‘Revolution to disillusion’: US struggles with an Egypt in turmoil

egyptacusAs Egypt prepares for a presidential election that is likely to re-establish authoritarian rule, the civil society groups and Facebook activists once feted by Western media are marginalized and impotent, having failed to make the transition from protest to politics.

“In reality, the youths who helped bring down two presidents were squeezed in a mighty power struggle between deeply entrenched old-style forces: the Muslim Brotherhood, a grassroots movement based on religion and charity, and the formidable authoritarian state built on patronage networks nurtured since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952,” writes FT analyst Heba Saleh:

While in 2011 Egypt’s young revolutionaries seemed to have irreversibly turned the tide of history, the country’s political realities soon set in. It was the army that delivered the final push to Mr Mubarak, and Brotherhood supporters who beefed up the numbers in Tahrir Square. Fragmented, with nothing like the once well-honed electoral machine of the more-practised Muslim Brotherhood and none of the financial resources and connections of Mubarak-era politicians, young people could not translate their initial blaze of glory and hope into electoral backing to help change the system through institutional means.

Analysts say it was too much to expect a transformation led by youthful protesters in a country unused to democratic practice and emerging from decades of authoritarianism, under which politics was all but dead. New groups, including the liberal and leftwing parties that some of the young activists joined, lack the funds, organisation and rhetorical skills to generate broad appeal in a large and impoverished population.

“Criticism of the youth did not take into consideration that they came to age in an era when there was no politics and no organisation, and accordingly they need time,” says Rabab al-Mahdi, a political-science professor at the American University in Cairo.

She believes that attempts by the regime to shut down protests by disaffected youth will ultimately fail. The legacy of the “Nasserist state” was based on the government’s provision of material benefits, which bought the political quiescence of the population. That is no longer tenable given the country’s precarious economy. “People have political and economic expectations that are not being met through the old formula. The machinery of the state is already eroded. There will be more instability ahead.”

“The January 2011 Revolution was characterized by a democratic agenda and a clear popular demand to seize the right to choose, enjoy liberty and escape from the tutelage that had been exercised by Egypt’s rulers in different forms from 1952 to 2011,” analyst Amr Hamzawy writes for Egypt Source. “Despite this, attempts to re-impose this tutelage on the Egyptian people have not ceased and have come from increasingly diverse sources.”

Debating Egypt

“We are living with the repercussions of a failed revolution,” said Khalil al-Anani, adjunct professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. “This is leading to a lot of despair among youth. A lot of young Egyptians feel betrayed by the political elite and have no sense of hope for the future.”

Aspirations now lie with Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, the former army chief who led Mursi’s overthrow and whose only rival in a presidential election next week is leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi. El-Sisi is expected to win and inherit a nation many Egyptians say can’t cope with another false dawn. In his election campaign, El-Sisi declared he is ready for “this big battle, the battle of fighting terrorism, the battle of building, eliminating poverty and diseases and establishing a modern country.” ….

“People revolted because there was some sort of a political alternative for them,” said Ashraf El-Sherif, a political science lecturer at the American University in Cairo. “This time people know there’s no alternative.”

dunne_kaveh_20132Since the removal of the Mubarak regime in 2011, the United States has struggled to develop a coherent policy of engagement that can protect American interests while winning trust among Egyptians and their leaders, says Michele Dunne (right), a Senior Associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

American assistance, either funding for NGOs during the Morsi period or military assistance to the Sisi regime, has often been unpopular with many Egyptians, she writes in a new briefing for the Arab Reform Initative.

Throughout this period, the US has focused on cooperating with whoever is in power in order to continue security cooperation. Cooperation with the regime, however, may clash with American interests in supporting a new democratic opening, says Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

US strategy should be based on a forthright assessment of what, rather than whom, the United States should support in Egypt, she contends:

Simple principles can help to guide this assessment. First, only by maintaining a reasonable level of stability can Egypt be a good security ally or counterterrorism partner for the United States, a good peace partner for Israel, and a good trade partner for Europe. Second, overcoming the current situation of repression, protest, and escalating insurgency will require a situation in which Egyptians can move beyond polarization to build consensus on the future of their country. Thus, what the United States should support is the opening of space for free expression, political and social pluralism, and civil society activity. Third, Egypt faces dire economic challenges that can only be resolved by responsible government reforms (gradual replacement of subsidies with cash payments to the poor) and facilitating job creation by the private sector (especially small and medium enterprises). Fourth, since Egypt faces a real challenge by terrorist groups based in the Sinai, the United States should support a policy of economic and political engagement with the population in that region in order to combat support for extremism. RTWT

The European Union is also in danger of repeating past mistakes, according to Álvaro Vasconcelos, an Associate Senior Researcher with the Arab Reform Initiative.

