A Second Chance for Egypt, A Third Way for the Arab World

Sunday, July 28, 2019 | Cairo, Egypt

In downtown Cairo, a minaret casts a shadow on an apartment building housing an El-Ghad Party office.
This is the last in a six-part series on my 2017 trips to Egypt. Read previous entries here: "To Egypt, At Long Last", "Daily Life in Giza, Straight from the Horse's Mouth", "Cairo, Conqueror of Skeptics", "Ancient Egypt in the Modern World: Touring the Pyramids, Luxor, and Beyond", "The Nile: Egypt's Endangered Lifeblood".

Our trips to Egypt also gave me the chance to finally see firsthand the country about which I have spent so much time reading, discussing, and writing since the "Arab Spring" kicked off.

Back in early 2011, media across the world were filled with images of jubilant protesters in Tahrir Square. In Cairo six years later, I got to meet a few ordinary citizens who had been among those crowds. We shared a meal with Fadi and Huda (not their real names), middle-aged professionals whose children were young teenagers at the time of the revolution.

"Did you keep the kids at home?" I asked, when the conversation drifted toward the protest movement that had pushed out longtime president Hosni Mubarak.

"Not at all!" Huda exclaimed, "We were out in Tahrir Square, and we made sure to take them with us."

Huda recounted the story of how their son was spotted by the police while filming on his mobile phone. A cop snatched him, but Huda grabbed her son's leg and
clung on. Two big men standing nearby came to her aid, grabbing her son and pulling too. Finally the policeman gave up on the standoff, distracted by another supposed offender. Huda and her son ran away to seek cover in a side street, cried together, then returned to the square to continue protesting.

The atmosphere in Tahrir Square was magical, she told us. "I had been protesting for seven or eight years by then," she said, as part of the Kifaya movement and other demonstrations that preceded the massive 2011 ones. But this time the atmosphere was different: "It was the first time we had seen the people strong enough to stand up to the police, to make them stop moving forward and pushing us."

She recounted the day when protesters began chanting "Bread, freedom, social justice" (عيش، حرية، عدالة اجتماعية) alongside the one heard across the Arab world, "The people want the fall of the regime" (الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام).

Once, amid a melee between protesters and police, Fadi recounted, he was tear-gassed and fell to his knees in the street. Suddenly separated from the rest of the family, he took refuge in a nearby mosque, and was only able to emerge to find them several hours later.

In telling each story, they quoted precise times and dates, recalling exactly where and with whom they were standing. They saw the same faces each day. A friend used to sing patriotic songs over the loudspeakers that protesters erected in the square; one day when he didn't accompany them to the square, strangers came to Fadi and Huda to ask where their friend was and make sure he was fine.

As they recounted these memories, a shy smile danced on Fadi's lips and Huda's eyes sparkled. But inevitably the conversation turned to what came next: After the army and other allies abandoned Mubarak, he ceded the presidency. As part of a military-led transition process, presidential elections were held in 2012 and won by Mohamed Morsi, a technocrat from the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi ruled the country for one disastrous year before his tone-deaf efforts to amass new powers and push through an unpopular constitutional rewrite inspired renewed protests.

Huda recalled the ugly days of Morsi's rule: "You know when someone is wearing a suicide vest, you shouldn't go toward them. Just let them implode."

While no fan of Morsi or his policies, Huda felt uneasy about the anti-Morsi "Tamarrod" movement that sprang up from nowhere, and how suddenly it succeeded in deposing Morsi, paving the way for military rule: "I felt like, 'This wasn't what I signed up for.'" (Subsequent investigations would turn up evidence of close coordination between protest leaders and security forces and financial backing from the United Arab Emirates.)

Return of the Strongman

Morsi's defense minister, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, once a quiet and unknown figure, took power in the June 2013 coup, violently repressed counter-protests, and has played an outsize role in steering Egyptians' daily lives ever since. He appears likely to continue doing so for some time to come. Under Sisi, Egypt's government has been busy making painful economic reforms at the behest of its international creditors, driving ordinary Egyptians to new levels of misery.

I got some insight into how the government views citizens during the time we spent in Nazlet el Semman, the poor Cairo suburb that abuts the Giza pyramids complex. There, the government is getting to work building a new entrance to the pyramids—one which will reorient tourist traffic away from the neighborhood and shut out its residents. (This is just the first phase of larger plans under study that could see much of the neighborhood razed in the name of developing tourism infrastructure.)

