More articles by
Yacov Ben Efrat
Egypt: Between Tragedy and Farce
istory repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce, Marx famously observed. He was speaking about the time of Napoleon III in the mid-19th century, but the observation holds true for the Egyptian revolution. Tahrir Square is the same square, the youth are the same youth, and the police are the same police. Only the slogans have changed – instead of calling for the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, they are calling for resignation of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Unlike the first uprising that broke out in January, which united a wide range of forces, there is no consensus within this second wave, and it offers no clear way out of the crisis.
Three groups are prominent among the many forces jostling for position in Egypt. The military is the ruling force, while the opposition is divided into two main camps: the Muslim Brotherhood, and the revolutionary youth in movements such as the Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution and the April 6 Youth Movement which led the first uprising. The military and the Muslim Brotherhood are part of the old order while the youth of Tahrir Square unmistakably represent the revolution.
The army is the continuation of the Mubarak regime. When Mubarak was about to be toppled, the army turned its back on the president and nominated itself as Egypt’s savior. The youth assisted this move, declaring “the army and nation are one” in city squares around the country. This slogan was misleading and opportunistic, but it reflected the balance of forces. The revolutionaries wanted to avoid the kind of blood bath that happened later in Libya and Syria. The relatively bloodless removal of Mubarak came at a cost: the army grabbed the reigns of government.
In Israel, warnings are being voiced that the Muslim Brotherhood is leading the new wave of demonstrations in Egypt, but in fact the Brotherhood is avoiding the Square, and the youth are leading, as in the first uprising. The mass demonstration of Friday, Nov. 18, was indeed called by the Muslim Brotherhood (and it set off the current wave of protests), but it was intended mainly to warn the military against postponing elections. The Muslim Brotherhood has no interest in violence. They expect the regime to fall into their hands like a ripe fruit. From their point of view, all that’s needed is clean, democratic elections, which is why they are democracy’s staunch defenders at the moment— even though the basis for Sharia law is the Koran, not democracy. The Brotherhood is not taking part in the current demonstrations, but it will be the main beneficiary.
The military too wants its piece of the pie – the retention of its privileges and the benefits of corruption from Mubarak’s days. For sure, the officers are not happy with either the rebellious youth or the Muslim Brotherhood. But the youth who sparked off the revolution and stand today behind the current wave of protests lack any party, program, or prospect of representation in the future parliament, and thus have no interest in holding elections. In January they took to the streets not in order to welcome the Muslim Brotherhood, but to usher in a modern, democratic regime. For these youth, democracy is Facebook democracy. To judge from numerous interviews given to the Arabic satellite stations, they believe that the revolution should be directed from the Square, not from parliament.
In the ten months since Mubarak’s removal, the youth continued with the “demonstration of the million” calling for an end to Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq’s regime. When Shafiq was replaced by Essam al-Sharaf, the protests continued, claiming now that the regime needed to be purged, or that Mubarak should stand trial. At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood held negotiations with other parties about a constitution that would regulate the elections and the future regime. The schism between the Brotherhood and the youth left a yawning political vacuum which the military took advantage of to consolidate its position. As elections were postponed, the transition period was prolonged and took on the color of permanence.
The situation got worse when the army declared it would hand over the regime to the elected president only by 2013. It announced this after reaching an agreement with the parties over a strange election procedure: elections will take over a year to complete and include four stages of voting for the national council, followed by elections for the presidency. This means that the Egyptian people will be busy with elections and political struggles for an incredibly long period before the regime’s character is decided.
The clashes in Tahrir Square are taking place just days before Egypt’s first free elections, which will include wide and varied participation, from Islamic fundamentalists to ultra-left Trotskyists. But the youth of Tahrir Square continue as if oblivious to all this. The hundreds of thousands clashing with police have no faith in elections. They want to bring down Tantawi and establish a transitional government until the presidential elections instead of the current military council. This government is to be subordinate to Tahrir Square, and its authority to be granted by the shabab [youth]. They put forward the names of the candidates. That is, they wanted to determine who would form the transitional government, which in turn would have to respond to them.
This government would be charged with all the duties of a democratically elected government, such as purging elements of the old regime, dismissing Interior Ministry figures responsible for the murderous oppression Egypt suffered for decades, trying leaders of the old regime including Mubarak, and developing a strong economy and society. Such demands, however, cannot be fulfilled as long as the transitional government has no clear agenda and has not been democratically elected by the nation.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s aspirations know no bounds. The Brotherhood hoped to determine the character of the future regime even before the elections. It supported a referendum on the principles of the constitution, on the basis of an army-appointed committee led by Dr. Tariq al-Bishri, who tends towards the Brotherhood’s position regarding the precedence of Islamic over civil law. The Brotherhood won the referendum (thanks to a campaign of fear against the “secular and infidel”). Fearing the results of an election, the military and secular parties then convinced the Brotherhood to negotiate. The outcome was a draft of principles drawn up by Ali al-Selmi. This granted the army far-reaching authority, such as maintaining secrecy over its budget, and stipulated that the constitutional committee must win the support of at least two-thirds of the national council members, who were to be chosen in the coming elections. The Brotherhood also opposed a paragraph granting the army the status of defender of the constitution, which means that the army would have the authority to intervene in government decisions if it thinks they undermine the constitution. In angry reaction, the Brotherhood called for the November 18th demonstration in Tahrir Square.
