Egyptians are forgetting something

H.A. Hellyer

Published: Updated:

What a short memory most of Egypt seems to have.

Under the year-long presidential tenure of Mohammad Morsi, as readers of this column will know, much space was accorded to not only criticising the Muslim Brotherhood led government, but also vis-à-vis the disparate opposition groups. More to the former than the latter, which is appropriate – the former had power, while the latter did not.

The column was not limited to criticism, but also to providing suggestions for alternative courses of action. People’s short memories mean that while many of those suggestions still remain valid, albeit directed now at different actors in Egypt’s political elite, they are not only being ignored– the criticisms are being dismissed.

Forging ahead

Take the conduct of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government. Time and time again when criticisms were made, they were routinely pushed aside. Even when incompetency was pointed out, and even admitted, the incompetency was disregarded as “irrelevant.” Incompetency of the first post-January 25 elected government was less important than “maintaining” the “course.” One discussion held with a pro-MB Egyptian academic was very revealing: “It does not matter if they are incompetent. They do not need to be competent– the situation is straightforward enough as is. They just need to forge ahead– this is the only way to strengthen democratic institutions, and that is the only thing that counts.”

Egyptians deserve better and they needn’t fear listening to alternative points of view without condemning them as “weakening” Egypt.

H.A. Hellyer

The fact that Mursi’s government continually weakened democratic institutions was swept to one side. All of those actions, particularly with regards to the extra-legal decree in November, the constitutional building process, and the failure to develop co-operation with state institutions (which was a direct result of the government’s approach), were “irrelevant.”

As the pro-MB camp has now been made “irrelevant,” the response is different, but the same. In a recent satellite television show, a pro-Mursi analyst in the UK, commenting on Mubarak’s trial, rejected any analysis on the case. Analysis, indeed, was irrelevant, past this point: under a government that was backed by, and had its authority derived from, the military’s leadership, no trial could be regarded as legitimate. The military overthrow had to be reversed – then, it seems, we could speak about the details of any trial or case.

The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood never changed the status quo in terms of the military’s relationship with the executive was ignored. Indeed, the MB maintained and legally made the position of the military permanent in the 2012 constitution; it deemed the military to have interests that coincided with their own. The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood did not engage in reform of the judiciary, and simply tried to ensure that it was partisan in its favour (rather than truly independent), was equally ignored.

Criminal intent

Take the recent case of former vice-president Mohammed ElBaradei, where he is being accused of grand treason. A former senior advisor to Mohammed Mursi pointed out that while the case was lodged by an independent citizen (a law professor, no less!), the decision of the prosecutor general to investigate it was proof of political intent. All well and good but let us not pretend similar actions did not take place under former president Mohammed Mursi. When Bassem Youssef, the famous political satirist, was subject to even worse treatment, many pointed out that Talat Abdullah’s (the then prosecutor general) decision to take it forward was evidence of political intent. At the time, Mursi supporters preferred to focus not on the partisanship of the prosecutor general, but on the “faults” of Bassem Youssef in terms of his own partisanship. That excuse meant that a political satirist was investigated for attacks on the president and religion –a preposterous scenario– but few on the then pro-government side were willing to countenance the suggestion that judicial and legislative reform was indeed necessary.

The same problem is made clear with regards to police reform, or the restructuring of the Ministry of the Interior. Such demands lie at the core of the January 25 revolution – but no government in the past 3 years has taken it seriously, despite serious concerns voiced by civil rights and human rights organisations. Now, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood cites police excesses –and with good reason– but when these concerns were expressed while the Muslim Brotherhood was in power, they were regularly treated with little or no seriousness. Of course, within the pro-government camp, such discussions are treated in the same way: they must “wait,” until the “exceptional situation” is no longer in operation. Quite. One suspects that this “exceptional situation” will last long after anyone even remembers how it came about.

Within the broader political and media arena there are people who are tired of this cycle, where those in authority resist reform under the maxim of “my power must be maintained, and this is to the benefit of the country.” They exist even within private media and non-Islamist political parties but they are a minority who are overruled by those more senior and influential within their own circles. They are the ones who are dismayed by the rabid willingness of many within the pro-government camp to quote or cite excessively and extremist right wing groups and institutions in the West, due to their opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood. The enemy of my enemy is not always my friend, these principled stalwarts insist – but now they are in a much curtailed position.

Egypt today

Under the new paradigm Egypt finds itself in, such people who hold to their principles are described as either excessively naïve (and thus their opinions are inconsequential) or worse, as secretly sympathetic to the “other side.” That approach, it seems, is shared by dogmatic ideologues on both of the major “sides” in current discourse and it is to Egypt’s loss that this is the preferred worldview for such large swathes of opinion.

Egypt finds itself in that cycle with little hope in the future of breaking out of it but breaking out of it is a prerequisite to any real reform in this country. Egyptians deserve better and they needn’t fear listening to alternative points of view without condemning them as “weakening” Egypt. On the contrary, Egypt’s greatest source of strength is, indeed, considering seriously how to listen to alternative points of view. It has, after all, tried the other cyclical way and no one ought to be deluded in thinking it bought Egypt its freedom. If anything, it delivered it into this most unenviable “exceptional” situation.


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

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