Egypt’s long and winding road back to square one

Protesters in July calling for the ouster of Mohamed Morsi hold a photo General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. (Photo from REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)

After two and a half years of turmoil, what have we Egyptians really gained?

“What’s happening in Egypt?”

For Egyptians who live abroad, like me, that’s gradually gone from a question we covet being asked, to one we dread.

After Jan 25th 2011, we would proudly speak of our revolution and retell the amazing feats of a simple folk who stood up against tyranny.

During the sporadic violence through 2011 and 2012, we would explain that people were protesting to get their rights, to force the army out of power and transition to an elected government.

When Morsi came to power in June 2012, it became harder to explain. People were protesting his misrule, his power grab and the irresponsible rhetoric coming from some of his supporters.

“But didn’t you guys elect him because he wasn’t going to do that?” “Yeah. We sure did.”

With the June 30th protests this year, it got even harder: “We’re trying to get Morsi to step down, you see.” “After you voted him in less than a year ago?” “You don’t understand, he’s really bad.”

Can it be that it was all so simple then? (Photo by Rowan El Shimi via Flickr)
Can it be that it was all so simple then? (Photo by Rowan El Shimi via Flickr)

Which brings us to today.

There are now three completely different narratives as to what actually has been happening in Egypt since the revolution two and a half years ago.

Those who currently support the army (for a variety of reasons) will tell you that Jan 25th was a legitimate uprising at first that was later hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood to “compromise the state.” They’ll say that the brotherhood is a terrorist organization that’s part of a world wide “jihadist network” and that the army intervention saved Egypt from a fate worse than Afghanistan.

Those who support the Brotherhood will claim that there’s a war on Islam in Egypt and that the whole world was against them. They’ll say that the small spark of freedom that they helped foster during the 2011 Revolution was recently extinguished by Pro-Mubarak elites and the Army while the world stood by watched. They will also say that Morsi was going to lead Egypt to freedom and prosperity and that he was betrayed before he could get a chance.

This article is about the third narrative. The one that will sadly get no airtime, because those saying it are not in a position of power or in the spotlight. However, I think it’s the narrative most Egyptians see, and more importantly, and the narrative that will hopefully inform how they react next.

Dealing with the Devil as a recreational sport:

Massive protests on January 25, 2012 called for elections and an end to rule by the Armed Forces. But both the Muslim Brotherhood and liberal elites expressed continued support for military rule. (Photo by <a href="">Jonathan Rashad </a>via Flickr )
Massive protests on January 25, 2012 called for elections and an end to rule by the Armed Forces. But both the Muslim Brotherhood and liberal elites expressed continued support for military rule. (Photo by Jonathan Rashad via Flickr )

Over the past two and a half years, every faction in Egypt that has felt it is finally close to gaining power has shown an exceptional willingness to make deals with anyone in order to do so — often to disastrous results for the country itself.

The older generation of leaders, politicians and opposition figures sided with the Army (which took over power after Mubarak stepped down) when it showed itself willing to deal by force with continued protests by youth and labor organizations. That was the first “dark pact” — stability in exchange for elections.

Shortly afterward, Egypt’s famed “undemocratic liberals” lobbied the Army to delay the elections as long as possible. They worried about the popularity of Islamic movements, not realizing that the longer they waited, the more likely it was that the average citizen would forget their contributions to the revolution, but remember the Islamists who provide him with day-to-day services and who entice him with religious promises.

Then after that, the Islamists parties came out in massive protests in support of the Army when the revolutionary youth protested on the anniversary of the revolution, demanding that presidential elections be held soon.

These Islamist groups defended Field Marshal Tantawy and called him their prince and their inspirations. Oh, Irony! Thy name is Egypt.

At the time of presidential elections, many of Egypt’s liberals sided with Ahmed Shafiq (a military man from the Mubarak regime) just to get back at the Islamist candidate Mohammed Morsi.

