DEMOCRACY IN EGYPT: A PYRRHIC VICTORY
The Egyptian revolution begins on January 25, 2011, over a month after the demonstrations in Tunisia and at a time when Ben Ali has already fled to Saudi Arabia.
Following Tunisia's example, as if by contagion, Egypt also rebelled against its Rais. The two countries have in common a severe economic crisis, widespread corruption, illegal enrichment of the few, an authoritarian regime, a dictator whose family handles various traffics, the will to change and the longing for freedom.
Just like in Tunisia, the regime's first reaction was violent repression (the police fired against the crowd) and just like in Tunis, in front of the incessant popular demonstrations, Mubarak - just like Ben Ali - promised that he would not run for the presidency again. Yet it wasn't enough.
On February 10 the Rais announced that power had been handed down to the vice-president, Omar Suleiman, who had headed the Intelligence service (Jihaz al Mukhabarat al Amma) since 1993. The same man that had for many years squashed all opposition and who was considered the real pillar of power in the country. Faced with the growing protests after this choice, which was considered a way to reaffirm the military power's continuity, Mubarak and his family left the Cairo and moved to Sharm el Sheik.
From that moment on the country would be run by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces under the guide of General Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Egypt's military chief of staff.
That was the last of the similarities between the Tunisian events, where the transfer of power was administered discontinuously by civilians, and the Egyptian events, where power went from one person to the other without changing its balance between past and present.
On the one side this diversity qualifies and defines the democratization process in the two countries. On the other it confirms that the structure of power has different articulations in Tunisia and in Egypt.
Ben Ali had grasped power by replacing the old Bourghiba. He claimed power with the backing of the security apparatuses for himself and for his followers. He was not the product of a system or an institution.
In Egypt the power is in the hands of the army which designates its representatives: today Tantawi, yesterday Mubarak, before that Sadat and even earlier Nasser and Neguib. Thus in the Egyptian case the problem is not about ousting one man but eradicating a power system. The latter is a lot more complicated to do. Under this aspect the Algerian case resembles the Egyptian one more so than the Tunisian does.
The follow-up to the Egyptian Arab Spring that has developed since February 2011 is a process of pseudo-democratization of a society under the army's umbrella.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was an agency that would meet periodically, especially in times of particular crisis such as wars. Now it has become the administrator of political power in the country. It is not by hazard that it is composed of about 20 high officials of the armed forces.
On February 28, 2011, the authorities prohibited Mubarak's family to travel and froze their bank accounts. A few days later (on March 3rd) the Prime Minister Ahmad Shafiq, designated by Mubarak, resigned as the country was overrun by demonstrations and protests (leaving an alleged 800 dead on
On March 19 we witness the first test of a rising democracy: the Egyptians approve the reform of their constitution with an ample majority.
On April 16th the administrative Court dismantled the regime's political party: the National Democratic Party.
On May 24th it was officially announced that Mubarak and his 2 sons (Gamal and Alaa), together with the Interior Minister and other minor personalities would be tried for the death of protesters during the demonstrations (the trial began on August 3rd). The judgment, for them and for the demonstrators, would be handed down by a military court. The only difference being that the demonstrators' trials were often coupled with torture and mistreatments.
The demonstrations, protests and incidents that continued to take place throughout the country culminated (in July) with the clashes between police and the crowd in Tahrir square, the place that has become a symbol of the revolution. During these events the Muslim Brotherhood, which had thus far kept a low profile, decided to participate in the demonstrations.
On July 15, 2011, to humor the popular discontent, 587 generals were forced to retire. Yet the people demanded a political change, they demanded democracy, they demanded things that the military had no intention of conceding. Even the constitutional reforms advanced sluggishly without producing visible results.
Yet the people continued their mass protests, asking that the members of the old regime be removed and asking - through the impressive demonstration of October 28th - that the military hand over power to a civilian government. The request was, of course, rejected.
It is in the midst of these heated circumstances that the legislative elections began on November 28th and continued in three successive phases (November 28/29 - December 5/6; December 14/15 - December 21/22; January 3 /4 - January 10/11 2012).
