international analysis and commentary

Egypt: the revolution of equivocations

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There is an intense debate about the right way to define the events unfolding in Egypt. Supporters of the coup d’état or “revolution” theories have clashed in a bitter dispute that goes far beyond a purely semantic issue. However, this conflict over words reveals the basic ambiguities or even misunderstandings that have marred almost every step of Egypt’s tortuous transition, where a disconnect between rhetoric and political praxis eventually produced a gap between stated objectives and attained ones. Without any derogatory intent and value judgment, one could label what has happened in Egypt since January 2011 a “revolution of equivocations”.

Equivocation number one: “the people and the army are one hand”
This was one of the most popular slogans of the later stages of the anti-Mubarak demonstrations in 2011, and has been heard again on June 30th and afterwards. Though the army contributed to avoid bloodshed and had a decisive role in tilting the balance in favor of the protesters, the alliance between the square and the generals was an improper one since the beginning. The army forms the core of that very ancien régime that the revolution has come to dismantle. The purported impartial role of the armed forces is merely a rhetorical construct, consolidated by decades of propaganda portraying the army as the vigilant guardian of Egyptian nationalism. On the contrary, the generals are the majority stakeholders of the old regimes, and what they seek to achieve from the “revolution” is a democratically-legitimized preservation of the status quo. This is the reason why they tried to strike a compromise with the most conservative political force, i. e. the Muslim Brotherhood, at least until the latter’s inexperience and arrogance put the very stability of the country at risk.

Equivocation number two: democracy is about holding elections in the shortest time possible
This is a well-established tenet of the international community’s “governance roadmap” which is usually applied to post-authoritarian transitions, and as such it has been adopted by the Egyptian Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in the wake of Mubarak’s ouster. However, a transition to democracy is primarily about re-writing the basic rules governing a polity, which means drafting a new constitution after a proper debate involving the country’s different social, ethnic and religious groups. It is only within this new perimeter that political actors – most of whom are not “educated” to democracy, having formed under an authoritarian set of institutional and psychological rules – can get acquainted with the norms and limits of democratic rule. This is the path followed, for instance, in Tunisia, where an elected Constituent Assembly has been working since November 2011 while an interim President and Cabinet exercise executive and legislative authority. In Egypt, civil movements and opposition parties had been asking for the constitutional process to forego elections, but the SCAF – for the reasons explained in equivocation number one – decided to proceed with parliamentary elections first. Ultimately, the bumpy path followed by the Egyptian constitutional process proved this to be the original sin of Egypt’s transition.

Equivocation number three: democratic rule can do away with liberalism
One of the most common assumptions of Islamists is the rejection of the Western conflation between democracy and liberal values. “Their” democracy, it is usually asserted, is culturally different from Western liberal democracy. This appears as one of the many contemporary deconstructions of the “end of history” triad formed by democracy, capitalism and liberalism. While the Chinese challenge is based upon the assumption that capitalist development can come without either democracy or liberalism, the Muslim Brotherhood aims to Islamize capitalism and democracy while rejecting liberalism. However, whereas cultural exceptions can be invoked without impinging on the form of democracy, what about its content? There is a core of liberal values without which democracy loses its substantial nature. Most prominent among these is the acceptance of pluralism, including recognition of the changing composition of majorities and minorities. During the last year, the way in which Morsi and the Freedom and his Justice Party (FJP) managed their relationship with the opposition revealed a concept of democracy which is very close to a dictatorship of the majority. Moreover, one is left to ask what kind of democratic alternative can be envisioned within a system in which parties ask to “vote for Islam”. Though, it must be said, there are millions of self-perceived good Muslims that choose not to vote for Islamist parties.

Equivocation number four: street mobilization can be a good substitute for parliamentary politics
Nobody questions how “the square” has been a formidable engine of change since January 2011, showing the breaking of the wall of fear built by the regime and the emergence of a civic consciousness, which are maybe the most lasting results of the revolution. However, following the fall of Mubarak, revolutionary forces have proved unable to sustain and orient that very change they have initiated. “Liberal” political parties, old and new, have failed to become the transmission belt of the demands of the revolution to the political arena, both for their own weaknesses – internal divisions, personalism, lack of social rooting – and for the declared willingness by the social movements to avoid any organic alliance with political parties. Revolutionary forces have remained very effective veto players, with opposition parties striving not to miss the next wave of popular protest. However “square politics”, with its inclination towards radicalism, has turned the political game into a race to mutual delegitimization, abolishing the dialectical dimension of democracy. The events that followed the June 30th protests raise a very serious question about the sources of legitimacy: is “square legitimacy” above “ballot legitimacy”, and who’s entitled to judge when the former stultifies the latter? Established democracies feature institutional mechanisms aimed at defusing such tensions before they arise, such as the American “impeachment”. The next Egyptian constitution will have to address the issue in order to avoid turning a nascent democracy into a form of mob rule.

A revolution, nothing less
Recent events do not seem to have dispelled the fundamental ambiguities that have made the Egyptian post-revolutionary transition so chaotic and turbulent. Revolutionary forces have again fell into the deadly embrace of the military, an inclusive constitutional process has been discarded in favor of limited amendments to the much-disputed Constitution in force, and elections are scheduled to take place in a short – albeit yet undefined – span of time. At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood is unlikely to learn the virtue of pluralism since calls for national reconciliation have been accompanied by a violent repression that reminds us of the darkest days of military dictatorship.

A few positive developments also point to the will to avoid past mistakes, and namely the swift transition to a civilian executive and the growing unity among opposition political parties and revolutionary forces.

What has happened since June 30th speaks of the irreversible nature of the changes set in motion since the first days of Tahrir Square. As the contradictions pointed out in this article show, revolutions are seldom characterized by a linear development, rather they proceed through a back and forth, tortuous path which is full of unknowns and in the case of Egypt, will likely disappoint both the enthusiast supporters of the “Arab Spring” and the disillusioned chroniclers of the status quo.