had led to the decision to open Egypt to a special correspondent from Le Monde. With Algeria having gained independence the previous year, Egypt and France had renewed diplomatic relations; Nasser wanted to end the years of quarreling and confrontation by inaugurating a relationship built on trust with the government of President Charles de Gaulle, who he greatly admired, something that would prove reciprocal. And all the more so because he believed, not without reason, that Paris was offering newly sovereign countries a third way, allowing for an escape from Soviet-American binary system.
The persistent hostility between the two countries had to be cleared up as much as possible using various means, including French media. Only Le Monde, considered at the time to be pro-Gaullist and a supporter of the Third World, whose authority and influence went well beyond France’s borders, had the potential to contribute to the rapprochement between the two nations. Nasser’s advisers, in particular the director of Al-Ahram, no doubt inspired by Loutfi El-Kholy, believed that a first step in that direction would be to establish a relationship between the person who led the Middle East section at Le Monde. It wasn’t a completely crazy bet: I was regarded in both political circles as a “progressive,” likely to be supportive of certain accomplishments of the Nasser regime.
The tenor of my articles had caught the attention of Egyptian officials. During the Belgian-Congolese crisis in 1960, I had clearly taken a position in the confrontation between Brussels and Léopoldville (the former name of the Congo-Zaire capital) in favor of the independence movement and its leader Patrice Lumumba, the victim of a large international conspiracy (to which the United States was no stranger) that led to his assassination and replacement by Mobutu. I was one of the only journalists in the French press to reveal the underside of the secession of the Katanga province directed by the Union Minière du Haut Katanga (UMHK), the Belgian holding company that exploiting the rich copper mines. Like all major companies during the colonial period, it feared that independence would infringe on its excessive privileges.
Two years later, in 1962, in a series of articles, I defended the Yemen Arab Republic after the overthrow of the monarchy. My sustained criticism of the Shah of Iran (who was considered in the West to be a “major reformer”), his human rights violations and his submission to the will of the United States, caught the attention of Egyptian political circles that broadly shared my politics.
My relative sympathy for Nasser’s Egypt contrasted with the open hostility of nearly the entire press toward the “dictator” in Cairo; my paper wasn’t the only one to criticize the Egyptian president, to compare him to Hitler and Stalin, to accuse him successively or simultaneously of being a fascist, communist, or worse—an agent of the Kremlin. As far as I was concerned, I wasn’t fooled by the familiar insults in the West used to demonize Third World leaders who defied the established order. The leader of the Egyptian revolution hadn’t merely overthrown a monarchy, dispossessed the major landowners, dismantled the British, French and domestic industrial and financial oligarchies, as well as nationalized the Suez Canal—the flagship and symbol of foreign takeover in the Nile Valley—he had also established cordial relations with the USSR and its satellite nations as a counterbalance to Western influence, in particular that of the United States. The fourth French republic criticized first and foremost his support for the Algerian people’s uprising, virtually declaring Nasser the instigator of that independence movement. Since all is fair in love and war, the campaign against Nasser had a decidedly moral tone, to better conceal the hidden interests of these major powers.
I felt that it was entirely legitimate for Nasser to support the Algerian revolution, to want to erect the Aswan Dam as a way to expand and streamline the irrigation of a country that was largely desert, as a way to increase its energy capacity and in the process, that of its industrial potential. I considered it rather petty on the part of Washington in 1956 to deprive the project of its financial and technological support as a way of “punishing” Nasser for its arms deal with Russia which after all was justified by the United States’ refusal to sell Egypt those very means for self-defense.
It wasn’t difficult to share the enthusiasm of the Egyptian people, as well as all people of the Third World when the Suez Canal Company was nationalized on July 26, 1956, an initiative of unprecedented temerity for the time. It was a revolutionary act, the second in the region after the aborted nationalization of Iranian petroleum four years earlier by the moderate nationalist prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh. His defiance led him to be vilified and denounced as an agent of Moscow, then finally overthrown in the 1953 coup d’état fomented by the CIA. In both cases, however, the reacquisition of national resources was consistent with the rights of sovereignty and did not violate the interests of shareholders who were lawfully expropriated and fairly compensated.
The retaliation against Nasser, compared to what Mossadegh experienced, seemed to me even more brutal and just as unjustified. Barely three months after the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company, Israeli tanks entered the Sinai while French and British forces landed at Port Said in order to, it was claimed, separate the warring factions. In reality, the common objective of the allies was to bring down Nasser’s republic, as well as the Jewish state’s desire for free access to the Suez Canal, and above all, take over the Sinai. The victory of the invaders appeared certain, despite the robust Egyptian resistance, until the day that U.S. President Eisenhower put an end to it, demanding and obtaining the withdrawal of all foreign troops. The Soviet premier, Marshall Bulganin, had himself threatened to intervene militarily, no doubt a symbolic gesture of support from Moscow to a developing nation.
The one-of-a-kind American president wasn’t without his own interests either. He had taken umbrage at the collusion between London, Paris and Jerusalem behind his back, with their obvious goal of having dominion over Egypt. Eisenhower was right, though; his intervention brought the popularity and influence of the United States in Egypt and across the Middle East to new heights while the failure of this “tripartite aggression” sounded the death knell for the Franco-British presence in Egypt and marked the beginning of the decline of these two powers in the region. The damage done to Israel was no less: the Jewish state was seen more than ever as an expansionist state in the service of Western imperialism.
In spite of all this, I went back to Egypt with strong reservations regarding the Nasser regime. The overthrow of the monarchy followed by major economic and social reforms, as well as the restoration of national sovereignty after the permanent eviction of the British occupying forces, admittedly satisfied the convictions of my youth. But the military aspect of the regime established by the junta that seized power on July 23, 1952, remained from my point of view an indelible stain. In the conflict two years later that would pit Nasser against General Mohammed Naguib, the leader and icon of the revolution, I believed that the latter, in wanting to legalize all political parties, from the Muslim Brotherhood to the communists and to restore parliament, was right.
Paradoxically, I wasn’t unsympathetic to the arguments made by General Naguib’s adversaries: that such democratization would merely reestablish the influence of big business, which still had the means to dominate the political scene. The single-party system was in place in most of the countries that had achieved independence since World War II, and it seemed that it was the price to pay to insure progress and well-being of people in developing nations.
Torn between these two diametrically opposed arguments, I thought I’d found the right position in the belief that single party system or not, nothing justified depriving public freedoms, the violation of what we would later call human rights. The brutal repression in Egypt of all of the opposition—liberal Wafdists, communists and the Muslim Brotherhood—was intolerable to me, especially since abuse of all kinds was not uncommon in internment camps. Le Monde reported, at the beginning of the 1960s, the death under torture of two prominent intellectuals who I had known personally in Cairo in my youth, two men I admired: Farid Haddad, the “doctor to the poor,” who was one of my high school classmates, and Shouhdi Attya El-Chafei, who I had known when he was editor-in-chief of the weeklyAl Gamahir (The Masses). Shouhdi, an adjunct English professor whose charisma and intelligence seduced more than a few people, played a major role in the communist movement. The bitter irony was that the two men had been beaten to death by their jailers even though neither was fundamentally anti-Nasser.
I had their memories in mind when Mohamed Hassanein Heikal welcomed me the day after my return to Cairo in June 1963. Over the course of the dinner in my honor on the terrace of the Semiramis, a hotel on the banks of the Nile, I wanted to immediately dispel any ambiguity that could have colored our budding friendship. I thanked him for the invitation and for giving me the opportunity to once again set foot in my native land, this time under quite different conditions than those that led to my exile. I was also grateful to him for obtaining the agreement in principle from President Nasser for an interview with Le Monde, a privilege that the leader rarely granted. While incidentally revealing my ethical boundaries, which I strictly adhered to, I made it clear that my friendship would never be unconditional and that I would be publishing a series of articles upon my return to Paris that he most likely would not like, but which would honestly reflect my own views, views that were certainly not his own nor those of the Egyptian leadership. Heikal, a very understated man, accepted the message with a surprised grimace, and then, it seemed to me, a barely-disguised look of satisfaction. Loutfi El-Kholy, who was present for the discussion, later told me that the Al-Ahram editor preferred by far to deal with a man of convictions, as he was himself, even if our opinions diverged. He felt that good faith criticism coming from a credible observer better served the Nasser regime than praises from a servile journalist. As an experienced journalist himself quite familiar with the Western press, my intransigence surely did not shock him.
I then brought up the most taboo question of all, that of the persecution of political prisoners, saying I was planning to pose it to the president during the interview. Knowing that Heikal would of course warn Nasser about it, I added that in world opinion, or at least France’s for the purpose of our newspaper, the internment camps eclipsed the positive aspects of Egyptian government policy. The implicit warning was not lost on Heikal, who in response merely flashed an enigmatic smile. Several years later I would learn that he secretly shared my opinion.
My meeting with Gamal Abdel Nasser several days later would be decisive in more than one way. First, I was pleasantly surprised by the cordial simplicity of how he received me. Dressed in canvas pants and a light cotton shirt with an open collar, he welcomed us, Rosy and me, in a relatively modest home in the Cairo suburb of Manshiet El-Bakry, where he had lived as a young military officer—lodgings he preferred to the palaces provided by the republic. The living room where the interview took place was furnished in the tradition of the Egyptian middle class—imitation Louis XV couches and armchairs—far from reflecting the status of a head of state. The grayish-green wall was decorated with signed portraits of Third World leaders: Tito, Nehru, Zhou Enlai, Nkrumah and Sukarno. The room did not have air conditioning, and a fan made the June Cairo heat just bearable. Our interview—which alternated between English and the Egyptian colloquial Arabic—lasted more than two hours. Heikal was present, but out of respect to the president he never said a word during the conversation.
Tall, with the massive shoulders of a slightly stooped boxer and an intense but kind look, our host spoke first to put us at ease. The ice was quickly broken: he was lonely, he complained, ever since his family, wife and children, left for Alexandria for their summer vacation. The house, where we saw no aides or domestic help (except the one who served us lemonade and Turkish coffee), felt desperately vacant to him. Fortunately, he added, he worked a lot, too much for his taste, in his home office. Despite his schedule, he forced himself to take time to indulge in his favorite sports, swimming and tennis. Didn’t he have a hobby to pass the time? Nasser wouldn’t go so far as to confide his affection—which his friends knew about—for movie Westerns, nor his passion for chess which he played as often as possible with General Abdel Hakim Amer, his closest friend among the officers who seized power in July 1952. He would go on to fire him with a heavy heart after the 1967 military debacle in which Amer, then military chief-of-staff, was held responsible.
Nasser displayed an insatiable curiosity and an extraordinary ability to listen. Before I could formulate the first of my questions, he asked me at length about my professional life, the way French media worked, the freedoms they had, and, most surprisingly, about my personal life. How many children did we have? Where did we live? How was I able to purchase our apartment in the center of Paris with payments on an installment plan? What are the interests included in a French bank loan? What percentage of our household income went to paying back those loans? My astonished look caused him to excuse himself for his indiscretion, explaining that he trying to figure out a way to provide Egyptians with low-cost housing that they would own, and he was asking the question to know if such a project was a utopian one in a developing country where the income of the vast majority of citizens was barely enough to survive. And as if his office hadn’t provided him with all relevant information about me, he asked me about my origins, the life I had led in Egypt in my youth, all while carefully avoiding the reasons that led to my exile. We were “neighbors” since my birthplace, Heliopolis, was near his home in Manshiet El-Bakry where the interview was taking place. He was clearly engaged in a game of seduction for which men gifted in communication have the secret.
This essay is adapted from Le Moyen-Orient au-delà Des Mythes, which will be published by Fayard in 2012. The essay was translated from the French by Grant Rosenberg.
Éric Rouleau was an editorial writer and special correspondent for the French daily Le Monde from 1955 until 1985. He is a frequent contributor to Le Monde Diplomatique. He was France’s ambassador to Tunisia from 1985 to 1986 and to Turkey from 1988 to 1992. Author of numerous books, his memoir, Le Moyen-Orient au-delà Des Mythes will be published in late 2012.
The Old Guard
With the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, it appeared to many observers that revolutionary forces had won the day. It is therefore worth reflecting on the results of Egypt’s democratic election for president, held in two rounds in May and June.
To the surprise of some, Ahmed Shafik, a military officer who served as minister of Civil Aviation and was prime minister at the time of Mubarak’s resignation from office, came in second in a crowded field of thirteen candidates. Running as an independent, he then moved to the second round in a run-off with Mohammed Morsi, the candidate of the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood. Here he was defeated, but not before winning the votes of 12.3 million Egyptians—48.27 percent of those voting. Shafik’s candidacy, therefore, serves as an important window on Egypt’s political evolution.
From Pilot to Prime Minister
Ahmed Shafik served as Egypt’s prime minister for only a month amid a rapidly changing political situation. On January 29, 2011, in response to the revolution, Mubarak removed Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and replaced him with Shafik, a man with long experience in both the military and the government.
Shafik was born in Cairo in November 1941, and after graduating from the Egyptian Air Academy, he joined the Egyptian Air Force at the age of 20. Later in his career, he gained a master’s degree in military sciences and a Ph.D. in aerospace studies. He served as a fighter pilot and as squadron, wing, and base commander, as well as a two-year stint as military attaché in Rome.
From 1988 to 1991, Shafik served in several senior military command positions before he was appointed as the commander of the Air Operations Department. In September 1991, he became Air Force chief-of-staff, and was commander of the Egyptian Air Force from 1996 to 2002. He attained the rank of air marshal.
During the War of Attrition with Israel between 1967 and 1970, Shafik saw active service as a Multi-Task Air Wing Commander. Subsequently, he took up a post as an air base commander. In the 1973 October War, he was a senior fighter pilot under the command of Hosni Mubarak, then the head of the Egyptian Air Force. It is reported that Shafik shot down two Israeli aircraft during the war, both on October 14, 1973. During his forty years as a fighter pilot, he flew several types of Soviet, French, and American fighter jets. These included the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17, Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-19, Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 and the Dassault Mirage 2000. He is qualified on the American-built McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II and the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon.
After his military career, Shafik served in Mubarak’s government as minister of Civil Aviation from 2002 to 2011. He upgraded Egyptian airport management and infrastructure, and improved relations with domestic and international carriers as well as regulatory authorities. He restructured the national carrier, EgyptAir, and managed to achieve a turnaround in the company’s performance. He is credited with modernizing Egyptian airports, and transforming the Cairo International Airport into a regional hub through the inauguration of Terminal 3 in 2008. The airport now has an annual capacity of twenty-two million passengers.
After becoming prime minister at the height of the worst crisis faced by the Mubarak presidency, Shafik resigned on March 3, 2011, in the face of intense pressure from protestors and the political opposition. Seen as a member of Mubarak’s old guard, the protesters objected to Shafik staying on as head of the government since Mubarak was out.
Mubarak had calculated that Shafik’s success as a minister could help deflate the crisis. However, Shafik came into the picture too late, and he was not free to form his own cabinet—as he communicated to the public. He tried to repair the cabinet after Mubarak’s fall, but was unsuccessful due to pressure from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) as well as the limits of time.
Although he resigned from office, he had attracted a following, which eventually encouraged him to run for president. In a poll conducted by the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in August 2011, he scored 11.7 percent, second only to Amr Moussa, the longtime foreign minister and ex-Secretary General of the Arab League. He had received three times more support than opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei. To explain the backing Shafik received, it is necessary to review the dramatic events that have shaken the country.
Fall of the Pharaoh
As Charles Dickens wrote of the French Revolution,
It was the best of times,
It was the worst of times,
It was the age of wisdom,
It was the age of foolishness…
Like Paris before it, Cairo is experiencing a period of transformation with a very long list of problems and challenges, a period when risks seem abundant and opportunities as elusive as ever. What’s happening in Egypt can be summarized in two sentences: first, the country will never again be what it was. And second, the change is so tectonic that Egypt’s future direction has never been more uncertain. The range of possibilities run from a stable democracy to a state where the ‘Pharaoh’ may be gone but a breed of despotic Pharaohism—this time in the name of Islam—remains.
Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt for thirty years. Yet, the ruler was toppled in just eighteen days. From being the most powerful man in the land, he has become a prisoner. Such a sweeping change in Egyptian politics is not customary. This could not have occurred without a long list of reasons.
The proposition I make is that Mubarak stayed in power for three decades because he was capable of using his office to keep a critical mass of Egyptians standing by him. He lost that ability not only on the day of the uprising, January 25, 2011, but in 2010 when he decided to run for a sixth term of office while he was aging and ill. By then, the deterioration of his qualities had made it impossible for him to understand the structural changes that were occurring in the country, some of them of his own making.
Mubarak, for example, failed to register the youth bulge that had expanded in the country since the 1990s partly as a result of the sharp decline in national infant mortality. The result was that some 25 percent of Egyptians were between the ages of eighteen and thirty years old by 2010. These ‘baby boomers’ came to the Egyptian stage while the country was moving towards a market economy. A brand new middle class was born, and searched for its place in the economic and political life of the country.
Then there was the media explosion that put the entire political system in question. At least 22.6 million Egyptians, mostly young people, had access to the Internet at the time of the revolution. By June 2009, Egypt had 3,211 Internet technology companies, mostly run by the new generation who would later be in the forefront of the uprising. Add to that the great expansion of legacy media in Egypt and throughout the Arab world that challenged government control. The number of daily newspapers in Egypt grew to twenty-one, not to mention 523 other types of publications; and there are some seven hundred Arabic language television channels available in the region. In Egypt alone, there were fifty-four television channels as of June 2010; thirty-one of them privately owned.
This rapid growth of the media opened a flood gate for criticism of public authorities, from the most minor bureaucrat all the way up to the president. Government corruption, the inequitable distribution of wealth, the economic plight of the country, responsibility for Palestinian suffering, and the like all became daily subjects for talk shows, bloggers, the electronic press, the opposition press, and the media at large, which effectively succeeded in the total de-legitimization of the Mubarak regime.
The “inheritance of power” issue became a central theme in Egyptian politics and thus fueled the de-legitimization of the regime. To many commentators (and much of the public), the idea that the Mubarak’s son, Gamal, might “inherit” the presidency was a sign that not only was the regime corrupt, but it was moving to create a monarchy in place of the republic. It was treason in the making.
Worse for the Mubarak regime, the Gamal succession ‘problem’ became associated with the union of political power and wealth, and the widespread corruption in the country. The World Bank, Freedom House, Transparency International, and other international governmental and non-governmental organizations ranked Egypt low in the various indicators of the fight against corruption, the integrity of public officials, and transparency.
In the context of an ossified political system monopolized by a ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) that does not allow much of a progressive political agenda, the stage was set for the revolution. The regime—and the traditional opposition—failed to absorb the new and growing opposition emerging from youth movements, which were widening the gap between the aging political elite and the Egyptian people.
The regime missed the opportunity from 2006 to 2007 to make fundamental constitutional reforms despite major political and legal efforts to do so by amending Article 76 on electing the president, Article 77 on limiting the terms of the presidency to two terms only, and Article 88 on limiting the powers of the president during the implementation of Emergency Law. (The continuous implementation of the Emergency Law for thirty years extended the powers of the police and other security institutions in the country.)
The increasing age of the president also played a role in accelerating the contradictions between the regime and Egyptians. Mubarak held a post with massive constitutional and political powers. But he had a weak presidency since he had no close advisors or national security and economic councils to rely on or listen to. Despite his powers therefore, he was left to rely on the heads of security and the executive organs of the state. As he aged and grew ill, his stamina and ability to follow—let alone lead—the affairs of state was declining. A political vacuum emerged and was filled with those who were not only less popular, but also more corrupt. Major issues of state, foreign and domestic, were postponed because of the inability of the system to take decisions.
Thus Mubarak was becoming increasingly unable to face the storm that had been gathering in the country probably since the return to Egypt in February 2010 of a new opposition figure, Mohamed ElBaradei, former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel Peace laureate. In the fall of that year, Mubarak missed the opportunity to arrange free and fair elections and thus undermine his critics. The New Year’s bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria revealed the regime’s inability to maintain security; Coptic Christians, as a result, began to desert Mubarak. When the storm finally broke on January 25, 2011, Mubarak seemed baffled and bewildered, incapable of managing the crisis and taking Egypt into another direction.
Clusters of Tensions
The transformation of a country is not easy. In Egypt, the Arab Spring is full of sandstorms. The post-revolutionary transition period—and all the players therein—reflects the enormity of Egypt’s difficulties.
By surrendering powers to SCAF, Mubarak assured the continuity of the state as represented by three major institutions. SCAF would represent the sovereign authority of the president and its executive powers. The judiciary would play a key role in a system based on the rule of law as demanded by the revolutionaries. And the bureaucracy, historically the backbone of the Egyptian state, would survive the revolution in order to continue its tasks under new leadership.
On the other side are the revolutionaries. There are the youth who launched the revolution but were soon to lose control of events. Its leadership evolved into a large number of coalitions and new political parties but, whatever the magnitude of their number, they remain a highly fragmented movement. There are also the traditional political parties that worked as the formal and informal opposition to Mubarak’s regime that reasserted themselves in the wake of his ouster. Third, there is the Muslim Brotherhood, part of the traditional political opposition and currently being reinforced by the rise of new Islamist parties. On the more liberal side is Al-Wasat, or Middle party, and on the more conservative side are the long-imprisoned Gama’at Al-Islamiya and Jihad groups. Then there is the new power of the Salafis, who advocate a strict implementation of Islamic sharia. And last but not least are the various non-party movements and civil society organizations that opposed Mubarak and his regime.
The organs of state and the revolutionary forces developed a formula that was summarized by the slogan: “The people and the army are one hand.” Some revolutionaries defined the situation as follows: the people made the revolution but the army protected it. This definition of what took place in Egypt both recognized the continuity of the Egyptian state and, simultaneously, understood the necessity for Egypt to go through a process of massive change.
It was inevitable that tensions would grow over a variety of issues. Local forces have started to take public affairs into their own hands, minorities work to assert their rights, and post-revolutionary protests continue to drag the economy down.
Three main clusters of tension have grown over time. The first is related to what the country should do with the former regime and the crimes it committed during the revolution, particularly Mubarak and his family. The second is focused on the road to be taken during the transition period to civilian rule. These tensions exist between various factions of the revolution, and between some of these factions and SCAF. And this inevitably led to the third cluster, which is all about how to deal with SCAF. Is SCAF the political leadership of the country and as such open to criticism and accountable to the public? Or does it remain part of the army, which should be honored for protecting the country and the revolution. And as such constitutes a ‘red line’ that revolutionaries may not cross?
Getting to this point was not easy, to say the least. An illustration of the nature of this ongoing struggle is the story of Omar Suleiman and his abrupt return to and exit from national politics. After fourteen months of silence after the fall of Mubarak, the former Egyptian vice president and head of General Intelligence decided to stand as a presidential candidate. It took him just twenty-four hours from bowing to the “will of the people” and obtaining 60,000 nomination signatures from the general public. His name jumped to the top of the list with over 30 percent of the vote in the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies’ weekly poll of support for presidential candidates.
The response to Suleiman’s candidacy was the return of the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies to Tahrir Square, while other revolutionary forces also made plans to come to the square the following Friday. Then the Islamist-dominated parliament amended the election law to prevent the top leadership of the former regime from participating in national elections. Faced with the unconstitutionality of this new ruling, the Islamist response was that revolutionary legitimacy reigns supreme over legalistic legitimacy. In the end, however, the Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission disqualified Suleiman’s candidacy on technical grounds—that he was actually a few signatures short of the required 60,000.
It is possible to think of post-revolutionary Egypt as a division between the power of the state and the power of the revolution. These sides essentially represent two visions for the country: the civic and the religious. There has been some consensus—concerning the holding of elections, for example—but this has not been enough to clear a general air of confusion and suspicion. There is also a lack of complete trust in SCAF, as well as in the Islamist movement. As the revolutionary youth gradually lost their status to better organized and financed groups, they asserted themselves through sequential Friday demonstrations that led to confrontation with the police and the army.
Without doubt, Egypt has seen a number of changes that would have been unthinkable during the Mubarak era. The constitutional amendments of March 19, 2011, curtailed the president’s powers and limited the period permitted in office to two four-year terms. For the first time since the July 23, 1952, revolution, Egypt witnessed free elections for the lower and upper chambers of parliament. Apparently, what remains to be done for Egypt to become a democratic country is to put a democratic constitution in place.
In terms of economic statistics, however, the country is going to ruin. According to all indicators, Egypt should have declared bankruptcy in 2011. By poverty indicators, the country is returning to where it was in 1990. Despite the decline, Egypt has proved capable of holding itself together, partly because of the reserves left from the Mubarak regime and partly because of its large informal economic sector—about 35 percent of the economy—but perhaps foremost thanks to the legendary Egyptian capacity for patience for better days to come.
The Message of Ahmed Shafik
It was in this context that the exclusion of Omar Suleiman from the presidential contest opened the door for two candidates to claim the representation of the state/civic side of the Egyptian political divide: Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafik. Although the former dominated the air waves and was at the top of public opinion polls, the latter proved to be more popular with Egyptian voters. Most certainly Shafik was not the favorite son of the Egyptian political establishment, which clearly favored Suleiman initially and Moussa as a second choice. Shafik became the favorite target of the media and bands of revolutionaries who said his presidency would be a replica of the Mubarak regime.
An important reason for Shafik’s success was his ability to send a strong message to the public about the necessity of restoring security, stability, and economic growth. He was also able to speak to an electorate that harbored growing apprehension about the rise of political Islam in Egypt.
Results in the presidential election showed a concentration of support for Shafik in Greater Cairo and in the Nile Delta. Broadly speaking, he gained in areas that are more urban and less inclined to tribal or clannish politics. He did better in districts that have achieved economic progress, have a considerable middle class, and have also been hit by the decline in tourism.
Despite the Coptic Church’s officially neutral stand in the election, Coptic Christians rallied behind Shafik for his civil state message and in fear of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. Shafik clearly stood for the equality of Egyptians and for a constitution that protects the rights of minorities. Consequently, Copts marshaled fellow Christians to the polling stations and contributed financially to his campaign.
Shafik also benefited from the unlikely resurrection of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party. The party was legally dissolved after the revolution, and its membership scattered in disarray amid the bombardment of attacks against the corruption of the Mubarak regime. But Shafik, with his achievements in government service and a reputation for being clean, managed to energize the 2.5 million members of the former party. Shafik won political and financial support from the new parties gathering behind former NDP members, such as Al-Ithad, Al-Hurreiya, and the Egyptian National Party.
Many in Egypt’s business community also rallied behind Shafik’s candidacy. The sector has grown considerably over the last two decades, as Egypt went through a structural adjustment program of reform that was followed by a gradual transformation to a market economy. This new business class has been hard hit by the revolution particularly in tourist, construction, and industrial sectors. Many businessmen latched onto Shafik as a future president who could address instability due to continuing demonstrations and strikes. They financed his campaign and organized support in the industrial areas of Greater Cairo, the Delta, and in tourist regions like Luxor, the Red Sea, and South Sinai. Another factor in Shafik’s respectable showing was support from the country’s Sufi orders. Although the twelve million Sufis usually stay out of politics, its leadership has been closely connected to the NDP in the past.
One of Shafik’s notable support bases, perhaps surprisingly to some, was the large number of Egyptians who admired the revolution but gradually soured on it due to the disruption it caused to their daily lives. While they could accept change, they could not tolerate economic regression, social and political disruption, and continued uncertainty. To many Egyptians, Shafik appeared to be a voice of reason and sanity, in contrast with a political opponent who prided himself for being part of the revolution. Shafik’s clear message of restoring security and resuming economic growth was very attractive to an Egyptian public that had become tired of political divisions and a lack of progress in the political and economic agenda of the country.
Even in defeat, Shafik has however succeeded in forming a new political bloc that is supportive of the state and is civil in nature. This bloc—and Shafik himself, if he chooses to continue in politics—does face a number of challenges. The first of these is reconciliation with opponents, particularly with the Islamist camp. After all, whichever way to look at it, half of the Egyptian voters are on the other side of the political divide. Another challenge, which comes from within Shafik’s own camp, is a demand to depart from the old way of governing. Egypt has changed, and so must those associated with the former regime.
Although it has roots in the past, Shafik’s bloc contains Egyptians who know that economic growth must be coupled with a democratic system and progressive ideas in society and politics.