A protestor shot in the face in February 2012 during the period of military rule before Morsi was elected, just one of hundreds killed by police and security forces during that time. (Photo by <a href="">Bora S. Kamel </a>via Flickr)
A protestor shot in the face in February 2012 during the period of military rule before Morsi was elected, just one of hundreds killed by police and security forces during that time. (Photo by Bora S. Kamel via Flickr)

And then Morsi came to power, and his first “dark pact” was to honor all the leaders of the military (who had, up to that point, already killed several hundred people during their year and a half in power).

His second dark pact was to side with and defend the police.

He defended the police so much and so vigorously that he stated on January 25th 2013 that it was most fortuitous that the revolution of January 25th 2011 happened on the same day as Police Day. That’s right. He actually forgot that the revolution was started on that day because it is Police Day — to protest police brutality and the erosion of human rights in Egypt.

When he got a chance to appoint the Public Prosecutor, he opted for a crony who set out to prosecute people that bother the Brotherhood, like satirist Bassem Youssef, and yet failed to get any convictions on a single innocent death in the prior two years.

His most troubling dark pact perhaps was his pact with demagoguery. When he made his ill-fated constitutional declaration giving himself ridiculous powers (such as the right to issue laws that were not subject to appeal even by the Supreme Court), people went out in protests against him.

The Brotherhood made an amazingly bone-headed decision to “defend their president” (who happens to have his own Presidential Guard). These Muslim Brotherhood members went to the sit-in in front of the palace and dispersed it themselves. Not the police. Not the army. Themselves.

In the eyes of many people, this was Morsi’s biggest downfall, as it started to paint him as the president of only the Muslim Brotherhood and not all Egyptians.

A Cairene complains about high food prices during Morsi's presidency (Photo by Bora S. Kamel via Flickr)
A Cairene complains about high food prices during Morsi’s presidency. (Photo by Bora S. Kamel via Flickr)

Meanwhile, things were getting worse, much worse, in everyone’s day to day lives. Electricity outages were the norm, long gas lines, increasing joblessness and, of course, unrest and crime. When asked in a Zogby poll if they were better off than during Mubarak’s days, 65% of Egyptians said no, and 35% said yes. Of those 35%, 98% were supporters of Morsi.

So then it was the turn of the “Liberal elites” to make a dark pact: Believing that the Muslim Brotherhood would entrench themselves in power and never let go, and believing (correctly or not) that they had no real chance of swaying the minds of the people any time soon because the Brotherhood so effectively guilts them with religion, they resorted to an unholy alliance with the rich businessmen who had long backed the Mubarak regime.

They started a vicious campaign against Morsi in the private media and, at the same time, they started privately (and sometimes openly) asking the army to intervene.

When presented with the possibility of a coup, the last chance for democracy and defusing the crisis ended when Morsi decided neither to resign, nor call an early election, despite knowing for more than a week that the army was on the verge of removing him.

Mohammed Morsi (right) during happier times with his Defense Minister General Sisi, who deposed him in July. (Photo via The Egyptian Presidency)
Mohammed Morsi (right) during happier times with his Defense Minister General Sisi, who deposed him in July. (Photo via The Egyptian Presidency)

Now double-dealing and backstabbing is par for the course in politics, one might argue cynically. But seldom have I seen this poor of judgment and so many conscious decision to take steps that clearly harm the country’s best interest.

So what is actually happening in Egypt right now?

Right now the country is slipping slowly back to what it was like at the height of the Mubarak Police State in the mid-Nineties:

  • We have an army that is firm in dealing with Islamists, whose infiltration it fears more than anything in the world. The security forces’ dispersal of the big Muslim Brotherhood sit-in was “the worst unlawful mass killing in Egypt’s modern history.” Yet a recent poll showed that only 23% of Egyptians thought the force used was excessive.
  • We have a police that is back, beating, arresting and killing people with abandon. This is just one terribly tragic example.
  • We have the Islamists back in the all too familiar role of enemy of the state. Currently it’s the Brotherhood mainly, but I suspect the state machine will turn on the other groups like the Salafists soon.
  • We have Islamists and Islamist supporters who are going rogue and committing terrible acts of violence across the country, mainly attacking police stations and churches, like in this incident just last week.
  • We have fake liberal democrats who are simply cartoonish parties that will squabble over seats in the parliament and cabinets.
  • We have a rich elite that will settle back into the rhythm of corruption as long as they placate the right officials in the state.
  • We have all the reasonable thinkers of the revolution being attacked, from El-Baradei to Amr Hamzawy to Aboul-Futouh. They are all painted as cowards and traitors for refusing to side with the bloody machine of the police fighting the terrorists.
  • We have erosions of public freedoms, with people being openly arrested without warrant, held without charge and, I am sure, being spied on without cause.
  • All the while, and for the last 30+ years, and especially for the last 3 years, the poor people in Egypt are being crushed. They have little financial promise, few rights and no one representing them or defending their rights.

