Egypt: Between revolution 3.0 and civil war

The current logjam between protesters and the Muslim Brotherhood-led government could lead to escalating tensions.

Most of the deaths in the latest round of protests were blamed on the police and pro-government protesters [AFP]
Most of the deaths in the latest round of protests were blamed on the police and pro-government protesters [AFP]

Wael Ghonim described it as “Revolution 2.0”: The moment when the power of the Egyptian people became greater than that of the elite that had ruled the country for more than two generations. The historic 18 days that toppled a pharaoh constituted a “second generation” revolution was not because of the widespread use of social networks, Twitter and other new media technologies. Rather, it was the horizontal and leaderless structure of the movements behind it, in which “everyone contribut[ed] small pieces” to the larger goal of forcing Mubarak from power, that helped lead Egypt into a new era.

The revolution most certainly didn’t end with the removal of Hosni Mubarak from power on February 11, 2011. But it did seem to go on an on-again, off-again hiatus, as Egyptians tried to establish the parameters for a new political system off the street, only to return whenever it seemed the army was moving the balance of power too far back in its favour. As the Muslim Brotherhood began to exert its institutional muscle and dominate the transitional political process (through the “yes” vote for the March 2011 Provisional Constitution and then through the parliamentary and finally presidential elections of the last year), it increasingly became clear to the revolutionaries who once owned Tahrir Square that a major conflict was inevitable, either with the army and the old order or with the Brotherhood and the new one – or both.

It’s ironic that the Mubarak regime tried to tar round one of the revolution as a “Muslim Brotherhood Revolution”, as the Brotherhood has been all too happy to claim that mantle in the transitional period. Whatever else one might say, the Brotherhood couldn’t be more different from the revolutionaries; its structure is neither leaderless nor horizontally organised. Instead, its institutional depth, ideological coherence (members who’ve moved beyond the most muted criticism or innovation continue to be pushed out), and hierarchical structure served it well in the post-Mubarak contests for power.

But these qualities have also left it with a blind spot that is common to all ideologically grounded movements who taste power without having been in the revolutionary trenches: A sense that its view and understanding of events was naturally shared by all right-thinking and seeing Egyptians, and that those whose views and experiences differed were little more than a minority voice and a distraction to the work of creating a new Egypt along its ideological, political and economic vision.

Constitutional blunders?

Scholars and legal experts have been parsing the the draft constitution since its release. Regardless of one’s opinion of the draft, it’s hard to imagine any document comprehensive enough to establish the fundamental rules of social, political and economic order in a society, and through them the basic relationships between both citizens and the state and citizens with each other, that wouldn’t alienate some segments of the population, especially those that had the least voice in framing it.

One of the few elements of the draft that thoughtful commentators agree is a positive is the balance between having a strong presidency, but one limited in duration to two four-year terms. Given the post-War history of Egypt, it’s hard to overstate the importance of such a check on presidential power. Also important is the fact that associations can be formed without government permission and freedom of the press has unprecedented protections. While still a clear junior partner vis-a-vis the president (as laid out, inter alia, in Articles 104 and 202), the parliament’s powers to shape government policy is markedly increased compared with the previous system.

At the same time, various articles worry liberal and progressive critics of the present draft. These concern issues related to the role of Islamic law as a basis for legislation and of Sharia scholars in consulting on such laws, on the implications of “preserving… the genuine nature” of the Egyptian family, ethics and morality, and of Islam’s relationship to other “divine” religions (Articles 2, 4, 10, 43, 219 and 243). Equally troubling is what’s missing from the Constitution as presently drafted, including explicit support for women’s equality, workers’ rights and international covenants such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Egypt is a signatory.

While these problems might well lead many Egyptians to vote “no” on the present Constitution in referendum currently scheduled for December 15, on their own they didn’t render the Constitution so worthless that it was worth risking civil war to force a reboot of the drafting process. Indeed, a debate between University of Toronto Law Professor Mohammed Fadel and AUC Department of History Chair Khaled Fahmy (covered in Fadel’s blog, Fahmy’s original article, in Arabic, is here; a summary of Fadel’s critique with links to his detailed rebuttal is here) demonstrates how each of the Constitution’s articles as well as its overall impact can be the subject of a reasoned debate.

