Egypt, Caught Between Rational Fulul and Idealistic Fools

Jun 16

While it is not clear who will win the runoff between Ahmed Shafik, the unabashed champion of the old regime, and Muhammad Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, almost everyone believes that Shafik, by hook or crook, will win.  Assuming this is the case, how did it come to be that the beautiful Egyptian Revolution was so successfully contained, undermined, and then captured by the regime?

The answer is that the SCAF, backed by the fulul, played its hand rationally, exploiting the principled differences among the coalition of groups that made up the Tahrir Coalition.  In speaking about the Jan. 25 Revolution, it is important to realize that its success was based on a broad coalition of forces which was never united around any specific plan for the future other than the need for Egypt to replace Mubarak.  That the unifying demand was the removal of Mubarak is best evidenced in the visceral chants of “irhal” (leave!) that filled Egypt for the 18 days between Jan. 25 and Feb. 11.  Beyond the visceral demand that Mubarak leave, protestors were united by the slogan “Hurriyya, Karama, `Adala Ijtima’iyya” (“Freedom, Dignity, Social Justice”), or in an alternative formation, “‘Aysh, Hurriyya, Karama” (Bread, Freedom, Dignity).

The huge numbers that were mobilized around these slogans, however, had fundamental disagreements on the future direction of Egypt, something the military itself knew well insofar as it was, itself, part of the Tahrir Coalition.  After the passage of roughly 18 months, and with the benefit of hindsight, the Tahrir Coalition can be seen to have been made up of three distinct groups, in order of appearance in Tahrir: youth and labor activists, such as the April 6th Movement, the organizers of the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook Page and the Muslim Brotherhood Youth; the Muslim Brotherhood; and non-ideological Egyptians, who joined when it appeared inevitable that Mubarak would fall.

With the downfall of Mubarak, there emerged three interpretations of the events of Jan. 25. The first was that this was the first step toward a complete social and political transformation of Egypt.  Call this the “revolutionary” interpretation.  The second was that Mubarak’s resignation was the first step toward a reformation of the Egyptian state by purging it of its corrupt elements, but otherwise not demanding undoing the state and beginning from scratch.  The third view was that Mubarak’s resignation was the goal, it was accomplished, and life should go back to “normal” as quickly as possible.

The revolutionary position was the one adopted largely, but not exclusively, by the Egyptian youth who themselves were the catalyst of Jan. 25. The Muslim Brotherhood, one might say, effectively took the position of the second interpretation, while the SCAF was the most prominent promoter of the third.  With the likelihood that Shafik is going to win, it appears that the third position — that Jan. 25 was about nothing else than removing Mubarak and his family — is the one that will prevail.

How did it come to be that the revolutionaries could not come to an agreement with the reformists and take control over the transition process?  One obvious cause was their fundamental disagreement over their respective motives for participating in Jan. 25: the revolutionaries wanted a complete redo of the Egyptian state, while the Muslim Brotherhood, as reformists, simply wanted to become legitimate participants in the state.  Less obvious, however, was the fact that the revolutionaries, from the beginning, were unwilling or unable, to acknowledge that a substantial constituency in Egypt existed in favor of the SCAF interpretation of Jan. 25: its goal was overthrowing Mubarak, it was achieved, and everybody should go home, with things returning to “normal.”  The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, understood this, but understood it perhaps too well.  It attempted to court this constituency by trying its best to avoid confrontations with the SCAF and thus appear as the responsible part of the Tahrir coalition that was concerned, foremost, with the practical problems of governing Egypt.

This strategy, however, did not work.  First, it alienated the revolutionary elements of the Tahrir Coalition, which quickly accused them of having made a deal with SCAF.  Most importantly, by trying to appease the SCAF constituency, the Muslim Brotherhood stood by silently as the SCAF, through its fulul minions who still controlled the media, successfully portrayed the revolutionaries as “foreign” agents working against the national interest.  The Muslim Brotherhood should have realized that just as the fulul were able to undermine the reputations of the revolutionaries, so too they could succeed in smearing them.  Second, by choosing to enter the presidential race in the wake of the failure of the revolutionary elements of the Tahrir Coalition to put forward a credible candidate, the Muslim Brotherhood set off a dynamic whereby it could be accused of trying to replace the dominance of the old National Democratic Party with the dominance of their own political party, the Freedom and Justice Party.  While I believe this charge was unfounded — the Muslim Brotherhood was responding tactically to a dynamic and unpredictable political sector that was constantly changing — it was a charge that could be easily made and, as the success of the fulul attacks on the revolutionaries showed, easily believed by an Egyptian population still laboring under the habits of authoritarianism.  After having failed to defend the revolutionaries at the alter of pandering to the stability constituency, the Muslim Brotherhood found itself in the same position when fulul media accused them of wishing to impose a new dictatorship, to turn Egypt into Saudi Arabia, etc., but this time, there were no substantial non-Muslim Brotherhood voices in the public sphere ready to defend it.

