Egypt’s New Rule

14 minute read
Karl Vick / Cairo

Crowds are everything in egyptian politics. The throngs in tahrir square ousted President Hosni Mubarak after three decades in power, and public protests shortened the rule of the geriatric generals who first took his place. That ushered in Egypt’s first fair presidential election in, well, 6,000 years of history. But then, after only one year of democratic leadership, the crowds took over again. For many Egyptians, protest equals democracy. The millions afoot on June 30 persuaded Egypt’s powerful military to remove President Mohamed Morsi after his first and only year in office. One of the first acts of its “transitional government” was to order a TV blackout of the massive rally that Morsi’s supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood called in response. Not very democratic of them. The Brotherhood’s supreme guide, Mohammed Badie, then commanded followers to defend “every square in Egypt,” an order that transformed a political competition into a contest for territory, the stuff of war. And that may be where Egypt is headed if it doesn’t figure out how to move its politics out of the hot sun.

Thirty loud, footsore months after dispatching a despot by demonstrations, Egyptians remain the world’s premier protesters. But they’re proving to be lousy democrats. Morsi ruled as if he were answerable only to his Brotherhood, and to hell with the 48% of the electorate who did not vote for him. By embracing the military to finish off Morsi, his political opponents abandoned the democratic process for which many of them had risked their lives two and a half years ago. Popular as it was, the coup sets a precedent for transferring power not by the ballot box but by the mob. And it broadcast a clear signal to Islamists everywhere that elections are exactly what the extreme among them have always warned: pointless.

“I don’t think there was an alternative, to tell you the truth,” says Hussein Gohar, a senior official in the liberal Social Democrat party and one of the coup’s more reluctant supporters. Like many in the anti-Morsi alliance, he says the President was systematically undermining democracy by writing an Islamist constitution and stacking the deck for future elections. “I don’t think if we waited another four years we could have done anything about it,” Gohar adds.

But in trying to save democracy, Morsi’s opponents may have jeopardized it. Gohar acknowledges that the furies first unleashed in Tahrir Square could haunt any future government. “The precedent is street politics now,” he says. “It’s not the best thing.” On this point, at least, some Brotherhood leaders agree. “It doesn’t help anyone to just count and compare crowds,” says Amr Darrag, a member of Morsi’s Cabinet. “This is going to be endless.”

Remember the Arab Street? The phrase has done long and reliable service as journalistic shorthand for an excitable public both feared and manipulated by cynical autocrats. But in Egypt, the street is now the ballot box, the crucible of power. The country’s notional new rulers–an unlikely alliance of generals, judges, liberal pols and Islamic extremists–have tried to shift the debate indoors, publishing a schedule for elections and an amended constitution. But events are likely to be driven more by protesters than proconsuls. While Egyptians debated whether Morsi was removed by coup or popular uprising, the Twitterati coined a new appellation: Streetocracy.

The street is where Brotherhood faithful set up camp after the coup, opposite a mosque in the Cairo district of Nasr City– their own little Tahrir, complete with tents and vendors. They gathered broken pieces of curbing into piles for use as projectiles; then, after a couple of days, they crumbled the concrete into chalk to spell out an Arabic word that could be read from the air like an SOS: LEGITIMACY. After two days, the Morsi loyalists had blocked the two main roads between downtown and Cairo International Airport, outside which a pair of tanks were parked, one behind banners reading: EGYPT IS BIGGER THAN EVERYTHING. AND WE ARE ON THE SIDE OF EGYPT.”

The street is also where several thousand Morsi supporters set off on the first Friday after the coup, marching peacefully up the west bank of the Nile until they reached the bridge leading toward the actual Tahrir Square, from which they were long ago ejected. The column turned instead toward the faceless edifice that houses state television. “We are just roaming around because they blocked the media from us where we were,” says Essam Hassan, 51. “We’re here to show the TV we are here, rather than sit and wait for the TV to come to us. We want to show the people on the ground.”

They had this ground to themselves. The only police in sight stood smoking and watching from the door of their precinct, separated from the protest by a locked gate and an order to stand by. Which they did, even when a few dozen Brotherhood thugs approached Tahrir and were immediately confronted by anti-Morsi toughs intent on defending the square. The ensuing battle raged for more than an hour, directly beneath the cameras of the international press–a pyrotechnic display that included Roman candles fired as weapons, as well as real guns. Nearly 100 people were killed in the first week after Morsi’s removal. The street, after all, is also where people go to fight.

