Tag Archives: Muslim Brotherhood

Two Forms of Lethal Polarization

17 Nov

Two Forms of Lethal Polarization: Egypt and Turkey

 

            There is a temptation to suggest that political life in Turkey and Egypt are both being victimized by a similar deepening of polarization between Islamic and secular orientations, and to some extent this is true, but it is also misleading. Turkey continues to be victimized by such a polarization, especially during the eleven years that the Justice & Development Party (AKP) has governed the country, and arguably more so in the last period. In Egypt, so describing the polarization is far less descriptive of the far more lethal form of unfolding that its political cleavage has taken. It has become an overt struggle for the control of the political destiny of the country being waged between the Egyptian armed forces and the Muslim Brotherhood, the two organized political forces capable of projecting their influence throughout the entire country, including rural areas.  This bitter struggle in Egypt engages religious orientations on both sides, and even the military leadership and upper echelons of the armed forces are observant Muslims, and in some cases extremely devout adherents of Salafi belief and practice.  

 

            In effect, at this point, there is not a distinctly secular side that can be associated with post-coup Egyptian leadership under the caretaker aegis of the armed forces, although clearly most of the liberal secular urban elite and many of the left activists sided with the military moves, at least initially. Recent reports suggest more and more defections, although the price for making such a change of heart public can be high. For General el-Sisi the essence of the conflict seems to be between what is irresponsibly alleged to be a ‘terrorist’ opposition on the one side, which has been broadened somewhat to extend beyond the Muslim Brotherhood to whomever dares question the tactics or intentions of the new leadership, and political forces supposedly committed to a democratic future for the country on the other. If the core of the opposition can be effectively portrayed as terrorists in this post-9/11 world, then the criminalization of their activities and organization, and the neglect of their rights will seem prudent to many, and even a necessary ingredient of national security.

 

            The Egyptian state controlled media, along with the mainstream media in the West, has allowed the Egyptian post-coup leadership to so far get away, literally, with murder! This sort of distorted presentation of the conflict has been also indirectly endorsed by governments, and has somewhat surprisingly achieved strong backing throughout the Arab world with a few notable exception. Among the grossest distortions are the unchallenged depiction of the Muslim Brotherhood as purveyors of violence, given that the organization has renounced violence after 1978, and generally maintained such a posture despite decades of suppression and provocation by Mubarak government, and more recently by the forces arrayed against it. It should also be appreciated that Morsi’s clear counsel to his followers from the time of the coup was to insist on the legitimacy of the elected government and to resist the claims of the post-coup leadership, but to do so nonviolently.

 

            It is important to understand that neither the Egyptian or Turkish experiences of polarization are symmetrical processes. In each instance, the side that is fairly beaten by democratic procedures, especially elections, refuses to accept the implications of political defeat. Rather than form a responsible opposition, with an alternative political program, such an embittered opposition has recourse to extra-constitutional means to regain power, and strives to establish a justification for such extremist advocacy and initiatives by demonizing its adversary, especially the person of the leader.

In contrast, the side that enjoys democratic legitimacy relies on its right to govern, and sometimes on its performance, to justify the retention of governing authority. There is no doubt that Morsi was in a radically different position that Erdogan after his narrow electoral victory in 2012—having an economy on a downward slippery slope, a public with high post-Mubarak expectations of a change for the better, and a complete lack of governing experience.

 

            This phenomenon of polarization is becoming more widespread, an expression of growing alienation within societies as a response to disappointments with traditional political parties and their leaders at the national level. As dissatisfaction and frustrations with prevailing forms of governance grows in many countries, the opposition becomes ever more embittered, and tends to blame the elected leader with venomous rhetoric. Often such excessive attacks provoke a response from the government that further discredits the leader in the eyes of the opposition, widening the gap between those governing and those in the opposition. If the angered opposition senses that it is unable to win at the ballot box, it will be tempted to mobilize a populist politics in the street, and sometimes manages to enlist those parts of government bureaucracy (often the judiciary and security forces) that are aligned openly or secretly with efforts to create crises of legitimacy and governance.

 

            From such a combustible mix, explosive possibilities are possible on both sides, ranging from coups to various authoritarian abandonment of democratic procedures. Each side produces a self-serving narrative of national survival that shifts the blame entirely to its political enemy. There is no effort at dialogue, which is essential for the political health of a democratic society beset by serious challenges and policy disagreements. This does not mean that the two sides are equally persuasive, but it does suggest there are few informed and judicious voices that can be heard above the noise of the fray.

 

            Outsiders also complicate the scene, whether they favor the government or the opposition. The originality of each national situation needs to be taken into account. There are many variables, including history, culture, geography, stage of development, economic performance, levels of unemployment and poverty, quality of governance, role of violence, respect for human rights and the rule of law, degrees of corruption. And yet at the same time, there are patterns and transnational similarities that make certain regional generalizations illuminating.

 

            The comparison of Turkey and Egypt is suggestive of this broader regional, and indeed global, pattern of polarization that is undermining political discourse in more and more countries. The Turkish political scene is still very much shaped by the lingering socially constructed and politically maintained legacy of Kemal Ataturk, and his radical modernization project that sought a total eclipse of Turkey’s Ottoman past. This endeavor, although highly influential, never completely succeeded in creating a post-Islamic normative order in the country, although it did manage to produce a highly secularized and Europeanized upper middle class in the main cities in western Turkey that fiercely, with its own unacknowledged religious intensity, clings rather sadly to the outmoded Kemalist legacy as the only usable past.

 

            In Ataturk’s defense as a historical figure, it should be remembered that the challenges facing Turkey after World War I were primarily to create a strong unified state out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire while withstanding European imperial ambitions that were rampant elsewhere in the region. The Turkish defeat of colonial ambitions was spectacular, but it led to a dysfunctional form of hyper-nationalism that had three prominent features: the attempted erasure of minority identities, a discriminatory insistence on the privatization of religious values and beliefs that particularly victimized Turkish women, and a deferential mimicry of Europe, especially France, in its construction of a secular polity.

