With all the attention focused on Libya, let’s not forget about that other revolution we so happily cheered on: Egypt. Because what happens after the departure of Mubarak might be more important than his departure itself.
How are things going in Egypt? Has the state of emergency already been lifted? Are constitutional reforms underway? Are political prisoners released? Does the opposition play a role? How’s the army Supreme Council communicating with the people?
The answer to those first four questions today: no, or not really, or unsure. Adam Shatz in the London Review of Books (which I recommend to read entirely!):
The fate of Egypt’s revolution – brought to a pause by the military’s seizure of power on 11 February, after Mubarak’s non-resignation address to his ‘children’ – remains uncertain. Mubarak is gone, but the streets have been mostly cleared of protesters and the army has filled the vacuum: chastened, yet still in power and with considerable resources at its disposal. Until elections are held in six months, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will be ruling by decree, without the façade of parliamentary government. The parliament, voted into office in rigged elections, has been dissolved, a move that won wide support, and a new constitution is being drafted, but it’s not clear how much of a hand the opposition will have in shaping it. More ominously, the Supreme Council has vowed to punish anyone it can accuse of spreading ‘chaos and disorder’. The blunt rhetoric of its communiqués may be refreshing after the speeches of Mubarak, his son Gamal and the industrialists who dominated the ruling National Democratic Party, with their formulaic promises of reform and their talk of the nobility of the Egyptian people but ten days ago in Tahrir Square the protesters said – maybe even believed – that the army and the people stood together. Today the council’s communiqués are instructions, not proposals to be debated, and it has notably failed to answer the protesters’ two most urgent demands: the repeal of the Emergency Law and the release of thousands of political prisoners.
So far, most Egyptians have been willing to give the Supreme Council the benefit of the doubt. As in any revolutionary situation, the desire for order and security is nearly as strong as the desire for change, and, after 18 days of protests, the army has provided both – with a decided emphasis on the former.
Egypt’s military rulers swore in a Cabinet with 11 new ministers yesterday, a nod to the protest movement that ousted longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.
However, three former members of the Mubarak regime retained senior posts.
The move comes as the military leadership overseeing the country’s transition is trying to assure Egyptians that it is committed to democratic reforms.
However, the decision to keep Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, and Justice Minister Mamdouh Marie — three former Mubarak loyalists — in their posts drew criticism from youth activists who helped launch the uprising on Jan. 25.
And, the Muslim Brotherhood has invited back to the country one Sheik Yusuf Al-Qaradawi: a 84-year old popular (television) preacher who is not known for his fondness of the West, Israel, or Jews. While the truth of the assertion, done by some, that this guy is Egypt’s Ayatollah Khomeini is very questionable, Al-Qaradawi does seem to have spoken to a crowd of 1 million in Tahrir Square. This seemed to have overshadowed or blocked a performance by Google executive Wael Ghonim, who became the young face of the revolution during the uprising.
One of the western media’s favorite Egyptian rebels is Google executive Wael Ghonim. No surprise there: if you had to choose among radical clerics like al-Qaradawi, hooligans like those who assaulted Lara Logan, and a suave, Westernized Google exec, whom would you want to interview? Ghonim was present on Friday and intended to address the crowd, but he was barred from the platform by al-Qaradawi’s security. He left the stage in distress, “his face hidden by an Egyptian flag.”
Yusuf Qaradawi, the 84-year-old preacher whose roots are in the old Muslim Brotherhood before the latter turned to parliamentary politics, is nevertheless no Ayatollah Khomeini. Qaradawi addressed thousands in Tahrir Square in Cairo on Friday. Qaradawi called for Muslims to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda alongside US troops in 2001. On Friday he praised the Coptic Christian role in the Egyptian revolution and said that the age of sectarianism is dead. Qaradawi is a reactionary on many issues, but he is not a radical and there is no reason to think that either the Youth or Workers’ Movements that chased Hosni Mubarak out of the country is interested in having Qaradawi tell them what to do.
And here’s a video of Sheik Al-Qaradawi making some very nasty comments about Adolf Hitler and the Jews, accompanied by commentary from a reader of Andrew Sullivan.
If the recent proclamations from the Muslim Brotherhood about “freedom for all,” “true democracy” and “human rights” aren’t just the convenient talking points of the moment (for political expediency), but represent a genuine commitment to reform, then why would they invite Mr. Qaradawi to return from 30 years in exile and preside over that truly historic event on Friday? Are there no other more “moderate” preachers they could find in all of Egypt?
So, all the more reason to remain ever so vigilant about what happens in Egypt post-Mubarak!
One of the better analyses I have read of the Egyptian Revolution thus far can be found in the New Statesman. In the European and American media, there’s been an awful lot of concern about the role of islamists in and after the uprising. Earlier on, we’ve pointed to differing interpretations of the Muslim Brotherhood as either a democracy-minded middle class institution, or as a fundamentalist conservative organization (the truth is probably that they have different wings). On the American right, in particular, ‘Iran’ has been frequently invoked to actually denounce protesters, and voice support for the Mubarak regime.
Olivier Roy in the New Statesman, however, paints a picture of a young generation that is not so affected with the political islamism of their fathers. Even though they might shout ‘Allah akbar’, what they want is basic democratic rights and liberties (and work). They’re pluralistic, individualistic, and connected through social media. A particularly interesting analysis, I find, is that, true, Middle Eastern countries have in past decades experienced a process of islamization, but this has effectively pulled the angle out of islamist political movements. Islam has been de-politicized. This puts a different perspective on organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as on the sympathy among the young for fundamentalist dictatorships like Iran’s (which is non-existent).
