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With democracy compromised mixed messages come out of Egypt

January 30, 2014 at 2:53 am

Recent events in Egypt have polarized more than just Egyptians. Activists around the world have also been divided ever since the mass protests against President Morsi on 30th June. Some have voiced support for the military coup on 3rd July that ousted the president and his government from power, believing this to represent the will of “the people”. However others are respecting Egypt’s democracy and have condemned the use of military force. While the Western mainstream media maintains a more dispassionate outlook, quite a bit of its coverage appears to substantiate the latter view.

According to Borzou Daragahi, the Cairo-based Middle East and North Africa correspondent for the Financial Times, journalists viewed the events leading up to the 30th June protests with some skepticism, because most correspondents in Egypt understand the importance of political stability first and foremost for Egypt’s economy to grow (after all, Egypt’s economic woes were high on the protestors’ list of grievances). Thus journalists were actually surprised by the mass turnout for the protests. But even so, Daragahi said that he did not “think anyone believed that overthrowing a democratically elected, internationally recognized government led by Islamists” would be positive for the country. Indeed while it was happening “lots of people talked about the Algerian or the Syrian scenarios,” countries where prolonged conflicts have cost many lives.

On the other hand, many activists were eager to accept the notion that the diverse revolutionary movement in the streets comprised the will of “the people,” even if this conception of “the people” silences those Egyptian voices that support President Morsi. But while revolutionaries claim that tens of millions were in the streets on 30th June, and that they gathered 22 million signatures for a petition demanding President Morsi to step down, legitimate questions have now been raised about the size of the anti-Morsi protests. While determining the size of any street mobilization is difficult, a petition is a physical document that can be verified, and yet it has not been. Considering the stakes – the future of democracy in Egypt – producing a document confirming that 22 million Egyptians really did demand the overthrow of the government would say a lot, although by no means settle the debate in a country with more than 82 million people and where a series of free and fair elections brought the Islamist-led government into power democratically.

Although there are many Egyptians who probably do support the coup, this lack of transparency about its popular legitimacy is problematic, and perhaps reflective of how those who are now in power have no intention of sharing any of it with Islamists in the future, even though this kind of power grab was precisely the same grievance they had against President Morsi and his government. As Daragahi explains, “Egyptian Islamists closed in on themselves and lost many of their potential non-Islamist allies. That combined with their incompetence created an opening for the military and former regime elements to latch onto popular anger and topple Morsi. But it’s also clear that the ‘liberals’ are hardly democrats either and are more interested in a winner-takes-all scenario rather than perfecting a democratic model.”

Indeed, The Independent recently reported that liberal and secular activists have already “outlined demands to ban religious parties and outlaw political campaigning from mosques.” And although the revolutionary movement is diverse, certain factions have also made it clear that they are not interested in sharing power either. This week Tamarod, the “rebel” movement responsible for organizing the petition against President Morsi and the protests on 30th June, told Reuters that the movement both supports and is happy for the military “to play its role in confronting the violence and terrorism practiced by the Muslim Brotherhood,” referring to the ongoing and largely peaceful protests that supporters of President Morsi and his government have engaged in over the last three weeks. The irony here is that Tamarod is condemning the same tactic – nonviolent street protests – that they themselves used to depose President Morsi; only they were the ones backed by tanks. And of course the vast majority of the victims of the recent violence in Egypt have been supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Guardian’s investigative report into the massacre of pro-Morsi protesters on 8th July found that security forces engaged in “a coordinated assault on largely peaceful civilians.”

So given the above evidence, why are activists so divided?

Well, it was difficult to watch the mass protests on 30th June and not be moved by the protesters’ sense of people power. Also, they had many legitimate grievances – Egyptian democracy was imperfect in all kinds of ways. But when analyzing the revolutionaries’ choice of actions to realize political change we should never forget the lessons raised by an important Italian political thinker of the past: Niccolò Machiavelli.

In his seminal work The Prince, written 500 years ago, Machiavelli was concerned with laying out the best framework for autocrats to rule effectively (some have argued that his book was actually intended as a satire). In the interests of maintaining the state’s power, he advised that rulers should appear to be virtuous rather than behave virtuously, and when that is not possible they should act in a manner that instills fear instead. Here of course, the ends justify the means. And this is an excellent lens through which to view both the Egyptian military and the coalition of liberals and revolutionaries.

The military is appearing virtuous by stepping in to secure the demands of “the people” who mobilized in the streets on 30th June. General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi recently told Egyptians that, “We have lived up to your expectations and achieved all you asked for.” However this does not make the military’s behavior virtuous. As the Wall Street Journal reported last week, in the months leading up to the coup, “Egypt’s top generals met regularly with senior aides to opposition leaders, often at the Navy Officers’ Club nestled on the Nile. The message: If the opposition could put enough protesters in the streets, the military would step in—and forcibly remove the president.” Furthermore, The New York Times revealed how the electricity cuts, gas shortages and lack of policing that were plaguing Egypt in the weeks before the coup, and which fueled Egyptians’ anger against President Morsi, all suddenly disappeared after the coup, indicating that these problems were likely orchestrated by the deep state to sow dissent against the elected government.

And now, according to the Financial Times, General Sisi is calling upon Egyptians to mobilize again on Friday, 26th July as he says, “to grant me the power to face potential violence and terrorism.” Considering that supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood have also been given an ultimatum to participate in the national reconciliation by Saturday, it seems that General Sisi is threatening to crush any future resistance to his authority – including nonviolent. And note his use of the first person here. The notion that the people and the army are one has suddenly been transformed into General Sisi is the people.

We must also consider the means-ends calculation of the revolutionaries and critically question why they have been so focused on their demand to overthrow the government that they have been willing to accept the military’s intervention and the retrenchment of a regime that they had so desperately struggled against only two and a half years ago. They did not seem to care that while military helicopters were dropping flags for them to wave for the cameras, security forces were allowing the offices of the Muslim Brotherhood to be ransacked and its members killed. But if the ends justify the means, we have to remind ourselves that Machiavelli was writing about autocracy, not democracy.

And apparently this fact is not lost on Egyptians. As The Washington Post reported last week, Egypt’s new power dynamic following the coup “is eerily familiar. Gone are the Islamist rulers from the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood. Back are the faces of the old guard, many closely linked to Mubarak’s reign or to the all-powerful generals. And for a seemingly broad array of Egyptians, that’s exactly the way they want it.”

So why is this fact lost on so many activists? I cannot answer this question. While I also respect people power, it seems pretty clear to me that many revolutionaries and their liberal allies are only demanding power for some of the people. Even though protesters in Tahrir Square often rallied around cries for social justice, many of the same protesters are now supporting the military’s use of force against Islamists, even adopting Islamophobic discourses that equate Muslim Brotherhood supporters with terrorists, a framework that denies them political rights. And these pro-coup forces are also supporting an interim government of bourgeois elites that will likely neoliberalize the economy even further. Indeed the situation reeks of injustice now more than ever before.

That many Egyptians were deeply unhappy with President Morsi and his government is obvious. And yes, they had a lot of legitimate grievances. But here in the US, there are also many Americans who are deeply unsatisfied with President Barack Obama and his government. In fact, only 15 per cent of Americans currently approve of Congress. As an American citizen I want this to change, and I am determined to make that happen. But not with the help of Halliburton. And not with the help of Wall Street or the Israel lobby either. Otherwise we will simply end up with the same system all over again.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.