Sunday 14 October 2012

After one hundred and a few days

Not yet

Taking the minibus is one of the best ways to know the general mood in Egypt. Soon after my return to Egypt two weeks ago to continue my research on literary and creative trajectories, I was on the countryside on the way to visit friends, and the passengers of the minibus wanted to know what I think about president Morsy. “I haven't seen enough from him to make up my mind,” I answered in an evasive manner. “You won't see anything from him anyway”, one of the passengers replied, and the driver – for some reason he insisted on taking me for an Egyptian – asked: “Come on, don't be afraid to say your opinion. Whom did you vote?” On this minibus, the opinion prevailed that Morsy is a good-for-nothing, but on other rides one encounters people who think that he is doing a good job, that the streets are already safer, but that he needs more time. Two days ago in Alexandria, a passenger wearing a short, well-fashioned beard of the style common to Muslim Brothers, involved me in a discussion about the European perception of Islam, and then went on to argue in support of Islamic economics and the prohibition of interest in banking. I said that I'm quite sceptical of Islamic economics when Egypt's new Islamic government borrows money from the IMF against interest, and sells state bonds with a lucrative interest rate. He replied: “That is just because we do not have an Islamic government yet, it is not yet fully in control. But it will be soon.”

Not yet” is the mood of these days – a hopeful “not yet”, a fearful “not yet”, an impatient “not yet.” The government of the Muslim Brotherhood is working hard on turning expectations into facts, however. They are struggling to gain control over the state, its institutions, the streets, the squares, the culture. In circles critical of the Brotherhood, the neologism akhwana “Brotherhoodisation” has become the keyword of the Ikhwan's attempt to establish dominance over all institutions of the state. But they have not been successful yet, and for the time being both those in support of Morsy and his government and those sceptical of or opposed to it have as the main evidence for their point of view that not much has happened yet.

The urgent problem, however, is that Morsy had promised that a lot would happen. The deadline was last week. Upon entering office, Morsy declared an ambitious yet very simple and uncontested One Hundred Days programme to improve the economy, to restore security, to improve traffic, to clean up the streets, to guarantee distribution of subsidised goods, etc. It was a programme tailored at gaining wide popular support, bare of any of the key ideological aims of the Brotherhood and focussed on problems that are generally recognised as urgent and important. On 6 October, on the occasion of the celebrations for the anniversary of the 1973 October war, a huge celebration was organised on Cairo Stadium, attended by honorary guests (importantly not including the leading figures of the military rule, Field Marshal Tantalize and General Annan whom Morsy in late August promoted out of office by making them presidential advisers, and more controversially including the Zumur brothers who had been involved in the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat and spent the entire Mubarak era in prison), a large crowd mainly made up of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the rest of the ranks filled by soldiers and policemen to fill up the stadium. His two-hour speech, broadcast live on state television, was only secondarily about the October War. First and foremost, it was political rally to mobilise support for the president and to convince the nation that his 100-days programme has been “successful up to 70 per cent.”

The reality looks less like the image Morsy depicted in his speech. There is a general sense that the security situation has improved (but a friend of mine got robbed in plain sight on a main street recently, and it is difficult to tell whether there really is less crime, or whether people are simply less anxious), and that the economy has slightly improved (but so far the improvement of the economy appears to be mainly because the presence of a president and a regular government gives people the confidence to invest again). Beyond that, the urgent affairs of Egypt are very much like they were a hundred days earlier, and some things are worse: Since August, the government is fighting a de-facto war against Jihadist insurgents in the Sinai. Also in the Sinai, Christian families in the border town of Rafah were threatened by Jihadists and told to leave the town. They stayed, but their situation remains precarious. Last Ramadan witnessed a disastrous electricity crisis with repeated long power cutouts in large cities.