 

            Each of these undertakings over time generated strong forms resistance that could never be fully overcome: minority identities were not extinguished, especially for the large and diverse Kurdish minority, Islamic political orientations did not disappear and kept seeking limited acceptance in public space, and the European model never won the allegiance of the Turkish masses. What did occur in Turkey until the end of the twentieth century was political domination by secular elites relying on the mantle of Kemalist legitimacy, with power bases in the main cities, and total control of the bureaucratic structures of Turkish governance, including a crucial alliance between the civilian secular leadership and the armed forces, which included the increasing private sector interests and market activity of the military. As a left challenge of a Marxist character emerged after World War II, secular control was sustained by a series of military coups to make sure that capitalist ideology was not frontally challenged. The Cold War pushed Turkey to adopt an anti-Communist foreign policy of a distinctly Western direction. In the NATO context Turkey was made responsible for the vital Southern flank of NATO, and seemed to follow without dissent the geopolitical line taken in Washington.

 

            What happened next after the Cold War ended was a growing populist rejection of the societal structures of Kemalist Turkey without mounting any direct and explicit challenge to the legacy. It was merely circumvented and adapted to a new set of conditions and social priorities. The ascent of the AKP in the 2002 elections, a result that was reinforced by larger victories in 2007 and 2011, achieved a sea change in the tone and substance of state/society relations in Turkey. It came about in stages, and may yet be reversed when new elections are held in 2015. There was Kemalist resistance from the outset, fears that Turkey was supposedly on its way to becoming ‘a second Iran.’ When that fear failed to materialize or to erode pro-AKP support there occurred a variety of coup plots that never came to fruition, largely because the neoliberal economy was flourishing, the AKP was cautious and pragmatic in its early years of leadership, the secularist ‘deep state’ remaining a brake on governance by the elected leaders, and the West, especially the United States was eager at the time to show the Islamic world that it could have a positive relationship with a government that did not hide the devout Muslim convictions of its principal leaders.

 

            The dynamics of polarization are such that when electoral prospects of the opposition are perceived to diminish, the opposition, especially if it had earlier controlled the state for a long period, grows angry and impatient with the workings of constitutional democracy even if it had earlier based its own legitimacy to govern upon the outcome of elections. Now in an altered political climate such a displaced opposition explores other ways to regain control of the state, itself now opting for populist forms of protest and democratic accountability that it had earlier ruthlessly suppressed.

 

            In the Turkish case, the opposition tactics along these lines were surprisingly unsuccessful in the first decade of the 21st century, although the avoidance of a coup may have been based on a number of unstable contingencies.  Such frustration over a ten year period, even as accompanied by impressive economic growth statistics and diplomatic prominence, did not lead the old Kemalist forces to acquiesce in the new political order, but only made the opposition enraged. Instead, these intensified frustrations, bringing anti-AKP resentment to a fever pitch, directed especially at its charismatic, populist, impulsive, and provocative Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a man who evokes the strongest passions of love and hate. Erdogan serves as a cynosure of why democracy is at risk from above and below in Turkey. The government has ample grounds to feel threatened by the tactics, extremism, invective, and hostility of the opposition, which does not even bother to hide its contempt for democratic procedures in its quest for a return to the control of governance. In turn, the leadership, especially the sort of highly unpredictable emotional politics practiced by Erdogan, strays itself from democratic procedures partly as an understandable defensive reflex, has grounds to view the opposition as illegitimate, including its most vituperative media critics, which can easily slide into the embrace of a kind of defensive authoritarianism.

 

            The Egyptian descent into the vortex of hyper-polarization has certain resemblances to the Turkish experience, but also significant differences other than the relationship of contending forces to the poles of religion and secularism. In effect, secularism isn’t really a pole in Egypt, but at most one of the constituencies mobilized in the pre-coup period by anti-Morsi forces, many of whom might not have even realized that by opposing being governed by the Muslim Brotherhood, they were opting for the restoration of a brutal regime of the sort that had governed Egypt for three decades under Mubarak, which had seemed to have alienated virtually the whole of the country during the excitement of the January 25th movement in 2011. At that time, the armed forces were seen as standing aside while the people cast off a cruel and corrupt dictatorship that had reduced the Egyptian masses to a condition of subjugation and collective misery. In retrospect, this was an optical illusion created because the armed forces seemed willing to let Mubarak go to avoid having the next leader being his possibly reformist son, but was not at all ready to transform the governing process of the country despite the overwhelming mandate to do just that. It now seems clear that the Egyptian military would struggle against any political developments that threatened control of their budget, regulation of their business activities, and restriction of their discretion to manage the security policies of the Egyptian state (in collaboration with internal police and intelligence forces).

 

            Against this background, including the structural problems generated by Mubarak’s neoliberal approach to development, the Muslim Brotherhood would have been wise to abide by their initial public pledge to not field a candidate for the presidency and to limit their electoral ambitions in parliament and the constitution-forming process. Possibly, sensing their popularity as a transitory opportunity in a fluid situation, and maybe deceptively encouraged by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the MB leadership thought it was entitled to compete for leadership to the full extent of its popularity. Its years of community organizing and welfare services paid off in parliamentary results far in excess of what had been predicted. There seemed to be a mandate to lead the country, but there also seemed to a series of insurmountable challenges that were unlikely to be met whoever gained controlled of the government.

 

            When it became clear that the MB was stronger than expected, and that it would not limit its goals as earlier announced, much of the liberal anti-Mubarak opposition registered a reaction of panic. Reflections on the prospect of living under a MB government induced many Egyptians to swing back to the Mubarak side, leading Ahmed Shafik, a fulool mainstay, to win almost 50% of the vote in the presidential runoff election in June 2012. It was a defeat, but considering the near zero support for the old established order in the heady days of Tahrir Square, this result suggested a dramatic reversal of political mood at least in the main urban centers of Egypt. That near victory of Shafik should have been interpreted as a signal that counter-revolutionary tremors would soon begin to shake the foundations of political stability in Egypt.  Polarization took multiple forms in the ensuing months, with Morsi faltering as a leader partly for failures of his own making, and the opposition stridently insisting that things were out of control, allegedly worse than in the most unpopular Mubarak times. There was also evidence that to mobilize the populace well orchestrated efforts were made to create fuel shortages and price hikes in food prices, impacting negatively on the image of Morsi as someone who could lead post-Mubarak Egypt into better times. The outcome, perhaps exaggerated in the media, was a huge mobilization of anti-Morsi forces that produced the largest public demonstrations in Egyptian history, and set the stage for the July 3rd takeover, with its blank check given to the armed forces to do whatever it wanted to do, including if necessary the elimination of the MB (at least 30% of the populace) from the political scene. What followed was a series of massacres and abuses of state power on a scale that would have shocked the conscience of humanity if it had been reported to the world in an honest and responsible fashion. Instead, what appear to be a series of thinly disguised Crimes Against Humanity of a severe character were swept under the rug of world public opinion, and the new regime received financial and diplomatic support and many diverse wishes for success.

