by Mordechai Kedar
Read the article in Italiano (translated by Yehudit Weisz, edited by Angelo Pezzana)
Ever since Mubarak was forced to resign in February 2011, the sense of a new dawn has swept over Egypt. Grand words and phrases such as “democracy”, “civil rights”, “freedom” and “state of institutions” have become the focus of political discourse, because of the sense that all of those fine characteristics of democracy have finally come to Egypt. As citizens of a state that has been treading on the path of independence and sovereignty for more than two hundred years, the Egyptians have been waiting for their turn to board the democracy train and enjoy its advantages, which many other peoples have been doing, among them peoples who have overthrown dictators and won their freedom only a few years ago, like the peoples of Eastern Europe.
For the first time in the history of modern Egypt, true, not rigged, elections were held for parliament and the presidency, and for the first time the people of Egypt saw how their sweet dream to be a state of its citizens is coming true, a state of constitution and law, of law and order, not the state of a dictator and his sons where every decision is an expression of the personal interest of someone who no one knows when – if at all – his autocratic rule will come to an end. The immediate expression of these hopes was supposed to be an upgrade to the Egyptian economy and an increase of per capita income. In a country where tens of millions live in unplanned neighborhoods, without running water, sewage, electricity or telephone, economic welfare is a matter of existential importance, and without it, life is too much like death.
But the greater the hope, the greater the disappointment. Almost two years have passed since the beginning of the “Spring” and Egypt only continues to slide down the slippery, dangerous slope into the swamp of political, civil, constitutional, and administrative problems, with almost no control of how things develop as they bring Egypt closer to the brink. The paralysis that has taken hold of the government is an obstacle to any progress in the wording of the new constitution, which was supposed to give the country a set of consensual and binding rules of the political game, and the rage over the lack of these rules drives many Egyptians out of their minds.
The elected president, Muhammad Mursi, a representative of the long-standing and well-known Muslim Brotherhood movement, at first enjoyed much credit from the public at large, but is now perceived in these troubled times as the new dictator, after issuing a few “constitutional declarations” which grant him broad powers over other governmental agencies, particularly the legal system. He dismissed the attorney general, despite the claim that he had no authority to do so. According to Mursi’s “declarations”, his decisions are not subject to legal review, not even by the high court. Many Egyptians – even those who believed in him, supported him and voted for him – now feel that two years ago they managed to overthrow a civilian dictator and in his place they got a religious dictator. In the summer, when he dismissed Field Marshall Tantawi and other military commanders, his prestige increased in the eyes of most of the citizens of the country because this step was interpreted as the end of the rule of officers and the beginning of civilian rule. Even the cruelty of the military in breaking up the demonstrations against him added to Mursi’s popularity, since he was seen as an opposing force to the military. However, he quickly lost a significant portion of the public credit because he failed to reconvene the parliament after it had been dispersed by the high court and because he did not convene the committee for drafting the constitution.
Mursi's public struggle with the legal guild arouses the anger of opponents and supporters alike: his opponents rage over his attempts to control the legal system, which is supposed to be free, professional and without political bias, and his supporters are angry because he has not controlled this elite, professional class, which is not elected, but imposes its agenda on the state. With the military, Mursi succeeded to avoid conflict, but this is because he does not dare touch the economic monopolies from which the military makes a very good livelihood. The reason that Mursi did not take over the assets of the military is because he needs loans from the deep pockets that the military controls without oversight of the office of treasury or the tax authority.
On top of the sense of failure of the state, there is the poor performance of the Cairo stock market, which fell in recent days by about 10 percent. This decline means that many citizens of the country have lost a significant part of their savings, which only worsens their sense of lack of personal security. In addition, a sharp decline in the market indicates a depreciation in investments, in sources of employment and livelihood, even for those who do not invest in the stock market. The Egyptian economy, which suffers severely from the lack of foreign investment and tourism, depends today almost solely on one source of hard currency – fees of passage in the Suez Canal. This is the reason that those who govern the state do not speak at all about cutting off relations with Israel. Because the atmosphere of a tense security situation – even if it has not actually deteriorated to acts of hostility –will cause an immediate increase in the fees for insurance for ships that pass through the canal, reduce the profitability of using it and cause severe damage to this important source of income.
