Monday, December 26, 2011

Cairo: Elections and Other Issues


            I’m back in Cairo and when I asked a young friend recently what she thought would happen next in Egypt she gave me a wry smile and said she wasn’t even sure what was happening now.  Anybody who’s paying attention feels that way and anyone who doesn’t feel that way, which includes most of the pundits in the US and Europe, isn’t paying attention.  That lots of people with strong opinions about what’s going to happen, let alone what is happening, have very little insight or knowledge about this large and diverse country seems to be a basic fact of life.

            I’ve been reading the stories in the foreign media about how unexpected the victories of the Islamist parties are and how no one predicted that the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis would dominate the elections.  The Salafi success was indeed unexpected but inside Egypt I think for different reasons than outside in ways that are consequential for trying to understand what’s going on.

Accounts like that of Jeffrey Goldberg (no relation) recently in Bloomberg suggest that many Americans were spending far too much time with random contacts they met in cafes around Tahrir Square.  If Tahrir isn’t Egypt, then the Hurriyeh Café in nearby Midan Falaki where you can buy a beer and play pick-up games of backgammon with fluent English speaking liberals, isn’t even Tahrir. 

            More seriously, the very well-known and highly respected student of democratic transitions, Professor Alfred Stepan, visited Cairo frequently in the spring and made some guesses about the elections.  Stepan.  A professor at Columbia University, is a very smart man with considerable experience in writing about politics and democratic transitions and more relevant to the field of political science than I will ever be.  His work has been profoundly influential in how American academics and (to a lesser extent) policy makers think about transitions.  But when he confidently asserted during a trip to Egypt in March that the Muslim Brothers and Islamists would not take more than 30% of the votes (and seats) in a parliamentary election it was hard to avoid, at least in private, rolling my eyes. 

Goldberg and Stepan go it wrong, but when people say that, during the days of the massive demonstrations in Tahrir, no one predicted the dominance of the Muslim Brothers, they’re wrong.  I’m pretty sure I wrote about it at length back in March and April.  And I wasn’t alone:  almost every serious Egyptian political analyst understood this was the likely outcome of free elections.  My deep oracular powers of prediction and mystical connection to the currents of Egyptian politics were based primarily on simply reading what Egyptians were arguing about in op-ed pieces every day and talking to different people (including, I must admit, the occasional taxi-cab driver). 

What most Egyptians had expected was that the remnants of the old government party, the National Democrats, would share dominance of the new parliament with the MB.  So the elections in the past three weeks have brought about a double surprise:  the strong showing of the Salafis and the nearly total rejection of the remnants of the NDP by voters.  In retrospect it is clear that the attempts to exclude the NDP members from running was not only politically short-sighted and possibly dangerous in the longer-term to Egyptian democracy but also unnecessary.  (It was dangerous because it doesn’t seem like a good idea to establish the precedent that individuals can be denied political rights simply because of their former partisan membership; unnecessary because they turn out not to have been a danger).

Because it’s now clear the NDP had no existence as a party, the Salafis didn’t prosper by picking up its supporters.   Their voters, like those of most electoral parties, are something an impromptu coalition.  Some, especially in Upper Egypt, are probably extremely prejudiced about Christians and fearful of their demands for equality (which to be honest is pretty much what the call for a secular state is about).  Some may be attracted to the populist policies that several Salafist currents espouse which strongly resemble some of the left parties programs in terms of wages, subsidies, and government support of the poor in the name of social justice.  Others may see in the Salafis the “real” Islamic alternative to the Muslim Brothers who many now see as hopelessly opportunistic in their search for political power.  Without adequate studies we don’t know but these are some of the guesses I’ve heard.  What we also don’t know is how strongly different sections of the Salafi voters are attached to them.  The ideologically anti-Christian vote will stick with them but some of the others might vote for other parties if they become unhappy with the Salafi performance in the parliament or if the economy worsens. 

For better or worse, however, the fate of Egypt’s political future is clearly in the hands of the Muslim Brothers and SCAF.  One temptation for the MB will be to compromise with SCAF and insert themselves into the system in the place of the old NDP but as a functioning party.  Another will be to step back and let SCAF and some other set of leaders attempt to deal with what will undoubtedly be the difficult problem of re-igniting the economy over the next couple of years. Given that the Freedom and Justice party, now routinely described in the Egyptian press with the nearly Homeric epithet “political arm of the Muslim Brothers”, has a membership and a political appeal largely skewed to conservative professionals and urban residents, it is unlikely to make a sudden changes to the economic policies of the Mubarak era and it has announced its intention to honor Egypt’s treaties (that is, the Camp David accord with Israel) albeit to seek some alteration.  But it can achieve many of its ends by using its parliamentary role rather than necessarily dominating the government for now.

This morning’s news brings a report that the MB and SCAF have agreed to a division of spheres in which the MB will dominate parliament and the SCAF will control the presidency.  Whether this particular report is true, it is clear that the two major forces will have to come to some agreement about how, in practice, to work together.  The MB have whatever legitimacy comes from electoral dominance and SCAF has both raw coercive power (which it has shown repeatedly it will not shrink from using) and the appeal to many Egyptians who fear that continuation of the revolutionary process will lead to a complete collapse of public order and the economy.  There is a third force, of course.  Not the hidden hands both SCAF and the MB frequently invoke—whether Israeli, Qatari, or American.  The third force is the apparently still irrepressible spontaneous force of Egyptian society, sometimes manifested in Tahrir and sometimes elsewhere. 

It will not be easy for the MB and SCAF to reach a stable agreement.  I am not one of those who think they have been working hand in glove since February.  There are important differences especially over the division of power in the country.  SCAF cannot look at what has happened to the Turkish army and feel very secure about actually creating civilian control of the Ministry of Defense.  The MB leadership have spent enough time in the regime’s prisons to know that as long as the Ministries of Defense and Interior are not under their control they remain vulnerable.  The MB can bring hundreds of thousands of people out into the streets and the Army can bring out the tanks.  Whether either can actually command sufficient authority in the face of adversity to persevere in making the country work is a different matter entirely and here they both face the constant danger of that unpredictable third force.

It is quite possible that SCAF is more afraid than many suspect of spontaneous social unrest.  They may have watched it bring down the Mubarak regime with mixed emotions as it destroyed a clique they were willing to be rid of but that left the institutions of the state wholly at risk for weeks, culminating in a week when the entire Ministry of Interior including its most redoubtable fortresses fell before waves of popular unrest.  SCAF may have felt that the events of November and December were far more threatening than they appeared to be to those on the Tahrir side of the barricades.  They were able to contain mass discontent once but they may not be so sure they can do it again. 

Yet SCAF and the MB have many things in common.  They probably both share many of the widespread prejudices and preferences that are certainly widespread in society.  They are partisans of order and discipline. 

Christians have a place in their society and it is a distinctly subordinate place enforced by social pressures rather than legal measures.  Whatever orders were actually given at Maspero in October when dozens of Christian protesters were killed, it marked the willingness of the army to deploy violence against Egyptians with the support of other sections of the popular in a frightening way.  The events at Maspero deserve more attention but the generals must have been noticed a widespread unwillingness by many of the political parties, notably the MB, to declare those who died at Maspero martyrs of the revolution as has routinely been the case with others who fell to violence in demonstrations. Indeed they suggested in public that the demonstrators may have threatened army officers.  Neither the generals, the soldiers at Maspero, nor the Muslim Brothers have given much public attention to the lives they took that day.  Nor has the army ever identified the soldiers that it claimed were killed, presumably because there were none.

Women, in this view, also have a role in their society but their primary task, especially in their 20s and 30s, should to provide a wholesome family environment.   The disrobing and beating of a woman wearing a headscarf in Tahrir two weeks ago which was so widely recounted in the international press is suggestive.  So too the response within conservative political quarters here questioning why exactly she was in Tahrir. Of course it's not right to attack women nor to leave them struggling half-naked in the dust, but what exactly do they expect.  And besides it wasn't the soldiers who did it but unnamed and effectively invisible hidden hands.  And I don't know the exact Arabic equivalent for "who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes" but the existence of video footage showing exactly what happened (as at Maspero) has been dismissed by the armed forces and their supporters.

