The vacuum on the Nile
Egypt now lives in a political and constitutional vacuum. The present military rulers have dissolved the sole national level representative assembly, the Shura Council, and rescinded the constitution. Both, to be sure, were self-interested creations of the Muslim Brotherhood administration. But nothing has been put in their place.
There is only the military and its choice as president, the constitutional lawyer Adly Mansour. Nothing else remains. But if further tragedy — perhaps, as Russian President Vladimir Putin forecast, a civil war — is to be averted, the vacuum must soon be filled.
Putin may be right. The killing of at least 51 supporters of the Brotherhood in incidents around a barracks of the presidential guard on Sunday raises the stakes, and the temperature. The military’s contempt for the Brotherhood, whose government they had sworn to serve, is now very evident, as is their assumption of a right to dispose of the country’s politics, and to enforce order by fear.
The will-he/won’t-he struggle over the appointment of Mohamed ElBaradei as prime minister illuminates one of the major underlying crises in a country of many overlapping crises. He is a figure acceptable to, indeed a hero of, liberals and secularists. But his long service abroad, largely for the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, which he headed for twelve years, inspires suspicion and even hatred among the Islamist parties.
The largest of these, the Salafist Nour party — which won 111 of the 498 parliamentary seats in the 2011 elections — says that if ElBaradei heads the new government, Nour will end any collaboration with the military in its transition. ElBaradei himself has said that Islamist participation is necessary for the transition.
Political Islam as a ruling force is relatively new in Arab lands. The Egyptian writer Tarek Osman argues that, “Over the past two years, the rise of political Islam across the whole of North Africa and its commanding presence in the Eastern Mediterranean … suggest that several Arab countries face the prospect of a gradual Islamization.” But so far it is also a political failure — and, Osman argues, likely to remain so.
This does not end the matter, however. The great Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami, in his book The Arab Predicament, argues that the power of the West, of an “ascendant civilizational model” forces other civilizations to look for means of resistance. Armed resistance, and terrorism, is an extreme. More common is a confused and confusing reaction, finely described by Ajami — “the attraction to lifestyles freer than their own draws people into the network of the world economy…then they experience a change of heart when their efforts to plug into the world fail, when their skills prove no match for the more polished skills of others.”
In Egypt this explains the huge nostalgia for a time, a millennium past, when the Nile delta was the “ascendant civilizational model” or, within the last century, when Cairo was gracious, cosmopolitan, and even quite rich. It also explains the people’s shifts between accommodation of the West and the hostility of the Islamists. The latter feeds off the resentment of many who see in Egypt’s liberals a moneyed elite, disdainful of their culture; and in the West a group of powerful countries who wish them ill.
The Brotherhood is defeated, imprisoned and reviled. In one sense, though, they are in a psychologically comfortable position: they are again victims. On Friday, the Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie, told a vast number of supporters that “we will sacrifice our souls for (Mursi)…we will sacrifice our lives for him.”
Beyond that, they retain the support of part of the Egyptian masses, but how large a part will now be tested. They have allies elsewhere — in the Gulf, in Gaza’s Hamas and more substantially in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used Mursi’s ousting to tsk-tsk the west’s acceptance of it.
The Brothers will be back: but in what form depends substantially on their opponents, many of whom remain on the streets in celebration. These opponents are not unified, and even within the National Salvation Front, their closest thing to unity, there is no clear leader and no agreed plan to tackle the post-coup Egyptian crises. In this group is much of the middle and upper classes, supported presently by many of the poor and students suffering most from price rises and shortages.
It’s an unstable coalition, and it won’t hold together long. Though it is the most predisposed to be open to other forces, it generally isn’t: its members are as distrustful of the Islamists as vice versa. And though they like the military now, they won’t soon, as it demands a continuation of its power and privileges.
Egypt is a country that contains closed societies within it, unwilling and unable to reach for compromise. A vast culture shift, away from the satisfactions of protest and victimhood, is needed. Out of this, the best — the very best — which Egypt can expect is a balance of fear among its major social-religious-political groupings which will allow them to develop a minimal cooperation, and an avoidance of deepening conflict with civil war looming.
PHOTO: Supporters of Egypt’s deposed president Mohamed Mursi gather around a car carrying the body of a fellow supporter killed by violence outside the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo July 8, 2013. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah