Is Egypt’s revolution falling apart? Clashes between anti-government protestors and Muslim Brotherhood supporters turned deadly yesterday, leaving at least three—including an American college student—dead. These clashes come ahead of massive country-wide demonstrations against President Morsi scheduled for Sunday. The NYT reports that on-the-ground forces are even speaking of a civil war:
The use of firearms is becoming more common on all sides. Secular activists who once chanted, “peaceful, peaceful,” now joke darkly about the inevitability of violence: “Peaceful is dead.”
…Egypt’s most respected Muslim cleric warned in a statement this weekend of potential “civil war.”
It’s hard for the American press to wrap its head around what’s happening in Egypt. The Western media instinctively wants to view the conflict as Islamists vs. secularists or liberals, with the future of democracy at stake. The reality is both darker and more complicated, but at best only a handful of journalists have the intellectual chops to make sense of this picture, or the writing ability to help American readers understand a reality so different from our own experience here at home.
Leslie Chang gets closer than most in this piece in the New Yorker, but the problems are even deeper than the ones she puts her finger on. Based on interviews with leaders in the anti-Morsi movement, Chang correctly points out that Egypt’s opposition is neither particularly coherent nor interested in governing. The looming protests were organized by a movement known as Tamarod, or “rebellion” in Arabic—a movement founded mostly by young Egyptians whose sole goal is to drive Morsi from power. “I have yet to meet a politician with a substantive plan to overhaul a system of food and fuel subsidies that eats up almost one third of the budget, or to reform the education sector, or to stimulate foreign investment.”
After two years of watching politicians on both sides of the fence squabble and prevaricate and fail to improve their lives, Egyptians appear to be rejecting representative democracy, without having had much of a chance to participate in it. In a country with an increasingly repressive regime and no democratic culture to draw on, protest has become an end in itself—more satisfying than the hard work of governance, organizing, and negotiation. This is politics as emotional catharsis, a way to register rage and frustration without getting involved in the system.
It would be a mistake to attribute the ineffectiveness of Egypt’s opposition to the purely personal failings and intellectual blind spots of the people currently prominent in its ranks. We are looking at something more deeply rooted and harder to fix. An intense rage and dissatisfaction with the status quo without any idea in the world how to make anything better: this is the typical condition of revolutionary movements in countries without a history of effective governance or successful development. It is also often typical of political movements in countries dominated by a youth bulge. The unhappiest countries are the places where this large youth bulge comes up against failed governance and curdled hope. Think Pakistan, where a comprehensive failure of civil and military leadership is turning one of the world’s most beautiful countries into one of its most miserable ones.
Inexperienced 18 years olds who have grown up in corrupt, poorly governed societies, and been educated in trashy schools by incompetent hacks know very well that the status quo is unacceptable. Young people who know they are being ripped off and abused are typically not very patient. Throw in healthy doses of sexual frustration and contempt for an establishment that has lost confidence in its own capacity to lead, and you have a cocktail much more explosive than anything Molotov knew.
Egypt’s university system is particularly destructive. Year after year it turns out people with paper credentials, high expectations, and no real skills or understanding of how the world works. Those who manage to acquire real skills often go work in the Gulf, where Egyptian expats are able to have something approaching an effective professional career. But many Egyptian secondary school and university graduates end up in the worst of all possible worlds: too well-educated to accept the grinding poverty, soul-crushing drudgery and lack of status that so many jobs there entail, but not well-educated enough to build a better future for themselves or to organize effectively to remedy the ills of a society that creates such a dismal trap for youth.
Countries like Egypt need a critical mass of people with a vision of how to build a modern society and an ideology through which they can effectively mobilize the majority to support a project which the masses of the people may not fully understand. In much of the developing world in the twentieth century, the critical mass was made up of a small number of people with advanced western education and the ideology was one or another of the varieties of social nationalism that dominated that century in much of the world. Whether communist and totalitarian as in Russia, China or Vietnam, democratic socialist as in India, nationalist and quasi-capitalist as in Ataturk’s Turkish Republic and Peron’s Argentina, or any of the other varieties of twentieth century developmentalist ideology, these big ideas and grand visions mobilized populations for the difficult work of transformation and uplift.
A significant source of Egypt’s trouble today is that it has already had one ideological transformation and convulsive modernization under the charismatic leadership of President Nasser. Nasser captured the hearts and minds of the Egyptians as no one else has done, mobilized the entire energy and enthusiasm of the nation for a great project of renewal and development, and failed horribly, utterly and humiliatingly. The shocking 1967 defeat by Israel was the most dramatic sign of the failure to make Egypt a modern and effective country, but signs of Nasserite economic, social and technological failure litter Egypt even today. Egyptians grow up in the rubble of shattered dreams, in a society corrupted and degraded by the long aftermath of disillusion and despair.