SCAF and the MB remind me a bit of the so-called country club Republicans of two generations ago in the US.  It was almost impossible for them to imagine that those who did not share their religious, class, and (in the US where this matters) racial background had any important role to play in politics.  They believed in law and order and respect for government as well as the free enterprise system.  They may have been hypocrites and narrow-minded but they made up the backbone of conservative America.  Comparing them to the Muslim Brothers will no doubt seem harsh and a bit absurd to many Americans (and too obvious to others).  The country club Republicans and their Democratic opposite numbers thought of themselves as decent, moderate and rational.  They were sober and unprejudiced in their own minds.  They never blew up churches.  But in Birmingham in 1962 they made excuses for those who did because they claimed that the protesters, threatening as they were to the social order, essentially brought disaster on themselves.  This is not incompatible with a functioning electoral democracy but it leaves a lot to be desired.


            The destruction of the Institut d’Egypte by fire was a significant loss to history and historians.  I don’t mean to diminish the importance of this event but it was not, despite some comparisons, like the burning of the library of Alexandria by Julius Caesar or of Baghdad by Hulagu.  It was a significant collection with many unique materials but it was not the sole location in which a large number of intellectual works of crucial importance were held.  And like the destruction of the Alexandrian library by Caesar it appears to have been an accident rather than a concerted attempt to destroy Egypt’s history, its archives, or its connections to the outside world.

            Without excusing whoever tossed the Molotov cocktail that ended the library’s 200 year existence, anyone familiar with Cairo’s recent history of fires might draw a somewhat different (but not more reassuring) lesson. 

            Accidental fires are not infrequent and especially in Cairo.  I was almost the unfortunate witness to one when a doorman managed to light a butane gas cylinder on fire about 15 years ago while checking to see if it had a leak.  He lit a match to the area at the top of the container and nearly turned it into a bomb.  Electrical fires are also not uncommon.

            One of the most impressive recent fires in the area around Tahrir Square occurred on August 19 2008 when the Shoura Council building burned to the ground.  Along with it went records of 19th century parliamentary debates that were held in its archives.  The fire itself was an accident and perhaps could have been contained but the fire department was unable to arrive at the building in a timely fashion.  Had the 19th century building ever been equipped with a sprinkler system perhaps it could have survived until the errant fire fighters arrived.

            In the early morning of September 27 2008 another fire occurred.  This one was at the National Theater (in a different part of downtown) and it also burned to the ground.  Again the fire department did not arrive in a timely fashion and the equally charming 19th century building in which many years ago I saw an Arabic translation of a Latin American play also had no sprinkler system. 

            In the intervening years it evidently never occurred to anyone in the government that it might be a good idea to install sprinkler systems in old buildings, especially old buildings filled with books, journals, and other combustible materials.  So when that fateful Molotov cocktail was thrown no sprinkler system was in place to avoid transforming what might have been a modest problem into a major disaster.

            The government is already at work planning to repair the building just as the army also repaired other buildings destroyed by arson over the past year: notably churches in Soul and Imbaba.  In fact the rapidity with which the army repairs things is a bit unnerving.  Even while demonstrators were being shot on the streets a couple of weeks ago the Supreme Council announced that they would be cared for at the expense of the state. 

            Two errant thoughts occur to me, one of which is quite practical and the other quite metaphorical.  After three major fires have robbed Cairo of some important architectural and historical resources perhaps it would be a good idea if someone paid attention to putting sprinkler systems into other buildings.  I don’t know if the National Archives or the National Library (both of which have some exceptionally rare and irreplaceable collections) have sprinkler systems but perhaps they should.  Second, it is hard not to read this as a metaphor for the collapse of the old regime.  It’s not clear that the kind of spark tossed into an unhappy society by demonstrators on Police Day a year ago had to be the basis for a conflagration that took down an entire regime.  But just as the old regime didn’t do sprinklers, it also didn’t do anything resembling alternation of power or recognition of popular unhappiness.  One can only hope the Second Republic now under construction by the Armed Forces, the Muslim Brothers, and others will do better but that remains to be seen.


Sunday, December 25, 2011

Zombie Economics and the Egyptian Revolution

            Just a brief note since I don’t have access to my books and notes while I’m in Cairo.  I see that the meme that the Armed Forces control between 20 and 45% of the Egyptian economy is making its way around again.  While there is no doubt that the Armed Forces and SCAF have economic power and privileges to maintain  I’m very dubious about these figures.  And nobody wants to do the work of looking at it more careful so it just won't die.  When I return to Seattle I’ll see if I can find some actual numbers to plug into the argument, but I recently came to understand what people who use this figure are thinking.  If you think in terms of a ratio between army and the economy then there seems to be a confusion between the role of the state overall in the economy and the armed forces on the one hand and between industrial economy and the economy overall on the other.  Confusing the role of the armed forces with that of the state makes it seem proportionately larger than it is; confusing the latter two makes the economy seem smaller than it is (which again, makes the role of the army seem bigger). In other words we're looking at Army economy/Total Egyptian economy and coming up with something between 1/5 and 2/5 or 20-40%. 

            Let’s begin with one very simple definitional problem.  What do we mean by “the economy”?  I don’t mean any fancy postmodern issues.  I mean simply what do we count?  Are we looking at Gross Domestic Product or something like the total value of all economic exchanges in the country?  Are we looking at total capital formation or something like the value of all the productive capital in the country?  In the former case we’re concerned about returns to factors rather than the total value of productive factors but if the latter we’re interested in something like the replacement value of factors of production and especially land and capital goods.

            We can try, qualitatively, looking at both.  The Egyptian state owns a lot of capital.  Of course it owns all the capital that the Armed Forces own but it also owns a lot of property not owned by the Armed Forces.  It owns a very large canal linking the Red Sea with the Mediterranean from which it receives significant returns.  It acquired this asset at zero cost in 1956 but has spent quite a bit on repairing  it (generally and after several destructive wars)  as well as making capital investments to enlarge it.  It also owns a very large dam in the extreme south of the country which may need replacement in about 100 years.  The state also has extensive and valuable infrastructural investments in canals, roads, government buildings, civil airports, as well as educational, health and policing systems.  It also owns valuable mineral resources in the form of producing assets for its oil and gas reserves.

            The Armed Forces have extensive investments in industry as well as other sunk capital costs which we can think of as essentially worthless (unproductive) investments economically although they are very reassuring to society at large.  The Armed Forces appear to own a significant number of trucks, cars, busses, tanks, armored personnel carriers, airplanes which are rarely deployed and which carry neither passengers nor freight but which are capable of destroying significant quantities of capital if necessary.  The last time these planes appear to have been used for anything other than training was during the February demonstrations when they briefly took to the skies.  The armed forces also own significant numbers of weapons, uniforms, and the capital installations necessary to keep all of these investments in good repair. 

            The armed forces have also made a significant number of direct investments in industrial production whose total value we do not know.  If the army owned all the capital that produced the country’s industrial output, it would be responsible for close to 40% of GDP.  But this is to assume there are no other state-owned enterprises and no privately-owned industrial enterprises.  If only half of industrial output is produced by other state firms and private firms then the Armed Forces could control about 20% of GDP.  But if this were the case then it would be doubtful that we could account for the importance of private-sector investment over the past decade.  Nor would we be able to account for the sectoral shifts toward communications and services (including tourism and finance) which have been important sectors for economic growth (although not necessarily for employment growth). 

            Some of these investments must be profitable especially because the cost of capital for the Armed Forces must be very low (if not zero) and their labor costs may also be very low if they are using conscripts, but there is no reason to believe they are vastly more profitable than other state enterprises.  Given that private industry competes with the firms owned by the Armed Forces in a variety of sectors (bottled water, agricultural products and so forth) which do not have a zero cost of capital it is unclear what we are looking at. 

            If we think in terms of capital formation, then it would be clear that (apart from its investments in industry) the armed forces have very large and very unprofitable investments.  Theirs are, like military expenditure everywhere, an important element in maintaining demand for civilian goods but do not themselves play a significant role in the economy.  In addition to the Suez Canal, the High Dam, the educational, health, and security services there is another sector that matters in terms of capital formation: the private sector.  Although industry was nationalized in the 1960s, land always remained in private hands.  It is very hard to believe that whatever the army owns amounts to something like value of all of Egypt’s agricultural land and urban real estate which (at least as an order of magnitude) is what the armed forces would have to own if they were to control 40% of the economy. 

            The officers of the armed forces do have privileges and the institution has acquired significant property in Egypt which gives it a stake in whatever arrangements are made for the economy in the future.  But this, it seems to me, neither explains nor excuses how they have chosen to determine the country’s political future nor the methods they have employed to do so.  The armed forces bear the moral and political responsibility for what they have chosen to do.  Economics are an implausible substitute for insisting that they bear that responsibility. 

