Egypt is spinning out of control. But it’s not only the fault of the ruling military junta — the protesters in the street deserve plenty of blame, too.
DECEMBER 19, 2011
CAIRO —Tahrir Square smells like piss. It is no surprise. After all, people had beenliving there in a tent camp for weeks. Yet the stench is also fitting forEgypt’s current impasse. Egyptians — soldiers, police, activists, soccer hooliganscalled “ultras,” and others — have abused this ostensibly hallowed ground atvarious moments since Hosni Mubarak’s unexpected fall almost a year ago.
Thelatest affront to the revolutionary promise of Tahrir came this past weekend,just to the south of the square on Qasr al-Aini Street, where Egypt’sparliament and cabinet buildings sit. There, military police and protesters engagedin a pitched battle using rocks, glass, metal, truncheons, and Molotovcocktails. At one point, an Egyptian soldier standing on the roof of the cabinetbuilding literally appearedto urinate on the protesters below. (The symbolism was lost on no one.)
Theproximate cause of Cairo’s current spasm of violence was the military police’sill-advised effort to clear a relatively small number of protesters from infront of the cabinet building. The clashes, however, have revealed a deeper, more profoundproblem afflicting Egypt. The country has retreated from the moment ofempowerment and national dignity that the uprising symbolized and is now grappling with a squalid politics andthe normalization of violence.
What isperhaps most disturbing is that the weekend’s battle, which left 10 dead andhundreds injured, didn’t seem to have a point. The young toughs who descendedon Qasr al-Aini Street after news spread of the Army’s efforts to clear the areaseemed less concerned with principle than combat. Having cut their teeth andpaid for it with the loss of 45 lives in late November clasheswith the police and military,these kids seemed to be looking for payback. Qasr al-Aini Street bellowed with chantsof “Death to the field marshal” — a reference to Supreme Council of the ArmedForces (SCAF) head Gen. Mohamed Hussein Tantawi — rather than the significantly moreinspiring “Freedom! Freedom!” that echoed through the concrete canyon of Tahrirduring the January uprising.
How didEgyptians get to this warped, demented, bizarro version of Tahrir Square? It iseasy to blamethe SCAF, as so many have, but the generals have also had a lot of help.Each of Egypt’s primary political actors — the military, revolutionary groups,Islamists, and liberals — have contributed mightily to the country’s currentpolitical impasse and economic collapse through a combination of incompetence,narcissism, and treachery. This has left a society on the edge, one in which minortraffic accidents become near riots, soldiers beat womenwith reckless abandon, and protesters burnthe building containing some of Egypt’s historical and cultural treasures.
Themilitary command, which handled the 18-day uprising so well, has compensatedfor its lack of political acumen with brutality. The combination of bothsuggests a military command adrift with no real grasp of the political dynamicsof the society they lay claim to protect and lead. It is not clear to whom, exactly,Egypt’s generals were listening in February when they drew up plans forhanding power over to civilian rule, but they have presided over a transitionthat has sown confusion and heightened tension — all in the name, ironically, ofstability.
Thesorry state of Egypt’s transition reveals a central problem with the generals’administration of the country. They come up with ideas with the help of adomestic intelligence apparatus that is more brutal than shrewd, toss them outinto the public square, gauge how people react, and adjust accordingly. This isterribly destabilizing because rather than doing what is right, they try tosituate everything they do in that sweet spot of public opinion. When thefortunes of the revolutionary groups were high, the SCAF responded to theirdemands. Now, the officers are dialed into that mythical, great “silent majority” that they believe is opposed to the protests.
In a Dec. 19 press conference, Maj. Gen. Adel Emara soughtto reinforce that point when he arguedthat the people on Qasr al-Aini Street did not represent the uprising thattoppled Mubarak and that the protesters, not the military, had instigated theviolence. Emara was correct on the first point but clearly departed from thefacts on the second. The officers seemto be convinced that they have the pulse of the Egyptian people, but theproblem is that if this majorityis actually silent, how can the officers know what these people are thinking?Indeed, they don’t know.
Thethree-round parliamentary elections — a marathon process that began inNovember and will not end until January 2012 — represents another source offriction. The officers may have felt vindicated by the large and mostlytrouble-free first round, but when they woke up to the fact that Egyptiansseem to want to invest the parliament with a strong popular mandate, they hadsecond thoughts about the wisdom of their “silent majority.” That’s why Maj.Gen. Mukhtar al-Mulla tolda group of foreign journalists on Dec. 7 that despite the strong turnout, theparliament will not actually be able to “impose anything” on the Egyptianstate.