Decisions at the pyramids seem emblematic of how the Egyptian state governs, alternately lurching between defying and acceding to the host of overpaid consultants, international creditors, and local interest groups—from business elites to various branches of the armed forces—that swirl around, constantly tugging it in contradictory directions. Nowhere do the interests of the poor appear to be considered, so long as they stay just-better-than-miserable in order to prevent another uprising. While consultants write up flashy "vision documents", the officials soliciting them seem not to be animated by a central strategy of their own. Instead, the decisions point to desperation.

Egypt certainly doesn't have a monopoly on "government by committee" or inconsistency, but the lack of even a pretense of strategy is unusual. In the grand scheme of things, what is Egypt's government trying to construct? Beyond just trying to attract tourists and (ineffectively) combating terrorists, what are they building as a society? This vision is what's been missing in Egypt for decades, as the country has sunk from leading the Arab world to merely trying to stay afloat amidst a geopolitical "slide into terminal irrelevance".

Some still see a silver lining in the 2011 revolution, even if did usher in the disastrous Morsi government, a coup and sporadic episodes of violence, and a new era of military rule with no end in sight. "While our movement is defeated, it has an audience of sympathizers in the hundreds of thousands, if not in millions," longtime activist Laila Soueif told Mada Masr in 2017. "It is scattered and confused; it doesn’t know where it wants to go, it’s leaderless, it has every problem in the universe… but it exists."

While it is true that, once the people realize their own power, it is hard for a government to contain or subdue it once more, that is what's happening these days in Egypt. "Today it's almost like [the revolution] never happened, but worse," Huda told us, because the Sisi government has learned from their predecessors' mistakes. "They're trying to make us ashamed, or make us forget, the most incredible part of our lives," she said. "Everyone is going back to his little private life, to his small corner again. They're trying to make us regret the happiest moment of our lives."

How Did We Get Here?

How could a movement that began with such hope have gone so astray? It's a question that plenty of smart people in the region and beyond have spent years pondering and debating.

So far, perhaps the most compelling answer I've come across has been this one from human rights lawyer and analyst Amanda Taub, which I'll summarize as "It's the institutions, stupid". In short, leaders in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world (with the partial exception of Tunisia—no coincidence) spent decades hacking away at the foundations of political and social institutions of all types. As intended, such destruction undermined society's ability to rebel against incumbent rulers, but, even more so, to later build something durable and effective in their place. (The next time someone tells you that the chaos today in Libya is all NATO's fault, ask them: How many functioning independent political parties, student clubs, religious orders, theater troupes, neighborhood associations, local libraries, or sports teams existed there the day Qadhafi was deposed?)

A Bigger Question

But in many years of living and traveling in the Arab world, I've enjoyed stepping back even further to consider a related but broader question: Why does the region look the way it does today, with almost every country struggling with armed conflict, political protest, and/or fundamental instability? It's a question that has animated some fascinating explanations in recent years. Many analysts have also reframed the question by seeking to understand the most profound manifestation of the region's recent troubles: the rise of ISIS. (Brilliant Lebanese commentator Karl Sharro, a.k.a. Karl Remarks, even attempted to tackle that task in one single brilliant sentence.)

Here's my answer: The Arab world is momentarily out of big ideas, and in search of a new one.