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Elections and the Path to the Second Egyptian Republic

            Massive street demonstrations marked the beginning of the end of the First Republic in Egypt and their continuation a week ago has brought the Second Republic more fully into view.  In the process the revolutionary upheaval that has transformed the politics of the country has continued to devastate the reputations of the individuals, institutions and organizations that crossed its path.   Five days of bitter street battles coupled with peaceful demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of people mere dozens of meters away were the prelude to the first round of voting for a new parliament.  The first round began November 28, just a year after the Mubarak regime’s fraudulent elections for the assembly eliminated the Muslim Brothers from the body.  They ended November 29 and if the next two rounds have similar results they will provide the Muslim Brothers with at least 40% of the seats in the legislative body to be installed in 2012.  Salafi parties that are set to take 20% of the seats will join them. If they can work together, will form an absolute majority in a legislature whose electoral legitimacy may be uncontested but whose powers are far from clear.

            Observers outside Egypt persistently ask how the young, often liberal, and secular leaders of the early demonstrations have now been maneuvered aside.  That the Muslim Brotherhood’s present leadership has played its political hand well with the consistent goal of moving the country toward elections it believed it would dominate is uncontestable.  But it had a strong hand to begin with.  It is now a truism in the international as well as Egyptian media that the Brotherhood is the largest and best-organized association in the country and that its leaders express ideas that have significant resonance among many Egyptian Muslims.  What is less commonly appreciated is just how large the organization is and how relatively well disciplined, ideologically and organizationally, it has become.  Egyptian press accounts, based on leaks from the Brotherhood’s finance office, in the spring suggested that the Brotherhood had nearly 800,000 dues-paying members.   Whether an exaggeration or an understatement, this number probably represents the correct order of magnitude. It accords with accounts of membership in the organization in the late 1940s.   Since the country’s population was then a quarter of its present size, it may also indicate that the MB is relatively not quite as popular now as six decades ago when it more completely embodied its founder’s wishes to combine elements of a mystical order, a political party, and an activist association.

The widely heralded splits from the Brotherhood, which have yielded such disparate parties as the Wasat (which ran a common list with the Brotherhood’s party) and the Adl (which did not) have left the Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice party (FJP) more coherent and so far not weakened at all.  American specialists in the art of voter analysis who believed that the Brotherhood would not gain more than 20% of the seats in an election based on their showing in the 2005 parliamentary election were of course mistaken.  In fact, based on the results of the March referendum it was always more realistic to assume that, for now, less than 50% of the electorate would cast ballots for parties other than Freedom and Justice.

            What is more surprising is both that the Salafi parties did so well and politicians associated with the old regime, the so-called fulul or remnants, did poorly.   It had long been argued that the now-dissolved National Democratic party was made up of locally powerful and ambitious politicians and it was long feared in Egypt that unless they were legally barred from running that they would return to office in large numbers.  We have long known that they were not democratic but it is  apparent that they were also neither national nor even a party and very few of their number appear to have much of a chance of serving in the new parliament.   

            One way to think about the new parliament is that it will contain a dominant Islamist bloc stretching from the extreme Salafi Islamist right through the conservative core of the FJP/MB to the moderate centrist elements of that party.   Another way to think about it is that there will be a very large, possibly majoritarian, central coalition headed by the FJP with an exuberant array to its right and left each of which will command about 20% of the electorate and the seats.  The Salafis and the secular forces are not likely to cooperate very much and certainly with no relish, and for the moment they will not be able to do more than embarrass the FJP. Politics may nevertheless occasionally bring such strange partners as bearded Salafis and stylish silk-stocking liberals into the same political bed.

            Assuming that the remaining elections do not dramatically change events on the ground (and it may be a mistake to assume that the results in Mahalla, Tanta or even Giza will be necessarily better for the FJP than Alexandria, Asyut and the Fayoum), the Muslim Brothers will finally gain the prize so long denied to its current generation of leaders:  a share of governance.   Many of its current leaders moved from the politics of the student movement to the professional associations and now they are on the verge of assuming parliamentary authority.   Heady as this moment must be, it is a distinctly new challenge for political leaders who have not previously had to contend with the need to manage  sprawling government institutions for diverse and increasingly demanding constituencies. 

            One particular example is the ministry of social solidarity, a portfolio that FJP might covet.  Widespread gossip in Cairo suggests that this ministry, which controls the supply of subsidized bread to Egyptians, is locked in a fierce struggle with the bakers and variety of gangsters over the price and supply of flour and loaves.  It has been more than 20 years since Yahya Sadowski wrote of the corruption within the flour trade and the baking and distribution of subsidized bread.  There is no reason to believe that the FJP will be better placed to resist the blandishments and threats with which such corrupt enterprise is maintained than Egyptian ministers past.

            And yet the FJP may not only be forced to try its hand in that game; it may strongly desire to do so.  Egyptians have long characterized their government as comprising two distinct types of ministerial organizations: the social and the sovereign.  The sovereign ministries are those that concentrate coercive power:  interior (the police), defense (the armed forces), justice (the courts and prosecuting attorneys), foreign affairs, and of course the one ring that binds them all: the presidency of the republic.  The social ministries show a more benign face of governance and dispense goods, albeit frequently of low quality, to the population:  education, social welfare, labor, health and a plethora of development-oriented agencies within many industries whose names suggest they are engaged in investment.  They certainly employ workers and spend money.

            It is too early to be certain but there are reasons to believe that a party like the FJP many of whose members are doctors, lawyers, professors and teachers would be more desirous of controlling the social ministries which could directly shape popular conceptions through schools, that provide the public with goods, and that hire a significant number of skilled and semi-skilled employes.  These ministries are important and legitimate sources of patronage. 

        The sovereign ministries may be less attractive.  Controlling them would involve the FJP rapidly in a long and complex struggle to re-shape the national police and take responsibility for what are likely to be their outrages for a decade to come.  While the MB leadership has said that it agrees the Camp David treaty with Israel must be maintained, they may not relish the idea of a member who serves as Foreign Minister shaking hands or giving a friendly hug to his Israeli opposite number before the eager cameras of world’s assembled photographic corps.  Lastly the Army has made it clear that it does not want much civilian oversight of its budget and the FJP might prefer to leave that contentious issue also on the side.  No less than Ulysses, the FJP might prefer binding itself to the mast of the ship of state in inferior positions to remain deaf to the siren sound of sovereign power that could tempt it to self-destruction.           

            Between now and the formation of any government, there are three daunting challenges facing FJP and the parliamentary parties.  These will in the short term determine the outlines of the Second Republic.  First, the constitutional referendum of March asserted that the new parliament will choose the 100 members of the constituent assembly.  This is one of the six clauses of the Constitutional Declaration issued by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that has the legitimacy of a popular majority vote behind it.  The constant assertion and re-assertion of the legitimacy provided by that vote provided both the MB and SCAF with the basis for rejecting the claims of the liberal left to establish a civilian government of national salvation or indeed to write a constitution before holding elections.  In November SCAF issued another proclamation (which it has recently said might have been only a military suggestion) allowing the elected parliament the choice of only 20 members of the constituent assembly.  The parliament and the FJP will have to decide whether to fight or fold on this issue.  No matter what the outcome of these negotiations, deputies will have to create some mechanism of their own to decide who it will choose to sit in the new body.  Whether it will involve behind-the-scenes maneuvering, public hearings, or the constitution of a parliamentary committee, the Salafis, Brothers, and secularists will have to adopt some common procedure.  How successfully and rapidly they manage that task will affect their power as well as their reputation and that of the parliament they hope to empower.

            Second, the constitutional declaration also gave the new parliament the right to engage in legislative activity (of a vague and ill-defined nature) as soon as it is seated.  The two houses will have to determine if they wish to challenge SCAF on this issue as well, including their presumptive right to examine the state budget.  Few deputies may wish to challenge SCAF on these grounds, but as the uproar over the November “suggestion” shows, the activist public may not be very pleased if the parliament immediately backs down.  What the broader public might think we, of course, do not know but deputies from the Egyptian countryside and impoverished neighborhoods may have a clearer idea of how concerned their constituents are and whether that accords with the wishes of their party’s leadership.

            Third, no matter how and how many delegates the parliament chooses, the deputies will have to choose between those likely to write a constitution endorsing a strong executive of the kind Egypt has had since 1923 (the transition from monarchy to republic in 1952 by no means weakened the executive authority) or significantly strengthen the hand of parliament.  One crucial test already looming on the horizon is whether, for the first time in Egyptian history, it will be an assumption of ordinary politics and a constitutional requirement that the prime minister be a member of the largest party in parliament.  Especially if that party has a majority of seats.  This was a goal that persistently eluded the nationalist Wafd party between 1923 and 1952.