It’sunclear how the military will justify this position, but watch out. Suchstatements put it on a collision course with the Muslim Brotherhood, whichhas dominated the parliamentary elections. Whatever happened on Qasr al-AiniStreet and Tahrir over the weekend will ultimately pale in significance to the comingstruggle between the military and the Brothers, who believe that they, not themilitary, enjoy a popular mandate.
Therevolutionaries have much to answer for as well. With all the creativity andenergy that went into bringing Mubarak down and is currently going into plansto transform Egyptian society, there has also been much narcissism andrevolutionary navel-gazing. The instigators of Mubarak’s fall have seemed to be morefocused on burnishing their revolutionary cred on Twitter and Facebook — whichare not accessible to the vast majority of Egyptians — than doing the hardwork of political organizing. For months, the revolutionaries have largelyspurned the political process that began after Mubarak’s ouster. After theywere trounced in the March 19 constitutional referendum, many tuned out andbegan searching for ways to recapture the lightning in a bottle that wasJanuary 25.
But theyhave largely failed to do so. The 17 “Fridays of …” over the spring andsummer reflected political goals less than a “I protest, therefore I am”sensibility. It culminated with a two-week sit-in at Tahrir Square that –because it brought Cairo to a halt anddeteriorated into a carnival of self-congratulation rather than a serious politicalstatement — did much damage to the revolutionaries in the eyes ofsympathetic Egyptians. All through the spring and summer, while therevolutionaries were imagining themselves as a permanent revolution against themilitary, the hated felool(“remnants” of the old regime), or anyone who dared disagree with them, theMuslim Brothers were hard at work, taking advantage of the greatest politicalopportunity they have had since a schoolteacher named Hassan al-Banna foundedthe group in December 1928.
If therevolutionaries and their supporters are now stunned that the Islamists — boththe Brotherhood and the Salafists — are set to dominate post-uprising Egypt,they must take a hard look at what they have done, or not done, over the last 11months. Indeed, their ability to read Egyptian public sentiment is as bad asthat of the military, and a good deal more myopic.
TheMuslim Brothers are just about the only ones who have played post-Mubarak Egyptwell. Although they did not instigate the uprising, they understood how eventswere unfolding and helped hasten the demise of a regime they reviled. Additionally, unlike the revolutionaries, the Brothers shrewdly put themselves in a positionto prevail. It is not the revolutionaries who scare the military — it is theBrotherhood, which is capable of displacing the officers as the source ofauthority and legitimacy in the political system.
Now thatthe Brothers are poised to dominate parliament, what will be their approach topolitics? So far, they have adopted a pragmatic path in an effort to persuade Egyptians and the international community that they can be good stewards ofEgypt. For example, the Brothers have reached out to business leaders in Egyptand abroad to solicit their advice on managing the economy and have evinced a decidedlymoderate public posture on questions related to minority rights, women, andtourism. This makes sense, given the organization’sworldview and historical political strategy, which has always been that time ison its side.
But oneshould not expect the Muslim Brotherhood to wait forever. Huge protests on July8 and Nov. 18 demonstrated its political power, while at the same timeheightening tensions and polarizing the public. It is hard to believe that withEgypt now within their grasp, the Brothers will settle to lead from behind andpass up the chance to realize their historical goal of ruling the country. If theIslamists cannot resist the temptation to rule and govern, they are heading fora mighty showdown with the SCAF.
Theoptimistic view is that Egyptians are deep in the throes of a wrenchingnational debate that will take many years to work out, but is neverthelesshealthy. It is, however, becoming increasingly difficult to make that case. Tobe sure, Egypt is a cacophony of ideas, projects, initiatives, and manifestos.Yet there is no moral leadership to give the best of ideas national politicalmeaning and content. Egypt’s would-be wise men have tried — but pro-democracystalwart Mohamed ElBaradei could not do it during the uprising, and EssamSharaf was not strong enough politically to withstand the competing demands ofthe revolutionaries, officers, and Islamists as prime minister. It remains tobe seen whether other Egyptian leaders such Amr Moussa, AbdelMoneim Aboul Fotouh, or Khairat El Shater can be that person, but they are all divisive personalities whomay do more to undermine social cohesion than repair it.
Theresult of all this is Tahrir’s Frankenstein monster where there is noleadership, no moral force, no common cause, and no sense of decency. Egyptiansare in trouble, and there is not much anyone can do to help them. After thesespasms of violence you often hear from Egyptians, “This is not Egypt.” It istime for them to prove it.