 

            This then is the final point. When a polarized opposition resorts to unlawful means to regain or seize power, the nature of the regional and global response can be critical to its success or failure. There were strong geopolitical incentives for welcoming the Egyptian coup, and thus not complain too much about its bloody aftermath. There are less clear reasons to favor the defeat of the AKP government in Turkey, especially given its role in NATO and the world economy, as well as the absence of a responsible and credible opposition, and yet there are regional and global actors that would greet the fall of the AKP with a smile of satisfaction.

 

            I am arguing that theses instances of polarization amount to a deadly virus that attacks the body politic in countries with weak constitutional traditions, especially if such societies are beset by economic disappointment and significant regional and global hostility due to ideological and political tensions. So far, Turkey has an immune system strong enough to neutralize the virus, while Egypt having virtually no protection against such a virus has succumbed. If there is hope for a brighter Egyptian future, then it will become evident in the months ahead as the Egyptian body politic seeks belatedly to destroy the virus that is threatening the quality of life in the society. For Turkey the future remains clouded in comparable uncertainty, and it may be, that the polarized alienation combined with the mistakes associated with too long a tenure in office will yet lead to the democratic downfall of Erdogan and the AKP.

 

Egypt: Extreme Polarization and Genocidal Politics

24 Aug

Extreme Polarization and Genocidal Politics

In these morbid days, there are some home truths that are worth reflecting upon.

What Happened After Tahrir Square?

In retrospect, ‘the January 25th Revolution’ in Egypt is ‘a revolution’ that never was, which has now been superseded by ‘a counter-revolution’ that was never possible. Why? The dislodging of a Mubarak dynasty in 2011 did not even achieve ‘regime change’ much less initiate a transformative political process. There was no revolution to counter. Even more modest hopes for political reform and humane governance were doomed from the start, or at the latest, when Ahmet Shafik, the overtly fulool candidate of the discredited Mubarak regime polled almost 50% of the vote in the presidential election runoff against Mohamed Morsi in June 2012.

What then was Tahrir Square? Part project (getting rid of Mubarak and sons), part fantasy (hoping that the carnivalistic unity of the moment would evolve into a process of democratic state-building), part delusional experiment (believing that the established order of Mubarak elites and their secular opponents would be willing to rebuild a more legitimate political and economic order even if it meant that they would be transferring significant power and status to the Muslim Brotherhood). The 2011 turn to ‘democracy’ in Egypt always contained a partially hidden condition: the Muslim Brotherhood was welcome to participate in an electoral process so long as its support was not so great as to give it a majoritarian mandate. The liberal secularists and left groups who were at the core of the anti-Mubarak uprising anticipated that MB would win support at the 25-30% level in the forthcoming Egyptian national elections for parliament and the presidency. It was assumed that this would confine the MB to a minority role, although possibly forming the strongest single legislative bloc. This was also understood to mean that the next president of Egypt would not be directly associated with the Brothers or be seen as a representative of political Islam, but would be drawn from the ranks of liberal seculars (that is, anti-Mubarak, but also opposed to Islamic influence in governing circles). From this perspective in the Spring of 2011 it was widely expected that Amr Moussa, former Foreign Minister in Mubarak’s government and later Secretary General of the Arab League, would be elected president by a strong majority, an anticipation supported by leading public opinion polls. Moussa was both part of the Egyptian establishment with national name recognition and yet had established his anti-Mubarak claims to legitimacy in the period of upheaval.

Essentially, the fly in this Egyptian democratic ointment was the unsuspected grassroots popularity and strength of Islam, and specifically, the Muslim Brotherhood, winning control in a sequence of five elections during 2011-12, three for the parliament, two for the presidency. Whether reasonably or not, this revelation of Islamic democratic strength was the death knell of democracy in Egypt. It frightened the anti-seculars into a de facto alliance with the fulool, sealing the fate of the Morsi government. And since the legitimating procedures of the elections had repudiated the old Murbarak order, even in its post-Mubarak liberal, reconstituted self, the anti-MB opposition had to find an alternative strategy. They did: generate crises of governability and legitimacy via a massive populist mobilization, that is, insist on the democracy of the street taking precedence over the democracy of the ballot box.

The armed forces were ‘the joker’ in this political deck. The military leadership seemed at first to go along with the Tahrir Square flow, but also to play its cards in a contradictory way as to have the flexibility to control the transition to whatever would come next in Egypt, always claiming the mantle of being the guarantor of order, and the indispensable alternative to chaos. Sometimes it was perceived as having made a backroom deal with the MB, and was viewed with suspicion by the anti-Morsi forces. It should be recalled that Maj. General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, besides being the head of the armed forces, served as the Minister of Defense in the Morsi cabinet up until the day of the coup. As the anti-Morsi momentum gathered steam, the military took over the movement, either enacting its preferred scenario all along or changing horses in the middle of the race so as to be riding on the winner. In June 2012 the military could credibly claim a popular mandate to restore order and economic stability. The bloody destruction of the MB as a rival source of economic and political power implemented the mandate more harshly than anticipated.

Think of it, the group that had prevailed in a series of free elections throughout the nation in 2011-12 was scapegoated overnight into a band of ‘terrorists’ that must be crushed for the sake of Egyptian peace and security. When the word ‘terrorist’ is deployed to designate the enemies of the state, it signals that the rule of the gun will replace the rule of law. It paves the way to the adoption of exterminist and genocidal tactics by the state, and what has followed should have not have occasioned surprise, however shocking. In General el-Ssi’s carefully chosen words: “..citizens invited the armed forces to deal with terrorism, which was a message to the world and the foreign media, who denied millions of Egyptians their free will and their true desire to change..” Decoded, the general is saying the anti-Morsi ‘democratic’ masses called not only for a new leadership in Egypt but for the destruction of the MB, now recast as ‘terrorists.’

