Everything is negotiable in Egypt

By Stephanie Thomas
August 30, 2013

As Egypt’s military-led government appears to be solidifying its gains, and Cairo largely succumbs to its harsh measures, talk of civil war has, for now, abated. One big reason for this is because in Egypt everything is negotiable.

An old Egypt hand told me this in 2011, when I moved there to work at the American University in Cairo. I thought his advice referred to navigating turbulent academic waters. I soon realized, however, that it applied to the entire country. Throughout my two years in Egypt, this advice helped me make sense of the head-snapping events taking place in the political arena. It can also help predict a likely outcome of Egypt’s current situation.

When everything is negotiable, there can be no fixed prices, or fixed principles. Opportunities for deals abound. This includes political support, alliances, ideologies — even constitutional articles. Mortal enemies one day are allies the next.

Instead of civil war, an “uncivil” war will likely ensue, a prolonged and fluid slow burn of unsavory power politics played out by the established elites — the generals, judiciary, Mubarak-era politicians and an as-yet-unformed iteration of the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile the liberal groups, including Cairo’s intellectuals, will offer support and momentum for the right price. The line will likely never be crossed into civil war because the ultimate deal always beckons on the horizon.

No one stays on one side for long in Egypt. The past two and a half years is a tale of dramatic coalitions coming together (literally, in Tahrir Square) and then splintering into flimsy allegiances. All parties have sacrificed principles to advance short-term interests: the military has now twice cynically draped itself in the mantle of popular will; the Muslim Brotherhood has used the democratic electoral process to justify illiberal acts and defend its legitimacy; the liberals and secularists have piggy-backed on military authoritarianism to erase a political foe, and Egypt’s second largest (and more conservative) Islamist party, the Salafi Nour Party, is still supporting the interim government.

In one prominent example of the flimsiness of alliances, Egypt’s most famous liberal, Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Prize winner, gave cover to General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s recent takeover by defending the ouster of former president Mohamed Mursi and the crackdown on the Brotherhood. Having put aside his “conscience” — the same conscience that prevented him from running for electoral office in 2012 because the military was still in control — ElBaradei then joined the interim government. Only to resign a month later in protest at the violent removal of the Brotherhood sit-ins. He will probably be back when the conditions are more favorable.

Until the relatively “fixed prices” of the democratic process are established in Egypt, all the political players are likely to continue bargaining, negotiating and co-opting their way toward a unique, Egyptian kind of stability.

The onus will be — indeed, always has been — on the liberal groups who say they want democratic institutions, pluralism, human and minority rights (except for Islamists), but who have failed so far to prove it. Their main contribution to date has been to be on standby, ready to offer their protesting services to the ascendant elite of the moment. They must leave behind the politics of protest and pique, and somehow convince all Egyptians that they are building a better, more pluralistic and democratic alternative.

Many who are supporting the military today are doing so holding their noses.

As the fear of intimidation abates there will be disaffection amongst revolutionary activists, liberal groups and Christians. Some Copts quietly blame the military for exploiting the burning of their churches for political gain while failing to protect those churches during the security crackdown in mid-August. Reports and counter-reports of state investigations into two famous liberal activists suggest fluid negotiations.

One also wonders how long Egyptians can take the relentless diet of pro-military propaganda produced by both state and private media. When will some journalists begin to object publicly to the military’s control of the message? No doubt enterprising T-shirt vendors are already stocking less of “The people and the army are one hand” variety — knowing from experience that demand for this slogan waxes and wanes quickly. How long will it be before we see the return of the familiar slogan, “The people want the fall of the military regime”?

But just as we should not be surprised when the military begins to lose support, we should not be surprised when we learn of an accommodation between the interim government and younger Brotherhood leaders not yet in jail. Or perhaps we will see an alliance between disaffected revolutionary activists and new Brotherhood leaders.

Consider, before it became expedient to call the Muslim Brotherhood “terrorists,” many secular Egyptians scoffed at them for being self-interested businessmen, whose deal-making and financial interests outweighed their attention to Islamist principles.

The military has already made plenty of deals with its so-called “existential” enemy. Mursi could not have come to power without the consent of the military — duly rewarded in the 2012 constitution written by the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly. That constitution consolidated the military’s privileges and autonomy to an unprecedented degree, rendering it practically immune from civilian control.

Not surprisingly, amendments proposed last week by the interim government’s 10-member council not only preserve the constitutional articles codifying the military’s independence but also maintain the much-detested military trials of citizens.

Sisi is clearly well versed in the art of negotiation, adept at strategic ambiguity and ideological versatility. The simultaneous court hearings in the cases of both former President Hosni Mubarak, now released to house arrest, and detained Muslim Brotherhood leaders allowed Sisi to bask in the light of lofty impartiality.

Though he claims to be crushing the Brotherhood for the greater good, Sisi may have his own kind of Islamist agenda, according to a thesis he submitted as part of his studies at the U.S. Army War College in 2006.

