Will Egypt's Arab Spring Turn Into an Arab Nightmare?
The revolution in Egypt is not over. It has hardly begun. The removal of President Hosni Mubarak, whose trial many Egyptians view as a public relations stunt, has done nothing to alter the lock the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has on power, the economy and the political process. Those who once united in defiance of the Mubarak regime have, in frustration and anger, fragmented into antagonistic camps. Islamists of varying shades are pitted against secularists in virulent street confrontations. The trust and euphoria that once marked the uprising have given way to distrust and paranoia. And those who seek fundamental change and an open society have come to the sad conclusion that we have a long, long way to go.
The sectarian and religious tensions that once seethed beneath the surface of Egyptian society, kept in place by a brutal system of repression, including torture and fraudulent elections, have burst with fury upon the body politic. Where these torrents will lead us is anyone’s guess. But the mounting frustration with the slow pace of reform is political dynamite. The more the military council uses the familiar tools of fraud, force and repression to quell growing dissent, the more radical and antagonistic the opposition will become.
The SCAF, which took control in February with the ouster of Mubarak, failed to meet its promise to schedule parliamentary elections within six months. It sidetracked public discontent over the performance of the transitional government of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, as well as discontent over its decision merely to amend the Constitution rather than draft a new one before elections, by propagating alarmist fears about threats to the country’s stability. The parliamentary elections, now scheduled to begin on November 28, do not signal any better hope for stability. The SCAF has postponed presidential elections until after the new Parliament writes a Constitution, a process that could take a year or more. And the de facto head of the country, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, has hung up his military uniform for a business suit and has begun to speak like a candidate for office, although the military leadership has assured Egyptians it will not put forward a presidential candidate.
If the elections are free and fair—something that remains very much in doubt—they will almost certainly see the Muslim Brotherhood take a plurality, perhaps a majority, of seats in Parliament. The military knows and fears this. Although the Brotherhood is demonized by Egyptian secularists and countries such as Israel and the United States, it is in fact one of the tamer and more moderate alternatives within the Islamist movement. Ever since its founding in 1928, it has promoted da’wa, social reform and political participation. Its declared approach is nonviolence (rare exceptions being its resistance to the British occupation and the attempt to assassinate former President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954). The Brotherhood has pursued these goals covertly, during times of repression under military regimes, as well as overtly, during brief periods of political opening. It has mobilized millions of followers through charities, unions and social work, and has been especially successful in rural areas. In recent years the Brotherhood has moderated some of its longstanding demands, such as for the application of Sharia law, in an attempt to reach out to secularists.
The Brotherhood presented itself right after the ouster of Mubarak as a potential stabilizing force by embracing civil government and democratic ideals and by praising the model of moderate Islamist politics practiced by Turkey’s ruling AKP Party. But the military, backed by Washington, looks set to prevent the Brotherhood from achieving significant political power, a move that would not only discredit its call for nonviolence but also empower some very disturbing groups that have risen in prominence since the removal of Mubarak. The untimely release from prison of prominent jihadists and other radical Islamist figures is now read as a tactical move by the SCAF to undermine the power of the Brotherhood, to divide Islamist voters and to send a message to secularists that the military is needed to maintain stability.
But the army is playing a dangerous game by opening up political space for the radical Salafist and jihadi groups, which carried out acts of violence in the past, including a rebellion in the 1990s in which more than 1,000 were killed. Such groups received the harshest blows under the previous regime. The longer the military clings to power, the more these extremists, who justify themselves by holding up their many martyrs, gain in stature and popularity. They lack the sophistication and organizational skills of the Brotherhood, and they spurn the Brotherhood’s commitment to peaceful change and its call for a broad coalition that includes secularists. But the Salafists, who carry Egyptian flags to which they add the symbols of an Islamist government, are disciplined, steadfast and resolute. And they have increased their appeal to the frustrated majority, especially the tens of millions who live in rural areas, peripheral suburbs and slum cities, who hoped Mubarak’s removal would bring a quick end to their joblessness, hunger and suffering.
At the same time, non-Islamist forces are slowly losing ground because of their lack of organization and internal divisions. Many leftists, secularists and youth factions of traditional political parties, including pro-Western democrats, believe falsely that they own the revolution, perhaps because they were so prominent in the early days at Tahrir Square. They are openly distrustful of all Islamist groups, including the Brotherhood, and their arrogance and sense of self-importance have doomed the possibility of coalitions. The national referendum held on March 19 dealt a serious blow to the credibility of these secular groups. They had called for a “no” vote, rejecting the referendum’s proposal for immediate parliamentary elections, instead supporting establishment of a presidential council to take over power from the military and pave the way for the creation of a new Constitution, followed by presidential and parliamentary elections. But only 23 percent of the public voted “No.” It was an early measure of the secularists’ lack of unity and common vision and of their inability to appeal to the Egyptian public.
Egypt is splintering. The SCAF; the government of Essam Sharaf, which was once cheered by the Tahrir protesters; the Muslim Brotherhood; the Salafists; the Sufi groups; the April 6 Movement, which has organized thousands of young Egyptians since its formation in 2008; the various revolutionary youth coalitions, which were created after the revolution to voice the demands of Tahrir Square; opposition parties under the previous regime; newly established parties—these are pieces in a political mosaic tainted with shortcomings and self-serving agendas. The country is beset with wild conspiracy theories, including persistent rumors of a military coup. The fragile Coptic Christian–Muslim entente is in tatters, as radical Islamists burn Coptic places of worship and attack individual Christians. On October 9, confrontations between the army and Coptic protesters left at least two dozen people dead and more than 200 wounded.
