Egypt: In search of a saviour

Egypt’s post-revolutionary rollercoaster has produced a politics of ultimatum.

The Battle of the Camel was a pivotal moment in Egypt's 2011 uprising [AP]

Three years ago, I spent one of the more medieval nights of my foreign correspondent life in a riotous Tahrir Square besieged by thousands of Mubarak loyalists during what became known as the Battle of the Camel. Amid a 12-hour hailstorm of stones and Molotov cocktails, the revolutionaries stood their ground, and delivered a turning point in the uprising against Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship. As a smoky dawn broke without any of Tahrir’s entrances breached, Mubarak must have realised that his failure to dislodge the occupants of the square by force signaled that his end was nigh.

Aside from relief at surviving that night, witnessing it gifted me three valuable realisations: that supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood played a critical part in fighting off the baltagiah and therefore an indispensable role in the Revolution; that effective organisation and networked technological superiority can give critical mass to revolutionaries even when they lack a numerical advantage; and that unless Egyptians could overcome the cognitive blind spots that led them all too often to tumble from rancorously talking past each other into scrappy violence, their future promises to be a grim series of mutual retaliations that will only serve to degrade their common social, cultural and natural environment.

Acrimonious dysfunction

Across the region, acrimonious dysfunction replaced unipolar dictatorships. But the only product of the mutual empathy deficit is a steady erosion of communities, both physical and conceptual. The current zero-sum game, aside from being described by Amnesty International as “a series of damaging blows to human rights and state violence on an unprecedented scale over the past seven months“, can only ever be a lose-lose prospect.

In 2011, Mubarak’s resignation was hailed as a happy ending, despite unraveling little of the nepotistic military-business power structures that successive presidents since Gamal Abdel Nasser developed and had fed so much of the social discontent that generated the Revolution in the first place. In the reckless revolutionary aftermath, the majority of Egyptians opted for resting on their revolutionary laurels and letting optimism substitute for the hard work necessary to unstitch the Mubarak regime. So even as the international commentariat declared the Egyptian Revolution a done deal, I was left feeling as unsettled as after hearing George W Bush declare the Iraq War in 2003 a “mission accomplished“.

Wasn’t it strange that no one was asking how the removal of Mubarak would be enough to settle Egypt’s complicated demographic, economic, political and social problems?

Wasn’t it strange that no one was asking how the removal of Mubarak would be enough to settle Egypt’s complicated demographic, economic, political and social problems?

Would Egyptians demonstrate the kind of political maturity that would let them sail through a fraught transitional period? Or would that autistic, finger-jabbing “Nooo!!! Nooo!!!”, the unhearing, insisting chorus signaling the end of so many debates in Tahrir, also become the refrain of the post-revolutionary period?

Of all the Arab Spring countries, Egypt’s political aftermath was the fastest-evolving, in speed if not substance. Even as Tunisia remained mired in political deadlock, Libya in insecurity, Bahrain in repression, Yemen in dialogue and Syria in civil war, Egypt’s political factions cycled with lightning speed through their menu of political options: From a military-led council to free elections, to a democratically-elected but undemocratically-spirited government, and currently to a popularly-mandated coup.

Three years later, the Egyptian Revolution has delivered a security state that – Mubarak’s absence excepted – starkly resembles the pre-2011 reality. The Army is more powerful than ever before, and in August 2013 presided over a massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters that may have claimed more victims in one day than the entire 2011 revolution. The ensuing lack of condemnation, or even recognition, of the massacre by erstwhile liberals (now the Army’s staunchest defenders) indicated how convulsed Egypt’s domestic politics had become.

So Egypt lunged forward but fell backwards. Some concluded from this that the reassuring rigidity of a dictatorship was the best fit for a people lacking the political maturity to resolve their differences. Others blamed the current situation on a social welfarism that stifled entrepreneurship, and an educational system that instilled obedience, choked free thinking and encouraged infantilism.

Wherever the truth may lie, the post-Mubarak era witnessed miniscule efforts towards political dialogue, intra-factional debate, or the reconciling of contrasting viewpoints. The naked hate directed by those describing themselves as liberals towards Muslim Brotherhood supporters was balanced by the disinterest that deposed Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi showed in addressing inter-sectarian accord when assaults on Egyptian Christian communities increased.

Drama over substance

A seeming preference for drama over substance means that the twists and turns of Egypt’s post-revolutionary political drama resemble less a political process than a morbid slapstick. Longterm thinking seems absent as political actors lurch from one crisis to another: no sooner did the Brotherhood inherit a politically dysfunctional country on the brink of economic collapse that it focused on resolving the Syrian civil war, engaged in a brazen powergrab, and antagonised other political actors. When the Army ascended, it embarked on the post-coup period with a “with us or against us” attitude and the blithe assumption that its powerful Gulf backers’ pursestrings would remain open.

Borne along on a wave of hysterical adulation by some segments of society – the very antithesis of democracy’s measured deliberation – General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi wants to stamp out the Brotherhood. But much as Brotherhood leaders erred from their revolutionary heritage when they tasted the fruits of power, the Army cannot obliterate a key element of the 2011 revolution without creating the kind of trauma and marginalisation that fuel a pushback in the form of bombs detonating across Egypt.

It was terrible for Egypt’s midterm prospects that the Muslim Brotherhood frittered away such a large popular mandate on non-inclusive policies. Similarly, the Army’s conviction that its popularity gave it carte blanche to crush the opposition is resulting in the funneling of Egypt’s political debates into guerilla warfare.

So how long will it take before Egyptians understand that their country’s unstable course can neither be blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood or on the Army, but in the tendency of crowds to swing from perceived saviour to perceived saviour, even while lacking the awareness that change starts at home?

Iason Athanasiadis is a photojournalist who covers the Middle East.