A slow and jumbled procedure (perhaps with the intent of allowing the military to better monitor the results) that will result in a total victory by the Islamics with a strong popular participation in the voting.
Here are the results, out of a total of 508 deputies, to which we must deduct the 10 seats assigned through designation by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces:
- 213 seats were snatched by the Muslim Brotherhood's party "Justice and Liberty". Due to its political alliance with other parties within the "Democratic Alliance for Egypt", it can count on a total of 235 seats (about 37,5% of the entire assembly)
The "Islamic Block" that brings all the Salafites under one umbrella obtained 122 seats (107 of which assigned to the "al Nour" party (about 27% of the entire assembly))
- The other, more moderate, Islamic party "al Wasat" will win 10 seats
- The secular and left-wing parties will have to deal with a very reduced participation.
It is clear at this point that the main danger for the army in attempting to keep the status quo derives from the Islamics and in particular from the formations connected to the Muslim Brothers. It is in the light of this confrontation/contrast (army-Islamics) that the subsequent political events in the country must be analyzed.
After the parliamentary elections the evolving situation in Egypt abandoned the Tunisian example and developed in a way similar to the Algerian situation. In Algeria, as in Egypt, the power, or rather "le pouvoir", had been administered by the army since independence. The financial, economic, judicial systems and the control of the security agencies in both countries have always been under the control of the army. Every pseudo-democratic concession is also weighed and decided by the army. When the system begins to falter, countermeasures are enacted.
In January 1991, faced with the victory of the F.I.S., the Algerian parliament was disbanded. The same happened in Egypt during the second round of presidential elections on June 14, 2012. The election was invalidated for those deputies that, coincidentally, were part of the Islamic majority within the popular assembly. This is when Ahmad Shafiq, former general and Prime Minister, ran against the candidate of the Muslim Brothers. It all happened in a "legal" fashion: in both cases it was the Constitutional Court that decided. Once again, coincidentally, the court had been designated by Mubarak. If the message were not clear enough, a new measure that allowed the arrest of individuals by the military police and the secret services was reinstated after being recently repealed.
Then there were the presidential elections (the military were strong of the 100-or-so voting fraud reports already presented by the losing candidate). The difference between the two candidates being of about 900.000 votes, accepting some of the voting fraud reports as true, the army would have been able to topple the winning candidate. However, faced with the risk of further uprisings, the army was forced to accept the outcome and declare the victory of the Muslim Brother's candidate, Mohammed Morsi.
Egypt's new President Mohammed Morsi
The army's countermeasures
This game of strategy between the military elite and the Muslim Brothers was yet to be over. Tantawi's idea was to hand power over to a political government but also to make it so that the power would be only formal and subordinated to the tutelage of the military class.
After having dismantled the parliament and having re-appropriated themselves by law of the public order, the army enacted a series of countermeasures to contain, and on occurrence to block, the power of Egypt's new president.
The secret weapon in the hands of the army was the absence of a constitution. It was a weapon that allowed the army to undermine the power of any agency or institution that was deemed detrimental to its interests. While waiting for a new parliament to be designated and for a work group to be assigned the writing of a new constitution, the army had redacted a series of amendments to the Constitutional Declaration of March 30, 2011, that harbored them from any presidential initiatives that may damage them.