The sacking of the Israeli embassy in September, when looters found documents that confirmed Egypt’s collaboration with Israel in enforcing the siege on Gaza, had already discredited the military. But the SCAF’s response was perhaps even more chilling: it instantly reinstated emergency security laws and has hauled thousands of suspected dissidents before military courts, where long prison sentences are dispensed swiftly and without due process. In the eyes of many Egyptians, it is the old Mubarak regime without Mubarak. The obsequiousness of the military to Washington, and by extension to Israel, was further exposed to the Egyptian public when the military council announced it was lifting the Gaza blockade at the end of May, but then under pressure from the Obama administration continued to restrict passage through the Rafah border. There is little support left for the military council, and it is doubtful that any candidate approved by the military stands a chance of winning in a fair election.
Washington’s mounting unease over the revolution, which it originally opposed and was never enthusiastic about, was spelled out for Egyptians in the humiliating House appropriations measure on US aid to Egypt, now $1.3 billion a year. The bill stipulates that funding can proceed only if “the Secretary of State certifies that the government of Egypt is not controlled by a foreign terrorist organization.” The secretary must also affirm that Egypt is “taking steps to detect and destroy the smuggling network and tunnels between Egypt and the Gaza strip.” And it insists on continuation of “border security programs and activities in the Sinai, with the expectation that the Egyptian military will continue to adhere to and implement the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.” The Obama administration’s decision to allot an eye-popping $120 million for “promoting democracy” in Egypt and Tunisia also makes it clear to Egyptians that if the military does not successfully manage the elections to keep all Islamist groups from power, Washington will pull the plug on the billions in foreign assistance.
* * *
Street clashes between opposition factions are becoming increasingly violent. This is certainly true where I live, in Alexandria, a Mediterranean coastal city of more than 4 million. If these factions begin to inflict serious casualties and even deaths, the country’s vaunted peaceful revolution could look more like internecine warfare. The October 9 clashes in Cairo between the police and Coptic Christians reflect the deepening sectarian divisions as well as the growing frustration of Egyptians with the military council’s unfulfilled promises of justice and reform.
Saad Zaghloul Square is the headquarters in Alexandria for protesters who carry on in the tradition of Tahrir Square. The walls of the garden surrounding the square are colorfully decorated with slogans and flags. Vendors sell drinks, food and souvenirs like T-shirts with various revolutionary slogans. There is only one entrance to the garden, and it is heavily patrolled by ad hoc security guards, who are dressed in regular civilian clothes and distinguishable by name tags. Members of the People’s Front to Protect the Revolution, as they call themselves, ask for identity cards, check bags and conduct body search. They are usually friendly and apologize for the inconvenience.
“We have to be cautious. Thugs and thieves infiltrate. We have to protect the demonstrators,” said one of the female team members.
One of her male colleagues, who spotted my camera, added, “We also do not allow journalists working for state-owned media.” Their supervisor, a karate coach named Tamer Ahmed, confirmed that they had arrested two “thugs.”
Tents exhibit photos of those who have lost their lives since January 25. The parents of Alexandrian martyr Ahmed Abdel Latif Ahmed left a note welcoming people who come to pay condolences. No tent shows signs of any political affiliation.
The old emblems of a united opposition such as this tent city, however, are swiftly disappearing. I expect it will be shut down soon as the opposition solidifies into antagonistic camps. I will miss this moment in our history.
I often walk along the seafront in Alexandria, where there are visible signs of both political tension and the deep desire for normalcy. Revolutionary graffiti and drawings, generally written and painted in the colors of the Egyptian flag (red, black and white), cover walls. Couples sit and chat on the cement rocks used as a breakwater. Families perch atop the rocks to share an evening picnic. Men patiently fish. Schoolgirls giggle and sip tea. Knots of impassioned men and women discuss politics. Joggers in brand-name outfits dart between walkers. Kite runners and bikers maneuver to avoid colliding. Dark-skinned Upper Egyptian vendors fan the grilled corn they sell for one pound. Piles of yellowish-green husks surround them. Shisha boys run hectically to serve their customers. Vendors blow their horns to advertise homemade ice-cream cones or the traditional paper-thin biscuit candy known as fresca.
The messages of the graffiti at the sea front, however, remind Egyptians not to forget God. “If you do not see Him, He sees you,” goes one slogan. Another is directed at the young lovers who congregate at sunset along the shoreline. It asks men, “Would you accept it if it were your sister or your mother?” These are the stark messages of the Salafists, which call on us all to repent. There is also counter-graffiti, which denounces the Salafists and other self-righteous Islamists.
One evening I was listening to loud music pumped out of a stereo player carried by a man out for a walk. The song lamented the fortunes of the poor. The man was passing in front of huge cement rocks on which were written, in rhyming Arabic words, “Revolution means change. The poor are still too many.” Under a beach sign for “Cleopatra’s Baths” a sleeping beggar was jolted awake by the loud music. He had a sun-baked face and oily, braided woolen hair. I watched him pick up a half-eaten cob of discarded corn from the ground and eat it. Poverty in Egypt is endemic, and the rise in food prices is one of the engines of the revolt. It ticks like a time bomb as the army council dithers.
The historical layers of this once-cosmopolitan city have been covered by an Islamist tide. It began, as the Alexandrian writer Ibrahim Abdel Meguid described it, with the invasion of the “culture of sand”: the growing influence of harsh Islamic practices and intolerance imported from Saudi Arabia in the 1970s. Women who once bathed on the seafront have been driven away by Islamists. All of us wait now to see how high that tide will get. There remain varying tones of Islamists, as well as secularists, but for how long? The more fiercely the military council clings to power, the more polarized and deadly the conflict becomes. I fear for my country. If there is not a political opening soon, if we do not achieve the freedom hundreds died to attain, our Arab Spring could turn into an Arab nightmare.