From a shining example of the so-called Arab Spring in the afterglow of Hosni Mubarak’s exit to the violent dispersals of pro-Mohamed Morsi sit-ins, the road that has taken Egypt from 25 January 2011 to the present has been winding and unpredictable.From a revolution in 2011, to military rule for a year, to elections in June 2012, to an Islamist regime under the Muslim Brotherhood, to another popular uprising ending in the ouster of the country’s first democratically elected president, Egypt today faces a dire political conflict, with not much to fill the political vacuum other than the military and security apparatuses.
Egypt’s status as a key player in the Middle East is cemented by its long history, its integral role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as its myriad of political parties and series of different rulers. Due to its influence in the region, national, international media, academics and political analysts are trying to foresee what is likely to happen in Egypt and how the country’s future will unfold.
Trying to understand a complex situation like the recent conflict in Egypt often invites comparisons and over-simplifications. Episodes of the Egyptian conflict have been contrasted to those of historical events in countries like Algeria. The current bloodshed on Egyptian streets recalled images from conflicts in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.
These comparisons extended not only to events but characters and figures. Recently, the New Yorker compared the ousted president Mohamed Morsi to Salvador Allende, the democratically elected socialist President of Chile. Although tempting, comparisons like these can obscure more than illuminate the real situation, as well as distort the original facts.
Not Algeria: it’s Egypt
Latest analyses of Egypt’s conflict in the international press followed by most national media outlets contrasted the situation in Egypt to that of Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s.
Algeria’s civil war was fought from 1992 to 1998 between the military-backed government and the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). After the FIS gained sweeping popularity in 1991, the Algerian army, fearing the party’s victory and assumption of power, cancelled elections and staged a coup d’etat in 1992 which barred the Islamist party from running.
This action, in turn, triggered several Islamist guerrillas associated with the FIS to fight against the police, the army, and later, civilians. Official figures estimate the death toll of the war at about 100,000, but other media and independent sources double that estimate.
Georges Fahmi, a researcher at the Arab Forum for Alternatives, a think tank promoting scientific thinking in Arab societies and addresses political, social and economic development issues does not believe that Egypt will repeat other countries’ scenarios, but may repeat certain choices.
“Certain choices can be repeated throughout history. The choices that were available to the Islamists rebels in Algeria can be the same ones available to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt,” he says, although he argues that the situations between the two countries are not analogous.
“I think we’re very far from the Algerian scenario. The problem is in presenting what happened in Egypt as a coup and disregarding what happened before it; the popular uprising of 30 June. Taking this snapshot makes our scene very similar to that of Algeria, but it ignores other major differences.”
“When the Egyptian military intervened it had the support of the people, unlike in Algeria, the military intervened against what people chose. Also, the military in Algeria established an authoritarian regime, in Egypt we’re witnessing some inclusive steps: a roadmap, discussions of the constitution and elections,” Fahmi explains.
Sherif Younis, a Cairo-based historian and the author of The Call of the People on Egypt’s Nasserite era, sees a detrimental effect to over-examining the struggles of Egypt’s neighbours.
“Convincing Egyptians that we will have a civil war like Algeria or Syria instils ideas and fears in their heads and thus forces the political struggle to take a certain route. Meanwhile, I see that both the Algerian and Syrian scenarios are far from Egypt simply because the topography of the struggle is different,” he says.
Younis explains that in Algeria the coup d’etat transpired when Islamists were rising. In Egypt, the military intervened when Islamists were falling out of the public’s favour.
“At this moment, Islamists have experienced a decline in popularity and its manifestation was the popular uprising on 30 June. The intervention of the army came just to remove the head of an already fallen regime,” he adds.
A return to a security state?
Since the ouster of Morsi, the Brotherhood’s message in many protests has been that a Mubarak-era security state would return to crush the achievements of January 25 revolution. Other revolutionary forces in Egypt share the same doubts, evidenced in reactions to the forced dispersal by the security apparatus dealt of sit-ins in Rabaa Al-Adaweya and Al-Nahda as well as the month-long state of emergency and an accompanying night curfew. Recently, the release of the deposed president Hosni Mubarak from state detention to house arrest pending verdicts in his trials has stirred debates, agitated the public and reinforced the fears that the Mubarak security state would be reincarnated.
Younis, however, believes there is a slim chance for such a security state to return.
“The 30 June alliance is composed of so many groups; proponents of stability, remnants of the Mubarak regime, the security institutions which have been detested since 25 January (but seek reconciliation with the people) and the revolutionary sector.”
He said that the return of a security state would be bound to the success of the 30 June alliance.