Now that the hundred days are over, the way the new government tries to solve the nation's urgent problems begins to look increasingly haphazard. Most recently, the minister of local development has passed a regulation to limit the opening hours of shops (excluding pharmacies) to 10 pm., and of cafés and restaurants to 12 pm. In Egypt, a country that has a very night-oriented way of life, where people often work at very late hours, and where especially in poorer areas many cafés and shops are open day and night, this regulation appears strange to say the least. The official reason given for the regulation was saving electricity – but it does not seem very convincing, given that the demand for electricity is at its highest before 10 pm., not after. Prime minister Qandil defended the regulation, claiming that there is no other country in the world that does not regulate the opening hours of shops and cafés. Aside of the prime minister, I have so far not managed to hear anybody else speaking in support of the regulation. Everybody I meet finds the regulation ill-informed, disastrous for Egyptian lifestyle, bad for security (open shops and lots of people are the best way to make streets safe at night), and impossible to implement. Aside of being haphazard and ill-planned, this regulation also reveals a lot about the underlying idea of good urbanity among Egypt's new rulers. It is a vision oriented on Europe, America, and the Gulf States, informed by the lifestyle of the economical elites in well-secured, calm and motorised suburbs – the social class from which the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood and the ministers of the government with few exceptions hail. In this regard, the policies of the Morsy era do not seem so far from those of the Mubarak era, dominated as they are by the life experience and horizon of economical elites who often experience the lively street culture of the less fortunate classes as disturbing chaos and dysfunctional informality, consequently seeing it as an obstacle to overcome instead of recognising it as a functioning social order.

The hundred days' programme addressed issues that are consensual. At a number of other points, the Ikhwan are beginning to show their true colour. Some cases – like the closing hours for shops – tells how close their understanding of policing public order is to that of the Mubarak system. Others – like the removal of sexual education and reproductive health curricula from schoolbooks, and the increasing number of lawsuits on the ground of “denigration of religions” – fit perfectly within the framework Islamist ideology and, disastrous though they are, are in no way surprising. Other issues, again, reveal a sharpening sense of confrontation between different political forces as the Ikhwan are trying to establish control, but are not yet successful. In this last regard, the last days have brought some surprises, and more can be expected.

The Battle of Sheep”

For last Friday, demonstrations were announced by liberal and leftist revolutionary groups against Morsy and his government. Then, two days before that date, all accused in the Camel Battle (on 2/2/2011 when supporters of Mubarak tried to storm Tahrir Square) court case were declared innocent for lack of evidence. Predictably, this raised quite some sentiments, but it also offered the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis the occasion to declare their participation in what they deemed a demonstration for the sake of purifying the judiciary. Thursday evening, the news broke that Morsy has transferred the public prosecutor – who was widely deemed responsible for the failure of almost all court cases about the killing of protesters during the revolution - to the post of the Egyptian ambassador to Vatican. For the moment, it seemed that Morsy had gained another victory in establishing control over the state, and now the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi participation in the demonstration was to be in support and celebration of Morsy.

Then things went badly out of hand. Already the previous night there were verbal exchanges and minor fights between supporters and opponents of Morsy on Tahrir Square, and the next morning witnessed a veritable battle of stone-throwing between the competing fractions. I was not there, but D., a long-standing revolutionary from the village in the Nile Delta who moved to Cairo last spring, was. This is his account:

D. went to Tahrir early in the morning, and by that time the revolutionaries were few in numbers, and became quickly outnumbered after significantly larger (but not huge – 500 according to one estimate) numbers of Muslim Brotherhood supporters entered the square. The revolutionaries chanted against Morsy and the Brotherhood with chants like “Down with the rule of the Supreme Guide” and “Sell the revolution, Badie” (referring to the Muslim Brotherhood's Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie, the real strong man behind Morsy), and the Brotherhood supporters reacted by demolishing the stage set up by the Popular Current of former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi (in front of running television cameras) , and Brotherhood supporters forced the revolutionaries out of the square to Muhammad Mahmoud St., where D. and his comrades faced a rain of rocks thrown at them from the square and were forced to hold out there. By this time he had to go to work, and as he returned from work a couple of hours later, he encountered a group of protesters on al-Qasr al-Ayini street who had tried to enter the square but were forced back and did not want to get involved in fighting. He managed to convince them that it was necessary to reestablish the revolutionary presence in the square, and they managed to enter the the square without a fight. For a while the square was split into two parts, the Brotherhood supporters on the central circle, and the revolutionaries on the pavement on the side of Downtown. Both groups were chanting their slogans but no fighting was taking place, until more marches of the revolutionary fraction started to arrive and tried to enter the square from Talaat Harb Street and Abdelmoneim Riad Square. Rocks being thrown both ways, the revolutionaries who were already on the square tried to go between but without success, and a street battle endured between for an hour and a half, with neither side being able to make advances, until at six in the afternoon when the Brotherhood supporters at once all withdrew (upon order by their leadership, it later turned out), and headed to hold a protest in front of the high court against the public prosecutor. The revolutionaries took over the square, and two of the minibuses that had transported brotherhood supporters were set on fire.

