The Egyptian plight and the future of inclusive democracy
Brahim El Guabli 18 July 2013

While the democratic motives of the simple protesters are not to be questioned, those of the politicians, especially from what Egyptians call el fulūl (residues), avid for power, even if the price of its achievement is the sacrifice of the democratic ideal, deserve to be deconstructed and put to the litmus test of reality to establish their honesty. The wide and divisive reactions engendered by this military volte-face are but another aspect of the deep fissures that permeate Arab societies, which make democratic means to achieve power all the more desirable and primordial.

Lest some readers might think that the views contained in this paper are motivated by any political affinities with Muslim Brotherhood (MB), I have to say that I am not a fan of their politics and do not share their world view nor feel that I have anything in common ideologically with them. Yet, the hasty ouster of the democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, by the army on July 3rd, after the June 30th multimillion protests should be read meticulously in order to understand its future implications and far-reaching consequences for the future of democracy and democratic change in the Arab region. Therefore, instead of rejoicing and celebrating the premature end of Morsi’s term, this development should be a source of concern, especially if given a serious probing within the global context of the democratic aspirations of the people of the region and the inclusiveness required for such an enterprise to succeed; not that the Ikhwan (Muslim Brothers) in Egypt were inclusive during their short rule.

The investiture of Adly Mansour, the head of the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court, as an interim president was but the final stage in a “democratic” counter-revolution whose apparent revolutionariness might prevent us morally from questioning the revolutionary desire of the people. The only problem with this thinking is that the revolutionary desires of many people, who have been fighting for their rights, like the case in Bahrain, have not been granted. I also take issue with idea that only Egyptians can decide whether they call this event a revolution or coup. Unfortunately, in this globalized world, national particularisms do not have much room. Spillovers happen and the Egyptian case could be reproduced in other countries. Hence, the unprecedented flood of reactions to these developments.

That liberals, salafis, journalists, the revolutionary youth—whose legitimate and genuine entrenched disagreements with Muslim Brotherhood and their political and economic choices are proven—,the rector of Alzhar mosque or the Grand Imam, and the Coptic pope come together, under the tent of the army, to sign the death certificate of a flawed democratic experience, should be a source of concern and a bad sign for what is to come. The Swiss-Egyptian thinker and islamologist Tariq Ramadan considers July 3rd change a consecration of the de facto military rule and emphasizes that « in reality, the Egyptian army was controlling the situation and has never left the scene » after January 25th revolution. While Ramadan furnishes a plethora of arguments to make his case against what is commonly known as the “Arab Spring” and the international involvement in its shaping, I think that the Arab revolutions, especially in their first version that started in Tunisia, were a genuine popular effort to change the political regimes, establish democratic rule and shake off the residues of colonialism in the Arab countries. Thursday July 3rd was not a glorious day for democracy and for those democrats who believe in the rights of others, even if their political convictions are antipodal, to participate fully and actively in the political life and achieve power with peaceful means in their countries. Some twenty million people staged the biggest demonstrations in human history, calling for the end of the term of a legitimately elected president and their request got granted three days later by the most powerful institution in a fragile post-rebellion country. The same institution waited for almost two weeks and for the death toll to reach 841 before making a decision to depose Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The difference is that Mubarak was a son of the military institution itself while Morsi is a civil engineer; worse he belongs to a political group whose right to political participation and rule has become a fashion to contest by many activists to the brink of abhorrence.

