Opinion

John Lloyd

In Egypt, violence justified by a hope for democracy

John Lloyd and Abdalla F. Hassan
Aug 27, 2013 20:25 UTC

CAIRO — Alaa al-Aswany, one of Egypt’s most famous novelists, talks to visitors in a dental surgery room. Aswany, 56, was (and still is) a dentist by trade before, in middle age, rising to fame and controversy as a writer both of novels (The Yacoubian Building and Chicago) and opinion (long running columns in the independent and opposition press). He was dressed in a grey jacket and black shirt and, unusually for a dentist, smoked throughout the interview we conducted over the weekend.

Genial and expansive, he’s also angry — most of all at the Muslim Brotherhood, whose year-long government was, to his joy, cut short by the army last month. But he’s also fuming at the West, especially the U.S.: he thinks America has “no credibility left” in the Middle East’s most populous country because of its hypocrisy and naiveté.

What Aswany says matters. He’s a world literary figure, routinely listed among the world’s most influential Muslims. He had his own part in bringing down the regime of President Hosni Mubarak thanks to a confrontation on television between the writer and Ahmed Shafik, the prime minister Mubarak appointed. It was the first time Egyptians had seen a government figure chastened on live television, prompting Shafik’s resigned the next day. Shafik went on to become a presidential candidate but lost in runoff elections to Mursi. 

He rejoices in the end of the Brotherhood government, and refuses to condemn the army for the many deaths it caused when breaking up Brotherhood protests two weeks ago. That combination is a popular attitude among those who would call themselves liberals and secularists. This broad swathe of citizens now also believe that the ruthless squashing of the protests cleared the way for the real revolution, a democratic revolution, to come into its own. 

Long a critic of the Mubarak regime and of the short-lived Mursi presidency, he is now consulting with the new army-backed government on the shape of the future constitution and on the “road map” that, he believes, will lead Egypt to democracy. He dismisses the once-popular view that Egyptians were submissive with an impatient wave: “These were the ideological and political assumptions of the Mubarak regime. I never believed it. The Egyptian revolution swept all that away. Egypt is ready for democracy.” He confessed he felt “frustrated” that Mubarak was released from prison last week — but added, “It hardly matters now.” 

General Sisi: An enigma without a dogma

John Lloyd
Aug 19, 2013 15:59 UTC

CAIRO — The man who presently rules Egypt, General Abdel Fattah Said al-Sisi, is an enigma. He’s even more inscrutable because he is not — to misquote Churchill — an enigma wrapped in a dogma. He’s too slippery to be filed under any kind of label. Depending on where you sit, that’s either alarming or reassuring.

A devout Muslim, he deposed a devoutly Muslim president. The boss of a military that slaughtered some 1,000 Egyptians in the past few days, he gave a speech on Sunday in which he said there was “room for everyone” in Egypt. Having smashed the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government, he appeals in the same speech for its supporters to “help rebuild democracy.” He isn’t even officially the ruler of Egypt — he retains his old post as defense minister, and is “only” first deputy prime minister. But the president, Adly Mansour, is “acting,” and the prime minister, Hazem al-Beblawi, is “interim.” Sisi put them there, sustains them there and as head of the armed forces, he’s as close as you can get to permanence. He’s the government Egypt has. 

The short thesis he wrote while at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania in 2006, called “Democracy in the Middle East,” has been much commented on for its view that democracy can only be developed in the Middle East using a Muslim model. He makes clear, though, that it would be a “moderate” kind of Islamic government, requiring support from the West, with the mission both to sharply raise educational standards and to liberalize the economy. He thinks that properly elected governments, even of extremists, should be allowed to govern — a savage irony in light of his recent actions. In another ironic observation, he wrote that the media should be free to publish diverse points of view. Does he still hold to any of this?

The vacuum on the Nile

John Lloyd
Jul 8, 2013 17:22 UTC

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.

Egypt’s repeat search for democracy

John Lloyd
Jul 3, 2013 15:03 UTC

I’ve spent the past few days walking beside and watching the largely youthful demonstrators in Egypt, and I’ve been struck with admiration that’s quickly drowned in despair. I admire them for the way they’ve rejected the creeping authoritarianism of an incompetent Muslim Brotherhood government whose only accomplishment is inserting its members or sympathizers into every part of Egyptian life that it could.

But my despair is greater than my admiration. There is no good outcome to the Egyptian “second revolution,” as the opposition wishes it to be called. The army has taken control, and may — as it says it wishes — hold the ring only until a temporary constitution is agreed upon and another election called. The Muslim Brotherhood, whose government is led by President Mohamed Mursi, may, with reluctance, acquiesce in this — though  many of its member are furious over the coup, as they rightly call it. The opposition forces may abstain from ramming what they will see as a “victory” too hard down the Brothers’ throats. These “mays” are, as this is written, be unlikely when set against various degrees of escalating conflict. But they are possible.

Yet even if all of that were to move from the conditional to the actual, the outcome would still not be good. Hatred, or at least deep distrust, between the Brotherhood and the opposition groups has increased since the weekend, as deaths — often the outcome of attacks on the Brothers’ offices — mount. These feelings are now absolute.

From one tyrant to another

John Lloyd
Jun 28, 2013 20:59 UTC

CAIRO—This week marks the one year anniversary since an Egyptian government run by the Muslim Brotherhood and led by Mohamed Mursi was formed.

In that year, the economy has slumped, in part because tourism — a staple of a state that has little to export except an experience of its storied past and fabulous monuments — has all but disappeared. Disconsolate restaurateurs lean on their doorposts, beckoning a foreigner in to empty tables.

