international analysis and commentary

Beyond the Egyptian paradox. A conversation with Roger Owen


One of the most influential legacies left by French sociologist Émile Durkheim is that revolutions are in themselves unable to make any significant difference: every deep change takes place through the cumulation of long-term processes of social development. A growing number of people, in Egypt and elsewhere, are becoming increasingly aware that the process of social and cultural change is much more complex and difficult than demanding the departure of a president or a government. This is even more the case in the context of what Samer S. Shehata defined as the “disturbing Egyptian paradox”. The reference is to a grassroots democratic protest movement – Tamarroud, or “Rebellion” – that called on a military which produced six decades of autocrats to oust a democratically elected president: all in the name of setting the country on a path to democracy. Despite this paradox and the long-standing repercussions that these events could have for the future of the country, many Egyptian journalists have expressed the feeling that most Western politicians and analysts are lacking a proper understanding of the present-day scenario. According to them and to a significant percentage of Egyptian public opinion, Mohammed Morsi had to be impeached because he unconstitutionally expanded his powers: “It’s a Revolution”, the Al-Tahrir journal’s front page clarified, “Not a Coup, Mr. Obama!”.

In order to get a broader understanding of these issues I turned to Roger Owen, author of several classic works on the history of the modern Middle East. The meeting took place in his office at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. On his desk was a copy of Ezzedine Choukri Fishere’s article entitled “Egypt’s second revolution is about securing the first”: a thesis that Owen seems to perceive as too simplistic.

Professor Owen, does the ousting of President Morsi represent a step forward towards a democratic Egypt?

I am quite skeptical. First, I have the impression that with the events of these last few days the Muslim Brothers have received an unexpected opportunity: they were losing ground day after day, while they can now play the card of being the victims. Second, I do believe that it is better a bad constitution than a constitution that changes every few months or years. Continuous changes prevent any long-standing solution. I am fully aware that religion should never dictate politics, but it is necessary to give it more space from time to time. This is even more the case in a country that is facing a sort of war of “each against all” – government against opposition, lay against Islamists, Muslim Brotherhood against “literalist” Salafis – and in which only the army seems to remain a pillar of stability.

Is the former Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is Mohamed ElBaradei a credible alternative?

ElBaradei is a symbol of short-sightedness and does not seem to have much support from the Egyptian people. He has worked hard to convince Western powers of what he called the necessity of forcibly ousting former President Mohamed Morsi. Many of the people that share his opinions are forced to claim that Morsi was “mismanaging the revolution”. Despite being fully aware of Morsi’s misdeeds, I find that very disingenuous. There was no legal or constitutional method available to oust Morsi. And while true democracy is not built on ballot boxes alone, it certainly isn’t by using an army to overthrow a democratically elected leader that we don’t consider any more suitable for his task. ElBaradei’s approach represents a sort of shortcut: and in the long-term shortcuts are never successful.

In which respects does the current uprising differ from the one which occurred in January 2011?

What we are witnessing now has much more to do with a personal freedom and identity issue. Millions of Egyptians felt that their personal freedom to live and behave as they liked was, and is, under attack. On the other hand, the January 2011 uprising was about more than just dignity and justice but involved getting rid of what was essentially a police state. There are also of course many common features, as well as similar protagonists. The protesters were and are mainly young, with a high percentage of women: women’s movements in the Middle East are potential agents for democratization.

What role did Washington play in the current events?

President Obama was careful not to use the term “coup”, being fully aware that defining Morsi’s ouster as a coup could mean a direct cutoff of US aid to Egypt. Some journalists mentioned that US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was in touch from Washington with General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the architect of the military intervention in Egypt’s political crisis. We don’t know if he got a green light from Washington to go ahead with a “soft” coup, but it is clear that the US has a huge influence over the Egyptian army.

How do you evaluate the US approach in this first stage?

Washington has four well-established priorities in the broader Middle Eastern area: the  defense of Israel, access to oil, prevention of terrorism, and the limitation of the Iranian nuclear program. As far as Egypt is concerned it is only of major importance with respect to the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, including Egypt’s full control of the Sinai Desert. Except for this, however, Egypt is not seen as a priority. It is perceived of as extremely weak: it has no control over the oil price, it has a huge but useless army and it absorbs a huge amount of aid money from Washington.

Is there an “exit-strategy” for Egyptian youth?

Perhaps yes, but I am afraid that this is the case only from the perspective of the Western powers, whose colonial past is often directly related to the crisis that we are currently witnessing. Egyptians, youth and women in particular, will continue to pay a high price. Europe’s little contribution to ease their pain would be to engage in a reassessment of our “fortress Europe” approach through an attempt to renegotiate the Barcelona process and to open up EU markets to our Arab neighbors.