After reading all these analyses I would vote “no” were I Egyptian. But I can appreciate Fadel’s point that many of the criticised articles either have similar counterparts in Western constitutions or, as with the ban on insulting prophets or the role of Sharia as a source of law, are accepted by the overwhelming majority of Egyptians and thus could not reasonably be expected to be excluded from a democratically drafted document. In this regard, liberal critics of the constitution are facing a reality that Egyptian society, women as well as men, remains among the most religiously conservative and patriarchal in the Muslim world.

The Constitution was never going to stretch too far beyond this reality. The question was whether it is elastic enough to allow Egyptian society to grant increasing freedoms, rights and protections to its citizens through legislation or amendments as basic democratic norms evolve – as happens in every society – rather than having to replace the document as a whole in order to move forward.

University of Washington Professor Ellis Goldberg summarised the reality of the Constitution’s pros and cons in one of the first detailed critiques of its various articles:

“The draft of the Egyptian constitution is the product of a committee representing many points of view. As with any document produced by a committee, the new document is not fully coherent. No part of it is quite as bad as that third clause of the second section of the fourth article of the US constitution [which stated that escaped slaves who cross state lines must be returned to their masters upon capture, even if they’re caught in a free state-ML]. But then nobody is actually living in the 18th century anymore. This is not a document likely to cause a civil war but it may prove not to be more successful than most constitutions.”

Process, not fine points of law

Goldberg was right. The constitution draft, however problematic, should not have led to the present civil strife. And in fact, it didn’t. It was the process rather than the document that brought Egypt to the the present moment.

Ironically, for an organisation that sees itself as steeped in Islamic law, the Brotherhood has largely avoided trying to establish a true ijma, or consensus, on the crucial issues that will determine the future of the country. This despite the fact that consensus has long been a core concept of the tradition of thought expounded by leading Egyptian Islamists, including Hassan al-Banna, the movement’s founder, who wrote of the need to affirm the broad unity not merely of Egyptians or Muslims, but of humanity as a whole (al-wahda al-insaniyya al-‘amma).

Listening Post
Has Mohamed Morsi borrowed Hosni Mubarak’s playbook?

This lack of willingness to empower Egyptian society more broadly to shape the Constitution led 22 members of the Constituent Committee charged with drafting it to resign in the weeks after Goldberg published his analysis. Suddenly there were not many points of view represented in the drafting process, with those who withdrew claiming their ideas and concerns did not receive fair consideration. This was followed by the now infamous issuance of a Constitutional Decree by Morsi on November 22, which gave him sweeping powers that exceeded even those of Mubarak. Before anyone could catch their breath, the draft Constitution was approved on November 30 and a date, December 15, was set for a vote.

Perhaps the best summary of the problems with the constitutional process comes from a joint statement by twenty-two Egyptian rights organisations, who declared that “the president has contravened the revolution’s goals of democratisation and exploited the expansive powers he granted to himself shortly after his election to arrogate unparalleled powers and immunise his decisions against judicial oversight, thus precluding the possibility of any challenges or opposition to them by legal and judicial means”. This is the context in which the draft Constitution was approved, and which precipitated the unprecedented new wave of protests.

Many activists have described the current unrest as the true relaunch of the Tahrir revolution. For them, as one protester who was at the Presidential Palace during the fighting put it, however painful the present violence was both inevitable and necessary to “make the revolution real” again. “The revolution was incomplete… I’m actually happy it did now, so people could see what the Brotherhood really is like before they could smooth out their rule.”