Obviously, there is no place for such terrorists in the new order of post-Morsi Egupt. In the period following the fall of Mubarak, it should be recalled that the MB was widely regarded as a moderate and nonviolent political movement with its overtly Islamic orientation respectful of political pluralism. In contrast, it is now portrayed by the coup makers and supporters as the embodiment of exclusivist and fundamentalist Islam led by bloodthirsty extremists, a makeover aided and abetted by a staunchly pro-secular and very influential mainstream media, as well as by the maneuvers of the Mubarak deep state that were never dislodged after the fall of the ruler..

ElBaradei’s disappointing participation in the coup and interim government, followed by his courageous resignation, reflects the ambivalence of true liberals, and their confusion: making nice with the military for the sake of regaining political control and economic privilege, yet not wanting too much innocent blood to be spilled in the process. Note that most of the anit-Mubarak ‘liberals’ are opportunistic at the core, and despite all that has happened, still refuse to break with the el-Sisi interim government. They have made their choice in a situation seemingly defined as either ‘us’ than ‘them,’ having learned their lesson that constitutional democracy does not work in their favor. Given this intensification of polarization there seems to be no space left for those few who retain liberal values and reject extremist political tactics even on their side of the divide. ElBaradei is apparently one of those rare principled liberal secularists who has refused to be complicit in crimes against humanity, and for this surge of conscience he has been savagely attacked as ‘a traitor’ for displaying such a change of heart in the public square, implicitly a moral challenge to those of his general background who continue to cling to el-Sisi’s fraying coattails.

Was the Muslim Brotherhood Responsible?

Could the MB have handled things differently, and avoided the July 3rd scenario? Yes, possibly, if they had kept their pledge to participate as a minority force in the new Egyptian political order, taking self-denying precautions not to dominate the parliament and not seek the presidency. In other words, it is likely that if the MB had bided its time, and allowed a liberal secular candidate to take initial control of the government, and in all probability fail, their overall position today might be quite strong. This assessment presupposes that whoever was chosen to be the first post-Mubarak leader would not be able to satisfy the expectations of the Egyptian public with respect to economic recovery and social justice, and would be rejected ‘democratically,’ in all probability by an electoral process. It is doubtful that the severe social justice problems could be addressed without a break with the neoliberal world economic system, and no secularist on the Egyptian horizon was prepared to mount such a challenge. It is quite probable that if such a challenge had been mounted, the army and the MB would have stepped in to abort such moves. It should be remembered that a left criticism of the MB from the outset were its acceptance of the neoliberal consensus.

It was reported (how reliably is unknown) that in February of 2012, that is prior to initial presidential election in May 2012 fielding 13 candidates, Nabil ElAraby, a globally known and respected liberal secularist and at the time Secretary General of the Arab League, had been told that he would have the backing for the presidency of both the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAP) and the MB, if he had agreed to run for the Egyptian presidency. This support would have assured an electoral victory, but ElAraby prudently declined the offer if indeed this story was accurate.

The gross imprudence of the MB failure to keep its pledge of non-competition for the presidency is only now becoming fully apparent. Having waited more than 80 years for a chance to control the destiny of the country, the MB would have been wise to wait a few more to see how things were developing in the country, especially given the societal and bureaucratic forces likely arrayed against them if they took center stage. Of course, such a retrospective appraisal always can be made to sound prescient, and is unlikely to be instructive.

Some have argued that it was the multiple failures of the Morsi leadership that were the proximate cause of the el-Sisi coup. In other words, the fatal mistake of the MB was not their unwillingness to stay in the political background and bide their time, but their inability to follow up on their electoral success when occupying the governmental foreground. This argument reasons, had Morsi been more inclusive, more capable in negotiating international loans and attracting foreign investment, more inspirational in promoting a vision of Egypt’s future, less heavy-handed in dealing with oppositional activists and secularists, more competent in stimulating an economic recovery, more reassuring to the Gulf monarchies, and more patient about promoting an Islamic agenda, things might have turned out differently. True, even an efficient and sensitive Morsi government would likely have lost some of its popularity due to the difficulties any leadership would have faced during this period, but it would not have been overthrown, nor would its political base be criminalized and crushed by a post-coup bloody campaign of merciless state terror.

It is impossible to assess the plausibility of such a counter-factual, but I have my extreme doubts. It is notable that with few exceptions those who claimed to be most outraged by the strong arm tactics and incompetence attributed to the Morsi government have averted their eyes from and even mandated the far bloodier tactics of the el-Sisi regime, shouting such banal slogans as ‘the army and the people are one hand.’

After the Coup: A Genocidal Mentality?

Although much is unknown, the sequence of four massacres when softer alternatives were readily available to restore order, the moves to criminalize the MB
(detaining Morsi, arresting MB leaders, and calling on the public to demonstrate so as to give its authorization for adopting such a strategy of oppression against the Brothers and their supporters), and recourse to the language of ‘terrorism’ to demonize demonstrators peacefully seeking to uphold constitutional rights and demand a return to constitutional government form a toxic pattern. Such behavior confirms the extreme alienation on the part of the coup leaders. In effect, it was more than a coup, less than a counter-revolution (as old governmental order had remained in place forming the Egyptian deep state). If polarization poisoned the well of democratic legitimacy, then its accelerated momentum led to the emergence of a genocidal climate of opinion in Egypt, and the old fulool bureaucracy played its assigned part.

In such an atmosphere it is almost to be expected that many of the coup supporters among the mass of Egyptians find nothing wrong with the tactics of the security forces since July 3rd. They endorse these tactics by an enthusiastic call for el-Sisi to become the next president of the country, and view the followers of the MB as undeserving of being treated as ‘Egyptians,’ belonging outside the pale of humanity deserving no mercy and entitled to no rights. In this murderous atmosphere, anything goes.

I suppose in this evolving Egyptian mêlée we can learn about the way the state-centric world operates by noting which governments are silent, which are approving and supportive, and which ridiculously continue to call on both sides to show ‘maximum restraint.’ We still live in a world where hard power strategic calculations in the inner counsels of government almost always outweigh soft power affirmations associated with democracy, human rights, and nonviolence. It is not a pretty picture, whether one questions the crude pragmatism of such Islamic stalwarts as Saudi Arabia and the Orgnization of the Islamic Conference or the equivocations of such liberal advocates of human rights and democracy as the United States, the European Union, and even the UN Secretary General.