An important economic detail is the fact that it is now difficult for Egypt to get a loan from the international bank without these loans being guaranteed by other countries. Europe, which is sunk in its own economic problems, cannot be a guarantor for Egypt, and the United States grants guarantees in exchange for a political price like keeping the relations with Israel and strict adherence to the trappings of democracy. The lack of international funding might force the government of Egypt to reduce the subsidies on food, mainly on bread, ‘arifa, which serves as basic food to the citizens of the state. Any increase to the price of bread, even the slightest, might cause millions of citizens to stream into the streets and threaten the government with the slogans of the “revolution of the hungry”. This has happened several times in the past, and the last thing that Mursi needs is to harm the weakest class of the Egyptian people, those who spend most of their income on buying the most basic food items.
The Muslim Brotherhood movement, which won the lion’s share of the seats of parliament and the office of presidency, lost a great deal of the sympathy that it once had in recent months, because of complaints that all it wants is authority and power so that it can enjoy the pleasures that derive from it - the budgets and fat salaries that its leaders get. Even among the supporters of the Brotherhood there is a concern that the moment they came to power they distanced themselves from the people and have become the ruling elite, interested only in staying in power at all costs, at the expense of the population and other civil bodies.
Long Live Tahrir Square
The sense of having lost out politically, together with the sense of hunger drives Egyptians again to Tahrir Square, from where, perhaps, deliverance might come, but the various existing trends within the population turn the demonstrations into violent conflicts, causing many sacrifices on an undefined altar. Is this the freedom that they prayed for? Is this the democracy that they fought for? Is this the state of orderly institutions that they hoped for?
The disappointment is greatest among the young, liberal, secular generation, university graduates, those who with their own bodies overthrew Mubarak. They have the sense that “they stole my revolution” because what they got instead of Mubarak is the regime of the Muslim Brotherhood, always suspected of actually being controlled by the “General Guide” of the movement, who controls the elected president – so they feel – like a puppet on a string. The presidential commands that Mursi issues throw Egypt back to the era of darkness and shadows, because also in the days of the military dictatorship since 1952, oppression was totally legal and based on government documents and presidential edicts. The liberal groups fear that the Brotherhood intends to implement Islamic Shari’a as the law of the land, and they fear that representatives of the government will begin spying on their moral conduct and checking if what they drink and eat is in accordance with the laws of Islam. The Copts, the Christian minority that sees itself as the original Egyptians, feel the noose closing around their necks, as their businesses are broken into, their houses are burned, their churches are attacked, their men are murdered and their women are humiliated. They are fleeing from Egypt in hordes and try to take their assets, like many intellectuals, and also some Muslims, who have understood in recent months that Egypt is slipping quickly and uncontrollably into a bitter and violent reality, totally different from what they hoped for in the past two years. Every businessman, actor, artist and academician, that leaves Egypt because of the situation, increases the sense of desolation for those who remain and increases their fear that they will be like mice that were unable to leave the sinking ship.
Disappointment encompasses many sectors of the populace: the failure of the president to convene the constitutional committee, causes delays in formulating laws of the political game, and each side sees this as harming the goals of the revolution: the religious expect the constitution to be something that will ensure religious rule over the whole cycle of life, whereas the secular sector expects it to be a defense from religious rule controlling their free lives. Disappointment with the dysfunctional system is expressed in the public arena, and the slogans that appear on signs in the demonstrations of recent days are amazingly similar to the slogans of the demonstrations of two years ago against Mubarak: “Get Out”, “The People Want to Overthrow the Regime”. However, this time there are also new slogans such as: “Down with the Rule of Badi’” (the general guide of the Muslim Brotherhood), “Down , down with the Regime of the Guide”, “Civil Disobedience”, “Cancel the Dictatorial Edicts”, and “We Want a Constitution”.
Another matter that raises the ire of many is the acquittals and light sentences that were given to the officers of the police and army, who were accused of killing demonstrators, and the acquittals that Mubarak and his sons got in some of the things that they were accused of. Every few days, demands are made to stand the symbols of the former regime to trial, even for matters that they have already been acquitted of, and when this demand is accompanied by violence, these people might find themselves again on trial and this time they will be convicted only to quiet down the street. Is this how a justice system is supposed to conduct itself?
The turbulent atmosphere creates violent physical conflicts between groups of demonstrators, and demonstrations where groups with contradictory ideas are represented cause people to come into very violent contact with each other. Demonstrators attempt to break into government offices, police stations, economic institutions, and Western embassies and the police try to tone down the level of violence by using tear gas, clubs, and even live fire. But the police violence increases the violence of the civilian demonstrators and causes more injuries. The public immediately demands an investigation of the police brutality, but this demand, which is never met, increases the rage of the demonstrators against the violent regime, which is deaf to the sensitivities of the public.