Abdel Monem Said Aly is chairman of the Al-Ahram Newspaper and Publishing House and a longtime columnist for Al-Ahram. He is also director of the Regional Center for Strategic Studies,and a senior fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University. He is the author of State and Revolution in Egypt: The Paradox of Change and Politics, published in 2012.
Egypt, Israel, Palestine
As the world continues to be transfixed by the political soap opera unfolding in Egypt, perhaps none in the region have looked on more closely than the Israelis and Palestinians. While there is much that divides the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, they share an enormous stake in the shape of Egypt’s future as well as a growing unease about much of what they have seen so far.
For Israeli officials, the toppling of Hosni Mubarak has led to the rise of Islamist forces hostile to Israel and an increasing security vacuum along its southern border, which casts doubt on the long-term durability of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. The fall of Mubarak and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood is equally troublesome for Palestinian officials in Ramallah, as it eliminates their most powerful Arab ally and emboldens their Hamas rivals in Gaza (Hamas being an off-shoot of the Brotherhood). The election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi to be the first civilian president since the formation of the Egyptian republic sixty years ago has only intensified anxiety in Tel Aviv and Ramallah.
Though it is too early to say exactly what shape Egypt’s foreign policy will take, we are unlikely to see any time soon either a continuation of the accommodationist policies of Mubarak or a radical shift in Egypt’s dealings with Israel and the Palestinians. Deeper changes in Egypt’s regional posture are likely over the long-term but will depend on a host of internal and external factors, including the relative success of political and economic reforms currently underway, trends in U.S.-Egyptian ties, and developments on the Israeli-Palestinian front and other regional dynamics. Despite the inevitable cooling in Egyptian-Israeli and U.S.-Egyptian ties, however, the period ahead may not be all doom and gloom in terms of Arab-Israeli peace, provided that Israel and the United States can recognize and capitalize on an existing but narrow window before it closes.
Foreign Policy Grievances
The virtual absence of anti-Israeli and anti-American slogans throughout the eighteen-day uprising in Tahrir Square is often cited reassuringly as evidence that the Egyptian revolution was not about Israel or the United States. Such assertions are not entirely accurate, though. While popular rebellions are seldom propelled by foreign policy concerns, as opposed to domestic grievances, the Egyptian uprising and the ensuing transition cannot be de-linked entirely from Israel and the United States. The changes associated with Egypt’s ongoing political transition will have a profound impact on Egypt’s relations with both countries in the years to come.
Support for Palestine and antagonism toward Israel are deeply ingrained in Egyptian political culture and national consciousness. An issue that transcends partisan politics and commands broad national consensus across all ideological and demographic lines, the Palestinian cause is as much a matter of identity as it is a question of public policy. Beyond sympathy for the plight of Palestinians, hostility toward Israel is also fueled by Egypt’s own past sacrifices in blood and treasure; four wars with Israel led to tens of thousands of Egyptian deaths and billions of dollars in destruction. Even after three decades of formal peace, most Egyptians still view Israel as a threat to national security and as an enemy, not only of Palestinians but of all Arabs.
The Mubarak regime did little to combat such sentiment. In fact, it frequently stoked populist antipathy toward Israel as a way to boost its own domestic legitimacy. In an environment where most forms of political expression were either severely curtailed or banned altogether, the regime generally tolerated anti-Israel and pro-Palestine activities, so long as they steered clear of criticism of the regime itself. This balancing act became increasingly untenable during the 2000s and the so-called “war on terror.”
In the decade after the September 11, 2001, attacks, Mubarak made Egypt a cornerstone of two key pillars of American policy, U.S. counterterrorism efforts and the Arab-Israeli peace process—which by the close of the decade had become virtually interchangeable. Trilateral security coordination and intelligence sharing reached unprecedented levels following the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority election in 2006. By making himself an indispensable asset to the United States and Israel, however, Mubarak also fueled perceptions that his regime was little more than an extension of American and Israeli policy.
Israel’s crackdown against the Palestinian uprising (the Al-Aqsa Intifada) that began in September 2000 and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq galvanized Egyptians and other Arabs like rarely before. The proliferation of Palestine solidarity initiatives, anti-normalization and boycott campaigns against Israel, and mass demonstrations against Israel and the United States steadily increased into the latter half of the decade in response to the 2006 Lebanon war, the Gaza blockade, and the 2009 Gaza war (Operation Cast Lead). This decade’s events served as a training ground and inspiration for proto-revolutionary groups like the Kifaya! (Enough!) movement and the April 6 Youth Movement.
Thus, somewhat ironically, Palestine activism became a sort of incubator for the protest movement that eventually led to the January 25, 2011, uprising. On one level, Egyptians’ identification with Palestinian subjugation (and struggle for eventual liberation) was a vicarious expression of their own yearning for freedom. At the same time, pro-Palestinian activism along with anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiment in Egypt became surrogates for anti-regime politics—epitomizing the ever-widening divide between the ruler and the ruled.
Instead of working to level the playing field on behalf of the Palestinians in the U.S.-led peace process, as most Egyptians would have preferred, the U.S. expected Mubarak to further pressure the beleaguered Palestinian leadership into participating in (failed) negotiations and to refrain from reconciling with Hamas. Of all the issues on the Israeli-Palestinian scene, however, none was more universally unpopular or more damaging to Mubarak’s domestic standing than Gaza, which became a rallying cry for established opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the newly formed protest movements. By closing off the Egyptian side of the border to Gazan trade, civilian traffic, and humanitarian access, the Mubarak regime became complicit in the Israeli-imposed blockade of the Gaza Strip and the 2009 Gaza war.
Egypt’s historic peace treaty with Israel did more than just reconcile two former foes; it consummated Egypt’s strategic reorientation toward the United States. While Anwar Sadat may have signed the historic treaty, it was Mubarak who implemented it, preserved it, and made it a pillar of Egypt’s strategic posture in the region. Officially, Mubarak maintained a cool, arm’s length, and occasionally confrontational stance toward Israel, while quietly deepening security cooperation with Washington and Tel Aviv at all levels. Thus, despite the notoriously cold peace kept by Mubarak, Israeli leaders considered him a strategic prize.
Fairly or unfairly, it is impossible to separate Mubarak’s growing unpopularity and waning domestic legitimacy from his relationships with the United States and with Israel. On one hand, much of Mubarak’s behavior in the region was seen as being at the behest of both countries. And on the other hand, the invaluable political, diplomatic, and especially military support provided by the United States (largely in response to Israel’s needs) played no small role in sustaining the Egyptian dictatorship.
Israel, Palestine, and the ‘New’ Egypt
Pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel sentiment has continued to animate Egyptian politics after the uprising. Anti-Israel protests are commonplace and Tahrir demonstrations regularly feature Palestinian flags and other symbols. Israel became a convenient punching bag for populist politicians from across the ideological spectrum, while Egyptian presidential candidates competed over who was more pro-Palestinian.
Two events stand out as particularly noteworthy. The storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo on September 9, 2011, by Egyptian protesters angry at the killing of Egyptian border guards during an Israeli operation against militants in the Sinai weeks earlier marked a turning point for all sides. The embassy attack, which prompted an emergency evacuation of the ambassador and his staff out of the country, was a signal to Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans alike that change was coming. The Muslim Brotherhood and other political parties condemned the embassy attack as an act of vigilantism unbecoming of a civilized state rather than for the sentiment behind it.
Then, in March 2012, Egypt’s first freely elected parliament voted unanimously to expel Israel’s ambassador in Cairo, a rare show of consensus in Egypt’s notoriously fractious politics and a clear signal as to where Egypt’s political class stood vis-à-vis Israel. In doing so, parliamentarians also approved a text declaring, “Revolutionary Egypt will never be a friend, partner, or ally of the Zionist entity, which we consider to be the number one enemy of Egypt and the Arab nation,” and further urging the government, “to review all its relations and accords with that enemy.” Although purely symbolic, given the parliament’s lack of authority in diplomatic matters, the vote could not have been reassuring for Israel.
Despite the harsher tone coming out of Cairo, very little has actually changed in Egyptian policy toward Israel and the Palestinians since Mubarak’s ejection in February 2011. The country’s interim rulers, the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), have said they will uphold Egypt’s international obligations, including the treaty with Israel—as have most Egyptian political parties, both secular and Islamist. Egypt also continues to support the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (such as it is) and a two-state settlement of the conflict, and remains the primary backer of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority.
The only new developments to emerge since Mubarak’s removal have been Egypt’s brokering of a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement in April 2011 and the growing security vacuum in the Sinai, neither of which is irreversible. Even the highly unpopular closure of Gaza, despite some changes in the management of the Rafah border crossing, is largely the same as it was under Mubarak. More crucially, Egyptian-Israeli security coordination has continued throughout Egypt’s tumultuous political transition and despite the heightened tensions on both sides of the border.
In fact, Egypt’s overall foreign policy orientation remains remarkably similar to what it was under Mubarak, including Egypt’s close strategic partnership with the United States and its cooperation with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states (despite the latter’s open hostility toward the Egyptian uprising). This should come as no surprise given that the military in general and the intelligence apparatus in particular have continued to control Egyptian foreign and national security policy. Islamists have had little say in governing the country during the transition much less in formulating foreign policy.
Perhaps the most fundamental change to come out of the Egyptian uprising—and which will be among the most difficult to roll back—is the increased importance of public opinion, which is now a force in domestic politics and even policy-making like never before. The weight of public opinion was evident throughout the transition. In addition to the vote to expel the Israeli ambassador, for example, there were the populist positions adopted by the unelected government installed by SCAF such as the decision to turn down International Monetary Fund loans and the uproar over the release of American non-governmental organization workers. The attitudes of ordinary Egyptians are likely to have an even more pronounced impact on politicians now that they are accountable before their constituents.
Peace Treaty Inertia
The ascendancy of the Islamists, who now hold the presidency of the Arab world’s most important country, could result in a reorientation of foreign policy in due course. But there are three reasons to expect more continuity than change in Egypt’s foreign policy over the next several years, regardless of who holds the levers of power.
In the first place, Egyptians are simply too consumed with domestic issues to pursue an ambitious foreign policy agenda at this time. Despite the supposed handover of power to an elected president on June 30, the country’s turbulent transition is anything but complete. On the contrary, the election of a highly polarizing figure like Morsi and SCAF’s rather brazen attempts to hold on to power, suggest that the democratic transition is at best just beginning and at worst put off indefinitely.
Meanwhile, with the fate of the parliament and constitution-drafting process still largely up in the air, Egypt’s three-way power struggle between the military, the Islamists, and revolutionary forces is likely to continue for some time. This uncertainty and the continued potential for instability are exacerbated by the ever-present threat of popular unrest and an economy teetering dangerously close to collapse. As a result, foreign policy matters will continue to take a backseat to domestic issues such as the economy and security. Like many unfulfilled aspirations of the Egyptian revolution, Egypt’s re-emergence as a dynamic actor in the region and a leader of the Arab world will clearly have to wait.
The absence of major differences of opinion among Egyptians, whether at the popular or political levels, also favors continuity. Despite the fractious nature of Egyptian politics, there is a fairly broad consensus across social, political, and ideological lines on foreign policy matters in general and on Israel and Palestine in particular. Several recent polls also show that, while Egyptians are generally split over whether the Camp David peace process was positive or negative for Egypt, there remains support among the main political forces—including Islamists, nationalists, leftists, and revolutionaries—for maintaining the treaty, if with greater reciprocity and balance. The main changes Egyptians would like to see in the relationship have to do with security arrangements in the Sinai, natural gas sales to Israel, and Israel’s overall treatment of Palestinians.
In the end, the most important determinant of Egyptian policy toward Israel/Palestine in the short- to medium-term remains the role of Egypt’s military. SCAF’s muscular role in politics will persist for some time. In addition to preserving their vast economic interests, the ruling generals have repeatedly sought immunity from government oversight, budgetary scrutiny, and even prosecution, while continuing to control key government functions. Whether or not such exemptions are ultimately codified in the constitution, SCAF has made it clear—most recently in its unilateral “constitutional addendum”—that it seeks to retain control over areas that bear directly or indirectly on Egypt’s foreign policy, including defense, national security, and intelligence, as well as other sovereignty portfolios such as the justice and interior ministries. It is this fact more than any other that has prevented a full-blown panic on the part of the Israelis, even after the election of a Muslim Brotherhood leader to the presidency.
Yes to Camp David, But with Changes
Egyptian policy toward Israel and Palestine in the coming years is likely to focus on three points. First, Egypt will maintain the peace treaty with Israel but will eventually seek certain adjustments—something most Egyptian political parties, secular and Islamist, have already called for. The most likely candidate in this regard relates to the status of the Sinai, a matter of intense concern for Israelis and Egyptians alike. Camp David-imposed restrictions on the ability of Egyptian forces to deploy in the Sinai are seen across the board—by SCAF, Islamists, and secular political groups alike—as an affront to Egyptian sovereignty and national pride. At the same time, there is a longstanding fear that Israel seeks to permanently push Gaza, demographically and politically, onto Egypt. For their part, Israelis fear an increasingly lawless Sinai is becoming a haven for jihadi extremists on its southern flank and for weapons’ smuggling into Hamas-controlled Gaza.
Egyptian authorities acknowledge the security problems in Sinai and have recently begun to crack down on jihadi militants there, but are equally worried about the prospect of unilateral Israeli actions in the Sinai. Despite their shared concerns regarding the region, Israeli leaders are disinclined to consider changes to the peace treaty for fear of establishing a precedent. Even so, renegotiating aspects of the treaty could be in Israel’s long-term interests, not only for addressing a key security concern but, perhaps more important, by making Egypt’s current rulers—including previously rejectionist Islamists—direct stakeholders in the treaty.
Second, Egyptian policy is likely to focus on reconciliation of Palestinian factions rather than on the ‘peace process.’ To the extent that Egypt does engage in Israeli-Palestinian affairs it will be limited to areas where its own national security is directly affected. Thus, we are likely to see less emphasis on negotiations with Israel and more emphasis on preventing Israeli-Palestinian violence and on promoting internal Palestinian reconciliation. There are practical as well as political reasons for this. The palpable absence of any meaningful peace negotiations has already led to a focus on crisis-prevention over conflict-resolution by many of the parties concerned. For their part, Egyptians will be even less inclined to deal with distractions much less crises on their eastern borders.
Even the Muslim Brotherhood, which may find itself facing new pressures from both the military and angry revolutionaries, will find it hard to do more than pay lip service to the cause of Palestine—let alone that of Hamas. Although Hamas remains the biggest beneficiary of the Brotherhood’s success, its current sense of triumphalism may be short-lived. A protracted and difficult transition in Cairo will leave Egyptians in general and the Brotherhood in particular more inclined to keep things quiet along its eastern border. More important, while a further easing of the Gaza closure is certainly possible, a full-blown opening of the border as Hamas officials have been calling for is probably not in the offing.
The Brotherhood has already signaled a move in this direction. Despite organic ties with Hamas, it has adopted a relatively neutral position regarding the latter’s feud with Fatah during the transition. This may be due to a desire to avoid confrontation with SCAF, as well as with the United States, or may be part of a calculated attempt to establish its credibility as a future interlocutor. The Brotherhood’s neutrality comes at a time when the military regime, specifically Egyptian intelligence, is playing a more evenhanded (or at least less overtly pro-Fatah) role in reconciling the two Palestinian factions. In his inaugural speech, President Morsi pledged not only to support Palestinian rights but also made clear that Palestinian national reconciliation was a prerequisite for the Palestinian people to recover its territory and sovereignty.
Calm in Gaza requires a political arrangement on both the Hamas-Israel and the Hamas-Fatah tracks. The prospect of an Egyptian-mediated reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah does not sit well with Israel, which considers Hamas a terrorist group and opposes its inclusion in Palestinian governance. On the other hand, Israel could stand to benefit from the fact that Egypt is keen on preventing war and containing conflicts along its eastern border. This was evident in Egypt’s brokering of the March 2012 Gaza truce, which ended four days of fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants, as well as the deal that ended a potentially explosive mass hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners in May 2012.
The fact that the Brotherhood may be inclined to push Hamas to reconcile with Fatah and maintain a ceasefire with Israel does not mean Hamas will necessarily comply. While the Brotherhood clearly has influence over its Islamist allies in Palestine, perhaps even inordinate sway, it is not in a position to issue orders to Hamas leaders either inside or outside Gaza. The willingness of Hamas to go along with Egyptian preferences, however, may depend on what Morsi and the Brotherhood can deliver for Hamas politically. Since a total opening of the border is unlikely at this time, Hamas may seek the assistance of Egyptian Islamists.
A third area of focus related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict involves Egyptian relations with the United States. Although the alliance will remain intact, tensions that began well before the 2011 uprising have accelerated throughout the transition. Egyptian efforts to push for Palestinian unity or changes in the peace treaty with Israel could strain relations even further. Either way, security coordination with both the United States and Israel is likely to continue in the coming years.
In the meantime, the delicate balance the United States now maintains with Egypt’s military rulers on the one hand and its elected civilian (and thus far mainly Islamist) officials on the other is likely to grow even more complicated and uncomfortable in the years to come. Not only must each side contend with domestic constituencies that remain staunchly opposed to any U.S.-Islamist dialogue, they must also tread lightly so as not to alienate political actors in both countries. This will be particularly difficult for the U.S. administration, which must strike a balance not only between the military and an Islamist president but between these two power centers and more secular, liberal groups as well.
Over the long term, we should expect to see much deeper changes in Egyptian dealings with Israel and the Palestinians, though it will take time for the gap between public sentiment and government policy to narrow. This assumes, of course, that some kind of democratic transition is still occurring—which is by no means assured, especially given recent developments, but neither is it entirely precluded. In any event, to the extent that such a shift does occur, it will most likely involve movement from both ends toward the middle. In other words, we can expect to see gradual changes in public opinion and government policy simultaneously rather than sudden, dramatic shifts in one or the other.
Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-conservative Salafis have shown a capacity for compromise, particularly the former. In fact, the Brotherhood’s discourse with regard to Israel and the Palestinians underwent a major transformation during the transition—even before it won a majority in the parliament. The apparent overhaul of the Brotherhood’s electoral program from 2010 to 2011 is especially striking. Whereas both programs contain the standard references to the “Zionist enemy,” the 2011 program of its newly created Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) is considerably more tame, dropping the most incendiary references to Israel, such as the “rapists of the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” and eliminating the section on the “Palestinian cause” altogether. Even the anti-blockade language was heavily watered down, to the point that it no longer even mentions Gaza by name.
Whether such changes are indicative of a genuine political evolution or are merely cosmetic and tactical, only time will tell. More importantly, the evolution of Egyptian policy toward Israel/Palestine, over say the next five to twenty years, will depend on numerous factors, including the results of Egypt’s economic reform.
The extent to which the military remains involved in the political sphere, and the manner in which it may eventually be eased out, will certainly affect Egypt’s long-term posture toward Israel/Palestine. Having already witnessed a major set-back in the transition to democratic civilian rule, the prospects for pushing the military from politics in the near future are not promising, though not impossible further down the road. While continued military rule may seem good for Israel in the short-term, it is ultimately unsustainable. Although a civilian-led government will undoubtedly reflect anti-Israel populism as a factor, it is also more likely to pursue a rational course of action.
The success or failure of Egypt’s economic recovery will also affect future relations with Israel and Palestine, which of course is also bound up with its own interminable transition. Economic improvement will afford Egypt the space to play a more active diplomatic role in the region and beyond, and could reduce its overall dependence on U.S./Western and Saudi/Gulf assistance. On the other hand, continued economic hardship will prolong Egypt’s diplomatic stagnation and perhaps further fan the flames of populism and xenophobia.
Egypt’s posture in regard to Israel/Palestine will of course also depend on the future of U.S.-Egypt relations. Despite recent strains, and growing calls in both Washington and Cairo for phasing out the strategic partnership, the alliance is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Over time, however, irrespective of who rules Egypt or which party comes to power, Egyptian foreign policy is likely to become more independent and more assertive, making some sort of parting of the ways inevitable. In which case, it would be reasonable to expect the military-military aspect of U.S.-Egyptian ties to be the last to go.
The political evolution of the Muslim Brotherhood (or any successor movements or parties that may emerge from it) and other Islamist forces, including in the diplomatic realm, is likely to continue over the long term. However, this will largely depend on the success or failure of Egypt’s democratic experiment as well as Western and Israeli responses to Islamist success. Since democratic backsliding would likely have a disproportionate effect on Islamists (as with the recent dissolution of parliament), a return to autocracy, or a prolonging of military rule, is likely to radicalize them on a greater scale than other political trends. Likewise, a resumption of American hostility to Islamism of the kind witnessed in the previous decade, or an escalation in Israeli rhetoric, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s references to Islamism as the “insatiable crocodile,” can only fuel anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment.
Finally, developments on the Israeli-Palestinian front will also help shape Egypt’s outlook on the matter. The continued absence of progress toward a comprehensive resolution of the conflict will likely harden Egyptian antipathy and distrust at the public and political levels toward the United States and Israel. Moreover, a resumption of large-scale Israeli-Palestinian violence, particularly if it involves heavy Palestinian casualties, will inflame public sentiment and put pressure on Egyptian politicians to respond. Such a scenario might even re-entrench military rule (perhaps with U.S./Western acquiescence), undercut economic recovery, and radicalize large segments of the Egyptian political class. While even the most just Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement will not compel Egyptians to love Israel or Israelis, it will help to stem the growing reservoir of hostility and even hatred as well as restore Egyptian trust in the United States.
Opportunity for Peace?
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process had stagnated well before the dramatic Arab Spring. With the exception of a brief period in the final year of the George W. Bush administration, no serious negotiations have taken place between the parties throughout the preceding decade. The loss of Mubarak and the rapid rise of Islamists in Egypt and elsewhere have made a negotiated settlement less appealing to Netanyahu and more urgent for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
While an Islamist president in Egypt, a hardline government in Israel, and a divided Palestinian leadership may not seem like the ingredients for a diplomatic breakthrough, particularly against the backdrop of declining American influence and generalized turmoil in the region, the prognosis need not be completely negative. This notion is not based on an optimistic reading of present realities, but on a realistic view of future possibilities. Namely, if from an Israeli point of view the region looks bad today, there is no reason to believe it will look any better in the future, even when things settle down. Such a reading should be an incentive to more seriously explore the possibilities that exist.
Although Morsi’s election hardly represents a mandate for the Islamic project, Islamists are likely to remain key players in Egyptian politics for some time. Regardless of his Islamist ideology, the current president’s views on foreign policy, and particularly on Israel and Palestine, are squarely with those of mainstream Egyptian society. In any case, regardless of who is in power (again, assuming a democratic transition has not been foreclosed), Egyptian policies are likely to become more responsive to public opinion, not less. Likewise, as Egypt stabilizes politically and economically over time, its involvement in foreign engagements is likely to increase rather than decrease, as will the eventual easing of the military from its political role. Nor do trends elsewhere in the region favor Israeli delays in achieving a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians. Any future political configuration in a post-Assad Syria, for example, is likely to include a strong contingent from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, already a major force within the country’s opposition movement.
None of this is to say that a Palestinian-Israeli breakthrough is imminent or even likely, only that initiating a credible peace process between Palestinians and Israelis is possible even under present conditions. Any serious initiative on this front, however, would require substantial political will and investment on the part of the United States as well as a modicum of stability in Egypt’s transition. Although neither of these conditions currently exist, it is not inconceivable that one or both could come about by the end of 2012 or early 2013.
At a minimum, the current hiatus presents an opportunity for the United States, in conjunction with its international and regional partners, to re-think a deeply flawed and severely outdated approach to Arab-Israeli peacemaking. This will require a willingness to go beyond failed mechanisms like reliance on the Quartet—a mediation bloc consisting of the U.S., the European Union, Russia, and the UN—and a recognition that regional players, including Egypt, have a leading rather than supporting role to play. More importantly, it will also require the United States and Israel to adapt to new realities not just in Egypt but in Palestine as well. The notion that a meaningful peace deal could be reached in the absence of Palestinian unity was always questionable. In the wake of the Arab Spring, however, it is totally untenable.
Khaled Elgindy is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington, DC. He is a founding board member of the Egyptian-American Rule of Law Association. From 2004 to 2009, he served as an advisor to the Palestinian leadership on permanent status negotiations, notably during those launched at Annapolis in November 2007.
Egypt in the World
Perched astride two continents, sandwiched between two seas, and watered by a river that feeds ten countries, Egypt is a nation destined to have extensive contact with the outside world. Though the nature of this relationship has ebbed and flowed in the past—sometimes encouraging Egypt’s ambitious aspirations and at other times relegating her to subject status—foreign policy is a dynamic fundamental to the success or failure of the Egyptian state. Today, as we finish the formation of our first representative civilian government in over sixty years, the political limelight will remain fixed on the domestic trials ahead. How Egypt will face the staggering economic and demographic pressures upon it, the position of religion in the new republic, and the effort to found a representative government against the crushing weight of an authoritarian past all remain to be seen. But, in the process of tackling these historic domestic tasks, we must not ignore the foreign policy challenges and opportunities that will face this representative government in a new Middle East.
Regrettably, Egypt has shrunk to the periphery of regional relations, exchanging the leadership and vision of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat for a far less ambitious foreign policy. Though Hosni Mubarak’s policies were initially successful in ensuring stability and security and reconciling Egypt with the Arab world, this early proactive phase was followed by a long period of political dormancy and stagnation. Now, in a region transformed by popular upheaval, Egypt has a chance to pick up the mantle and renew her place as a political and ideological wellspring for the Arab and North African Middle East. We should grasp this opportunity to help lead the Middle East and Africa into a new era of inclusiveness and political modernity. We can create a blueprint for Egypt’s future foreign policy that will enact this strategic shift. It should seek a path toward renewed leadership in the Arab world that emphasizes Egypt’s strengths in the region, its cultural claim to the Arab identity, and its intellectual influence on Arab political thought, while formulating precise and proactive measures designed to regain Egypt’s lost position of moral authority and regional leadership in the Middle East.
As a point of departure, and with a view to establishing functional, concrete options, these prescriptions suggest that Egypt approach its foreign policy in three expanding concentric circles of interest. First, those close and vital neighbors that share a border, a fundamental identity, or upriver access to Egypt’s riparian water source. Second, that group of foreign and regional powers outside of Egypt’s direct sphere that, nevertheless, exert strong influence over Egyptian policy. Third, relations with the rest of the world—those nations that do not play a vital role in Egypt’s immediate neighborhood but with whom mutually beneficial relations should be pursued or improved upon.
Historical Context: Egypt’s Rich Legacy
Before Egypt’s future options can be fully explored, we must examine the constants and variables that have shaped Egyptian foreign policy throughout its long and turbulent past. There is an instinct on the part of some observers and local participants to assume that Egyptian foreign policy is essentially unchanging in nature. This assumption is imprecise, to say the least. To be sure, as with any nation, there are constants that perennially influence the pursuit of Egypt’s foreign policy, but these factors are principles and parameters upon and within which Egypt must shape its interests rather than strict constraints on her ability to act. Indeed, whether during the height of the Fatimid Caliphate, the quiet conquests and rapid modernization of Mohammed Ali, or the anti-colonialism and Arab Nationalism of the Nasser era, Egypt has not only built a history of strong and active regional foreign policy, but consistently displayed the will and ability to lead in the regional and even in the international arena. Still, what is true of Egyptian foreign policy is that it has most frequently been defined by two factors—geography and history—and that these factors have inspired relatively centrist policy trends throughout consecutive Egyptian governments, even those commonly perceived as radical or reactionary.
Geography is, for obvious reasons, the most important element in determining Egypt’s national security and threat perceptions. Egypt sits on the historical trading crossroads of three continents of the old world and relies for sustenance upon a single river whose headwaters lie outside its borders. This interconnection and essential vulnerability has rendered the country extremely sensitive to the actions of external powers and shapes a pattern of stability, security, and balance in international relations. This describes the submissive policies of the Ptolemaic kings of Egypt who assured grain shipments to Rome in return for relative independence, as well as those of Hosni Mubarak’s government, which often sought to accommodate Western interests and leverage that to create regional heft rather than exercise leadership on regional issues. Yet even the actions of more ambitious Egyptian governments have been grounded in concepts of stability and security, though they may have strayed from the center. Abdel Nasser’s military interference in Yemen, his instigation of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and Anwar Sadat’s bilateral peace treaty with Israel are frequently cited as negatives. Egypt also had its foreign policy successes under these two leaders. The former’s leadership of of decolonization efforts and the latter’s courageous step in initiating the October 6, 1973, war were high points of Egyptian leadership. In those instances when foreign policy sharply swayed from the centrist trend, it has traditionally been the result of charismatic or ambitious individuals, empowered by authoritarian rule, attempting to implant their personal vision on the nation. In these instances, the ability of such figures to impose their priorities on foreign policy helps explain deviation from the norm but when these individuals overreach, reality invariably punishes their hubris and, more often than not, they return to the center, hat in hand.
