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My Conversation with the Devil: 30 June and Beyond (Part Two)

[Puppets of Mohamed Morsi and Adly Mansour. The Arabic reads: [Puppets of Mohamed Morsi and Adly Mansour. The Arabic reads:"legitimacy". Image originally posted to Flickr by khalid Albaih]

My previous article elaborately analyzed the crisis of the new/old regime in Egypt, now headed by the Muslim Brotherhood, and concluded that it is currently comprised of a fragile and tense coalition of authoritarian actors, a coalition that is being increasingly jeopardized by economic, social and political grievances, putting it in confrontation with the same social forces that had challenged the Mubarak regime in its last years and eventually brought its end. The real crisis facing the Muslim Brotherhood is due to the organization's failure to impose hegemony on the state apparatus and the domain of politics in Egypt. Its authoritarian dreams massively exceed its actual capacities, given the scarcity of resources available to its power brokers and the ambiguity of the coalition they are leading and in whose favor they are trying to rearrange the Mubarak political order. With the exception of a few social forces that have managed to maintain their interests as they were, Mubarak's political system is being reproduced by the Muslim Brotherhood with only one difference: that is the transformation of the Brotherhood into the political class leading the system and bestowing legitimacy upon it, in place of the former National Democratic Party.

After a year of Morsi's presidency, it seems to many in the recently politicized sections of Egyptian society that a ghostly portrait of Mubarak has been ruling the country, only with less competence and efficiency than Mubarak himself, and that an enclosed sect, the Muslim Brothers, is incapable of forging a wide political class through which to govern the country. A dire economic situation susceptible to deterioration has been the result of such incapability, and with no prospect of a solution looming in the horizon.

Such atmosphere has set the stage for revitalizing and rebuilding the protest movement that overthrew Mubarak, this time against the Brotherhood and its recently elected president. The creative method deployed to communicate with and mobilize large numbers of people, particularly in the cities and the north, was to collect the signatures of citizens on a petition to withdraw confidence from Morsi, and call for early elections. Despite exaggerated claims made by the Tamarod (“Rebel”) Movement about the numbers of collected signatures, it is certain that a few million have indeed signed the petition against Morsi, and that the movement is witnessing dense and significant presence in cities located in the north, including Cairo, Alexandria, Tanta, Mahalla and Zaqaziq, the same cities that were at the heart of the protests ousting Mubarak in early 2011. Tamarod's mobilizing efforts have also been aided by the rising frequency in electricity cuts and fuel shortages, which affect the daily lives of all Egyptians, and are due to the exacerbating economic situation, a situation that is, in turn, further fueling various forms of social protest, including labor strikes and sit-ins.

Three main factors seem to put the Muslim Brotherhood in an extremely precarious and bad position. First, the failure of the Brotherhood regime in providing anything new to tackle Egyptians' grievances, coupled with the rise in popular expectations after the uprising and the presidential elections that later followed. Instead, the Brotherhood's discourse has focused on procedural democracy, and on the fact that Morsi came to power through elections. Second, the Brotherhood's attempts at threatening opponents come at a time when it does not have full control of the police apparatus or official institutions of coercion. The military and the intelligence are mostly positioning themselves neutrally, while the police are severely divided over their allegiance to the regime, particularly given the backdrop of continuing terrorist activities in Sinai, and the suspicious relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood on one hand and Hamas and Jihadist organizations on the other. Recognizing this lack of full control, many Brotherhood officials have alluded to violent civil conflict to intimidate dissenting protestors, and they have approached former Jihadists and retired terrorists as allies. Though this last move does not seem serious on the part of the Brotherhood, it certainly undermines support for Morsi and even increases his isolation, as he becomes associated in the eyes of many with terrorist organizations that are extremely unpopular inside and outside of Egypt. Third, the Brotherhood's inability to compromise with or absorb opponents has proven to be a present and renewable element in tensions that only the regime ends up paying for, by having the economy further deteriorate, thus intensifying the discontent of citizens with regime's general course of policy.

