This past week has been quite confusing. On one hand, young supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) demonstrated outside the Supreme Court calling for a purge of the Mubarak-appointed judiciary. Furthermore, legislation was introduced by a rival, and more moderate, Islamist party- al-Wasit – now vaguely allied with the MB, that would, if passed by the Shura Council, make such a purge possible. The MB protestors were attacked last weekend by masked youth – possibly the anarchist Black Bloc –knives, Molotov cocktails and small arms were used by both sides in the fighting, as well as the customary sticks and stones, this led to many injuries.
This is the same judiciary that appointed the previous chief prosecutor who managed to lose nearly every case he brought against police officers charged with killing and wounding many demonstrators during the Tahrir Uprising. The purge of such a judiciary would have been welcomed by the Opposition, not to mention the demonstrators at Tahrir, a year ago. But now the issue is a political football since it is the Supreme Court which has repeatedly, and most effectively, challenged Mursi since he took office last summer. It is the court which caused the delay in parliamentary elections which Mursi wanted to move forward before painful austerity measures had to be implemented. Such measures are particularly painful for the poor but necessary if Egypt is to receive a 4.8 billion dollar IMF loan. Unpopular measures are best left for the day after the elections, but thanks to the Court Mursi cannot count on that. The price for cooking and heating, fuel and electricity have all quietly but noticeably gone up, stirring massive opposition against Mursi in certain quarters.
So the game has changed. The Opposition now defends “the integrity of the judicial system” that is largely the product of the Mubarak –era and which exercised limited powers and independence during his timeAbdallah Schleifer
So the game has changed. The Opposition now defends “the integrity of the judicial system” that is largely the product of the Mubarak –era and which exercised limited powers and independence during his time.
It would seem that Mursi’s remarks (made in that allusive manner which invariably undermines the credibility of his often legitimate discontent), about organized conspiracies, made during a visit to the Sudan earlier in the month, were the overture to the demonstrations. But most troubling to one of the most judicious of writers in the independent press - Cairo University professor of political science Dr. Hassan Nafaa - was Mursi’s threat that he would not hesitate, if necessary, to call for a second revolution against those corrupt individuals who are working to ruin Egypt’s image. He could be referring to the judiciary or anyone consistently calling attention to the lack of security and the economic crisis confronting Egypt, which Mursi somehow insists upon publically denying. He could, instead, quite reasonably blame the mess on the Opposition (for several months ago one of the leaders of the National Salvation Front - the formal Opposition - threatened that they could destroy the Egyptian economy; a threat under implementation over the past five months). Mursi’s remarks were immediately echoed, in even stronger language, by the Salafist leader Hazim Abu Ismael. Something of an uproar followed.
Then, suddenly, the president shifted course, telling the world in a television interview that he had no intention of undermining the judiciary and that he would soon reshuffle the cabinet.
It would have been hard to imagine only a few years ago that I would one day be making excuses or even defending, in a left-handed manner so-to-speak, the Muslim Brotherhood on some of the finer points of the on-going political crisis. Hard to imagine considering my distaste for any movement that turns a religion into an ideology. Particularly since my own conversion to Islam, nearly 50 years ago, was in part the result of my flight from ideology (specifically Marxist, but in principle from all ideologies) towards the political realism that stems from a traditional religious perspective.
On the finer points…
But those finer points that I do continue to raise in this column are symptomatic of more fundamental problems than simply trying to determine which side is more irresponsible than the other.
• The Opposition accuses the MB of “hijacking the Revolution” and the MB says its electoral mandate “affirms the Revolution.” But there was no Revolution.
• From the 28th of January 2011, after hesitating for only a few days, the MB threw its weight behind the Tahrir Uprising, and its youth movement provided street fighters with a security system to protect Tahrir. Perhaps that decision to support Tahrir was because Mursi and others from the MB had been arrested by the Mubarak regime after the first day of demonstrations and the degree of public support on that first day could only have impressed them. Since none of the three top leaders of the formal Opposition were arrested when they made their appearances at Tahrir, during the 18 days of The Uprising, to accuse the MB of “hijacking” is somewhat ludicrous.
• The Tahrir Protesters never seized power, which is what defines a revolution. Nor did they “overthrow” Mubarak. What the massive protests did was to put great pressure upon the Armed Forces to stage a soft coup d’etat to end the crisis.
• Since the Tahrir protesters – who were basically leaderless (which the more romantically inclined global media found entrancing) and devoid of a widely organized, disciplined political movement within their ranks, aside from the MB - did not seize power, they never exercised it, aside from the illusionary enthusiasm of the Spring of 2011. What they could and did do was to stage periodic protests to pressure the Armed Forces into taking stronger measures on occasion, like arresting Mubarak and his sons and bringing them back to Cairo for trial.
• A Revolution means a change of the governing cadre and of the political and, usually, the socio-economic order. That did not happen when Mubarak stepped down, except in rhetorical terms.
• The Armed Forces did have power but did not boldly exercise it, delegating nominal but not real power to a “transitional” cabinet paralyzed by its own provisional nature. Who thinks long term or even medium term when you are in it – whatever “it” is - for only the short term?
• There could have been a Democratic Revolution when free and fair elections for both houses of parliament and then for the presidency were held, which would have provided the political muscle for sweeping changes, as happened in the American Revolution. The American experience saw tens of thousands of loyalists to the British Crown exiled in Canada. But that was thwarted by the indifference of the MB to forming - as Mursi had promised - a grand coalition. The move was equally thwarted by an adamant, uncompromising Opposition, no doubt embittered by the MB decision to go back on its promises, which further doomed the prospect of a democratic revolution. Since the elections, the Opposition has opposed everything – including invitations to dialogue - that Mursi and his government have undertaken.
• So then, there was the prospect of an Islamist Revolution, the ground work for which, according to the Opposition, had been laid when the government consolidated MB control of the state media. A possible Revolution very much implied by Mursi’s remarks in Sudan and the immediate echo of those comments by Hazem Abou Ismail, who heads up one of the Salafi parties allied with the president: “That conspiracies and seditions…invite us to announce a complete new revolution that will resolve and settle all matters, close the doors of sedition as well as suppress the wolves waiting to pounce…[a revolution] which could put in place adequate systems to purify state institutions.”
• But while the MB played an important role in Tahrir, it did not attempt to organize a popular armed insurrection led by the cadre of an Islamist movement - the only means for making an Islamist Revolution.
However popular Abu Ismail was when he briefly aspired to be president back in 2012, and however passionate his words, it is also clear to everyone, including the president, that the Egyptian Armed Forces will never tolerate such an insurrection.
Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East corrrespondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspndent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya's Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary "Control Room" and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza...and Jerusalem.”