Really, the only thing missing is Mubarak himself. And what do you know, he was just released from prison!

I’m still looking at the silver lining in all of this:  Maybe next time we try to change, that we see these dark pacts and these old ways of cronyism for what they are and opt for something more cohesive and inclusive.

So what should the US do?

A recent cover of Egyptian magazine "Voice of the Nation" (left) showed support for General al-Sisi's military crackdowns on the Muslim Brotherhood, while drawing design inspiration from HBO's "Curb Your Enthsiasm." (Photo via Vanity Fair)
A recent cover of Egyptian magazine “Voice of the Nation” (left) showed support for General Sisi’s crackdowns on the Muslim Brotherhood, while drawing design inspiration from HBO’s “Curb Your Enthsiasm.” (Photo via Vanity Fair)

The debates in the US over “was it or wasn’t it a coup?” and “should we cut off aid?” have been amusing at best. Only mainstream American Media can obsess over such meaningless things.

Ultimately the US does not want to cut aid because it will render the US meaningless in the conversation, with no leverage. They know this, and so do the Generals.

The best we can do is be informed about the two sides of the story. Understand that while 25-30% of the people support the army and 25-30% of them support the Brotherhood, there’s a disaffected 40-50% that’s stuck in the middle. This is not a clear-cut case of across-the-board revolution.

The most important thing Egyptians need is hope. The number one thing that the events of the past 2.5 years have shown is that most of our leadership in Egypt is flawed, and broken, amoral and bankrupt. We need new, inspired leaders (among Islamists, Liberals and everywhere in between) who are able to work together, reach compromises and plan for a long-term future.

Any advice or help the American people can give their Egyptians brothers and sisters on that front would be much appreciated.


Disclaimer: My use of the terms “Islamist” and “Liberal” is to refer to these two camps as they refer to themselves. It’s important to note that the so-called Islamists do not represent the Islamic view (in fact, as demonstrated above have often acted dishonorably in contradiction to Islam’s basic teachings) and that the Liberals do not represent Liberalism in pretty much any way shape or form (one will be hard pressed to find true liberals who support authoritarianism and suppression of rights as much as these Egyptian Liberals do).

It’s also important to note that the “Islamist parties” use this moniker to denote anyone who supports and sympathizes with them, not as anyone who holds a specific set of ideals or political views. These parties have shown little actual policy differences from Liberal parties, other than bickering over meta phrases in the constitution about identity. This is not to be confused with the way some unprofessional/biased media outlets in the West use the term “Islamist” to refer to anything from Muslims who want to practice their religion in the West to Suicide bombers to Huma Abdedin, Anthony Weiner’s wife.  For more on that, see here.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks to Tarek for writing this useful and insightul article on the current state of affairs in Egypt. I am sure he knows the situation there far better than I, given that he has lived there. I have worked with a good number of Egyptian students and activists the past few years, and also spent 3 weeks there doing trainings in using social media for social change. I would however, add two things to his article. First, it is reported that some 22 million people signed a petition, and millions were in the street calling for Morsi’s departure, not an insignificant number. And second, while I see few positive initiatives right now to start steering the country out of its nosedive to disaster, the one thing I hear consistently from young and old there (especially young) is a sense of hope. People have not given up. The 2011 revolution changed people there, giving a sense that the grassroots people can make a difference. So while solutions are few, and things are going to get worse, I do think the underlying hope that has not yet died, will slowly lead to things getting better…

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