The Muslim Brotherhood's version was of course different. In different statements the previous evening, members of their leadership declared that the Brotherhood had not been present at the square in the first place, and that they had withdrawn in order to calm down the situation. The next day, the brotherhood's press organ al-Hurriya wa al-'Adala came up with an official version of their account, according to which it was the Ikhwan who had been attacked by an unspecified party, and that there was an unprecedented media campaign going on to defame the Islamists.

The critics of the Brotherhood were outraged. This was not the first time that Brotherhood supporters had either compelled their opponents to leave the square, or tried to make their slogans unheard by the sheer power of superior sound systems. But it was the first time that Brotherhood supporters had entered such a direct confrontation with their opponents. The arrogance with which they demolished the Popular Current's stage and tried to prevent their opponents from entering the square was only topped by the lies of their leadership, first denying involvement and then putting blame on an unknown party – echoing the “third party” theory so routinely used by the military rulers in 2011 and 2012. The Brotherhood certainly showed itself a worthy successor of Mubarak's National Democratic Party

This is not to deny that quite a few revolutionaries were rather happy to enter a fight with the Ikhwan, too. But from all witness accounts and reports I have read, it appears that Brotherhood supporters and Salafis were the initial attacking party – and the Ikhwan leadership's refusal to say by whom they were attacked and their vague references to an unknown party only further supports the revolutionaries' version of the events.

The revolutionaries quickly started calling the incident “the Battle of Sheep” in an ironical reference to the “Camel Battle” - a name that for draws a direct comparison between the Brotherhood and the NDP, and furthermore claims that the supporters of the Brotherhood (who arrived on Tahrir with minibuses provided by the Freedom and Justice Party, and left the square at once when their leadership called them back) are sheep-like creatures that follow the whistle of the shepherd and lack a will of their own.

The Ikhwan are doing their best to depict themselves as victims, and they may yet take the events as a pretext to silence opposition towards them on other occasions. But for the moment, many revolutionaries experience the battle as a victory. They had been pushed out of the square a few times by the Islamists, and this was the first time they ended up dominating the square by the end of the day. And although the Ikhwan are really good at explaining things their way, the incident certainly are a serious media setback for them – the more so since it was accompanied by a another setback.

While fighting endured on Tahrir Square, the judiciary had taken a united and firm stance against the dismissal of the public prosecutor. It also turned out that legally the president was only allowed to replace the prosecutor in agreement with the judiciary. By this time, Brotherhood supporters were commanded from Tahrir Square to demonstrate in front of the High Court. Heated rounds of negotiated evolved, and on Saturday noon, Morsy had to admit his defeat and the public prosecutor could stay in the office. The official version was that the president had given his consent to a petition by the Supreme Judicial Council, but the Council declared that they had not sent any such petition.

While the “Battle of Sheep” was a struggle about the power to speak in the name of Tahrir Square, the struggle between the president and the prosecutor was one between the Ikhwan trying to establish control over the state, and an institution of the old system successfully defending its power. Unlike in the transitional period when the Muslim Brothers could play a tactical game of changing alliances with the revolutionaries and the military rulers, they now face opposition on two fronts. They still have some of their revolutionary credibility, and they are very, very good at mobilising shows of mass support (of the kind they did on 6 October). But as they become the ruling party, it gets increasingly difficult to exploit that credibility. At the same time, they are officially in charge of the state, but in practice many institutions of the state remain hostile to them. Today on the train to Cairo, I happened to sit together with three police officers, two of them in civil. Noticing that I was reading the Brotherhood's organ Al-Hurriya wa al-'Adala, they expressed their clear dislike of the Brotherhood, were very happy about the success of the public prosecutor in holding his position, and argued that the Camel Battle court case was all based on rumours anyway, and that it was a spontaneous action of the tourism entrepreneurs of Nazlat al-Samman. They didn't look like they would be a very willing executive of Morsy's government.