lacking a parliament, the President would have had to swear in front of the Constitutional Court (and he did). Thus - this was the hidden message - in front of a Court that represents the power in charge and not, as Morsi would have wanted, in front of elected representatives (the National Assembly - art. 30)
The parliamentary elections were to be conducted in accordance to the law (art. 38, but art. 56 conferred legislative power to the army)
The army remained in charge of any military problem, of the designation of its members and Tantawi remained in charge of the armed forces and minister of defense until the approval of a new constitution (art.53)
The President could declare war only with the approval of the Supreme Council of the armed forces (art. 53/1)
If internal disorders that required the intervention of the armed forces were to manifest, the President could delegate to the armed forces - with the consent of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces - to maintain security and to defend the public property. The existing legislation defined the power of the armed forces and their authority in cases of detention, arrest and in the use of force (art. 53/2)
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces assumed authority (legislative power) so long as there was not a new parliament in place (art. 56)
If the constitutional assembly (which had not even been designated by the old parliament before it was dismantled) were to encounter obstacles in their activity, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces would have the power to re-designate its representatives and to make a new "rough" constitution that would be redacted in 3 months and then voted by a popular referendum (art. 60B)
If the President of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and/or the Supreme Council of the Magistrates (controlled by the army) and/or one fifth of the constitutional assembly were to object that any of the articles of the constitution were not deemed in line with the principles and objectives of the Egyptian revolution, they would be able to request a revision of that article. If the constitutional assembly were to confirm that article, then the High Constitutional Court (then-controlled by the army) would have the final word on the matter (art. 60B1)
Soon thereafter the High administrative Court had decided to postpone to the 1st of September the decision regarding the dismantlement of the Confraternity of the Muslim Brothers, while on September 4th they were to decide on the dismantling of the "Justice and Liberty"� party.
This was being done following a report by lawyer Shehada Mohammed Shahada who cited two laws: one from 1954 that prohibits non-governmental organizations from carrying out political activity and another from 2002 that prohibits the founding of religiously-based political entities. Since the High administrative Court was under the control of the military regime, this initiative also left the door open to the possibility of countering the political activity of any adversary to the armed forces. In his report, Shehada asked for the closing of the headquarters of the Confraternity and the freezing of its accounts.
On June 14 Tantawi announced that a new National Council of Defense had been created - obviously with a strong military presence in it - the functions of which were not known. Perhaps - but it might just be a coincidence - the new council was presided by the President of the Republic and composed of 16 members all of which had ties to the military (the head of the SM, the four commanders of the armed forces - army, navy, aviation, air defense - the head of the general intelligence services and that of the military intelligence, the head of military justice, the head of military operations, the minister for military procurement, the minister of defense and his assistant, the speaker of parliament, the foreign minister, the interior minister and the minister of finance).
The reason for the founding of the new structure - seen that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was still in place - was not known. It was reasonable to suspect that the new structure served the purpose of perpetuating the old - perhaps together with Morsi - even in the future and beyond the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. The events that followed showed that the initiative did not produce the desired result.
The tactic of the two opposing powers
Regarding the initiatives if Tantawi and his generals, one must note that the army's strategy was effective until that point. There was no need - as in Algeria - for a restorative coup d'etat. They had sacrificed Mubarak to please the protesters (and perhaps they would have soon done the same with Shafiq, who had prudently moved abroad in the meantime), they had alternated false grants with convincing threats and had manipulated the State's apparatus'. Rather than sheer strength they had adopted a chameleon-like, Levantine style. Cunningness rather than arms. A number of juridic schemes - or so they thought - could restrain or topple the uncomfortable presence of Morsi in the future.
The military also played with the ambitions of the Muslim Brothers, whom already knew the rules of the game. They knew that using violence as a form of protest - a thing that was never pursued by justice in the past - would not have produced satisfactory results. It would rather have strengthened the power of the army at the helm of the country.
Anyways, in this game of opposites there circulated talk of secret negotiations between the Confraternity and the army for future coexistence in power. Such negotiations would not have been carried out with Morsi but rather with Khairat al Shater, the first presidential candidate chosen by the Supreme Guide Badie. But Shater was later dismissed because he had been in prison until March 2011 (and one of the prerequisites for candidacy was that the person should not have been in prison in the preceding 6 years).
The Muslim Brothers in Egypt had had a long experience coexisting with the intemperances of an authoritarian regime. From Nasser to Mubarak they had often been the object of repression and persecution. They had been sometimes tolerated, sometimes even accepted politically but more often than not they had been marginalized. They made themselves strong with popular support and with the various charitable works and the health and education assistance, with their wealth (their funds have been incremented substantially by donations from Qatar and Saudi Arabia) and they had always managed to survive. This "living dangerously" had pushed them towards the tendency for compromise, towards their diplomatic flexibility and the incessant search for a modus vivendi.
