Friday, July 12, 2013

In the courtroom of the streets:
Egypt rewrites the rewrite



IN EGYPT on Monday, at least 51 people — supporters of Mohammed Morsi, elected president of Egypt and since apparently deposed — were killed, and more than 400 wounded, by the same armed forces that were once under his control. The Egyptian military leadership has installed a temporary civilian government and suspended the constitution. Interim president Adly Mansour struggled to keep order, announcing plans to amend the constitution and calling for parliamentary and presidential elections in early 2014.

In the days since, rival factions — Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and the pro-opposition National Salvation Front — have been squaring off for a clash some believe could still usher in civil war. The United States has warned against the government arresting pro-Morsi supporters; but as the chaos gets wider still, it was reported on Wednesday that the U.S. intends to go through with a commitment to deliver four F-16 fighter jets to Egypt.

More protests, largely peaceful, were held on Friday, but more demonstrations are expected deeper into the weekend.

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Even by the yardstick of the reliably chaotic, heads-is-tails politics common to the Middle East, what’s happening now in Egypt is something else again: a nation of more than 82 million people, indispensable as a moderate buffer between the belligerence of other Arab states and the tense caution of Israel, caught up for the third time in two years in a vast revolution.

But this time with a twist. On July 3, the Egypt Independent newspaper tweeted: “This may be the first time in history that an army has told its people it plans to launch a coup d’etat.”

This is what democracy looks like? Maybe. Maybe not even close.


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THE DAY before the United States of America observed another anniversary of the declaration of its independence, the Republic of Egypt did the same thing in a way that couldn’t be less ceremonial, or more of a real-world, real-time illustration of just how messy the process of declaring independence from the past can be.

Almost a year to the day after taking office as the president of Egypt, the first democratically-chosen president in the modern history of the nation of 83 million people, Morsi was deposed in an action that has pundits and analysts scratching their heads in search of terminology. The populist call for the Egyptian military to effectively run Morsi out of office on behalf of the Egyptian people resulted in ... what, a coup d’etat? Certainly, not in the point-of-a-gun, tanks-on-Main-Street, “Seven Days in May” sense of the phrase.

Samer Shehata, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, simplified things on MSNBC: “Here we have a paradox: We have a supposedly democratic movement calling for the military to intervene to oust a democratically elected president.”

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I noted last June 24: “How well President Morsi navigates that middle ground between satisfying both the demands of the Islamic traditionalists that helped him attain power and the demands of a secular Muslim nation with a shattered economy and a citizen median age of 24 years old may reveal whether Morsi is a transformational figure in Egyptian politics or merely a caretaker on a tightrope.”

We have an answer to that. Morsi fell from the tightrope, but it was a tightrope he never really tried to walk in the first place. The presumed champion of democracy who ruled Egypt for the past year made democratic noises with a distinctly autocratic accent. In November, Morsi’s naked grab for power — he tweaked the constitution to add amendments that put his decisions above any judicial review — suggested that any campaign overtures toward an attempt at legislative balance between constituencies was a fiction at best.

“Having won the election very narrowly, President Morsi found himself unable [or] unwilling to be the president of all Egyptians,” said James Rubin, former assistant secretary of state, on July 4 on MSNBC. “He represented a narrow faction; he rammed through constitutional changes that were designed to appeal ... only to his faction, the Muslim Brotherhood ... and he had no success in reviving Egypt’s economy or its well being.”

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THE CURRENT chaos of Egyptian politics had a notable antecedent. Morsi won election after a runoff with Ahmed Shafiq, a former prime minister under Hosni Mubarak, the pharaoh manqué ousted from power in 2011. Then, Morsi was seen as preferable to Shafiq for reasons that now abound in irony.

At the time of the runoff, in May 2012, Shafiq, a former head of the Egyptian air force under Mubarak, was widely seen as being a politician in his boss’ style, and therefore unacceptable to Egyptians. The thinking was that Egyptians would reject electing a new president who followed in the footsteps of the old.

