Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Mexican Standoff in Egypt

Any good spaghetti Western or Hong Kong action film culminates with a “Mexican standoff.” Classically, three protagonists stand, pistols drawn, all with each other in the crosshairs at close range. Theoretically, in this conundrum, the first to shoot is at a tactical disadvantage. More recently, Mexican standoffs have degenerated into a simpler formula in which two principals have each other at gunpoint, neither able to fire or stand down without unacceptable risk.

In the Arab world, Egyptians are renowned for their films and TV shows, especially their dramas and soap operas. The Egyptian “revolution” has, from the start, been a roller coaster alternating between epic heroic drama, mass tragedy, ludicrous farce, gangster-film intrigue and surrealism worthy of David Lynch. Now, with the dark inevitability of Greek tragedy, it has reached the “Mexican standoff” phase between the President and the army.

Army chief and Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Monday gave President Mohammad Morsi just 48 hours to resolve the political crisis rocking the country by finding an accommodation with the political opposition. If “the people’s demands” were not met in that timeframe, the military, he vowed, would assume their “responsibility to the nation” and enforce a “roadmap for the future.” The statement was unambiguous: Morsi must either resign, or call new, snap presidential elections at once. Otherwise he will face a de facto coup d’état.

Last night, Morsi responded with an angry, defiant and implicitly violent speech to the nation. He used the word “legitimacy” no less than 57 times in 45 minutes, and insisted that because he had won the election, any attempt to get him to engage in political compromise was a plot by remnants of the old regime, traitors, coup plotters and agents of foreign “hidden hands.” He repeatedly stated his willingness to shed his own blood and give his own life in defense of “legitimacy.” Most importantly, he offered no concessions, to the political opposition, the military, or the millions of Egyptians who continue to demonstrate for his resignation or new, immediate presidential elections.

As I write, Morsi has only hours to meet the military deadline, but he shows no signs of conciliation. Had he offered any significant concessions or proposals, he might have greatly strengthened his potential for staying in power. But instead, he angrily rebuffed both the protesters and the Army. He could always still offer a last-minute stand-down by agreeing to a national unity government and new presidential elections. But his speech strongly indicated he has already concluded the military, and probably a majority of Egyptians, have decided his term in office is over.

So his speech, and his implacably intransigent attitude, makes sense mainly in the context of someone who is preparing his followers for both a short-term fight (perhaps quite literally) they know they are going to lose, and a longer-term battle to reclaim power by planting the seeds of, and carefully cultivating, a growing narrative. Its claims are already laid out in Morsi’s, “over my dead body” and “just try and come and get me,” speech.

The Brotherhood and its allies are the “real revolutionaries” and those who oppose them a motley crew of villainous “counterrevolutionary forces.” The Brotherhood wisely shepherded Egypt out of dictatorship and into democracy. One of their own, Morsi, was legitimately elected president, only to be overthrown by subversive and anti-democratic elements. This is a cabal of the old regime, the deep state, the lawless thugs and hooligans, “foreign hidden hands,” and those who would destroy Egypt or insist on controlling it from afar. It’s deliciously conspiratorial and paranoid: perfectly suited to a Muslim Brotherhood mindset, which resembles that of a cult.

The military was not amused. They responded to Morsi’s overtly threatening speech withanother, even more terse, statement that it is “more honorable for us to die than for the Egyptian people to feel threatened or terrorized,” and that the military would “sacrifice our blood for Egypt and its people against every terrorist, extremist or ignorant person.” There can be no doubt who, they were implying, was threatening and terrorizing, or which parties they expect to qualify as a “terrorist, extremist or ignorant person.” The statement might as well been accompanied with a caricature of the President.

Tensions on the street continue to run extremely high. Violence is clearly in the air. But in this Mexican standoff, only one party has a real gun: the military. The Muslim Brotherhood has street-level cadres willing to fight, and no doubt die. And it was to them, and to some future self-justifying narrative, that Morsi was really speaking. The young revolutionaries and “ultras” soccer hooligans are also potential street fighting gangs, and probably even more effective than anything the Brotherhood can muster. But there are no real militias in Egypt. There is, in the end, only the Army.

So, with the clock ticking, and no evidence that Morsi intends to compromise in any serious way, the military’s bluff is being called. Assuming the deadline passes, as seems extremely likely, without any major last-minute initiatives, they are going to have to act to implement whatever “roadmap for the future” they have in mind.

