Some Early Thoughts on Egypts Recent Uprising

Cairo Photos 2013 073


So I flew out of Egypt early on the morning of July 2nd after having spent the previous two  days walking around with the protesters in Heliopolis and Tahrir Square.

The first thing I would like to note is the radical amount of uncertainty that exists within Egyptian politics and that has existed since Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February of 2011. When I went to Egypt in the summer of 2012 I bought a Time Magazine at the airport entitled –  The Revolution That Wasn’t: Why Egypt’s Generals Remain Egypt’s Real Rulers. The article went on to describe the power that remained in the hands of the military and argued that General Tantawi, the head of the SCAF, was the true power in Egypt. The day before I left Egypt followed Morsi’s firing of Tantawi and seemed to disrupt all expectations of how politics was unfolding there.

While a year later we could attempt to reinterpret Time Magazine’s story as having been looking at long-term trends, despite seeming mistaken in the short term; but I would caution against following any self-assured account of the direction the Egyptian politics will take. The idea that the Tamarod (Rebel) movement was simply a coordinated effort by former Mubarak loyalists, the military, and the media to oust President Morsi is dangerously reductive. This is the image that Morsi tried to cultivate right up until the protests took place, that the protesters represented the only the small portion of the population the benefited from the Mubarak regime and a nameless conspiracy on behalf of the “enemies of Egypt” (complete with rhetoric of the dangers of talking to foreign spies). It was largely the unwillingness on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood that led to the perception that they were disconnected from the dissatisfaction that their year in power had brought that led to the sheer size and scale of the protests.

If this “return to power of Mubarak supporters” narrative were correct, the protests on the 30th would have been much smaller. I was nervous about attending them, especially as the previous day an American English teacher (who could have been any one of the ex-pats I knew, myself included, in Egypt) was killed the previous day while taking photos of clashes between the Muslim Brotherhood and members of Tamarod. I was warned to keep a low profile and be ready to run by the two Egyptian women who went to Heliopolis with me and others. Once the march got underway, however, I was shocked by the sheer number of people that had turned out. The march to Heliopolis took on far more of the characteristics of a giant, citywide street party than the angry demonstration that had the potential for violence that I had been warned about.

Families were everywhere and Egyptians displayed far more jubilation than anything else. I think that the lack of violence on the 30th (considering the number of people demonstrating) cannot be attributed to anything other than the sheer amount of support that the anti-Morsi campaign had generated. From the conversations I had with people, my impression is that this support came broadly from four places. A desire to keep direct action as part of the political process, legitimate grievances, grievances that people lay at Morsi’s feet that are not really his fault, and finally – the mobilization of the former security forces that the western media has seized upon (correctly but perhaps in a way that under-emphasizes the three previous factors).

The desire to keep direct action as part of the political process is one of the most facinating turns of events in what led to the protests being so successful. Many people felt that the promises of the revolution hadn’t been made good on and wanted to go back to the moment just after Mubarak stepped down and remind the current government that people were still paying attention and that the fact that they won elections meant little to the people in the streets if the promises that were made prior to and after elections were not made good on. I think this aspect is the one that most made the Western press feel uncomfortable, because we believe that democracy is the institutions that represent the people, not the people themselves. It’s important to remember that democracy is the rule of the people by the people and, while institutions are indispensable when carrying this out, the institutions are meant to allow democracy, not replace it.

The two things people were legitimately angry about were the way that security and the economy have been handled since Morsi took power. Every woman I spoke to in Egypt told me that Egypt is not a safe place anymore and that this is the case since the revolution. Many say that Mubarak is to blame, but are upset that Morsi has done nothing to fix the situation since taking power. The police were largely dissolved when Mubarak stepped down, as they were part of the oppressive security apparatus that brutalized the Muslim Brotherhood and were generally perceived as corrupt thugs, however, they also maintained a certain amount of security the loss of which has been felt most acutely by women in the middle and upper class. Furthermore, the (correct, but overblown) perception that Egypt lacks security since the revolution has hurt the incredibly important tourism industry. On top of that, Morsi has continued to enact the same sorts of neo-liberal economic policies that caused people to be angry at Mubarak. There is a widespread belief that the Muslim Brotherhood took their election victory as carte-blanche to start running the same sort of government as Mubarak did, under their leadership instead. While the Muslim Brotherhood’s peaceful and democratic methods continue to be praiseworthy, they seem to have mistakenly believed that this put them in charge of an increasingly fragmented and complex society that needed more dialogue and reconciliation than leadership.

Many people seemed to blame Morsi overmuch for the state of the economy. Egypt is under immense economic pressure at the moment and Morsi has been forced to negotiate with the IMF for loans to keep the economy afloat, which have come with (surprise, surprise) many strings attached that mean increased liberalization of an economy in which people rely on fuel and bread subsidies. It is hard to blame Morsi for either the decline in tourism (some of which has decreased simply because the name of the party in power is the ‘Muslim Brotherhood) or for giving into the same international pressure that governments around the world are caving to. Again, the narrative that Western media outlets have adopted that this is bad for ‘stability’ and that the ‘institutions’ of democracy have been dealt a blow seem to want to completely ignore the extent to which our own governments have seen demonstrators arrested en-mass (G20 in Toronto and OWS as well as Greece all come to mind) and treated in a less than ‘liberal’ fashion because people there accept the harsh terms dictated to social programs by neo-liberalism so much more readily than people in Egypt do. To a certain extent, these protests are the result of such policies as much as anger at the policies that Morsi did have control over.

Finally, I don’t want to completely dismiss the worries that Western media outlets have portrayed. Whenever a military takes power over a democratically elected government, people ought to be hugely critical and pressure that state to return to democratic governance as soon as possible. While I was generally against Morsi’s policies, I don’t think it is helpful for him to be arrested, the media outlets controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood to be shut down, or even for Morsi to be forcibly removed from power. It would have been nice for Morsi to voluntarily call for early elections and a neutral, third party to govern the country in the interim and oversee them.

When I see people wondering ‘Is Egypt ready for Democracy?’ I can’t help but feel annoyed at the continued Orientalist framework that underpins this question. The most positive aspect of recent events is that whoever gets into power in the future will have to confront a highly politicized country that is ready to take direct action if they feel excluded from the political process. In short: “This is what democracy looks like.”

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