In conjunction with geographic and idiosyncratic variables, historical prejudice has also played a major part in defining this centrist trend in Egyptian foreign policy. Due to the longevity of the Egyptian state, the effect of history upon current policy is especially acute. Few nations in the region have remained untouched by contact with Egypt and most have had hundreds, if not thousands, of years to develop preconceived norms of interaction. Egypt’s own preconceptions, emanating from past cultural, social, and political interactions, similarly define current interests and threat perceptions in dealing with each of her neighbors—particularly those along the Nile or major trade corridors—and such biases will continue to shape foreign policy trends.
In terms of these historical determinants, the most relevant factor in the development of Egyptian foreign policy during the modern era was the effect of European colonialism. As a result of this colonial heritage, and subsequent Cold War competition for influence over the new nations of a post-colonial Middle East, Egyptian foreign policy in the 1950s and 60s was focused upon the threat of foreign hegemonic domination. Various American attempts to impose anti-communist security regimes, manifest in efforts such as the Baghdad Pact and the Eisenhower Doctrine, stoked this public fear and helped shape the Nasserite doctrine of pan-Arab and African solidarity against Western intrusion. At the same time, the creation of the State of Israel on the territory of Arab Palestine in 1948 posed a new and imminent threat dimension to Egyptian foreign policy—one that strengthened the doctrine of Egyptian-led pan-Arabism, and focused Egyptian security calculations around consistent military confrontation with Israel until the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979.
A second key legacy from the colonial era was the construction of the Suez Canal in 1869 and its subsequent nationalization by Nasser during the 1956 Suez Crisis. This Egyptian ownership of a direct maritime passage from Europe to Asia served both to renew Egypt’s position at the heart of international commerce after the decline of overland trade routes and to bolster its contemporary stature as a champion of the Non-Aligned Movement. However, in the long term, the nationalization of the canal also helped link the health of the Egyptian economy to the maintaining stability and security in the Arabian Gulf region— a foreign policy concern that assumed particular importance after the rise of Gulf oil economies to international political prominence in the 1970s and 80s. Almost 20 percent of the world’s oil now travels through the Gulf and a significant portion of that trade passes through the Red Sea. In addition to this direct trade through the Suez Canal, Arabian Gulf countries provide bilateral aid and direct investment to Egypt, while human exchange between Egypt and the Gulf region is significant. Remittances from Egyptians currently working abroad totaled around $12.6 billion in 2011 with a majority of those transfers originating in the Arabian Gulf.
Accordingly, when war or instability threatens the Gulf, Egypt feels the effects. This happened during the first and second Gulf wars, where nearly 1.4 million of the two million Egyptian workers in Iraq had left the country by 2003, and has repeated itself in nearly every crisis where oil prices, Suez revenues, or tourism have been adversely affected by uncertainty in the region. Partly as a result of this connection, stability in the Arabian Gulf and, indeed, throughout the Middle East has gradually become one of Egypt’s greatest foreign policy priorities. This pattern has perpetuated itself in the strategic calculus of nearly every major foreign policy decision, especially after the death of Nasser. Under Sadat, the expulsion of Soviet advisers from Egypt in 1975 effectively ended major U.S.-Soviet competition in the Arab Middle East, paving the way for calmer regional relations, while the peace treaty with Israel was a practical measure designed to end the streak of costly and politically destabilizing wars against Israel since 1948. Similarly, Egyptian policy during the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988 favored Iraq due to the potentially region-wide destabilizing effects of a powerful and aggressive revolutionary Iran in the Gulf. But when the tables turned and it was instead Iraq’s Saddam Hussein threatening regional stability with the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Egypt collaborated with Western military intervention to preserve regional security.
Combined with this fundamental and long established interest in regional order and stability is Egypt’s natural ability to lead the Middle East toward such foreign policy goals. This stems not only from the country’s demographic weight, geopolitical location, and military capability, but also from its historic and contemporary role as the heart of cultural and intellectual innovation in the Arab world. As early as the nineteenth century, Cairo has been at the vanguard of modern Arab political thought. Trained in both Islamic jurisprudence and European political philosophy, Egyptian intellectuals like Rifa’a El-Tahtawi pioneered some of the earliest attempts to equate Arab-Islamic principles with the concepts and ideals of European modernism. Sent abroad to study at the great universities of Europe, these individuals brought back the knowledge and know-how necessary to enact Mohammed Ali’s ambitious modernization schemes. However, they also brought with them the concepts of reasoned deduction, individuality, and democratic process, which would provide the first intellectual kernels of future anti-colonialist, pan-Arab, and Islamist ideologies. Building upon the works of early reformers and intellectuals like Tahtawi, Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani, and Mohammed Abduh, who introduced the ideas of national self-determination and Islamic Modernism, Egypt has become one of the strongest generators of Arab political thought. Be it through Egyptian nationalism, socialism, pan-Arab nationalism, or Islamism, Egypt has provided either the birthplace or the fertile ground for most of the major Arab political movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
That preeminence in intellectual and political innovation has always been one of Egypt’s greatest assets in the Arab regional context. During the 1950s and 60s Nasser was able to harness this power and lead the Middle East, as well as much of Africa, in opposition to the remnants of colonialism. But when Nasser’s rhetorical brinksmanship ended in Egypt’s disastrous defeat by Israel during the 1967 war, the model of Arab leadership was broken. President Sadat tried to revive Egypt’s stature with his ambitious vision of a reformed Egypt and a Middle East at peace, but the unilateral nature of the peace treaty with Israel and his reckless pace of economic restructuring alienated both regional and domestic partners alike. Mubarak, for his part, prided himself on claiming Egypt’s leadership role, but was risk-averse and ultimately unwilling to bear the responsibilities of leadership.
Now however, as in the heyday of pan-Arab Nationalism, the January 25 revolution has helped inspire a generation of Arabs to action. Egypt once again has the chance to lead if she is willing, but any new government must learn from the lessons of the past. Much-needed reform can no longer be postponed but its progress must not be derailed into populist politicking or religious dogmatism, especially in foreign relations. Egypt must lead the region rather than leave it behind and guide its neighbors not try to dominate them if it wants to seize this opportunity and regain its proper regional and international role.
After January 25: New Chance to Lead
To achieve that balance, the new Egyptian government must define—and swiftly—the situation it has inherited and tackle the long list of foreign policy reforms, which were necessary even before the January 25 revolution. Consequently, this should first entail an assessment of the rapidly changing global and regional environment within which Egypt operates. Such an assessment will, of course, need to highlight the variety of short-term issues that have essentially been put on hold during the transitional period and which will draw the most public pressure for resolution. However, the larger aim of this assessment will be a better understanding of the medium and long-term consequences of foreign policy decisions and, on that basis, a sweeping review of Egyptian foreign policy to date.
A second task for the architects of Egypt’s new foreign policy will be finding a way to effectively communicate the substance of that policy to a newly open and aware Egyptian society. This may seem self-evident, but for policymakers accustomed to effecting top-down decisions insulated from public criticism or reproach, listening and responding to the desires of the people will be a difficult transition. A careful balance must be struck between the lofty subjects of long-term significance, not necessarily evident to the layman, and the settlement of immediate hot-button issues such as security along the border with Israel or negotiations over upriver development along the Nile. But, in light of the public awakening, Egyptian governments will nevertheless need to cultivate the ability to explain foreign policy decisions clearly and consistently to the public. This process will assuredly require a consistent and comprehensive strategic vision, which takes both long and short-term factors into account, if it is to be successful.
Most important for the new republic, however, will be the challenge of earning and sustaining the moral authority and legitimacy necessary to regain Egypt’s leadership role. Egypt’s greatest strength in international affairs is its intellectual power to lead and influence its region. Historically, the efficacy of that leadership has always been relative to popular faith in the sincerity of its rhetoric, even if the content of that rhetoric is proven false with the luxury of hindsight. Egypt now has a chance to restore this faith by embracing a policy of principle aimed at sustaining and encouraging the spread of democratic reform and social justice throughout the region. These concepts should be proactively promoted to the peoples and governments throughout the region, while allowing them to embrace new ideas at a pace comfortable to them.
This must be a process of osmotic not catalytic change, and care must be taken not to pursue ideological policy in a manner that would cause conflicts with other nations unready for reform. Egypt should provide the seeds of freedom by supporting openness, transparency, and the rule of law throughout the Middle East, but the demand for and pace of reform must come from within states, not across their borders. In short, Egypt should return to its niche as the source of dynamic political thought in the Middle East and seek to rebuild the moral authority lost during the Mubarak era. However, it is paramount to recognize that successful foreign policy cannot be divorced from a country’s domestic policy, especially in the type of open democratic society we hope Egypt will become. In this, Egypt must lead by example. If domestic reality does not match the principled stand of our international proclamations, our newfound legitimacy will be unsustainable and our claim of leadership will fall on deaf ears.
To effectively claim and keep that leadership role, Egypt must not only realize that its greatest asset is the intellectual capital of its population, but that smart, knowledge-based diplomatic strategy must be reinforced with the will and ability to proactively exercise foreign policy. Though she does not have the capability to assert herself on a global scale, in its region Egypt has consistently pursued active and politically visionary decisions. But the test of true leadership for Egypt, and indeed for any state, is the ability to take and act out its own foreign policy decisions, independent of external influence. In order to achieve such independence in international affairs, a state must safeguard four basic interests: secure access to sufficient and renewable water sources, a reliable supply of fuel to feed domestic energy consumption, stable access to affordable foodstuffs, and the ability to purchase or produce sufficient arms and ammunition for national defense.
These four strategic resources ultimately determine the independence and strength of a state’s foreign policy decisions and, ideally, a country should be able to sustain them locally. Realistically, this is an impossible goal for most nations in the modern era, so if Egypt wants to pursue a foreign policy of real and proactive leadership it must ensure the security and the diversification of foreign access points to such indispensable national resources. Accordingly, the quality of Egypt’s relationships with foreign nations must be approached along levels of priority that match relations to these four basic interests, as well as factors of geography, history, and shared identity. It is for this purpose that the country-specific proposals will, here, be split into three concentric circles of policy interest. And it is for this reason that the shape of relations with those vital states included in the first and second circles will be of such importance to the success and influence of future Egyptian foreign policy.
The First Circle: Regaining Self-Confidence
The first circle of Egyptian foreign policy consists primarily of neighboring countries, states where Egypt has a natural resource dependency, those who bear common burdens, those with whom she has had constant relations in times of war and peace, and those nations with which she shares a common identity. These are relationships of the greatest and most immediate concern to Egyptian welfare and security. Thus, the review and necessary redefinition of relations with them should take the highest priority.
Perhaps most pressing in this area will be Egypt’s approach toward Sudan and the Nile Basin states, particularly in the context of plans by upriver countries to redraw the treaty governing approval for hydrological development on the Nile. Under the British, and even before that time, Egypt and North and South Sudan were one state. Though eventually split under British rule, Egypt and the Sudans have maintained traditionally close ties and jealously guard their historical rights to the Nile waters. The positions of Egypt and Sudan in this regard are valid and should be recognized by the other Nile Basin states. At the same time, for Egypt and Sudan to search for solutions to this problem based exclusively on historical rights without accounting for contemporary political developments is bound to place the different parties at loggerheads.
The current crisis has arisen around an initiative by five Nile Basin states to form the Cooperative Framework Agreement in May 2010 to seek more water from the Nile. This would effectively abrogate a 1929 treaty Egypt signed with British colonial authorities allowing the country veto rights over any upriver Nile development projects such as irrigation. Egypt and Sudan strongly opposed this measure as threatening their national security, with particular criticism directed at Ethiopian plans to construct the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a large hydropower project on the Nile.
The argument of the Nile Basin states is that they were not yet states when the 1929 agreement was signed, or if they were states they were under occupation. This is an understandable argument that can and should be recognized by Egypt and Sudan without prejudice. But these particular upriver states do not suffer a water shortage, nor do they see negative consequences from Egypt’s consumption of water. Their interest in dam construction is, at this point, purely economic. Thus, Egypt must stress the importance of this issue to its most basic national interest and assert its historical right to a vital resource. However, it should do so in a fashion that underlines collective interest-based policies with the Nile Basin states and shuns belligerent rhetoric of the sort exchanged between Mubarak’s regime and the Ethiopian government. The process might include the strengthening of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements, as well as cooperating on development projects, in exchange for the assured flow of water to Egypt’s ever-growing population.
Though already close, the same policies of collective interest should be applied to Egyptian relations with North and South Sudan. Reinvigorated cultural and economic cooperation could provide mutual benefit in the areas of education, agriculture, electrical energy, and transportation infrastructure.
A second area of pivotal interest to Egypt and for the region as a whole will be the development of events in Israel and Palestine, and the evolution of Egypt’s relations with these two entities. Traditionally, Egypt has looked at these relationships as one, and in many respects it is impossible to separate them. Still, lumping the two together has hobbled Egypt’s ability to deal with Israel on separate issues of deep concern such as Israel’s military buildup, Israel’s extensive and undeclared nuclear weapons program, energy expansion into the Mediterranean, as well as the local resource and environmental concerns that accompany these factors. Equally true is that, while Egypt must be careful to address the Palestinians as one entity fundamentally represented by the Palestinian Authority, we cannot afford to ignore the Hamas leadership in Gaza, nor should we give up on recent efforts to reconcile Hamas and Fatah.
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is at a crossroads. On the Palestinian side you have in Mahmoud Abbas and Salem Fayyad, a president and prime minister of a Palestinian Authority committed to nonviolence, transparent governance, and finding a negotiated solution. You also have a Palestinian constituency that, at least at present, has little stomach for war or violence. Even in Gaza, Hamas deputy head Moussa Abu Marzouq has affirmed that a long-term peace arrangement might be acceptable to Hamas as a form of hudna (truce). At the same time, on the Israeli side, the government is led by a by a right-leaning politician with a Knesset majority. To explain the lack of progress, the argument is often made that Israel cannot make peace until Palestinians commit to nonviolence, or that peace can only be made with the political right in Israel, or even that weak coalitions prevented Israeli leaders from adopting strategic, progressive positions on peace. The situation today is truly unique and provides a direct test for all these premises. Personally, I have never been convinced by these arguments and I am extremely skeptical, given the pronounced policies of the leaders of Likud and Kadima. My sense is that Kadima, and with it Israel, is moving further toward the expansionist, militaristic position of Likud and therefore beyond a viable compromise with the Palestinians.
If our objective is peace through the creation of two states, then developments on the ground have come very close to the point of no return because the constant expansion of Israeli settlements has almost irreparably eroded the ability of Palestinians to govern over a continuous landmass. Given the current military and political balance of power, the incentive and disincentives needed to generate a serious attempt at negotiating peace simply do not exist. Egypt must highlight for the international community the fact that the Arab-Israeli peace process has all but come to an end. It should urge the international community to move from a policy of problem management to one of conflict resolution under international auspices. Preferably this new effort would take the Arab Peace Initiative adopted by the 2002 Arab summit in Beirut as a foundation for negotiating final settlement.
In parallel to this work, Egypt should begin a review of its peace agreement with Israel. This is not to say that Egypt should abrogate the treaty, flawed though it is. That would be a rash and destabilizing act with far reaching implications for both Egyptian-Israeli relations and Egyptian-U.S. relations. However, Egypt should be more robust and aggressive in insisting that Israel abide by the spirit of the agreement. And we should take a look at renegotiation of some of the security annexes concerning rules of engagement along the border, especially after the accidental killing of Egyptian soldiers by Israeli forces in 2011. In conjunction with this effort, the new Egyptian government must strive to open a candid dialogue with Israel that emphasizes lasting peace and eventual assimilation into the region. This is attainable, but cannot be achieved if Israel continues to pursue Cold War policies of military deterrence toward threats rather than political resolution of their source and of exclusivity from the basic norms that govern international behavior and regional diplomacy.
Libya too is a foreign policy requirement within Egypt’s first circle of interest, but relations with Libya take on a sub-regional if not domestic character due to the relatively free flow of Libyans across the border. Since both countries are experiencing political transformation, it will be difficult to predict the evolution of their mutual foreign policies. However, the key to solid future relations with the new Libyan state will be through a traditional grassroots process of cultural, political, and economic cooperation. Helping to build the human and political infrastructure of a contemporary post-revolutionary state should be a high priority for Egypt. This should include the provision of educators and expertise in political, governmental, and developmental fields combined with joint investment in the expansion of North African transportation systems and tourism sectors. Needless to say, this should be complemented by the development of a new sustained economic paradigm between the two countries, including cross-border road and energy projects, reciprocal investments, and the utilization of Egypt’s expanding labor force.
Finally, Egypt should not underestimate her inherent ability to influence the Arab world as a whole, politically and intellectually. In order to realize this goal we must remember how much the world has changed since Nasser’s time. Today the Arab world is triple the size it was when the Arab League was established in 1945, and Egyptian policymakers must shape their claim to Arab identity along the new political, economic, and social realities that have reshaped Arab countries. First, Arabs do not possess as strong a sense of common cause today as existed in the mid-twentieth century. Though the commonalities of the Arab identity still serve to forge uniquely strong bonds of cultural and religious kinship across the region, years of stagnation in the Arab-Israeli process have long jaded once mesmerized populations, while the rallying cry of decolonization has disappeared. Indeed, we now find that North Africa and the Gulf often look toward Europe and America rather than to their Arab neighbors. Another significant shift in the region has been the transfer of money and influence toward the Arabian Gulf region, resulting in a general movement from the preeminence of left-of-center regimes to right-of-center regimes.
All this would seem to suggest a concentration of power in the resource-rich monarchies of the Arabian Gulf. This however is a superficial, if not false, assumption. It is sometimes postulated that Qatar and Saudi Arabia are competitors with Egypt for foreign policy influence in the Arab world. This has been true in particular instances and, inevitably, there will be recurring incidents of competition. Such competition is mutually beneficial insofar as it provides a regional set of checks and balances. But no other Arab country truly has the diversity, intellectual infrastructure, or sheer demographic manpower necessary to pursue the extensive, substance-based foreign policy that Egypt is able to. Egypt’s leadership role has been left vacant due to Egypt’s own policies rather than the emergence of a rival. In fact, as the Arab world becomes more accustomed to its new reality, Egypt and Saudi Arabia can both benefit from close relations. The former as a vehicle of enlightened progressiveness and the latter as a bastion of moderate and modern Islamic conservatism, anchoring the Arab world left and right of center. To achieve these results both countries have to deal with fundamental domestic problems and act on them boldly and strategically.
Following the 2011 revolution, Egypt needs to regain its self-confidence and remember that its leadership in the Arab world was, for decades, predicated on intellectual capital and the dominance of Egyptian scholars and experts in fields ranging from political thought to economic policy to culture and education. It has been too long since Egypt exerted influence through material assistance to Arab countries and, as society opens up, Egyptians will find the creative intellectual assets available to them are far beyond those of any other country in the region. Egypt should approach the new Arab reality with the full utilization of these inherent intellectual and demographic advantages in mind. Egypt’s greatest strength emanates naturally from its regional base and it must reestablish its new foreign policy on the bedrock of that Arab and African identity, while molding its policies to the realities of the twenty-first century.
The Second Circle: Seeking New Directions
For generations, states have conducted foreign policy not only with their immediate neighbors and core constituencies, but also with the group of countries that exert significant influence on a regional or global scale. Modern technology and globalization have, with their effect on international security, economics, and the flow of ideas, changed the definition and scope of international relations and increased the number of peripheral nations with direct interest in each other’s affairs. For today’s Egypt, this secondary circle includes Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, Turkey, Iran, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and a number of significant emerging states such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
Egypt’s current relationship with Europe stands on relatively solid ground and is not in need of drastic overhaul. However, there is significant room for improvement in economic cooperation as well as political and cultural partnerships. Such partnerships do, in some instances, already exist. The idea for a Mediterranean Forum bringing together in dialogue the Arab, North African, and European countries of the Mediterranean, as well as mainland members of the European Union (EU), was first proposed by Egypt in the early 1990s. The more comprehensive and ambitious Barcelona Process of 1995 succeeded in bringing together this group of nations and in creating a forum for further dialogue between the EU and Mediterranean partners but its focus was somewhat skewed toward European concerns such as terrorism, immigration, human rights, and democracy. Now, in light of the prospect of political change in Egypt and the Arab world, Egypt should make the improvement of cultural relations a priority, which—along with efforts at economic cooperation such as the creation of a Mediterranean free trade zone, the attraction of European and foreign investment, and the acquisition of greater access for Egyptian goods in European markets—will help create an environment of mutual and collective interest. People to people interaction needs to be expanded and promoted to respond to the increasing anxiety and xenophobia which exists between nations across the Mediterranean.
Looking southward, to the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, Egyptian foreign policy could also use new direction. As was the case in the Arab world, the anti-colonial brand of Nasserite Egypt commanded great respect in Africa during the 1950s and 60s because he embraced African causes such as decolonization and the anti-apartheid movement. Since that time, however, Egypt has maintained a bland, security-focused Africa policy marked by the country’s relative absence from African affairs. To regain her position in Africa, Egypt cannot simply say “We are African” or offer technical assistance here and there, she must find resonance on the issues that concern the African leadership and the public. Issues such as the alleviation of poverty, support for economic development and environmental protection, regional security efforts such as the regulation of illegal small arms traffic, and political reform. Egypt must create a well-articulated and consistent Africa strategy that outlines policy on these key issues and backs up rhetoric with practical solutions. This should be complemented by renewed efforts to expand bilateral and multilateral economic free trade agreements, thereby encouraging freer access for Egyptian businesses to African markets and vice versa. Policymakers should also promote academic exchanges for African youths at Egypt’s English and French-speaking universities. Finally, Egypt must build close political relationships with leading states in Africa’s different sub-regions. Emerging African powers such as Senegal, Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa require a new strategy of active, but not exclusive, diplomacy.
Egypt’s relations with the two non-Arab power players of the Middle East—Turkey and Iran—will likewise require consideration and redirection. On Iran in particular, Egypt’s evolving stance has drawn heavy scrutiny at home and abroad. Iran is a modern Middle Eastern state with a rich heritage, strategic location in the vicinity of generous oil and gas resources, and an active foreign policy that has traditionally constituted a dilemma for contemporary Egyptian policy makers and entwined interested third parties in their affairs. Egypt and Iran share a reciprocal respect for each other’s concerns. Nevertheless, Nasser’s Egypt and the Shah’s Iran were frequently at odds as pawns in the U.S.-Soviet Union superpower rivalry, or as a function of conflicting positions on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Sadat and Reza Pahlavi found common ground as the former moved politically westward and pursued Arab-Israeli peace. But, ironically, it was the ensuing close nature of Egyptian relations with the Shah that gave genesis to a new era of Egyptian-Iranian enmity after the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini during Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.
The question now is not whether Egypt should open relations with the Islamic Republic—the Egyptian public widely supports this move and gradual normalization had already begun under Mubarak, and Egypt’s new government should continue this. The question now is what role Egypt will seek to play in the diplomatic theater surrounding Tehran’s alleged quest for nuclear weapons capability and its aspirations of increased influence in the Arabian Gulf region. The electoral victories of the Muslim Brotherhood have stoked concerns that an Islamist government in Egypt will drift closer to the Islamic Republic.
Such fears, however, are overblown and fail to recognize the cultural and geostrategic complexities of future relations between Shiite Iran and Sunni Egypt. Regardless of religious proclivity, any new government will be wary of Tehran’s intentions and fully cognizant of the security threat Iran poses to Egypt’s vital allies and interests in the Arabian Peninsula. Indeed, the real challenge will be building trust between the two countries after the years of enmity following 1979. To gain that trust, Cairo and Tehran should engage in a comprehensive open-book dialogue addressing security, political, and military issues in the Middle East, but also exploring avenues of economic cooperation, and cultural exchange. With time this open and substantive dialogue could, if successful, have a gradual calming effect on Egyptian-Iranian relations bilaterally, regionally, and internationally. As Egypt’s political, economic, military, and cultural weight reinforces the tenants of Arab centrism, Cairo could prove a non-confrontational counterbalance to Iranian influence and thus provide space for a healthy relationship between Iran and the Arab world.
Egypt faces a different though no less important set of challenges and opportunities in its relations with Turkey. Until recently, Turkish policy tended to favor European entanglement, influenced by its legacy as a key Western bulwark against the Soviet Union and the Eurocentric focus of a ruling secular military elite. However, since the sweeping electoral victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002, Turkey has begun to play a newly active and independent role in Middle Eastern affairs. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has increasingly deviated from its traditional adherence to Western and American policy stances, most notably in its downgrade of relations with Israel over the killing of Turkish activists during the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid. In a broader context, Turkey is playing a much stronger part in issues of regional import, such as its close involvement with the crisis in Syria and its role as an intermediary in Western negotiations with Iran.
This assumption of a leadership role in regional affairs, as well as the boost to Erdoğan’s personal popularity in the Arab world provided by his tough stance on Israel, have given fuel to the idea that Turkey is rising to fill the vacuum left by Egypt’s foreign policy decline over the last half of the Mubarak years. This is a notion that has led some Egyptian pundits and policymakers to fear ever-growing Turkish competition, and perhaps even dominance in regional affairs. This perception is, in all fairness, justifiable. Turkey and Egypt are competitors in many ways. Both strive to be a bridge to the West and both seek a greater significance on regional and international arenas. However, Egypt’s natural scope will always lie in the Arab world, while Turkey’s lies in Europe—and on the periphery of Middle Eastern affairs. Consequently, rather than be competitors in the same domain, Egypt and Turkey should complement and support the other’s policies in the Middle East and among those other countries with significant Muslim populations, European or otherwise, as moderate and modern Muslim states. This will be true of any new government in Egypt due to the moderate, centrist influence of the Al-Azhar clerical establishment on Egyptian Islamic thought.
Egypt must also seek to court those extra-regional emerging powers—especially the BRICS grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—whose growing economic and strategic clout have already lent considerable weight to their international policies. China and Russia, for example, already play a significant role in regional affairs through relations with Iran and the Arabian Gulf, as well as through China’s rapid expansion of economic and business ties into Africa. But they are not the only emerging players in an increasingly multipolar world. The Egyptian foreign ministry should work to determine which states will play key roles in the future and seek to consolidate prompt relations with them. These relationships will prove a great boon if bolstered by successful domestic reform and a position of regional leadership.
The last and perhaps most important second circle relationship to be addressed is that between Egypt’s new civilian government and the United States. The future of this vital relationship has become a source of much worry and speculation, both domestically and in international foreign policy circles, partly due to the rise of Islamist groups in Egyptian politics. This is understandable, though hyped out of all proportion. I see no approaching cataclysmic shift in Egyptian-American relations, which I believe will remain of paramount importance to both nations. Few future governments in either country would intentionally damage this relationship. There can be little doubt that, in the balance, close U.S.-Egyptian ties over the last thirty years have reaped overwhelmingly positive rewards for both sides, despite periods of turbulence. Whether this applies to direct political, security, and financial support, the construction of closer economic relations, the absence of major Arab-Israeli conflict, or cooperation on the fight against global terrorism, the Egyptian-American partnership has proved to be a mutually beneficial one. However, given the changes occurring in Egypt and the Arab world, political relationships and confidence do need to be developed. Complacency was, in the past, a luxury provided by the familiarity both sides had in their dealings with the other, which in fact left valuable opportunities for further collaboration overlooked. As a result, the preconceptions and parameters within which this relationship operates should be revisited for the benefit of both parties.