      And, of course, beyond that is the division of power between the president and parliament.  Presidential candidates such as Amr Moussa, who served as Foreign Minister under Hosny Mubarak, have made it clear they favor a very strong presidency and SCAF is likely to as well. While the time to make this decision stretches out over a year, the choice of who to seat in the constituent assembly will be an early bellwether of how this conflict will play out.

            The resolution of these issues will say much about whether parliament is to be a locus of decision-making in the country or the kind of rhetorical playground for the distribution of patronage that characterized the student governments in which the current leadership of the FJP served in the 1980s.

 Although I’ve never much admired Mao Tse-tung, I have always believed that he had a way with words.  “A revolution” he wrote in 1927, “is not a dinner party or writing an essay or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so courteous and so gentle….”  Mao wrote those words as the communist organization in urban China was being destroyed in the aftermath of a military coup and a battle with the Nationalist party led by Chiang Kai-Shek.  Mao, an adept of guerrilla war and leader of a faction of the party based in the countryside, was not sad to see his erstwhile competitors for revolutionary leadership crushed.  In Egypt the urban revolution, often seen as leaderless, has not been crushed and may not be conventionally crushable.  The unlikely street coalition of Ultras (soccer fans),  disaffected youth, the liberal left, swelled on occasion by the ranks of unemployed and semi-employed Muslim majority, has clearly not been engaged in embroidery or a dinner party.  There have been moments, in March for example, when Tahrir (which by synecdoche stands for the crowds that have gathered in most of the urban centers of Egypt) may have resembled a vast mawlid (religious festival) or almost literally Lenin’s “carnival of the oppressed.”  But in its own discourteous and unrefined way it has pushed the work of revolution constantly, if fitfully, forward. 

Not only are Mubarak and most of his cronies gone.  Reputations have been savaged and many prominent political figures cast aside as they seemed to stand athwart the revolution crying stop.  Ahmad Shafiq was forced out of the prime ministership when he appeared likely to become a lightning rod for protest in the early days of the revolution.  A former general, he is now widely if possibly unfairly identified by his fondness for pullover sweaters than for any achievements.  More recently Essam Sharaf, by all accounts a decent man, has achieved the dubious distinction of being the only Egyptian Prime Minister to have resigned from office in response to public protests over government policies.  He also thereby becomes the only Egyptian minister to have twice resigned (the first time was after a terrible train disaster in the Mubarak period when it become apparent that he could not fix a broken Transport ministry).  Supreme Court Justice Tahany el-Gabali saw her political reputation vaporize after some unfortunate (and probably unnecessary) comments on illiterate voting and the role of SCAF in politics.  And the reputation of SCAF itself in the wake of the gruesome deaths of protesters at Maspero nearby Tahrir Square in October and the recent round of fighting in November has also suffered.  SCAF’s success at managing the electoral process may improve its reputation briefly but the Egyptian military has always done very well at logistics of the kind needed to get ballots to the polling stations (or ammunition to the troops) and very poorly at tactical improvisation. 

There is a tendency, especially outside Egypt, to dismiss the demonstrators as erratic, leaderless and playing a negative role.  This is much truth to this, but as the demonstrators continue to assert it has another side as well.  What has weakened the transition to a stable institutional structure of democracy has also prevented SCAF from fully asserting its control with organizations and institutions that might have very willingly collaborated in the re-creation of the old order as long as they sat in the new places of honor.

As Mao both appreciated and resented, stable institutions including parliaments and well-organized electoral parties do have a tendency to resemble dinner parties more than street fighting or guerilla warfare. And there is no doubt that many Egyptian politicians as well as most American political scientists and policy makers are more than ready to return to the banquet table (without alcoholic toasts) and the writing of eight-legged essays about how the Arab Spring has turned to Arab winter.  And yet it is difficult to imagine how the work of creating a new institutional structure and a new political culture could move forward until the debris of the old republic had been more fully cleared out of the way than was the case until mid-November. 

            The Egyptian revolution has, to my mind at any rate, not yet run its course.  I will leave arguments about how to characterize the past year in Egypt to another day, but I do think Egypt experienced a revolutionary crisis that is not yet over.  Just what the Muslim Brothers think I don’t know but their caution at almost every major turning point in the street politics of the past year suggest that they fear the continued power of their old nemesis, the armed forces and the police. 

Tens of millions of Egyptians may be tired of revolutionary disorder and yearn for stability and a return of economic activity but tens of millions of Egyptians (not infrequently the same people) have demands and aspirations that they still expect the revolution to realize.  The MB and their parliamentary party, the FJP, represent a powerful force for stability and order.  But, if indeed the unruly force of the Egyptian revolution continues to manifest itself they may find their own reputation tarnished and their organizations marginalized.   The Salafis are eager to replace the Muslim Brothers as the true leaders of an Islamic and Islamizing revolution and we have a common, if inaccurate picture, of a revolutionary cycle moving from a more moderate to a more radical phase under the impulse of increasing demands from a disaffected underclass.  This is another historically inaccurate picture of the process of revolutionary change that I hope to address in a later blog or else in the book that will result from all of my electronic activity. 

As the revolution has tarnished and then cast aside successive leaders and continues to do so, another possibility also emerges.  If everyone has been taken off the pedestal and reduced to human dimensions and constructed out of the base ingredients of which people are made perhaps a very different political environment will develop: one where admittedly imperfect people with incomplete knowledge and conflicting interests make policies.   It will not be nirvana or the revolution or the Islamic state and it will leave many Egyptians still in search of justice and bread, but it may at least create a political space in which human dignity attains some respect.  This, I continue to recall, was one of the three primary demands of the early days of a revolution whose appearance was a surprise and that has shown more than once its capacity to overturn our expectations and hollow verities.


Saturday, November 05, 2011


After months of stormy public debate, punctuated by occasional bursts of violence, about how Egypt’s new constitution is to be written, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces released a proposed set of supra-constitutional principles to be embodied in the new document and a set of standards for selecting the constitutive assembly that will write it.  With the first round of elections for the lower house of parliament set for the end of this month, almost all the parties planning to participate have soundly rejected it.  As Egypt moves closer to the moment when the institutional and ideological shape of the post-Mubarak landscape is determined, the conflict over this document reveals how Egypt has changed in the past nine months.

            The document evokes a profoundly corporatist vision of Egypt and places its democratic future to a remarkable degree in such a framework.  In at least two cases—the military and the judiciary—SCAF proposes to allow the affected branch determine the content of legislation affecting it.  In addition whether by the backdoor or by simple oversight the military has introduced a new penalty—stripping Egyptians of their citizenship—that no previous Egyptian constitution has allowed and that several appear to have prohibited.

            A popular slogan in the days after Husni Mubarak stepped down as president promoted the idea of the unity of the people and the army—like the fingers in a fist, they were a single hand.  In response to those who voiced misgivings about the army’s seizure of power, it was widely asserted that Egypt would become a democracy albeit with exceptions.  The most widely proposed exception was that some political or constitutional mechanism would have to be found that recognized the prominent interests of the armed forces in the country’s economic and political life.  Whatever else people say about the twenty-four members of SCAF, they can at least respond that this proposal is consistent with those earlier defenses of their role.
            In March, SCAF promoted a set of amendments to the 1971 constitution drafted on behalf of the late president Anwar Sadat and amended several times by Mubarak.  Although SCAF later abolished the 1971 constitution by fiat and replaced it with their own constitutional declaration, they retained the amendments that had received 77% of the vote in a referendum.   It was widely understood that these amendments committed SCAF to allow a freely elected parliament complete liberty to choose a constituent assembly of 100 members that would then write a new constitution.  

            As it became clear over the spring and summer that such a parliament would probably have a majority of members from the Muslim Brother’s political wing—the Justice and Freedom party—and more radically Islamist Salafi parties liberal and leftists began to urge the adoption of a set of supra-constitutional principles.  Their idea was that this would provide a common commitment to democratic values that presumably all political activists could agree on:  freedom of speech, association, and electoral mechanisms.  The Justice and Freedom party as well as the various Salafi parties objected that any such agreement pre-empted the sovereign powers of an elected parliament which they increasingly realized they were likely to dominate.  The force of argument between the two sides may have been equal but it is increasingly clear that the practical wisdom of not reaching an agreement on political principles was not identical.

