By Sarah Eltantawi
I’m beset now by a growing exhaustion. The proximate cause is having forced myself to wake up in the morning hours, followed by long stretches of walking in the summer heat, but there is also a creeping emotional exhaustion. This gem I picked up in Tahrir today has a lot to do with it, I think:
“Federation of Terrorism”
“Egypt is dear to us. I love you, my country” — With Sis’s picture encapsulating these sentiments.
“Go down (to Tahrir, or to the pro-Morsi sit-ins, more chillingly) Sisi, teach the Brotherhood a lesson” (There are spelling mistakes on most of these posters, suggesting hasty production.)
And finally this:
“From 25 November to 33 (?) July”. Gamal Abdel Naser in the center, surrounded by Jan 25 martyrs.
Tomorrow is the big day, the day the head of the Egyptian army asked Egyptians to go out in the streets to support the fight against “terrorism.” This terminology is very ill-advised and disturbing in any case, but I see a disturbing interpretation and an ultra-disturbing interpretation.
The disturbing interpretation is that Sisi is trying to show the Muslim Brotherhood who is boss and who the people actually stand behind to get them to stand down and back off peacefully once and for all. The reason this is disturbing, even thought it’s the least worst possibility, is that calling people a bunch of terrorists does not suggest a willingness to bend over backwards to enfranchise them politically. Even though I am yet to find a single person “on the street”, as it were, who supports the Muslim Brotherhood (this really is astounding me), Islamists certainly do exist in this country, they are very organized politically, and they have every right to participate politically, should do so, and must do so.
But the caveat is this: there is simply no question at this point that Egyptians do not want to be ruled by Islamists or their vision. They are not interested, they’ve rejected the ideology, and they want absolutely no part of it. No evidence at all that the Islamists have come close to internalizing this very clear fact; on the contrary, they are currently lobbying world powers to reinstate them “on principle.” Unfortunately for them, principle is very much not a concept associated with their rule here in Egypt. When you want to forcibly rule people who don’t want anything to do with you, you’re sending a message that all you want is to rule for the sake of ruling. This is plainly true of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The ultra disturbing interpretation is that Sisi has called for this bizarre carnival of public support to justify to an international audience massive bloodshed as they begin to forcibly break up pro-Morsi sit-ins. What we don’t know is what has been going on behind the scenes. I am sure there have been negotiations. But the fact that Sisi issued this call very likely means that those talks have gone nowhere. Why? We don’t know. Was the military ever serious about giving the Muslim Brotherhood real incentives to stand down and tell their supporters to go home? Was the Muslim Brotherhood completely obstinate? We just do not know. But unfortunately, I suspect the army did not give them a big enough carrot. Why would they? They are in a hugely more powerful position, have been nursing a tremendous grudge against the Brotherhood since last summer when Egyptian soldiers were killed in Sinai during Ramadan, and probably think they belong behind bars anyway. I do hope I am wrong.
In any case, this is bad.
But there is something else that is bothering me. If you talk to, let’s call them, regular Egyptians across class, so far as I can tell, I believe it is indisputable, as I’ve already said, that they are just finished with the Muslim Brotherhood. Many people argue that Egyptians should have been more patient and waited for elections, but they miss an important point: I think Egyptians would have been patient had they felt their government was leading them in a direction they wanted to go. They didn’t feel that way. They felt the Brotherhood had a different, shadowy agenda altogether, and that their first, second, and third priority was themselves and entrenching their own rule. And frankly there is a mountain of evidence to support that claim. To state this through an example — you can not blame the Muslim Brotherhood for failing to turn around Egypt’s disastrous economy in one year, but you can blame them for failing to consult with and empower Egyptians who actually understand the economy, opting instead to stack institutions with the unqualified party faithful. Therefore, I do not blame Egyptians at all for being fed up, think they had every right to oust this government, and think that June 30 was a popular revolution.
So what we are left with is a population that is against the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamists who are outraged by what they call a simple coup, and a small liberal elite that is currently very angry at the army. And though I find the above posters and the climate they engender and characterize to be truly noxious, there are several things that bother me about this liberal discourse.
Some of these liberals, many of whom are an English speaking elite, have struck the following pose: we never liked the Muslim Brotherhood, but we don’t like the army either, and so we wish that Morsi had been allowed to serve out his term or we wish that Morsi had called early elections. Two problems here: first, the Egyptian masses made it perfectly clear that they had had enough and that they felt the country could not survive Morsi serving out his term. Though the military establishment is cynical and self serving, I think they also had very genuine concerns about the state of the country generally, and about terrorism, especially in Sinai, in particular.
As for early elections: Morsi was never going to agree to that. So what we are left with is a purgatorial discourse that is actually practically meaningless, and ends up sounding like lecturing the Egyptian masses from on high about what they should have done if they were as clear thinking as these analysts. But when you break it down, they really aren’t advocating for anything solid in particular, but striking a medial position that is discursive rather than real. This strikes me as a different kind of elite discourse — the practically impossible but rhetorically “principled” one, and the tone of lecturing Egyptians leaves me a bit cold. I can respect Morsi’s supporters clear denunciations of “the coup” more. Ultimately, I fall on the side of majority of the population, who I think know what they do not want more than what they do want.
Moreover, it’s easy to endlessly slag the Egyptian army on social media. Plese don’t get me wrong — critiques of the army are more than justified — see: Maspero, virginity tests, and military trials of civilians. On the other hand, zoom the lens out and look at the Arab world. The Iraqi army was destroyed by the American invasion. The Syrian army has been transformed into a genocidal militia. The Gulf can not defend itself. Lebanon can not defend itself without a shi’i militia that has disastrously cast its fortunes with Bashar al-Asad. Tunisia and Libya are in post-revolutionary turmoil (Tunisian opposition leader Mohammed Brahimi was assassinated today – Islamists have been blamed.) Let us not begin to speak of Palestine, the ongoing open wound. What does this tell us? The Egyptian army is the only standing army in the Arab world left. It is also an army that is currently enjoying massive public support. Unsavory as it may be, these are facts to be dealt with.
This later point is, of course, immaterial to the spectacle currently on display domestically in Egypt. Despite the pro-army hysteria currently gripping the nation, I still think that if Sisi overplays his hand by confronting the Brotherhood violently without giving them a diplomatic way out, they will pay a big price in the long run. The human rights establishment domestically and internationally will turn against them, Islamists region wide will obviously turn against them, and Islamists in Egypt will form violent militias bent on revenge. The country will be thrust into chaos. I’ve long held that the Egyptian army is an intelligent actor. If they fall into this above trap, then I will change my mind.
I do not want to begrudge Egyptians the right to be happy that a government they hated is gone, and if they want to go to the square, they should go to the square. I also think it should be of interest to scholars and analysts that a population that launched a revolution against military rule a mere two years ago was so despairing of Islamist rule that they called the army right back. The lesson here is one about the failure of Islamism, not the triumph of totalitarianism, fascism, or stupidity, as many strangely allege. But if the army rides this wave of hubris too far, I might have to agree with a friend who said today that we are being “taken for a ride” by the army; but that would be a ride I think recent history suggests Egyptians won’t stay on indefinitely.