What happened in Egypt was a clear message that in the minds of some liberals Islamists have no place in the political arena and that their fate is exclusion, ouster and marginalization. We can easily talk about the emergence of a sort of liberal dictatorship, which aims to eliminate its opponents by resorting to undemocratic means, shrouded in a democratic discourse. Mohamed El Baradei for instance, according to Tariq Ramadan, “defended and justified the arrest of Muslim Brothers, shutting down their television stations and all the repressive measures against the pro-Morsi citizens who are not all Muslim Brothers. » This is, unfortunately, not the spirit of participatory democracy which requires the full participation of all living forces of a nation in the enterprise of nation and institution building within the limits afforded to everybody by the democratic system. Moreover, the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated instances, well-deserved as it was based on their mismanagement, should have been carried out by resorting to the democratic means that brought them to power and not to a somewhat hasty military intervention. The point is that, by resorting to the easiest solution, the democratic mechanisms are being suspended, trampled on and the political contenders are not learning to dialogue to solve their disagreements. Democracy as an internalized value, process and practice takes years to evolve, and errors, like the ones committed by Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood during their tenure at the helm of the Egyptian state, could have served to build the Egyptian brand of democracy, which would have allowed the political contenders to scuffle in the public arenas but resort to constitutional means to resolve their disputes. The Egyptian army’s intervention, as admired as it was by a large section of the Egyptian population, does put an end temporarily to the political contention between two legitimacies —an electoral legitimacy represented by Morsi and a street legitimacy represented by millions who demonstrated to overthrow him—but it certainly does not help bring about the representative and desired democratic outcome for which Egyptian people took to the street January 25th, 2011.

The deposing of Morsi has definitely provided an instantaneous gratification for the 20 million (or 14, the numbers vary and change depending on the source) protesters who staged their own rebellion, but it is likely to adjourn the normalization process between political Islam and democratic practice. One of the main criticisms of political Islam has been its dissimulation strategy and the belief that elections for political Islam are only a means to achieve power once for all, before establishing a religious dictatorship. This assumption does not take into consideration the continuing political maturity of Arab societies, both the spreading and increase of critical thinking, and the entrenching culture of rejection, which serve as bulwarks against any future dictatorial tendencies.

The “political virginity” of the Islamists made them more appealing, but running a country from inside is not like pelting a regime from the seat of opposition. Being in charge of a country’s affairs, like it is the case in Egypt and Tunisia and Morocco, debunked the weakness of Islamist political parties’ slogans and showed their constituents that they are human beings like all political leaders and contributed, hence, to their desacralization. This desacralization of Islamist parties’ politics was an important step on the path of normalizing the relationship between Islam and democracy, which will allow the idea of a secular state to take root. The discourse of virtue and religiousness did not feed the people nor paid their electricity bills, and constituents realized that the political and economic constraints apply to all political players, regardless of their religiousness or not. The experience showed that, after the uprisings, the major concerns of populations in Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia are ameliorating their living conditions—including schools, hospitals, public transportation, and public administration—and seeing the state launch onslaught on corruption. Without realizing it, the populations are indeed secular in thinking pragmatically about what democratically elected politicians should do to satisfy them. Therefore, we can say with confidence that the military intervention in the democratic process in Egypt saved the life of the Muslim Brotherhood from political demise, and constituted a strong blow to the dereligionization of politics in the Middle East and North Africa. While the neoliberal policies the Muslim Brotherhood was implementing were taking them straight to the wall, the movement, set off by Tamarrud and culminated by the army’s ouster of Morsi, did indeed relieve Muslim Brotherhood of taking ownership of their catastrophic management. Consequently, Muslim Brotherhood’s brand of Islamism will continue to play the role of the victim, and its madhlumiyya (victimhood) rhetoric will continue against the usurpers of its popular right to power. A political compromise, through more democratic means such as a referendum, would have shown how much the Ikhwan have lost in popularity and popular mandate one year only after their successive electoral victories.

Whether we want it or not, Mohammed Morsi won about 52 % of the votes of the Egyptian electorate in the presidential elections held in May and June 2012, after which he was inaugurated as the legitimate president of the country amidst public euphoria and international acclaim. He was probably the only Egyptian president who can boast a legitimate access to office after unprecedentedly transparent elections the country has ever witnessed. Throughout the period of his presidency, he has been received all over the world as a legitimate president and red carpets were rolled out in the major capitals of the world in his honor. Nobody questioned his legitimacy as president internationally. Yet, he faced many challenges internally and he did not address them correctly to become a unifying figure. In addition to his Jama’a’s exclusivist politics, Morsi’s failure emanated from the fact that he was the first elected president after January 25th Revolution, which deposed the former dictator Hosni Mubarak and put an end to the military rule, at the presidential level at least. Being a post-revolution president, Morsi was met with the highest expectations but he lacked the lowest requirements for the job.