A recap:
  • As much of the Middle East gained independence in the aftermath of World War I and North Africa in the aftermath of World War II, Western-style liberalism held limited appeal (as is arguably the case still today), and multiple countries reverted to monarchic rule.
  • In the 1950s, Gamel Abdel Nasser galvanized the region under the banner of Arab Nationalism, which overturned monarchs but ultimately suffered numerous setbacks (see "United Arab Republic") before fading with the passing of Nasser's successor Anwar Sadat in 1981.
  • Meanwhile, with his Green Book and "jamahiriyya", Muammar Qadhafi was taking Libya from a post-revolution high down a long, dark spiral to nowhere.
  • Hafez Al Asad and Saddam Hussein sought to pick up the torch by championing Ba'athism, fashioned as a modern, secular, nationalist, socialist successor to Arab nationalism. But their drift away from the movement's principles and into brutal authoritarianism drove that dream off a cliff.
  • Buoyed by colossal oil revenues, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states pioneered a marriage of consumerism and extremist Wahhabi Islam that fostered the rise of Al Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups, who are now widely discredited by their mass violence against fellow Muslims.
  • Iran's influence, meanwhile, had a parallel effect in fostering Shiite extremists in the Arab world, including Hezbollah and various Shia militias in Iraq, whose ideological appeal has rarely transcended sectarian divides.
  • For some time, solidarity with the plight of the Palestinians offered common ground, but even this cause has dimmed, ground down by decades of military setbacks and pragmatic deal-making with Israel.
  • Marxism, Communism, Sufism, and other ideas were also discussed but rarely, if ever, applied as governing ideologies.
In recent decades, earlier inspiring leaders evolved into, or were replaced by, dictators repurposing lite versions of their predecessors' grand ideals as needed, all while cracking down on anyone who dared question their hypocrisy. For decades, leaders with an iron fist, bland or highly flexible ideologies, and shameless foreign backing were common across the Arab world. Below the surface, tensions grew as changing circumstances outpaced undemocratic rulers' limited incentives to adapt and reform. With institutions erased, undermined, shuttered, co-opted, or divided, the masses found little expression for rising frustration. In many countries, only the mosques—the one institution the dictators dared not shutter—offered some shelter. And so political Islam, stoked quietly across the region by Gulf money, was often the only form of domestic opposition that managed to grow, evolve, and prepare for the inevitable. When the pot finally boiled over—first in Tunisia, then Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Libya, and beyond—Islamists enjoyed an early head start in defining what would follow.

In the Arab Spring's aftermath, Islamists managed to seize a substantial share of political power in Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt—adding to the sway they already held in Gaza, Lebanon, and many Gulf states—while their extremist brethren expanded influence through violence in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Amid this tide, it was in Egypt, linchpin of the region, where the world might finally have put a stake through the heart of political Islam. (The United States and its allies had blown the world's last best chance through measures to undermine Hamas after it won the 2006 Palestinian elections.)

Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood ruled both incompetently and ineffectively, alienating huge swathes of the population and providing strong evidence—in just a single year—that political Islam is bankrupt as a governing philosophy, just as its critics have long claimed.

Then came Tamarrod, the coup d'état and rise of Sisi, massacres, and show trials of Brotherhood members, culminating in Morsi's unseemly death in detention last month. By abandoning the democratic process, Sisi and those who carried him to power to break with political Islam made martyrs of the political Islamists themselves. In so doing, they also rescued the ideology from its own failings, preventing it from losing legitimacy across the entire Islamic world.

To be sure, allowing Morsi to complete his term would have caused yet more suffering for ordinary Egyptians. But would that suffering have been worse than the suffering they face today, than the results of fatally crippling Egypt's nascent democracy, than the suffering millions more might feel in the future from similar leaders who reach power because the lessons of the Morsi government weren't learned?

In Egypt, secular forces had given Morsi enough rope to hang himself, then impatiently snatched it back so they could hang him themselves. And as a result, political Islam lives on today, not yet discredited by its own shortcomings. Amid a host of weary ideologies that live on in the Arab world like the walking dead, it is perhaps the least damaged.

A Third Way?

But it is still vulnerable. Indeed, the person who lands upon a truly viable, appealing alternative to political Islam (and its violent jihadist corollaries) in the years ahead stands to reap huge rewards. Such a philosophy, if sufficiently different from the religious, secularist, capitalist, or socialist variations that have preceded it, could sweep the Arab world. Thirsty for new ideas, today the region is fertile ground for a new ideological revolution that will galvanize young generations to join in a new project of social construction.

What will that big idea be, and from where will it come? I can't yet imagine, but I expect it will surprise us.

Meanwhile, the best we can hope for is that societies of the Arab world will continue to debate their governing philosophies as openly as possible. Political Islam, while not an ideology likely to deliver much for citizens, should be allowed to compete in the political arena—and yes, even to win, so long as it respects the boundaries of democracy—until its support fades freely. Undemocratic measures to exclude, sideline, or handicap it will only lend it strength.

That is Egypt's latest lesson to the world, though I fear it is one understood by far too few in the Arab world and beyond.

Further reading:
My Rolleiflex photos from Egypt are available in two albums: 2017 Rollei - Egypt I and 2017 Rollei - Egypt II. Nina's photos from our first trip are here: 2017.07 Egypt.

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