Egyptian Armed Forces scholar Robert Springborg has found an anti-secularist vision in this thesis, and likens Sisi to an “Egyptian version of Muhammed Zia ul-Haq, the Pakistani general who seized power in 1977 and set about to ‘Islamicize’ state and society in Pakistan.”

With convictions so malleable, you wonder if there is anything of existential importance for the political elites of Egypt today. The death of thousands of Egyptians this month seemed negotiable when body counts were fought over for apparent political gain.

Even the cause of death is negotiable. According to news reports, authorities at Cairo’s main morgue would release protesters’ corpses to their families faster if they agreed to report suicide as the cause of death, contradicting hospital reports of bullet wounds or tear gas suffocation.

My friend’s advice served me well during my two years at the American University in Cairo. It allowed me not to overreact to the squabbles and power-grabs typical of any university. From my perspective, the students often bore the brunt of these maneuverings.

Though the parallel with today’s political landscape is inexact, I also see Egyptian citizens — the majority of whom live below the poverty line — bearing the brunt while their ruling elites find it easier to negotiate and power play than to govern by rule of law and democratic processes.

 

PHOTO (Top): Egypt’s interim President Adli Mansour (L) and then-Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei (R) talk during a meeting at the El-Thadiya presidential palace in Cairo, July 29, 2013. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

PHOTO (Insert 1): Younes Makhyoun (2nd R), head of the Salafist al-Nour Party, affirmed his party’s support of the military at a news conference with Presidential Media Adviser and spokesman Ahmed al-Muslimani (2nd L) at the party’s headquarters in Cairo, August 28, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer

PHOTO (Insert 2): Bishop-General Macarius (R), a Coptic Orthodox leader, walks around the burnt Evangelical Church in Minya governorate, south of Cairo, August 26, 2013. REUTERS/Louafi Larbi

PHOTO (Insert 3):  Supporters of Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi display a poster of Mursi during a protest in Cairo, August 23, 2013. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

PHOTO (Insert 4): Supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi argue with riot police and army personnel during clashes near Rabaa Adawiya square in Cairo August 14, 2013. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

 

6 comments

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Article is tenderizer and inducible the Egyptian army
And this is not the truth
Egyptian army saved from a dictatorial regime, repressive and March of terrorism against the Egyptians
Egyptian love army and trust him and you do not understand this

Posted by enghsael | Report as abusive

I share your cynicism. What yo do not take account of is – at the risk of stereotyping- the cultural, almost genetic makeup of Egyptians today.
After thousands of years of domination by foreign rulers; every level of Egyptian from leaders to peasants have had to become masters of obfuscation, mistrust, paranoia and denial.
It the modus vivendi of all Egyptians. That is how they deal with each other and with their master be it conquerors from the past or their present leadership.

Nothing is at is seems and everything is negotiable. Oppressed people do not have the luxury of principle and fixed values. “Whoever marries my mother I call him uncle.” Is a prevalent Egyptian saying.

Egyptians approach all events and propositions with the same cynicism and suspicion you display in your article.
That is why it is so difficult to reach lasting agreements and alliances. There is simply no trust. Second guessing is second nature.
There is no such thing as lasting relationships so long as individuals, parties and ven families approach approach agreements with this mentality.

That is precisely why, until in the future, Egyptians gradually learn to experience concepts of binding and rewarding democratic processes, they will continue to thrive only under some form of dictatorial rule.
Corruption, nepotism and self serving behaviour will continue as well. for they are an integral part of survivnig in such a society.
Overcoming this now natural tendency requires building society from the ground up. By youth and education and not by youth and revolution. All that does is, as now, politicize youth movements who end up being nothing more than their more wily elders.

Posted by pharoah | Report as abusive

“NOT Everything is Negotiable in Egypt”

I read with a lot of hurt and misgivings the blog/article titled “everything is negotiable in Egypt” Aug.30th by Stephanie Thomas, published in the Reuters blog section.
That someone who despises Egyptians so much would be allowed to deal with our sons and daughters does not say much about the AUC. Criticism is all very well but insinuating that most Egyptians are unprincipled is not.
The Egyptian people are the descendants of one of the oldest civilisations in the world. Over the centuries they welcomed many different nationalities to live in their midst and fought many invaders coveting their land. Through this process they ended up possessing a very complex culture that might be difficult to understand by newcomers. Due to our interaction with diverse cultures we learnt to be tolerant and accepting of differences, a fact that is hidden sometimes when the country is down but it is always a part of our personality. This is also a major factor that caused us to resent the Brotherhood’s discriminating ideology (we gave them the opportunity to run the country for a whole year to prove otherwise and they failed). We also abhor violence and bloodshed (which they have unfortunately dragged us into) and therefore will always “negotiate” to avoid it. This does not make us unprincipled or “uncivil” but people who value human life. The “old Egypt Hand” who advised you did you wrong as you could have spent your two years at the AUC appreciating the cultural difference and getting to know Egyptians with a more understanding mind-set instead of a prejudiced one.

