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Lessons from the Egyptian revolution, 3 years later

Feb. 16, 2014 3:25 P.M. (Updated: Feb. 22, 2014 9:12 P.M.)
By: Sarah Eltantawi
Sarah Eltantawi is a scholar of Islamic studies, writer and political analyst. She is currently a postdoctoral EUME fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin and is an incoming assistant professor of comparative religion at Evergreen State College. Follow her on twitter.

At this time Egyptians psychologically need a strong national institution.

Two sayings often come to my mind when I think about the Egyptian revolutions these days: the first is attributed to the Prophet Mohammed: khayr al-amur al wasat -- the best path is the middle one; the second is attributed to James Baldwin, replacing "love" with "revolution" (although I think there are many similarities): "Love does not begin and end the way we think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war, love is a growing up."

I am one of those who thinks the situation in Egypt is the result of a constellation of complex factors that cannot be reduced simply to "a coup" or simply a popular revolt. What occurred was in my opinion a popular revolt that led to a coup, which was implicitly called for by much of the population.

As such, I find myself today repulsed by extreme interpretations of the situation in Egypt in either direction. It is certainly true that Egypt today bears all of the signs of a brutal counter-revolution: journalists have been jailed (though 60 political prisoners have recently been released), dissent is silenced, sometimes brutally, and a climate of xenophobia fills the airwaves.

Many have been rounded up and jailed on suspicion of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, now outlawed. Very many who supported the events of June 30 do not wish to affiliate themselves with the events that have transpired after July 3. Others feel pain over these events, but are in a state of confusion about whether what would have been would have been worse. Still others believe it is all more or less justified.

Relatedly, protests in many of Egypt's universities by Muslim Brotherhood supporters have crossed the line into brutality, including reports of damaging property, burning building, ripping the clothing off of a female professor, and assaulting elderly male ones.

There are frequent terrorist attacks across the country that almost always target security installations, such as during the Dec. 24, 2013, attack in Mansoura and around the Jan. 25, 2014 commemoration.

I tend not to believe the Muslim Brotherhood has absolutely nothing to do with these acts of violence even though responsibility was claimed by a group called Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. The attacks were stepped up after Morsi's ousting, as these Islamist groups are at least loosely ideologically aligned.

The Brotherhood's allies have taken their fight off Egypt's shores by launching an international campaign against the Egyptian government in American and European universities and airwaves, many of which shockingly parrot Muslim Brotherhood talking points without offering a counter-view in a nation that strongly supports the military intervention against Morsi.


Another fact, which is difficult for western observers to grasp, but is not at all difficult for many Egyptians to intuitively understand, is: Egyptians currently have terrible options, and so they support what they consider to be the lesser of two bad options.

Many, including this author, have extensively written about why so many Egyptians found the Muslim Brotherhood's year in power so intolerable that they did not want them to finish their term.

In brief, they felt that under the fig leaf of a democratic election, the Muslim Brotherhood took gross advantage of its extremely slim mandate in a revolutionary context to put forward policies that had the potential in the minds of many to seriously damage Egypt.

In other words, under the cover of a "revolution" and "democracy" (a democracy in which the Muslim Brotherhood eked out a win by 1.3 percent of the vote against a contender from the old regime that had just been thrown out in a revolution one year before), the Egyptian population was being slowly subjected to what they call takhwiin, or the "Brotherhoodization" of the state.

With this Brotherhoodization came a number of appointments to sensitive, high-skilled positions based on loyalty over merit, and a theocratic agenda of some kind that was uncomfortably unclear to many.

Most seriously is the perception of a shift of Egypt's alliances toward extra-judicial jihadist groups and their shared pan-Islamic agenda.

The idea is that Egypt is much too big, both population-wise and in the imagination of the region and the world, to have been hijacked in this manner. This is why -- and perhaps this clears up at least some confusion -- many Egyptians chose and continue to support the army and General Sisi, who they view as having saved the country from disaster.

The media and the impact of Syria

The media in Egypt, no doubt, is aiding this support for Sisi, which often turns to hysteria and dangerous xenophobia against Islamists and now revolutionaries or anyone who departs from the military's authoritarian line.

The media is feeding on fears of the country being on the brink, having come close to collapsing into a different understanding of a regional order that favors the pan-Islamic over the nationalist. For many Egyptians, this idea is anathema.

In addition, one can look at deeply troubled nearby Syria to see what happens when the state collapses, and the army suffers major defections (which I blame almost entirely on Assad): a vacuum created where jihadists bearing ideologies and agendas that have little to do with the desires of the native population flood in to destroy the country by imposing their rule based on a radical interpretation of Islam.