According to Reuters, their current working plan involves suspending the Constitution, dissolving parliament, and trying to accommodate the blueprint already outlined by the opposition coalition National Salvation Front, headed by former U.N. official Mohamed ElBaradei. Reports in the Arabic-language Egyptian media further suggest it involves the arrest, or house arrest, of key Brotherhood figures and other more directly repressive measures.

The military insists that what they are proposing is not a coup. But of course they also insist their ouster of Mubarak wasn’t a coup either. The United States government has said it will not accept a coup. You can be sure that the military will make every effort to present any actions they take as not at all a coup. It will almost undoubtedly involve a figurehead, or perhaps even really empowered to some extent, civilian “unity” government led by a prominent national figure, with a plan for drafting a new constitution, and holding new presidential and parliamentary elections. It will not, the military insists, resemble the period of direct military rule following the overthrow of Mubarak, and at face value it surely won’t. The United States and the international community, for want of any better options, will probably cluck their tongues, but accept the idea this is not exactly a “coup”.

But unless there is a last-minute stand-down by either the president or the military there soon will be a coup. The military will be looking for a new partner to govern the country over the long run while allowing them to retain their zones of exclusive prerogative: defense and national security decisions, their secret budget and vast economic holdings. The Army has no interest in day-to-day government, so it needs a partner who can take care mundane governing while the military protects its own sphere of influence. Over the past two years, they reached such an accommodation with the Muslim Brotherhood. But with the collapse of Morsi’s popular legitimacy and the viability of his government, they need to look elsewhere now. Today the military command met with a group of opposition parties to try to negotiate agreed terms for a transitional framework, which is yet another indication that the die is cast.

Barring a last-minute compromise, the big question is how violent will the Islamist reaction be? Some degree of brouhaha is virtually inevitable. But will the Brotherhood make good on Morsi’s volunteering himself (almost certainly disingenuously) and his followers (quite possibly in all seriousness) for martyrdom? Will it be street-fighting, or will Egypt see a return to urban sabotage and terrorism when, as now seems almost inevitable, the military steps in? A full-blown civil war in Egypt seems very far-fetched, if not out of the question. But an extended period of violent unrest, as the country has seen several times in the past century, is a very plausible outcome. It would be yet another disaster for a country that is already strained economically, socially and politically, to the breaking point.

Since the overthrow of Mubarak, the aspirations of the Egyptian people to create a real democracy have suffered a series of devastating blows. Another coup, no matter how prettified, can hardly be a step in the right direction. But the collapse of the legitimacy of the Morsi government makes new elections necessary, and if he won’t agree to them—when even his most hard-core Salafist allies are demanding they take place—then someone has to force his hand. The bigger, more important long-term target is the unworkable, impossible and unspeakable Constitution the brotherhood and its allies rammed through what was passing for a political process in Egypt last year. It must be scrapped, or at least thoroughly amended from start to finish.

The key to a better political future in Egypt is the essential foundation of a functional, rational, serious constitution that can lay the basis for a modern, democratic state. It has to not only provide for freedom of speech, assembly, conscience and religion, and ensure regular, free and fair, multiparty elections with a regular peaceful transfer of power. It must also clearly delineate the limits of majority rule and the powers of government, enshrining as inviolable the rights inherent to each individual citizen, as well as minority groups and women. In short, it must put an end to the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist version of “democracy” as simple majoritarianism: 50 percent plus one gets to do anything it wishes.

An even harder task will be undoing the super-political powers reserved to the military, which were respected in the Mubarak era but even more deeply enshrined in the Muslim Brotherhood Constitution. Since in the Mexican standoff now taking place in Egypt only one party really has an actual gun, the process of getting the military to play by normative political rules and accept civilian control may be the most difficult, and long-term, political challenge the country faces. And for now, it would appear, the army is preparing to once again to be in charge, at least behind a tissue-thin curtain.

“You are cordially invited to our forthcoming coup”

With the clock ticking – and now only about 24 hours to go before the announced military “deadline” for political forces to “resolve the crisis” before the Army steps in – some version of another military coup in Egypt seems not only imminent. It is already unfolding.

The millions of Egyptians that took to the streets on Sunday were, literally, voting with their feet. Their vocal and public rejection of President Mohammad Morsi made his continuation in office, at least under present conditions, totally untenable.

It was an ad hoc and massive expression of “buyers remorse” – a spontaneous Egyptian version of the American “recall petition referenda” which require sitting governors to submit to new elections by popular demand.