It seems that a lot of Western Analysts consider the rules of civility and principles to be exclusive to the West. The whole world has to follow you to be civilised and democratic. This “the West is best and that’s how we judge the rest” attitude narrows their perspective and hence ability to judge other cultures with an unprejudiced and open mind. Right now Egypt is going through a hard time and we know we’re not perfect but though we might sometimes accept what some of the foreign reporters condescendingly say about us , we are still a proud and resilient nation that will overcome it’s problems. We might fail once or twice but we are determined to bring Egypt back to it’s glory.

I find myself obliged to repeat a fact that has been said many times but because what happened in Egypt never occurred throughout history, many analysts are not able or willing to fully comprehend it: 33 million men, women and children from all stations of life went into the streets to claim their liberty and dignity and to get rid of a fascist regime that was backed by the U.S government. They were NOT for sale and they DID NOT negotiate. They asked the army to protect them, which it did.
Politics is about compromises everywhere and not just in Egypt. After decades of oppression we might need some time to get used to democracy and to shape it to our needs and culture as have all other democratic countries done, but in all countries there are corrupt politicians, self-serving ones and good ones. So instead of mocking us, why don’t you try and write about ways of spreading democracy through financing terrorism or bombing other nations, maybe then you will have more respect for the Egyptians (“negotiators”) who keep their dealings, whether good or bad, inside their own frontiers.
The problem with your blog is that you take some truths and generalise them on all Egyptians, branding us all as unprincipled and uncivil. Lady you have overstepped the rules of a guest like we understand it by insulting all Egyptians ( I quote “established elite, generals, judiciary, Mubarak-era politicians…liberal groups…intellectuals…Baradai”). If this is not Hate Speech I don’t know what is.
Shame on you for disrespecting a nation simply because you do not understand it. I had a firm belief that racism was not accepted anymore in the States but if I was to generalise as you have done in this article then I would assume I was wrong.

Yoanna Wassef
(an Egyptian who doesn’t negotiate on her principles)

Posted by Y.W.W | Report as abusive

Please don’t discuss Egypt if you hate it this much. Your facts, conclusion, and tone are wrong. I still don’t know why you stayed on in Egypt if everything and everyone seemed to be so disgusting, easily swayed and bought, and flimsy. Who did you not find fault with? Again, who did you not find fault with?
!) For the umpteenth time, it wasn’t a military coup. And even if it was, it was with the complete satisfaction and agreement of Egyptians.
2) “And Cairo succumbs to its harsh measures,” is again erroneous. Egyptian are happy with all the decisions made, accepting curfew, and awaiting patiently for change.
3) It sounds as though you regret the fact that Egypt hasn’t gone into civil war, and you are very accepting of the fact that an “uncivil” one will take place. No, never will a civil war happen in Egypt, and Egypt now is on the right tract, much to your chagrin, of course.

Posted by sedky | Report as abusive

Well written article about the state of the Egypian circus that has become their society!

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

@ Pharaoh: Since you appointed yourself Pharaoh you should be prouder of your people and not hurry to agree with the first one who humiliates them. Calling yourself pharaoh gives the assumption you’re Egyptian so what makes you think that this writer isn’t including you in her description of the Egyptian people as being uncivil and unprincipled?
I will consider myself as your advisor and remind you of some things to be proud of or at least show some respect towards:
1- The thousands of youth who willingly gave their life in order to bring “bread, liberty and dignity” to the Egyptian people. Bear in mind that most of the 25th revolutionaries were of the educated and well-fed “ elite” she branded as unprincipled.
2- The young doctor, Harrara, who lost an eye in the demonstrations yet still went back and lost the other one to defend his people (perhaps he is more suited to be appointed Pharaoh)
3- The doctors who took the initiative, with their modest supplies, to create field hospitals to help demonstrators and many of them were hurt in the process.
4- The supreme court judge, Tahani el gibaly, who stood her ground against two regimes and therefore had a special clause put in the brotherhood’s constitution to oust her from the supreme court
5- The Ismaalia judge who had the courage to pursue a case against Morsi in spite of the threats on his life and his family
6- The dignified response of Sheikh al Azhar to the slander and insults of the Moslem Brotherhood and Urdugan
7- The courage and wise, peaceful, reaction of the Copts, under the guidance of Pope Tawadrios, when faced with the burning of their churches, schools, businesses and homes and attacks on their lives that prevented a civil war or foreign intervention.
8- The young officers and soldiers who gave their lives to defend you and I against terrorism.
9- The “cultured elite” of Egypt who stayed for a month in the streets to protest against the MB’s minister of Culture for wanting to banish art and culture from Egypt, including people who could barely walk but felt it was their duty to Egypt and they must fulfil it.

So mr. Pharaoh, if you still think that our motto is “whoever marries my mother, I call him uncle”, the problem does not lie with us.

Posted by Y.W.W | Report as abusive