Is it any wonder Egyptians went into near cardiac arrest after Morsi's "rally for Syria" in which he all but called for Egyptians to travel over the borders and wage jihad? Or standing at a state function with shaykhs that openly engaged in taqfir (declaring a Muslim a kafir, unbeliever) against Shi'a and propagating distrust against Christians?

No one, especially considering Mubarak's presidency, could have imagined such sentiments coming from the President of Egypt. A dangerous line had been crossed.

The military transition certainly has left its own trail of blood. This includes the massacres at Rab'a al Adawiyya, where Morsi supporters were cleared from their sit-ins after 47 days in one of the bloodiest days in Egypt's recent history.

Seeing the facts as they are embedded on the ground

Three years on, I have learned that I no longer believe in critique for the sake of critique. This is an admittedly unusual statement for an academic to make, but I am convinced that critique and mere opinion-offering without a serious consideration of facts as they are embedded on the ground in the country under consideration and not strictly based on high theory, including democratic theory, is the easiest form of intellectual labor there is.

Unfortunately, it is woefully insufficient. In an era of revolutionary change in Egypt whose course no one predicted, there is no reason to assume that comparing a reading of events in Egypt -- often from afar -- to democratic theory produced in the West, for another context entirely in previous centuries would provide the best or much insight.

Egyptian affairs must be understood in the context of Egyptian particularities, which includes an ethnographic study of its people's attitudes, and then having the humility to take those attitudes seriously.

Some have made critique for the sake of critique into a career. In the West, we have reams of analysis of Egypt that refer to Egyptian culture and sentiment only in the vaguest terms, choosing only to concentrate on an analysis of state institutions from a western perspective, both practical and theoretical.

In Egypt, moreover, a mostly English-speaking class of commentators has emerged that seems to specialize in making fun of Egyptians. This "humor" is often strangely raunchy, likening Egyptians' sense of relief that there is a "strong man" that reports to "protect" a country that is not used to sustained terrorist attacks as little other than a collective hysteria of a people gone mad.

This genre also tells you that the intended audience is not really an Egyptian one, which generally does not appreciate toilet humor, especially humor that is sometimes so biting and sarcastic (and tunnel-visioned in its evident alienation from the sentiments and concerns of much of the population) that it feels as if some racist aggression is being lobbed onto those who are not in a position to respond.

Anyone who understands the Egyptian colonial and neocolonial encounter, especially those who live in the country with one passport and only one political and economic location in which to live out their lives, cannot find this particularly funny.

A final reason one might sour on critique for the sake of critique is empirical: many of the very same people who shouted "irhal irhal" (step down) to Morsi from the very first day of his presidency seemed to run quickly to the sidelines after June 30 and July 3 were said and done, as if they had nothing to do with any of it.

"But we never wanted the army," they say. In political terms, this is a meaningless statement, since it is a basic fact that since the revolution the army brokers political transitions in Egypt. It is little wonder that Egyptians who want to live a normal life no longer have a lot of regard for professional revolutionaries who will not accept the consequences of their actions.

Not just a coup

I would suggest that rather than reading events in Egypt as a simple coup, we should begin to grasp the much deeper and wider implications of what has occurred.

The most important point is that political Islam has been dealt a major blow in Egypt, and what happens in Egypt reverberates across the Arab world. The effects of this blow are only beginning to show, and if leveraged correctly, can amount to a major milestone in the crucial cultural aspect of the revolution that started in 2011.

The second point is that the people largely chose a military coup and now will have to live with the consequences of an iron fist rather than an indiscernible theocratic one. This is an ongoing revolution, and we, like the French, have time.

The most important orders of business are freeing political prisoners and jailed journalists, and overhauling the Egyptian economy. I would venture to say here that most Egyptians find this much more important than "democratic transition" -- which they have recently tried and found unsatisfying, to say the least.

It is also very important, though much more difficult, to figure out how to broker some kind of political deal with the Islamists, though this is at the moment impossible with their frequent terror attacks and the regime's incessant propaganda and dragnet arrests.

The army will overplay its hand. This is inevitable, as a military regime does not have the skills needed to truly bring Egypt the reforms it needs. It would be wise of Field Marshal Sisi to conclude that for this reason, it would be best for him and the country if he did not run for president. Having said that, there is, however, a serious question of who would be the best person to run Egypt during this time instead.

It is close to impossible to predict what will happen then, but having a strong national institution in charge of the country -- even if this power is a mirage -- is what (most) Egyptians need psychologically at this time to steel their resolve that their country shall not collapse into the chaos that Egyptians see all around them; both within and outside their borders, which they insist remain clear and protected.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect Ma'an News Agency's editorial policy.
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