This seemed to be the relationship between the consolidated power of the army and the emerging power of the Muslim Brotherhood. Nobody thought that in this context Morsi could have done without the tutelage of the army. Yet on August 12, 2012, there was a surprise: Morsi removed General Hussein Tantawi, recently designated Minister of Defense (and with him he removed the army chief of staff Sami Anan and the commanders of the various armed forces), thus gaining the support of the former head of the military secret services, General Abdul Fattah Al Sissi, who was readily named to replace Tantawi.
All of this happened without particular disarray. Tantawi was named "Counselor of the President of the Republic" and decorated. There was no revenge against him for having been for 20 years at the head of the armed forces, for having been placed by Mubarak at the head of the Egyptian state after the Rais' resignation or for having adopted in the past all of the instruments of repression against the activities of the Muslim Brothers.
Morsi's move replaced an entire generation of generals, many of which did not mind coexistence at the higher spheres of power. The price was paid but never made official: the maintaining of all the economic privileges that had made the military caste powerful (especially within the administration of the billion-and-a-half dollars that the USA "donated" yearly for the strengthening of the Egyptian armed forces)..
At this point the path of Morsi seemed to be downhill. The US had legitimized the Muslim Brothers as possible interlocutors in the previous months. The USA were the main supporters of the country, a circumstance that had prevented the military from cheating in the presidential elections.
Yet the choice of the military to relinquish power to Morsi without resisting had a side thought to it: to wait and see if Morsi would eventually become unreliable in the eyes of the Americans (see his support for Hamas, his relationship with Teheran and the contrasts with Israel) and if he would fail the expectations of the Egyptian people (see the introduction of the Islamic laws that marginalized secularism, Christians and discourage tourism, which represents the country's main staple. See also the inadequate answer to the rising economic crisis and the high unemployment rates).
Under the economic aspect, Morsi had made grand promises during the electoral campaign: the introduction of measures to support agriculture, the creation of new irrigation systems, the bettering of the health system and promises of investments in key sectors. The State's balance for 2012-2013, which had been drawn up by the military before the election, already anticipated that there would be scarce resources and that 80% of the money at hand would be spent to pay the public employees.
There was thus a very scarce margin for Morsi to play with and a consequent disaffection of the people with regards to the promises of the new President.
Yet the strategy game between the Muslim Brothers and the Military was not over yet: the last move was made by Morsi who reopened - albeit symbolically - the parliament that the military had dismantled through the decision of the Constitutional Court. There followed the designation of a Prime Minister and the dismissal of several heads of the armed forces and of the secret services because of their run-in with the fundamentalists in the Sinai. It all served to reaffirm his role as a President. Then there was the closure of the tunnels with Gaza. Perhaps a moderate and pro-Israeli President in the game that was being played both in Egypt and in the international relationships of the country could be instrumental in reassuring the USA?
Yet after the crisis in Gaza that saw Morsi cut himself out a role as mediator (and gain international credibility), here's another politically involutorial move: on November 22, 2012, through a presidential decree, Morsi re-appropriated himself of all his powers as president. He made all of his decisions immediately executive and irrevocable, and replaced the general prosecutor Meguid Mahamoud (the last bulwark of the army) with a trusted collaborator of his, Ibrahim Talaat. The move caused a strike and protests among the other magistrates.
Contrary to the will of the opposition, Morsi had the Constitutional Assembly (controlled by the Muslim Brothers who forced the resignation of the assembly's secular members and replaced them with Islamic members) draft a new constitution. 234 articles that were discussed and approved in one night's time. The new constitution was obviously of Islamic inspiration: the sharia remained, as it had been in the past, the reference point for jurisprudence, but a new article (219) also specified that the Islamic principles to look to were those of the first Ulemas (thus emerged the radical Salafite direction). The importance of the Islamic University of Al Azhar on sharia was also elevated to a new level and now seemed to play a pivotal role in the decisions of the magistrates. Also, Morsi introduced legislation on the preservation of family values that seemed to leave room for censure with regards to the press and media in general.