What can one dare to hope now?

That said, it seems unlikely that the Brotherhood would be out of power any time soon – and in fact, it is not even desirable. The question, instead, is to what extent they will be successful in establishing control, and what other dynamics will be taking place in Egyptian society. I try to explain what I mean with the help of four recent conversations.

First, there is the pessimistic view. It was expressed by M., my journalist friend in Cairo. He expects that the Ikhwan will be able to push through a constitution of their liking – and some revolutionaries and liberals will boycott the constitutional assembly in order to deny its legitimacy, but it won't make a difference because it will be in force anyway, and laws will be passed and the state run according to it. Sooner and later there will be parliamentary elections and the Ikhwan are an election machine able to mobilise a lot of voters under any conditions, and they will not shy away from using all means necessary to secure a parliamentary majority. Once firmly in power, they will never give it up voluntarily again. Furthermore, the opportunists who are always on the side of power are already busy siding with the Brotherhood. And, M. adds, the people are tired, the prices are rising and although the economy is recovering a little they are too busy with existential things. There will be no revolution against the Ikhwan like there was against Mubarak, at least not any time soon: “It looks like they are going to stay with us for a long while.”

But one of the twists of the Brotherhood era is that the lines of political opposition are being redrawn. I know some people who had little interest in politics even during the revolution, but who have developed a much more sharply oppositional attitude since Morsy's election. F., owner of a café in a small town, thinks that there may soon be a new uprising against the Ikhwan very well – and he in fact hopes it – because they have so disastrously failed to run the affairs of the country. His business suffered severely from the wave of electricity cuts throughout Ramadan, and the government's plan to limit the opening hours, if implemented, will be equally disastrous. He says: Yes, the people want to be left in peace and get back to work and business, but the government is failing precisely in that point, and people are getting angry again.

The question, however, is what would follow from a new uprising or from a fall of Morsy. D., on his turn, does not expect the Brotherhood to leave power any time soon – in fact he hopes them to stay for at least four years, and as far as he is concerned, they should go through with the Brotherhoodisation of the state, because only that way they can lose their aura as a victimised oppositional movement, and Egyptian people can have enough time to understand how far removed from Islam Islamist politics really are. Furthermore, he adds, if the Ikhwan would lose power now, it would most likely be in favour of the supporters of the old system who have been able to organise their ranks again after their temporary disarray in 2011, and who still command considerable power over many parts of the state. The revolutionaries are currently neither able nor competent to seize power. While expecting the Ikhwan to stay in power, D. is hopeful for different reasons. He perceives a significant change in political consciousness of ordinary people in a way that, he argues, is bound to put Egypt to a better path. But it will not happen now, and we may not be the ones who profit from it, he says. He points out that this does not only involve the revolutionaries who have been able to transform themselves through the experience of uprising. It is a change that even involves those who once lacked an oppositional consciousness, or even were close to the system. The judges' successful power struggle with Morsy is not only about guarding the old system, he says: It is also about the judiciary developing a different self-understanding as an institution of the state under changing governments and presidents. And he says that in many daily encounters, walking the popular districts of the city, and in is work, he finds people critical, and aware of what politics means in a way that was still lacking during the revolution. Importantly, he himself has the feeling that he can do something, in his work, in his studies, in the many political debates he develops with people on a daily base.

In 2011, D. was one of the first people I know who reached the frustrated conclusion that the revolution had failed. A year later, when most young revolutionaries now also think that the revolution failed, D's new-found optimism is striking. It is an optimism, however, that depends on the continuity of a relatively free and pluralistic political space. A return of heavy-handed repression and fear can still falsify it. The Ikhwan are the power to reckon with for the years to come, but the decisive question is how much power they will have, and what shape that power will take.