The terse, blunt statement yesterday issued by Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – with the support of the Interior Ministry and much of the deep state – left little doubt that the Morsi government had failed to retain basic legitimacy and the Army was preparing to take over. Rarely have coups been announced so openly in advance.

Al-Sisi giving Morsi just “48 hours” to meet “the demands of the people,” which he did not clearly define, was deliberately unworkable. It told the opposition they need only keep up the pressure for a mere two days. The campaign initially sought new presidential elections, but came to include the specific demand for Morsi’s resignation.

Opposition leaders were unabashedly, and perhaps unwisely, delighted by al-Sisi’s announcement. The president is going to go, or at least find all his power drained.

The only potential way out al-Sisi’s announcement provided for Morsi was to try to either unilaterally call for new elections, which might have “fulfilled the people’s demands,” or, much better yet, to do so in conjunction with some opposition groups. Yet compromise, conciliation, and cooperation are anathema to the Brotherhood, and the interest of opposition groups in helping to bail them out of their crisis is hard to identify.

So far, the massive demonstration on Sunday and the military’s “kind request for the nation’s attendance at their upcoming coup” has prompted rat after rat to jump Captain Morsi’s sinking ship. So many cabinet members have resigned, including the foreign minister, that only a small handful remain.

The Salafist Nour Party, which is both an ally and rival to the Muslim Brotherhood, had remained neutral until the Army statement. Suddenly it announced that it, too, was in favor of early new elections. Meanwhile, a court added to Morsi’s misery by dismissing his crucially important new prosecutor-general, Talaat Abdullah.

The Morsi government is as gutted as the burned and ransacked Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Cairo.

Morsi appears utterly overwhelmed and totally lost. He’s had no official response to either the protests or the military announcement, and everyone is abandoning him.

His last chance for political survival is to immediately form a national unity government, giving up so much of the power he has painstakingly accumulated over the past year, and submitting to early new elections that he will certainly not win.

Had he acted wisely, he might have continued in office. But it’s almost too late. His political career, permanently, and the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, for now, have been effectively terminated.

But the military won’t want a return to direct governance. The most likely contours of any “roadmap” they announce in coming days will almost surely involve some kind of “national unity” government headed by a nonmilitary figure, combined with early elections. And this will be packaged as “fulfilling the demands of the people,” and no “coup” whatsoever.

But there will be no doubt that the real power will remain in the hands of the Army. Driven from office, Islamists may well turn to violence, whether in the form of sabotage or urban terrorism, or in street gang violence against the revolutionaries and “ultras” football hooligans. Street fighting already rages on the ground.

This is probably going to be ugly, unless an unlikely last-minute compromise suddenly materializes.

But how does Egypt break the emerging vicious cycle of alternating between Islamist and military authoritarianism?

This new “soft coup” the military appears to be preparing may be welcomed by much of the population, but the honeymoon will be very brief. It’s hardly the appropriate prescription for Egypt’s chronic malady, and could be the proverbial cure that makes the disease even worse.

Egyptians can’t find themselves alternating between beards and uniforms. They need a new, rational constitution that establishes a working political system and regular, free, and fair elections without bias, intimidation, or cheating.

Egyptians want a “do over.” They deserve one. This time, the country has to get it right, or the consequences could be dire. Real pluaralistic democracy that protects individual, women’s and minority rights, and not simple majoritarianism, is the sole and indispensable solution.

Morsi-less: Are Egyptians Done with the Muslim Brothers?

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

The first anniversary for Egypt’s new President Mohammad Morsi saw not celebrations or commemorations of the first Egyptian elected civilian president in modern times, but instead gargantuan demonstrations throughout the country calling for his ouster, breathtaking in size and scope. Millions of Egyptians took to the streets throughout the country demanding his removal. These demonstrations were bigger, but there is an unquestioned sense of déjà vu in the oust-Morsi movement—called the Tamarod(rebellion) by its organizers—and the original uprising against Hosni Mubarak.

Indeed, the anti-Mubarak revolution began with an attack on his National Democratic Party’s headquarters, just as the most intense scenes yesterday were at the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters and that of its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). This morning,the Brotherhood’s headquarters lie ransacked and gutted—an appropriate metaphor for the political state of the President and his party, and possibly for the nation as a whole.