This article attempts to present potential scenarios that might be followed in the wake of the 30 June demonstrations, in the case of a likely massive turnout, and given that Tamarod's main bet has been on the participation of unpoliticized sections, those who decisively shifted the balance on 28 January 2011 with their participation in the uprising. If the June protests are confined to the already politicized groups, their impact is going to be minimal and will probably not succeed in redrawing the trajectory of transition in Egypt. Moreover, the goal of Tamarod and those calling for protest is to maximize crisis, so as to make the Brotherhood's continuation in government under the presidency of Morsi, an impossible situation. Realizing this goal, however, will doubtless be contingent upon the response of the Brotherhood regime, as well as the responses of other key parties in the governing authoritarian coalition, particularly the military and the United States behind it, which has all along been sponsoring this failed transitional course to democracy in post-Mubarak Egypt. 

Protest Alone is Not Enough

The trajectory of political transition after the ousting of Mubarak can be judged as failed, since the procedures of formal transition—the approval of a new constitution, the election a new president and the establishment of a parliamentary legislative authority--have all been insufficient to stabilize the political and social liquidity that started many years before the January uprising and led to the fall of Mubarak. This liquidity persists and eludes even elected institutions that presumably have more legitimacy than Mubarak's despotic regime. Their legitimacy however, remains ferociously contested, which is what fuels protest movements like Tamarod and the 30 June demonstrations. However, protest alone, as a form of political action, will not be enough this time, as the Egyptian public has lost its revolutionary faith. Indeed, the continuation of this liquidity in the political domain might push the larger section of the public to accept oppressive measures that might restore a degree of order for people to go about their everyday activities. In fact, were it not for the Brotherhood government's complete failure in restoring order, the public outrage against it would probably not have been so intense. The larger part of the Egyptian public does not religiously adhere to democratic procedures, as much as it does a logic of the legitimacy of achievement, which judges the new rulers on the basis of their performance. This legitimacy, Morsi has not been able to garner after a year in the presidential palace. Despite all this, however, protesting by itself, regardless of how large the protests turnout to be, will not force Morsi to resign, and hence pave the way for restarting the transitional process.

Given that popular protests were massive on 30 June, flooding the streets of major cities all across the country, and taking place under a neutral gaze of the police and military forces, and considering that tensions might escalate in the direction of an already evidenced civil violence, or into civil disobedience and a general strike making the continuation of the status quo an impossibility, what would be a potential way out of such crisis? Many proposals can be put forward, all of which will probably start and end with the prospects for severing the alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, since it is the weakest and most fragile joint in the body of the ruling coalition. In addition, the army seems to be the only power that can be negotiated with about redirecting a failed transitional course, especially given that the opposition is bitterly fragmented and certainly incapable of providing any sort of leadership at this critical juncture. The most such nascent protest movement can mount would be to end the first transitional path, in order to embark on a new one, and hence rearrange the political order.    

Corrective Coup D'etat: 1960 Turkey as a Model

The political scene in Egypt today is reminiscent of that in 1960 Turkey, during the reign of Adnan Menderes. Menderes was an elected prime minister and the head of the Democratic Party, which was a large conservative coalition that repeatedly garnered an absolute majority of votes in Turkish elections between 1950 and 1960. Support for the party came mostly from the provinces in the middle and the eastern Anatolia region, while the big cities in the west of Turkey remained strongholds of the Kemalist Republican People's Party. Since the voting system was based on majoritarian rather than proportional representation, the Democratic Party's victories with fifty percent of the votes enabled it to rule with an uninterrupted majority throughout the 1950s. It relied on laissez-faire policies to build electoral and social alliances and maintain its ascendancy, until the Turkish economy started suffering from difficulties in the balance of trade and of payments, as well as in the availability of hard currency. These are chronic difficulties in the economies of many developing countries, which were felt more intensely in the 1950s, due to scarcity of resources and weaker connections with the global economy in those times. Menderes with his foreign and finance ministers had to resort to borrowing from the outside world in order to keep their economic policies unchanged, and hence maintain their alliances. However, with the exacerbation of economic hardships, political problems started erupting, and the Menderes' government dealt with them in an increasingly repressive and restrictive manner, considering its majoritarian legitimacy. Eventually, with the failure of the government to absorb the impact of economic crisis on one hand, and the eruption of political tensions on the other, the political situation in Turkey reached impasse.