The fourth conversation took place online between me an Iranian friend who pointed out to me how much the development in Egypt reminds him of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. It is not the same, he says, but it has many similarities: The revolution in Iran was based on a wider popular consensus from right to left. The Islamists presented themselves consensus-oriented and pluralistic at first, but upon seizing power started to systematically eliminate and marginalise their opponents. This is an important point of comparison, and it was certainly not taken seriously enough in spring 2011 by all those commentators who stated that Egypt will not be like Iran, when instead it would have been necessary to ask what can be done in order to prevent Egypt from going Iran's path. However, there is an important difference, and a paradoxical one: I think that one of the greatest failures of the Egyptian revolution may turn out to be one its main assets in the future: the lack of revolutionary justice. One of the key themes of mobilisation ever since the revolution began has been that the leaders of the old system and the perpetrators of crimes against protesters must be judged and punished. Almost none of that has happened, and practically all who were responsible for killing protesters in January 2011 have been acquitted, except for the life sentence for Mubarak, which was nevertheless a major disappointment for all those who wanted to see him hanged. After the Mubarak verdict, many revolutionaries reached the conclusion that Mubarak should have received the same treatment as Gaddafi did, that true revolutionary justice can only take place at the lampposts of Tahrir Square, and that the first step of the revolution should have been a thorough purge of the state apparatus. However, they may eventually consider themselves lucky for the failure of revolutionary justice, because such justice is extremely prone to turn against the revolutionaries themselves – and often with even greater brutality – as soon as one of the revolutionary parties has seized power. Already now, hundreds of protesters are still held in prison (and it is unclear whether the president's recent pardon on all revolution-related crimes will actually include them), but so far the leading figures of the different fractions, be it revolutionary, Islamist, or old system, have remained free and largely unharmed. No matter how troubling the failure of justice towards many of the most outrageously criminal figures of the Mubarak era may be, it also sets a precedent that makes it more difficult to make opposition leaders disappear in prison or get shot on open street.

The struggle over control continues, and while the Muslim Brotherhood definitely has the upper hand, it is yet undecided, and in fact difficult to decide because it is a struggle of three blocks – Islamist, old system, revolutionary (the latter being the weakest of the three) – and as soon as one block seizes power, it faces the opposition of the two others, so that the struggle may continue for a long while still. And increasing political confrontation brought by the brutality of the Military Rule, the tactical manoeuvres and determination to power of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the radicalisation of the liberal/left revolutionary block has made it increasingly difficult to find any sort of consensual base across these blocks. However, while this is the situation of party politics and activist circles, ordinary political life in Egypt is still not very firmly entrenched along block lines, and people who are not committed supporters of any given block, tend to have complex, multiple and more open-ended visions and positions. I therefore conclude this otherwise very inconclusive essay with one little item that displays the complexity of everyday political allegiances.

While the “Battle of Sheep” took place in Cairo, I was attending the annual festival (mulid) of the great Muslim saint Ahmad al-Badawi in the city of Tanta. Contrary to last year when the festival had suffered from the general sense of anxiety and insecurity, it was quite successful this year (the Muslim Brotherhood has been traditionally been sharply opposed to mulid festivals, but so far Morsy's government has been rather busy with other business). A new cheap sales hit made rounds at the mulid: Colour posters with the portrait of Mubarak's predecessor Anwar al-Sadat in military uniform. Displaying the portrait of Sadat in one's shop is a fairly clear stance against the Ikhwan, and also a more ambiguous show of allegiance with the state of the Free Officers – ambiguous because for one part it is can be a way to show support to the old system, while at the same time it is also a way to take distance from Mubarak and his era. Sadat also enjoys some ambivalent sympathy in the revolutionary circles: While he stands for the beginning of the ruthless privatization policies, for the oppression of the left wing in favour of the Islamists, and for the much hated Camp David peace treaties, he is nevertheless also the hero of the October War of 1973 (although the revolutionary daily al-Tahrir recently devoted whole two pages in their 6 October issue to questioning this image, and claiming that the counter-attack across the canal and the resulting intrusion of Israeli forces on the west bank of the canal was made possible by tactical errors by Anwar al-Sadat and the “totalitarian” structure of command that compelled the military leadership to implement Sadat's plan against their better knowledge), and a secular hero assassinated by Islamist militants. My friends from the revolutionary leftist/liberal circles in Alexandria found it outrageous that Morsy in his two hours long speech on the occasion of 6 October failed to mention Anwar al-Sadat with a single word. Displaying the portrait of Anwar al-Sadat does therefore more than expressing explicit disagreement with Morsy and implicit allegiance with the pre-revolutionary order. It is also expressive of a search for something like a consensual base in a moment where it is very difficult to find one.