Did Morsi behave like a statesman? Did he deserve being ousted by the Egyptian people? The answer is “no” and “yes”. The man was far from the stature of a real statesman, like the charismatic Jamal Abdelnasser, and his public speeches were closer to Friday sermons than to anything close to the rhetoric of a political leader whose people just charged with the leadership of a post-revolution country. Additionally, Morsi’s strategic alliances, if we may say, were drawn along sectarian lines, especially in regards to the Syrian situation and Shi’i-Sunni fitna. At the internal level, Morsi chose to be the president of only one faction of the multifarious Egyptian society. He made many blunders during his one short year in office and I am sure that, now that he is detached from the throes of power, he is biting his fingers in regret of the so many opportunities he had missed to reach compromise with his opponents and lead Egypt as a unifying president; not a member of a formerly illegal party who suddenly found himself in charge of the future of the greatest Arab nation. Ahmed Mansour, a pro-Muslim Brotherhood journalist, wrote that Morsi “found himself in a place for which he was not prepared. He was deceived by a power of which he did not master the tools nor grasped the essence, and he ruled the state with the mentality of the man of the party and the jama’a. He surrounded himself by a team that lacked the qualifications to manage a state and none of whose members had any expertise.” Mansour goes on to enumerate the mistakes committed along the way by Morsi and his cabinet and which accelerated their political demise on the hands of an unprecedented uprising on July 3rd, 2013. Mansour, whose support for Muslim Brotherhood is not to be questioned, lashed on Morsi and his political group’s incompetence and inability to foresee the problems, and, thus, he “was not aware that the faults of a person in power are not like those of one in opposition, and he let the deep state work against him and around him to manage the state and undermine the pillars of the revolution while he was drowned in formalities and travels; thinking that being an elected president was enough for him to finish his term and do whatever he wants.”

Morsi’s catastrophic one year tenure as president of Egypt and his dramatic ouster by the army should instruct us about the intellectual transformative changes brought about in the region by the first wave of the Arab uprisings. Just two years ago, the scenario the whole world witnessed on June 30rd would not have been possible. Despite the former president’s electoral legitimacy, financial cleanliness and media friendly policies, the Egyptian people took to the streets to slow down (and even put an end to) his and his jama’a’s dictatorial proclivities before their rule was entrenched in the strategic sectors of the Egyptian state. The proverb “once bitten, twice shy” best describes the successful organizing of Tamarrud among the Egyptian people. The mere fact that Tamarrud (Rebellion/Mutiny) Movement managed to bring activists from extreme left to extreme right, and even the Kanaba (silent majority) party, together should be understood as a message that the Egyptian people have become the watchdogs of their future and their unwillingness to let anyone steer it away from the direction they want it to take.

Yet, the dilemma is the fact that deposing a democratically elected president by undemocratic means will continue to haunt the country, the people and political class in the years to come. Politics are all about setting precedents and making them serve as frames of reference for sane political practices, and the practice of ousting a democratically elected president does not constitute a good reference. The question that remains to be answered is whether the Egyptian army will really give up interfering in power at some point or will it continue to respond to people’s call to topple any unwanted president even if he is (or she is) the son of the military institution itself. As for Islam and democracy, the long-awaited-for opportunity to reconcile the two in practice, and desacralize the religious parties, by their immersion in the management of the public affairs, has not been used in the best way it could have. It could have helped to uproot political Islam from society. It remains to be seen how the Moroccan and the Tunisian experiences are evolving and how the religious discourse is perceived and responded to in the next elections, to know for sure whether political Islam is part of our past.
I doubt it after what happened in Egypt.

* I am just referring to everyday life needs which affect the vote and the polls. The uprisings were started for reasons deeper than just ameliorating people’s living conditions.