            One common set of anxieties among foreign observers has been especially evident in the months since March:  the fear that Egypt would disintegrate into anarchy and that only the Muslim Brothers and the Army, presumably acting as one hand, could stem the tide.  That the Muslim Brothers and the Armed Forces have engaged in tactical cooperation from time to time since March, both in the referendum on the constitutional amendments and at several crucial turning points since, is evident.  This cooperation has, however, masked some very important differences that have now become apparent.  Much as outsiders hope that the Muslim Brothers are really, as the name of their newly-formed political wing suggests, similar to Turkey’s Justice and Development party the Armed Forces are unlikely to be their allies.  Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has fought a lengthy and largely successful battle to trim his army’s power; the Egyptian army is unlikely to wish to see a local Islamist party follow the same path.

            It is thus not surprising that the Muslim Brothers and other political forces have strongly objected to articles 9 and 10 of the army’s proposal.  Article 9 would give the SCAF an institutional presence in the new government with the sole right to determine the military budget and any other legislation that affects the Armed Forces.  In addition, although the president of the republic would be the “supreme commander” of the armed forces, the minister of defense would be the “general leader.”  One possible, although not necessary, implication of this formula is that the Minister of Defense would be a general chosen by SCAF itself.  In addition a declaration of war would require the agreement of SCAF as well as parliament.   Article 10 would create a National Defense Council headed by the president of the republic which would concern itself with broadly defined “issues relating to assuring the safety and security of the country.”  This is a much more specific renewal of a similar council called for by the 1971 constitution.  That article fell into desuetude but there is clearly some concern that this time around the Armed Forces might be more eager to put it into practice.

            These proposals for institutionalizing the power of SCAF in a new constitutional order are clearly not what the initial idea for agreement on supra-constitutional principles meant.  They do, however, speak to the Armed Forces concept of what a democratic order in the Egypt will mean and what limits will be placed on its power of decision.  It is also quite clearly a proposal designed to win a positive response from those, foreign and domestic, whose anxieties about a democratic order view it as equivalent to the unrestricted power of the Muslim Brothers, or mob rule, or a decision to initiate war with Israel. 

            The SCAF document also proposes a set of rules for the selection of a constitutional convention.  It takes authority largely away from the parliament that is about to be elected and replaces it with a vision of corporatist decision-making.  Parliament will choose 20 members of the constituent assembly from the various currents represented inside its walls.  The other 80 members will chosen from various occupational associations—already largely controlled by the government and thus indirectly influenced by SCAF—through their own internal processes.  The new assembly is to be heavily weighted to the middle classes and specifically the legal profession. The judicial branch of government (courts and prosecutors) will choose 15 members; the universities will also choose 15 members of whom 5 must be constitutional law professors; and a further 15 will be chosen by the professional associations (lawyers, doctors, pharmacists, engineers and so on).  The trade union federation and peasants union will also choose 5 members each.  The “Egyptian church”—presumably the Orthodox Coptic church—and the Azhar will choose one representative each as will the sports federation, the armed forces, the police, and the Federation of Industry.  The text helpfully provides that in many cases these representatives will be chosen by the appropriate legal mechanism of the relevant institution. 

            This understanding of the constitutional convention as a corporate rather than an elected representative body is reminiscent of the political climate in the Nasserist Egypt in which most of the members of SCAF presumably spent their adolescence and early adulthood.  This may be the golden age of order and progress to which the military leadership, and perhaps many other Egyptians, wish to return.  It is difficult to read the proposed principles without being reminded of Nasser’s Philosophy of the Revolution.  As in Nasser’s vision but now to be enshrined in the constitution is Egypt’s commitment not only to Arab unity but to the country’s Islamic and African vocations. 

            If SCAF will oversee legislation regarding the military and security, the judiciary will also oversee legislation that affects itself.  Article 5 proposes that to guarantee the independence of the judiciary the plenary associations of the judiciary will be given the freedom and responsibility to determine what legislation will affect their role.

            Overlooked, at any rate outside Egypt, in much of the discussion about this proposal are some ways in which it takes account of recent changes in the domestic and international political environments and especially the degree to which it creates new constitutional imperatives that may have significant long-term effects on the country.   Older constitutional guarantees are either implicitly or explicitly overturned while new governments may find themselves constitutionally barred from pursuing desirable policies.

            It comes as no surprise that the document reiterates that Islamic sharia is the source of law in Egypt.  New (article 2) is the proposal that it should now be a principle that the personal status of non-Muslims would be governed by their relevant religious law (that is, the non-Islamic sharia of their religious community).  This accords with contemporary Egyptian legislative practice but raises it to the level of constitutional principle.  For those who hope to create a unified civil law of marriage, divorce, and inheritance it will post a nearly insuperable constitutional barrier as well as those of ordinary law and custom.  Of course religious officials of the Christian and Muslim communities may find it welcome.

            Egypt will, in the coming years, need to re-negotiate the treaties governing the division of Nile water.  The existing treaties, initiated by the British during the imperial era and renewed during the Nasser period, strongly favor Egypt at the expense of the African countries of the upper Nile Basin.  These states have sought to renegotiate or unilaterally terminate the unequal treaties but agreed to forego such action at the time of the revolution.  The new principles would make the maintenance of Egypt’s historic rights to Nile water a constitutional issue rather than one of government policy presumably open to renegotiation.

            SCAF has also created some crucial tripwires.  The document sets several deadlines for the constitutional convention to complete its work.  In the event the convention writes a document SCAF considers unacceptable the Supreme Constitutional Court will become the final arbiter.  Whether the justices of that court will wish to, or would be well advised to, step into a conflict between SCAF, the constitutional convention, and the legislature is a question nobody has yet asked them. In the event that the convention as chosen cannot complete its work in the period assigned, it can be dissolved by SCAF which will then choose a new convention. 

            Nearly unnoticed in the discussion but possibly the most problematic of all is article 13.  Citizenship has become a significant issue in recent years especially as it concerns the children of Egyptian mothers and foreign fathers.   What has not been at issue, however, is the citizenship of other Egyptians.  The 1971 constitution explicitly provided that the regulation of citizenship was a matter of law but also provided that Egyptians retained the right both to leave and return to the national territory.  The fear of political persecution or judicial prosecution has certainly induced Egyptians to leave over the past 60 years (and more) but they did not thereby forfeit their citizenship.  It is therefore surprising that paragraph 13 of the proposals reads that although citizenship is a basic right of Egyptians and citizenship may be lost and citizens exiled or forbidden to re-enter the country as long as this is pursuant to a valid court decision.  In other words, exile is now a possible penalty that the state, through the judicial process, may impose on Egyptian citizens.  This has not been a possibility before in Egyptian law or life. Important as the courts may be in determining the rights of citizens, until now the constitution itself guaranteed these rights to Egyptians.  Now, as a matter of principle, it is proposed that that will no longer be the case.

            The attempt by SCAF to preserve its place in the institutional structure of the state may or may not succeed.   That it was an idea that many observers might have considered plausible nine months ago but no longer has much resonance with the political forces in contention reveals how much the country has changed.  It may no longer be possible to deny Egyptians the right to vote freely and fairly.  What remains is the kind of option that governments such as that of Kaiser Wilhelm in pre-war Germany:  to allow free elections and to remove as much as possible from the purview of the legislatures they empower.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


            Chou En-lai famously told Henry Kissinger in 1973 that it was still too early to be certain of the outcome of the French revolution.  Although the jibe is widely employed, no one takes it very seriously.  On the contrary, we now live in a world in which the longue durée is at most months and where the ideal model of political conflict is a sports match in all its details:  two sides playing by the rules on the field while their partisans sit politely in the stands and then return home after the game ends.  This certainly isn’t a very good description of politics and it may not even be a good description of sports where passions run high, grudges are taken home, and (from boxing to chess) opponents often engage in harassment off the field as well as on.

            In our world today sports have become ubiquitous.  Pundits and commentators employ sports metaphors with abandon.  Sports are big business and in some places sports celebrities leave the playing fields (or rooms) to enter the worlds of commerce or politics.  After the September 9 takeover of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, soccer fans—known as Ultras—have themselves at least briefly dominated the political news.  This has occasioned so much nearly hysterical coverage outside of Egypt that it seems worthwhile thinking about how it fits into the past couple of years and what it means for how we think about revolution, democracy, and political change.