Specifically, the dominance of the Egyptian-Israeli parameter has frequently overshadowed the possible expansion of relations with the U.S. in other key areas. This granular focus on Israel has even led some to describe the Egyptian-American relationship, not incorrectly, as a trilateral one including Israel. Though Israel and Palestine will be an important factor in relations, the current dynamic will need to change if either Egypt or the United States is to truly make progress in a transformed Middle East. Egypt has much else to offer the United States. As a bastion of regional stability, as a partner in maintaining maritime security in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, as a leader in Africa and the Arab world, well-managed relations with countries such as Egypt are of paramount importance for global powers like the United States. America, in turn, wields unparalleled influence on a global scale and friendship with the U.S. offers Egypt invaluable support in pursuing its own political, economic, and security interests, domestic and foreign. Both countries, in essence, need each other but the advent of representative government in Egypt will necessitate that short term Egyptian public interests and sensitivities be factored in to the relationship. In its strategic commitment to peace and stability in the Middle East, Egyptian-American ties are incredibly valuable. However, both parties will have to manage their day-to-day relations much more acutely if this strategic partnership is to keep pace with the changes sweeping Egypt and the region as a whole.
The Third Circle: Engaging Global Stakeholders
The third circle of foreign policy relates to important, but not pressing, relationships with non-regional nations who collectively create the ‘international community.’ And, in a world of unprecedented economic, technological, political, and individual interconnection, close participation in the evolution of international systems of law and governance should be a vital and necessary part Egypt’s foreign policy. A new Egypt calls for renewed involvement in these issues at the international level.
This initiative must include matters of more immediate regional impact but Egypt should also address the deeper mutual interests it shares with other members of the international community concerning the fair and proper functioning of the international system. Here Egypt could, for example, advocate a much needed review of the United Nations charter or take a more active and vocal interest in the creation of environmental protection agreements, sustainable development efforts, trade rules that are more equitable to small- and medium-size markets, monetary regulations, or the development of international security and disarmament norms. In short, Egypt must reprise the leadership role it desires at the regional level on the international stage, forming close relationships of mutual and collective interest wherever desired and affecting positions of moral and practical leadership wherever possible.
Conclusion: Independent, Not Isolationist
Egypt faces steep challenges on the road ahead. The safe and fair drafting of a constitution, the forestallment of a looming economic crisis, the cleansing of a corrupt bureaucratic leviathan—these issues and more will tax the abilities of the new administration. But as progress, however slow, on these domestic political hurdles are made, Egypt should position herself to gradually resume its half century-old position of moral authority and diplomatic preponderance on the regional stage. Maintaining the international legitimacy won during the 2011 revolution will be difficult as domestic politics navigate the quagmire of transition, plus restraining populist politics from generating reactive foreign policy positions will be a challenge. These obstacles are not, however, insurmountable and if Egypt is to secure her place in the new Middle East, she must not shirk her natural role as a leader in the Middle East and Africa.
Egypt’s foreign policy must be one of conscience and principle, not ambition or reckless self-aggrandizement. To lead, she must pursue a strong and proactive set of policies based on a clear determination of her regional and strategic interests. Her policies must be independent but not isolationist, strong but not oppressive. A new Egypt should lead by having the wisdom to learn from the lessons of the past and the foresight to envisage a path through the challenges and opportunities of the future.
Fritz Lodge provided research for this essay.
Nabil Fahmy is the dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo. He served as Egypt’s ambassador to the United States from 1999 to 2008, and as envoy to Japan between 1997 and 1999.
It was looking bleak for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The region’s oldest and most influential Islamist movement had underperformed and overreached in parliament, alienating leftists and liberals in the process. When, in April, the Muslim Brotherhood announced that Mohammed Morsi would be its presidential candidate, after its first choice had been disqualified, the sense of policy drift was unmistakable. The Brotherhood was losing ground. Predictions of its demise, however, were premature. Despite numerous missteps, the movement has proved its resilience. It has not, to be sure, become what many Egyptians hoped it might be—the leader of a unified, national movement that would push Egypt, however haltingly, toward democracy. But by its own particular standards, the Brotherhood has succeeded.
The organization (including its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party) does not operate as a traditional party might be expected to. It cares, of course, about winning elections. But it cares even more about the unity and integrity of the organization, in Arabic, tanzim. In the early days of Egypt’s transition, the Brotherhood showed its more ruthless side—not necessarily out of discomfort with internal democracy but out of its longstanding concern, some would say obsession, with self-preservation. To the extent that dissent within the Brotherhood undermined the tanzim, it had to be quashed.
First, the Brotherhood leadership forbade its members from joining any other party but its own. Those who joined other parties, or started their own, were expelled. One of the group’s most prominent figures, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, was forced out after he insisted on running for president against the Brotherhood’s wishes. Thousands of young activists who joined his insurgent campaign had their memberships frozen.
Indeed, Egypt’s revolution was a threat as much as it was an opportunity for a group that had grown accustomed to the unifying power of repression. Without a clear enemy—the Mubarak regime—maintaining organizational cohesion was becoming difficult. So it had to be enforced. Brotherhood officials did not apologize for their increasingly aggressive tactics. For them, it was a simple matter of respecting the institution of which they were a part and to which they had pledged their lives. It was, after all, the group’s policymaking body, the shura council that voted to ban members from joining other parties. “All decisions are taken as an organization, with shura (consultation), with democracy,” Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) deputy leader Essam El-Erian told me at the time. “[The youth] are appreciated but they are appreciated in the context of the organization and not outside of it.” Dissent was permitted before a final decision was made, but not after.
From the standpoint of organizational unity, the Brotherhood’s controversial decision to run a presidential candidate, after pledging not to, was not so surprising. In the early months of 2012, the group tried to find a sympathetic consensus candidate whom they could support. They couldn’t. In the resulting vacuum, Aboul Fotouh’s campaign surged. Soon enough, he was an unlikely frontrunner, commanding support from an unlikely and diverse group of liberals, leftists, Muslim Brotherhood youth, and Salafists. Despite his origins in the Brotherhood—or rather because of them—Aboul Fotouh emerged as a grave challenge to the tanzim and perhaps an existential threat to the Brotherhood itself. Charismatic and with his own distinct sources of legitimacy, Aboul Fotouh, as president, would have undermined the Brotherhood’s once firm grip over mainstream political Islam.
To understand the group’s at times overwrought paranoia, we can think of its leaders as, to varying degrees, institutionalists. Individuals within the Brotherhood derive their influence not primarily from their own political talents but from the fact they are part of a gama’a, or group, one that is presumably greater than the sum of its parts. In the past, whenever prominent figures broke off from the organization to start new parties or movements, they failed. Without the Brotherhood’s grassroots support and infrastructure, they found themselves relegated to the political margins (see, for example, Al-Wasat, founded in 1996, and the Egyptian Current Party, founded in 2011). This was why Aboul Fotouh represented such peril: he was shattering, for the first time, the idea that success can only come through the tanzim.
And so the Brotherhood opted to enter the presidential race at the last moment. Despite an unprecedented smear campaign, which included a widely circulated but obviously implausible rumor that Islamist parliamentarians were trying to legalize necrophilia, and an underwhelming candidate in Mohammed Morsi, the Brotherhood managed to secure a first-place finish in the first round. Perhaps just as important, Aboul Fotouh finished a disappointing fourth place. Still, the results suggested major vulnerabilities. The Brotherhood was hemorrhaging support in its former strongholds in the Nile Delta.
It was the fight for the presidency in the runoff election that rejuvenated the Brotherhood and unified Islamist ranks. The movement found a convincing enemy in Ahmed Shafik, who was Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister and a seemingly unapologetic autocrat. For decades, Egypt-watchers predicted internal splits in the Islamist movement, which never came to pass. And after the revolution, the Brotherhood, for all its mistakes, survived more or less intact.
The Temptations of Power
Before the Arab revolts began, there were six countries where the Islamist opposition actively contested elections on a regular basis—Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Morocco, and Yemen. Focusing on the last two election cycles, the average portion of seats contested was a mere 35.9 percent.1 Islamist parties were losing on purpose.2
This was, in part, a legacy of Algeria, and the sense that Arab regimes and their international backers would never allow Islamists to win. Islamist groups even coined their own term for this, the “American veto.” In January 1992, Algeria’s largest opposition party—the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS)—found itself on the brink of an historic victory. In the first round of elections, FIS won 47.5 percent of the vote and 188 of 231 seats while the ruling party won a dismal fifteen seats. In the end, FIS was expected to secure over 70 percent of the total 430 seats, more than enough to form a government with members of its own party. But there were mounting fears that the military was preparing to move against the Islamists. It was in this context that FIS leader Abdelkader Hachani addressed a crowd of supporters. “Victory is more dangerous than defeat,” he warned, urging them to exercise restraint and avoid giving the army a pretext for intervention. Nonetheless, a few days later, the military aborted the elections and instigated a massive crackdown that plunged Algeria into a bloody civil war.
Islamists across the region came to realize that winning before the time was right could threaten to undo decades of painstaking grassroots work and organization building. Hachani’s warning would soon evolve into a sort of unofficial Islamist motto: “Participation not domination” (musharika wa laisa al-mughaliba). If there was any doubt about such an emphatic embrace of gradualism—to the point even of timidity—the Algerian narrative was reinforced, this time in vastly different circumstances, by the intense international opposition that Hamas encountered after its unexpected electoral victory in 2006.
Nearly five years later and after Mubarak’s fall, the Muslim Brotherhood seemed to have learned the lesson. The group’s leaders had a mantra in those early days of uncertainty—repeated over and over to anyone who would listen. They would not run a presidential candidate. They would contest only one-third of the seats in parliament. Soon enough, it increased to half of the seats, and finally almost all of them. In the short span of a year, Egypt’s Islamists had, with striking speed, adjusted their ambitions. The same sense of destiny that led them toward caution before the revolution was now leading them in the opposite direction. After eighty-four years of waiting, this was their moment. They had been close before only for their gains to be snatched away. They wouldn’t let it happen again.
What becomes increasingly apparent is that an Islamist movement in opposition and an Islamist party in power are two very different things. When Brotherhood officials were promising not to run for president in March 2011, they were still stuck in old patterns of behavior. In authoritarian settings, Islamists either cannot win or do not want to win elections, as winning threatens their organizational infrastructure (again, the matter of self-preservation). Most political parties do not double as states-within-states, with parallel networks of mosques, clinics, banks, businesses, day care centers, and Boy Scout troops. Islamist parties do. They must therefore tread carefully to avoid provoking the regime, as the costs of a crackdown on its social, educational, and preaching activities—effectively the Islamist lifeline—are severe. Decades of imprisonment, torture, and exile had produced a steely resolve and a sense of confidence: one day their time would come and they would be ready. Until then, they could wait, patiently. In interviewing Islamist leaders before the Arab Spring, this was a consistent feature: a stoic sense of calm in the face of considerable odds. Analysts sometimes mistook this to mean that Islamists would always display such traits, even after circumstances changed considerably. The point they seem to have missed is that the caution and calm were a result of, and a reaction to, repression. Once the repression ceased, Islamists could just as easily display a knack for political power, one that sometimes borders on the cutthroat.
The Making of Mohammed Morsi
Political power is a delicate thing. And Mohammed Morsi did not appear the right man to wield it. He was a Brotherhood loyalist and enforcer. By most accounts, he was a competent manager who got things done. But it was unclear what other qualities qualified him for the presidency.
Born in Sharqiya governorate in 1952, Morsi studied engineering at Cairo University. He went on to earn his doctorate from the University of Southern California in 1982, and served as an assistant professor at California State University, Northridge. Two of his five children are American citizens by birth. Upon his return to Egypt, he quickly rose through the ranks of the Brotherhood, eventually serving as the head of the group’s parliamentary bloc from 2000 to 2005. Khairat El-Shater, the Brotherhood’s initial pick for the presidency and its most powerful figure, had plucked Morsi from relative obscurity to join the Guidance Bureau, the organization’s top decision-making body. Morsi went on to serve as the founding chairman of the Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party.
After El-Shater was disqualified due to a prior criminal conviction, Morsi stepped into the fray, almost by default. None of the Brotherhood’s other viable candidates had the full trust of El-Shater and the rest of the conservative leadership. Morsi did. He was quickly derided by the Egyptian media as the “spare tire” candidate. He seemed to lack the stuff of presidents, the stature, the charisma, and the respect. But, buoyed by the Brotherhood’s unparalleled electoral machine, he soon found himself Egypt’s first freely elected head of state and the Arab world’s first ever Islamist president.
There are times when ordinary, pedestrian politicians become leaders. The moment can matter more than the person. That became clear when Morsi gave a rousing address to hundreds of thousands in Tahrir Square on June 29. Fifteen minutes in, he began repeating, almost in chant-like fashion, “there is no authority above the people.” The bar was low, but it was one of the better speeches—and certainly one of the most impassioned—by an Arab leader in recent memory.
By virtue of being the man who defeated Ahmed Shafik—and by extension the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)—Morsi became the vehicle for growing anger toward the resurgent old regime. For its part, the Brotherhood had always seemed to perform better with its back to the wall. And here they were facing a clear threat. That threat became all too obvious when the military—it too drawing on Algeria’s legacy—staged a soft coup in June by dissolving the country’s first democratic parliament, one that happened to be dominated by the Brotherhood.
Morsi and the Brotherhood will need to manage their fraught relationship with the military for the foreseeable future. The group’s dual-track approach—threatening mass protests on one hand but negotiating behind closed doors on the other—will continue. Despite occasional bouts of impatience, Brotherhood officials remain gradualists, uncomfortable with the disorienting nature of revolution in particular and sudden change in general.
The broad strokes of what the Brotherhood wants are relatively straightforward. The problem is the absence of a clear path to getting there. The first and most obvious priority is economic recovery and its various constituent parts: boosting employment, reducing income inequality, and combating corruption. The economy is not just an end but a means. If the Brotherhood manages to reverse the economy’s downward trend, then Egyptians will be more willing to tolerate controversial interventions in the social and moral sphere (something which Turkish Islamists came to learn over time). In addition, the Brotherhood will use its growing role in the economy to bind Egyptians to it through interlocking patron-client relationships. In this sense, penetrating the state machinery, including in education and the media through the Ministry of Information, helps the Brotherhood with its long game; further cementing the organization’s role in public life.
The second priority is rolling back SCAF’s powers and moving to a more balanced civil-military relationship. In the early days of the transition, some mistook the Brotherhood’s indulgence of SCAF as something more than it actually was. The Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party—driven again by self-preservation—wanted to establish their legitimacy as political actors before picking a fight. Securing a dominant position in the country’s first freely elected parliament was the way to do that. After winning nearly half the seats, they could plausibly claim both democratic legitimacy and a popular mandate. Parliament, more than anything else, was a platform to challenge SCAF, just as the presidency would come to serve a similar purpose six months later.
Challenging the military’s grip on power is exactly what Mohammed Morsi did when, in July, he unexpectedly issued an executive decree calling parliament back into session, just weeks after SCAF had dissolved it. While the move had limited success – the parliamentary session lasted only a day and triggered a heavy rebuke from the judiciary – it sent a strong message: Morsi was going to be a tougher, more assertive president than many may have expected. If there was any doubt, on August 12, Morsi surprised Egyptians by sending the top-tier of SCAF, including Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, into early retirement. He also canceled the controversial constitutional addendum which had stripped the presidency of many of its powers.
Clearly, the Brotherhood has bargaining power; and following Morsi’s dramatic moves, it – or at least the presidency – has extensive executive powers as well. This is not to say that Egypt’s generals, while weakened, have been defeated. Morsi’s civilian “counter-coup” represents a significant episode in Egypt’s troubled transition but it is far from a conclusive victory. In the short run, both sides will need to learn to live with each other and seek temporary accommodation, with each side compromising. Neither side is strong enough to hand the other a decisive blow.
As for Islamization, it is still—and will always be—a central part of the Brotherhood’s message as well as its appeal. The Brotherhood’s strain of Islamism is not particularly well developed (theology almost always takes a back seat to politics). To a great extent, the Brotherhood simply reflects something that is already there. They are, after all, products of their own society. By Egyptian standards at least, even the movement’s most controversial positions fall firmly within the mainstream. According to numerous polls, the Brotherhood’s illiberalism, including on women, Christians, and personal freedoms, are widely shared by the broader population. For example, in an April 2011 YouGov poll, only 18 percent of Egyptian respondents said they “would support a woman president.” If Islamists banned alcohol or inserted a stronger dose of religion in the educational curriculum, it might enrage liberal elites but few others. In fact, since the revolution, there is little to suggest that the Brotherhood lost significant support because of its perceived religious conservatism. Rather, the criticisms of the group have largely revolved around its underwhelming legislative record in parliament, its incessant flip-flopping, back-room deal making, and a tendency to put organizational self-interest above almost everything else.
If the Brotherhood begins to perform, however one wishes to measure that, then many of those criticisms will subside. For any governing party, the stakes are considerable. For Islamist parties, the stakes are even greater. Graham Fuller, in his book The Future of Political Islam, wrote that Islamists run a “haunting risk: the association of failure with Islam, or what has been called ‘the Islamization of failure.’” The reverse is also true: the Islamization of success.
Islamists and the West
For better or worse, success will depend on the help of others. Due to budgetary constraints and a burgeoning deficit, there is only so much Egypt can do on its own. It urgently needs billions of dollars in direct assistance, loans, trade benefits, and investment. Despite their longstanding opposition to Western cultural and political influence, Mohammed Morsi and the Brotherhood need the United States and Europe more than they might like to admit.
The economy is one area where there is likely to be less friction between the U.S. and Egyptian Islamists. The Brotherhood, under El-Shater’s influence, has become an unabashed proponent of the powers of the free market. Its economic program can be best described as “Islamic Calvinism” combined with vague nods to safety nets and social justice. The Freedom and Justice Party program states its support for an “Egyptian economy built on the principle of economic freedom.” Elsewhere in the program, it affirms that “the private sector has a fundamental role to play in Egyptian economic life,” and that “values and morals should not be separated from economic development, as they are two sides of the same coin.”
On foreign policy, Morsi and the United States will inevitably disagree, to put it mildly. But this has much less to do with the Brotherhood’s Islamism than it does with the realities of a post-revolution Egypt. Democratization means the conduct of foreign policy can no longer be insulated from public opinion, as it had been for three decades. If Egyptians dislike Israel, then elected politicians will have to dislike Israel too (at least rhetorically). In a televised debate between Aboul Fotouh and another presidential candidate, Amr Moussa, the two men got into a heated exchange over whether to call Israel an “enemy” or merely an “adversary.” The most anti-Israel of the presidential candidates was arguably not either of the Islamists but the leftist Hamdeen Sabahi, who drew considerable support from the Cairene liberal elite and was indeed the top vote-getter in the capital during the first round of balloting.
Like most other political actors, Morsi and the Brotherhood have affirmed their commitment to the peace treaty, while reserving the right to review aspects of the accord. Morsi, to the extent that the military and security establishment allows him, will draw Egypt closer to Hamas. Morsi, who has a long record of provocative foreign policy statements, is unlikely to stop now. His June 29 speech, for instance, included a call for the release of Omar Abdel Rahman, who is serving a life sentence in the U.S. for his involvement in planning terrorist attacks in the 1990s.
But it is precisely the Brotherhood’s well-established anti-American bona fides that allow it a degree of latitude to reach out to the West. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to overcompensate with overwrought displays of nationalism. Increasingly, they also fear that the United States in its halfhearted attempts to pressure the military and promote a ‘full transition’ will continue empowering the Brotherhood. This has, oddly, led to a situation where the most “Westernized” liberals now routinely attack Islamists for being, of all things, American lackeys. Before the presidential election results were announced, a coalition of leading liberal parties held a press conference condemning the Obama administration for supposedly backing Morsi’s candidacy. “We refuse that the reason someone wins is because he is backed by the Americans,” said Osama El-Ghazali Harb of the Democratic Front Party. (No evidence was provided to substantiate the allegations.) After the August reshuffling of SCAF, speculation was rampant that Morsi’s move may have been coordinated with the Obama administration.
After the short-lived unity of Egypt’s eighteen-day uprising, the Muslim Brotherhood’s relationship with the leading liberal parties has steadily deteriorated. Prominent liberals, perhaps reflecting their minority status, see the aggressive majoritarianism of the Islamists as a frightening harbinger of things to come. “If SCAF goes back to its barracks,” said Emad Gad of the Social Democratic Party, “the Brotherhood will control everything.”
Much of the speculation surrounding the Muslim Brotherhood’s “true intentions” remains just that—speculation. For now at least, we are unlikely to find out exactly what the Brotherhood would do if it had full freedom to act. Egypt is not yet a democracy and will not become one overnight. Despite SCAF’s seeming fall from grace, there is still a military, an unreformed bureaucracy and security sector, and a judiciary that appears generally hostile to Brotherhood designs. The presidency was the opening salvo in what will be a long and uneven struggle for political supremacy. The longer that the struggle persists, the more the Brotherhood will find itself under pressure, struggling to define the proper balance between compromise and confrontation, and between moving to the center and satisfying its Islamist base.
Under repression and under threat, the Brotherhood tends to soften its rougher, more conservative edges in order to reach out to liberal and leftist allies, as it did during the second round of the presidential campaign and, afterwards, when it formed a government of largely non-Islamist technocrats. Morsi and the Brotherhood feared that going too far too soon would provoke more opposition than they could handle, including from a then still dominant SCAF. So they moderated their ambitions. But those ambitions remained.
(Editor’s Note: This article updates an earlier version in the Summer 2012 print edition of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs.)
Shadi Hamid is director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He can be followed on Twitter at @shadihamid.
1 This figure does not include Morocco since, due to the particularities of its electoral system, it is only possible to measure districts contested, and not seats contested. Once a party decides to contest a district, it is required by law to contest each seat in the district (through a party list). For example, in a three member district, each party would need to put forward a list of three candidates.
2 For more on this phenomenon, see Shadi Hamid, “Arab Islamist Parties: Losing on Purpose?”Journal of Democracy 22 (January 2011): 68−80.
The Second Egyptian Republic
Just before taking an unofficial oath of office in front of supporters in Tahrir Square, Egypt’s first civilian and freely elected president, Mohammed Morsi, spoke of the struggle of the Muslim Brotherhood, from its creation in the 1920s to the decades of persecution under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, to the last decade under President Hosni Mubarak.
The ascension to the presidency of a Muslim Brother symbolically crowned the group’s journey over nine decades, in addition to marking another key milestone—after the removal of Mubarak and the beginning of the process of drafting a new constitution— in Egypt’s transition from the ‘first republic’ of the past sixty years to a new republic, whose features and characteristics remain unclear. Interactions between three key political players will have the biggest influence on the development of Egypt’s ‘second republic’: the country’s military, the Islamic movement (with its assortment of constituents, and at its core, the Muslim Brotherhood), and the various groups that fall under the ‘secularist’ umbrella.
‘Sons’ of the Military
Since the 1952 coup against the Mohammed Ali dynasty that established Egyptian republicanism, the military establishment, consisting of the armed forces and the intelligence services, has provided the framework within which Egyptian presidents have ruled. Notwithstanding the importance of Nasser’s personal charisma, Sadat’s transformative socioeconomic policies and Mubarak’s long balancing act, all three relied on their military credentials, gravitas gained by leadership in war, and the unquestioned support of the military establishment—the only institution in the country able to effect change by force—to buttress their rule. And in return, the three presidents presented themselves (genuinely) as the ‘sons’ of the military establishment and, to a large extent, its representatives in leading the country.
This positioning was flexible—Nasser graduated from being a coup leader to the country’s ‘hero,’ and Sadat changed his image from the leader of the 1973 war to that of the president bringing peace—but it underscored the importance of the military in the power dynamics of the country. Egypt was arguably never a dictatorship in the overtly militaristic way a number of Latin American countries were from the 1960s to the 1980s, and the military establishment never assumed the role of ‘the guardian of the state’ as it had in Turkey. And though before the 2011 revolution, the military never ruled per se because the president always controlled all power levers, the military establishment enjoyed a detached, exceptional status superior to that of any other authority in the country.
That power dynamic was shaken (though far from broken) in the last decade of President Mubarak’s rule. A new capitalist elite emerged as a conspicuous power group at the heart of the Mubarak administration, carving out for itself specific power domains in the areas directly affecting Egyptians’ daily lives—economics, finance and services—and leaving to the military establishment principally the areas of state sovereignty—defense, national security and foreign policy. The balance of power between the military establishment and the liberal capitalist elite was only achieved through the presence of President Mubarak. Mubarak ruled supreme: his unsurpassed authority indicated clearly to the liberal capitalists who was boss, which in turn lessened some of the apprehension felt by the military establishment at the rise of the capitalists. But that balance proved unsustainable: Mubarak’s delegation of power to the scores of capitalists who had formed close links with his administration hastened the merger of power and capital, contributed to the erosion of his legitimacy and the weakening of decision making, and fueled the popular rage against his regime that brought his rule to end.
Many observers inside and outside Egypt have engaged in creative scenario-planning for the future power dynamics in post-Mubarak Egypt. The military, led by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), has ruled the country since the removal of Mubarak in February 2011. Debates—and tales of intrigue—swirl about whether or not the military will ever accept the dilution of the institution’s power under a civilian president who represents the Muslim Brotherhood. The March 2011 Constitutional Declaration and its amendment in June 2012, issued by the SCAF during the second round of the presidential election, indicate that the leaders of the military intend to preserve at least veto powers over national security and defend their institutional independence from the supervision of the elected president and parliament. Some observers speak of a ‘deep state,’ with the military at its core, that opposes a democratic transition in Egypt.
The removal of President Mubarak and the sidelining of the capitalist elite that dominated the country in the last decade stirred hopes among many Egyptians, on the liberal and Islamist sides, of a complete rupture with the past six decades. Wide segments of the country’s middle class envisage a civilian government, with a completely independent decision making system that does not defer to the military’s prerogatives. This would effectively mean the downgrading of the military to just another state institution—which could prove objectionable to the military establishment, which might opt to support the new president on the condition that he is acceptable to Egypt’s middle classes and that the military can continue to exercise influence behind the scenes.
There are also a number of observers who argue that the country still has not developed the institutional base or educational and social infrastructure necessary for a transition to genuine democracy or purely civilian rule. In this line of reasoning, liberal capitalists, despite their influence during Mubarak’s last two decades and far reach across the economy, drew all of their power from President Mubarak’s support; and as the liberal groups behind the 2011 uprising are scattered, leaderless and inexperienced, they are unable to form a credible and responsible leadership in the short or medium term. Therefore the only way to stop Islamists from establishing an Islamic republic would be for the military institution to retain its influence, uphold the secular nature of the state, and maintain its supremacy through a power-sharing system with the elected president.
These arguments fail to appreciate the immense changes that have been taking place in Egypt for a number of years before the 2011 revolution. The military should be sophisticated enough to understand that the fall of the Mubarak regime marks the end of Egypt’s ‘first republic.’ It needs to recognize that the 2011 uprising produced an unstoppable wave of political energy, backed by a large youth population and vast sections of the country’s growing middle classes, that no wise leadership would try to oppose. The groups that propelled the 2011 uprising, and new social constituencies emboldened by the revolution’s results (for example within Egypt’s labor organizations and inside many of the country’s universities), will continue to push for a more open, transparent, efficient and civic political process.
Regional changes should also induce the military to take a step back. Almost all military establishments in the region are opening up to civilian rule. In Turkey, the military establishment was not able to prevent the rise of the Islamist AKP party, and has gradually given in to the march towards genuine civilian rule. In Israel, quasi-civilians such as Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni are increasingly assuming the leadership mantle from the military establishment’s trusted sons, the generation of Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon.
There is much in Egyptian history and tradition that predisposes Egyptians to expect and accept authoritarian rule. The country has no experience of an orderly transfer of power governed by an institutional system of checks and balances. Egyptian history teaches its students that political stability in the country is best assured by a powerful, benign dictator or a cohesive, solid institution of the state. But the vigor of today’s young Egyptians and their disillusionment with authority and recent history could mark a departure from that long-standing tradition and sustain a people-led transformation.
A new political reality, the beginnings of the country’s ‘second republic,’ will emerge, with two main characteristics. First, Egypt’s political landscape will be fragmented for the foreseeable future. Young Egyptian liberals created the momentum that stirred the revolution. Different civic opposition groups augmented the numbers and provided logistical support. The Islamist movement—different variants and at their center the Muslim Brotherhood—provided organizational skills and tenacity in the face of the regime’s violence. The uprising was the work of different players and proved larger than the sum of its parts. This means that no revolutionary legitimacy could be conferred on any single political entity or institution in the country. Also, no single political player in Egypt today has the organizational strength or heroic narrative that would allow it to dominate internal politics. This fragmentation will stoke fluidity, weak decision making, and a period of uncertainty in the short term. But it will prove very healthy in the long term. Different players will compete to widen their constituencies and promote their ideas. In the next few months and years, financial power and the ability to disseminate ideas will prove advantageous for some political players (many of whom belong to the Islamist trend), but with time, others will close the gap in the possession of such resources. The country’s politics will be much more competitive than in previous decades.
