Sunday, December 9, 2012

Don't Peep at Egypt Through the Keyhole

This is what Professor Mona al Ghobashy had to say back in August about the revolutionary push and pull in Egypt:

Until the people attain a reliable voice within the state, the logic of popular politics will continue to disturb the designs of elites. The uprising was the booming opening salvo in this engagement, putting paid to Mubarak’s hereditary succession scheme. The next casualty was the Brothers’ short-lived plan to share the presidency with the SCAF, undone by the conflicting interests of the principals and the rise of maverick outsiders like Sabbahi and Abu al-Fotouh who captured the people’s imagination and a considerable share of their votes. Future presidential elections will be similarly charged episodes of real competition, with insiders seeking to regain their hold on executive power, outsiders rattling at the gates and Egyptian voters as the arbiters.

Last week, Egyptian protestors stormed Cairo’s presidential palace, literally “outsiders rattling at the gate.”  What has been extraordinary about Al Ghobashy throughout the Egyptian crisis is her real feel, as a scholar with astonishing rigor, for what is at stake in this fight for Egypt. While most presumably seasoned observers have been busying themselves with Islamist versus liberal collisions, a contrived slice up of Egypt that distracts as much as it misleads, Al Ghobashy has put pen to wound: the unremitting struggle to force open the hitherto shuttered political arena and break the elite’s tight hold over the country’s unfolding participatory politics.

Reducing the current crisis to little more than a tug of war between an organized Islamism with an electoral mandate and a contingent of disparate liberal groups with some revolutionary credentials is akin to peeping at Egypt’s agony through a keyhole. And to argue, in the name of an even keel, that each side has its legitimate grievances, misunderstood motives and lamentable shortcomings is to miss the entire point of the uprising and to misdiagnose the reasons that are refusing for it to quiet down—not in spite of but precisely because of the army and the Muslim Brotherhood’s best efforts to wrap things up.  

In this vein, unanimous non-Islamist rejection of the exclusionary methods which underwrote the draft constitution and outrage against Mursi’s decree impregnating the presidency against judicial oversight were expressions of real and perfectly justifiable fears that the proverbial gate was shutting down again. And when the Muslim Brothers failed to bend non-Islamist will, compelling the group to resort to militia-like behavior—lethal threats, batons and shotguns galore---which was of a piece with other incidents of naked bullying, cynical opportunism and overreach, suspicions hardened into convictions.

Why mince words? In this defining struggle, there is no room for hedging about the principle of the matter and conjecturing about stark clear actions that have no need of interpreters. The moment is not politics as usual, and the disagreement is not about garbage collection. Jason Brownlee’s take--astoundingly in MERIP of all publications—that "Mursi and the Brothers are overseeing an autocratic transition due to their structural position, not because they are inherently more autocratic than any other group,” betrays breathtaking ignorance at all levels of Egypt’s quandary. It flies in the face of historical precedence and assumes that the MB’s deftness in exploiting the mechanics of democracy somehow cancels out its utter contempt for the fundamentals of it. If Islamism, whatever its shape and where ever it reigns in the Middle East, has proven adept at anything it is in riding on the shoulders of democracy towards autocratic governance.  

To be sure, dissent is growing within Islamism, the Muslim Brotherhood included. These audible rumblings reflect, in fact, the very success of political Islam in Islamizing societies across the region and exposing itself in the process to the hard tests of life. For a while now, everywhere in the region, discourse has been taking shape around the place of civic rights and pluralism in the politics of Islam. But such pursuits do not yet attest to the MB’s recognition of the mood of our times and its decision to play catch up.  So far, in fact, these post-Islamist trends have by turns embarrassed and angered the group rather than persuaded it to embrace aspirations larger than its own.  That is why every open MB dissenter is actually an ex-member.

And that is why the Brotherhood’s latest battle cries for “the rise of Islam and the rule of the Quran,” and against secularists and heretics, atheists and degenerates, feloul (remnants of Mubarak) and autocrats, have been at once offensive and purifying: in one go, the organization has managed to vilify a faith-filled opposition and many pious Egyptians beside, while offering in blunt punch lines the essence of its plan.  Suddenly, the distance between the Brothers’ rhetoric and actions is all but wiped out.

The chants from the other side --“Egypt is not Iran. Egypt is not Ikhwan…I am not a heretic and I am not an atheist”—are in their own way, eloquent ripostes to the Brotherhood’s unyielding dogmas and a nod to history’s toll. Don’t discount the language of the streets as mere venting in a furious climate; it is almost always the one through which the real story is told.  To buy into the fiction that Egypt’s is a conflict between liberals and Islamists is to sleep through the real faceoffs: that between “outsiders” pressing to get in and “insiders” trying to keep them out; equally, that between Islamism and its post-Islamist progeny. And many are the threads that bind both.

If it were just the so-called liberals wreaking this havoc, the game would have been over a long time ago and President Mursi would not have had to scurry from his palace’s backdoors, let alone rescind his constitutional decree. Had the MB held a solid majority of the electorate, then the argument against illiberal majoritarian democracy would have been compelling enough (see Michael Wahid Hanna’s piece in Foreign Policy). But the helplessly convoluted and flawed electoral process that inflated parliamentary representations and Mursi’s razor thin 51% leap into the presidency are themselves cautionary tales against sloppy interpretations of popular mandates.

This sloppiness most likely stands behind the MB’s latest miscalculations and explains its rage against grassroots resistance. The sloppiness that continues to diminish the quality of many an analysis which take election outcomes at face value, neglecting to scrutinize the electoral rules that are designed to distort actual electoral heft and probe the deeper meanings of the tally. Had Mursi and his party undertook such an exercise, they would not have pounced upon the presumed openings that their electoral victories appeared to give them. Then again, maybe they did precisely that, saw what Al Ghobashy sees, and, as is their wont as practiced opportunists, moved to grab as much as they could in the race for Egypt.

In trying to sink deep their anchor in the country’s post-revolutionary politics and join the ruling elite, it has been paramount for the Brothers, who neither provoked nor lead Egypt’s revolution, to ride the good will or acquiescence of constituencies much bigger and more diverse than theirs. Today, they have the parliamentary system on their side, the presidency in the bag, a deal with the military, a draft constitution peppered by key clauses, the very vagueness, even seeming innocence, of which is intended to ease the ascendance of Islamist interpretations. Not bad!

But these trophies have come at a huge cost for the Islamist movement, none more damaging than having to spell out its intentions, show its true colors and bare its teeth way too early in a game that has just started. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't it be lovely, while under an international spotlight, if Egypt shows the world how democracy could work?