            Just so there is no mistake, let me state briefly here I think of embassies the way I think of municipal water supply.  I do not support crowds taking them over.  Nor do I think it’s an essentially harmless enterprise.  Just as they need clean water, the powerfully centralized bureaucracies we call states also need to have some way to negotiate with each other over a variety of issues.  That they do so with little or no transparency protected by ruthless security even in the face of popular hostility is unremarkable.  There is, however, no reason to insist that this practical necessity of ensuring the daily (if not necessarily very smooth or very just) running of the world we live in requires any claims about higher values, morality, or the adherence to sacred duties.   What it does require is that the state valuing the embassy of another state, even one that it considers hostile or a strategic threat, safeguards the embassy.  And if the host state can’t or won’t then it’s important to think about why.  But if the state whose embassy was invaded doesn’t break relations, or formally withdraw its representation (which is different from physically removing the staff), or demand an apology then that’s also something worth thinking about.

            Judging from the comments that have appeared globally, you could be forgiven for thinking that this was such a rare or even unique event that it stands out as a testament to the complete lapse of public order, the norms of decent behavior in Egypt or anywhere else, and poses a crucial threat to the neat progress of Egypt toward democratic elections and beyond to what the French communist leader Gabriel Peri who was killed by the Nazis in 1941 called “singing tomorrows.”  I’m not sure which of these analytic moves is most misleading.

            Almost everyone who writes about Egypt, especially from outside, seems to have a particular story line that can be fitted into any particular occurrence.  Thus we keep hearing the same, more or less apologetic, story about the Mubarak regime which goes something like this:  yes, he was an autocrat, but at least when he was in power even if the trains sometimes ran off the track rather than on time, the police kept order, embassies were respected, and the xenophobia of ordinary Egyptians was kept in bounds both when it came to Israelis and other foreigners.   Ordinary Egyptians, according to this particular script, neither understand nor can be trusted with the niceties of law, order, or the safety of foreign ambassadors especially if they are either Jewish or Israeli. 

A second narrative has recently emerged that recognizes the authoritarian character of the Mubarak (and the Sadat and even possibly the Nasser) regime and accepts that mass demonstrations played a crucial role in bringing it down.  However, partisans of this narrative assert that mass demonstrations were the work of a Cairene (or at least urban) westernized middle-class and that Egypt must now do the real work of democracy.  The middle-class left, according to this view, is too enamored of street demonstrations and needs to buckle down to the hard work of party-building.  Otherwise the middle-class left threatens the transition to democracy.   Autocracy will return despite the desire of the overwhelming majority of Egyptians for democracy. 

            The first narrative blames the emotions of the mass of Egyptians for the failure of democracy; the second blames the emotions of a small slice of the population but it has the added cachet of embodying a paradox.  It turns out that it’s the very people who initially pushed hardest for democracy who are now its primary enemies.  What links both of these narratives is that the army and state bureaucracy bear no real political responsibility.  They only assume power to prevent the breakdown of public order. Purveyors of the first narrative think that’s a good thing and purveyors of the second think it’s bad.

While I’m quite aware that public safety is a real issue in Egypt, I don’t think I’m the only person who remembers that in November 2009 violence by soccer fans during World Cup preliminary matches provoked a crisis between Egypt and Algeria in which dozens of people were injured, the Algerian Embassy in Cairo was besieged, and assets of an Egyptian-owned telecom company in Algiers were torched.  This might be put down to the exuberance of the Egyptian fans except that I also happen to remember that it was Egyptian government television personalities and officials (including the son of the former president) who played a role in roiling public emotions.   It is easy to imagine a stinging critique of soccer fans as a mob whose violence deflected popular attention away from the deeper issues of politics being written about the events of 2009.  In fact, it’s not even necessary to imagine it; Joseph Mayton, founder of the English-language resource Bikya Misr in Cairo, pretty much wrote this critique for the British paper, The Guardian. 

Obviously there is much wider and deeper popular anger in Egypt about Israel.  Also the Algerian embassy, despite being in a much better known location, was not breached although it did sustain damage.  One crucial difference in the two situations was that in 2009 a phalanx of riot police, despite being pelted with bottles, torches and Molotov cocktails, prevented a smaller crowd from getting access to the embassy grounds although in the process they left a remarkably high wall of detritus on Hasan Sabri street. 

            The Mubarak government had cancelled matches in mid-January and they did not resume until mid-April when the clubs, many of which are owned by the police or the army, complained that if play didn’t resume they would go bankrupt.  The plight of the soccer clubs never figured in the national debate about the economy (the so-called “wheels of production”) that was then underway, but the government did allow play to resume.  And in a game between Zamalek and Tunisia’s Club Africain the police disappeared from the stadium, violence broke out when Egyptian fans attacked Tunisian players and an international incident between revolutionary Tunisia and revolutionary Egypt was only narrowly averted.  

There are differences of course: the Egyptian government rapidly made amends; very few Egyptians have any deep feelings about Tunisia (which at any rate does not pose a strategic threat); and no one attacked the Tunisian embassy (which is not further away from Midan al-Tahrir than the Israeli embassy). 

How is the post-January period different? The Ultras were said to have been especially angered by a battle with police during a match on September 7.  Let’s accept that they were more than ready to fight the police and that many people were angry at the deaths of five Egyptian border guards in a fire fight with Israelis pursuing the men who attacked two buses in Israel earlier in the week. 

            Perhaps the army and the police were taken unawares by an unexpected demonstration from Tahrir Square where at least tens of thousands (and possibly 100,000 by some estimates) had gathered for a “Friday of Correcting the Course” (of the revolution).  A sudden lapse of attention by the army may be a little hard to believe.  The army, which has asserted its control over Tahrir and eliminated ongoing occupations of the traffic roundabout by force, had withdrawn from the area for the period of the demonstration.  Given that almost every Friday demonstration since May has seen thousands of demonstrators split off and walk the distance of about a mile to the area near Cairo University where the Israeli Embassy is housed in a high-rise building and given that thousands had demonstrated in front of the building the week before it is hard to understand why, after building a concrete wall in front of the building, the area was only lightly guarded.

            And yet perhaps it is not so strange.  It has been suggested that the army deliberately encouraged or at least connived at the embassy take-over either to prepare the way for the renewal of an authoritarian dictatorship or to shore up its legitimacy with a population that is viscerally pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli (if not in fact viciously anti-Semitic—it all depends on who is telling this particular story).   Surprisingly no one (as far as I know) has proposed that the army was willing to have the embassy sacked as a message to the Israeli government.  This tale would at least have the advantage of explaining why the Israeli Prime Minister couldn’t reach Field Marshal Tantawi by telephone.

These particular stories, no matter what the particular spin, seem remarkably implausible to me.   It sounds like we’ve all been watching too much television or seen too many action/horror movies.  The kind where the villain performs the equivalent of flapping hummingbird’s wings (or perhaps commits a heinous murder) and months later, through the action of a Rube Goldberg apparatus, the hurricane bursts when hero breaks through a locked door and is promptly handcuffed by the villain and readied for execution. 

Rather it seems to me that a military whose legitimacy is based on the claim that it did not fire on the demonstrators in January and which, with the collapse of the police lacks the kind of force necessary to control demonstrators preemptively, has decided that withdrawal is sometimes the better part of valor.  Thus, just as the police withdrew from the Zamalek-Tunis match and the army withdrew from Midan al-Tahrir on September 9, there is no reason to believe that the army was prepared for a more serious assault on the Israeli embassy than had occurred the previous week when the so-called “Flagman” had scaled the building to tear down the flag.  Nor does it seem to have been ready to fire on demonstrators on the evening news.  The presence of a small fortress of a building that houses a police force for the Giza governorate more or less across the street may have given them false confidence.   That it too would have come under siege was probably not something they considered.  And if, as unconfirmed and possibly unreliable stories in the press indicate, Egyptian Prime Minister Esam Sharaf was trying to resign while all this was going on it would also explain why reaching Tantawi was so difficult. 

One important result is that the events of recent weeks have clearly attracted the attention of Prime Minister Netanyahu.  If, whatever the causal chain behind the events, Egyptians really wanted to convey the message that things are not as they were under Mubarak that message has certainly gotten across.  And the Israeli government seems to have been uncharacteristically quiet in its official responses even if private citizens and commentators have not.

            Focusing on the foreign punditry on the attack on the embassy, however, two important things to think about become salient.  The first has to do with demonstrations and elections.  My sense is that there is, at least among American observers, a tendency to focus on elections as both the goal and medium of democratic revolution.  Like embassies and clean water, elections can be very useful practices.  As the Egyptian political scientist Rabab al-Mahdi pointed out in a recent article for the daily Al-Shorouk, “correcting the course” means thinking seriously about what you think the course ought to be.  And the goal of the revolution was to allow Egyptians to have greater control over their own destiny.  Electoral democracy in contemporary capitalist societies (a category which includes Egypt) is a notoriously imperfect instrument for affecting the lives of most citizens.