“EU policies toward the countries of the southern Mediterranean went through several phases in the past two decades, with varying degrees of emphasis on issues such as democratic reform, migration management and the fight against terrorism,” he contends:

There is another course of action which the EU could adopt in Egypt that is more compatible with its values and with its long-term interests in a democratic and developed neighbourhood around its borders.

This would encourage a genuinely national dialogue in which all political currents could participate. The EU needs to understand that a president elected while so many opposition leaders are in jail will not have the legitimacy necessary to assure stability and, at the end of the day, to overcome the serious political, security, social and economic challenges facing Egypt.

The EU, in short, needs to support an inclusive policy among all Egyptian political forces and, above all, demand the liberation of the almost 20 000 political prisoners from all corners of the political arena. It needs to return to a policy of defending human rights and empowering civil society, to whose most of the financial support it offers should be directed.


Temptations of Power: Islamists & Illiberal Democracy

TEMPTATIONS ISLAMISTAfter a dizzying rise to power in Egypt’s parliament and presidency in 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood faced mass discontent, was ousted by the military, declared a terrorist organization and its followers were arrested and hounded into exile. Egypt is the most extreme case – but from Morocco to Jordan, and nearly everywhere in between, once-ascendant Islamists find themselves facing unprecedented challenges.

In his new book, Temptations of Power: Islamists & Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2014), Brookings Fellow Shadi Hamid steps back from the headlines to examine how and why Islamist movements change over time, what animates their worldview and what their ultimate objectives are for society. Hamid conducted hundreds of interviews with Islamist leaders and activists across the region to develop a bold thesis: that repression compelled Islamists to moderate their politics, work in coalitions, and de-emphasize Islamic law. Ironically, then, democratic openings have tended to push Islamists toward their original conservatism, oftentimes leading them to overreach and confrontation.

On April 9, the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World will launch Hamid’s new book with a discussion of the past and future of political Islam. CBS News Correspondent Margaret Brennan will moderate the discussion, after which Hamid will take audience questions. Copies of the book will also be available for sale at the event.

When: Wednesday, April 9, 2:00 to 3:30 PM

Where: The Brookings Institution, Falk Auditorium, 1775 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20036


Egypt: crackdown on Brotherhood enters new phase

Egypts-Abdul-Fatah-al-Sisi-672x372Egypt is now experiencing violence akin to that of its darkest periods, according to two leading analysts. But compared to previous eras, there is a fundamental difference in the state’s way of dealing with the Brotherhood, the Carnegie Endowment’s Nathan J. Brown and Michele Dunnewrite for Foreign Affairs:

Under Nasser — as well as Sadat and Mubarak — repression was the job of security agencies and special courts. The judiciary sometimes acted as a brake on the government’s most authoritarian impulses. Now, all the instruments of the Egyptian state seem fully on board. Whereas Nasser had to go to the trouble of setting up kangaroo courts, today there is no need. The regular judiciary has led most of the recent crackdown on the Brotherhood, from the Minya convictions to other trials of Brotherhood leaders. Meanwhile, the state media, the religious establishment, civil service, and educational institutions have all joined in the effort. Some political parties and most of the private media have even signed on too, apparently of their own free will.

“As a result, the institutions of the Egyptian state that used to command respect because they were seen as being above the political fray — the judiciary as well as the army — now seem to be very willing participants in the repression,” say Browne and Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Some observers believe the regime’s repression of non-violent Islamists is paving the way for a resurgence of jihadist terrorism.

“Many Egyptians believe that many young people are going to join the forces of terrorism in the near future. As long as there is no open way for political participation, the substitute will be violence,” Cairo political analyst and journalist Mohamed Abdella tells VOA.

EgyptfragmentingReport-COVERIf there is a lesson to be learned from the past three volatile years, it is the negative impact of repressive politics on the capabilities of individuals to articulate political agendas that respond to citizens’ concerns, according to Fragmenting Under Pressure: Egypt’s Islamists Since Morsi’s Ouster, a new report from the Center for American Progress. 

“While some of this expertise exists within Egypt—for example, in universities and civil society—the crackdown makes the realization of its potential impossible,” the authors argue. “The recent detention of journalists and political activists of varying ideological stripes are examples of the type of draconian measures that are shrinking Egypt’s political space.”

