The condition of Egypt is quietly very concerning these days. I say quietly for two reasons. First, in terms of the Western audience, most is slipping under the radar. Second, in terms of Egypt, the nation waits for presidential elections, and the areas of concern are easily ignored if no attention is paid to news headlines and their fascination with politics.
Yet it is in the realm of politics that power is often determined. Often, I say, because once again this struggle has been taken into the street.
Reminiscent of clashes prior to the legislative elections, eleven people at least were killed recently while demonstrating against the military council. Still, the odd quiet continues as these protests are near the Ministry of Defense in Abbasiyya, not in the iconic Tahrir Square.
Furthermore, they are characterized as ‘Salafi’ protests, as the initial gathering was by supporters of Hazem Salah Abu Ismail. The long-bearded presidential candidate was barred from competing at the last moment when it was determined his mother held American nationality. Current law requires candidates and their parents to hold Egyptian nationality alone.
Abu Ismail claimed fraud and conspiracy, and his followers took first to Tahrir, and then to Abbasiyya. There, they had been joined by many of traditional revolutionary spirit, looking to end military rule completely. The size of the sit-in was substantial without being overwhelming. Most in Egypt were just ignoring it.
But nothing in Egypt can be simple or straightforward. Repeatedly over the last week ‘thugs’ attacked the sit-in around midnight through the hours until dawn. As usual, the thugs are not identifiable with any particular party, but most assume some connection with either the military council or the old regime elements still clinging to their positions.
Yet this has been seen before, and the pattern is predictable. The best way to escalate a protest is to attack it. True to form, protestors have been increasing since then, and political forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood, are calling for more protests.
In past writing I have sought to dive into all of the different conspiracy theories to try to make sense of the senseless violence and loss of life. Perhaps reflective of the odd quiet is that my mind is boggled sufficiently after fifteen months of conspiracy that I am unable to do so and reluctant to try. Instead, the task requires description of the politics preceding the street fighting.
For months, the aforementioned Muslim Brotherhood has escalated its rhetoric against both the ruling government cabinet and the military council which stands behind it. Both prior to and following the disqualification of their own primary candidate for president – Khairat al-Shātir – the MB has called for this cabinet to be sacked. In its place they ask to form the government themselves, as they reflect the majority will of the people in parliament.
The military council has refused, as is appropriate, even according to previous MB logic. During the run-up to parliamentary elections many liberal and revolutionary forces objected to the roadmap laid out by the military council. Rightly, the MB insisted on the ‘will of the people’ as represented in the results of the March popular referendum, which endorsed the military roadmap.
Yet this roadmap also made it clear the parliament had limited responsibilities which do not include executive authority. The MB recognizes this, but now translates the ‘will of the people’ into parliament composition, in which they are chief. The MB speaker of parliament took the unilateral step of suspending parliament activity as a pressure tool – since they cannot sack the cabinet themselves – and this was without any consensus from the larger body. It is not clear if he even called a full vote.
The Muslim Brotherhood is running a candidate for president, but he was the backup to al-Shātir, and does not appear to enjoy wide popularity. The race – barring more surprises – has shaped into a choice between a former MB member, ‘Abd al-Mun’im Abū al-Futuh, and a former member of Mubarak’s cabinet, ‘Amr Mūsa.
Abū al-Futuh was expelled from the MB when he early on declared his intention to run for president while the group denied ambition to the post. He is an Islamist, but within this spectrum he is widely credited as a liberal.
Mūsa, meanwhile, does not suffer unduly from the stain of Mubārak’s legacy as he enjoyed a lengthy tenure in the Arab League, away from the running, and corruption, of government. At the same time, due to his connections with government he benefits from the desire on the street to see a return to stability and is a somewhat anti-revolutionary figure, as opposed to the necessity of reform.
Some conspiracies say Abū al-Futuh is the secret MB candidate, and that his expulsion is theater. Others say Mūsa is the candidate of the old regime, with the military seeking its re-formation through him.
And then there are the conspiracies which abound over the recent violence. Do some powers not want the issue of power decided in presidential elections? Is this the last final push before executive authority – of any stripe – is reasserted?
If so, is it from the frustrated youth who have seen their precious revolution mangled in the halls of politics?
Is it from the frustrated Salafis who have seen their populist candidate barred on the slightest of violations, if not on fraud altogether?
Is it from the frustrated Muslim Brotherhood, who also had a candidate barred and find themselves trapped in a powerless parliament?
Is it from the frustrated old regime, which finds itself on its last legs and is desperately trying to discredit the revolution and its democratic transition?
Is it from the frustrated military council, which desires to hold on to its privileges – if not its rule – while presidential frontrunners cannot necessarily be trusted to play along with it?
It is best, fitting with the lethal quiet, to put aside the conspiracies and simply say yes to all of the above, to whatever degree. There is a deep conflict over power playing out its final acts. This struggle has been rumbling ever since the revolution succeeded in overthrowing Mubarak but failing to decisively result in a change of system. Each actor has a role. As it may not result in one winner-take-all, each is seeking their biggest slice of the pie.
Given there are no deep patterns of democratic succession, it is unsurprising the conflict spills out into other means, even violence.
Yet it is the violence that is most concerning. Weapons have proliferated. Militant attacks occur in the Sinai. Suspicious fires – literal flames – have broken out across Egypt. While they may simply be the work of coincidence, the question of who is ‘burning Egypt’ has been a popular query, even if a manipulated one.
So, eleven Egyptians are dead in Abbasiyya, added to the post-revolutionary toll. Perhaps their numbers will swell further. Is more violence coming, or was the violence simply a means to increase the crowds?
Last time there was such violence, in November at Muhammad Mahmūd Street near Tahrir, it brought about a change in government as the cabinet was sacked. If the conspiracy which posits a deal between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military/old regime is in play, will we see the same soon?
Or, as a leftist presidential candidate with little chance of victory has interpreted this deal, will it result in a military coup? Recall, these protests are not in Tahrir; Abbasiyya hosts the military headquarters.
Perhaps one day Egypt will settle. Perhaps the positive social forces unleashed in the revolution will eventually coalesce into open and transparent governance.
These days are not now. It is likely Egypt must suffer a little while longer. There are three weeks remaining until presidential elections.
Perhaps, only perhaps, these will signal the end of transitional troubles.