“Now! Now! In the street, 30 million Egyptians are coming!” shouts Ibrahim Hassan, a willowy, intense Morsi supporter at a protest on Salah Salem Road, in front of the Republican Guard headquarters, where many believe the deposed President is being held. When I meet Hassan, four protesters have just been shot dead by the military. Other protesters proffer the evidence: a spent shell casing and a disk of skull bone, the blood already rubbed off by constant handling. Three days later, the scene would be one of even greater carnage: 51 protesters killed, along with three security officers. The military would claim thugs among the protesters fired the first shot; the Brotherhood would blame the soldiers and the chain of command, all the way up to the generals.

Across Cairo, people stepped into the street for yet another reason: a clear view of the sky, a new canvas for political expression in the days after the coup, available only to the military. Egypt’s version of the Blue Angels repeatedly sketched the red, white and black of the national flag over downtown Cairo. They also drew massive valentines above Tahrir–a gesture that in its kitsch reminded some of the Mubarak era. Helicopter gunships dropped flags on the anti-Morsi demonstrators in the square but not on the pro-Morsi demonstrators on Salah Salem Road. Then, on July 6, five copters suddenly flew over the road, with giant flags flapping beneath them. The Brotherhood crowd cheered, taking the banners as an acknowledgment of their demands or perhaps just of their presence. It was impossible to say: a revolution announced on Facebook and sustained through Twitter had devolved to semaphore and smoke signals. That’s another problem with the street: it’s not that easy to make things out.

Sins of the Brothers

“Faust?” asks Ahmed Samih. The liberal activist is taken aback at the suggestion that endorsing the military arrest of an elected President amounts to a deal with the devil. “We made a deal with the devil before,” he says, “and that was the Muslim Brotherhood.”

That deal made Morsi President, elected with the support of Egyptian liberals and others deeply suspicious of political Islam but even more suspicious of the only other candidate to emerge from a primary, a former Mubarak-era Prime Minister. It was a choice produced by the liberals’ incompetence: they failed to unite behind a candidate of their own.

Morsi made an impressive start: at home, he finessed the exit of an elder generation of generals, and abroad he won kudos for brokering a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. But then he seemed to make it his business to polarize the country. It started in November, when the President issued decrees placing himself above the courts, and accelerated in December, when the Brotherhood rushed out a controversial constitution without a national consensus. All along, Brotherhood officials made no secret that the presidency was a group effort–major decisions coming from the supreme guide’s office–and theirs alone. Their majoritarian behavior infuriated allies and confirmed long-held perceptions of the Brotherhood as insular, single-minded and high-handed.

If he was dismissive of his political opponents, Morsi had no time for the military either. During the November crisis of his decrees, the President publicly brushed aside an invitation from General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi to have lunch with political and civic leaders who were worried about the direction of the country. By the spring of 2013, sources close to the military high command were telling TIME that the generals were running out of patience with the President and might be willing to step in if his opponents mounted a big show of dissatisfaction.

As it happened, just such a demonstration was in the works. In April, a small group of young activists launched a signature campaign for a petition that listed a litany of complaints. Addressed to Morsi, it read: “Because the streets remain insecure, we don’t want you. Because the poor still have no place, we don’t want you …” The campaigners, who call their movement Tamarod, or “rebel,” say there was no point in expecting change through parliamentary elections, scheduled for later this year, because the Brotherhood had fashioned the electoral law. “All we could see of the future was the Brotherhood getting around the mechanisms of democracy,” says Mamdouh Badr, 27, a Tamarod supporter. “Egyptians have the right to choose how they operate their democracy.”

As the petition campaign gained momentum, Morsi seemed intent on spurring it along. On June 15, he abruptly severed ties to Syria, casting the move in a sectarian light by announcing it at a rally for a conference of Sunni clerics where the speaker immediately preceding Morsi referred to “nonbelievers who must be killed.” The next day, Morsi appointed as governor of Luxor a member of the Islamic Group, which once killed Coptic Christians, police and, most notably, 58 foreign tourists in a notorious 1997 massacre at the ancient site.

On June 29, Tamarod announced it had 22 million signatures–7 million more than its target. Though unconfirmed, the tally was far more than had voted for Morsi last year. It was time to go back to the streets.

