BASSEM SABRY, Egyptian testimonies
I was in Tahrir when they announced Mubarak was ousted. I was in Tahrir when they announced Morsi had won. And I was also in Tahrir as they announced Morsi was ousted. Each time was a remarkably different experience for me, only united by roaring crowds, waving flags, fireworks, hugs from strangers and a big sense of relief. This time, the cheers were even more deafening. They were not just in Tahrir, but in other squares around Cairo and the country, all packed without any real organizational power behind them. The floods of people in the streets around Cairo appeared to me bigger than before, people seemed to genuinely believe they “took back their country,” and that the military was a hero doing all the right things. But perhaps what characterized this time in Tahrir for me was my sense of worry, deeper than ever before.
I believe that Mohammed Morsi had won his election, despite the more hardcore of the anti-Morsi camp’s claims of fraud and voter intimidation by the Muslim Brotherhood, and that the Brotherhood had secretly threatened violence if they lost (likely, this narrative will be intentionally magnified now to make the new order even more acceptable). I believe in democracy and I have always argued in favor of the democratic process taking its course in Egypt, and always argued against any political exclusion. I consistently called for national reconciliation and compromise as the most sustainable way forward. Having said all of that, I cannot shake my conviction that Morsi, and the Brotherhood, had it coming. It was inevitable that an explosion was coming.
The president, the Brotherhood and its allies, continuously tried to assume an unfairly tight grip over the constitution-drafting process. They also broke promises to ensure a constitution that garnered sufficient national consensus. Instead, and under the cover of the November constitutional declaration, Morsi and the Brotherhood rushed a referendum on a disappointing and dangerous draft without real proper national debate (in a country with substantial illiteracy and areas with little access to anything but state media, which was also under Brotherhood influence), against the walkout of all opposition members, the church, civil and human rights organizations and others.
The constitution, which was supposed to be the crowning achievement of Egypt’s transition, became one of its most divisive elements and deepest causes for national conflict. The opposition holds that its claims over voting violations never got any real consideration. The Brotherhood later acknowledged some of the holes in the constitution, but the road for its rectification remained a thorny issue.
In another breach of revolutionary consensus, Morsi and the Brotherood tightened control over state media and retained the nationally rejected role of information minister, already abolished briefly after the toppling of Hosni Mubarak. State-owned papers and channels were subjected to appointments of allied or controllable leaderships. The media often ran familiar propaganda-esque headlines that seemed taken out of the Mubarak days. Furthermore, state press and television did not provide neutral and balanced coverage of events, and state TV was almost always forced to host a Brotherhood guest on every talk show, or at the very least not host an opposition figure on his own.
Reports of guest blacklists also began to surface once more. Charges of “insulting the president” and “contempt of religion” began to pile up against media figures, often made by Brotherhood allies rather than directly by the Brotherhood (though the presidency did press some charges before retracting them under local and international pressure). Morsi and the Brotherhood seemed to care very little about fixing the problematic legislative framework for media, and gradually appeared to find it handy, especially with a prosecutor-general that was under full control.
The Brotherhood was also widely seen to be working on the “Brotherhoodization” of the state, even to the outcry of its former Islamist allies such as the Salafist Al-Nour party. Increasingly, the Brotherhood and Morsi began appointing loyalist figures in key state positions. While the appointments of political allies and fellow party members to key positions is a part of democracy, the Brotherhood’s actions were widely seen as an attempt to solidify their grip on the state in a manner that threatened any modicum of neutrality by the state institutions, especially while the national mood was still strongly in favor of greater unity. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood continuously defied unanimous demands to subject itself as an organization to full government or public oversight of its activities and resources.
There was also the question of Morsi and the Brotherhood’s loss of credibility, a strong factor given the banner of the Islamic-based project. The Brotherhood and the president had repeatedly reneged on several key promises and claims. For example, there stunningly turned out to be no “Renaissance Project,” a campaign centerpiece allegedly many years in the making. The project promised a full plan with defined resources to help Egypt grow and prosper. The Brotherhood had promised to run for no more than 30% of parliament, then ran for all seats. They promised not to run for president, and fielded two candidates. While there were public calls for dialogue, behind the scenes the Brotherhood directly rebuffed many of the opposition’s core demands as virtually non-negotiable, according to opposition sources.
By the time June 30 neared, Morsi had alienated and antagonized everyone but his most radical allies.
He had earned the strong disapproval of the leaderships of Al-Azhar and the church, the country’s Christians, the largest Salafist (and overall second) political party, civil society, most of the military and the police (pre-existing biases put into consideration), the judiciary, the opposition, the media, his former revolutionary and election partners, much of the business community, and clearly a large majority of the Egyptian population.
I profoundly wish Morsi had just either accepted real reconciliation earlier or had just called early elections given the massive public pressure that built from June 30 onward, even while recognizing a large base demonstrated in support of him. I repeatedly argued that reconciliation was key, beginning with a wiser and a more tactful opposition (whose disorganization, strategy and polarizing tactics were undeniably a genuine part of the problems in Egypt) and a less arrogant Brotherhood.
Egyptian democracy, the stability of the country and the peaceful coexistence of its groups are right now in a deeply worrying place. With the former president and his staff’s liberty under control, the recent moves to arrest Brotherhood leaders and allies, and the immediate blackout of allied religious channels, there is reason to be deeply concerned, and many are worried of a witch hunt against Islamists. What is also troubling is that the return of a police state in this current scenario is a very likely possibility, and potentially with the large blessing of a public that is now worried of Islamist violence and is in desperate need for stability.
As the reign of the military from 2011 to 2012 had demonstrated, the military is not exactly a paragon of freedom. An analyst, tweeting yesterday, rightly argued that the local feeling of mandate for a crackdown on Islamists now was possibly much bigger than anything that might have existed under Mubarak in recent times. But Egypt will never find stability, and its democracy will never thrive, without inclusiveness, fairness, due process and separation of powers. The Brotherhood and its big base cannot be excluded or treated outside of due process. Repression, especially of a genuinely sizable, believing and passionate public group, will only lead to an explosion.
This was a popular and genuine uprising against Morsi. These were undeniably the largest ever and the most self-driven protests in Egypt’s history. Nonetheless, the role of the military and its actions surely give us cause for concern, and what became of the first civilian and democratically elected president is troubling.
I wish all of this was different, and it would have been better for Egypt. The current transition has to move wisely, but quickly. Inclusion and civil cohesion must become the cornerstone of this process. Right now, I am of greater worry than I was in February 2011.
Still, there is something utterly inspiring in seeing people rise up once more and show that they will not be taken for granted or intimidated. Of course, one has to wait and keep a vigilant eye before any final conclusions can be made about where Egypt is going.
Let us hope Egyptians never have to rise up a third time.
*Excerpts from an article which was originally published on 4 July on Al-Monitor, The Pulse of the Middle East. Republished with author’s approval; emphasis added.