“We have carried out the revolution against the authoritarian regime, which was run by Hosni Mubarak,” said columnist Ibrahim Mansour, writing in the May 28, 2012, edition of the Al-Tahrir newspaper. “And without doubt, Ahmed Shafiq is a natural extension of Hosni Mubarak.”

What a difference one year makes.

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The collapse of Morsi’s autocratic improvisation has obvious repercussions for an Egypt already reeling from a staggering unemployment rate and one of the youngest populations in the Middle East.

Nina Easton wrote in Fortune in January: “By putting his decisions above judicial review, Morsi has effectively blunted that emerging American enthusiasm for commercial engagement with the Arab region's second-largest economy. [Arizona Sen. John] McCain is among those in Congress warning that Morsi's authoritarian bent is jeopardizing not only its $1.5 billion in U.S. military assistance, but also its future economic aid.”

Morsi’s rash action last year scuttled a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan that would have gone a long way to mollify nervous foreign investors and shore up an economy.

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AND IT gets worse. The Wall Street Journal reported July 4 that more than just the IMF loan was on the table. “Other international donors have vowed another $9.7 billion for the country once the IMF program is in place,” the Journal said in conditionally hopeful language that is, now, pretty much unnecessary.

Fortunately, Egypt has friends that‘ll carry the country for a few rounds. The United Arab Emirates, a leading critic of the Morsi government, has promised $3 billion in loans and grants to the new government, Al Jazeera reported on July 10.

And Saudi Arabia stepped in to OK $5 billion in aid, including $2 billion in central bank deposits and $1 billion in cash, Al Jazeera said. All of that’s fine in the temporary short-term, of course, but it’s not likely to stanch the bleeding of an Egyptian economy in free-fall, or move that economy toward sustaining itself in a fundamentally organic way.

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For one Middle East watcher, it’s no surprise. P.J. Crowley, former United States Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, told Current TV on July 3 that “two years ago when we saw the Arab Spring, we understood that as Egypt moved forward toward democracy, it was not going to be a straight line. There were going to be steps forward, steps backwards.”

How much like every democracy in the history of the world. Including the American experiment in democracy.

The bigger questions, the ones singular to Egypt, are obvious: What now? Can the Egyptian military be trusted not to meddle in electoral poltics? When so much of the Egyptian public called for the armed forces to remove the democratically elected Morsi, who replaces him permanently? How does Morsi’s apparent removal from power undermine the drive to build confidence with foreign investors — and with the tourists who’ve long played a role in the Egyptian economy?

And what does this say about the future prospects for demotheocracy in Egypt? Morsi’s apparent overthrow after a national election generally seen as free and fair raises questions about the risk of a similar upheaval in the future — when another leader doesn’t fulfill campaign promises quickly enough and gets bounced not as part of an orderly constitutional process, but as a result of the call for a spasmodic popular revolt, in a courtroom of the streets.

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AS REPORTED by USA Today, Karam Sharawy, speaking at a pro-Morsi rally earlier this week, understands what’s required, and what’s at stake. There shouldn’t be a distinction between the legitimacy of the government and the legitimacy of the process by which the government is decided. “We already had an election. We already elected our president. Democracy means to elect someone and to give him his four years in government, then have another election.” That’s what the Egyptian people are wrestling with right now.

“Things have not changed at all. It is as if the revolution never happened,” Ayat Maher, a 28-year-old mother of three, told The AP in Cairo, in June 2012. “The same people are running the country,” she said. “The same oppression and the same sense of enslavement. They still hold the keys to everything.”

Maher’s disillusionment came despite her voting for Morsi last year. With Morsi gone at least for now, the armed forces back in charge (however nominally) and Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood group calling for a national uprising, the stage is set in Egypt for the past to be prologue. Again.

Image credits: Unrest: AFP via Al Jazeera. Morsi supporters: Reuters. Shafiq: Khaled Elfiq via msnbc.com. McCain: The Associated Press.

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