Numerous eyewitness accounts and news reports from independent media and human rights organisations strongly suggest that the vast majority of the violence during the last week has been precipitated either by government forces or Morsi/Muslim Brotherhood supporters. This is not to deny that opposition protesters haven’t engaged in their own attacks, whether on police or on government and Brotherhood buildings. Such use of violence against government or regime-affiliated structures and police and security forces marks a return to the revolutionary logic of what could be termed Phase 1.5 of Revolution 2.0 – the period between the successful initial march to Tahrir on January 25, 2011 and the final conquest of Tahrir by revolutionary forces around February 2.

But they are far outweighed by the numerous reports of the security forces working in tandem with or protecting Morsi/Brotherhood supporters, or even shooting at opposition protesters from behind Brotherhood marchers (it should be noted that not all police have shown such sympathy for the Brotherhood protesters). Together, these reports reveal a dangerous overlap between the movement and the supposedly transitional state apparatus, precisely what protesters are most worried about.

Indeed, if the stability of Mubarak’s regime rested on hundreds of thousands of paid enforcers employed by the various branches of the dreaded police and security services (with the army as the ultimate muscle), a Muslim Brotherhood-led state in which tens of thousands of religiously motivated enforcers are sicked on protesters whenever the state feels threatened will be far worse, as the case of Iran has shown; even if, like Iran, Egypt retains the trappings of formal democracy. Given the conservatism of Egyptian society, the ubiquitous appeals to God – and equally important, threats of damnation – deployed by the Brotherhood to ensure poorer and uneducated Egyptians vote along the party’s line, give it a powerful advantage over the the “secular” force’s appeal to peoples’ economic or political interest (as dynamic American progressives have had to confront for decades).

Not surprisingly, when pro-Morsi marchers shout “The people and the army are one!” the meaning to everyone else is frighteningly clear, and couldn’t be more different than when it was uttered by protesters during the heyday of the Tahrir protests. Coupled with accusations by Morsi advisors that liberal protesters are not “authentically Egyptian“, chants declaring opposition protesters will burn in hell, and the return to incitement against Christians by the state-run media, the Constitution’s numerous faults no longer render it a good start in a long process, but a recipe for a political system in which democracy is a veneer for continued authoritarianism, even if under a more populist leadership.

Clueless at the palace

Either clueless or unconcerned about the near complete rift between the opposition and the government, Morsi’s speech started off with him whining about his car being attacked instead of acknowledging the half dozen dead and hundreds of injured outside his home in fighting his movement helped instigate. He went on to label protesters “infiltrators” and “thugs”, raising the wall between him and the opposition even higher.

In response to Morsi’s televised remarks, one prominent commentator, Ibrahim al-Houdaiby, simply wrote in a Facebook posting: “Why?” (lih). Another activist was more furious. Comparing it to the one Mubarak gave the night before his departure on February 10, 2011, he declared that it was “as if Mubarak put a little beard on and went on television”. On Facebook, a poster was circulating with the words “The people want the downfall trial and judgement of the President” (ash-sha’b yurid isqat muhakama ar-ra’is).

On their own, comparing Morsi to Mubarak or a pharaoh might seem like hyperbole. But in the context of the way he and the Brotherhood have managed the transition, the logic is hard to ignore, and reflects a nearly complete lack of trust by most of the forces who led Phase 1 of the revolution for those who’ve taken over during Phase 2. This mistrust is compounded by the reality that neither Morsi nor any other Muslim Brotherhood member should even be president, since the movement initially promised not to run someone for the post, their position further weakened by the fact the neither Morsi nor his Freedom and Justice Party comrades won a majority of the presidential or parliamentary votes.

 Protesters continue to call for Morsi to step down

Given this reality, the Brotherhood could and should have gone out of its way to demonstrate its bona fides to other stakeholders in Egyptian society and build a solid and well-balanced coalition to move the country through the transitional period. But instead it cut deals not just with the military but with the IMF and Washington, ensconcing itself in the very networks and circuits of power against whom the revolution was fought (if the story of Khairat al-Shater’s economic and political wheelings and dealings from his prison cell are true, then the Brotherhood’s domestication and cooptation began even earlier than is generally understood).