Morsi didn't want to end it there and, despite the opposition's protests and the demonstrations, on December 15th he had the constitution approved through a popular referendum: he obtained 63.8% of the suffrage but only over a 32.9% portion of the possible voters.
Demonstrations in Tahrir Square
The real losers
The spirit of Tahir square is neither represented by Morsi nor by the Levantine policies of the Muslim Brothers. Nor was it represented by the uncontested power of the army or by that of the Muslim Brothers.
The Egyptian revolution was brought about by the incapacity of the secular parties and reformist parties to join forces. The two have always run divided at elections, thus never being duly represented within the Egyptian political context.
This mistake was later understood and partly amended through the creation of the Front for National Safety. The Arab revolution of the Cairo was not started nor piloted by the Muslim Brothers but by a series of libertarian currents and a longing for social claims that the Muslim Brothers - showing a lot of opportunism - immediately pounced on.
The Egyptians, the ones in Tahir square, wanted real change and not a revolution where one power filled in for another. The abstention at the first round of elections reached 54% (23 million voters out of 52 million voting rights). The second round didn't reach 40%. The statistics quantify and qualify the popular disillusion when faced with the two candidates (Morsi and Shafiq), neither of which represented the events of Tahir square.
The common folks did not feel represented by Morsi or by the Confraternity. The Coptic Christians had chosen the least of the two evils, the army. Yet there exists in Egypt a civil society, secular and illuminated, and many of them, disappointed, chose not to vote. Some even went so far as fearing the threat of an uncertain future more than they feared the decadent past and had supported the army rather than face a jump in the dark. The division within the secular and reformist society had transformed itself in a lesser political issue within the country (here's the parallel with the Libyan elections).
The American role
Perhaps due to an emotional approach to the Arab Spring, the USA have immediately supported the Islamic parties in a non-judgmental way, without waiting for the revolution - which is still in an unstable phase of development - to go full circle.
If the US foreign policy were to be identified as a matter of principles, this choice would make sense. Yet what generally guides the decisions of a country are matters of interest. In this respect the choice of the USA and the recurring supportive statements by the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with regards to the Muslim Brothers appear incomprehensible.
An Egypt guided by Islamic fundamentalists is surely in contrast with the historical tie between the USA and Israel. Such a State also strengthens Hamas' extremist positions and will risk spreading the fundamentalist view in the next political structure of Syria and/or strengthen those positions within the Libyan political context.
Then there is the rekindling of relationships between Egypt and Iran (Morsi went to Teheran for the summit of the "non-aligned" last year, Ahmadinejad was recently in Cairo to participate in the summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference) of which we do not yet know political connotations and practical consequences.
Will a trans-nation Confraternity be in the interests of the Americans? Perhaps the USA thought that a man like Morsi, who studied in the United States (University of Southern California), could guarantee reliability? It is not yet clear.
With regards to the Egyptian situation, the fundamental question remains unchanged: the 1000-or-so dead of the Arab Spring, the yearning for freedom, the social expectations, the will to fight corruption and cliques... what happened to all these things and what purpose did they serve? All utopias must be contextualized within the social fabric where they are born and where they develop.
Egypt, or rather the majority of Egyptians, lack the reference point - which was never glanced during their history - of what democracy really is. If Democracy turns into Anarchy, the status quo wins out over reformism or - as in Egypt's case - one dictatorship replaces the other.
Thus in the struggle between restoration and fundamentalism - both are evils - the real loser is the country.
The army held on to part of the power and remained the judge over the country's destiny and the Muslim Brothers associated themselves with this power to coexist with their counterpart. A balance between two weaknesses, a bi-polar political equilibrium where the weakness of one part becomes the strengths of the other and vice-versa. At any rate, this situation kept the radical positions at bay.
