Egypt’s Quest for Itself

Egypt’s transition is as contradictory and tempestuous as the current state of its society, and tells us much about it. What is still lacking is a sense of direction that could reassure both Egyptians and onlookers on where it is heading. Instead, a whirlwind of reversals, about-faces, and false starts has locked Egypt into a revolving cycle, if not a downward spiral.

’We broke the fear, let’s control our fate’.
Jonathan Rashad, Tahrir square, January 25, 2012.

Since President Mohammad Mursi was deposed last July, the coalition leading the transition may not be liberal and inclusive, but it does enjoy (for now) broad popular support, is committed to a clear electoral roadmap and, in any event, is a reality on the ground; “let us deal with it on that basis”, say most of its Western partners. The trouble is the same was said of the military when they ruled after President Hosni Mubarak’s removal in February 2011, and of the Muslim Brotherhood when they assumed power in June 2012. Both experiments ended ignominiously, and left Egyptians in a frantic search for an alternative. Throughout these phases, the levels of violence and repression have tended to escalate – leading to almost unprecedented waves of arrests in recent weeks. Meanwhile, polarized narratives are hardening.

If Egypt is to stand a chance for a more stable, more prosperous and more democratic future, one needs to reflect on the recent past. In particular, was the Brotherhood’s brief stint in office an anomaly – a mere parenthesis – or part of a cycle that their departure in itself will not end?

The Brotherhood’s Egyptian critics would posit the former, alleging that they treated the country as their loot, literally sold off parts of it to others, attempted to subvert its identity and merge it into a larger Muslim Umma, killed opponents in cold blood, and so on. The Brotherhood’s treachery runs so deep, they say, as to support opponents of the national football team. A kinder, rarer view among their critics is that their ascension introduced far too many changes for a traditionalist Egyptian society to stomach, thus calling for a reset to a slower transition.

For observers such as ourselves, engaging the Brotherhood during their year in power distilled, by contrast, a powerful sentiment of continuity. Policies – both foreign and domestic – seemed mostly aligned with past practices: they departed from them at times, but not spectacularly. Some appointments were shockingly partisan; most followed the norm. While the Brotherhood challenged the judiciary, it worked hard to placate and co-opt other key institutions, such as the ministries of defense and interior. Their style of government failed to be inclusive; but their predecessors were no better and their successors are arguably worse.

In fact, the Muslim Brothers’ narrative in private was astonishingly similar to what military officials used to tell us before them: we are the real Egypt, our finger is on the people’s pulse, and our opposition is a fringe of trouble-makers and spoilers. For their many failings the Brothers, just like the generals, would blame a grand but implausible conspiracy. Both posit that their own understanding of Egypt’s national interests and national security reflects the truest part of Egyptian identity.

The Brotherhood sees itself and its Egypt as a standard-bearer of like-minded Islamists across the region, natural allies that need to be abided, supported, and led. This meant, at times, irresponsible indulgence of Sinai-based militants and, at others, formal endorsement of jihad in Syria. In the Brotherhood narrative, focusing solely on Egypt is betraying the country’s greater, eschatological destiny.

Security institutions, notably the military, restrict their vision to Egypt’s borders despite often wrapping themselves in pseudo-Nasserist nostalgia. They are inclined to perceive Islamists of all shades as fundamentally unpatriotic, and distinguish them from “honorable citizens” who need to be protected from them at all costs.

All told, how did the Brotherhood rally against itself, within a year, such a large number of Egyptians as to make its undoing possible? How could so many of those who had elected them into power, or broadly accepted the polls’ results, reject them with such vitriol? How could the oldest, most established Islamist movement in the region become so quickly alienated in a religiously conservative society, to the point of being castigated as un-Egyptian?

Our sense is that the Brotherhood paid the price less for what it did, than for what it is. Although it presents itself and is perceived as a blend between religious movement and political party, it is mostly something else: a “secret society” and a vehicle for social mobility. By secret society we allude not to a scheming cabal but to a closed community. One does not simply join the Brotherhood, but fuses with it, marries into it, comes of age within it, and belongs to it profoundly.

There are nuances, debates, tensions even, within the organization, but being a Brother is a form of socialization, a frame of mind, a chain of command, and a perimeter within which one cultivates a distinction with the rest of society. The Brotherhood’s project, as conceptualized and proselytized by its founder Hassan al-Banna, is a dogma to which members wholeheartedly subscribe and are actively discouraged from questioning. It is a hierarchical organization where respect for (read complete obedience to) more senior leaders is a welcome sign of piety and dedication.

As such, the Brotherhood offers its members status, support and opportunities for social ascension – not least within its own ranks – in a broader environment that is not conducive to success via merit or other means. This is why leaving the Brotherhood bears such a trauma: you do not merely quit, but divorce yourself from its social, religious and business networks. For those who have gone through it, it is often a heart-wrenching process, in which one’s entire social world can turn its back. For its devoted members, therefore, the Brotherhood is more than a religious movement and a political party: it is a way of life that runs parallel to a larger society perceived as insufficiently pious and generally dysfunctional.

Egypt’s post-Mubarak transition put these features in a new light. On the one hand, the Brotherhood revealed itself structurally and culturally incapable of embracing genuinely inclusive politics – or even recognizing that it needed to construct a broader base of support. On the other, its accession to power transformed its traditional role as a vehicle for social ascension into a threat to well-established elites in a particularly rigid, almost caste-like society, where sons most often follow their fathers’ professional careers, social prejudices are deeply rooted, and endless commuting is about as much as one can hope for in terms of “mobility”.