The demonstrations are not limited to Tahrir Square in Cairo. Other cities like Alexandria, Asyut, Aswan and Suez have also seen violent demonstrations in recent days, and the army has not yet been brought into play. It sits on the side and allows the many sides to wear each other out. The president tries to calm things down,] claiming that the undemocratic steps that he has taken, mainly placing his decisions above judicial review, are temporary steps that will be cancelled when the other institutions, mainly the parliament, begin to function. But Mursi is not convincing anyone, and some of the members of his opposition have brought back the tents to Tahrir Square, as if to tell him: “We are not moving until we overthrow you like we overthrew Mubarak”.
The Conspiracy Theory
The fact that Egyptian society lives in very crowded conditions means that anything anybody says is heard by many people. Rumors and theories spread among the population at lightning speed, and the weirder the theory, the more people believe it. The rumors going around today are that it is the remnants of the Mubarak regime who are causing Egypt’s problems in the Mursi era, and they just want to cause the collapse of the new system so that everyone will long for the days of Mubarak.
The most interesting rumor is that the president of the United States supported the overthrow of Mubarak so that the Muslim Brotherhood would come to rule a state that is impossible to extract from the swamp its problems, and thus Obama would cause the Muslim Brotherhood to go bankrupt politically and lose its image. According to this theory, the whole process of the past year and a half, where the Muslim Brotherhood won the parliament and the presidency, was part of the American plan, and perhaps even a Zionist plan, that is intended to throw the Muslim Brotherhood into a trap, economically and administratively, where they will bleed to death.
Another claim frequently heard is that every time a demonstration becomes an instance of mass violence, “our” side demonstrated peacefully, “silmiya” , but the other side, who oppose us, infiltrated into the demonstration and created provocations against the police and public institutions, throwing stones and Molotov cocktails, in order to get the police to beat us and then the media would make us out to be violent and uncultured. This claim is heard from all sides.
But the newest conspiracy theory came lately from the study houses of the Salafi imams. They claim that the source of Egypt’s troubles is the remnants of the Pharaonic, heretical culture, which remains within the public arena in the Land of Islam, chiefly the Sphinx and the pyramids. He who dwells on high sees those statues and monuments as symbols of idol worship, and thinks that whoever would leave them standing on the soil of Egypt is perpetuating the Pharaonic heresy. Allah is furious at Egypt because of this, and causes Egypt to suffer political, public and economic plagues. The necessary conclusion to be drawn from this theory is that Egypt must expunge all remnants of the Pharaonic culture, including those in museums, because only then will the wrath of the Almighty be assuaged and Egypt will be cured of its ills. We saw a similar approach during the nineties in Afghanistan, which suffered from a long drought, and to quiet the rage of the Creator of the world, the Taliban smashed the two enormous, ancient statues of Buddha that were carved into the mountain in the area of Bamiyan, despite worldwide protests. One may assume that this fanatical attitude of the Taliban regarding cultures that preceded Islam was part of the justification of the war that the world began against them towards the end of 2001, following the attacks of September 11 in the United States. What would happen in Egypt if the Sphinx and the pyramids were destroyed, as some Salafis demand?
Egypt seems today like a rickety cart that strong, immense horses are pulling in different directions: the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis, the seculars, remnants of the Mubarak regime, the military, the police, the General Intelligence Service, the president and the “street”, and these are in addition to the American, European and international forces, chiefly the International Bank. Will the cart survive the pressures and remain whole or perhaps it will shatter into little pieces, and every area in Egypt will solve its problems by itself. Will the Egyptian cart emerge whole from its straits? Time will tell. Is this an “Arab Spring”? That is not clear at all.
Dr. Kedar is available for lectures
Dr. Mordechai Kedar (Mordechai.Kedar@biu.ac.il) is an Israeli scholar of Arabic and Islam, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and the director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. He specializes in Islamic ideology and movements, the political discourse of Arab countries, the Arabic mass media, and the Syrian domestic arena.
Translated from Hebrew by Sally Zahav with permission from the author.
Additional articles by Dr. Kedar
Source: The article is published in the framework of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. Also published in Makor Rishon, a Hebrew weekly newspaper.
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the author.