These Egyptian developments also raise awkward questions about whether there exist outer limits to the politics of self-determination, which has authenticated many national movements against European colonialism and oppressive rule. Egypt is in the throes of what might be described as a process of Satanic self-determination, and there is no prospect that humanitarian intervention could restore constitutional normalcy to Egypt even if genuine empathetic motivations were present, which they are not. Which among the governments of the region or the world would have the temerity to seek an application of the norm of http://theconversation.com/egyptians-pay-for-democracy-in-blood-17085
>of the MB? Remember how in 2011 leading NATO countries relied upon R2P at the UN to obscure their primary mission, which was to destroy Qaddafi’s regime in Libya. At this stage, R2P is not an emergent principle of international law, as advocates claim, but an operative principle of geopolitical convenience becomes relevant when it serves the political and economic interests of the West.

The ethos of human solidarity means that none of us dedicated to human rights, to the accountability of leaders for crimes against humanity, and to the quest for humane governance should abandon Egypt in this tragic hour of need. At the same time, we need to admit that there is no politics of human solidarity capable of backing up a protective ethos even in the face of genocidal tremors. Our responsibilities as ‘citizen pilgrims’ extend beyond lamenting the failures of world order to serve the wellbeing of the Egyptian people. At least, we need to raise our voices, engage fully in witnessing, and support whatever soft power initiatives can be mobilized on an emergency basis.

I want to recommend highly, as well, two illuminating articles by my friend Emad Shahin, a faculty member at the highly respect American University in Cairo:

I also recommend highly the series of interpretative articles by Esam Al-Amin on the evolving Egyptian situation that have been published during the last two years, including just prior to and after the coup, in Counterpunch, an excellent progressive online journal.

The Second Anniversary of Tahrir Square Rising

25 Jan

 

 

            The rising in Tahrir Square two years ago electrified the world and achieved the impossible: forcing the departure of Hosni Mubarak, the harsh and corrupt dictator of Egypt for the prior 30 years. What inspired the world was the spontaneous spirit of unity, a movement guided by exhilarating visions of democracy and freedom and hope, generating a new kind of populism that dispensed with ideology and leaders, a sense that the people of Egypt had acted creatively and bravely to recover their country from the clutches of neoliberal predators and their domestic collaborators. Even the armed forces had seemed mainly to welcome these developments, partly because of their own fears that Mubarak harbored dynastic dreams. Although the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia preceded Tahrir Square, it was the developments in Egypt that made it plausible back in 2011 to speak about and to dream of the ‘Arab Spring.’

 

            A year later in 2012 there was still some afterglow from the drama of Tahrir Square, but there were also growing signs of disunity. It was becoming clear that Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the Salafis, enjoyed the benefits of grassroots organizing and support, which translated into electoral dominance. It was also evident that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that was providing governmental authority was not clearly committed to the values and practices of constitutional democracy and human rights. For many Egyptians, SCAF was becoming a threat of new structure of governance describable as ‘Mubarakism without Mubarak.’ Labor unions, minorities, and special interest groups were all seeking to put forward their grievances. There was a growing concern in some economic sectors that the new situation was unable to revive confidence and trust, creating a kind of backlash, ‘nothing has changed,’ and ‘we are worse off than when the Mubarak regime was in power.’ At least, before the rising of 2011, tourists came, and shop owners in the cities flourished. After one year, the excitement had died down, and there were severe worries about political leadership, human rights, and economic revival, and many of those that had been in the front lines of the challenge to Mubarak were no longer politically active and visible, or were now confronting the Morsi government.

 

            On this second anniversary the situation has definitely deteriorated. Tahrir Square and other city centers around the country are increasingly sites of struggle between the governing Islamic Brotherhood and discontented liberal, secular, and minority forces. On this day of anniversary early reports indicate that there were clashes in many cities throughout the country, which resulted in at least one death and 186 reported injuries. Mohammed Morsi has pleaded for unity, but his leadership has been widely perceived by his adversaries as pushing the country in the direction of Islamism, which is serving as the ideological vehicle for the hegemony of the Muslim Brotherhood.  There is also a growing atmosphere of polarization in which it has become express policy that for the anti-Morsi opposition nothing less than the removal of Morsi from the presidency of Egypt will quiet their opposition. There are also a variety of hostile claims that the proposed new Egyptian Constitution embodies a deal with the armed forces, which jeopardizes democracy by ensuring SCAF’s economic private sector interests and gives it wide ranging powers to interfere in the political life of the country without even providing mechanisms to guard accountability to the constitution.

 

            Not all Egyptians buy into the politics of polarization. There are a few, too few, who stand above the fray, pointing to the exaggerations on both the Morsi and the opposition side. Their contention is that Morsi is implementing a generally inclusive constitutional scheme under difficult economic circumstances and that the secularists have reason for concern about Islamic influence and ambitions, but not for seeking to produce chaos in the country by challenging after the fact outcomes of democratic elections. The damage done by this polarization is to strengthen extremists on both sides, and to render problematic prospects for either humane governance or economic recovery.  Unfortunately, the intensification of polarization in recent months is approaching a point of no return, which inevitably casts a dark cloud over the future of Egypt.

 

            There are some younger activists who are more hopeful, partly because they are looking away from Tahrir Square, and find encouraging a variety of local developments throughout the country. These developments take the form of labor and environmental activism, the organization of local markets, and a lowering of expectations with respect to the central government in Cairo. In effect, this perspective sees a trend toward the invention of democratization-from-below that is working toward a just and fair society outside the conventional framings of political parties and elections. Such populism in one sense keeps the flame of Tahrir Square burning, but not on the square itself, which has been taken over by secular/Islamist ugly encounters.

 

            At this point in Egypt’s evolution, there are plenty of reasons for concern, but also for patience. It may be that the opposition forces will tire of confrontation and that the governing authorities will moderate their policies in ways that credibly heed the promise of inclusivity. Let us hope that some of these reasons for worry will no longer be present a year hence when the third anniversary of the 2011 rising will be celebrated. It is already clear that this rising did not produce a ‘revolution,’ but it is not yet evident whether what is emerging in Egypt can be welcomed as fundamental ‘reform’ of state/society, civilian/military, and public sector/private sector relations, a program of reform that protects and promotes human rights, including economic, social, and cultural, as well as political and civil rights. For now, it is best for people of good will to withhold judgment, and wish the people of Egypt success in their ongoing struggle for justice, freedom, dignity, and substantive democracy (that is, rights and justice, as well as the procedures of elections and institutions). 