The second characteristic is more complicated. Egypt will witness a protracted political struggle between the Islamist movement and secular forces that oppose religion as a socio-political frame of reference for the state. This political struggle was partly side lined in 2011 and the first half of 2012 because of the focus on the transfer of power to a civilian authority and as a result of the myriad of details that blurred political affiliations. But it remains—and will continue to be for a number of years—the central issue in Egyptian politics.
The Islamists and the country’s liberal secularists dominate the struggle for the hearts and minds of young Egyptians. Factions within the Islamist movement believe that the Islamists, plagued by the experience of militancy from the 1970s to the 1990s, should move towards a more liberal framework.Influenced by the seemingly successful Turkish experience under the AKP party in the 2000s, these factions advocate a return to the thinking of the liberal Islamists of the early decades of the twentieth century (most notably Sheikh Mohammed Abdou who had argued for “rationality” in applying religion); they are trying to develop an Islamic social and political compact that will allow for a marriage between political Islam and the needs of modern society. The liberals, on the other side, are championing as their own many of the young Egyptians’ initiatives (from spearheading the 2011 revolution to the remarkable waves of business entrepreneurialism, to creative drives in modern Egyptian art and culture) and so in their own way also offer a framework for young Egyptians’ inventiveness and enterprise.
Tensions Among the Islamists
Most of the Egyptian opposition of the past few decades has something to gain from the 2011 revolution. Political Islam, however, seems to have used it as an escalator to political power. The Muslim Brotherhood lent decisive support to the uprising at its most critical phase. While liberal groups summoned up the will to initiate demonstrations in the last week of January 2011, it was the Islamist movement, especially thousands of young members of the Muslim Brotherhood, that summoned up the means to translate that will into very sizable organized displays of anger and rejection, and which managed to maintain pressure on the regime for the last two weeks of the uprising and spread it across the country. Certainly, Egyptian political Islam does not own the uprising (and its leaders have repeatedly sought strength through electoral successes, rather than “Tahrir Square’s legitimacy”); however, Islamists remain among the uprising’s most conspicuous players.
Also, unlike the complex rhetoric of most liberals, the Islamists’ message is simple. They address the yearning of most Egyptians for a society run by and for ordinary people, with Islam as its guiding principle, and without too many questions, analyses or complications. The rhetoric of the Freedom and Justice Party set up by the Brotherhood in May 2011, and the messages of the presidential campaigns of Mohammed Morsi and of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former leading member of the group, are examples of such uncomplicated discourse. The moderate voices within political Islam also try to present their thinking in a language that does not affront the liberal sections of the country’s middle class, repeatedly stressing that there is no dichotomy between the sacred and the secular. And crucially, despite the non-religious rhetoric of the 2011 uprising, Egyptian society remains pious and religiously conservative.
Political Islam and the Brotherhood also enjoy tactical benefits: the dispersal of votes and dilution of political influence after the sidelining of the erstwhile ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) help the Islamists’ campaigns in a political field that is no longer dominated by any central power. That was a key reason why the Islamist movement succeeded in the March 2011 referendum and the December 2011/January 2012 parliamentary election, while the scattered liberals failed.
But the Islamist movement faces immense challenges. The liberal Islamists’ message is increasingly gaining resonance among wide sections of society, but at the same time faces internal resistance and, at times, outright hostility from the more conservative wings in the Salafi movement. After decades of persecution, some ultra-conservative groups are increasingly becoming more assertive. In a number of poor Cairene and Alexandrian neighborhoods, some Salafi groups, emboldened by the retreat of Egyptian police in 2011 and early 2012, have demanded the closure of liquor shops; when refused their demands, some fundamentalists tried to forcibly impose their requirements. Others have staged protests, some in front of churches, to drive home their insistence on an Islamic Egypt. Salafi groups have been behind an increasing number of sectarian flare-ups. And crucially, the performance of many religiously conservative members of the (now invalidated) parliament in the first few months of 2012 indicated a hardening streak and an assertive legislative agenda.
The differences in modes of operation—and ideology—between these ultra-conservative groups and liberal Muslims are likely to produce cracks in the Egyptian Islamist movement. The actions of conservative Salafis will also blemish the image of liberal Islamists and of the Muslim Brotherhood at a time when its leaders strive to assure almost anyone listening, inside and outside Egypt, that they believe in multiparty democracy, strive for a secular state where Islamic sharia is a guiding principle but not imposed on society, support women’s participation in all socioeconomic and political activities, and of course renounce violence in internal politics.
There are also clear signs of tension inside the Muslim Brotherhood itself. These include the apparently forced removal of Supreme Guide Mohammed Akef in 2010 amid clashes between conservative and liberal wings, internal confusion over whether or not to participate in the 2011 uprising, and new divergences that have emerged between different wings inside the Brotherhood since the revolution. Several youth groups inside the Brotherhood have serious reservations about the group’s General Guide office, which they see as monopolizing the Brotherhood’s thinking and political activities.
These internal conflicts not only consume the energy of the liberal Islamists; they signify that political Islam in Egypt is pursuing two contradictory sets of values. On one hand, it aims to put forward a liberal Islamist narrative that corresponds with the notion of a secular state, and yet on the other side, many of its leading proponents are antagonistic to liberal democracy and any deviation from Islamicsharia. There is also confusion about the values that should guide society and state. The society can have a number of frames of reference corresponding to the wants, aspirations and cultural orientations of its many constituents. The state, however, has an agreed-upon governing framework that all citizens must subscribe to. This confusion has been at the heart of the successive disagreements between the Muslim Brotherhood (and the wider Islamic movement) on one side and most of Egypt’s more secular political players on the other side, over the principles that should guide the drafting of Egypt’s new constitution.
The problem is compounded by the fact that the vast majority of the really influential leaders within the Islamist movement, and not just the few spokespersons who regularly appear on Egyptian and international TV stations, sit on the fence. They do not hesitate to condemn any act of violence or any rhetoric that appears menacing but they are skillfully evasive and brilliant wordsmiths when it comes to the truly crucial issues affecting the nature of the new Egyptian republic.
The Islamic movement is hardly a solid front, coalesced behind a unifying narrative. One of its crucial weaknesses is that its conservative wings cling to jihadist, confrontational and backward-looking views that are at odds with the demands and aspirations of a growing middle class and a forward-looking, youth-dominated population. To a large extent, today’s Salafis (and some of the conservative wings of the Brotherhood) seem to be making the exact same mistake that their predecessors in the 1920s and 1930s made (at the zenith of Egypt’s liberal experiment): championing a move to the past at a time when the most dynamic forces in society, and especially the tens of millions of citizens under the age of forty, are eagerly looking to the future.
The Audacity of Liberals
The impact of the 2011 uprising on the liberal movement in Egypt is unlikely to be one-directional. Some factors will be favorable to liberals. There is a major debate in Egypt as to whether the country should stick with its presidential system of government or migrate to a parliamentary one. It remains a contentious issue animated by heated political and legislative debates, as well as by personal ambitions. The road to Egypt’s new political system may become more turbulent, with some of the key powers of the first Egyptian republic exerting their influence—or blunt, undisguised power—to rein in a macro political transformation. Yet, it is highly likely that Egypt’s new political system, emerging from a painful and protracted transition process, will balance power between the presidency and a strong parliament and provide for extensive checking, controlling, and reviewing authorities. The empowerment of parliament harkens back to the 1923 Constitution and could reinstate a cornerstone of the country’s liberal experiment in the first half of the twentieth century.
Democracy can offer new opportunities for liberal parties. After decades of being instruments in the hands of the Mubarak administration and the NDP, some of Egypt’s traditionally liberal parties are trying to shed the stigma of being sclerotic organizations, controlled by a few funders, and to put new modernizing measures in place, such as internal elections to choose leaders capable of inspiring younger recruits, and realistic manifestos and plans for legislation and governance to address the myriad of socioeconomic problems the country faces. Young members of some parties are trying to marginalize elderly leaders who refuse to step down, and in some cases, jettison the traditional structures altogether and set up new offshoots. This process sped up after the country’s interim administration issued a law in March 2011 eliminating restrictions on the establishment of new parties from the Sadat and Mubarak eras.
Many observers have viewed the absence of leadership in the liberal groups behind the 2011 uprising as a major disadvantage. It could turn out, however, to be a strength. For sixty years, Egyptian politics developed in the shadows of strongmen with quasi-Pharaonic authority. Nasser’s charisma and appeal put a sugary coating on that grim reality, which persisted under Sadat and Mubarak. In the ‘second republic,’ Egyptians will demand genuine equality and an open society free from impositions from the top. The lack of clear liberal leadership and the almost certain infighting and internal struggles that will develop amongst liberals could trigger an activism and dynamism that many Egyptians may find refreshing. That dynamism would draw a distinction between the liberals and the Islamist movement, which tends to sacrifice political creativity and imagination for discipline and deference to hierarchy.
In a peculiar way, the liberals will also benefit from the Islamists’ almost certain continued strong presence in Egyptian politics as the largest and most organized bloc in the parliament in the short and medium term. The steady rise of Islamism in Egypt’s political life in the next decade will force the leading players within political Islam to delve into the details of their constituents’ daily lives. Increasingly, routine and commonplace problems will consume their efforts. That will leave time for liberals to experiment with new ideas; in some cases, there might be political imprudence, for example calls for the establishment of an utterly secular state, completely detached from Islam. Such demands are unlikely to gain traction in the short or medium term, but could add momentum and vitality to the liberal camp, and allow centrist liberals to benefit from the new ideas without being necessarily tarnished by them. Intelligent secularists could make a clear distinction between secularism as an abstract ideology and secularism as a notion in statecraft. They can invoke a complete separation of religious and political authority, without making any judgment on the success of religious authority. In effect, they would differentiate politics and law from religion and morality.
The macroeconomic situation will also help liberals. In the coming few years, Egypt will go through a period of economic upheaval; the country will continue to face considerable economic and financial challenges. This will not help in addressing high unemployment rates, especially amongst young Egyptians. These challenges will put pressure on the next parliament, likely to be controlled by Islamists. Political Islam in Egypt has ideals, well-written manifestos, long experience in clandestine and ground-level political machinations, and two decades of soul-searching—but no experience of governance. Islamists will suffer from incompetence resulting from inexperience. Its members of parliament and ministers will make mistakes, especially in the tangled field of economics. And gradually a significant percentage of their constituents will hold them accountable for the day-to-day difficulties of life.
Since the 2011 revolution, Egyptian liberals have acquired a new sense of audacity, of defying power. Young people are ascertaining their ambitions and rising up to grasp them. In the first free student union elections after the fall of President Mubarak, a number of liberal independents swept the polls at Cairo University and Ain Shams University, securing majorities in a number of faculties. True, the Islamist movement was cautious not to antagonize liberal student groups, especially after the Islamists’ major success in the March 2011 referendum, and therefore did not field many candidates. But the results nonetheless showed that young liberals have major followings amongst their contemporaries. That fiery momentum is tamed by wiser, calmer and older voices within the liberal current. Together, they could produce a coherent movement that might progress beyond the rage of the revolutionaries and yield a viable alternative to Islamism that wide sections of Egypt’s middle classes might find appealing.
However, other factors could take the wind out of Egyptian liberalism’s sails. The results of the March 2011 referendum and of the parliamentary elections in December 2011/January 2012 revealed the massive gap between the leading voices of the liberal movement in Egypt who have dominated the Egyptian media since January 25, 2011, and the sentiments of most Egyptian people. The referendum proved that many of these liberal thinkers lack any real influence outside the middle-class neighborhoods of Cairo and Alexandria.
Political strategy also seems to be a glaring weakness amongst Egyptian liberals. Those who brilliantly and effectively organized themselves through online social networks and who led the initial phases of the revolt appear to be amateurs in electoral politics, unable to transform the momentum of their movement into real on-the-ground influence. It is one thing to initiate a movement with a momentum that unified different political forces behind the slogan of “The People Want the Downfall of the Regime.” It is quite another to build strong and durable political force.
The liberal movement does not always present itself well. A significant number of prominent liberal leaders suffer from social snobbery, which makes it difficult for many ordinary Egyptians to warm up to them. In many cases, there is a condescension not only in the way many liberal narratives are presented, but in liberal thinking as well. There seems to be an embedded worry in leading liberal circles in Egypt that upstarts or conservative simpletons could ascend to the apex of the country’s political system. This was particularly conspicuous in the dominant liberal characterization of Mohammed Morsi’s campaign rhetoric, which suggested that he was unworthy of ascending to the political leadership of Egypt despite a clear electoral win. And increasingly, especially after the results of the parliamentary elections, there is hysteria about Islamist power. That frenzy consumes energy that ought to be invested into developing an achievable political roadmap for the liberal movement. For many, the cohesion that propped up the revolution and gave it the strength to remove the regime seems to be disappearing.
The Power of Pluralism
Egyptian and international observers like to speculate about what the presidency of Mohammed Morsi will mean for Egypt’s political future, but the transformation in Egypt goes much deeper. The internal pressures and challenges faced by both Islamists and secularists will impose difficult choices on Egyptian society as a whole in the coming few years. These difficulties will be compounded by the search for a sociopolitical framework that vast sections of the population will accept and that can manage to achieve a broad societal consensus.
This will necessitate political compromises that all key political players in the country should be prepared to accept. The country’s political players will need to be flexible and open to compromises. Indeed, unchallenged political authority will have no place in Egypt in the short or medium term. Despite what appears to be solid entrenchment of the key pillars of Egypt’s ‘first republic,’ unstoppable sociopolitical developments in Egypt over the coming decade will empower democratically elected governments. Some players will be initially strong and will then be weakened by exposure to power and government; others may evolve new power bases with new supporters and constituencies. With time, these multiple political powers will, paradoxically, strengthen society and the state, in part by reducing the country’s reliance on the military for stability. In the medium to long term, the army will cease to be the ultimate source of authority in the country, secularists will close the political gap with Islamists, and the foundations of a solid constitutional parliamentary system may evolve.
Egypt’s second republic is not a new start. Egyptian society carries the achievements and failures and aspirations and frustrations of the past sixty years. The liberal experiment of the first half of the twentieth century gave rise to the beginnings of representation, constitutionalism, and the notion of equal rights and obligations in contemporary citizenship. That experiment crumbled when its leaders detached themselves from the realities of their society and nurtured the illusion of a “Paris on the Nile.” The first republic started with a dream that inspired Egyptians to support a national project “by, for, and of the people.” But the lack of institutional support base, corruption, the rise of a militarist class, the increasing blur between power and wealth over the past thirty-five years, the severe centralization of political and economic power, and the dilution of legitimacy, swept that project away in an avalanche of rejection and resentment. The tens of millions of young Egyptians—Islamists and secularists—can now learn from the mistakes and move on. The land of the Nile has been stagnant for a long time. A deluge of energy is coming.
Tarek Osman is the author of Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak. The first edition of the book was published by Yale University Press in 2010 and was translated to Arabic, Dutch, French, and Japanese. Osman’s writing has appeared or been cited in the Economist, Guardian, Independent, Financial Times, Foreign Affairs, and Boston Globe among many other publications.
Egypt’s Political Transition
April 6, 2008: Factory workers attempt to stage a general strike over low wages and high food prices in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla. Police open fire and arrest hundreds. The incident pushes the nascent April 6 Youth Movement to demonstrate alongside the workers in opposition to President Hosni Mubarak’s regime throughout Egypt.
February 24, 2010: Mohamed ElBaradei, former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, returns to Egypt to a hero’s welcome, raising the possibility that he will run for president; he launches the National Association for Change, a reformist group, with several other prominent democracy activists, including journalist Hamdi Qandil and political analyst Hassan Nafaa.
June 6, 2010: Police beat to death Khaled Said, a twenty-eight-year-old computer programming graduate, on a street in Alexandria.
June 10, 2010: Google executive Wael Ghonim anonymously creates the Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said,” through which images of Said’s disfigured face and corpse go viral and galvanize widespread protests against state brutality.
November 28, 2010: Voting in parliamentary elections begins.
December 6, 2010: Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party wins 83 percent of seats in a parliamentary election marred by exclusion and harassment of voters, journalists, and opposition representatives, as well as ballot fraud.
December 17, 2010: Street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi sets himself on fire in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid after a police officer confiscates his wares and humiliates him, triggering protests against the repressive regime of President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali that electrify the Arab world.
January 1-3, 2011: Following a deadly New Year’s church bombing in Alexandria, Coptic Christians in Alexandria and Cairo throw rocks and set fire to vehicles in protest of the government’s failure to guarantee their security.
January 14, 2011: In Tunisia, ten days after Bouazizi’s death, Ben Ali resigns the presidency and flees to Saudi Arabia, bringing an end to his twenty-three-year rule.
January 25, 2011: Tens of thousands of Egyptians, responding to calls for anti-government protests on national Police Day, stage unprecedented demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and other Egyptian urban centers. Riot police attempt to disperse them using batons, tear gas, and water cannons. Two protesters in Suez and a police officer in Cairo are killed.
January 27, 2011: Police clash with protesters throughout Egypt, and attempt to lock down Cairo’s Tahrir Square in anticipation of another mass demonstration after Friday prayers on January 28. The government orders Facebook and Twitter blocked.
January 28, 2011: The government orders Internet and mobile phone providers to cut off services. Massive protests with hundreds of thousands of Egyptians swell throughout the country. In Cairo, demonstrators fight pitched battles with police and eventually win control of Tahrir Square. Mobs burn symbols of the regime, including the National Democratic Party headquarters in downtown Cairo, and police stations. ElBaradei attempts to march with protesters, supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, from Giza to Tahrir Square but riot police, water canons, and tear gas prevent them from reaching downtown. Egypt slips into temporary anarchy with widespread looting as police withdraw from streets. Mubarak deploys military troops and tanks into cities for the first time, but the army remains neutral.
January 29, 2011: In the early hours, Mubarak addresses the nation and announces that he has fired Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, replacing him with former Air Force commander Ahmed Shafik, who is tasked with forming a new cabinet. Later, Mubarak issues a decree appointing intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as vice president in an apparent move to end speculation that the regime is preparing Gamal Mubarak to succeed his aging father.
February 1, 2011: In the largest turnout to date, an estimated one million people from a cross section of Egyptian society demonstrate in Tahrir Square. Mubarak addresses the nation again, promising political reforms and vowing not to seek re-election in September.
February 2, 2011: Hundreds of armed Mubarak supporters ride camels and horses into Tahrir Square and attack protesters in what becomes known as the “Battle of the Camel.” The army does not intervene.
February 5, 2011: Several National Democratic Party leaders, including Gamal Mubarak, resign. The ruling party’s secretary general, Safwat El-Sharif, is replaced by Hossam Badrawi.
February 7, 2011: Wael Ghonim is released after having been arrested and kept in secret detention by government agents for eleven days. He gives an emotional interview on live television, energizing the protest movement to return to Tahrir Square the following day.
February 10, 2011: The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) holds a public meeting without the presence of Mubarak and announces that it is monitoring events in Egypt and will remain in continuous session. In the evening, Mubarak addresses the nation for the third time during the uprising, repeating that he will not step down but transferring his powers to Vice President Omar Suleiman for the remainder of his term, due to end in September. Protesters are furious and throw shoes at the screens in Tahrir Square showing the speech.
February 11, 2011: Suleiman addresses the nation, announcing that Mubarak has resigned and power has been handed over to SCAF, led by Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi. Mubarak leaves Cairo for his vacation home in the Egyptian Red Sea town of Sharm El-Sheikh.
February 13, 2011: SCAF dissolves parliament and suspends the constitution. The military council says it will rule for six months or until general elections are held, whichever comes first.
February 15, 2011: The previously banned Muslim Brotherhood announces that it will form a political party but says it will not field a candidate for president.
February 25, 2011: The military violently disperses a planned sit-in in Tahrir Square calling for the removal of Ahmed Shafik as prime minister.
March 3, 2011: Shafik resigns after being humiliated for being a member of the old regime by writer Alaa Al Aswany on Egyptian television. SCAF appoints former transportation minister Essam Sharaf as prime minister, on the reported recommendation of opposition activists during talks earlier that week. Protests in Tahrir continue.
March 5, 2011: Fearing the destruction of documents proving human rights violations, protesters storm State Security buildings across Egypt, including headquarters in Cairo and Alexandria, and find evidence of torture, mass surveillance, and vote rigging.
March 9, 2011: Civilians and soldiers beat protesters who continue to occupy Tahrir Square, destroying their tents. The army arrests almost two hundred activists, including nearly twenty women who are subjected to strip searches, virginity tests, threats of prostitution charges, and physical torture with stun guns and metal pipes.
March 19, 2011: In a referendum, Egyptian voters by a majority of 77 percent approve amendments to the constitution outlining criteria for the presidency and electoral commission in the transition process, and paving the way for elections.
March 23, 2011: SCAF approves a cabinet decree that criminalizes protests and strikes. Anyone promoting or participating in these activities is subject to imprisonment or a fine.
March 28, 2011: Activist Maikel Nabil is arrested for writing a blog post criticizing the military. On April 10, he is sentenced to three years in military prison.
March 30, 2011: SCAF unilaterally issues a constitutional declaration establishing new rules for the formation of the Constituent Assembly with a privileged role for the SCAF itself, rendering the verdict of the referendum irrelevant.
April 8, 2011: The military violently disperses a protest of tens of thousands in Tahrir, including twenty-one army officers, who want a full dismantling of the Mubarak regime. Ten officers are arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison, later reduced to three years. Two protesters are killed.
April 16, 2011: An Egyptian high court dissolves the former ruling National Democratic Party.
May 15, 2011: The military uses live ammunition, rubber bullets, and tear gas to disperse a protest commemorating the Palestinian day of “catastrophe” (Al-Nakba) at the Israeli embassy in Cairo, injuring some 350 people. Over 150 people are arrested.
May 28, 2011: The government of Egypt eases the blockade of Gaza in order to earn back some popular goodwill. Women, children, and men over forty will not need a visa to enter the territory by way of the Rafah border crossing. However, bureaucracy at the border seems to hinder such changes in practice.
June 6, 2011: The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, headed by Mohammed Morsi, achieves legal status.
June 28-29, 2011: Outside Cairo’s Balloon Theater, and later at the Interior Ministry, police fire rubber bullets and tear gas to break up a demonstration led by relatives of protesters slain during the uprising, demanding that their killers be brought to justice.
July 8, 2011: Tens of thousands demonstrate against military rule in Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez. In Cairo, a sit-in resumes in Tahrir Square.
July 19, 2011: Tens of thousands pack Tahrir Square, after the first call by Islamist leaders for nationwide demonstrations since President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in February. Many protesters, mostly Muslim Brotherhood supporters, call for an Islamic state and Islamic law. In the earlier protests in Tahrir Square, liberal groups called for constitutional guarantees protecting religious freedom and personal rights, whereas Islamists demanded speedy elections and a recognition of Islam in the new Egyptian system.
August 1, 2011: On the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, the army clears the month-long Tahrir sit-in by force.
August 3, 2011: Mubarak, his former interior minister, and six police officials go on trial on charges of ordering the killing of protesters during the uprising. Mubarak and both of his sons are also charged with corruption.
August 18, 2011: An Egyptian soldier and two conscripts are killed during an Israeli raid on militants along Egypt’s border with Israel, sparking Egyptian outrage.
September 9, 2011: Protesters storm the Israeli embassy in Cairo, forcing Ambassador Yitzhak Levanon to flee to Israel. SCAF extends the Emergency Law in response. Hundreds of demonstrators are injured and several arrested.
October 9, 2011: In the Maspero neighborhood of Cairo, Coptic Christians demonstrate against the demolition of a church in Aswan. Military forces crack down on the demonstration and more than two dozen people die after being hit with live ammunition or run over and crushed by military armored vehicles.
November 18, 2011: Deadly clashes erupt on Mohammed Mahmoud Street, off Tahrir Square, as hundreds of thousands protest in cities across Egypt against military rule. Over the next six days, more than forty people are killed and over 1,500 injured by rubber bullets, tear gas, and batons at the hands of security forces.
November 21, 2011: Prime Minister Essam Sharaf resigns.
November 25, 2011: SCAF replaces Sharaf with a former Mubarak prime minister, Kamal El-Ganzouri.
November 28-29, 2011: Turnout is a high 59 percent in the first round of voting for the lower house of Egypt’s parliament.
December 16, 2011: An army crackdown on protesters staging a sit-in in front of the Egyptian cabinet building in downtown Cairo leads to clashes that leave seventeen protesters dead.
December 20, 2011: In the biggest demonstration for women’s rights in modern Egyptian history, thousands of men and women march through Cairo in anger over widely publicized images of the army’s beating and stripping of female protesters during the crackdown on cabinet protests.
December 30, 2011: Egyptian police raid U.S.-funded pro-democracy groups, prompting the U.S. government to threaten withholding $1.3 billion in annual American military assistance.
January 3-4, 2012: With results from the third round of parliamentary elections tabulated, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the conservative Islamist Al-Nour Party win over 70 percent of seats in the People’s Assembly.
January 14, 2012: Mohamed ElBaradei withdraws from the presidential race, citing SCAF’s continued hold on power as undemocratic and limiting the space to “serve the goals of the revolution.”
January 16, 2012: Egypt asks the International Monetary Fund for $3.2 billion in aid to support its ailing economy after a year of political turmoil.
January 23, 2012: Egypt’s first democratically elected parliament convenes ahead of planned protests on the first anniversary of the revolution; Saad Al-Katatni of the Freedom and Justice Party is elected speaker.
February 1, 2012: An estimated seventy-nine people die in a rampage after a football match in Port Said. Senior Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarians are among critics who accuse the military-led government of purposely neglecting to enforce security. Others claim that it was a planned attack directed at the pro-revolution Ahly Ultras football fans. SCAF declares three days of national mourning.
March 28, 2012: Coptic, liberal, and secular MPs walk out of parliament in protest, accusing Islamist MPs of monopolizing the selection process for a 100-member constituent assembly.
March 31, 2012: The Muslim Brotherhood names leading strategist and multi-millionaire businessman Khairat Al-Shater as the Freedom and Justice Party’s candidate for president; the Brotherhood had previously said it would not field a candidate because it was “not seeking power.”
April 10, 2012: Amid the ongoing boycott by Coptic, liberal, and secular parliamentarians, a high administrative court suspends the constituent assembly, citing an imbalance in participation due to the majority of Islamists selected.
April 14, 2012: The Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission (SPEC) disqualifies ten candidates in the presidential election, including three controversial front-runners: the Muslim Brotherhood’s Khairat Al-Shater; Mubarak’s former intelligence chief and vice president, Omar Suleiman; and Salafi preacher Hazem Salah Abu Ismail. The Brotherhood fields FJP head Mohammed Morsi as Shater’s replacement.
April 26, 2012: SPEC reverses its disqualification of Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister, as a presidential candidate after the Supreme Constitutional Court rules the parliament’s recent disenfranchisement law—the basis for Shafik’s exclusion—unconstitutional.
May 2-4, 2012: Outside the Defense Ministry in Cairo’s Abbasiya district, plainclothes assailants and military police attack a demonstration by mainly Hazem Salah Abu Ismail supporters protesting his disqualification, leaving nearly twenty people dead. Several presidential candidates temporarily suspend their campaigns in response.
May 23-24, 2012: Egyptians choose between thirteen candidates in the first round of presidential elections. Mohammed Morsi (5,764,952 votes, 24.8 percent) and Ahmed Shafik (5,505,327 votes, 23.7 percent) advance to a runoff election. The next top vote-getters are Hamdeen Sabahi (4,820,273 votes, 20.7 percent), Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh (4,065,239 votes, 17.5 percent), and Amr Moussa (2,588,850 votes, 11.1 percent). Voter turnout is 46.4 percent of registered voters.
May 31, 2012: SCAF chooses not to renew Egypt’s Emergency Law after thirty-one years.
June 2, 2012: In a criminal court, Judge Ahmed Refaat sentences Mubarak and former Interior Minister Habib Al-Adly to life in prison for neglecting to prevent the deaths of protesters; Mubarak’s sons Gamal and Alaa, and six senior Interior Ministry aides are acquitted of various charges.
