Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Egypt 2.0 [updated]

Revolutions occur when the coercive apparatus of the state splits, and a new configuration is born. It’s a rare event and a dangerous one as the power vacuum can lead to violent and/or repressive outcomes. But it’s also an amazing display of popular sovereignty, a time when individuals are willing to bare their chests to the bayonets in hopes of a brighter future for succeeding generations. Generally speaking, our biped race has few noble moments—revolutions can be one of them.

I think people will be analyzing and writing about the Egyptian revolution(s) 100 years from now, and the events of today are far from the last chapter. I don’t pretend to know anything more about Egypt than what I pick up from newspapers and smart observers, but here are my tentative conclusions to date:

-Morsi is a dolt. You squeeze into power on a slight majority almost by default because the run-off opponent is a holdover from the ancien régime, and the first thing you do is convince everyone that you’re a closet Mubarak in a bushy beard. Everything Morsi did from his takeover a year ago was high-handed, authoritarian, clannish, sectarian and largely incompetent. He alienated everyone except his narrow base of supporters, and his response to criticism was ‘I won! I won! I get to decide everything!’ Huh? There wasn’t a vast popular uprising that killed 1,000 people? You don’t have to include the rest of the country in your clubby wet-dreams? Brutish, deluded, clueless.

-The incoming government needed to address two urgent priorities: consolidation of the democratic structure and economic recovery. Morsi failed on both resoundingly. The Muslim Brotherhood’s shenanigans surrounding the writing and passage of the new constitution reflected open disdain for the idea of a consensual, nationwide, inclusive process in which everyone could be heard and minority rights protected. The Brotherhood is now exposed as indifferent to secular society, medieval on women, hostile to non-Muslims and fixated on social mores rather than the people’s wellbeing. Even that wouldn’t have been a deal-breaker if they had respected the democratic process, but they didn’t.

-All the news accounts and features suggest that the economic situation for the average Egyptian is dire and getting worse. While that wasn’t Morsi’s fault a year ago, the lack of progress today is. By building a broad coalition to tackle the hardships together, the MB might have bought time and held off popular resentment with the promise that after a rough period, things would eventually improve. But Morsi thought he could bull his way forward alone and didn’t need any allies among perfidious unbelievers. Not so much, as it turns out. Right up until his last hours on the job, Morsi kept chanting ‘I won! I won!’ and repeating the word ‘legitimacy’ 60 times per speech, meaning he still didn’t get it.

-Speaking of which, Morsi appeared congenitally incapable of learning on the job. While his support ebbed away steadily month by month, he displayed very little knack for shifting course and trying a different approach—although a few appointments had to be withdrawn in the face of opposition. Speaking of which, one of the all-time dumbest things he did was his June decision to name a former terrorist figure from Gamaa Islamiya as governor of Luxor in Upper Egypt last month, exactly where that group massacred 60 foreign visitors—just the thing to endear one to the local population eking out a living on tourism! You gotta wonder if all that praying hasn’t addled the poor man’s brains.

-The military staged a coup (people want to debate this, but I don’t see the point.) They moved in when things were clearly breaking down quickly and with 4 million people in the streets showing no signs of leaving. Ideally, Morsi’s government would have collapsed of its own weight, but the risk of street violence between factions may have pushed the army to act quickly. The Brotherhood now could retreat to its historic position of hostility toward the military and with good reason given the record. So it would be prudent to keep the arrests and other repressive tactics to a minimum and let the MB return as a political faction, forced to obey the democratic spirit, whether they feel it or not. However, if the troops produce martyrs through heavy-handed tactics, the MB is large and organized enough to make serious trouble for a long time to come.

-The soldiers didn’t have a great time during their 18 months in power after the overthrow of Mubarak, so theoretically they should be eager to get on with it and not make the same mistakes as in the first round. A new constitutional process could go a long way toward reassembling the various factions in the unity government that the Islamists showed no interest in building.

-That said, Morsi was an elected president who came to power by democratic means. So the sight of the army bundling him off to house arrest is a disturbing one and not to be applauded unreservedly. We have plenty of historical precedent that this is not the ideal way to end a crisis, and it is fervently to be hoped that the country will not have to resort to this procedure again.

-The American role so far has been prudent. We know that Washington’s primary interest is security, not democracy and not the living standards of hungry Egyptians. Obama wants to protect Israel and reaffirm the strategic alliance with Egypt’s military, and political stability could and should further that aim. It’s not helpful for the U.S., given its historical role as Mubarak’s principal backer, to do anything but stay out of the transition, not take (obvious) sides, and reiterate its support for democratic principles and actions even if no one believes it.

May you live in interesting times.

[Update] Commentators much better informed than I have emphasized that having Morsi removed by the army is, in Juan Cole's words, extremely dangerous and could backfire. The Guardian editorialized against the coup, and I admit that the sight of opposition leaders and the Coptic cardinal standing next to the army chief for the announcement of the takeover was chilling. Cole concludes:

Egypt’s future stability and prosperity now depends on whether the officer corps and youth are mature enough to return to pluralist principals and cease persecuting the Muslim Brotherhood just because Morsi was high-handed. Their media has be be free and the 300 officials have to be released unless charged with really-existing crimes on the statute books. And it depends on whether the Muslim Brotherhood is wise and mature enough to roll with this punch and to reform itself, giving up its cliquish and cult-like internal solidarity in favor of truly becoming a nation-wide, center-right, democratic opposition party. If they take this course, they have a chance of emulating Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and one day coming back to power . . . . If the Muslim Brotherhood adherents instead turn to terrorism and guerrilla actions, they will tear the country apart and probably blacken the name of political Islam for decades.

At the moment, neither of those two groups is demonstrating the maturity and high-mindedness that would reassure me about the prospects for a genuinely democratic transition.

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