Egypt’s ‘day after’
by H.A. Hellyer
Egypt does not get to talk about the ‘day after.’ Not yet, anyway. Whether it does sooner, rather than later, is a choice – and a scarce few seem interested in choosing the right option. If that is true of the population at large, it is even more so among the political elite – and the story of the last few days, weeks, and months is as much a failure of political leadership generally, as it is one about the resort to violence. Tragically, much of it was entirely predictable – and tragically, much of what is about to come to pass is as well. Political leadership has failed the revolution of the 25th of January – but standing one’s ground has never been more important in this country’s revolution. And more than a few will stand on that ground. The story of this country’s revolution is not yet over.
Let us get a few things straight, clear and abundantly transparent. All ought to have respect for the blood that was lost on the 14th of August – and point responsibility and accountability for it at those who pulled the triggers. That blood, if we’re talking in numbers (how low have we sunk?), belongs mostly to those who were protesting, unarmed, for the reinstatement of Mohammed Mursi (an irrelevant demand I reject), and who were killed in the crackdown. That blood also belongs to unarmed civilians who were opposed to Mursi, and killed by pro-Mursi gunmen, in different parts of the country (hence the now dozens of Christian churches that were attacked).
Placing the blame
Let’s talk about responsibility and blame too. Responsibility for that blood belongs to the security forces that used tremendous and excessive force (and who failed in their responsibility to protect citizens in Cairo and around the country), and responsibility for that blood belongs to those pro-Mursi elements that used violence. One cannot blame any of the unarmed protesters in the sit-ins for being shot (even if there were a minority of armed elements present), and one can not blame (as some in the pro-Mursi camp did) Christians and churches being attacked over the past few days, on account of the Coptic Church’s support for the military-backed interim government on July 3.
As political leaders continue to fail, people die. It is really that simple: political failure in Egypt means death
If that sounds complicated, complex, and irritating, then perhaps one ought to question one’s own shortcomings, and these absurd binaries that so many are consenting to view the situation through. This is not a simple situation – it is not a situation where the security services of the Ministry of Interior are saviours, nor where all Mursi supporters are angels. It is not a situation where all those who were killed by the Ministry of Interior are armed terrorists, or all those who died were supporters of Mursi.
It is, however, a situation where we can say that failure exists across the political spectrum. Those failures all led to the latest, but not the last, political failure, resulting in the decision to disperse the sit-ins by force. That decision should never have been taken – within the government and outside of it, inside Egypt and outside of Egypt, the government was warned that the forceful dispersion would lead to wide-scale violence. There were other options that could have been pursued – and those options might have been bad options, indeed. But how can the option taken not be considered as incredibly bad? How could other options have been worse? How could they possibly have been worse?
Tracing political failures
Those political failures don’t start or begin in the past 6 weeks – they are evident across the past three years, and we have to see those failures as they are. There was a political failure that led to the 14th of August – but it was a continuation of political failure, not the beginning of one. Political failure has been endemic in Egypt throughout the post-uprising period – whether one considers the poorly constructed roadmap of 2011 under the military’s design, or the response of the Muslim Brotherhood to it. Political failure was clear in the presidential elections in 2012, which saw most Egyptians choosing not their favoured candidate: but choosing someone who was not their most hated enemy. It was clear in the extra-judicial decree that Mursi declared in November, along with the catastrophic constitutional process in December – and it was clear in the inability of the then opposition in providing a vision that would inspire Egyptians. It was clear in the failings of the Muslim Brotherhood that led to millions of Egyptians going to the streets demanding early presidential elections – and it was clear in the arrogance of the president for failing to heed their demands in any way. It was clear in the military overthrow of the government, when other options were left unexplored sufficiently first – and it was clear in the pro-Mursi camp refusing compromise after it was clear that the population, by and large, withheld legitimacy from the Muslim Brotherhood. It was, disastrously so, clear in the decision to clear the sit-ins, with the predictable loss of life that followed – and it was clear in the response of some pro-Mursi elements to respond against civilians around the country.
Egypt now has to deal with yet more political failures – the failure of the ministry of interior to restrain its own forces from using incredibly excessive force against pro-Mursi supporters; the failure of the pro-Mursi camp to restrain its own supporters from pursuing violence around the country, against unarmed targets; and the failure of the ministry to protect others around the country from being targeted by pro-Mursi supporters. In the meantime, as political leaders continue to fail, people die. It is really that simple: political failure in Egypt means death.
A bleak situation
If the situation seems bleak, it is. But let us also be clear about something else – the idea that Egypt will easily go back to the pre-January 25th 2011 period is as unrealistic as the idea that democracy is going to be easy to achieve in this country. Egypt is different – whether people like it or not. Mubarak’s police state existed with the support of a single pillar – the pillar of fear, vis-à-vis the state. That pillar is gone, and cannot easily be reconstructed.
The country’s population is a young one – and these young people have not spent the last three years in a country where fear is the predominant emotion among the overwhelming majority of the population. That generation will not go easily into the night, if they see they are being led down a dangerous path – it will take a tremendous amount of effort to push them down it. Not the security establishment, nor pro-Mursi violent elements, will be able to take them down that path easily. They will try – just as many have tried to use external threats to justify restrictions on civil liberties. But they shan’t find it easy to do – and that is why the foremost demand of all forces in Egypt must be the reform of the ministry of interior. It’s not an easy one to make, but it is critical to the short, medium and long-term stability of this country.
Moreover, unlike the Egypt before January 25th 2011, this Egypt has tasted something. January 25 was something of a miracle, because civil society had been pounded into the ground, and mobilisation of a critical mass was unthinkable. That is no longer the case – people will easily mobilise if they feel the country is being taken down a path that is contrary to Egypt’s best interests. Every Egyptian and their mother have now tasted the phenomenon of ‘the protest’ – and that is a genie that cannot be easily put back into the bottle.
Every politician; every institution; every group; every organised structure has to remember: the people of Egypt are not the same anymore. They will resist. No one in a position of authority, whether in the government or out of it, should take Egyptians for granted. It may not be today that they take to the streets with critical mass – but they can do it tomorrow or the day after. It may be painful to them when they do it – but if the country’s population at large is behind them now, they will not easily submit forever. They must do more than survive, however – they must provide a genuine alternative for the future, and unite upon it. Egypt, as someone once told me, isn’t a science lab where you can waste time on experiments: it’s a country where more than 40 million live in severe hardship. They deserve better than all of this.
The spirit of Tahrir Square in 2011 is no longer in Tahrir – Tahrir Square was too small to contain it. Egyptians still have it within themselves to remind anyone – and that means anyone – that disappointing them comes at a price. Their agency has not been removed. As a friend of mine said: the blood may not be dry in Egypt – but neither is the ink of the revolution’s history.
Originally published on Al Arabiya. Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and ISPU, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.