The result was a military coup lead by mid-ranking officers that overthrew Menderes in 1960. The ousted president was also to be tried and sentenced to death along with his finance minister in an unprecedented case that would never be repeated in Turkey's modern history. The intervention of the Turkish army was an attempt by state military elites to end the paralysis of the political system resulting from its inability to tackle and redress accumulating economic and political problems. The coup was intended to play a corrective role, rather than establish a long-term military regime, which was considered an impossibility at the time. This can be attributed to the position of Turkey in the Cold War frame, whereby it had to retain a democratic regime--that is, in the procedural sense--so as to remain an integrated member of NATO in the face of the Soviet Union. The corrective role that the Turkish army took upon itself continued for two years of direct military rule, during which a new constitution was rafted and adopted in 1961, a document that was considered to be Turkey's most liberal constitution in modern history, as it enshrined freedoms to form political parties, unions and associations with relatively few restrictions. In 1963, the first elections based on a proportional representation system were held in Turkey, putting an end to majoritarian legitimacy in order to avert future crises like that which had brought about the military coup. The Democratic Party's heir, the Justice Party, won the elections under the leadership of Adnan Menderes' disciple, Suleyman Demirel, who was later to become Turkey's prime minister in 1994. The new heir, the Justice Party, formed the government with a social alliance very similar to its precedent, only with less representative percentage in parliament.

The 1960 coup was a model of corrective coups, which started and ended with a corrective intention—that is, with the goal of temporarily restructuring the political and economic systems, then handing back political power to elected civilian elites. Unlike the Turkish corrective coup however, the July 1952 military coup in Egypt started with a declared corrective goal, which was to end the despotic monarchic rule and establish a new democratic order, but instead it ended with a perpetuated military rule and a security regime that persisted directly and indirectly for sixty long years, that are the lifetime of what is known in Egypt as the July state. The 1960 coup in Turkey was aimed at the resolving the paralyzing impasse, which faced the democratic civilian system and resulted from its inability to contain mounting political and economic crises. Such inability has to do with the superficiality of democratic praxis in many developing countries, including in post-Mubarak Egypt, a democratic praxis which can be better appropriated as an electoral authoritarianism, or a majoritarianism that reduces democracy to the ballot box. What such mode of governance shares with democracy is only procedures, but with no guarantees or protections of enabling liberties and rights. In Turkey, a reformation of the political system had emerged out of the 1960 constitution establishing new norms for political practice, which, fortunately for the Turks, had been a guarantor of a more inclusive and diverse system, more accepting of labor unions and collective organizing. It is worth noting here that the army's role in 1960 was contrary to the one it played in the 1980 coup, a coup after which the generals wrote the 1982 constitution, which severely restricted civil society activities, and abrogated rights to union organizing and labor strikes. In the 1960s, the military regime pushed for formulating a social platform based upon local industrialization and the encouragement of local demand. This worked in tandem with the developmental strategies of many states in that era of the cold war.

The situation in Egypt at this juncture seems strikingly similar to that epoch in Turkish modern history: a completely paralyzed political system facing extremely complicated and exacerbating crises, a governing party ruling through an ill-experienced president, a majority with a tendency to coerce and repress dissenters and opponents, and is thus unable to contain the differing political actors within an institutional frame that mitigates the intensity of political conflict, and averts choices for violence. The question here is whether the betting on disaggregating the Brotherhood's alliance with the military as a way out of the current impasse, and a step toward changing the clearly dysfunctional political system, has perhaps been misplaced. 

Egypt is Not Turkey: Consequences of an Explicit Coup

First and foremost, the global context nowadays is vastly different from that in the 1960s or 1980s of the past century. The West—or the center of global capitalism—now predominantly favors representative democracy and civilian governance, particularly since the end of the cold war, and with it the end of justifications for alliances with oppressive and authoritarian regimes. A corrective role via military coup against “democracy,” even in the procedural sense, will not be looked at favorably by Washington. The US role is doubtlessly clear in restraining the Egyptian military from moving against the Muslim Brotherhood, as we have witnessed throughout the last year. The United States would not like to see the Egyptian army too involved in the crises and entanglements of Egypt's electrified political environment, especially since the military is its closest ally in Egypt and indeed the whole Arab region. Additionally, since the fall of Mubarak, the United States has been betting on the Islamists' ability, and particularly the Muslim Brotherhood's, to contain and absorb the violent social movement that erupted in a poor and densely populated country like Egypt. This bet has probably already failed, though how the United States is going to deal with that failure remains unclear. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood has effectively proven its compliance with and commitment to US interests, Israel's security and the gulf monarchies' regional arrangements. For a recent example of such compliance, one needs only to look at Morsi's recent stance on Syria, which primely positions the Brotherhood as a potential ally of the United States, more securely predictable than other Islamists like the Salafists. That, if one gives into the assumption that the fate of Arabs is to alternate between different Islamist camps, a view that many neo-orientalists in US academic and decision-making circles have been promoting. But beside the international context, the military has lost much with its involvement in mismanaging the transitional period, which eventually led to the current impasse. And given the guarantees in the Brotherhood-written and approved constitution of the military's economic interests, the generals might have more motivation to stay neutral. The fact is that they still enjoy the same privileges they enjoyed under Mubarak, while not having to bear the burdens of governing the crisis-ridden country, all as they watch their respectability among Egyptians increase with the aggravation of the political situation under the Brotherhood.