Mideast Egypt
Amr Nabil/AP

The anti-Brotherhood Tamarod marks another clear turning point in the serpentine process of an Egypt determined to leave its dictatorial past behind, but which knows not where it is going. But what’s happening in Egypt is going to be a major bellwether for the future of numerous Arab states and yet again demonstrates how much popular opposition there is to unfettered Islamist rule even in the more conservative Arab countries. If the Muslim Brotherhood cannot take and retain power, in its country of origin—Egypt—after winning elections and in the face of a fragmented and frequently ineffective political opposition, then the entire Arab Islamist project will be called into the gravest doubt. The clear implication will be it was simply never plausible for such religious fanatics to rule large, diverse and mainly non-Islamist Arab societies, particularly given their propensity for authoritarianism and incapacity for compromise and conciliation.

Morsi’s June 26 obnoxious, defensive and endless rant to the nation on television merely underscored his political tin ear and intransigence, and, perhaps, sealed his fate. His unmistakable message was, “we are the revolutionaries,” and “everyone who opposes us are reactionary counterrevolutionaries, if not traitors.” It was bound to infuriate the nation, and so it did.

It also left absolutely no one with any confidence he has real policies, let alone solutions, to deal with the daily life crises ordinary Egyptians increasingly struggle with: growing poverty, inflation, mass unemployment, the nightmare of commuting, fuel and food shortages, and a rapidly crumbling national infrastructure. Additionally, there is a terrifying growth of crime, gang violence, rampant sexual harassment, and sectarian atrocities against Copts and Shiites. Egyptians do not feel safe, economically, socially or personally, and with good reason. In answer to all of these crises, the Brotherhood essentially merely offers “Islamic values.” Even many of the most devout Muslims fully understand Islam is a religion, not an ideology or political program, and offers no answers to these overwhelming national crises.

The Egyptian military put the number of anti-Islamist demonstrators at “14 million,” a figureReuters reasonably described as “implausibly high,” and which would make it by far the largest political demonstration in human history. But even if that number is wildly inflated, it’s clear these protests were vastly larger than the anti-Mubarak protests that brought down the old dictatorship more than two years ago. The typically restrained New York Times simply left the number at “millions.” At least 16 people were killed.

Egypt is now split along at least four major axes that interrelate in very complex and unstable ways. The Brotherhood and its Salafist allies clearly do have a significant constituency. The revolutionary groups on the ground, mostly young and without strong organizational capabilities and even clearly thought through ideologies, which were instrumental in bringing down Mubarak, once cooperated with the Brotherhood but now seem to have realized that they are at least as much, if not a bigger, threat to freedom than the old dictatorship. They have decided, it appears, that Morsi has to go, and with him the entire Islamist-rule project.

Lurking in the wings of course is the deep state, and in particular the military. Much of the police, the remaining security forces, and the judiciary are key elements in the opposition to the Brotherhood. For its part, the Army was glad to get out of the governing business, and is primarily concerned with protecting its key zones of influence: its control of defense and national security policy, its secret budget, its various extraordinary prerogatives (including the power of arresting and trying civilians in military tribunals), and its massive economic holdings (often estimated at a minimum of 20 percent of national GDP).

The Brotherhood, which overreached at almost every other stage, was wise only in seeking to accommodate the military, and to ram through a dreadful Constitution which even more deeply embeds a military authority and autonomy than the old one did, and also adds a layer of potential Islamist social authoritarianism. So the military remains a major power, but is likely to do its best to avoid directly intervening in domestic politics again. It wasn’t to their liking, and they don’t see any long-term benefits from such an arrangement.

What the Army needs is a stable, competent political partner to take care of the business of actually governing the country. Clearly that can’t be the Brotherhood. Since winning the first parliamentary election, and then the presidency, the Brotherhood has broken every promise it has made to friend and foe alike. It has not only alienated, it has infuriated, almost everyone outside of its core constituency or its direct partners. The degree of overreaching and political miscalculation has shocked even those of us who took the Muslim Brothers to be political cretins.

They rammed through a ridiculous, counter-revolutionary Constitution by terrifying the country with a red herring “constitutional declaration” that granted virtually monarchical powers to the President, far exceeding those of any of Egypt’s modern dictators. They’ve attempted to purge the judiciary. They are clearly trying to take over the Armed Forces by stacking its junior cadres with their own members. They’ve gone on a veritable bender applying blasphemy and libel laws at the drop of a hat against a breathtaking array of minority groups and political opponents, and even satirists.