Shadi Hamid, an expert at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, said autocrats such as Egypt’s military ruler, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, have been emboldened. “They think they can get away with more than ever,” Hamid said. “And this is tied to a growing sense of weakness under the Obama administration, whether it’s fair or unfair.”

In Egypt, Sisi believes he is fighting an existential threat with the Muslim Brotherhood. In Washington, American officials disagree over whether core American interests are at stake, and the autocrats know it.

“There is a calculation there,” Hamid said. “They know that they want it more than we do.”

According to human rights analyst Bahay Eldin Hasan, even Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawi admitted that the state “is run by the security bodies, who control the presidency, cabinet, media and judiciary.”

The path away from the current  impasse is political reconciliation, in which the authorities agree to release detainees, drop the terrorism designation, and reintegrate the Brotherhood into political life in exchange for a pledge from the group of nonviolence and its acceptance that Morsi will not be restored as president, Brown and Dunne write for Foreign Affairs:

It will eventually have to happen if Egypt is to reach some sort of political consensus along the lines of Tunisia’s, which is its best hope for stability. There are simply too many Islamists and non-Islamists (nationalists, liberals, leftists) for any one side to dominate. The other option is continued violence and instability. RTWT

What sort of president will Sisi make? asks Neville Teller, who writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal”:

He often appears alongside images of the late presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. Some commentators suggest that he will take one or other of these predecessors as his model. He certainly followed both by pursuing the “political track” within the Egyptian military, and in particular the infantry – the corps which produced both Nasser and Sadat….But he has already indicated considerable pragmatism by cooperating with Israel in combating the jihadist terrorism current rampant in Sinai, fostered by the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and threatening both Egypt’s nascent régime and Israel’s security.

And it is on counter-terrorism, according to Professor Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian political scene, that al-Sisi’s pre-presidential campaign has concentrated so far – both in Sinai, and much closer to home. In pursuit of this policy, he has outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood within Egypt and maintains a ruthless crackdown on its activists and supporters….

Meanwhile the economic crisis intensifies, reflected in government debt, rising unemployment, poverty, inflation, power outages, and an absence of tourists. “For all of this,” writes Professor Springborg, “Field Marshal Sisi has avoided any direct blame, skilfully shuffling that off onto Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi and his hapless cabinet, which resigned on 24 February.”

Springborg believes al-Sisi wants to project a presidential image of a new, “believing” Nasser (Nasser was somewhat of a secularist), although the profound changes since the 1950s within and beyond Egypt make his aim a near impossibility. ….

 Sadat did not agree with Nasser’s distrust of Islamic influence on government and opposed his socialist inclinations. He succeeded in instituting a “corrective revolution” which purged the government, political and security establishments of the most ardent Nasserists. In addition Sadat actually encouraged the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been suppressed by Nasser. He gave them “considerable cultural and ideological autonomy” (as author Gilles Keppel has it) in exchange for political support, little realizing the viper he was clutching to his bosom. In this, at least, al-Sisi utterly rejects the Sadat approach.

In 2006, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi was sent to the US Army War College to study for a master’s degree. In a research paper he warned that democracy in the Middle East was “not necessarily going to evolve upon a Western template”. He argued that “democracy, as a secular entity, is unlikely to be favourably received by the vast majority of Middle Easterners, who are devout followers of the Islamic faith”.


‘Largest death sentence in modern history’ shows Egypt’s ‘basic state institutions malfunctioning’

The Egyptian government took its crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood to a new level today, when a court sentenced 529 members of the outlawed organization to death — the biggest mass sentence in the modern history of the country, stirred global outrage:

The defendants — supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi, who is also on trial separately — were charged with the murder of one police officer and trying to kill two others during violence that followed anti-coup demonstrations last August. The condemned men were also accused of storming a police station, inciting murder, and damaging property during clashes that flared up in the southern province of Minya following the violent dispersal of two Muslim Brotherhood protests in Cairo, during which up to 1,000 Morsi supporters were killed.

“The sheer level of repression since the coup is really remarkable, it’s unprecedented and not just in the kind of way that people use that word: it actually is unprecedented,” Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, told VICE News. “First you have what Human Rights Watch called the worst mass killing in modern Egyptian history and now you have the worst mass death sentence in modern Egyptian history.”

Even though the sentences were almost certain to be reduced, “the staggering harshness and speed of the verdict still show how profoundly the basic institutions of the Egyptian state are malfunctioning,” Nathan Brown, an expert on the Egyptian judiciary at George Washington University, wrote in an email. “The fact that cooler heads are likely to weigh in is only limited consolation for the degree to which mindless repression still seems to be the order of the day.”