That is not all. This is also a society that is being subjected to an unbearable amount of economic and other stress. The social contract that bound Egyptians, since Nasser, is one where the state guarantees education, healthcare, food, energy and even jobs to all citizens, in exchange for their unconditional retreat from politics and matters of governance. It has been unraveling for decades, and is now utterly frayed. Egyptians, more than others around the region, are right to panic at the thought of persistent instability occurring as a result: over 80 million people squeezed into a small habitable territory, endowed with limited resources, cannot afford any major breakdown.

As a result, Egyptians find solace in a sense of unity and uniformity, always elusive, ever sought after. If any slogan best encapsulated the specificity of Egypt’s transition, “one hand” or “all one” would be it: all one, against the former regime; against interim military rule; and, finally, against the Muslim Brotherhood. Yesterday’s worst enemies rejoice at being today’s best friends in a series of dizzying reconfigurations, while the paradox of being “all one” against the other seemingly is lost on all.

Egypt’s fear of generalized conflict or collective collapse appears to prompt a collective purging instinct, in which society consolidates around the need to rid itself of one of its components, perceived as threatening to the whole. Typically, this category is first re-categorized as foreign. The Brotherhood set themselves up to being treated as such, not least by encouraging jihad in Syria – a provocative break with a more cautious and mature foreign policy for the pure sake of rallying an Islamist base. But there is a pattern here that runs deeper, albeit on different scales.

Before protests gained decisive momentum in the early days of the 2011 uprising, many Egyptians saw demonstrators as paid agents provocateurs that deserved no better than to be crushed. This sentiment has returned at various stages of the transition. Coptic Christians suddenly faced frantic government and communal violence as they marched past the Maspero state television building in October 2011. Sudden spikes of xenophobia – against Westerners, Palestinians or Syrian refugees accused of the most outrageous plots against the country’s integrity – fit into the same pattern. Egyptians compulsively seek a scapegoat to blame for the country’s ill fortunes. Most media outlets, both state-controlled and privately owned, whip up campaigns of intolerance that the public largely buys into, finding comfort in groupthink.

This troubling cycle has been fueled by the nature of the political game: exclusionary, rudderless, confrontational and highly stressful, given the uncertainty, the violence, and the economic pressure to which it has given rise. Egyptians struggle, tellingly, to define a narrative that could help them make sense of events. The instant revolution fiction of early 2011 was quickly dispelled. The Brotherhood’s credo, “Islam is the solution”, soon came to be seen as part of the problem. It has now become remarkably mainstream to draw on a peculiar “pseudo-Nasserist” discourse that purports the revival of the military-led republic’s bygone spirit. This myth will not stand the test of reality any better than previous ones.

But then what? Egyptians sport both an unshakable faith in their country’s greatness and a gripping anxiety at its failure to meet their already lowered expectations. The ill-defined, stuttering transition they find themselves caught in has a knack of reigniting their fears about their collective destiny.

Egypt has both Sunnis and Copts, but it also has Shia, Baha’is and even atheists, however few they may be. It has the privileged secular-leaning urban elites, but also the destitute and the poor in its countryside and in the shantytowns encircling its major cities. The poor are a fertile ground in which charity and service-providing Islamists flourish. Some Egyptians think greater freedoms are needed; others would like to see a more effective brand of repression. Both the countryside and an urbanized underclass are growing in numbers (and in need), but the established elites still enjoy all the levers of power. The latter are bent on keeping the former in check, respectful of an ancestral order of affairs, but fail to deliver on the minimal levels of governance and redistribution required to do so.

Egypt’s greatest challenge is to recognize and regulate the pluralism within its society – to transition from a desperate quest for unity to a confident acceptance of diversity and what it would entail in terms of representation, competition and redistribution via the political system. It is unclear how Egypt or any other country ultimately achieves this. The tensions increasingly manifest in its society have been decades in the making, and addressing them is neither easy nor straight-forward. Sadly but realistically, some of these fault lines simply may not be bridgeable politically before they run their course on the streets.

Egypt also has much going for it. Fear of collapse hopefully will continue to serve as a powerful safeguard; state institutions are dysfunctional but resilient; and much support, whether benevolent or biased, can still be expected from sympathetic states in the Gulf and the West. The country’s traditional elites – be they generals, secular intellectuals or Islamist figures – are not up to the task, squandering one opportunity at coexistence and reform after another, but a new generation is rising, slowly but surely. It has no patience for the mummified political culture of its forebears.

But Egypt also urgently needs to buy time. The economy is dangerously eroding, in a society whose coping mechanisms have been stretched too thin and for too long. Numerous anecdotes of declining charitable contributions are but one sign of economic distress in a society where at least a quarter of the population is already under the poverty line. A generous lifeline from oil monarchies, which is mostly spent on subsidized fuels and commodities, will only keep the country afloat for so long. Egypt’s bloated and staggeringly inefficient public sector, the generous subsidies programs and the towering levels of inflation and unemployment set the country on an unsustainable path.

The belief that more arrests of dissidents and a couple of elections will finally help Egypt turn the corner, complete its transition and move on, is hazardous, if not delusional. This will help stave off neither a looming economic crisis nor a perilous drift toward more repressive policies . To shift from vicious cycle to virtuous cycle, Egypt must combine economic competence with some political level-headedness.

A more constructive posture on the part of the outside world — instead of rushing to endorse this or that leadership, hailing the sacrosanct political roadmap, and hoping for the best — would combine healthy political skepticism, a more consistent approach to the issue of individual liberties, and a clearer economic roadmap that would tie together Gulf money, Western aid, international loans and a much delayed reform program. The country’s rulers need the kind of support that helps them break with the cycle their predecessors fell victim to, not lock themselves into it.