Egypt’s headless revolution

The man who taught me to sacrifice my heart for Egypt is dead,” said Vivian Magdi, mourning her fiancé. Michael Mosad was killed in the Maspiro area on October 9, when an armoured vehicle hit him during a protest called to condemn an attack on an Egyptian Church in the southern Aswan region.

By Omar Ashour (PERSPECTIVE)

Published: Wed 23 Nov 2011, 9:13 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:54 AM

The protest left 24 dead and more than 200 injured – a higher toll than that taken by the so-called “Battle of the Camels,” when former President Hosni Mubarak’s security forces and armed thugs attacked pro-democracy protestors in Tahrir Square at the height of the revolution.

Now, Tahrir Square is once again the scene of clashes. “This is January 25 all over again!” screamed a friend, as he barricaded himself in the square. More than 20,000 Egyptians filled Tahrir Square on November 19, with at least 3,000 staying overnight. Intermittent clashes with Central Security Forces erupted throughout the day, just as they had on January 25. The latest wave of protests reflects increasing frustrations with the management of the country’s political transition by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). But the Tahrir clashes highlight another problem. Unlike Egypt’s revolts of 1882, 1919, and 1952, the revolution of 2011 is leaderless. That was a source of strength during the overthrow of Mubarak’s dictatorship; now it is a source of weakness. The unity of opposition is usually a critical factor in successful democratic transitions, as in Poland, Chile, and South Africa, for example. In Egypt, the political unity was maintained – just barely – during the struggle against Mubarak, but began to splinter once the SCAF took over. Ideological polarisation, leadership struggles, inflated egos, and inexperience in coalition management and negotiations caused serious rifts within the ranks of opposition politicians.

The lack of leadership characterises even the Islamists, arguably Egypt’s best-organised political force (amid a field of more than 70 parties and coalitions). Lately, an attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) to dominate the Democratic Coalition for Egypt (DCE) backfired. The DCE, formed to contest the coming parliamentary election, shrank from 34 parties to the FJP and a handful of tiny groups. Most of the other Islamist parties left.

In the midst of a leaderless revolution, with elections forthcoming, the SCAF finds itself caught in multiple paradoxes. Patterns observed in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere suggest that a military establishment that holds power in a transitional period will attempt to enhance its political influence. But that effort can range from the Algerian model (near-total control) to the Argentinean approach (limited influence).

In Egypt, the initial understanding was that the military establishment would demand constitutional and legal immunity from prosecution for its leaders; continuation of its off-budget, tax-free investments; and a veto on “high politics,” including national security and critical foreign policy issues. Almost all credible Egyptian politicians have been ready to grant the first demand and negotiate the second and third.

But the SCAF now seems to have realised that, in a leaderless situation, no civilian politician can grant immunity without becoming vulnerable to attack by rivals. Moreover, the SCAF has carefully weighed the politicians and dissected their relative weakness, limited capacity, notorious opportunism, and general inconsistency. As a result, there is a growing belief within the SCAF that its three “minimum” demands have become both unnecessary and insufficient. In the last two months, the SCAF’s behaviour towards civilian politicians, civil-society actors, and, more recently, the Coptic community, has clearly reflected the change in attitude: “You need immunity, guidance, and protection from us – not us from you.”

The political polarisation, sectarian incidents, weak economy, and absence of security have dimmed Egypt’s prospects for a successful democratic transition. But, surveying the younger generation, the gloom starts to dispel, at least a bit. Observers of Egyptian politics are stunned at the quantity and quality of youth initiatives, which range from lobbying for a successful democratic transition to providing a system for garbage collection and supporting the bread industry. The persistence of these initiatives over the past seven months, and their relative success in dealing with multiple crises, could turn gloomy expectations on their head. Indeed, I recently asked a group of young activists for their views about possible negative scenarios in the transition period. They answered with a long list. Then one of them smiled and said: “Oh, don’t worry about it. We will depress depression.”

Omar Ashour, a lecturer in Arab politics and Director of the Middle East Graduate Studies Program at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter (UK), is the author of ‘The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements’. © Project Syndicate

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