The numbers joining the protests–most observers agree they ran into the millions–stunned everyone. No less striking, the crowds now called on the military to oust the President–the same military many had rallied against just over a year earlier. Emboldened, the military issued Morsi an ultimatum on July 1, giving him 48 hours to come to an understanding with his opponents. The President responded with a defiant speech, and the military’s answer–vowing to protect Egypt “against any terrorist, radical or fool”–set the stage for Morsi’s arrest the next day. Al-Sisi made the announcement flanked by the civil-society leaders he had invited to lunch six months earlier: former U.N. official and liberal politician Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of al-Azhar University, the Pope of the Coptic Church and an official of the Nour Party. “May God save Egypt,” the general said, “and the honorable, defiant people of Egypt.”

Old Order, New Hope

Defiant is the word. “I think this is the only thing Egyptians can do right now,” says one liberal activist. “Remove regimes.” Will they be satisfied with who or what takes Morsi’s place? The litany of complaints in Tamarod’s petition lies in wait for the new authorities. Unemployment has climbed 50% since before the Arab Spring, hard-currency reserves have halved, and the budget deficit has doubled. Tourism hasn’t fully recovered from the revolution two years ago, and the latest upheaval will spook potential visitors anew.

Rather than yield a new government, the coup could bring back elements of the old, pre–Arab Spring order. In the early actions of the transitional government, it was easy to see echoes of the security state that ruled Egypt for most of the past century. Three TV stations have been shuttered, more than a dozen senior Brotherhood officials have been detained, and the rest are looking over their shoulders. “Let’s be honest,” says Radwa el-Sharkaway, another Tamarod activist. “The army has controlled the country for centuries.”

But there is also talk of a new beginning, the buds of which were just visible in the extraordinary outpouring of joy that greeted Morsi’s removal. It happened, of course, in the streets–filled not with protesters but with families, tens of thousands hanging from cars moving at a walking pace, if they moved at all. Everyone had a flag, and everyone had a smile for a stranger. It wasn’t only that the Brotherhood had lost. There was also a sense that something had been won. “He made us love each other more,” Ravia George says the next night in Tahrir, giving Morsi his due while dodging ash from a Roman candle. “I’m feeling happiness and the love that’s been missing in the past year.”

That feel-good factor, says Wael Nawara, co-founder of ElBaradei’s Constitution Party, is an important reason it makes sense for Egyptians to effect political change through mass demonstrations: “People like operating in this collective manner, in this connected manner.” And if the protests produced strange bedfellows–young liberals and Mubarak loyalists, secular activists and ultra-conservative Islamists from the Nour Party–then so be it. “We need to believe in the good nature of people and build a better system,” he says.

The next move–and it is sure to come in the streets–belongs to the Brotherhood. It is unlikely to go gently into the night: it remains the country’s single largest political force, and it has a well-deserved reputation for organizational discipline. It may now be reeling from the shock of losing power, the arrest of top leaders and the killing of supporters, but it will not reel for long. “I believe we will continue as we have continued for 80 years,” says Darrag, the former minister.

The Brotherhood too has learned the lesson of July 3: politics in Egypt is not about winning votes as much as it is about assembling the largest crowd. And as the anti-Morsi groups continue to lay claim to Tahrir Square, the Brotherhood has opted to re-create that experience outside the Raba’a Adawiya mosque in Nasr City. It’s not quite a square, but the Brotherhood have long since declared it “our Tahrir,” taking over and fortifying the surrounding blocks. On July 10, as thousands of Morsi supporters continued their open-ended sit-in, the mood is listless–understandable on the first day of Ramadan, the holy month when devout Muslims abstain from all food and drink before sunset. A few hundred brave souls attempt to stage an angry march. But most sit out the mid-day heat by dozing or reading the Koran in the shade. Volunteers spray people with mist to keep things cool, and the communal kitchens cook up huge vats of rice and boiled chicken for the sunset meal.

The crowds will swell every night after the breaking of the fast, but the Brotherhood knows it’s important to keep up the street numbers during the day as well. After noon prayers, a speaker attempts to rally his dehydrated charges. “I know it’s Ramadan. I know your hardships are many. But be patient, brothers, stand your ground and cling to each other,” he says. “We’re not going home. Nobody is going home!

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