Thus, the bipolar divide that is often drawn in Western media between the old secular regimes and chaos or islamism (only to be curbed by the military, or an Atatürk-like despot) may be incorrect, and the reason may be the young. I don’t know to which extent this is wishful thinking, but either way: read this article! In addition to giving this persuasive view of the young, it’s also amazing in its breadth and depth of analysis of Middle Eastern society at large.
In Europe, the popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East have been interpreted using a model that is more than 30 years old: the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. Commentators have been expecting to see Islamist groups – the Muslim Brotherhood and their local equivalents – either at the head of the movement or lying in wait, ready to seize power. But the discretion of the Muslim Brotherhood has surprised and disconcerted them: where have the Islamists gone?
Look at those involved in the uprisings, and it is clear that we are dealing with a post-Islamist generation. For them, the great revolutionary movements of the 1970s and 1980s are ancient history, their parents’ affair. The members of this young generation aren’t interested in ideology: their slogans are pragmatic and concrete – “Erhal!” or “Go now!”. Unlike their predecessors in Algeria in the 1980s, they make no appeal to Islam; rather, they are rejecting corrupt dictatorships and calling for democracy. This is not to say that the demonstrators are secular; but they are operating in a secular political space, and they do not see in Islam an ideology capable of creating a better world.
This generation is pluralist, undoubtedly because it is also individualist. Sociological studies show that it is better educated than previous generations, better informed, often with access to modern means of communication that allow individuals to connect with one another without the mediation of political parties – which in any case are banned. These young people know that Islamist regimes have become dictatorships; neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia holds any fascination for them. Indeed, those who have been demonstrating in Egypt are the same kinds of people as those who poured on to the streets to oppose Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. (For propaganda reasons, the regime in Tehran has declared its support for the opposition movement in Egypt, though this is little more than a settling of scores with Hosni Mubarak.) Many of them are religious believers, but they keep their faith separate from their political demands. In this sense, the movement is “secular”. Religious observance has been individualised.
It is a mistake, therefore, to link the re-Islamisation that has taken place in the Arab world over the past 30 years with political radicalism. If Arab societies are more visibly Islamic than they were 30 or 40 years ago, what explains the absence of Islamic slogans from the current demonstrations? The paradox of Islamisation is that it has largely depoliticised Islam. Social and cultural re-Islamisation – the wearing of the hijab and niqab, an increase in the number of mosques, the proliferation of preachers and Muslim television channels – has happened without the intervention of militant Islamists and has in fact opened up a “religious market”, over which no one enjoys a monopoly. In short, the Islamists have lost the stranglehold on religious expression in the public sphere that they enjoyed in the 1980s.
What has been perceived in the west as a great, green wave of re-Islamisation is in fact nothing but a trivialisation of Islam: everything has become Islamic, from fast food to women’s fashion. The forms and structures of piety, however, have become individualised, so now one constructs one’s own faith, seeking out the preacher who speaks of self-realisation, such as the Egyptian Amr Khaled, and abandoning all interest in the utopia of an Islamic state.
[The Islamist political movements] have also learned lessons from Turkey, where Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AK party have succeeded in reconciling democracy, electoral success, economic development and national independence with the promotion of values that are, if not Islamic, at least “authentic”.
However, the embourgeoisement of the Islamists is at the same time an asset for democracy, because it pushes them towards reconciliation and compromise, and into alliances with other political forces. It is no longer a question, therefore, of attempting to establish whether or not dictatorships are the most effective bulwark against Islamism; Islamists have become players in the democratic game. Naturally, they will try to exert control over public morality, but, lacking the kind of repressive apparatus that exists in Iran, or a religious police on the Saudi model, they will have to reckon with a demand for liberty that doesn’t stop with the right to elect a parliament.
So. This is world history. The Egyptian Revolution is, in my view, now on par with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, or the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Ever since decolonization, the Middle East has been ruled by a series of secular autocratic regimes. These have been varying in levels of despotism and violence, but Egypt’s – the most populous and culturally the most influential Middle Eastern country - has not been the softest. Let’s not forget, moreover, that these regimes have been pillars of Western and especially US policy for decades. This is what fueled the islamist Iranian Revolution, and now the democratic Egyptian Revolution. For the first time (well, actually not, Tunisia was first), an Arab people stands up and en masse removes a dictator. That is news on a dizzying magnitude, and utterly unthinkable just two weeks ago.
While a jubilant mood on Tahrir Square and the streets of Cairo and Alexandria because of the removal of a dictator by masses of peaceful protesters, led by the young, is now in order, let’s not forget that this is not over. This is essentially a military coup. The army leadership - led by the torturer and chief of intelligence Omar Suleiman – is now in full control of the country, and one might wonder how eager they are to quickly relinguish that power. The military has huge political and economic interests in Egypt. So as Mark noted yesterday, a vigilant eye must be kept on the process of constitutional reform. The state of emergency must be lifted, a real dialogue with the opposition (liberal as well as islamist) must be opened, and open and fair democratic elections are in order.
A historian’s note though. Mubarak’s thirty-year regime has effected an almost total eradication of anything resembling a civil society in Egypt. The middle and lower classes (constituting the vast bulk of Egypt’s population) have no organizations representing them; no labor unions, no interest associations, no political parties, almost nothing. There is only the Muslim Brotherhood – a very dedicated, highly organized minority. And Facebook. In my view, a democracy cannot properly function without a vibrant and stable civil society; unorganized people are prone to manipulation by populists, and may even slid into violence caused by old rifts (witness Iraq). So, I’m very concerned about how a post-Mubarak Egypt will develop. Democratization is more than just quick elections (we can also see that in Iraq). What is needed are organizing principles within Egyptian society. But that takes time.
A glimmer of hope though: the organizing of these protests, albeit informal, has shown signs of being highly coordinated and effective. Maybe from this, like in East Germany post-1989, something can grow…
So, while this is huge and fantastic – we’re not there yet!