The army controlled the State and its intricate network of institutions that were able to guarantee power despite the election of a President whom was not part of their milieu. The Muslim Brothers, on the other hand, administered a parallel financial power, a kind of social support created on the basis of the organization and efficiency of several charitable associations and on the synergy of their network of Mosques. They then had other networks that connected them with other countries in the region with which they shared goals and interests (see the money coming from Qatar and Saudi Arabia). In was in the interest of both parts to find a compromise and avoid a confrontation.
But as we said earlier this balance was broken and the marginalization of military power pushed Morsi to take unilateral decisions and to try anti-democratic adventures while worsening the contrasts with the other social currents.
Today's Egypt feels a pulsating, unfinished Arab Spring, or perhaps one that has not even started. The ousting of Mubarak brought to light a number of contradictions that the military elite governing the country had minimized thus far with a heavy hand.
The contrasts between seculars and religious have emerged, as have the ones between tolerance and Islamic radicalism, between the poor who are poorer and the rich that remain rich, between the privileged clique (always the same few) and the marginalized (now more numerous, an alleged 70% of the population is now below the line of poverty). These contrasts were fueled by a system of corruption that was never countered, amidst youths that don't see the better future promised by the revolution ahead of them.
There is also a resurgence of autonomous movements that were brought to light by a football game last year - during which there were several dead and consequent death sentences - and by the recent clashes in Port Said, Ismailya and Suez. The empowerment of the tribal and clan systems which constitute a reference to an absent State and to a non-existent State of Rights.
There is the war between the Coptic and the Islamics, a bureaucracy that undermines any and all modernization of the country, low alphabetization, a strong sub-culture in rural areas and a non-charismatic leader, such as Morsi has shown to be.
His clumsy attempt to confer full powers upon himself have clearly demonstrated his worth. And the over 250 dead that have shed blood on the streets of the country during the recurrence of the second anniversary of the revolution have clearly demonstrated the rift that divides Egypt today.
The Muslim Brothers, whom had not supported the initial revolt against Mubarak, have not managed to bring together the sentiments of Egyptian society in a united path leading to liberty and social equality.
On the contrary, they became a dividing factor when they refused to accept a shared administration of power with the secular souls of the country. The many that are still dying in the streets and the incessant demonstrations are evidence enough of this. Their attempted Islamization of Egypt, which could have been a means to drive the economic recovery, was transformed into an end. An end that did not produce wealth but only false expectations that are now coming to light.
The collapse of the tourism industry, a quick recession, the need to re-negotiate the loan by the International Monetary Fund coupled with ulterior measures of austerity, especially on the government subsidies for basic necessities (it is not a hazard that PM Hisham Qandil was recently present at the economic forum in Davos), the recourse to Saudi and Qatar financial aid that will mean further forms of subjection: this is the economic framework that looms over the future of Egypt. The worst is yet to come.
And then there is the prophecy of Marshall Tantawi whom - before his ousting - saw the re-birth of an all-powerful army rising from the rubble of the economic crisis. After the clashes during the second anniversary of the Egyptian revolution (January 25) and the clashes on the Suez canal, Morsi was forced to summon the National Council of Defense and impose - with the consent of the army - a state of emergency in Port Said and Ismailyah (the same state that for many years conferred to the army an enormous power in terms of public order and dissidence).
For a self-proclaimed Islamic leader who replaced the army such as Morsi is, the recourse to such measures in order to guarantee security and the consequent reinstatement of the repressive measures so dear to Mubarak seem like the emblems of a sound defeat.
The rebuke of General Al Sissi, Minster of Defense and of the armed forces, regarding the risk of a collapsing State sounds more like a warning. After reviving the army's role, Morsi is now forced to negotiate with the opposition as well. All of this triggers thoughts about the contradictions of an Islam that is political while trying to maintain an ideological approach.
Pyrrho, the king of Epirus, landed in Italy with his mercenaries and elephants and defeated the Romans in Eraclea in the year 280 BC. The victory had been paid dearly in terms of human lives and has thus been passed on in history as an event with negative connotations: a price to high for a useless victory.
The parallel with today's events in Egypt's Arab Spring begins to sound alarmingly fitting.