Enormous lines that are five or six hours long pile up at gas stations; two power outages, hours long, yesterday afflicted the Cairo suburb where I am presently staying with a friend. Prices are rising even though nearly half of the population is trying to live on two dollars or less a day. The patchwork of groups and forces opposed to President Mursi are assuring everyone that the dire state of the economy, and the lack of a program to address it, are what have solidified ordinary people behind their call for new elections now, three years ahead of the end of Mursi’s term of office.

Getting away from the ‘Arab Street’

John Lloyd
Nov 19, 2012 22:14 UTC

The Tunisian Foreign Minister, Rafik Abdesslem, visited Gaza last week to give a speech. Abdesslem, who spent many years in exile studying international relations at the University of Westminster in London, is an intellectual with little adult experience of the rougher side of the Middle East.

His speech condemned Israel, of course, while not mentioning that the Gazans had launched many rockets over the past few days – a few of them, for the first time, hitting the major centers of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. As foreign policy intellectuals do, he sought to put events into a geopolitical framework. He pointed to what he believes is the underlying truth of the time: “Israel should understand,” he said, “that many things have changed and that lots of water has run in the Arab river.”

In the two pioneer countries of the Arab Spring, Islamists have been elected as the major political force, and provide the government. As Rami G. Khouri pointed out in his column in Lebanon’s Daily Star, these new governments “more accurately reflect the sentiments of their citizens vis-à-vis the Palestine issue… which will increase the political pressure on Israel.” Egypt’s President Mohamed Mursi and Tunisia’s President Moncef Marzouki are Islamists, with (especially in the first case) a well-documented detestation of the Jewish state. They are constrained to be cautious, but their decision to send high-level emissaries to Gaza – more are scheduled to go – gives the Hamas government there both a shield and an encouragement. Were an Egyptian killed in a bombing raid, the resulting outrage could mean, writes Eric Trager in The Atlantic, a breaking of Egyptian diplomatic relations with Israel, even a renunciation of the peace treaty. The “Arab Street” would be roused.

Next president will face a darker world

John Lloyd
Nov 6, 2012 16:54 UTC

Radicals of left and right like to say that the American election is an affair of sound and fury, signifying nothing. One guy in a suit replaces another guy in a suit, the two mostly agree on the basics: the economy, capitalist; foreign policy, hegemonic.

To be sure, American elections remain battlegrounds: a resurgent right has, in the past two decades, drawn sharper lines on a culture war that puts sexuality and its effects at the center of a national debate. Homosexuality, abortion and reproductive rights are divisive issues. But radicals believe that overall, little changes: An elite governs, and largely governs the same way regardless of party.

Yet both capitalism and hegemony have served the U.S., and much of the world, better than any other obviously available option. In the last few years, democratic practice has certainly seen a number of setbacks: The victory of the conservative group Citizens United in having the Supreme Court overturn the provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 – which had prohibited corporations and unions paying for political propaganda independently of the candidates’ campaigns – is only the latest obvious example. But U.S. civil society remains among the liveliest, most rambunctious and exemplary in the world, a large part of the reason why the U.S. is still the destination of choice of those yearning to breathe a little freer (and earn at least a little more).

Multiculturalism: A blasphemy or a blessing?

John Lloyd
Jan 31, 2012 14:42 UTC

Multiculturalism is a Western ideal, amounting to a secular faith. Every Western government at least mouths its mantras – that a mix of peoples in one nation is a social good, that it enriches what had been a tediously monolithic culture, that it improves (especially for the Anglo-Saxons) our cuisine, our dress sense and our love lives. Besides, we need these immigrants: In Europe at least, where demographic decline is still the order of the day in most states, where else will the labor come from? Who else replenishes the state pension fund? Even where leaders criticize multiculturalism’s tendency to shield communities from justified criticism – Angela Merkel of Germany and David Cameron of the UK have both spoken out on this – they touch only on its more obvious failings. As a process, they agree it is welcome.

Forgotten, or at least suppressed, in this narrative is religion and the animating force it still gives to many groups. Animating – and also divisive. To believe deeply in a religion had been, in the West as well as elsewhere, to believe deeply in the error of those not of the same faith, and to shun them. It has been one of the remarkable transformations of the past century that in the West, those of religious faith, or none, should accommodate the faiths of others. Indeed, they should even honor them. Those societies where that did not happen — say, until very recently, Ireland — the culture was seen as aberrant.

The reverse is true in many strongly Islamic societies. And that’s causing a problem for the Christians still living in them.

Winter descends on the Arab spring

John Lloyd
Oct 28, 2011 16:14 UTC

As we are still touched with the euphoria of the Arab Spring, the Arab winter has crept up all but unnoticed, beyond the forecasts of experts and the calculations of governments. It was only this month, after all, when Libya’s civil strife was cut off by the death in a ditch of Muammar Gaddafi: however regrettable the nature of his end, it removes the main focus of a future fight back. It was only this month, after all, when Tunisia held fair and free and peaceful elections, in which a moderate Islamist party came first. It will, after all, be next month when the three rounds of voting for the Egyptian parliamentary elections begin. Why talk of a failure?

Because if there was a revolution in spring – in fact, a series of quite distinct revolts, animated by something of a common spirit – there is now a counterrevolution. Or rather, once more, a series of distinct efforts to push back, or at least control and turn to group advantage, the gains made by the demonstrators. Power is not won simply by revolt: it is won, and secured, by those interested in the exercise of power, prepared to grasp and hold it.

In Egypt, which provided to the international gaze the most stirring movement and the least ambiguous, largely peaceful, victory in the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, power is still grasped by the organization which has been the deep structure of power for more than half a century: the military. Both its will to rule and its desire to retain privilege appear to be as high as ever: and there are signs that both the Muslim Brotherhood – the only well organized political force – and the regional chiefs are coming to quiet understandings with the military leadership on how the country is to be governed.

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