Sarah Eltantawi sums up a disappointing ten months in Egypt. This was published at Fair Observer.
As I write this, a Coptic cathedral in Cairo’s Qalioubiyya has been attacked by masked gunmen during a funeral for victims of an earlier sectarian clash. If you had told me one year ago that I would be writing such a sentence about Egypt, I would probably not have believed you. It is not that there hasn’t been a long and worsening problem with sectarian attacks in Egypt – we only need to remember the horrific attack on the church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve, 2010-2011, which foreshadowed the revolution to put this serious problem in perspective. But masked gunmen firing automatic rifles during a funeral? These were the problems, for example, of post-invasion Iraq, or a Pakistan which has been bedeviled for years now by a steadily failing state.
The Egyptian Government’s Performance
The unelected public prosecutor’s recent issuance of an arrest warrant for the country’s most famous satirist, Bassem Youssef, known as Egypt’s “Jon Stewart” (of the popular American television show “The Daily Show”) for allegedly insulting Mohammed Morsi and insulting Islam is another recent ominous event, not least because there appeared to be little attempt to distinguish the two offenses. What has happened to bring Egypt to this point, just under ten months after the Muslim Brotherhood took power?
Before commencing a short review of the Muslim Brotherhood’s performance thus far, a word on the analytic frame employed to analyze the government’s performance. In what follows, I will list a number of important issues facing Egypt, and give a short synopsis of the progress that has been made or the lack thereof. There are observers of Egypt who would not find such an exercise useful in the first place. Their contention is that it is unrealistic to expect a transitional government to have accomplished much, especially under worsening economic conditions and in the context of a polarized country with a recalcitrant and unfocused opposition.
This is how I felt for the first six months. And while it remains utterly unrealistic to expect the government to have solved the massive problems facing Egypt, it is certainly fair enough to note what the government has been focusing on, what the government has been neglecting, and certain patterns of their actions.
Reform of the Interior Ministry
The interior ministry (MoI) is the most notorious institution of Hosni Mubarak’s police state, whose infliction of torture and violence on Egypt’s citizens was one of the chief factors prompting the revolution. No reforms have been made to the MoI, and torture is arguably worse in Egypt than it ever has been. Bodies of anti-government activists have been found in ditches and on sides of roads.
The Egyptian economy is in shambles. The nation’s reserves are almost depleted, which has sent the government begging the IMF for a loan. There has been no attempt at debate about the merits and demerits of accepting such a loan with the public. To meet the IMF’s demands, the government will have to oversee austerity measures that include reducing the large subsidies on fuel that will cause major unrest in Egypt. This is an area where it is quite difficult to place the blame on the Muslim Brotherhood government alone, although the type of cooperation and societal buy-in necessary to successfully reform the economy requires a political skill and genuine interest in compromise with other political players that the Muslim Brotherhood government has not displayed so far.
Freedom of Conscience
President Anwar al-Sadat was the first to make deals with Islamists that have threatened freedom of conscience in Egypt since. The most significant and damaging of these compromises was the reform of the constitution in 1981, allowing Islamic shari’a to be the source of legislation. With the Islamists now in power and having staked their claim to authority on a loosely articulated version of Islamic morality, freedom of conscience issues are of serious concern. The treatment of Bassem Youssef and the virtually unchecked proliferation of government-supporting televangelists who are often, ironically, quite vulgar in their eviscerations of the president’s critics, are not encouraging signs.
Sectarianism is worsening, both because of the general breakdown in law and order and because of the vicious rhetoric of some Salafi preachers who are given far too much air time on media outlets. While Bassem Youssef was summoned for questioning, perpetrators of various sectarian crimes against Copts (the most notorious example being the massacre at Maspero in October 2011) have not been brought to justice. In addition, anti-Shi’a sentiment has reached an alarming and unprecedented level in Egypt, a reflection of the Mubarak-era’s cynical exploitation of Sunni chauvinism to bolster the former regime’s unpopular tilt toward American, Israeli and Saudi anti-Iran policies, which includes deeply unsettling saber rattling.
The fact that the long persecuted and banned Muslim Brotherhood is now in power is a striking indicator that the space for political organizing has been expanded in Egypt in an unprecedented way. Unfortunately, the opposition does not seem to have taken advantage of this opening and has until now failed to compete effectively in mainstream politics. Moreover, much like the ancien régime, the Muslim Brotherhood is quick to accuse “foreign hands” of coordinating street agitations against its rule. The most recent news suggest that non-governmental organizations will be required to register with the government.
Independence of the Judiciary
The Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) is a judicial body currently made up entirely of Mubarak appointees who are empowered to strike down laws they deem unconstitutional. Although the Brotherhood has taken some steps that have to some degree disempowered the SCC, its heft can still be felt — specifically at present, with respect to the parliamentary elections which have once again been postponed at the behest of the SCC, this time to October 2013. The Muslim Brotherhood would like elections to occur as soon as possible, as Islamist parties have a strong chance of winning a majority of seats. The SCC, no doubt with this probable outcome in mind, is trying to stall that process. Although it is unwise for Egypt to continue to operate without a parliament that can pass laws, the possibility of a totally Islamist dominated parliament also raises legitimate concerns. The opposition does not seem willing or able to effectively organize to successfully contest these elections.
There are several other categories we could analyze in contemporary Egypt, including issues of infrastructure, traffic, garbage, and, of course, foreign policy. However, this short elaboration on the issues above suffices to inform our deliberations over whether it is legitimate to hold the Muslim Brotherhood accountable for the nation’s downward spiral at this point, almost ten months into their rule.
The Egypt that is Needed
The answer is: what does “fair” mean? Does it mean “realistic?” Guess what was not realistic – the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s regime on February 11, 2011. The fact of the matter is that this is a revolutionary government whose mandate is to fulfill the hopes and dreams of the long-suffering masses of Egypt. Instead, the Muslim Brotherhood has used the sacred chance it has been given to entrench its own rule. The pettiness, the smallness of actions like attempting to arrest Bassem Yousef is a disgrace. Leaving the ministry of the interior and the police forces unreformed is a betrayal. Telling protesting women they do not belong in public space is an act of darkness.
At present, the most generous thing that can be said of the Muslim Brotherhood is that it is mediocre; a designation, which, among other things, should prompt its reflection on the phrase Islam howa al-hal (Islam is the solution) if that were ever anything other than cynical populism. However, what we need in Egypt are visionaries, not conservatives. Generous and courageous spirits who are not afraid to take risks and try new things. We need people who are just crazy enough to wake up each day to fulfill the demands of the revolution. What we have now – water treading, selfishness, arrogance, dullness, and mind-numbing grayness of conformity – won’t do it. The increasing violence proves that.