While the debates on the constitutional principles and the electoral structure continue, the square emptied of youth who got tired of ineffective protest. The Muslim Brotherhood also kept away from the Square, and accused all demonstrators of creating a schism between the army and the nation. But, as noted, after the Square was abandoned, the Brotherhood feared that the army would postpone the elections again and so it decided to flex its muscles. On Nov. 18, the Brotherhood called for a “demonstration of the million” against the army, and the Square filled up with the color green and religious, sectarian slogans. Afterwards, the Brotherhood went home to prepare for the elections and take over parliament without competition.
But after every Friday comes a Saturday. Following the Brotherhood demonstration, confident there would be no clashes with the army, a few hundred protestors and families of the fallen decided to hold a Saturday strike in the Square, never fearing they would be accused of seeking confrontation with the military. However, at the same time, the army and police also wanted an opportunity to show who rules the roost – they suppressed the demonstrators brutally and killed a number of people. It was only a small step from this show of strength to the return of the youth, who felt that the revolution was being hijacked, that the regime had not changed, and that elections were nothing more than a way of bringing the Muslim Brotherhood to power.
The result of these developments was the loss of credibility for all sides. The army was exposed as serving the old regime and attempting to retain its control. The Brotherhood revealed its opportunism during the process of preparing for elections, when at first it stood shoulder to shoulder with the army. Later, as said, it demonstrated against it. Now it is keeping away from the uprisings and speaking in favor of elections. The youth, meanwhile, don’t want elections – they want to direct events from the Square.
The unavoidable consequence of this three-way hostility is anarchy, which harms the interests of Egypt and its people. Thus the youth turned down a deal reached between the army and the Brotherhood. According to this deal, PM Essam al-Sharaf (deemed responsible for the killings) would resign; the military council would release those arrested during the protests and hand the government to the elected president by the summer of 2012. The youth rejected Tantawi’s declaration because he did not express regret over the murder of the demonstrators.
The youth of Tahrir Square are making a gross political error in failing to realize that the revolution of January 25 was a revolution in all senses of the word, and that the old regime has gone, even if certain vestiges remain. True, the army is the same army, the Interior Ministry is the same Interior Ministry, and the press is the same press. However, the revolution achieved great progress, including democratic elections and the establishment of a new constitutional regime. Their fear of the Brotherhood is propelling the youth and the revolutionary parties into the arms of the military.
In reality, there are two choices: either the Muslim Brotherhood or the army. If the army stays, this means the old regime returns and the counterrevolution has won. On the other hand, electoral victory for the Brotherhood is victory for the revolution, because it would take place on the basis of the revolution and its principles of democracy, citizenship and social justice.
The youth may be gaining public support due to people’s disappointment with the political parties, including the Brotherhood, which is more concerned about Sharia than about the nation’s daily bread. After all, the people rose up for social justice, not for Sharia, and they sense that nobody is concerned with their poverty and distress. Nonetheless, the only way to prevent a counterrevolution and a military regime is to hold free, open, democratic elections. If and when the Muslim Brotherhood is victorious, it will have to contend with the nation’s demands, foremost among them the demands of the working class. The Brotherhood’s integration in the government structure as a leading factor will mean that these demands will be directed straight at it.
The revolution is constantly in motion, and there is no way it can avoid putting the Muslim Brotherhood to the test after the Brotherhood earned itself a prominent position during thirty years of effort. The revolutionary youth must establish a parliamentary alternative, trusting the nation and the working class to learn from its own experience who the Brotherhood is and whose interests it serves.
Under the present circumstances, the transformation of the Square from a means to an end will only result in anarchy. This may lead the nation to back away from revolution in favor of a strong arm to bring quiet to the streets. The revolution’s interest is in establishing a new regime and holding elections, so that a new constitutional basis is created guaranteeing basic freedoms including freedom of conscience and freedom of association. The eyes of the world, especially of the Arab world, are on Egypt and its revolution. The revolutionaries must act wisely and responsibly to save the revolution and not burden it with too many aims as it takes its first steps towards profound social change.
- Translated by Yonatan Preminger