It’s not so easy reading the signs in Egypt

If one were to compare the current attempts at retributive justice to post-revolution France or Russia, the levels of political violence in Egypt seem relatively minimal.

It had been 6 months since I last visited Egypt, and two since I first met the young activists from around the Arab world who participated with me in the Young Leaders Visitors Program in Stockholm, organized by the Swedish Institute. We were travelling to Egypt to participate in phase two of the project.

Stuck in traffic en route to Alexandria on the Sahrawi highway, my conversation with Hamada, the taxi driver and a proud father of two daughters, veered from family into politics, in particular the current stand-off between the country’s recently elected President, Mohamed Morsi and the opposition. Hamada confided that he had voted for Morsi, but was not happy with his constitutional declaration and expected things to turn sour. In reply to further prompting, Hamada explained:

“Look! In Egypt there are women who wear hijab and those who wear mini-skirts, those who drink (wine) and those who don’t. So, to say that we will close bars is unreasonable. The [draft] constitution will also mention that you can be held in custody for up to six months without trial....”

Was Hamada sure that these provisions were on the cards for inclusion in the constitution? He replied after some hesitation, “well, that’s what I hear people saying”.  Confusion regarding the draft constitution and its actual contents seems widespread.

On Tuesday, reports and photos of mass demonstrations in Alexandria began appearing on Facebook and twitter. I headed with a group of friends to the scene at Sidi Gabir to find no more than two to three hundred people being worked up by young men standing on the main platform, chanting such slogans as “down down with the rule of the supreme leader”, “down down with the constitutional declaration” and “down down with the Muslim Brotherhood”. This slogan seemed to reject all the institutions and processes associated with the democratic and transitional justice processes that brought the Muslim Brotherhood, through its political party the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), to power. This type of sentiment could very easily lead to violent confrontation, and the confrontation didn’t take long to materialise. By Thursday afternoon there were reports of 6 deaths, hundreds of injured protestors and scores of arrests.

The narratives advanced by those in support of the protests kept shifting. Some people cited the content of the proposed constitution and the walkout of the opposition members from the drafting committee as factors behind their anger. It transpired that some of these people had initially given their blessing to many of the contentious constitutional provisions and clauses which they now oppose. Others claimed that Morsi’s decree granting the president sweeping powers is a sign of his deceit and a return to dictatorial practices. But this decree will become null and void the minute the referendum is held and its result announced. Therefore, the longer it takes for the referendum to be held, the longer the presidential decree will last. On Thursday Mohamed al-Baradai of the National Salvation front declared that: “Morsi has lost legitimacy”.

Considering Morsi was elected through what were deemed broadly free and fair elections, it may be that the National Salvation Front would prefer to postpone any other round of legislative elections for fear that the Islamists will again be vindicated at the ballot box. This doesn’t bode well for Egypt’s democratic transition. Although much of the western as well as regional media blames the MB for the bulk of the violence, it is worth keeping in mind that 5 of the 6 people killed in Cairo are members of the Muslim Brotherhood and that it was the latter’s offices that have been subjected to the violence of protesters and damaged in more than one location. Perhaps the opposition’s narrative does not tell the whole story.

Mariz Tadros’ article on OpenDemocracy, for example, rushes into labelling the MB as ‘fascist’ without solid substantiation. She claims that the pro-Morsi protestors are driven by their Islamist ideology as opposed to a desire to protect a revolutionary gain i.e. a democratically elected president (whether Islamist or not). Should such a harsh judgement be so readily applied to a government that has been in power for less than a year and whose ideology and practices thus far can hardly be compared to Hitler or Mussolini?  Tadros likens the Muslim Brotherhood use of the word ‘cleansing’ to Hitler’s use of the term.  But in Egypt, the term is devoid of any racial, religious and ethnic connotations. It refers to the removal of members of the ‘fouloul’, or leftovers from the repressive ancien regime, from positions of power, as part of a transitional justice process. If one were to compare the current attempts at retributive justice to post-revolution France or Russia, the levels of political violence in Egypt seems relatively minimal. Of course this does not excuse the use of state repression against peaceful protesters. But it is a reminder that the current situation needs to be seen in post-revolutionary context.

Whatever the causes of the current unrest, the biggest loser here is the Egyptian people, as this latest episode of contestation seems to be taking Egypt further away from realising the aims of the revolution: freedom, dignity and social and economic justice.

The latest responses

From Morsi’s speech on Thursday evening, it became clear to all concerned that he will not step down as some have demanded, but he seems to be falling into the trap of focusing on process as opposed to substance; concentrating solely on winning the bras de fer against his opponents instead of finding inclusive ways to come out of this impasse. Although this stance is expected to further inflame the opposition, it is unclear what the latter’s alternative is, as they too have become caught up in process.  Morsi’s latest backing off announced on Saturday evening seems a step in the right direction. Now is the time for the opposition to get back to the negotiating table and not only highlight the parts of the proposed constitution they are unhappy with, but also propose amendments to the constituent assembly and, more importantly, to the Egyptian public, that would have the impact of turning this into a truly revolutionary constitution, enshrining the aims of the revolution.

Meanwhile, over the last 20 days, Egypt agreed deals for $4.8 billion IMF and a $2.5 billion African Development Bank (ADB) loans - both of which impose on Egypt austerity measures reminiscent of the old economic policies against which Egyptians revolted. It is surprising that we haven’t seen a public outcry denouncing the Brotherhood’s lack of revolutionary spirit on this front. 

I hope that the opposition’s standoff does not lead Egypt down the road Algeria took in the early 1990s or the Palestinian experience after the 2006 elections. In both these cases, the world witnessed how Islamist parties who ascended to power through the ballot box were later denied political power and marginalized by the international system, leading to civil strife and violence that resulted in over 200,000 deaths and 30,000 disappearances in Algeria, and internal divisions and infighting in the Palestinian resistance and liberation movement.

I left Cairo with an aching heart, full of trepidation for the future of this great country and the courageous people that succeed in toppling the oppressive Mubarak dictatorship and made the revolution possible. All I can do is hope that future demonstrations take a more reflective character than the ones we witnessed on Wednesday, and that the opposition start to focus on offering tangible solutions that can help to consolidate, rather than undermine, the gains of the revolution.

About the author

Brahim Rouabah is an Algiers-based researcher and activist who recently completed an MSc in International Relations at the London School of Economics (2011). He is currently working as a Programs Manager with the American Institute for Maghreb Studies (AIMS) at their Algeria based Overseas Center (CEMA).