Islamism in its various forms is the sole candidate in Egypt for an ideological alternative to the corpse of Nasserist nationalism; it has sold itself to the masses as the once-rejected rival to nationalism whose time has finally come. For decades, often under conditions of persecution and repression, the Muslim Brotherhood and similar movements demonstrated an idealism and a public spirit that the corrupt heirs of Nasser could not match. They operated soup kitchens for the poor; they offered young people patronage and improved educational access. Building on centuries of national tradition and religious aspiration, they developed a comprehensive, all-embracing world view that offered, or appeared to offer, answers to the three great problems of Egypt’s youthful population.
First, Islamist economic policy administered by an honest and competent government would address the poverty and lack of opportunity afflicting so many Egyptians. Second, Islamist ideas would help the youth make sense of a chaotic and confusing world filled with disturbing ideas and values. And last but not least, Islamist success would restore dignity to Egyptians as human beings, as Egyptian citizens, as Arabs and as Muslims by overcoming backwardness and making Egypt self-sufficient and free-standing, respected in the world.
That was the dream. Morsi’s biggest problem never was, and still is not today, the twittering liberals of early Tahrir; western oriented secular liberalism has a long way to go before it can become a significant ideological force among the masses in Egypt. His greatest ideological opponents are cynicism and despair and he is in such deep trouble today because the collapsing economy and the general paralysis make him look like another snake oil salesmen selling a fake route to progress. What if Islamism like Nasser’s nationalism is a failure in Egypt? What then? What next?
Salafis, the ultra-Islamists who think Morsi’s problems stem from his failure to roll out the full glory of Islamist governance, hope that as the Muslim Brotherhood loses its appeal, their harder and purer faith will carry the day. It’s not impossible; the situation in Egypt is fluid and Islam is a powerful force in what remains a pious and serious society. But sooner or later the Salafis will come to the place in the road where Morsi stands; there is little reason to believe that more radical Islamist ideas and practices can heal what’s wrong with Egypt’s economy.
So though the Morsi government is losing its ability to govern by hope and by faith, that doesn’t mean it will fall; from an ideological and political standpoint, it has no serious opposition. A lot of people hate the government and blame it for making everything worse, but they cannot agree among themselves on an alternative course.
Whatever happens in the demonstrations scheduled for an increasingly tense country, it seems that as ideology and hope weaken, the role of force in Egypt’s government must rise. That means first and foremost the Army; flawed as this institution is, it has no rivals in Egypt. If (when) Islamism fades, force remains.
The Army, which loyally served Mubarak until, under the influence of his wife and son, the aging president sought to turn the Egyptian state into the private property of his family, knows that Egypt must have order even if it doesn’t have hope. At the height of his popularity, Morsi hoped to subordinate the Army to the Islamists; it seems clear now that the Army holds the higher cards. The Army is not necessarily opposed to having an Islamist president. It gives people something to talk about, and someone to blame other than the military. A weak elected president with a dented mandate suits the military pretty well— and in any case many Egyptian officers are quite pious and don’t mind having a civilian government that imposes religious norms.
The really scary question in Egypt is whether things have decayed so far that the Army, either directly or indirectly, can no longer maintain order. Are so many Egyptians so angry, so disillusioned and so desperate that they will simply refuse to accept another stitched-up military backed state? If so, Egypt is less likely to explode than to implode: the economy would collapse further, food riots and other forms of violence would break out, minorities would face persecution and pogroms, criminal gangs would emerge. There could well be mass killings and civil chaos— though, despite the cleric’s words, we don’t see Egypt descending into a Syrian style civil war. Egypt lacks Syria’s ethnic and religious diversity; the largest minority group, the Copts, are too interspersed with the rest of the population to fight a civil war and are neither well-armed nor well-organized.
This would likely end in the emergence of a strong man who crushed dissent and imposed a new government, however harsh. Egypt has more than 5,000 years of continuous civilization and governance, and as a people, Egyptians have repeatedly chosen the dangers of strong government over the dangers of weakness and division. Tyranny relies on despair; combine fear of anarchy with a lack of faith in a truly bright future, and dictatorship is on its way.
Most revolutions fail and leave people worse off than before. The true believers of the Muslim Brotherhood want to keep their dream alive, and we can expect them to fight hard for that. Many ordinary Egyptians may have decided that Islamism is a flop, but the hard core true believers will argue that they haven’t had a chance to put their ideals into practice yet. They will want to crush their opponents, tighten their grip on the state, and follow the Islamist path for many more miles before the true believers are ready to give up. They may well prevail in this next round of demonstrations and confrontations, but time is not on the Islamists’ side. Yet again, cynicism is winning its war against hope in Egypt, and yet again the Army is standing in the wings.
Nobody knows what will happen in Egypt this week, and the Muslim Brotherhood could lose the battle for public opinion but gain the power for control of the state. Sometimes revolutionary movements prevail even though they fail to satisfy the hopes that brought them to power. Revolutionaries often turn out to be failures at utopia-building, but very good at building police states.
That could be happening in Egypt this summer; we shall see. But the hopeful phase of the Egyptian Revolution has come to a close. It looks more and more as if the Muslim Brotherhood must either become a much harsher movement in a much bleaker world, or it must learn to watch power slip from its hands.