By Aijaz Zaka Syed
July 12, 2013
The writer is a commentator on Middle East and South Asian affairs.
Those who cannot remember the past, warned George Santayana, are condemned to repeat it. Having lived under military rule for the better part of the past several decades, Egypt’s secular and forever-protesting elites knew what they were wishing for when they returned to Tahrir Square this week in their thousands demanding the scalp of President Morsi.
So what if he had been elected only last year in the first-ever free and fair democratic elections in the nation’s 5,000-year-old history? He had failed to pull rabbits out of his hat delivering swift miracles for the masses.
In their blind rage against the Muslim Brotherhood, they hardly notice that they have helped restore the same old order that they had thrown out two years ago because of its abuse of power and endless plundering of the nation. Egypt is back to square one. But who cares! After all, in the words of HL Mencken, "...people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard".
So the familiar order of tyranny and sleaze is more reassuring than the unsettling gaze of a watchful, democratic leadership. Those used to junk food cannot appreciate fine dining and gourmet cuisine. In the event, shocking though it may have been, the military coup seems to surprise no one. Not the Egyptian pundits, not its neighbours and certainly not the western powers. It is as though it was a disaster waiting to happen.
Yet, given the groundbreaking nature of the Egyptian revolution, the winds of change sweeping the region and epic sacrifices offered by the people to get rid of the old, ossified order, many thought the army wouldn’t dare. Clearly, we all underestimated the generals’ inexhaustible appetite for power. Stripped of power and forced to return to the barracks by Morsi, who ironically retired Mubarak’s aging cronies in khaki to appoint Lieutenant General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi as defence minister and army chief, the military was only waiting for an opportunity to strike back. And the fig leaf of an excuse was provided by the impatient Tahrir liberals.
While it took three weeks of nationwide demonstrations to force Mubarak out of three decades of power, the army sent Morsi packing within three days of protests. Of course, the generals were only acting in the best interest of the people and to ‘save the revolution and democracy’.
General al-Sisi announced the painful decision flanked by three services chiefs, Mohamed ElBaradei – the west’s new darling – Coptic Pope Tawadros, Sheikh Al Azhar Ahmed Al Tayyeb and al-Nour party leader Younes Makhyoun. Ironically, both Tayyeb and Makhyoun had been at the heart of the Brotherhood’s tensions with the liberals.
This is a sad commentary on the general mess the Brotherhood and Morsi made of the historic opportunity and popular mandate gifted to them. If today few tears are shed over Morsi’s fall, with many in the region heaving an audible sigh of relief, the Brotherhood has perhaps no one to blame but itself. Having existed and operated largely underground and under severe repression since its inception in 1928, the party failed to adapt itself to new political realities and demands of participatory democracy.
The Brotherhood should have built on its impressive victory in parliamentary and presidential elections to reach out to all sections of the complex and diverse society that is Egypt as well as its traditional friends and allies in the neighbourhood. Perhaps Morsi wasn’t cut out for the top job. Indeed, he wasn’t the first choice of his party and was picked at the last minute after Khairat El-Shater, a more popular leader, was disqualified.
Morsi, the US-educated academic, may be pious and virtuous from his party’s perspective but he wasn’t what you would call ‘a man of the people’. His biggest strategic blunder though was the bulldozing of the constitution, ignoring the concerns of various sections of Egyptian society. This eventually was his undoing. Not only did he fail to connect emotionally with his increasingly restive people, he also appeared hopelessly isolated and ineffectual in the face of overwhelming challenges on various fronts. With the economy in a shambles and administration crippled, getting access to basics like food, cooking gas, petrol and diesel had become an existential struggle for ordinary Egyptians.
But was all this created by Morsi and his administration? While much of it was the legacy of the previous regime and a result of the political chaos of the past couple of years, there was an elaborate strategy at work to defeat all efforts by Egypt’s new leader to implement the goals of the 2011 Revolution for clean and responsive governance. As journalist Eric Walberg notes, the Muslim Brotherhood was unable to make a dysfunctional economy work in the face of sabotage by the Mubarakites, coupled with a massive propaganda blitz by a hostile media. It was a doomed presidency from the word go.
Morsi might have won the presidential vote and but the power still remained with the ancien régime. All levers of power remained in the hands of the so-called deep state, determined to sabotage the nation’s first tryst with democracy. Frequent power cuts, manufactured food and gas shortages and increasing targeting of religious minorities were all part of the script. The democratically elected president was so powerless in the face of the ‘deep state’ that he couldn’t protect his own party’s offices. Police stood and stared while mobs torched and ransacked the Brotherhood headquarters in Cairo.
Which democratically elected government is thrown out after a year in power by its own army because of people’s protests? How many governments have been unseated in Europe, which has been rocked by anti-government protests over the past couple of years? The ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement or the anti-war protests in Washington and London didn’t lead to any departures. But then it’s not the same. There are two standards of democracy – one for the west and another for the rest.
Obama’s loud protestations over the ‘events’ in Cairo and his threat of reviewing the US aid of $1.5 billion to the Egyptian army are all very touching. But do you really think the generals would have taken such a step without Washington’s blessings? The west is as much involved and implicit in what is going on in Egypt as it has always been.
All these years Arabs and Muslims have been lectured on the virtues of democracy by the west. But whenever baby steps towards that glorious end have been taken, the path has been blocked by men loyal to the empire. We saw it happen in Turkey – repeatedly – before the army was finally tamed. We saw it in Iran and then in Algeria, with catastrophic consequences, and more recently in the Palestinian Territories.
And now history is repeating itself in Egypt, threatening to tear apart the country and the region around it. The crackdown on the Brotherhood has put its entire leadership, including Morsi, behind bars while scores of protesters have been killed. And this may be just the beginning. As Pat Buchanan put it, "they played by America’s rules. Now, with America’s blessings, they are being locked up by America’s friends."
Where does Egypt go from here? The nation faces a fork in the road ahead. One road leads to total chaos and collapse as happened in Algeria, resulting in the loss of a million lives. The other path leads to a long and just democratic struggle and peaceful engagement as has been the case with Turkey.
The choice is clear. It’s time for the Brotherhood to step back from the brink and not provide an excuse to its detractors to repeat history. This is a temporary setback. If the party still retains faith in democracy, it should go back to the people and live to fight another day. It would be a shame if this democratic experiment is killed in its infancy. More important, if Egypt unravels, the whole region will pay the price for it.