At least politically, to paraphrase a friend’s tweet, during the last twenty years the Brotherhood was taking notes not on how to replace Mubarak but how to copy him. And so today in Egypt, we have a deep state meeting a deeply organised highly conservative and patriarchal movement. Their commingling does not augur well for the country’s political or economic future.

This power perspective was reinforced by the warning issued by the vice president a few hours before the violence at the Presidential Palace that the government was prepared to resort to “emergency measures” (ijra’at al-istithna’iyya) – that is, suspend the very compact between the state and its citizens the constitution is supposed to solidify – to stop the protests. In the end, it did even worse, calling out Brotherhood supporters to push out the peacefully assembled protesters at the Palace and destroy their tents, further and more troublingly blurring the lines between the emerging state and the Movement.

In this situation, even the most well-respected politician in the country, Mohamed ElBaradei, refuses anymore to discuss compromise. Instead he sees the latest spilling of blood as leaving the opposition no choice but to take to the streets in “all of Egypt’s squares” against a system which, as long-time labour activist Kamal Khalil argued, is directly linked to the “Zionists, Americans and the Emir of Qatar” (a clear swipe at Morsi’s role in securing the Hamas-Israel ceasefire the day before he issued his Constitutional decree).

Ultimately, what the protesters understand is that a state is much more than a system of governance and laws that unite rulers and ruled. It is a network of pathways and circuits through which power, wealth, and knowledge flow. The individuals and groups that control these networks, circuits and pathways control the state. They can either route the power in such a way as to include those outside the systems of control or they can route it in such a way that it excludes the opposition or directs its full unshielded force against them.

Viewed thus, in the current circumstances the vagueness of the Constitution, which in another environment could be an asset by providing for the flexibility necessary for it to breathe and evolve, has become a sign of mala fide towards the opposition, who feel bereft of any sort of real voice and stake in the emerging system.

Revolution 3.0

In the midst of unprecedented tension and even fratricidal conflict, how would one define a truly revolutionary new Egyptian Constitution? It would have to accomplish two things. First, it would lay the foundation for the fullest possible expansion of rights to all Egyptians regardless of gender, religion, ethnicity or other markers of social differentiation. Second and more profound, it would establish a political-economic system that controls the flow of power and wealth throughout society in such a way as to encourage the formation of competent governments willing to take on the deeply entrenched system of corruption and inequality – both its internal and external facilitators and benefactors alike – that have for so long characterised the political economy of Egypt.

Neither the present Constitution nor the emerging political system it’s laying the ground rules for will achieve these goals. But while Morsi and the Brotherhood establish themselves more deeply within (and likely ultimately transform) Egypt’s power elite, their Achilles’ heel might well be developing at the movement’s base among the very people presently serving as the movements, and the President’s shock troops.

The simple fact is that the very strategy necessary to open space for the Brotherhood’s ascendence to power – not challenging the military’s prerogatives, following Washington Consensus policies demanded by the IMF regardless of their negative impact on the majority of Egyptians, and supporting, however quietly, US policies in the region – will move it further away from its core poor, working class and petite bourgeois constituencies. If the Brotherhood keeps moving towards neoliberal policies that will only reinforce the huge structural imbalances in Egyptian society, its hold over its base will weaken, opening room for dialog with the very political forces they’ve been fighting today.

A friend who returned to the Palace Thursday afternoon to talk with the Brotherhood supporters against whom he’d fought only hours before put it best, explaining that his opponents told him they’d come because they saw the Presidential Palace, the symbol of their own rise to dignity after decades of humiliation, under threat. “They came to protect the good of the country as they see it, just like we did. They were like the revolutionaries.”

That sentiment should scare Morsi, the Brotherhood and the military-led deep state even more than the hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters who are ready to risk civil war to stop the upcoming Constitutional referendum. If and when revolutionary forces and the foot soldiers of the Muslim Brotherhood begin to move towards common ground, the Revolution will finally enter Phase 3.

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on ‘rock and resistance and the struggle for soul’ in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008. 

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