June 14, 2012: The Supreme Constitutional Court rules that one-third of the parliament was elected unconstitutionally, and affirms Shafik’s right to remain on the presidential ballot. Assembly Speaker Saad Al-Katatni vows to convene the parliament anyway, but the military orders all entrances to the building locked and stations troops around the perimeter.
June 17-18, 2012: Egyptians choose between Morsi and Shafik in the second round run-off election. Just as polls close in presidential runoff voting, SCAF issues an interim constitutional decree that grants itself broad powers over the new government’s legislation, the national budget, and military affairs, without any oversight of its own activities. Many analysts call this move a soft coup.
June 24, 2012: SPEC declares Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi the winner in the presidential election; official returns give Morsi 13,230,131 votes, or 51.7 percent, compared to 12,347,380 votes, or 48.3 percent, for Shafik.
Compiled by Ghazala Irshad
Reading the Arab Revolts
The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East. By Marc Lynch. Public Affairs, New York, 2012. 269 pp.
The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolution. By Marwan Bishara. Nation Books, New York, 2012. 258 pp.
The Arab Awakening: Islam and the New Middle East. By Tariq Ramadan. Allen Lane, London, 2012. 274 pp.
Can there be anything interesting and worthwhile to say, in full-length book form, about a series of events that is still ongoing? Such is the problem facing writers who have decided to tackle the Arab uprisings. The desire to capture a historical moment is hard to resist, as is the temptation to make one’s imprint, and thus we are flooded with a series of instant books about a complex set of events, even though we are barely beginning to understand what just happened and much more is still hidden from us.
It is little surprise that many are rushed and sloppy, that others appear to engage in an act of spinning events to suit a particular ideological narrative (The Islamists are coming! Post-Islamism! The Arabs have awakened from their slumber! Post-post-colonialism! The collapse of the American world order! Etc.) and yet more, perhaps wisely, favor personal narrative and ground-level flavor over grand analysis. Those books that seek to deal with not just the individual uprisings but offer a bird’s eye view of the entire span of events in the Arab world in 2011 have a particularly daunting task. With this in mind, it is fair to say that none of the works reviewed here achieve this with much success. The better ones, however, provide some original thinking in how to understand these events, place them in context, and highlight those aspects that the authors are best-placed to understand because of their prior research or unique perspective.
First, a note on the phrases these three authors have chosen to describe what is most commonly called the “Arab Spring,” a phrase made popular by the media but rightly rejected by many analysts and participants in the uprisings, either because of its European connotations or its inadequate seasonal quality and the way it invites lazy and laborious sequels (hot summers, winters of discontent, etc.). Marwan Bishara, a broadcaster on Al-Jazeera English, is the most enthusiastic and incautious of these writers and goes straight for “revolution” in the singular, in line with his view that the uprisings form a coherent whole. Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-raised Islamist public intellectual, prefers awakening because he feels “the Arab world has shaken itself out of its lethargy… apparent resignation and silence.” Marc Lynch, an academic and prolific policy wonk, opts for “uprising” in the singular, in good part because his book stresses the commonalities about the events across the region.
Lynch does the best job of justifying his choice of the singular to highlight what is a common, shared experience in the multiple Arab uprisings. His success is based in good part on his previous scholarship on what he calls the “new Arab public sphere,” and on Al-Jazeera in particular, and its role in reviving shared Arab sentiment to an extent unseen since the heyday of pan-Arabist ideology in the 1960s. The book excels in its first chapters in providing context for the rise of Al-Jazeera and its emergence not only as a counter-narrative to years of stale state propaganda, but as a political agent in its own right. Lynch is also rare among commentators on the Arab uprisings to forcefully make the case for an active civil society and culture of protest prior to 2011, which seems to make the term “awakening” rather inappropriate. “The decade of the 2000s,” he writes, was, in effect, “one long wave of intense popular mobilization spanning the entire region.” The main difference, he argues, is that such uprisings between independence and 2011 were generally not successful and, even when on occasion breakthroughs took place, they were easily reversed and replaced by new forms of authoritarianism (and might be again). So ingrained was this lesson in the Arab consciousness for the last two decades that many believed successful uprisings were essentially impossible.
So how did the impossible take place? Lynch cites several reasons, focusing chiefly on the unexpected (and possibly urged by Washington) departure of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali from Tunis on January 14, 2011, and the galvanizing role of the Egyptian uprising and the occupation of Tahrir Square two weeks later. He also repeats an argument he has made elsewhere for a decisive part by the Obama administration, which he says engaged in “near-constant dialogues at all levels up and down the ranks of the Egyptian military, pushing it not to fire, with multiple daily phone calls pressing the case.”
Perhaps. But in arguing there was a crucial role for the U.S. Lynch provides little evidence. One wonders whether he was taken in by the narrative provided by his (top-notch) sources in the Obama administration, or perhaps ignores the possibility that, just like the Egyptian regime, the American regime was divided over what to do about one of its most important allies in the Arab world. It is hard to simply dismiss as miscommunication the contradictory statements by U.S. officials and the very different interests of America’s diplomatic, economic and military elites in the country—or to ignore Washington’s early endorsement of a takeover by other military figures than Mubarak, whom by January 29, 2011, was clearly a spent force. The reality is that no book published thus far, aside from a few biased and unreliable insider accounts, has told us the full story of the power struggles inside the regimes, which is at least as important as the mobilization on the street.
Tariq Ramadan addresses the question of foreign influence repeatedly in his work, but very much unsatisfactorily. His main argument is that the uprisings have the potential to amount to a second emancipation from the West, by a rediscovery of “authentic” local values and a much-needed intellectual effort to rethink Islam’s role in public life, and especially questions of governance. The argument is interesting even if one suspects that Ramadan will see as more authentic ideas coming from his fellow Islamists, despite the long history of other political ideologies in the region. (Indeed, historically Islamism is a modern, even twentieth-century, phenomenon.) But he is right in arguing that there is an urgent need for a redefinition of the public good in Arab societies, far away from “the endless controversies between ‘secularists’ and ’Islamists’… which allow opposing sides to sidestep self-criticism: the mere presence of their opponents, rather than the quality of their programmatic outlook, ends up justifying their political involvement.”
Ramadan’s argument takes for granted that Islam has a central role to play in these societies, and urges that politicians and thinkers who want to refer to religion must think beyond the stale debates of the last century. He writes: “If the reference to Islam is to make sense, it must be couched as an invitation to reclaim meaning instead of transforming the religion into a real or symbolic instrument designed to induce guilt or justify repression, if not to reduce women and men to infantile status.”
That debate is indeed taking place in the Arab world among both progressives and conservatives, but has much further to go—as the sorry state of Egyptian politics shows. But, perhaps because Ramadan is a Western Muslim rather than an “Oriental” one, he appears far too obsessed with Western ideas of what makes a “good Muslim” and a “bad Muslim” (Ramadan’s essay on the topic is reproduced in an appendix, along with other short writings of the past decade). His book is also marred by hazy conspiratorial thinking—again and again, he feels it is necessary to remind readers that the Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim worked for Google, that other activists received training from Eastern European dissident groups funded by Western governments, and that the whole thing might have been in part a Western plot. This very much detracts from his call to for an intellectual renewal to deal with the region’s political challenges ahead.
Whereas Ramadan speaks of the good Muslim being an “invisible Muslim” (i.e. one whose heritage is airbrushed out to be accepted into modernity), Marwan Bishara speaks in a different way of the “invisible Arab.” This is his depiction of the political funk the region has sunk in, particularly since the 1980s, where citizens were crushed by apparently omnipotent autocratic regimes and a world order that perpetuated this condition (a common hope of both Ramadan and Bishara, despite their divergent ideological viewpoints, is that the uprisings will undo not just local despots but the neoliberal world order). Bishara believes in the uprisings as having a teleological nature, in that they serve a Great Purpose: to shatter the idols of our age. “It’s the political and economic culture behind the economic disparities that are drawing out the masses,” he claims, making links so many others have made with the Occupy Wall Street movement and the global economic crisis.
All three writers must provide narratives of the events that unfolded starting late 2010 and into 2011—in the cases of Lynch and Bishara, the narratives occupy the bulk of their books. But while Lynch offers neatly organized CliffsNotes, Bishara’s narrative is messier. In both cases, since there is little original research involved or previously unknown details, there is little that will add to the informed reader’s knowledge. In choosing the bird’s eye-view, they have not contributed to a better understanding of the individual uprisings. Between the two, Lynch provides much more insight in his analysis of social media and Al-Jazeera’s outsize political role—perhaps surprising since Bishara after all works for Al-Jazeera and might have been privy to its inner workings. But in the end it is telling that there is more new to say about the meta-narrative of the Arab Spring—the assertion of citizenship, the role of regional and global powers, how new technologies contributed to the assertion of a newly dominant discourse of revolt and liberation, the rise of Islamists and the challenges they face—than the events themselves.
Issandr El Amrani is the publisher of the Arabist, the popular Middle East blog, which he founded in 2003. He is a columnist for the Egypt Independent and The National, and has written for the Economist, Financial Times, London Review of Books, Guardian, TIME, and Foreign Policy. He can be followed on Twitter at @Arabist.
Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power: A Memoir. By Wael Ghonim. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012, 320 pp.
Egypt’s revolution had no leader. But for a moment during those magic eighteen days of Tahrir, it had a face. Wael Ghonim, the anonymous administrator of the “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook page, the engine that more than any other spurred the protests. Ghonim gave an interview to Mona El-Shazly on Dream TV after eleven days of solitary confinement by state security and openly wept when shown pictures of the hundreds of protestors killed. His irrefutable sincerity, raw and imploring for a better Egypt, turned the tide. The next day the numbers on Tahrir swelled and continued to grow into the mighty consensus that toppled Mubarak.
Wael Ghonim was broadcast across the world. He was lauded as the representative of new Arab generation; young, earnest, humble, English speaking, technologically astute, and who talked of democracy and civil freedoms instead of jihad and down-with-America. He was named in TIME’s 100 most influential people of the year, he was celebrated in a Vanity Fair photo essay of revolutionaries, and he landed a rumored seven-figure book deal. And then he stepped back behind his Twitter feed and sequestered himself from politics.
I spent an afternoon with Wael Ghonim a couple of months after Mubarak’s fall, watching him have his portrait taken by the photographer Platon for another portfolio of revolutionaries, this one commissioned by Human Rights Watch. He was itchy and awkward under the spotlight and much to the consternation of Platon, stood stiffly for the camera, just wanting the whole thing to be over with. He was acutely aware that his new fame had awarded him the privilege of an international platform but he seemed to physically recoil from standing on it himself.
Revolution 2.0 is his account of his role in the Egyptian Revolution. It’s smart, well-paced, and zips along in an easy vernacular. He traces his biography from high school Internet geek to marketing manager at Google in Dubai to his involvement in the Egyptian opposition movements, first as the admin for Mohammed ElBaradei’s Facebook page and then with the establishment of the famously influential “We are all Khaled Said” page. In these pages, we find a man completely at home with the evolving tools of social networking media, who met his American Muslim wife in a chatroom, but who admits to being an introvert. “I find virtual life in cyberspace quite appealing,” he writes of his early attraction to online discussion forums. “I prefer it to being visible in public life.” A large chunk of the book describes how the “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook page grew. He used petitions, opinion polls, and online Q&As as direct source marketing (citing the ‘sales tunnel approach’ he was taught in marketing class) and as feedback to and to link his readers with the ongoing process. And then he watched as the site snowballed in popularity. As he told the American television news program 60 Minutes, in an interview after Mubarak fell, “Our revolution is like Wikipedia. Everyone is contributing content.”
In the run-up to January 25, Ghonim, like others, worried about the inertia of the masses. “The virtual world seemed further from the oppressive reach of the regime and therefore many were encouraged to speak up,” Ghonim writes. “The more difficult task remained, though, which was to transfer the struggle from the virtual work into the real one.” Ghonim himself fought through a police cordon to get to Tahrir on the day and found himself amazed at the numbers who had gathered.
On the evening of January 27, Wael Ghonim was arrested on the street, bundled blindfolded into a car, and taken for interrogation to state security. He was not beaten but his description of the fear of incriminating fellow activists if he gave up his log-on passwords, his bare cell, the rash that spread across his unwashed body, coughing fits aggravated by the damp, and the long, lone hours of waiting incommunicado, makes for a gripping alternative to the mêlée of the revolution convulsing beyond the walls. It is testament to his dogged forthrightness that his interrogators seemed to have arrived at some respect for his position. One told him, “You’re a good kid” even as he patronized him with counter-arguments of foreign provocateurs and the specter of chaos if Mubarak did step down.
Ghonim was released both into a media maelstrom and a labyrinthine backchannel attempt by ruling party chief Hossam Badrawi to orchestrate Mubarak’s step-down. He went from a prison cell to meetings with senior generals and the then prime minister, Ahmed Shafik. Throughout the sleepless, dizzying days that followed, Ghonim kept his moral compass. He never allowed himself to be put forward as a leader of the revolution, and although he articulated the aspirations of many on the square, he never claimed to speak for them. In the confused months that have followed, he has kept a low profile but continues to work for the aspirations of the revolution. He set up a policy think tank, endorsed the presidential candidacy of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, and lectured IMF officials on its immoral dealings—that prop up dictators. What emerges is a portrait of a shy man with a decent stubborn streak. As he admits, “I have always wanted to swim against the current.”
Wendell Steavenson has been a contributor to the New Yorker since 2006. She is the author of Stories I Stole, which was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, and The Weight of a Mustard Seed: The Intimate Story of an Iraqi General and His Family During Thirty Years of Tyranny. She wrote the screenplay for The Situation, a 2006 film based on her experiences as a reporter in Iraq.
Witness to an Election, and to History
Ayman Mohammed Abdel Sabour is a lawyer from Alexandria and a member of the I Am Egyptian Association for Development and Human Rights. It is a warm spring evening, and we are both official observers for the 2012 Egyptian presidential election. He and I are in the Nile Delta city of Damanhour, standing in the city’s cultural center where votes from polling stations in two of the Behera governorate’s fifteen districts are being aggregated. There are a few journalists here as well, watching a team of senior judges tally the figures under military protection.
Sabour served as a domestic election observer for more than a decade during President Hosni Mubarak’s reign. He can hardly believe the difference between those years and our shared experience today. “You should have been here in 2010,” he whispers to me, referring to the fraudulent parliamentary election that triggered widespread anger and helped ignite the January 25, 2011, revolution. “We know what is going on now. You can see the organization. Back then, you had to fight to get in here, and you never knew who might change the numbers from behind the stage. Intimidation was everywhere.”
Little did I imagine when I arrived in Egypt in 2010 to pursue a master’s degree in Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo that I would not only witness a revolution against Mubarak’s thirty-year rule, but would also have the opportunity to serve as an observer in an election to choose his successor. Early in May, an international organization selected me to join its team of more than a hundred witnesses from thirty-six countries. In Cairo, my fellow observers and I underwent two days of intense, Egypt-specific training from their legal, security, and elections experts.
Independent monitoring plays a vital role in conferring credibility on the results of elections, a function that is especially important in countries experiencing contested political transitions. Egypt’s Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission (SPEC) accredited Sabour’s group and many others like it, including a number of foreign organizations, to observe the May and June election rounds. Our job was to watch an election process involving some fifty-three million registered voters and 13,099 polling stations. We met with military, judicial, and candidate representatives and visited roughly twenty-five to thirty polling centers during each round, observing candidates’ campaigns, preparations for election days, and the voting itself.
Our mission did experience limitations due to SPEC placing some restrictions, which undermined the credibility and effectiveness of the concept of election observation. These included the late issuance of accreditation (less than a week prior to first-round voting), a provision that we, the witnessing missions, could not issue statements prior to polling, a 30-minute time limit inside polling stations, and a prohibition on being present during the final aggregation of the votes in Cairo. Generally, however, our mission found that the June 16–17 voting and counting process was free from major flaws that might have benefited one candidate or the other. But we noted that the earlier dissolution of the Egyptian parliament, the proposed reintroduction of elements of martial law, and the intervention of the military into the constitution-writing process had called the meaningfulness of the election into question.
Nevertheless, the way the electoral process was embraced by millions of voters―and by Egyptian election observers like Sabour―is impressive. And Sabour’s enthusiasm contrasts sharply with the cynicism and dejection that prevailed among citizens only two years ago. That, in itself, is an important step forward.
Oriental Hall, etc.
The woman’s brave rebuke, for Nasraoui, epitomizes the strength of Tunisian women and all that they have done for their country. Co-founder and president of the Association for the Fight against Torture in Tunisia, Nasraoui was speaking of the ups and downs of the women’s rights movement since the fall of the Ben Ali regime at a conference held at the American University in Cairo. Despite apprehension over the electoral victory of the Islamist Al-Nahda movement, she explained that women have successfully pushed back against new attempts to legislate gender inequality. Calls for polygamy have come to an end, and Al-Nahda has declared that wearing the hijab is a personal matter not a religious obligation. “The progressive movements and feminist movements are now pushing for complete equality between men and women and the constitutionalizing of women’s rights,” Nasraoui told the conference hosted by AUC’s John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement. “We stand for principles of the revolution—freedom, social justice, equality, democracy, and dignity. It is a popular stand and does not include any religious references and doesn’t call for applying sharia.” Nevertheless, Nasraoui said, Tunisian women remain on their guard.
Egypt’s Political Transition
President Mohammed Morsi’s Speech at Cairo University After Taking the Oath of Office
(June 30, 2012)
In the name of God, Most Merciful, Most Gracious.
O great Egyptian people, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, with my deep appreciation and timeless greetings I salute you all.
God’s peace, mercy and blessings be on you.
First, let me apologize to my children, Cairo University students, who have had their exams postponed today. I realize they are only students of the Faculties of Law and the Arts, and will take the exam in the evening. Please accept my apologies for that.
I welcome all of you, to Cairo University, which witnessed my first steps in higher education. Indeed, I had the honor of belonging to this university as a student, a lecturer and a teaching assistant, before I set off on my journey of post-graduate studies.
As we together start a new phase in Egypt’s history, we turn a dark page and start a new one illuminated with God’s blessings. Together, we are making history that connects us to glorious times past, times of Egyptian bliss and prosperity we are proud of and so are millions of Arabs and Muslims. We will endeavor not to go back to loathsome times of repression and tyranny. Egypt will not turn back.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Egyptian people have made great accomplishments through the sacrifices of the honorable martyrs, great achievements we will safeguard and never relinquish, because the people suffered so much for so long, with hundreds of innocent lives lost and thousands of citizens maimed and wounded.
The Egyptian people have imposed their will and exercised their inherent sovereignty, and for the first time in Egypt’s modern history, the people have mastered their full powers. They have elected their representatives for the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council [the two houses of the Egyptian parliament] in free and fair elections that reflected a true representation of all components of the Egyptian society. The elected parliament then selected the Constituent Assembly that will draft a new constitution for Egypt. This Assembly has already started its work; and will use, I’m certain, Egyptian experts in all fields, from across the Egyptian political and social spectra, to author a constitution expressive of national consensus, and thereby laying the foundations for a national constitutional democracy, preserving the identity of the nation and the basic components of society, while safeguarding public and private liberties.
The new constitution will be based on truth, justice, and rule of law. It will protect the independence of the judiciary, and will promote and enhance freedoms of thought, expression, association, and creativity. It will also achieve social justice, taking Egypt to the ranks of modern states in which the ruler is in fact the nation’s employee, a servant of the people.
My first task is to be an arbiter between the authorities, a patron of the Constitution and the law, after the people have placed their trust and confidence in me, in free and fair elections supervised by the great judges of Egypt and guarded by the honorable army and police, with its fair results announced by the most senior of Egyptian judiciary.
All you sons and daughters of Egypt, I pledge to God and I pledge to you, and I swear by the almighty God, to uphold the Republican system and respect the Constitution and law, and safeguard the interests of the people fully, to preserve the homeland’s independence and territorial integrity.
To fully preserve the country’s independence and territorial integrity, it is necessary to keep up the Armed Forces, police and judiciary, and to protect all the people of Egypt.
Ladies and gentlemen, I will do my best to maintain our national security and protect the borders of this country with the Armed Forces, the shield and sword of the nation, which deter all those who may be tempted to attack Egypt or threaten its national security. I pledge to God that I will preserve this institution and safeguard its members, recruits and commanders, and to enhance and elevate its status, and to boost it by all means possible to make it stronger than ever before and continue to be steadfast, with the people’s support in all it does.
I pledge to God and I pledge to you, and the whole world bears witness, that the country’s security and stability will be foremost in mind, and that it will be my responsibility, with our loyal, patriotic police forces who have dedicated themselves to protect lives, facilities and public and private property, and that the rule of law is above all else, so every Egyptian can get his or her right fully.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has honored its promise and pledge not to be a substitute for popular will. Elected institutions will return to perform their roles and the great Egyptian army will once again devote itself to its vital mission of protecting homeland security and borders, and working with other state institutions within the framework of the Constitution and the law. I salute them for their wonderful effort.
The advancement of Egypt is the responsibility of all of us together. And there is no time to waste. Egypt is in dire need of every hand to build a bright future. Nations cannot achieve a real renaissance except with the participation of all its sons and daughters, and with fruitful cooperation between the people and state institutions. On this basis, we will open new horizons in the coming period to empower society with all its components and categories, and to expand the role of civil society to participate actively in all national issues.
I pledge to all Egyptians that the state will fully bear its responsibilities towards society and towards the people of Egypt at home and abroad, will safeguard the homeland’s security, stability and safety, and will adequately care for all segments of society. I will try my utmost best to foster cooperation and love among all the spectra of Egyptian society and activate the concept of citizenship among all Egyptians.
We urgently need to remove the debris after past chaos in all fields, especially in the economic sphere; chaos that the former regime caused over the past decades. We must achieve social justice in its comprehensive sense, in order to achieve stability and security in the Egyptian society.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Egyptian nation, throughout its history, has played the role of guardian of the state. Whenever the regime strayed from the historic path of civilization, the people have been capable of correcting it. Here is the honorable Egyptian people, which came out in revolt in the iconic squares of pride and dignity, in the squares of martyrs, in Tahrir Square and all liberation squares of Egypt, this people succeeded in correcting the path of power, toppling an unjust repressive regime in a peaceful civilized manner, giving the finest examples ever seen in the whole world in popular societal oversight of the ruling regime.
In this context, I say to those who have lingering concerns about the Egyptian state changing paths: the people have chosen me to march on the path of civilization of the modern Egyptian state, and the people will not accept, and I would not want them to accept, any deviation from that path.
I pledge to God and I pledge to you to do my very best to maintain and reform the Egyptian state, making its institutions more reflective of the Egyptian people, and making its various State apparatuses work to protect and care for the interests of citizens at home and abroad, as the Egyptian citizen is the focus of its service and the backbone of the overall development.
O great Egyptian people, the former regime neglected the national security of Egypt, and dwarfed the role of this country on international and regional levels. But today we undertake building a strong Egypt and reshape its national security system in a manner consistent with the capabilities of Egypt and its real weight in the Arab, Islamic, African and international circles.
We carry a message of peace to the world, and carry with it a message of truth and justice. As always, we affirm our respect for the commitments of the Egyptian state as per international treaties and conventions. I declare here that Egypt, its people and government and the presidential institution stand firmly with the Palestinian people until they regain all their legitimate rights. We will work to complete national reconciliation efforts of the Palestinian people, so they would close ranks and reclaim their land and sovereignty.
We are not exporting the revolution. Egyptians do not export the revolution. We do not interfere in anyone’s affairs.
Meanwhile, we do not allow anyone to interfere in our affairs. While we now endeavor to build our new modern Egypt, we do not isolate ourselves from our Arab and Muslim nation; and we do not antagonize anyone anywhere in the world.
We, as Egyptians, always support people in obtaining their freedom, their self-determination, and self-governing rights. These are general principles that all the people in the world believe in.
Today, Egypt supports the Palestinian people and also the Syrian people. The shedding of the Syrian people’s blood must stop. We will do our best to stop the bloodshed in the near future. We will work with all seriousness in order to activate the joint Arab action framework and all that it requires of developing the Arab League and Arab joint defense agreement and the Arab common market.
All Arab countries need this and are keen on it. Egypt is always in the lead. If it advances, all the Arabs will. In its new era, Egypt will not accept any violation of the Arab national security; and will always be on the side of fair and comprehensive peace. Egypt will never resort to policies of aggression. But we will stand strong in the face of challenges and dangers that threaten our homeland.
Ladies and gentlemen, dear citizens everywhere: Egypt has always been destined to lead. With the vigor and vitality of its men and women, in all fields of work and production, [Egypt] will be able to realize its fate.
We will work together to encourage investment in all sectors, and restore the role of tourism for the benefit of the Egyptian economy and every citizen in Egypt. Together we will plot a brighter future for our children and grandchildren, Muslims and Christians, so Egypt would once again be strong and proud, so it would achieve the remaining objectives of its revolution, and so we together would attain freedom, justice, and human dignity.
I pledge never to betray my homeland or my people. I will meet your expectations, your demands, wishes, and your will.
I reiterate that the blood of the martyrs and the hundreds of wounded, maimed and injured are a huge responsibility that I proudly carry on my shoulders until I exact just retribution for them.
Now, let us look forward, and not look back. Let us go to work and build. Soon, we shall make it all a reality.
President-elect Mohammed Morsi’s Speech in Tahrir Square (June 29, 2012)
In the name of God, Most Merciful, Most Gracious.
O great people of Egypt, dear citizens standing here in the Revolution square, in freedom square, in Tahrir Square, in martyrs’ square, and all citizens standing in all liberty squares across the homeland, Egypt, in villages, towns and cities, in all governorates of Egypt.
O great citizens watching us at home, O free world, Arabs, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, Egyptian Muslims and Christians, all citizens wherever you are, inside Egypt and abroad.
You are all my family, my friends. We are here today to tell the whole world: these are the Egyptians; these are the revolutionaries, who made this epic, this revolution.
First, I remind you of the words that came out from my heart to you, last Sunday, when the elections committee announced your decision to entrust me with being the president of the Arab Republic of Egypt. That is certainly a great honor, an assignment I certainly cherish, and a responsibility I solemnly carry on my shoulders.
I spoke to all the Egyptian people that evening, and I mentioned almost all the governorates of Egypt and many categories of Egyptian society, but I did forget, without meaning to, some of the governorates of Egypt and some important categories of my beloved people that I greatly respect.
I pay tribute to all Egyptians, including those I forgot—the provinces of Behera, Damietta, Cairo, and Giza. These all are my family and friends, like the rest of provinces I mentioned on Sunday. I extend my greetings to all the Egyptian people without exception, and I assure my respect and my love for the people of creativity, art, culture and media, loyal to Egypt, and all citizens facing up to challenging disabilities.
Special tribute is due to tourism workers. I reiterate and emphasize that I am determined to help them advance and progress. I also stand here with you today, in this our iconic square of freedom and revolution; and we all stand together in all liberty squares of Egypt, and in particular Tahrir Square which saw the rebirth of Egypt, free and dignified Egypt of the real renaissance and the rights that will not be lost. We stand together today to celebrate all of you. I salute all the revolutionaries in all Egypt’s freedom squares. Above all, I salute the honorable martyrs who have made a great sacrifice and with their pure blood have watered the tree of liberty.
When we mention the martyrs, we also look at history to know that the tree of liberty was planted by honorable men decades ago, since the beginning of last century, and after suffering the dark decades of injustice and repression for so long, on January 25, 2011, the martyrs of this revolution achieved a major victory.
I salute all the injured of the revolution and their families and all those who generously gave their homeland all they could and sacrificed for the sake of rebuilding and advancing their country.
Let us remain steadfast, men of the revolution, boys and girls, men and women. I am one of you—that is how I was; I still am; and will always be. During the revolution, in this place, we used to say that the revolution is led by its own objectives. Well, the revolution continues to achieve its objectives. It is reshaping to reflect the free will the Egyptian people, with an elected president steering the ship home, leading this revolution, standing in front of patriotic revolutionaries, leading them on the path to full democracy, and doing all he can to achieve all the objectives of the great revolution.
I came to talk to you today, because I believe that you are the source of power and legitimacy. There is no person, party, institution, or authority over or above the will of the people. The nation is the source of all power; it grants and withdraws power.
I say to everyone now; to all the people, the ministries and the government, the army and police of Egypt, men and women, at home and abroad; I say it with full force, ‘No authority is over or above this power.’ You are the source of power. You are the owners of the will. You grant power to whomsoever you choose, and you withdraw power from whomsoever you choose.
