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No Jasmine Tea for the Square

[31 August 2012, anti-Morsi protest in down town Cairo, Egypt. Image originally posted to Flickr by Gigi Ibrahim] [31 August 2012, anti-Morsi protest in down town Cairo, Egypt. Image originally posted to Flickr by Gigi Ibrahim]

Who exactly is making politics in Egypt these days? There are so many possible answers to the question. One perspective, which is both new and not so new, views politics as the purview of only the very highest circles of power. It only hears politics in the opinions of political elites and the embassies of major foreign states. It only sees politics in the backrooms of the state.

But this perspective is more than analytical. Framing politics in this way marks a distinct political position, situated alongside those “registered” political actors who are allowed to play on the Egyptian official field.  

Those who follow this line of thinking tell us that the 30 June upheaval was nothing but a plot. This scheme was worked out in advance by the army and the National Salvation Front and engineered by a veteran statesman of the old guard to mobilize funds and media coverage.

Salvation Front politicians, as well as those who regularly attended meetings at which this political plot was devised, are not speaking openly about the plan at present. Maybe they are trying to be sensitive towards the American position, which does not call what happened a “coup.” But they are making their next bets based on this perspective. We thus find ourselves drowning in roadmaps, negotiations about ministerial portfolios, and details of the transitional stage. And, of course, all the negotiations are taking place behind closed doors. 

•••

The Muslim Brotherhood proceeds on the same premises. For them the June upheaval was purely a military coup manufactured with support from Saudi Arabia and the Untied Arab Emirates. (Notice the similarity to Omar Suleiman’s view that the January 25 Revolution was a foreign and domestic conspiracy involving an alliance between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.) This gave way to policies such as leaking information about Tamarod to the army, focusing all criticism on General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for betraying the administration, and shamelessly encouraging America to get involved and defend the regime of the “elected president.”

The controversy about whether 30 June was a military coup shows how those who undertook the initiative, those who supported it, and those who opposed it all had the same perceptions. Not one of them took seriously the political force that has now taken control in Egypt, namely, the public square. Detailed debates about the definition of the word “coup” in the global coverage of the event only bolster this insistent and narrow focus on small circles of power.

Despite all their differences, proponents of this view all insist that they are the ones who represent the will of the people or that they are the ones who are seeking it out by procedural means.  But none of them see the crowds who came out into the streets of Tahrir Square area, Etihadeya, Rabi‘a al-Adaweya Mosque, and al-Nahda Square as anything but an instrument to use. For them, mass protest has no autonomy. More importantly, for them, the public square means nothing when it comes to making and guiding politics. And politics, after all, belongs to Washington.

Who designed the June upheaval?

There is no doubt that behind 30 June there was a plan. And there were architects. There were men secretly engineering preexisting agreements, much the way the Brotherhood did when it met with Omar Suleiman and his associates during the eighteen days of 2011. However the present picture is much broader than this, and to understand what is happening, we must analyze all of the symptoms of the revolutionary situation in which we find ourselves.

The first symptom is a grave crisis of governance. In a recent article Asef Bayat classified the uprisings in Egypt, Yemen, and Tunisia and what followed as neither revolutions nor reforms. Rather, they were “refolutions” driven by a need to reform the institutions of the existing regime. This motivation, Bayat adds, created a set of contradictory circumstances. On the one hand, it ensured an orderly transfer of power that avoided revolutionary excesses (i.e., violence and executions). However, it also brought with it the constant and immediate threat of a counter-revolution that would restore the former regime precisely because the revolution failed to breach state institutions.

What coalition government do we find in Egypt now? Part of the reason for the June upheaval is that the previous coalition government – the Brotherhood, the military, the bureaucracy, the feloul – had failed to ascertain what would allow them to achieve stable power. After 30 June  the situation remains the same, if not worse.

The new coalition government is shaky and overshadowed by conflict among its various constituents: the army, the National Salvation Front and its assorted constituents (Liberals, Nasserists, revolutionaries, and the like), and members of the NDP trying to reassert themselves. They have yet to settle the matter with the former ally, the Muslim Brothers.

The new government is still searching for stable ground.

The dispute between the army and the Brotherhood is a sign of weakness in a coalition government that is trying to represent the interests of a former regime, which was itself unable to run the country and pacify the angry street. Thus this crisis of governance will remain with us. However one condition of any revolution is that the ruling class not be allowed to continue along its former path. We are accustomed to thinking, as they would like us to, that this as a sign of strength that determines all else. But it is not. On the contrary, it is a sign of weakness.

•••

The second symptom of the revolutionary situation is the further exacerbation of living conditions that are already bad. There is a shortage of gas, bread, and electricity. Price inflation is beyond belief. Unemployment is on the rise and public services are deteriorating. These were all key factors in the lead-up to 30 June.

This leads to the third symptom of the revolutionary situation: a significant increase in energy and activity among previously apolitical masses who were driven by a crisis in governance and poor living conditions to independent political action. In his article Bayat refers to the continual pressure coming from the squares, strikes, protests, and civil society at large as a “refo-lution”, that is, a reformist revolution. He considers this to be the only way to achieve genuine change via reforms to the regime or to social conditions and class.

Revolutionary zeal has not ceased since the January revolution. The people did not take to streets on 30 June because the media incited them to or because of deals made with recently rediscovered veteran politicians of former regimes. They had already been in the streets for more than five thousand demonstrations and 7,700 social protests. These protests were widespread and significant — Mohamed Morsi considered them to be a direct challenge to the office of the president.

The agreement tried to forestall the coming popular movement at every turn in order to weaken it and frame it, not the other way around. How the new government responds to the protests will expose how it works on the inside.  (One of the Mubarak-era broadcasters lost his cool on his own program and demanded that Morsi put an end to the strikes and social protests because “the nation cannot take it anymore.”) This will be true for everyone, whether the old or new coalition governments, the Brotherhood, the military, Mubarak’s feloul, and even most of the National Salvation Front.

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No one commands the millions who came out into the streets on 30 June and who ended their call to go out again yesterday. That being said, while these millions did welcome the intervention of forces from on high, they did so only because they helped to oust Morsi, and they will not now accept a dictatorial regime. Indeed their first demand was for early elections, and more importantly, that these be run under the principle of direct interests. With regard to these two matters, it appears the new coalition government, once it has settled its affairs, will be unable to satisfy the expectations of the large, popular bloc that is increasingly active and politicized.

Take, for example, the incredible confusion surrounding the selection process for the new prime minister. This revealed the extent of the general confusion within the new coalition, the lack of clear leadership in any one of its constituent parts, and the fragility of its delicate balances. In addition we have the ever-present American condition that we must move forward with the International Monetary Fund talks in order to receive American political support and economic support from the Gulf. To do so means continuing with the same austerity policies of imposing taxes on the poor and devaluing the Egyptian pound, which will only lead to inflation.

These are the same measures the Brotherhood tried, though without success. And they are the same measures that drove people out into the streets to begin with. Just as the former regime was tied to security institutions so too is the new coalition government too weak to rule the defiant streets with an iron fist.

•••

The revolutionary situation continues, as does the street’s insistence upon having the final word. So, have we learned now who really makes politics in Egypt today?

[This article originally appeared in Arabic in El-Sherouk on 8 July 2013. It was translated by Nancy Linthicum.]

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