More to the point, the Brotherhood has proven both absolutely incapable of cooperating with any forces outside of their immediate sphere of control or influence (except for the shameless Entente Cordiale with the military), and also of doing anything effective in government. Under their rule, the economy has continued to collapse. Social services are worse than ever. The state of social despair that led up to the downfall of Mubarak has been replaced by an atmosphere of social and economic panic.

And this, more than anything, explains the size and vehemence of the protests. An overwhelming cross-section of Egyptian society can agree on one thing and one thing only: they have had enough of this ridiculous, incompetent, embarrassing, bellowing, threatening petty little thug. They realize that he is incapable of running a bath, let alone a country. And not only is he presiding over a social and political meltdown, his intentions are, if anything, now clearly more autocratic and repressive than the old Mubarak dictatorship. At least five cabinet ministers have reportedly resigned this morning in recognition of popular disgust.

APTOPIX Mideast Egypt
Hassan Ammar/AP

Young revolutionaries who were once willing to make common cause with the Brothers are leading the battle, which has already turned violent. Brotherhood cadres have been ostentatiously preparing “paramilitary” units, but they are really just street gangs. The revolutionaries have a crack force: the “ultras,” the football hooligans who are the best street fighters in the country and who were crucial in the battle against Mubarak’s security forces. The most politicized of these have formed a loose-knit organization called the “black bloc,” but really it boils down to this: young soccer hooligans don’t like government and they don’t like authority. And they do like a good fight. And they’re good at it. So if street fighting becomes the order of the day in the unfolding protest movement, the “ultras” may again prove the most fearsome.

Post-dictatorship Egypt now finds itself at a four-way crossroads. The intersection is essentially between the Brotherhood, the military, the revolutionaries, and the heretofore silent majority. If the size of the demonstrations yesterday is anything to judge by, the extent of public anger and rejection of Morsi, the Brotherhood and their government is unmanageable. Unless they peter out quickly, which seems unlikely, Morsi and his allies are going to have to make an adjustment and a deal with some opposition groups very quickly to try to quell public outrage, or the situation could spiral entirely out of control. They simply have no legitimacy or moral or political authority left, beyond their immediate supporters.

The astonishing size, scope and breadth of the anti-Morsi protests that have erupted in Egypt clearly demonstrates what so many of us have been repeating ad nauseam since the Arab uprisings began in Tunisia: the majority of Arabs are not Islamists, and they do not wish to be ruled by Islamists, particularly not in an arbitrary and autocratic manner. The once-silent Egyptian majority is speaking, because hundreds of thousands if not millions of those who did not participate in the protests that ousted Mubarak were on the streets yesterday, and more may join them in the days to come.

The speed with which the Brotherhood came to power in the post-dictatorship era was no surprise whatsoever. They had long-standing structural, organizational, branding and competitive advantages that no one else could compete with. What has been amazing has been their absolute inability to shift from a strong, well-organized oppositional movement (or, indeed, politicized cult) to a political party, let alone a government. The vertiginous speed with which they have alienated everyone else, squandered all of their advantages, electoral legitimacy, potential for building any kind of coalition beyond the Islamist set, or to produce any positive results in terms of social or economic policies has been astounding. One measure of their political acumen was the FJP’s website description of yesterday’s “imaginary protests in downtown Cairo and the streets of Giza.” See, brothers and sisters? It was all just a bad dream.

The only thing the Muslim Brotherhood has left going for them, beyond their substantial but distinctly minority core base, is the fractured, disunited and confused opposition. When it comes to elections and normal politics, that’s a huge advantage. But when you’re facing millions of infuriated protesters demanding your downfall with a veritable encyclopedia of legitimate grievances and justifiable outrage—as Hosni Mubarak discovered—the quality of the opposition parties is no longer the issue. The only way to recover that advantage, potentially, is for Morsi to give in to opposition demands and call for new presidential elections. But it may be too late even for that, unless such an announcement can be in coordination with some key opposition groups. Right now, they have no apparent incentive to bail him out.

Ironically, capitulation to that risky demand may be the only way to salvage Brotherhood rule. But conciliation is constitutionally anathema to such fanatics. And, when they do compromise, they have an invariable tendency to break their word (in the greater glory of God, of course, so it doesn’t matter). Which is one of the largest reasons they find themselves facing millions of brave and infuriated Egyptian citizens who are once again demanding their freedom, this time from a new, and more ominous, brand of tyranny.