I come to you, today, my beloved Egyptian people, and I wear no bullet-proof vest, because I am confident, as I trust God and I trust you, and I fear only God. And I will always be fully accountable to you.
I come today to Tahrir Square, after it placed this responsibility on my shoulders, to renew my pledge to you; to remind you that you alone are always, always the first station for me to call. I say to all the Egyptian people that, with God’s help, I seek their support and their assistance. Are you ready? Will you stand by me to fully regain our rights? No creature will take the rights of the people again so long as it is their will to preserve their rights.
I stand here with you, O great people of Egypt, before the usual formal proceedings, and I say to all honorable Egyptians—those who elected me and those who did no—I’m for all of you, at the same distance from all. I will never subtract form the rights of those they told me ‘No,’ nor will I subtract from the rights of those who said to me ‘Yes.’ This is democracy. And that is how we set on our journey to rebuild our homeland.
‘I pledge to God and I pledge to you—I swear by the almighty God to uphold the republican system; to respect the Constitution and law; to look after the interests of the people fully; and to safeguard the stability and territorial integrity of the homeland.’ [Oath of Office]
I pledge to God and I pledge to you, the honorable people of Egypt, to fulfill my promises. I pledge to work with you in order to bolster our unity and our strength. I stress my rejection of any attempt to blackmail the people’s power.
I confirm that I, as president of the Egyptian people, after the legal formal proceedings, which I respect, will endeavor to overcome all obstacles. I reiterate my rejection of any attempt to wrest the power of the people, because I am the decision-maker—with your will.
I will not tolerate any curbing of the powers of the President of the Republic. I have no right to give up presidential powers and functions on the basis of which you chose me. This is a contract between you and me. That is the concept of the modern state.
This does not in any way mean we do not respect the law, the constitution, or relevant state institutions. There is no contradiction between this and that.
Furthermore, I will not give up the rights of our martyrs and wounded. Fair retribution for them is my responsibility, from which I will not shirk.
I will work with you in every moment of my presidential term. I will always put the higher interests of the country above all else, determined to establish the principles of freedom and social justice, and to remove all forms of injustice, corruption, and discrimination.
I will work on rejuvenating the economy and alleviate the suffering of millions of Egyptians seeking a decent dignified life. I will connect with everyone; and my doors will remain open for all. I will always welcome you; and I will always be in touch with you.
[All the masses in Tahrir Square chanted with President Morsi: “Revolutionaries, Free, We will complete the journey.”]
We will complete the journey in a civil constitutional modern state, without disrupting production nor traffic; without violating any private or public freedoms, and without clashes or confrontation or distrust.
O citizens of Egypt everywhere, in all cities, in the east and west, the north and south: we are united as one, we are all one hand. I will not differentiate between supporters and opponents. I ask for your advice, and for God’s help, and all the people of Egypt’s support.
I will work with you to restore Egypt’s status as a leader in creativity and culture, education and industry, production and agriculture. We must be partners in national action.
I will endeavor to regain Egypt’s free will in its foreign relations. I will abolish all subordination to any outside power. Egypt is free in all its actions and discourses.
We will not commit any acts of aggression against anyone; but we are all able to prevent any aggression against us. Together we will introduce a new concept of international relations. And I warn everyone, no matter who they are, of attempting to undermine Egypt’s dignity or pride, or of even thinking of assaulting the dignity of its people or its president, whomever he may be.
I emphasize the concept of national security in perspectives pertaining to the depths of Africa, the Arab world, the Muslim world, and the rest of the world. We will not relinquish our rights; we will not relinquish the right of any Egyptian abroad. Our regime will drive our own discourse in our foreign relations.
I will always be the first supporter of the revolution, so it should continue everywhere in the farthest corners of the homeland. I want these voices to continue be heard announcing that we are always free, revolutionaries, and we’re going to continue the march, complete the journey.
We will continue to chant, expressing our love for our homeland. Because love for Egypt is our duty. We will continue to chant for freedom and dignity.O great Egyptian people, I will do my best to free all detainees, including the blind sheikh, Omar Abdel Rahman. This is their right onto me, and my duty towards them.
2012 Electoral Program of Freedom and Justice Party Candidate Mohammed Morsi
(April 28, 2012)
It is a great honor that, thanks to the great Egyptian revolution and the honorable martyrs who sacrificed their lives for freedom, we have this opportunity to offer our noble people, our great brothers and sisters in this homeland, Dr. Morsi’s electoral platform, “The Egyptian Nahda (Renaissance) Project.”
This project and program is the result of a tremendous effort and hard work that lasted well over fifteen years. It aims to re-build the Egyptian person, the Egyptian society, and the Egyptian nation, with an Islamic reference and a modern cultural identity for the enlightened, noble people of Egypt.
General Features of Nahda (Renaissance) Project
Nahda Project is based on empowering the people and placing their destinies in their own hands, rather than the hands of a corrupt clique or a ruthless unscrupulous bureaucracy.
The project aims at bringing forth Egyptian individuals who feel at peace with themselves, their family, work, environment, and society at large.
It also aims to build a society whose will is not defeated by that of a brutal state, corrupt regime, or foreign power—a society that occupies its rightful ranking among the world’s nations, a society endowed with lofty values, science and thought in these times of information and knowledge economy and age of creativity and innovation.
The project finally aims to build a state that provides people access to education, healthcare, jobs, investment, and business building opportunities; and protects their rights and dignity within and outside the country.
The project is proposed by the Muslim Brotherhood, which strived throughout eighty years to preserve the identity of this nation, build its strength, and entrench the values of moderation, balance, and tolerance in its thought.
Indeed, the Brotherhood believes in upbringing as the methodology of change and work as a means for achievement. It is no wonder that it occupies a special place in the heart of society and is closely connected with the people; aware of their concerns, suffering, and dreams; and adopts their legitimate ambitions for a dignified life in the shade of its tolerant religious beliefs and moral values.
We present this program with firm resolve to restore the positive, pristine image of Egypt whose national, Arab, and international roles were lost under despotism, repression, and corruption; whose economy failed due to the oppression and absence of justice; whose sons and daughters lost most of their freedoms upon the collapse of the rights and liberties framework in its entirety; and whose people had no hope for essential equal opportunities due to the corruption that had permeated its body.
We are determined to restore Egypt’s bright image and rightful status that every honorable Egyptian citizen, dreaming of Egypt as a pioneering nation, prides; the Egypt that was once and will sure become again the civilizational front-runner among nations.
The project favors true democracy and national belonging, with Islam as a reference; and sets out with impartible Egyptian pride.
We are fully aware that the rejuvenation of a nation cannot be achieved by any single party, sector, group, or trend no matter how powerful it is, and that the way to the desired real renaissance is our unity of ranks and determination to achieve comprehensive revitalization and to be ready and willing to bear its heavy burdens and endure its toils and privations. If political gravitations have created big or small distances between us, the pioneering Nahda (Renaissance) Project can bring us back together and unite our efforts.
Believing that he who dedicates himself to public service must clarify his visions and policies to the people, we present to you the following features of the Egyptian Nahda Project with hope that Egyptians of all segments of society will contribute to its evaluation, discussion, and formation—so that it becomes the torch that lights our path towards Modern Egypt.
—The Nahda Project Team
A Vision for Building the Egyptian Nation
The Nahda project revolves around three principle stakeholders in Egyptian society: the state, civil society, and the private sector. With the permeation of Egyptian state control and influence in the civil and private sectors, the project establishes reformation mechanisms at the strategic and executive levels, so as to achieve the desired balance between the three stakeholders and their institutions.
The project vision is divided into three levels, according to values and objectives concerning the Egyptian individual, society, and state:
The Value and Thought level describes what Egyptians want or wish for in their daily lives, in terms of values, rights, qualities, and duties, and what they expect from Egyptian society’s various institutions and principal players.
In doing so, this level relies on a vast collection of experiences, specialized and societal studies on laying down an integrated vision for the remaining levels to pursue with the aim of advancing the people civilizationally and curing society from the corruption that has afflicted it throughout the previous time periods.
The Strategy level comprises seven paths aiming to achieve the desired change through complex development plans whose roles are distributed among the stakeholders of the Egyptian nation.
The Executive level transforms these plans into specific groups of projects, reforms, and operational policies divided over three time periods, as an initial step on the road towards the Egyptian Nahda, or comprehensive rejuvenation.
The Strategic Level
With the cooperation of a number of research institutions, experts, and both Egyptian and non-Egyptian university professors, development plans were laid out for each strategic path.
Under each objective are a number of projects and executive programs, some of which have entered the implementation phase and others are still under preparation. The following is a brief review of a few aspects of the major paths:
The Strategic Paths
* Building the political system
* Transforming into a developmental economy
* Societal empowerment
* Comprehensive human resource development
* Building a safety and security system
* Achieving regional and international leadership
* Files under focus
Building the Political System
- From completion of the political system, all the way to the deep restructuring of the Egyptian state, transforming it from a dominant state to a state of empowered institutions with clearly marked pillars and specific powers to be respected, and not exceeded.
This process includes establishing the concept of the executive, legislative, and judicial authorities complementing one another while emphasizing each authority’s independent performance of its roles.
- Building a comprehensive network system for fighting corruption, with oversight, legislative and executive powers, recognizing citizens’ right to obtain government information.
- Approving mechanisms for public monitoring of government performance to guarantee a higher level of transparency and integrity in performance.
- Enabling all Egyptians to participate in national and political activities rather than limiting this activity to the economic and social elite of Egypt.
- Reforming laws, legislations, and regulations governing the relationship between atate institutions and mechanisms of their management to clarify the responsibilities, powers, and competences of each institution and to enhance the state’s ability to facilitate government service for citizens.
- Applying the principle of participation rather than domination in forming a coalition government representing all political players and stakeholders in Egyptian society to enable us to work together on building the future of Egypt without excluding any principal political party.
- Activating the role of youth in the political process, beginning with lowering the qualifying age for public office and considering the factors of competence, ability, and desire to work in public service as the major qualification criteria for political jobs.
Transforming Into a Developmental Economy
- Rapid and comprehensive transformation from an income or rentier economy to a productive or value-added economy, within the boundaries of an information and production society, through 100 national projects (each exceeding one billion dollars) guaranteeing the multiplication of gross domestic product in five years at an annual growth rate of 6.5 to 7 percent.
- Reforming the banking system to ensure it performs its principal role in supporting the national economy at different levels, while providing developmentally appropriate monetary tools to ensure the effective participation of the banking sector in development projects and to ensure its focus on priorities.
- Developing a program to support small and medium scale enterprises to provide a suitable environment for the advancement and sufficient activation of this economic segment by:
- Providing necessary technical support for selecting, developing, and managing these projects.
- Providing a training and certification program for the required management and technical cadres.
- Providing the financial studies and tools necessary and appropriate for these projects.
- Providing a legislative climate that guarantees small-scale businesses’ access to full opportunities of fair competition.
- Creating societies and syndicates to support this.
- Providing marketing opportunities and permanent exhibitions.
- Strengthening and enabling the civil society and institutions to safeguard democracy and preserve Egyptians’ energy so that they never allow the return of state control over this sector. This would be achieved through acknowledgement of the judiciary as the governing reference for this sector.
- Restoring the role of endowments and direct and indirect contributions from citizens to ensure financial independence of civil society and to limit the role of the state in coordinating and supporting the different components of this sector. This also includes encouraging and supporting our people, who for long have been deprived of volunteering, through their time or money, in activities for public good.
- Quick and intensive efforts to save the Egyptian family and encourage civil society to support the family’s mission and educate family members about the present challenges and future requirements.
- Advancing the media system, codifying the state’s role in the media sector, and unleashing freedom of expression guided by genuine Egyptian values.
Comprehensive Human Development
- Supporting a life that allows for continuous learning, multi-directional production and satisfactory consumption of basic human needs, and that realizes human dignity.
- Structuring a comprehensive social justice system that will provide the different social classes with equal opportunities in residence, work, medical treatment, and in exercising their political rights.
- Adopting a clear project with a time frame to overcome illiteracy and school dropout in cooperation with the state’s civil and private sectors.
- Dealing with open and masked unemployment and weak competency of the workforce by launching qualitative and quantitative development programs for workers and by applying positive pressure on training, research and scientific institutions in Egypt to nurture development with the needed capacities to reduce the rate of unemployment by 5 percent every year.
- Restructuring the Egyptian educational system with three objectives in mind:
- Egyptian development map 2025.
- Needs and expectations of the workforce.
- Aspirations and concerns of youth and students.
The educational system must be completely redesigned around the student; thus shifting the educational strategy from the student’s mere competence in knowledge acquisition to a quality and flexible educational process that provides greater opportunities for Egyptians, and meets the needs of the job market. Such a strategy requires an increase in the educational budget of the state (from 3.3 percent to the regional ratio of 5.2 percent of GDP).
Building the Safety and Security System
- Achieving security and regulating its institutions and structuring the police apparatus to maintain domestic security, support Egyptians rights, and protect their possessions.
- Changing the security doctrine of principal institutions in the security sector by supporting the concept of loyalty and belonging to the Egyptian citizen and his safety and security, not to the ruling regime.
- Increasing the competence, abilities, and strengths of the Egyptian army to protect Egyptian interests at the regional and international levels, and to enable Egypt to restore its regional weight.
Achieving Regional and International Leadership
- Restoring Egypt’s leading role in the region and strengthening international treaties and agreements that will protect the interests of Egyptians internally and externally.
- Protecting Arab national and Gulf security and pushing Arab-Islamic cooperation to new horizons that would serve the interests of Egypt.
- Establishing relations with all international parties based on equal footing and common interests, and diversifying the international relations network with African, Asian, and Western ties to help achieve balance in the protection of Egyptian interests in the international arena.
- Establishing the foundations of equal treatment and codes for Egyptians’ rights outside Egypt and utilizing the potential of Egyptian embassies and their political relations to ease the difficulties and obstacles facing them, from protecting their rights and dignity to being safe havens for them, if needed, while away from the homeland.
Files Under Focus
- Supporting and empowering the Egyptian woman and paving the way for her participation in society, politics, and priorities of national development. This springs from our belief that woman is equal to man in terms of status and that she complements him in his work and tasks.
- We seek to empower the Egyptian woman by removing the hindrances that face her fruitful participation in all fields of life in a way that helps the woman achieve a balance between her home and society.
- Protection of the Egyptian woman from harassments on Egyptian streets and from all forms of discrimination when applying for public or private job positions.
- Give special support to women doing economic activities such as small businesses, and encourage pioneer women managing their own private enterprises.
- Changing the negative stance of Egyptian culture regarding women’s political participation by presenting successful role models and figures.
- Restoring the leading role of Azhar as a beacon of the moderate Islamic school of thought and supporting its scientific, educational, managerial, and financial independence and strengthening its ability as a world university attracting the best youth of the Islamic world and as one of Egypt’s external leading wings.
- Fulfilling all our fellow Copts’ rights of citizenship and realizing their full legal equality as Egyptian citizens while maintaining their right to appeal to their religious strictures on matters pertaining to personal status and their religious affairs.
This program includes other items concerning, for example, shifting the licensing procedures for church buildings and worship houses from the presidential institution to the Urban Planning Authority to protect these rights from political abuse by the state.
- Incorporating an integrative bundle of laws and legislations for protection of the environment as well as the environmental rights of Egyptians into all industrial, agricultural, productive, and urban planning sectors and infrastructural projects, so as to restore the required balance between human consumption and the environment’s natural ability to restore its vitality. This file also deals with a number of reform programs, from environmental impact monitoring and assessment mechanisms to incorporating material concerned with environmental awareness into the Egyptian educational curricula.
- Providing financial and urban incentives to encourage Egyptian families living in the slums to make their own decision to move out under no coercion from the state.
The first step begins with codifying the legal situation of slum inhabitants, i.e. their legal ownership of buildings they live in, and hence their ability to trade its sale value with an alternative one in the real estate market.
This will require incentives suitable for each area’s residents, from offering moving alternatives, through facilitating home ownership, to providing infrastructure services ahead in new residential areas.
In sum, the project relies on respecting the dignity of the Egyptian citizen and the right to own residential property.
Document for Basic Freedoms
Issued by Ahmed El-Tayyeb, Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar
(January 8, 2012)
Source: Office of Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar
After the revolutions that made freedom and equality spring up and paved a way for the ideas of comprehensive reform and development in all the sections of society, it’s logical for Egyptians, Arabs and Muslim World to start yearning for an initiative through which the scholars and intellectuals would define the relationship between the general principles of the Islamic sharia and the set of basic freedoms that are adopted by all international conventions and created by the civilization and experience of the Egyptian people.
In defining such a relationship, scholars shall establish the foundations and principles of those basic freedoms and determine the conditions that protect the development and open up the horizons of the future. These are the freedom of belief, the freedom of expression, the freedom of scientific research, and the freedom of literary and artistic creativity. All these freedoms should have their roots in serving the objectives of the shari`ah and grasping the spirit of modern constitutional legislation and the requirements of human knowledge advance.
This relationship shall turn the spiritual energies of the nation into fuel and motivate for development and progress and a means to achieving both spiritual and material advance. To this end, ongoing efforts shall be made where wise cultural rhetoric goes in harmony with enlightened religious rhetoric and both proceed in a fruitful path to the future, on which the goals agreed by all shall be clear.
Hence, the group of Al-Azhar scholars and the Egyptian intellectuals—who issued the first document under the auspices of Al-Azhar and then issued a statement in support of the Arab uprisings—have resumed their meetings and discussed the common intellectual denominators in the set of freedoms and human rights.
The conclusion they have reached is to approve a collection of principles and regulations that govern the ideas of freedom and equality, taking into consideration the requirements of the current historic moment and the need to safeguard social harmony and the public interests in the phase of democratic transition, during which the country shall build its constitutional institutions in a secure and proper manner and with help from Almighty Allah.
It is believed that this will also block the spread of some prejudiced calls, under the pretext of commanding the right and forbidding the wrong, to interfere in public and personal freedoms. Indeed, this is incompatible with both the civilization and social development of modern Egypt at a time the country needs unity and moderate approach to religion; this is the religious message and responsibility of Al-Azhar towards the society and nation.
First: Freedom of Belief
Freedom of belief and the associated right of full citizenship for all—which is based on complete equality in rights and duties—is regarded as the cornerstone in the modern social structure. This freedom is guaranteed by the authentic conclusive religious texts and the clear constitutional and legal principles. Almighty Allah says,
There shall be no compulsion in the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong… (Al-Baqarah 2: 256)
And He also says,
So whoever wills—let him believe; and whoever wills—let him disbelieve… (Al-Kahf 18: 29)
Accordingly, any aspect of compulsion, persecution, or discrimination on the basis of religion is prohibited. Everybody in society has the right to embrace any ideas he chooses, without encroaching upon the right of society to the maintenance of divine faiths, in light of sanctity accorded to all the three Abrahamic faiths; so, everyone is free to perform his rituals, and none should hurt the other’s feelings or violate the sanctity of his rites whether by words or deeds, and without breaching the public order.
As the Arab region is the land blessed with the heavenly divine revelations, it therefore has a great commitment to protect the sacredness of all these revealed faiths, as well as respecting their rituals, and guaranteeing the rights of their believers to freedom, dignity, and brotherliness.
As a result of this, there should be acceptance of the legitimacy of plurality, maintenance of the right to difference, and the obligation that every citizen should consider the feelings of others and that equality should prevail among all citizens on the firm basis of citizenship, partnership, and equal opportunities in terms of all rights and duties.
Also based on the respect for the freedom of belief is the rejection of trends that exclude others, condemn their beliefs and label them as disbelievers amid attempts to examine the inner thoughts of those who hold those beliefs. Such rejection rests on the well-established constitutional systems and, even before that, on the clear and categorical rules set by the Islamic sharia. An example is the Prophetic hadith that says: “Would you inspect his heart?” This rule was also well expressed by the Imam Malik, and other Imams, when he (Malik) said, “If a person says something that most probably denotes disbelief, yet still there is a remote possibility it does not, it should not be taken to denote disbelief.”
The scholars of ijtihad [jurisprudence] and legislation have attached great significance to the mind in Islam and left us a golden rule that says: “If the mind and the text are apparently conflicting, the mind should be given precedence and the text reinterpreted.” This is to maintain the considered legal interests and serve the objectives of the shari`ah.
Second: Freedom of Opinion and Expression
Freedom of opinion is the mother of all freedoms, and it is most manifest in the free expression of opinion by all different means, including writing, oratory, artistic production, digital communication. Indeed, it is the manifestation of social freedoms, which go beyond individuals to include, among other activities, the formation of parties and civil society institutions, the freedom of the press and the media, whether in audio, visual, or digital form, and the freedom to access the information needed for expression of opinion. This freedom should be guaranteed by constitutional provisions so as to transcend ordinary laws, which are subject to change.
The Supreme Constitutional Court in Egypt has decided to broaden the concept of free speech to encompass constructive criticism, even if toughly worded. The court has stipulated: “It is not appropriate to restrict the freedom of expression regarding the public issues by limits not to be exceeded; rather, it should be tolerated.”
It is necessary, however, to note that the beliefs of the three divine religions and their rituals must be respected, as this is very serious for the national cohesion and security. No one has the right to incite sectarian strife and doctrinal feud in the name of free speech. This said, the right to present an independent scholarly opinion, supported by the relevant evidence and within the specialized circles, and away from incitement, shall be guaranteed.
The attendees state that the freedom of opinion and expression is the true manifestation of democracy, and they call for educating the new generations the culture of freedom, the right to difference, and to show respect for others. They also appeal to those working in the field of religious, cultural, and political rhetoric over the media to pay attention to this important dimension in their practices and to seek a wise approach that helps form a public opinion marked by tolerance, broad-mindedness, resort to dialogue, and rejection of fanaticism.
To achieve this, we have to recall the classical civilizations and traditions of the Islamic thought, whose great imams would say, “I hold that my opinion is right, yet may be wrong, and that the opinion of others is wrong, yet may be right.” Hence, there is no way to reinforce free speech but through the approach to confront an argument with another one, according to the ethics of dialogue and the civilized customs that are deeply rooted in the advanced societies.
Third: Freedom of Scientific Research
Serious scientific research in humanities, physics, mathematics, etc., is the driver of human progress and the means to discovering the laws of the universe so as to use them for the goodness of humankind. Such research cannot be conducted and yield its theoretical and practical fruits without the dedication of the energies of the nation and the mobilization of its capabilities for it. Numerous Koranic verses urge us to contemplate, deduce, conduct analogical reasoning, and ponder the human and universal phenomena with a view to discovering their laws. In fact, these verses paved the way for the biggest scientific renaissance the East has even known. This renaissance presented scientific achievements that brought welfare to humanity. And it was subsequently carried by the Muslim scholars to the West, sparking the age of renaissance there, as it is well known and established.
If thinking in general is an Islamic duty in all branches of knowledge and arts, as held by the scholars ofijtihad, theoretical and experimental scientific research is the instrument for the discharge of this duty. And the most important among its requirements is that research institutions and specialized scholars should enjoy full academic freedom to perform experiments and put forth hypotheses, and to test them according to accurate scientific criteria.
Such institutions also have the right to possess the creative imagination as well as the adequate expertise needed for reaching new results that contribute to human knowledge. They should not be directed in that respect except by the ethics, methods, and unchanging principles of science.
Great Muslim scholars, such as Al-Razi, Ibn Al-Haytham, Ibn Al-Nafis, were the leaders and pioneers of knowledge in the East and the West for many centuries. It is time now for the Arab and Muslim world to make a comeback to the race of power and the age of scientific knowledge. Science has come to be the source of military and economic power and the cause of progress, development, and prosperity.
Free scientific research is the basis for the development of education, the supremacy of scientific thought, and the prosperity of production centers, for which big budgets should be allocated, work teams formed, and major projects proposed. All these require the highest ceiling of human and scientific research. The West had almost put its hand on every scientific advance and secured a monopoly on the path of science. But the rise of Japan, China, India, and Southeast Asia gave vivid examples for the capability of the East to break that monopoly, entering the age of knowledge through a wide open door. The time has come for the Egyptians and the Arabs and Muslims to get into the arena of civilized and scientific competition. Indeed, they have the adequate potentials—spiritual, material, human, etc.—that qualify them for such advance in a world that shows no respect for the weak and those lagging behind.
Fourth: Freedom of Literary and Artistic Creativity
There are two types of creativity. One type is scientific creativity, which has been previously tackled. The other is literary and artistic creativity, which comprises different genres of literature, such as lyric and dramatic poetry, stories and novels, theatre, biographies, and visual plastic arts, and cinematic, television, and musical arts, in addition to other forms newly introduced to all these genres.
In general, literature and arts seek to raise awareness of reality, activate imagination, elevate aesthetic sense, educate people and expand their mental faculties, and deepen human experience with life and society. Moreover, they sometimes view society with a critical eye, envisaging a better one. All these are lofty roles that in reality serve to enrich the language and culture, stimulate imagination, and improve intellectual capabilities, while observing the sublime religious values and moral virtues.
Arabic language had been distinguished by its literary richness and eloquence. Then the noble Koran came with the climax of eloquence and inimitability, adding to the beauty of the language and manifesting its genius, and feeding the arts of poetry, prose, and wisdom. And thus, the talents and creativity of poets and writers—from different nationalities which embraced Islam and learned Arabic—were released without restrictions in all fields of arts over the ages. Furthermore, many scholars, sheikhs, and imams in Islamic heritage were narrators of poetry and stories of all kinds.
However, the basic rule that governs the limits of the freedom of creativity is the preparedness of society, on the one hand, and its ability to absorb the elements of heritage and renewal in literary and artistic creativity, on the other hand. So, freedom of creativity should be respected so long as it does not hurt religious feelings or run counter to the established moral values. The fact remains that literary and artistic creativity is one of the most important signs of the prosperity of the set of basic freedoms, and it is the most effective in reviving the awareness of society and enriching its conscience.
The more the reasonable freedom is entrenched in society, the clearer the proof of its civilization. Literature and arts are the mirror of the consciences of societies and the true expression of their variables and invariables. They paint a bright picture of their aspirations for a better future. We implore Almighty Allah to guide us to that which is good and right.
Select Communiqués and Facebook Messages of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)
Communiqué No. 1 (February 10, 2011)
Based on the responsibility of the Armed Forces and commitment to the protection of the people and the people’s interest and safety, and out of our keenness for the safety of the nation and the citizens, and the possessions of the great Egyptian people, and out of endorsement for the people’s rightful/legitimate demands, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces held a meeting on Thursday February 10, 2011, to study the current situation and how it develops. The council has decided to continue meeting regularly to study the options and procedures and measures to keep the safety of the nation and the ambitions of the great Egyptian people.
Message No. 1 of 2011, SCAF Official Facebook Page (February 17, 2011)
A message to the great Egyptian people:
The great Egypt can accommodate all opinions and freedoms that lead to the nation’s prosperity and goals.
As the Armed Forces believes in the right of the Egyptian people to demonstrate peacefully, without vandalism or clashes; we urge you not to violate the law in tomorrow’s demonstrations and to preserve the real image and value of January 25 revolution.
The right to demonstrate is granted but without reference to non-Egyptian cultures, like wearing black during the demonstration.
The Armed Forces will perform its admirable role of protecting demonstrators from all backgrounds as an obligation toward what has started recently.
Message No. 52 of 2011, SCAF Official Facebook Page (May 17, 2011)
Summary of Speech by SCAF Chairman Mohammed Hussein Tantawi at Police Academy
During the celebration of the Ministry of Interior, with the graduation of a new class of the sons of the great Egyptian people from the police academy, the chief of SCAF assured the following:
Great appreciation to the January 25 revolution and the revolutionaries.
Since it started, the Armed Forces took the side of the revolution, and refused—as all SCAF members agreed—to use arms against the sons of this great people.
The importance of overcoming the past, not to forget the police, and to work hard on regaining security for Egypt.
The biggest problems that keep the January 25 [revolution] from achieving its goals are the following:
- Absence of security and vandalism; and the importance of cooperation between the people, the police, the army, and judiciary to crack down this phenomenon.
- We have economic hardships due to the absence of security and due to protests. Tourism, which provides 14 billion dollars and employs a workforce of 2 million people, has stopped. Egypt has resources that enable it to have a powerful and quick launch that fits the aspirations of this great people.
