Everything is negotiable in Egypt
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.
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