Egypt: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

10 Dec

          

 

            I have had the opportunity to be in Cairo three times for brief visits in the last 20 months, the first a few weeks after the departure of Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011, the second in February of 2012 when the revolutionary process was treading water, and this third one over the course of the previous ten days. What is striking is how drastically the prevailing mood and expectations have changed from visit to visit, how fears, hopes, and perceptions have altered over time, and why they are likely to continue to do so.

 

I. The Overthrow of Mubarak

 

            On the first visit, shortly after the extraordinary exploits in Tahrir Square that started on January 18, 2011, there was a spirit of stunned amazement that made it seem as though the ‘Arab Spring’ was a genuine historical phenomenon of epic proportions and that Egypt had become the core site of a new post-Marxist radical politics that relied on militant nonviolence and a radical ethos of transformation, but avoided ideology and hard power tactics. Gandhi and Gene Sharp were most often invoked as the inspirational influences, not Lenin, Mao, Castro. It was being widely celebrated as a remarkable expression of democratic populism, especially the empowerment of youth, women, with social networking via the Internet being accorded a special prominence during the popular mobilization process. The sentiment could be summarized in different ways: ‘the impossible happened,’ ‘I never expected to experience this rising up of the people of Egypt,’ ‘We have our country back,’ ‘I have never been so proud to be an Egyptian.’ It was an upheaval with transformative potential, magnified and catalyzed by the immediately prior Tunisian rising, which exhibited what seemed to be an innovative form of largely nonviolent radical politics that almost miraculously wrote the script on the set of its unfolding while occupying Tahrir Square along with other less media exposed arenas of protest and opposition. (And not so incidentally, inspired the occupy movements that  spread around the world in the following months, with Occupy Wall Street being the appropriate epicenter.) It was treated as an amazing instance of ‘spontaneous empowerment’ at the time, although more knowledgeable observers and participants tended to stress a cumulative process with distinct roots in reactions to prior abuses by the Mubarak police apparatus and in important labor protest strikes.

 

            Of course, even during this period of afterglow, there were deep concerns in Egypt just below this surface of enthusiasm. There were a wide variety of cautionary reactions relating to the lasting significance of what had taken place, and skeptical viewpoints as to whether the deeper challenges of Egyptian poverty and class inequalities could be effectively addressed without a more ambitious political process that challenged and dismantled the institutional infrastructure of the old regime. On the one side were a variety of sentiments that expressed doubts about whether it was enough to be rid of Mubarak, and gave a range of opinions about what was not done and still needed to be done if Egypt would be able to find a path to sustainable and equitable social, economic, and political progress. This outlook was reinforced by the understanding that if forward momentum of this sort was not achieved post-Mubarak, the likely sequel would be regression. There was also widespread skepticism as to whether Egypt could both solve the problems of democratic transition and at the same time address the inequities and failures of the inherited neoliberal economy. Such a challenge could only be met through constituting a new economic order that was far more responsive to the needs of the Egyptian people and less hospitable to capitalist style investment, a process that would certainly undermine investor confidence, at least in the short-run.

 

            Egyptian friends expressed other concerns to me, as well, including worries about what the United States, and Israel, might be doing or plotting behind the scenes to embolden the armed forces to move in counter-revolutionary directions and reverse an emancipatory process that might threaten the regional status quo. There was an anxiety that these outside forces that had exerted such a strong influence in the former configurations of state power in Egypt would not give up their former leverage without trying to restore the substance, if not the form, of the old reliable order. It did seem at the time that democratizing forces were almost certain to become hostile in the future to the geopolitical arrangements favored for the region by Washington and Tel Aviv, and that the political self-determination of Egypt was threatened by the likely machinations of these external forces. At this stage, there was broad agreement that American support was one of the props of the discarded Mubarak leadership, and that Egyptian democracy depended on curbing Washington’s future influence.

 

            There was also debate in early 2011 about three elements of the domestic political scene: (1) whether the armed forces would facilitate or obstruct the establishment of a constitutional democracy in the country; (2) how to allow the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in political life while retaining the belief that it would be disastrous if it end up dominating the democratizing process; and (3) intense speculation about who would carry the presidential torch across the finish line.

 

            With respect to the MB there was uncertainty and controversy as to the orientation of its leadership, some suggestions of inter-generational conflict between the traditionally conservative older generation and a more modernity oriented and moderate younger generation. There was also disagreement as to whether its Islamic orientation was rather insignificant because its real goals were to promote private business interests and to gain access to the commanding heights of governmental authority. There were estimates at the time of MB strength as being somewhere between 25-30%, almost no mention of the Salafis as a political force to be reckoned with, and a liberal secular consensus that it was fine for the MB to take part in the political process, assuming that MB strength did not turn out to exceed those estimates. Some anti-Mubarak secularists did say that if it turned out that the true strength of the MB was 40% or more then Egypt would be in deep trouble of a not clearly specified nature. In effect, the secular consensus implicitly believed a year and a half ago that a political process dominated by the MB, even if it came about by democratic procedures, was unacceptable. But such a prospect was widely dismissed as so unlikely as not to be worth discussing. Implicitly, there were some prophetic fears even before the MB grassroots nationwide strength was disclosed in a series of electoral moments, that majoritarian democracy was not a legitimate outcome for Egypt. In a way, the MB seemed, at first, to acquiesce in this understanding, signaling their agreement by pledging not to compete for the presidency, presumably to avoid threatening the kind of ecumenical unity that was so powerfully displayed at Tahrir Square a few weeks earlier.

 

            The balance of opinion that I encountered in late February 2011 seemed to feel that an active role for the armed forces was a necessary feature for any successful transition to constitutional democracy. The alternative was assumed to be a descent into societal chaos, followed by economic collapse. On the role of the armed forces in the upheaval, there were differing assessments, some thinking that the military leadership had itself been eager to avoid a Mubarak dynasty, abhorring the prospect of power shifting to his younger son, and thus initially allowed, even welcomed the popular rising, so as to let the movement get rid the country of the Mubarak factor rather than to stage a coup on its own. Yet, the armed forces were certainly not willing to loosen their grip on the reins of power and privilege that included a major stake in the private sector economy, and thus favored a rapid return to societal normalcy. The surviving military leadership remained tied to an authoritarian style of politics, which was in effect, meant business as usual from the perspective of Tahrir activists. Others in Egyptian civilian society were more hopeful about the intentions of the armed forces believing that the upper echelons of the military, while not revolutionary, shared the reformist goals of the uprising, favored constitutional reforms, and sought to withdraw as quickly as possible from the political arena, limiting its role to facilitating order during a transition to a law-based political democracy.