However, this is only half of the picture. An institution like Egypt's military invested in an extensive network of interests permeating large and vital sections of the economy, and having a strong hold on the central and local administrative apparatus, will not be able to maintain its position and privileges while standing by, watching the Egyptian state disintegrate at an unprecedented pace. State disintegration might lead to the escalation of social conflict into violent clashes, especially since the Brotherhood has alluded to bringing terrorist elements and unleashing them on opponents, given that it cannot guarantee the allegiance of state institutions. Such allusion invokes images of a new “Gamal Battle” (a massacre committed by the Mubarak government's lackeys against protesters), in which the government's soldiers are not going to be government-paid baltigiya (thugs), but zealous adherents of the regime's religious doctrine, hence adding a sectarian dimension to the conflict, which might escalate and perpetuate it. An escalation in that direction will force the army to intervene, as its main role and interests lie in preserving the state, even if that meant sacrificing the political regime, as happened with Mubarak who became the price the military paid consentingly to preserve what it considered to be the pillars of the Egyptian state.

The course and the outcome of all that, however, will surely depend on how the size of the protests turnout, and the extent to which people will respond to them, and of course the state's own capacity for persisting against and containing such turmoil. This last factor will be particularly challenging given that the June protests, unlike the January 2011 protests, will take place under extremely dire economic circumstances. In 2011, the Mubarak regime had thirty-five billion dollars in foreign-exchange reserves, but now Egypt is on the brink of bankruptcy, and with the prospect of violent civil conflict higher than it has ever been. All this happening only one year after electing the first civilian president, and only six months after approving the Islamist-drafted constitution, all of which are signs about the absence of any prospect to end the conflict with the completion of the transitional period, a period that was already formally completed although it was never actually ended. These are conditions that necessitate redirecting the transitional trajectory to aim at building a new political system, with new norms and new actors that can garner more legitimacy in the eyes of people, and thus become able to peacefully, institutionally and representatively manage ongoing conflict and avert economic catastrophe. Revising and rethinking the course of transition is highly probable, but dependent on the size of the protests and the depth of the crisis they might uncover. The point that this analysis seeks to emphasize is that there is no way out of the current impasse without dismantling the fragile coalition of the military and the security apparatus on one side, and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other. This must be the starting point for any alternative scenario for resolving this seemingly insurmountable and endless crisis.

It is necessary to take into consideration that mounting pressure on the fragile Brotherhood regime and its tense alliance with the state's coercive institutions, will not simply lead to a military coup for all the previously stated reasons. A coup d'etat establishing a new political order dominated by the military, similar to that of 1952, will not be conceivable, not even to the minds of the most ambitious generals. There are no political actors seeing in the army a long-term savior, not just a temporary powerful actor whose involvement is inevitable at such decisive junctures. What then might be the alternative scenarios to an explicit military coup, in case the protest momentum reaches the point of no return, and modifying political course becomes inevitable? 

