Egypt: Clueless and Rudderless

Aug 06

This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman.

In 2011, along with millions of people around the world, I was mesmerized by the peaceful popular uprisings in Tahrir Square that eventually led to the end of three decades of dictatorial rule in Egypt. As the youth cheered, I felt solidarity in declaring “we are all Egyptians now.” I cannot say the same now. Two years ago Egyptians rejoiced in unison as the birth of people’s power seemed possible. Today many of the same people seem apathetic to army bullets killing fellow Egyptians.

Long before the General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi forcibly removed Mohammed Morsi from the Presidency, Egyptian society was descending into a spiral of polarization. A poll conducted in May of 2013 by the Arab American Institute showed that more than 90 percent of those who identified with the Islamists said they were “better off” than five years ago. However, more than 80 percent of those associated with the opposition and the “disaffected plurality” claimed that they were “worse off.” Among those Egyptians not affiliated with either the Islamists or their opposition only one percent claims that they are better off today while 83 percent perceived that they are worse off. And yet such disaffection does not justify a coup d’etat, which has only exasperated polarization not resolved it.

The Egyptian military is like a hammer that sees every political problem as an existential security nail. So predictably, knowing only how to wield a hammer, they resorted to solving a political problem by hammering a nail into the coffin of democracy. And while they did so, many Egyptians cheered, unfazed by irony that they were essentially burning the village to purportedly save it.

While the military is blameworthy the Muslim Brotherhood can hardly claim innocence because they failed to pay heed to the disaffection that preceded their rise to power. A 2012 opinion survey by Brookings showed that 71 percent of Egyptians felt that it was a mistake for the Brotherhood to renege on their promise to not field a candidate for the Presidency. The Brotherhood incorrectly perceived their electoral victory as a mandate to inject religion into politics. While 6 in 10 Egyptians wanted Sharia to be the basis of Egyptian law, 83 percent wanted Sharia to be adapted to modern times. Fifty-four percent of those surveyed wanted the Egyptian democracy to be modeled after Turkey, a secular republic currently being successfully ruled by moderate Islamists (the Gezi park fiasco notwithstanding).

Most of all, Egyptians sought good governance and a relief from the crushing 13.2 percent unemployment that has resulted in 8 out of every 10 jobless Egyptians being under the age of 30 with more than a quarter of them holding university degrees. The Brotherhood by pursuing a parochial agenda essentially missed an opportunity to demonstrate that like Turkey’s Islamists they were a marked improvement over the regime they replaced. Not all of its failings were their fault though. The New York Times recently reported that Egypt’s deep state had conspired to make the Morsi government look bad. The day after Morsi was ousted, gas supplies and electrical power magically returned to normalcy.

Despite my euphoria in 2011, I had sounded a cautionary alarm, “Standing at the edge of a new dawn, one cannot help but be hopeful. But this euphoria of hope should not detract attention from a basic fact — democracy is a process, not an outcome. The process requires engagement and vigilance. Removing a dictatorial regime is not enough, for democracy is not merely the rule of the majority but also necessitates the protection of minority rights and voices.”

The Brotherhood missed an opportunity to unite Egypt by creating an inclusive constitutional process, underscored by the fact that only 1 in 3 eligible voters participated in the constitutional referendum. The opposition was just as incompetent by being unable to mount a viable counter narrative and now appears unscrupulous by cheering a coup d’etat that is witnessing the return of the old Mubarak cronies. The Brotherhood and its opposition each in their zeal to prevail are blinded to the reality that only a democratic and inclusive Egypt that respects the dignity of all its citizens, including women and all minorities will truly honor the aspirations of the Arab Spring when Egypt stood united and people worlds away from Tahrir felt like saying we are all Egyptians now. Two years ago, the millions on the street inspired hope. Today they evoke fear.