“I see that the democratic camp is pushing the roadmap forward and that the possibility of the Mubarak security state to return is very slim because that state was brought down by the people in 2011.”
Ashraf El-Sherif is a researcher and lecturer of political science at the American University in Cairo. He defines the security state as one that bans practicing politics in the public sphere, as well as restricting the public’s activities, thoughts and expression of both dissent and support.
He is convinced that the return of such a state would be extremely difficult because the current government institutions do not have the means to exercise the necessary control to maintain such a system in a society that has changed so much over two and a half years. He says, however, that he sees evidence of Mubarak’s “counter-revolutionary forces” trying to fill in the current political vacuum.
“What’s holding the [30 June] alliance together is the danger the Brotherhood used to pose. Once the confrontation with the Brotherhood is over, the contradictions in this alliance will resurface,” El-Sherif says.
Fahmi agrees with El-Sherif with regards to the difficulty of the security state’s return.
“A return to Mubarak’s state is impossible because it was brought down by 25 January, and even before because the Egyptian state was so fragile that the regime was not able to manage it as it should. The people can no longer be stopped or controlled, but this does not mean we’re heading towards a democracy either,” he says.
Will the military stay?
A military rule is, yet, another heavily debated scenario in Egypt. Defence Minister General Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi currently enjoys high popularity, with posters of his face displayed in shops, plastered on cars, buildings and walls and put for sale on the streets. State and privately owned media outlets have been dedicated to glorify and praise the performance of the military and the police and their management of the current crisis.
According to the Egyptian Centre for Public Opinion Research (Baseera) 67% of Egyptians are “content” with how the police dispersed the two pro-Morsi sit-ins in Rabaa and Al-Nahda on 14 August. This does not indicate the popularity of the military directly, but shows support for its decisions. The questions remains, will this support tempt the military to stay in politics?
Fahmi does not see this materialising in Egypt’s future. “The military is not interested in day-to-day politics; it’s interested in protecting certain interests. First, autonomy in its structure as an institution; in other words the military chooses its own leadership and second, its economic interests and financial autonomy. This, of course, contradicts the principle of democracy, but we have to start somewhere. We might have a period like that Turkey went through in the 1980s before we have a full-fledged democracy,” he says.
He adds: “we have to remember that we are going through a democratic transition and that the military-civilian relationship will take time to stabilise. If we let this stop us, then we will not be able to move forward. Portugal took around a decade to achieve a balance between its military and the civilian leadership.”
Younis also believes the military does not want to govern Egypt and is optimistic about the roadmap the current government is promising.
“Since 23 July 1952 we have had the military ruling undercover. We never had a military regime in the normative sense of the word, we never had generals ruling directly except in the Nasserite era, but ever since the military’s political role has been declining.”
Younis adds: “The other scenario is to stick to the roadmap and I embrace that one. I think that the current government is pushing for a democratic track and that the exclusion that will take place is only for the old leadership of the brotherhood and not their popular base. They would only be able to return to politics within certain conditions that the current government I believe will set forward.”
The Egyptian scenario
“Egypt is heading to an Egyptian model with unique components and interactions,” says El-Sherif.
According to him, the crux of the January 25 revolution was to establish a new state with more efficient institutions to solve Egypt’s political, economic and social crises, yet the revolution was unable to achieve that due to the “weakness and lack of organisation in the revolutionary movement.” This, he says, paved the way for the only organised group, the Brotherhood, to take over which constituted “the first counter-revolutionary track.”
“I expect us to have an open, but restricted, public sphere where there is guardianship of the military and the judiciary; the military will rule but not govern except in national security issues, it’s what I label as the ‘second counter-revolutionary track’,” he adds.
Fahmi also expects a bumpy road for Egypt, but is hopeful about the long run.
“Neither are we heading to democracy, nor will the security state return. If anything, the current crisis is likely to produce a restricted democracy where there are some redlines, such as the military,” he says.
As for the future of the Brotherhood, it remains vague.
El-Sherif says: “The Brotherhood has three options. First, to accept reconciliation according to the conditions of the current government will set to be able to reintegrate in the political scene; second, to reject reconciliation, contain the clashes between them and the security apparatus and mobilise people covertly; third to resort to violence directly.”
For him, the Brotherhood is currently following the second policy, but likely to accept the first option in the future if the organisation wanted to preserve itself and its popular base.
Egypt continues to defy comparisons and predictions due to the complexity of its history and political situation. The study of other countries may only provide the lesson learned, but everyday new events and decisions direct and reshape the country’s path. That’s why its future remains ambiguous and with mixed indicators of hope and distress.