The judgment can be appealed at the Court of Cassation, which would probably order a new trial or reduce the sentences, legal expert Gamal Eid told AFP.

“This sentencing is a catastrophe and a travesty and a scandal that will affect Egypt for many years,” said Eid, who heads the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.

“It sort of defies logic,” said Marie Harf, deputy US State Department spokeswoman, adding that Washington was “deeply concerned” and “shocked”.

“Obviously the defendants can appeal, but it simply does not seem possible that a fair review of evidence and testimony consistent with international standards could be accomplished with over 529 defendants in a two-day trial,” Harf said.

Amnesty International said it was the “largest single batch of simultaneous death sentences we’ve seen in recent years, not just in Egypt but anywhere in the world.”


“We have never heard of anything of this magnitude before, inside or outside of Egypt, that was within a judicial system — not just a mass execution,” said Karim Medhat Ennarah, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Exigencies of self-preservation? Why forces of centralization can’t recapture Egypt

General_Al_SisiEgypt’s economics and sociopolitics are pulling it in two different directions, according to Tarek Osman, a political economist and author of ‘Egypt on the Brink’:

The Egyptian liberal age, lasting 100 years from the mid-19th century, gave rise to western-style universities, a secular judiciary, professional syndicates and a dynamic press. Centralization was diluted. This experiment ended abruptly in 1952, when Gamal Abdel Nasser, an ambitious nationalist officer, overthrew the monarchy and ushered in the first republic – a power structure that revolved round the military. In the following six decades the state subjugated the institutions that had thrived in the first half of the century and eliminated all checks on its power. Power centralization returned.

But the perception that with the reassertion of military power Egypt is returning to centralization is wrong for three reasons, he writes for the Financial Times:

  • As a result of economic reforms undertaken in the past two decades, the private sector has, for the first time in half a century, become the largest employer and provider of investment capital. …..
  • The second reason is the socioeconomic challenges facing the country. ….The ruling powers will have to offer incentives to the domestic and international private sector to commit capital. This will lead to the emergence of a multipolar power structure.
  • The third reason is that the 85m-strong society (of which 45m are under 35, and two-thirds of that group are in their teens) is being transformed. It is more connected to the world, more opinionated, daring, and commercially and socially entrepreneurial.

But there is another scenario, Osman cautions:

The state powers could be drawn further into their war against political Islam; jihadism could continue to rise, leading to a heightening of security measures and weakening of the rule of law. Investment capital would be withdrawn; and socioeconomic demands would remain unmet. This would fuel social unrest, at a time when polarization is entrenched and significant social groups feel marginalized or threatened. RTWT

There is no machine in Egypt, but there is most certainly a system—a self-reinforcing one—that is the result of an environment of uncertainty in which Egyptian elites are individually and collectively trying to discern the direction of politics, says a prominent analyst.

Once they think they know how events will unfold, these elites will do everything possible to ensure that they are on the “right side” of history, writes Steven A. Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations:

It is unlikely that Field Marshal al Sisi actually ordered the arrests of three Al Jazeera journalists in December of last year, though he created an environment that helped make such violations of basic norms such as freedom of the press possible.  The Ministry of Interior went ahead and did it, which is unremarkable, but the fact that a long list of Egyptian intellectuals, ostensible liberals, and alleged revolutionaries lined up to applaud this clear violation of press freedoms, while the pro-government media was egging everyone on, is remarkable.  (All irony is lost in Egypt.)  This system is the reason why in Egypt’s Jacobin-like discourse anyone who openly expresses concern about human rights violations is branded a terrorist sympathizer. It also explains how otherwise respectful and previously respected Egyptians are falling all over themselves to prove that they are with the new program.

When Abdel Monem Said Aly wrote an article called, Khatiyat Steven Cook or “Steven Cook’s Offense” it was hard not to be angry immediately, Cook writes:

But upon reflection, I understood precisely that he is bowing to the relentless pressure of the system.  The piece, which appeared in Al Sharq Al Awsat on January 22 and re-published in English the following Friday in Al Ahram Weekly as “Where Steven Cook is Wrong” offers a strong and fair critique of my recent blog post “Do Not Run Sisi…Do Not Run,” and erroneously and maliciously ties three colleagues—Marc Lynch, Tamara Wittes, and Michele Dunne*—along with myself, to the Muslim Brotherhood.  Abdel Monem, who was very much a part of the Mubarak power-structure, was signaling to those now in power that despite his longstanding ties to Washington, Brandeis University, and a host of organizations in the West, he can be trusted to advance their political agendas. RTWT

*A board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.