 

            There were opposite worries, as well, in the afterglow of the Tahrir Square victories. Above all, a sense among those who understood politics in a conventional Western liberal manner that this movement that was so exciting during the days of struggle that culminated on January 25th lacked leadership, cohesion, program, and vision. As such, it would not be able to the challenges of the next phases–managing the practical procedures of governance or competing effectively in electoral arenas for a major role in policymaking circles. This innovative political revolutionary process had the short-term effect of allowing the battle for the future of the country to be waged by two essentially anti-democratic forces with hierarchical structures of organization that were at odds with kind of disorganized unity exhibited during the days of struggle in Tahrir Square: the MB and assorted remnants of the old order, an unholy alliance between the Mubarak beneficiaries, the old bureaucracy that had not been deconstructed, big business interests, economic sectors such as tourism and small shopkeepers, and Copts deeply worried about moves toward Islamism. This eventuality culminated in the presidential runoff between Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafik.

 

            Many of those that had flooded the streets a year earlier never cohered sufficiently to envision ‘next steps,’ and seemed either to retreat from political arenas altogether or leave the field to those who were more traditionally organized to compete for power. On a more radical side were those who were outside the mainstream of the earlier uprising, but remained engaged on the basis of believing that the movement that took shape in Tahrir Square could only reach its necessary transformative goals if it persisted in a populist mode that kept the poor masses in Egyptian society fully mobilized. Among such activists there existed a shared conviction that the revolutionary process needed to be deepened in a spirit of urgency or else the system would quickly slip back to its old ways. This radical element while affirming the originality of the Tahrir style and outcomes rejected all efforts to achieve revolutionary goals by means of party politics and elections, including traditional leftist approaches. At the same time, without being willing to endorse a blueprint for transformation, radicals identified their preferred movement with the realization of a just and independent future for the country, especially for those Egyptians so long disempowered and barely subsisting. This Egyptian radicalism remained committed to the Tahrir politics based on maintaining popular unity across the typical divisions of class, religion, and ethnicity, without advocating its own program or promoting particular leader, affirming the continuing need for confrontational tactics, and comfortable with the idea that chaos might ensue and persist for some years. Chaos was accepted as the price that must be paid if the movement that overthrew Mubarak was to grow into a genuine ‘revolution,’ and not degenerate into either a ‘counter-revolution’ or a species of ‘liberal reform’ that left the majority of Egyptians in as miserable a shape as during the Mubarak era.  In the end this radical vision was based on beliefs in local empowerment and emancipation, the creativity of people, a robust labor movement, and a bottom up view of political reconstruction, rejecting both MB and liberal secular views of top down political order. This radicalism drew its inspiration from a sense that a new kind of transformative politics had been revealed in Tahrir Square, but that it was a flowering that would wilt if not nurtured by an uncompromising insistence that the wellbeing and dignity of the Egyptian masses was the core challenge, and could not be achieved by elections, parties, and government.

 

            As for the impending electoral process, there was an emphasis on speculation about the presidency. Who? When? Among Cairo liberals who had been uncomfortable with the Mubarak past, but had long coexisted with it, there was a widespread sense that Amr Moussa would prevail. Moussa was not fully trusted even among secular liberals to advance the democratic values that were affirmed by all who had gathered in Tahrir Square and other city public spaces throughout the country. Although long prominent in the Mubarak regime, Moussa had jumped ship early enough to have mainstream credibility, and was thought to be on good terms with the military, moderate in relation to the MB, and widely known inside and outside of Egypt having serverd both as Foreign Minister and Secretary General of the Arab League. There was also some enthusiasm for the candidacy of Mohamed ElBoradai, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. More than Moussa, ElBoradei had clean hands, having been outspoken in his rejection of the Mubarak past and appearing along side the Egyptian activists in the square. At the same time, his prospects were discounted because he lacked a national political base, was not an effective speaker or experienced as a politician, and was perceived as an outsider who had lived too long in foreign countries. The more radical voices were dismissive of this preoccupation with who would emerge as the leading candidate or how political parties would fare, believing that their kind of politics would need to discover how to govern without a government of central institutions, an inchoate vision of the need for a ‘new politics’ and a distinct lack of confidence, even interest, in the vagaries of ‘old politics’ (parties, elections, bureaucratic institutions, governmental leadership), in effect, what was being sought was a ‘human security regime’ that had never been established anywhere, ever. At the time, such dedication was at once moving and troublesome, an embrace of what Derrida called ‘democracy to come’ with a kind of trust that the modalities of enactment would be discovered in the process of struggle.

 

II. Treading Water

 

            A year later in early 2012 these divisions persisted but hardened, and anxieties seemed far more intense, and the aura of excitement that followed  the victory of the January 25th Movement had definitely receded. There was, first of all, a new sense of impatience, especially among those who needed economic normalcy if their livelihoods were to be sustained. I met tourist guides at the pyramids and storekeepers in Cairo who expressed disappointment about the results of the upheaval of a year ago, acknowledging that while they had originally been glad to see the end of the Mubarak regime, they had fared personally better back then, and seemed ready to support whatever leadership that could restore stability. Even a

 

            On a different level of perception, the far greater than expected strength of the MB in the intervening parliamentary elections, as well as the abandonment of the early MB pledge not to field a presidential candidate and the surprisingly strong showing of the Salafis, changed the electoral landscape considerably. It was evident that the folks in Cairo were out of touch with the grassroots sentiments of a conservative society imbued with an Islamic identity. This assessment was discounted by liberal critics who explained MB dominance as misleading, representing an underestimation of its organizational strength. The Salafi emergence was similarly discounted by secularists as being mainly a product of Qatari and Saudi Arabian massive infusion of funds, but also as a consequence of the fact that in the past Salafi groups had shunned conventional party politics. All in all there were widespread and growing worries about the Islamization of Egyptian political life, with threats to civic freedoms, constitutional democracy, and the labor movement.