The Muslim Brotherhood chose to proceed down  this path because it believed that when push came to shove, the revolutionaries would have no choice but to support them in a show down with the regime.  That may have been a reasonable proposition if the revolutionaries were rational political actors in the classical sense, but many of them were committed idealists, and determined to continue their fight until revolutionary change had been achieved, and this demanded a lot more than simply fair and competitive elections.  Aside from failing to take seriously the depth of the youth’s revolutionary commitments , the Muslim Brotherhood also underestimated three factors: first, the depth of the stability constituency; second, the ability of the fulul to scare average Egyptians about the consequences of electing a president from the Muslim Brotherhood; and  third, the depth of resistance and resentment the revolutionaries would bear against the Muslim Brotherhood for their “deal” with SCAF. As a result, it appears that voting turnout will be relatively light, and dominated by older Egyptians who did not participate in Jan. 25, or if they did, they did so only at the end, and were naturally part of the stability constituency.  Accordingly, it is highly likely that Shafik will win the showdown with Morsi, albeit with a rather low voter turnout.  Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the elections themselves will be honest, and there is little chance that the lack of enthusiasm for Shafik will detract from his own perception of legitimacy, or more importantly, SCAF’s perception of his legitimacy, or the stability constituency’s perception of his legitimacy.

The revolutionaries have convinced themselves, I believe mistakenly, that they will be the ultimate beneficiaries of this fight between SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood, derisively dismissing both as the “old regime.”  Their calculations are based on the assumption that the restoration of the ancient regime in the form of Shafik will not solve any of the problems that gave rise to the Jan. 25 movement, and accordingly, when Shafik fails spectacularly, they believe that the people will be ready to support them.  While I am fully prepared to accept that Shafik will fail miserably, and that Egypt will, in quick order, become an outright failed state in the event of his victory, I am skeptical that these developments will redound to the benefit of the revolutionaries.  The fulul showed their skill in manipulating a risk-averse and largely xenophobic public opinion against any forces for change.  There is no reason to think that they will not be able to continue to do so in the future.

Moreover, there is a real risk that the first order of the new-old regime will be to destroy the revolutionary leaders, and if they did, it is unlikely that there would be little public backlash.  While they may be tempted to turn against the Muslim Brotherhood, the Muslim Brotherhood plays too great a role in the everyday life of ordinary Egyptians to do so without substantially undermining social stability; just as the Mubarak regime needed the cooperation of the Coptic Church and the Muslim Brotherhood to govern, so too will the Shafik regime. I suspect this fact will lead it to be more gentle with the Muslim Brotherhood than some people believe.  Finally, predicating your success on state failure is a dangerous strategy: even if it comes true, it’s very hard to predict how that will play out politically.  It could just as well lead to the rise of a militant salafist movement, as has been the case in other Muslim states that have failed.

Many revolutionaries will say that they were “played” and the victims of a SCAF conspiracy that they saw from the beginning, and that the Muslim Brotherhood were duped into playing along because they were opportunists and power-hungry.  In fact, the revolutionaries were duped because the SCAF was more politically shrewd, and had a more realistic appreciation of the public mood.  They could have entered into a coalition with the Muslim Brotherhood, but they were not prepared to acknowledge that the constituency for a social revolution was simply not there.  By insisting on a revolutionary agenda, rather than a reformist agenda, the possibility of stable coalition with the Muslim Brotherhood was eliminated.

This is ultimately why the revolutionaries failed, and in so doing, have failed Egypt: by demanding purity to a set of political goals that are not realistically obtainable in these circumstances, they have all but guaranteed the return of the old regime.  This is why I am so frustrated with the “revolutionary” party: their desire for ideological purity blinded them to the fact that even if they lost this round of elections, a successful transition would lead to a multiple round game in which their chances would only improve with the passage of time.  By demanding more than they could reasonably achieve, resenting those who could deliver at least half the pie, and in fact contributing to de-legitimizing them by encouraging a general boycott of the elections, they have delayed the possibility that a successful coalition — one that must inevitably involve Islamists — will emerge to challenge the military for another generation, if ever.  In addition, by contributing to Shafik’s win, they have inadvertently made Egypt’s politics even more sectarian than it was prior to Jan. 25, and despite claims by certain Coptic bishops that Jesus has intervened to save them from the evil Muslim Brotherhood, I think they will be bitterly disappointed when they find that Shafik has used them and will show little interest in protecting them against a renewed round of sectarian violence which will almost certainly take place as reports of the Church’s brazen support for Shafik become more widely known.  Egypt will pay a dear price for the revolutionaries’ unwillingness to make a deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, and while they will say the failure to agree was the Muslim Brotherhood’s fault, in my opinion, responsibility for this failure lies more with the revolutionaries than the Muslim Brotherhood: while the Muslim Brotherhood, at least in its rhetoric, was trying to move to what it perceived as the middle of Egypt’s political spectrum, the revolutionaries continued pursuing the agenda of a chimerical revolutionary public that simply did not exist.

The restored regime, unfortunately, will probably be even less competent than the Mubarak regime: its social base will be even narrower than Mubarak’s; it will be more dependent upon the support of security services and the military; and it will inevitably be forced to be more corrupt than the Mubarak regime in order to prevent its supporters from defecting.  It will be thoroughly incapable of undertaking any of the reforms to the economy that Egypt so desperately needs if it is to meet the needs of its youth. There is one mistake that the restored regime will not make, however: it will not allow Shafik, or anyone else, to be president for a lengthy period of time. Egypt’s regime, then, will evolve into something like the old Mexican Institutional Revolutionary Party, which had a one-term limit for its presidents.  The mafia-like system of governance, however, will continue with term limits, until it collapses into a failed state, something that may not be too far off, given Egypt’s profound structural problems.

So, congratulations to the rational fulul: you won a collapsing dump.  Enjoy it while it lasts!

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