To paraphrase the century-old work of Robert Michels, political parties can become like professional sports teams, owned by their administrative staff and other investors.  They engage in biannual or quadrennial playoffs around which their partisans are mobilized while most of the fans are largely demobilized awaiting the outcome.  Politics, in short, becomes a game to be watched rather than an activity in which citizens engage.   When American foreign policy experts (in government and academia) talk about democracy, I always suspect that this is what they’re thinking of.

            The increased number and intensity of demonstrations, by teachers, industrial workers, students, and government employees, are testimony to the ways in which Egyptians have continued to participate in politics.  Without minimizing what the impact of the Israeli embassy take-over could have been, it is clearly not like the occupation of the American embassy in Iran in 1979. That take-over was the extension of an internal conflict between components of the revolutionary coalition seeking dominance over each other.  Egypt is awash in demonstrations and strikes, but demonstrations, strikes, protests, and public debate are also part of democratic governance. And, as far as external observers can tell, most of them are local and immediate in the nature of the demands and leadership.

            A good example is precisely the protest about “correcting the course” which addressed, at least in passing, the problem of the election laws. These have received remarkably little discussion outside Egypt.   The decision of the Military Council days ago that the upcoming elections will be wholly based on proportional representation (rather than a mix of proportional-list and individual candidacies) appears to be the outcome of the persistent mass demonstrations, not very transparent discussions, and some emerging tension between the army and the Muslim Brothers.  While foreigners will not be able to contribute to election campaigns, it’s less clear what kinds of rules will govern how Egyptian businessmen and wealthy individuals are involved.  There are, technically, strict limits on how much campaigns can spend.  It remains to be seen how those rules will be extended, massaged, or enforced. 

            The second issue about protests and Cairo is to note how little attention external observers seem to have paid to the importance of mass demonstrations in the capital.  Much has been written about why the Egyptian (and Tunisian) military reacted differently than armies elsewhere especially Syria and Libya.  Much has also been written about the economic motives of mass discontent and the importance of demonstrations (sometimes with significant violence) in provincial cities.  These are undoubtedly all part of the story.  Less attention has been paid, as far as I can tell, to what difference it made that mass demonstrations occurred in capital cities (Tunis and Cairo) where government was paralyzed and the sheer size of demonstrations in a primate (that is, the largest) city overwhelmed the repressive forces of order.   Twenty percent of the population of Egypt and Tunisia live in the greater metropolitan area of the capital.  The inability of the revolutionary movement to enter Damascus and its repression in Tripoli seem to have played a role in the political process in Syria and Libya. 

             Attempting to downplay the importance of Cairo in the Egyptian revolutionary process or the role of demonstrations as forms of participation (and not only contestation) is as misleading as expecting that the Egyptian revolution will be over in a month or a year.  Chou would have known better.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Memories of 1977 in Cairo

            On a hot summer’s day in 1977 I walked from downtown Cairo out along the road parallel to the Nile, the Corniche, past Bulaq and over the bridge to Zamalek.   Egypt, under President Anwar Sadat, had made a few gestures in the direction of openness but in fact the country was still in the grip of a one-party state. There was, in those days, no elevated highway over 26th of July Street nor did the May 15 bridge exist.  Crossing the Nile meant using the now-dismantled Abu al-Eila bridge, an old-fashioned filigree of a bridge erected, I believe, by a French company specializing in cast iron structures at the beginning of the 20th century.  Further downstream you could see, as you still can today, the railway bridge that crosses from Shubra to Imbaba for the train traffic heading south to Asyut, Luxor and Aswan.  It was a perfect place to take a picture of the Nile.  So I did.  In fact, I took several and hoped that the heat would not affect the Kodachrome in my single-lens reflex camera before I returned to the United States in several months.

 No Pictures  Allowed in 1977

            I needn’t have bothered.  My reverie was broken when a man, probably in his 50s, tapped me on the shoulder.  My Arabic was not very good nor was his English but what he was able to make what he wanted perfectly clear.  It was illegal to take pictures of bridges or from bridges.  I had broken the law and I had two choices.  One, I could remove the film from my camera, expose it on the spot, and destroy not only the pictures I had just taken but all the rest as well.  Two, I could accompany him to a police station.   I was a foreigner with a very very limited command of Arabic; obviously I was on the verge of being accused of being a spy; I had plans to see a friend who was waiting his apartment.  The photos I had just taken had been completely touristic and had absolutely no value to me.  The choice was pretty clear and soon a ribbon of exposed film was curled up in the hands of a self-satisfied and self-righteous Egyptian citizen.  Memory can always play us false, but I seem to remember it gained a slightly pinkish tone as it overexposed in the hot sun.  Somewhat shaken I trudged across the rest of the bridge, stopping only for a juice at a small store that, forty years later, is still there with the same somewhat shopworn pictures of the Virgin Mary on the back wall.

            During that same summer of 1977 Shaykh Mahmud al-Dhahabi, the former minister of religious endowments, was kidnapped by an Islamist group.  The government press turned its attention briefly from the election of Menahem Begin, routinely described as a fascist and war-monger under whose governance Israel would move even further from peace, to the traumatic murder of a former high government official.  The state-controlled media was nearly useless for rendering a decent description of these kinds of events, let alone any understanding of why they occurred or what their implications might be.  Occasionally by comparing the nearly identical stories in the leading newspapers astute readers could glean additional bits of information.  It was therefore common, among those who could afford it to use a short-wave radio to listen either to the BBC Arabic Service or to Radio Monte Carlo.

            As a consequence when I arrived at my destination, still shaken, I was invited to listen to the news.  Listening to foreign radio broadcasts was not something lightly done.  I believe it was still illegal in those days (as was travelling off the main roads in the Delta for foreigners or taking pictures of bridges) to listen, but at any rate my host took appropriate precautions.  We retired to the kitchen, a room which shared no walls with neighboring apartments.  The short-wave radio was turned to the lowest possible volume compatible with audibility.  Even if it was legal, there was always the risk that the neighbors might inform the police or employers of activity which was certainly frowned upon. 

            It was, I believe, the following year that Gad al-Haqq Ali Gad al-Haqq became the Mufti of the Egyptian Republic, a post which he shortly relinquished to become the most prominent religious figure in Egypt, the Shaykh of the Azhar.  The Azhar was founded more than a 1000 years ago when Cairo as a city was first constructed to be the capital of a Shi’i empire whose roots lay in western North Africa.  Gad al-Haqq, during his career, issued a great many legal opinions or fatwas.  One, for which he is still known, dates from around this period and proposes that the common Egyptian practice of excising part or all of the clitoris is something good Muslims should do.  He did not say Islamic law required Muslims to do but he did argue that it was preferable that they do and that it was sanctioned by past practice and argument.

            The Egypt of the 2011 revolution is in many ways a very different place.  The focus on mobile phones, Twitter and Facebook as communications devices overlooks many dimensions of their use.  Because photography has long been so popular in Europe and the US both as an art and as a popular practice, it is easy to overlook the use of mobile phones as cameras even though since 2003 globally more cameras have been sold bundled into phones than as stand-alone devices. Relatively few Egyptians have dedicated cameras.  Mobile phones had already been widely used to record both video and still images, but they were nearly ubiquitous even in the early days of the revolution. 

 The troops came out and so did the cameraphones

            Since Foucault academics have come to think of photography as a form of surveillance and as a “gaze” of power.  This was not how I experienced photography during the demonstrations I was in. It was not uncommon on January 28 to watch Egyptians surrounding tanks in downtown Cairo, arms extended and holding mobile phones aloft to photograph soldiers and tanks.   This cascade of photography continued and I frequently saw parents photographing their smiling children standing on tanks next to soldiers in the days after Mubarak left Cairo.  Once, late in the spring walking back home over the span that replaces the old Abu Eila Bridge I even noticed a small bus pull over to the northern sidewalk.  A handful of weary, bearded protesters clambered out while their veiled wives remained seated.  They were heading for the circumferential highway after what must have been an organized trip to from either a suburban neighborhood or rural town for a bit of sightseeing and political activism.  They took pictures of each other to commemorate their day, got back into the bus and drove off into the sunset.