First Route: Modifying Course from within a Constitutional Frame

Two main options can preserve the existing constitutional frame and spare the army of the burdens and consequences of directly running the country. The first option would be to force Morsi to resign and transfer authority, as the constitution mandates, to the head of the high constitutional court, then to hold early presidential elections under the same constitution. This option will place all bets on the next president to correct the transitional route and reach a minimum of national consensus amongst rival forces. The second option would include keeping Morsi as president and assigning what might be called a “trusteeship council” to undermine the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood's headquarters and their powerful businessman Khayrat Al-shatir on the presidency. Undermining the influence of the Brotherhood might involve filing suits against Brotherhood leaders, in cases like the killing of Egyptian soldiers in Rafah, which some in the security and intelligence apparatus, as well as the media, have been claiming the Brotherhood's involvement in. Such claims indicate the tense relationship between the Brotherhood and the security apparatus, and the acquisition by the later of some files kept for potential confrontations with the Brotherhood. These files might be utilized to try Brotherhood leaders in military tribunals, enshrined by the constitution, for the claim that they have been implicated in plots against national security. A measure like that will no doubt empty the political space from power and severely weaken the presidency, which all non-Brotherhood commentators agree, is devoid of real authority as it is beholden to the Brotherhood's quarters of decision-making. Subordinating the Brotherhood to the military's tutelage might produce a relationship between the two, similar to that which once existed between the Islamist “collective president” of Algeria, Ali Kafi in the early 1990s and the Algerian military.

Following any of these scenarios however, will be beset to whether the military, and the United States behind it, realize the urgent need to redesign the political system and integrate more political and social forces, so as to legitimize the political system, hence enabling it to stabilize and avert further economic deterioration.

Second Route: Pushing for Early Elections and a Consensus Candidate

This route would let the army completely avoid political power in a situation devoid of institutionalism and constitutional rules. In this scenario, the army only pressures the Brotherhood to hold early elections, as they transfer power temporarily to the head of the supreme constitutional court, until a new president is elected. Elections alone, however, will not be sufficient to end the current stalemate facing the political system, as any new president might still face the same opposition Morsi is now facing. Hence, rival political forces will have to reach agreement on how to confront the Brotherhood regime with an alternative, which in such case would mean a return to the idea of a consensus candidate, meaning a candidate other than the previously contesting presidential candidates, an idea these forces had once failed to follow or perhaps even had no interest in so doing. The rise of any of the previous contenders in the presidential elections, like Hamdeen Sabbahi or al-Baredei will be a huge provocation to the Islamist camp, therefore a consensus candidate will have to be someone from outside the divided political camps, but also someone who has some sort of powerful backing. Given that such backing cannot come from political camps with popular constituencies, this leaves us with only one option in such scenario: a presidential candidate from the military. The military remains the only powerful institution, capable of pulling together some sort of consensus amongst bitter political rivals. And thus, ironically/cynically enough, an elected general backed by non-Islamists and some Islamists (particularly Salafists) might be the only way out of the current crisis. This will probably end up having problematic implications in the future, as it means instituting a larger political domain in Egypt with the exclusion of the now beleaguered Muslim Brotherhood, implications that might have to be reexamined and reassessed later on.

A consensus candidate, and later president, would be like a Putin of Egyptian politics, and an early acknowledgement of failure, not just for Egypt's political class, but also for the whole transitional path to democracy, and an acknowledgement of an inability to break free from the shackles of the deeply entrenched legacy of Nasser's July state. Placing the army at the center of a new transitional process, this time from a position of legitimacy and authority, unlike its position under SCAF, means forging a new conservative coalition of civilian and military state bureaucrats, and secular as well as a section of Islamist political elites. Such reproduced coalition, containing the same power relations and social interests, will remain a cause for future crises instigated by the discontented youth in the cities, particularly those revolutionaries who are not interested in removing the Brotherhood in order to restore the same conservative coalition that the Brotherhood has tried and failed to build and consolidate, but rather are interested in demolishing this coalition all together. Such likely and troubled rebirth for the political course of transition in Egypt is intrinsic to the consensus amongst all of the political rivals and elites, inside and outside of Egypt, secular and Islamist alike, to not formulate a new institutional framework for representing conflicting interests, and negotiating a redistribution of wealth and power worthy of a revolutionary country. Perhaps such deliberate failure on their part will not be remedied without articulating a revolutionary alternative and expressing clear social and economic demands, so as to force the contesting parties of the ruling bourgeois coalition to make real concessions regarding relations of wealth and power.

The deep crisis will persist, with or without the Muslim Brotherhood. As Tamer Wagih once stated, the aggravated political situation remains a super-structural conflict over a deeply shaken and exhausted authority, a conflict underlain with and fueled by a simmering and intermittently explosive base.  

 [This article was published in Arabic on Jadaliyya on 27 June 2013. It was translated by Samir Taha. It is part of a two-part series. Click here to read the first part. Click here to read the Arabic version.]

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