We will never allow sectarian conflict to happen, and will crack down on whomever tries to raise [such conflict] or damage the destiny of this nation.
The media has to care for Egypt. Most media people are honorable, and what we need it truthful media.
SCAF is totally sure of the awareness of this great people, and the youth of the revolution, about the dangers of this phase, and their cooperation with the army, the police, and the judiciary to regain security; to push the production wheel so that the revolution achieves its goals and launches Egypt towards a brighter future and attains its rightful place in the world. This will not happen without sincere efforts and prioritizing the country interests to all other personal ones.
Message No. 4 of 2012, SCAF Official Facebook Page (February 6, 2012)
SCAF discussed in today’s meeting the domestic situation and current incidents that reflect the deteriorated security situation that affects honorable citizens, and negatively affects the achievements of the great January 25 revolution. It concluded the following:
- Total assurance of implementing the previously announced plan of handing over power to an elected civilian power, in a democratic and transparent way.
- Our feeling that citizens are still worried about the current security situation, obliging to continue the support of the Armed Forces to police forces, to preserve the nation and guarantee a feeling of security and serenity.
- The Armed Forces always seek to resolve the crises and problems that face citizens. We assure that we will do all possible efforts in this regard, and the necessity of everybody’s efforts to face and prevent such crisis in order to not burden the nation’s stability.
- The absolute importance of ignoring rumors and fake accusations against the Armed Forces, which aim at disturbing the rock-solid relationship between the people and their Armed Forces. We continuously assure the stability of this relationship based upon our support to the demands of the Egyptian people, and that was clear in our complete alliance to the great January 25 revolution.
- We always assure our respect to the independence of the judiciary, and its patriotic role of supporting the values of justice and law. We hope everybody understands that, and we in turn realize that absolute justice is a goal that everybody looks up to.
SCAF urges the Egyptian people, who amazed the world with their revolution, to do all possible efforts to preserve the earnings of the revolution and prevent all conspiratorial elements that aim at weakening the state.
Summary of Amended Egyptian Constitutional Declaration by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces
(June, 18, 2012)
Source: Ahram Online
The following amendments went into effect immediately:
Article 30: In a situation that parliament is dissolved the president will be vowed into office in front of High Constitutional Court’s General Assembly.
Article 53: The incumbent SCAF members are responsible for deciding on all issues related to the armed forces including appointing its leaders and extending the terms in office of the aforesaid leaders. The current head of the SCAF is to act as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and minister of defense until a new constitution is drafted.
Article 53/1: The president can only declare war after the approval of the SCAF.
Article 53/2: If the country faces internal unrest which requires the intervention of the Armed Forces, the president can issue a decision to commission the armed forces—with the approval of the SCAF—to maintain security and defend public properties. Current Egyptian law stipulates the powers of the armed forces and its authorities in cases where the military can use force, arrest or detain.
Article 56 B: The SCAF will assume the authorities set out in sub-article 1 of Article 56 as written in the March 30, 2011, Constitutional Declaration until a new parliament is elected.
Article 60 B: If the constituent assembly encounters an obstacle that would prevent it from completing its work, the SCAF within a week will form a new constituent assembly- to author a new constitution within three months from the day of the new assembly’s formation. The newly drafted constitution will be put forward after 15 days of the day it is completed, for approval by the people through a national referendum. The parliamentary elections will take place one month from the day the new constitution is approved by the national referendum.
Article 60 B1: If the president, the head of SCAF, the prime minister, the Supreme Council of the Judiciary, or a fifth of the constituent assembly find that the new constitution contains an article or more which conflict with the revolution’s goals and its main principles or which conflict with any principle agreed upon in all of Egypt’s former constitutions, any of the aforementioned bodies may demand that the constituent assembly revises this specific article within 15 days. Should the constituent assembly object to revising the contentious article, the article will be referred to the High Constitutional Court (HCC), which will then be obliged to give its verdict within seven days. The HCC’s decision is final and will be published in the official gazette within three days from the date of issuance.
Article 38 of the March 30, 2011, Constitutional Declaration will be replaced with: “The parliamentary elections will be conducted in accordance to the law.”
President Hosni Mubarak’s Final Address
(February 10, 2011)
I am addressing the youth of Egypt today in Tahrir Square and across the country. I am addressing you all from the heart, a father’s dialogue with his sons and daughters. I am proud of you as the new Egyptian generation calling for a change to the better, dreaming and making the future.
First and foremost, I am telling you that the blood of your martyrs and injured will not go in vain. I assure you that I will not relent in harshly punishing those responsible. I will hold those who persecuted our youth accountable with the maximum deterrent sentences. I tell the families of those innocent victims that I suffered plenty for them, as much as they did. My heart was in pain because of what happened to them, as much as it pained their hearts.
I am telling you that heeding to your voice, your message and demands is an irretraceable commitment. I am determined to live up to my promises with all firmness and honesty and I am totally determined to implement (them), without hesitation or reconsideration. This commitment springs from a strong conviction that your intentions are honest and pure and your action. Your demands are just and legitimate demands.
The mistakes can be made in any political system and in any state. But, the most important is to recognize them and correct them as soon as possible and bring to account those who have committed them.
I am telling you that as a president I find no shame in listening to my country’s youth and interacting with them. The big shame and embarrassment, which I have not done and never will do, would be listening to foreign dictations whatever may be the source or pretext.
My sons, the youth of Egypt, brother citizens, I have unequivocally declared that I will not run for president in the next elections, satisfied with what I’ve offered my country in over sixty years during war and peace. I declared my commitment to that, as well as my equal commitment to carrying out my responsibility in protecting the constitution and the people’s interests until power and responsibility are handed over to whoever is elected in next September, following free and candid elections with guarantees of freedom and candor. This is the oath I took before God and my country and one which I will keep until we take Egypt and its people to a safe harbor.
I have set a defined vision to come out of this crisis and to carry out what the citizens and the youth have called for in a way which would respect the constitutional legitimacy and not undermine it. It will be carried out in a way that would bring stability to our society and achieve the demands of its youth, and, at the same time, propose an agreed-upon framework for a peaceful transfer of power through responsible dialogue with all factions of society and with utmost sincerity and transparency.
I presented this vision, committed to my responsibility in getting the nation out of these difficult times and continuing to achieve it first, hour by hour, anticipating the support and assistance of all those who are concerned about Egypt and its people, so that we succeed in transforming it [the vision] into to a tangible reality, according to a broad and national agreement with a large base, with the courageous military forces guaranteeing its implementation.
We have started indeed building a constructive national dialogue, including the Egyptian youths who led the calls for change, and all political forces. This dialogue has resulted in a tentative agreement of opinions and positions, putting our feet at the start of the right track to get out of the crisis and must continue to take it from the broad lines on what has been agreed upon to a clear road map and with a fixed agenda.
From now to next September, day after day, we’ll see the peaceful transition of power. This national dialogue has focused on the setting up of a constitutional committee that will look into the required amendments of the constitution and the needed legislative reforms. It (the dialogue) also met about the setting up of a follow-up committee expected to follow up the sincere implementation of the promises that I have made before the people. I have made sure that the composition of the two committees is made of Egyptian figures that are known for their independence and experience, experts in constitutional law and judges.
In addition to that, the loss of the martyrs of the sons of Egypt in sad and tragic events has hurt our hearts and shaken the homeland’s conscience. I immediately issued my instructions to complete the investigation about last week’s events (the clashes between pro- and anti-Mubarak demonstrators) and submit its results immediately to the general prosecutor for him to take the necessary legal deterrent measures.
Yesterday, I got the first report on the top priority constitutional amendments proposed by the committee of justice system and law experts and that I have set up to look into the required constitutional and legislative amendments. In response to the proposals in the committee’s report, and in compliance with the prerogatives of the president of the republic, in conformity with Article 189 of the constitution, I have submitted a request today asking for the amendment of six constitutional clauses: 76, 77, 88, 93 and 189, in addition to the annulment of clause 179.
Moreover, I am asserting my readiness to submit, at a later time, an (additional) request to change any other clauses referred to me by the constitutional committee, according to the needs and justifications it sees fit. These top-priority amendments aim to ease the conditions for presidential nominations, and the fixing of limited terms of presidency to ensure the rotation of power, and the strengthening of the regulations of elections oversight to guarantee their freedom and fairness.
It is in the judiciary’s prerogative to decide about the validity and membership of MPs and amend the conditions and measures on the amendment of the constitution. The proposal to delete Article 179 from the constitution aims to achieve the required balance between the protection of the nation from the dangers of terrorism and safeguarding the civil rights and freedoms of the citizens which opens the door to the lifting of the Emergency Law following the return of calm and stability and the presence of suitable conditions to lift the state of emergency.
Brother citizens, the priority now is to bring back trust between Egyptians, trust in our economy and our international reputation, and trust in protecting the change and movement that we have started from turning back or retreating.
Egypt is going through difficult times which it is not right for us to allow continuing, as it will continue to cause us and our economy harm and losses, day after day, which will end in circumstances which those youths who called for change and reform will become the first to be harmed by. The current moment is not to do with myself, it is not to do with Hosni Mubarak, but is to do with Egypt, its present and the future of its children.
All Egyptians are in one trench now, and it is on us to continue the national dialogue which we have started, with a team spirit, not one of division, and far from disagreement and infighting so that we can get Egypt past its current crisis, and to restore trust in our economy, and tranquility and peace to our citizens, and return the Egyptian street to its normal everyday life.
I was as young as Egypt’s youth today, when I learned the Egyptian military honor, allegiance, and sacrifice for my country. I have spent a lifetime defending its soil and sovereignty. I witnessed its wars, with its defeats and victories. I lived the days of defeat and occupation; I also lived the days of the (Suez) crossing, victory and liberation. It was the happiest day of my life when I raised the flag of Egypt over Sinai. I faced death many times as a pilot, in Addis Ababa, and numerous other times. I never succumbed to foreign pressure or dictations. I kept the peace. I worked towards the stability and security of Egypt. I worked hard for its revival and for its people.
I never sought power or fake popularity. I trust that the overwhelming majority of the people know who Hosni Mubarak is. It pains me to see how some of my countrymen are treating me today. In any case, I am completely aware of the seriousness of the current hard turn of events as I am convinced that Egypt is crossing a landmark point in its history which imposes on all of all to weigh in the higher interests of our country and to put Egypt first above any and all considerations.
I saw fit to delegate presidential jurisdictions to the vice president as defined by the constitution. I am certain that Egypt will overcome its crisis. The will of its people will not break. It will be back on its feet with the honesty and loyalty of its people, all its people. It will return the machinations and glee of those who were gleeful and machinated against it.
We, Egyptians, will prove our ability to achieve the demands of the people with civilized and mature dialogue. We will prove that we are no-one’s servants, that we do not take instructions from anyone, and that only the demands of the citizens and the pulse of the street take our decisions.
We will prove all this with the spirit and tenacity of Egyptians, through the unity and cohesion of the people, and through our commitment to Egypt’s dignity as well as its unique and immortal identity, for it is the essence and the base of our presence for more than 7,000 years.
This spirit will continue to live within us for as long as Egypt and its people are present. It will live in every one of our peasants, workers, and intellectuals. It will remain in the hearts of our old men, our youth and our children, Muslims and Christians. It will remain in the minds and conscience of all those yet unborn.
I say again that I lived for the sake of this country, preserving its responsibility and trust. Egypt will remain above all and above everyone. It will remain so until I hand over this trust and pole. This is the goal, the objective, the responsibility and the duty. It is the beginning of life, its journey, and its end. It will remain a country dear to my heart. It will not part with me and I will not part with it until my passing. Egypt will remain immortal with its dignified people with their heads held high.
May God preserve the safety of Egypt and watch over its people. May peace be upon you.
Compiled by Maha El-Kady
“Freedom, Freedom, Come, Embrace Us”
I am not one of the hungry or the downtrodden, nor do I belong to a political party or a particular intellectual trend. I believe in freedom of expression but I do not believe that demonstrations that end with violence and detentions are necessarily the solution. I do not have suggestions to change the status quo and I do not see a better or worse future on the horizon. I see a dead end.
I finished grading some of my students’ exam booklets that routinely cause me depression because of the mediocre quality of the answers as well as their low intellectual and linguistic levels. But, as one of our deans once told me, the students should not be blocked at the university level for more than four years. So, they must succeed and graduate. In other words, I have to pass them no matter what. I kept leafing through the booklets, browsing through the answers, in search of one sentence that might make sense to justify the grades I was dishing out left and right. I felt bad because I knew that if I read their answers carefully, most of them would fail.
I looked at the clock; it was almost one o’clock in the afternoon. The demonstrations would begin at two o’clock according to posts on the “We Are All Khaled Said” page. I chose something practical and comfortable to wear; I put on some walking shoes fit for running, if necessary.
“Mama, I’m going to the demonstration in Shubra.”
“Since when do demonstrations take place in Shubra? Aren’t they always at the lawyers’ and journalists’ syndicates downtown?”
“Today they are expected to be in all of Egypt’s public squares. The demonstrations downtown normally attract some fifty or sixty people. They chant for a couple or three hours, they get surrounded by five thousand riot police conscripts, then they all get beaten up and some get detained. I want to go to Shubra to see what will happen there.”
“OK. Don’t be late.”
“I’ll only be an hour. I have to come back and finish grading.”
“OK, Take care.”
I had never been to Dawaran Shubra before. I called up one of my Christian friends who lives there to ask for directions. He helped me out and advised me not to go. But I insisted: “No, I’m going.”
I got on the bus to Shubra. At Ramses Square, I noticed a concentration of riot police vehicles. I asked the driver to let me know when we got to Dawaran Shubra. “It’s the next stop.” Another young woman behind me asked for the same stop. She got the same answer. I turned around and found a young, veiled woman behind me. She may have been a student or recent graduate.
“Are you going to the demonstration?”
“How did you find out?”
“There was an ‘Event’ posted on Facebook.”
“‘Event’?! This is not a Mohamed Mounir concert here. This is a demonstration!”
We smiled at each other and I asked her: “Do you belong to a political party?”
She answered: “No.”
We got off together and walked a little until we reached the main artery, Shubra Street. A huge banner in celebration of Police Day had been set up. We looked around us; nothing looked like there would be a demonstration. A small number of police officers were stationed at street corners; they kept looking at their watches. It was 1:45 p.m. A woman in her late forties stood alone on the pavement nearby. She walked towards one of the officers and began talking to him. I overheard a few words that had to do with demonstrations, justice, dignity, and the high cost of living.
“It looks like this woman is here for the demonstration. Let’s go and stand with her instead of standing alone.”
“Are you here for the demonstration?”
“I have come all the way from Heliopolis behind my husband’s back to be part of this demonstration. I parked my car in a nearby street and walked here.”
I was a bit surprised, so I asked her: “But why do you want to demonstrate?”
“Because the situation in the country has become unbearable!”
The police officers overheard our conversation. They started laughing.
It was now exactly two o’clock. The first group of demonstrators appeared on the scene. They may have arrived through one of the exits to the Metro station across the street; there were around twenty people in the group. You couldn’t really call them “youth” since there were women and men in their forties and fifties among them, side by side with younger men and women. The chants were rather conventional; the same ones I was used to from the late eighties: “People, people come and join us. Brothers and sisters, together, for all of us,” and “Freedom, freedom, come, embrace us. State Security stands between us.” The older and younger woman thrust themselves into the heart of the group and started chanting fervently. I stood aside, watching.
More groups emerged from side streets carrying Egyptian flags and banners that read: “Say No to Poverty,” “I Want a Job, Big Man,” “You Have Stolen Our Daily Bread,” and “Lentils cost 10 LE per kilogram.” The riot police started surrounding the demonstrators and tried to separate them. However, the officers continued to make way for those who wanted to join the demonstration, opening up the area they had just closed off. I moved closer to the center to take photographs of the slogans and to make out the words of the chants: “What does Mubarak want from us? People to kiss his feet, no less? No, Mubarak we won’t bend. The people will trample you in the end.”
One of the officers asked me sarcastically, pointing to the cordoned area with one hand and feeling my arm with the other: “Do you want to join them?”
I eyed him angrily, and yelled at him: “Are you feeling me up?”
He quickly removed his hand: “OK, no problem, please walk in.”
“I’m not coming in,” I answered defiantly.
I stood at a safe distance because I don’t like crowds and I don’t like shouting, nor do I like insulting chants or the stench of sweat of the riot police, who surrounded the demonstrators, pressing against them so that they remained on the pavement and didn’t take over the street.
In less than a few minutes, other groups of demonstrators began to appear. The riot police were somewhat at a loss. The different groups succeeded in joining each other; they were now in the hundreds. Some chanted: “We either get a decent life or we all fall in strife.”
I liked the chant so I started humming it to myself. The riot police closed off Shubra Street on both ends with road blocks. More riot police began to arrive; they stood side by side blocking off the street completely. I turned around and noticed an officer looking at his watch in exasperation. I smiled at him and said jokingly: “It’s still early. We just got started.”
“But we’ve been here since this morning.”
“Sorry about that, but this is your job!”
When the police officer saw that I wasn’t joining the demonstrators he said: “So, do you like what’s happening?”
“I actually don’t like demonstrations, but are you happy with your life?”
“No, I’m not. But do you believe that this is the solution?”
Friday of Deliverance
“Me too, I want my picture with you on the tank,” I said to Officer Maged, laughing hysterically.
“Wait a little, just wait a little until things get quieter. Take a look around you!”
Another raid of kisses and hugs by men, young and old, descended upon Officer Maged, who had come to be known as “the lion of the midan.” The soldiers laughed as they stood on their tanks bending over to grab little children in their arms posing for photos, bending over once again to deliver them back to their parents. Incredible that their arms were still functioning!
As I headed towards the Merit Publishing House I embraced everyone on the way, those I knew and those I didn’t know. Laughter, sweets, and cold drinks inundated the place. Joy, joy in all of Egypt, and possibly in the entire world that had certainly been watching our revolution.
I returned to Talaat Harb Street. The toktoks, our local version of rickshaws, made their way downtown loaded with passengers beyond their capacity, blasting with music. I laughed; the scene was quite unbelievable: toktoks in the heart of downtown Cairo; on Talaat Harb Street! The shabaabgathered in circles and started to dance. I walked back to Officer Maged.
“Come on, I want a photo with you.”
He laughed and asked the soldier to get a chair so I could climb up to the tank. He went ahead of me. I stood on the chair but the distance to the top of the tank remained difficult for me to climb.
“Give me your hand.”
Officer Maged grabbed one hand, and the soldier grabbed the other as I burst into a fit of laughter.
“OK, now, go!”
They pulled me up. I stood on top of the tank between them and felt proud. I gave my cell phone to one of the soldiers and showed him how to take a picture.
“How do I get down now? It looks pretty tough!”
“No worries, I’ll stand on the chair and bring you down.”
Officer Maged stood on the chair and I stood at the tip of the tank. He took my hand and pulled me toward him. We almost locked into an embrace. He began to apologize.
“I’m the one who should apologize.”
As soon as I landed safely on the ground I found young Emad waiting for me. He hugged me and congratulated me: “Congratulations to you and your martyred brother.”
Then he said: “Come and dance with me.”
“Over there,” pointing in the direction of a group dancing around the toktoks.
“Are these guys your crowd?”
“Yeah, they’re my relatives and friends.”
“And the toktoks?”
“Three of them belong to my relatives and the others belong to friends.”
“I can’t believe that they all came from Bulaq El-Dakrour in their toktoks!”
“Come on, let’s dance.”
I followed him to the circle. The shabaab began to cheer. I danced with Emad to music I had never heard before.
“What is this music? Where did you guys get this?”
“From Bulaq El-Dakrour!”
We laughed until our eyes watered. I was very happy for Emad.
I spotted a group of my friends, so I excused myself.
“Where are you guys going?”
“After Eight just opened!”
“OK, let’s go!”
We got to After Eight. Inside everybody was singing: “On my rabaaba I sing, live on Egypt.” Everybody was clapping and sharing drinks.
“Someone went to get a cassette player.”
We danced and sang until a friend came back with a big cassette player.
“Allahu Akbar! Great!”
We inserted a cassette and pushed the play button. We cheered and sang:
My life is pink
Pink, Pink, Pink, Pink
My life is pink with you by my side
I am by your side my love
And my love, you are by my side.”
The song ended.
We changed the lyrics:
My life is pink without you, Hosni
Without you Hosni, life is now pink
Pink, Pink, Pink.”
This article is translated from the Arabic by Samia Mehrez and excerpted from Ismi Thawra (My Name is Revolution) published by the author in Cairo in 2012.
Mona Prince is the author of novels and short stories, including Three Suitcases for Departure, The Last Piece of Clay, and So You May See. She is an associate professor of English at Suez Canal University. In 2012, she nominated herself for the Egyptian presidency, but failed to garner the 30,000 signatures required to appear on the ballot.
Samia Mehrez is the author of The Literary Life of Cairo, The Literary Atlas of Cairo, and Egypt’s Culture Wars: Politics and Practice, and editor, most recently, of Translating Egypt’s Revolution: The Language of Tahrir. She is the founding director of the Center for Translation Studies at the American University in Cairo, where she is a professor of Arabic literature in the Arab and Islamic Civilization department.
In January, film producer Mohammed El-Adl co-founded the Egyptian Creativity Front with the aim of fighting anticipated restrictions in the name of religion. “We want to protect the artist’s right to create, as well as the audience’s right to receive creativity,” says El-Adl. “We cannot protect creativity alone. The audience must also help us.”
After the announcement of legislative election results in January, the Egyptian Creativity Front marched from the Cairo Opera House to the People’s Assembly demanding that the new parliament respect freedom of expression. “There is no civilization without freedom!” read one of the banners. Another said: “Listen to the demands of the revolution!” Among the marchers was Khaled Youssef, a leading director of cinéma vérité films that expose Egypt’s seamy underside and a prominent critic of the Muslim Brotherhood and the conservative Salafi movement. The front has organized rallies and legal support for Adel Imam, a leading comic film star recently charged with insulting Islam through his acting roles. The Islamist lawyer who brought the charges also accused several prominent directors of insulting “the heavenly religion” and “men of religion.”
El-Adl says that one of the group’s goals is to abolish official censorship, which hindered artists during the reigns of Egypt’s secular rulers as well. “Ultimately, we could always get around political censorship through symbols and metaphors,” he says. “Religious censorship is harder to escape from.”
El-Adl is confident, though, that Egyptians will protect their unique heritage. “No one will be able to reverse this country’s rich history of creativity and culture,” says El-Adl. “We are not afraid.”
The Fall of Hosni Mubarak
Egyptian pharaohs, sultans, kings, and presidents have always ruled supreme. Modern Egypt has been shaped in the second half of the nineteenth century, not only by the vision but also the proclivities, of Khedive Ismail. King Farouk’s liberalism, his infatuation with Europe, and even his licentiousness influenced society’s tolerance and open-mindedness in the 1940s. Gamal Abdel Nasser’s morality and integrity inspired the grandeur and stateliness of the 1950s and 1960s. Anwar Sadat’s piety and unpredictability triggered the waves of religiosity and the tumultuous changes in the 1970s. Hosni Mubarak’s imprint, however, is missing.
Part of the problem was that Mubarak never connected with his people in a personal way. Even, after being ruled by Mubarak for thirty years, Egyptians know very little about him as an individual. His persona always remained associated with state ceremonies and public events. The thoughts, feelings, and dispositions behind the façade were a mystery. Egyptians heard that he was a good squash player and enjoyed traditional Egyptian folk music; yet he never played the sport or displayed such cultural interests in public. Despite the millions of words and images published by the Egyptian state media since 1981, Egyptians do not know the man.
Mubarak’s first two terms included a number of achievements. He developed the utilities, telecommunications, educational, and industrial infrastructures. But most of these achievements were swamped by high population growth rates, deficient administration for public services, and rampant corruption at various levels of government. In foreign policy, the president’s admirers emphasized how he avoided dragging the country into either military misadventure or serious political confrontation. His cautious, calculated approach nonetheless failed to resonate with Egyptians’ sense of identity and how they envisioned their country’s role in the region. With the passing of the years, Mubarak’s internal and external policies gradually fell out of step. Increasingly, he offered nothing tangible that could inspire hope. Instead, the crushing socio-economic conditions, widespread corruption, and gap between haves and have-nots fuelled the anger that vast swaths of Egyptians felt towards his regime.
Significant anger targeted Mubarak personally. By his third decade in office, and as the only leader most Egyptians had ever known, he was held responsible for many of their daily sufferings and resentments. The traditional Egyptian jokes at the expense of their presidents turned into waves of demonstrations and, at times, violent manifestations of hatred. From 2005 onward, Egypt witnessed hundreds of small riots, and demonstrators often tore down billboard images of the president.
And little wonder, for Mubarak diluted state institutions. Parliament became a product of successive rigged elections; administrative structures and the public sector remained mired in lethargy and corruption, and with the rise of the private sector, they increasingly lost their relevance. The presidency ceased to be what it had been, albeit at times, under Nasser and Sadat: a vibrant nerve center of governance, full of notable advisors and intellectuals, with links to most of the country’s think tanks, and acting as a laboratory of ideas. Instead, it became a mere administrative shell around the president. The entire system was composed of executive bodies, rather than pillars of a balanced political system.
Increasingly, the regime relied on containment, coercion, and confrontation. Containment involved economic development and investment programs aimed at alleviating some of the pressures of Egyptians’ daily lives, and winning some goodwill among middle-class Egyptians in particular. Coercion became evident in the state’s suppression of any potential challenge, such as the crushing of protest, strict controls on civic organizations, and the endemic use of torture. Confrontation lay in curbing any new political initiatives from within Egyptian society.
As time passed, Mubarak’s disconnect from society grew, and the more entrenched his trust and legitimacy problem became. Economic development, the key lever within the new dynamo of the regime, proved to be a double-edged sword. Newly empowered businessmen (and women) emerged in their various sectors and demanded a bigger say in how their economy (and country) was governed. Demographics also complicated the picture. The demands, ambitions, and restlessness of a young population—75 percent under the age of thirty-five—compelled the regime to increasingly rely on confrontation and coercion rather than containment. But reliance on force gradually became untenable as the availability of satellite channels and Internet platforms provided Egyptians with greater awareness and the means of mobilizing their discontent.
Mubarak, in turn, isolated himself. He relied on the security apparatus, insisting that solutions could be found in economic reform without any true political change. The notion that he could lead the country out of its political oppression, corruption, economic malaise, sectarianism, and widespread fury finally lost all credibility. Perhaps the starkest sign of Mubarak’s detachment was the endless intrigue to install his son, Gamal, as the republic’s next president. The First Family seemed to imagine itself a royal dynasty; and one supremely oblivious to the ever-rising domestic hostility to Mubarak’s rule.
Some observers seek to explain Mubarak’s fumbling during the January 25 revolt by citing his unimaginative and cautious character. But that is only partially true, for in his speeches to the nation it became apparent he represented a past age. No longer could an Egyptian president claim to speak for the masses; unlike eras gone by when state media monopolized both information and opinion, and authority went largely unchallenged.
Mubarak was unable and unwilling to change. The aging autocrat became protected by his senior clique. He clung to the credo of top-down authority that had predominated since Nasser’s heyday. Much like King Farouk during Nasser’s coup d’état in 1952, Mubarak desperately tried to absorb the popular anger being vented against him. He never realized that his regime had actually been crumbling around him for more than a decade.
Mubarak came to the presidency and soothed the nation after the last turbulent years of Sadat’s reign, which ended with Sadat’s assassination—Mubarak sitting at his side—by Islamist militants during a nationally-televised military parade marking the anniversary of the October War. Mubarak’s impressive and honorable military career, his simple approach, and the fact that he was not linked to the power circles and corruption cases that marred Sadat’s final years, positioned him as a safe pair of hands. After the major social, political, and economic transformations that Egypt witnessed in the 1960s and 1970s, and the shock of Sadat’s killing live on TV, the country needed a calm guide.
Mubarak might have, step by step, helmed genuine democratic transition—he had three decades after all. But he did not. His imagination and appreciation of Egyptian history failed him. Instead, he ended up a prisoner.
Tarek Osman is the author of Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak. The first edition of the book was published by Yale University Press in 2010 and was translated to Arabic, Dutch, French, and Japanese. Osman’s writing has appeared or been cited in the Economist, Guardian, Independent, Financial Times, Foreign Affairs, and Boston Globe among many other publications.