On several occasions people asked to be included in photographs with me and on many others smilingly asked with some insistence that I take their photographs.  None of these people expected to receive copies of the photographs. Rather I think people wanted a record of their participation.  The desired record, however, was at once public in the sense that it was freely and openly done and private in the sense that another person rather than an agency of the state possessed it.   In some cases people, especially those carrying home-made signs advocating highly idiosyncratic demands, would move so that I could photograph them more easily.  That, in immense demonstrations where concerns such as the fate of a single person who disappeared in police custody before the revolution, makes sense.   But people also asked me, even when my camera was simply hanging around my neck, to take their pictures.  Thus I have a lovely photo of two smiling men, one without a front tooth and wearing a baseball cap next to a friend, a burly man with a large beard that in Egypt is easily associated with Salafis and in the US with working-class conservatism.   On another occasion, a man who looked to be in his 70s, asked me to take a picture of him holding a picture of a demonstration from 50 years ago.  As he was explaining to me the significance of the photo he suddenly realized that I was not Egyptian and said with some surprise and to general laughter, “You’re a foreigner”. 

 Recollections of Earlier Demonstrations

Only twice did I run into problems taking photographs.  In late May during a Friday demonstration a very young man asked me take his picture.  He may have been in his very early twenties and he had very long, flowing hair.  For a second, indeed, I thought he might be a young woman.  I was leaving Midan al-Tahrir to meet a friend for lunch but since I expected it to take only a minute I agreed.  He smiled sweetly and I took his picture.  Suddenly a voice from ten yards away broke out.  It was a young woman, dressed in jeans and a tee-shirt.  She was exactly the kind of middle-class Westernized woman that Americans routinely expect to be champions of liberal ideas, free expression, and unrestricted personal freedom.  She objected to my taking his picture.  I asked what reason she had to intervene and as the conversation meandered around it became clear, without any explicit statement from her, that she was afraid an effeminate young man would become the face of the Egyptian revolution.   More people gathered around and someone asked me what I planned to do with the picture.  It was just a picture I had been asked to take and we all agreed it wasn’t really an issue.   

A Picture That Wasn't Quite Forbidden
The people who refused to let me take their pictures were children.  Not children at demonstrations who were often as eager to be photographed as adults but the children on the streets of Cairo who sell matches, flowers, and Kleenex. 

If attitudes toward photography have changed at least in step with if not necessarily because of the wider availability of cameras, the availability of information has also increased.  It has become a cliché to think of information and the Arab revolts as connected at the hip to Twitter, Facebook and Al-Jazeera but these are, I think, far from the whole story.  In the 1970s the government-owned press consisting of Al-Ahram, Al-Gumhouria, and Al-Akhbar provided most of the news Egyptians consumed (as well as wrapping most of the bean and falafel sandwiches they consumed).  Nearly identical in coverage and adulation of the nation’s political leaders and their policies, these papers provided Egyptians with relatively little news of their own country or any other.  In the wake of President Anwar Sadat’s political liberalization a few new papers were given permits to publish and access to newsprint through the state import monopoly. The government thereby retained the right to manufacture occasional shortages of shipping space and Finnish log production which translated into silencing the critical and tiny newspapers of the left (Al-Ahali) and the Right.  The only other critical publications allowed were non-periodical, occasional, publications which required no license but which could, by the nature of the law permitting them to appear, only be published once.

The first decade of the twenty-first century witnessed an overlooked print media explosion in Egypt.  The 2004 appearance of Al-Masry al-Yawm as the first commercial daily in Egypt since before 1952 was one crucial event.  The newspaper proclaimed itself devoted to factual coverage verging on exposes just as the ideal of newspapers as objective reporters was under assault in Europe and the United States.  It was soon joined by an array of other newspapers of a variety of political viewpoints none of which were easily categorized by party as had been true of the media until that point:  Al-Dustour, Al-Karama, and Al-Shorouq which seems to have been born as a venerable newspaper of opinion.  These newspapers continued to push boundaries and create tempests, not all of which were contained in teapots.  Al-Dustour made a point of directly criticizing Hosny Mubarak and his family while Al-Masry al-Yawm was filled with accounts of government shortcomings in the provision of clean water, sewage facilities, and education to Egyptians in the capital and the provinces.  Al-Masry also provoked one of the major political crises of the Mubarak government when one of its reporters, herself wearing a headscarf, was berated by the former Minister of Culture, Farouk Hosny, for belonging to a generation of women less liberated than, as he put it, “our mothers and grandmothers.”  For a month the Egyptian parliament was consumed in a debate about the veils, headscarfs, and whether Egyptian women were more liberated or less than previous generations.  Not since the 1940s when Al-Ahram was a privately owned newspaper to which outstanding liberal intellectuals such as Taha Hussein had contributed had Egypt’s press been so lively.  Those were also the days when Egyptians could choose between Al-Ahram, Al-Balagh, and Al-Wafd al-Misri among others. 

Because the circulation of Al-Masry al-Yawm is about 200,000 (Al-Ahram is still believed to have a circulation of 300,000 and may in fact draw a larger audience since it became more independent in the wake of the revolution), it is plausible to argue that Al-Jazeera, Facebook and Twitter are more important sources of news, especially in a country where there is still widespread illiteracy.  What I find more important, however, is that (parallel to the point I made about photography) Egyptians can in large numbers openly access news from abroad (BBC Arabic is also available on-line and through satellite and no longer requires a short-wave in the kitchen) as well as receiving a broad range of critical views and information from at-home. 

Shaykh Gad al-Haqq might be pleased that more women are wearing headscarves than in his day, but he might be less pleased at changes within the institution he once headed.   In 2007 the Azhar Council on Islamic Research issued a statement that female genital mutilation is neither required nor desirable from the point of view of Islamic law.  The death of 12-year old Badour Shakour that June as a result of such an operation shocked much of the country’s conscience although it is also estimated that between 70 and 90 percent of Egyptian women in the 15-49 year old age range have been subjected to one or another variation of it.  The procedure was medicalized in the 1990s and only physicians could legally perform it until it was completely criminalized in 2008.  If the Azhar and the present Mufti of the Republic, Ali Gomaa, are on board, the parliamentary delegation of the Muslim Brothers was not.  They opposed the 2008 legislation on the grounds that it was yet another measure imposed on an unwilling society by an authoritarian state and that the procedure was not, in fact, in opposition to classical Islamic law.  One of the deeper ironies of their stance was that it not only contradicted the Azhar but was in opposition to the expressed opinion of Gamal al-Banna, the now elderly younger brother of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brothers.  Gamal al-Banna was considered a stalking horse for the Islamist movement in the 1940s when, as a trade union official, he regularly had run-ins with the left and he spent much of the Nasser and Sadat eras in a kind of splendid isolation writing books on Islamic labor law, the increasingly violent Islamist movements that murdered Shaykh Dhahabi, and the failure of the Weimar Republic.  Western commentators tie themselves in knots trying to discover whether his grand-nephew, the Francophone scholar Tariq Ramadan is truly liberal, truly open, and an important spokesman for Islamic movements.  Al-Banna meanwhile has emerged as a strikingly open defender of Islamic liberalism who work is exclusively published in Arabic for Arabic-speaking audiences.  Many of those engaged in violent Islamist movements of the kind that first emerged into public view in 1977 are now seriously considering engaging in electoral politics.  Nowhere is this more striking than in the transformation of two cousins convicted of participating in the assassination of Anwar Al-Sadat, Tariq and Abboud Zumr.  They were released from prison after the revolution not because the new regime was particularly well-disposed to them but because they had served their prison terms and were being held without any legal justification whatsoever.  Unlike many Egyptians they claim to have found the late Mubarak era less problematic for Egyptian hopes of democracy than the period when Anwar Sadat was president.  At all events, they now expect, if not themselves to run, at least to be members of an Islamist party (not the Muslim Brothers) in politics.

There is a peculiar debate about democracy waged in the American and European press these days and much of it centers on whether Egyptian society is conducive to democracy.  This debate remains curiously frozen in opposing and highly ideological camps to my mind.  Where some observers see very little change in an Islamic social ethos that drove protests for justice in medieval Cairo and during Napoleon’s invasion similar to those of the past century, others see a vibrant democracy now encompassing almost all the organized political forces in the country including the Muslim Brothers and the so-called Salafis.   On that summer day in 1977 when I destroyed some innocuous film, Egypt still echoed with the slogan “No voice higher than the voice of the revolution” which had been used to choke off debate and discussion.  Egypt is, in many ways a different place than it was then and Egyptians are, in equally many ways, trying to make it more different still.  This revolution, unlike what occurred in 1952, has allowed a plurality of voices to be heard.  That’s a very important and wonderful thing to my mind but by the very nature of plurality they’re not all singing the same song.