 

            The biggest development was the definite undertaking of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to undertake the task of establishing order in Egypt, and assuring a measure of continuity with the past. Although the SCAF leadership insisted that it was only managing the transition, its autocratic style, the recurrence of state violence and torture, and its reluctance to hold Mubarak operative accountable for past crimes intensified suspicions that SCAF ambition was to control the political future of the country. The SCAF also seemed to constrain democratic choice by disqualifying on highly technical grounds several presidential candidates.

The process had gone so far that ElBoradai withdrew as a candidate, and Moussa no longer seemed a favorite to win.  Among the negative scenarios that were being discussed during this period in various forms was the idea that the MB and the armed forces had struck a deal that doomed the future of the country to an unacceptable political future.

 

III. Late November, Early December 2012

 

            Of course, lots had happened. The presidential race had run its course in two rounds. The runoff was between Mohammed Morsi of the MB and Ahmed Shafik a former air force commanding general and outspoken advocate of a ‘law and order’ presidency, the two leading Egyptian institutions with least in common with the spirit of Tahrir Square. The SCAF seemed to hesitate before finally declaring Morsi the winner in a closely contested final vote, and even then appeared determined to constrain presidential power, but Morsi struck back, retiring the top generals, and effectively asserting presidential authority. Morsi also moved to entrust the drafting of the constitution to a commission of the Parliament dominated by Islamists, and now subject to a national referendum scheduled for December 15th. Then came Morsi’s November 22nd bombshell that claimed presidential authority to issue decrees that could not be judicially reviewed, but in response to the protests, has been substantially rescinded, although sweeping powers have been asserted by Morsi to control future demonstrations and protect the polling process relating to the referendum on the draft constitution. As matters now stand, the opposition is not pacified, and repudiates the process by which the draft constitution was prepared and the substance of several provisions that give the text an Islamic slant, as well as the failure to affirm the equality of women, labor rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights treaties.

 

 

            The anti-Morsi forces have returned en masse to Tahrir Square with an agenda that seems to demand a reversal of these recent developments, which would plunge the country into a deep crisis or an insistence on following through with the adoption of a constitution that was seen as flawed in its endorsement of Sharia law as the basis of state/society relations and by its deference to the anti-democratic demands of the armed forces (including a non-reviewable defense budget, the right to try civilians in military courts, protection of vested interests in the economy).

 

            So far there have been almost daily clashes, some deadly, in Tahrir Square and throughout the city of Cairo, and in other cities around the country. There are several lines of response to these developments: the dominant one applauds the return to the streets to renew the struggle for democracy and economic equity based on its claim that the MB has an undisclosed plan to impose an authoritarian form of Sharia on Egypt with backroom alliance with the armed forces and neoliberal business and finance interests; the opposition claims to be fighting for an inclusive and pluralistic form of democratic political order, which recognizes as stakeholders in constitution-making, the several distinct communities that together make up Egyptian society, including seculars, Copts, and liberals. Another more radical assessment is that the fundamental issue involves the utter bankruptcy of conventional state-centered politics coupled with the complaint that ‘nothing has changed, absolutely nothing.’ What seems to be happening, expressed in the fighting and the mass protests, is a new subjectivity associated with local empowerment in specific communities and among societal sectors, especially women and labor. It is striking that pictures of the confrontation give prominence to women as a major presence among opposition forces, while those that seem to be all male are taken from visual representations of the ranks of MB militants.

 

IV. A Few Tentative Conclusions

 

            In the end, there are several issues, which have come to the surface in this unfolding Egyptian drama:

 

            –a deep division as to the nature of political legitimacy in the Egyptian context, with Islamists resting their claims on the will of the majority, what in

the American 18th century context was derided as ‘the tyranny of the majority’,  while the opposition insists on stakeholder democracy that is protective of distinct constituencies that are fearful of each other and of a Sharia Egypt; in this light, both sides seem uncompromising, and resting their encounter on contradictory views of democratic legitimacy;

            –a new fear that the rise of the MB is leading to the hijacking of the Egyptian Revolution by the forces of Islam in a manner that took place in Iran in 1979; in effect, that it is unacceptable to have Egypt governed by the MB no matter what the outcome of a series of elections. This unacceptability is accentuated by accusations that the MB has made deals with the armed forces and neoliberalism, the two most resented features of the Mubarak past. In this regard, no compromise is possible so long as Morsi remains president, and the unrest will continue. This rejectionist position has been expressed by the announced boycott of the December 15th referendum, which has been interpreted as a recognition that it would in any event prevail. In this respect, the opposition is staking its future on resistance rather than democratic procedures, although a less extreme reading would stress the refusal of Morsi to delay the referendum as demanded. The opposition believes that Egyptians have lost their fear of state power, learned to say ‘no,’ and that while repression may turn to harsh measures, it will not be able to achieve legitimacy or even stability;

 

            –a few brave souls in Egypt are sharply critical of and disturbed by this polarization, insisting that common ground exists among the contending forces, and must be found to avoid national disaster. The claim is that Morsi is far more sensitive to the pluralist claims than the opposition contends, although he has made serious ‘mistakes’ by pushing the panic button that have alarmed opposition elements. In practical terms, the draft constitution is not as flawed as claimed, and that the Morsi leadership has indicated a willingness to be receptive to accommodating amendment in the likely event that the referendum is approved. Similarly, that the opposition has over-reacted, rejected the democratic mandate of the electoral process, and risks pushing the country into a civil war.

 

            

What is Winning? The Next Phase for the Revolutionary Uprisings

24 Feb


Early in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings it seemed that winning was understood by the massed demonstrators to mean getting rid of the hated leader, of Ben Ali in the Tunisian case, and Mubarak in the Egyptian. But as the process deepened it make clear that more was being demanded and expected, and that this had to do with restoring the material and spiritual dignity of life in all its aspects.

Without any assurance as to what ‘winning’ means in the setting of the extraordinary revolutionary uprisings that are continuing to rock the established order throughout the Arab world, it is likely to mean different things in the various countries currently in turmoil. But at the very least winning has so far meant challenging by determined and incredibly brave nonviolence the oppressive established order. This victory over long reigns of fear-induced pacification is itself a great transformative moment in 21st century history no matter what happens in the months ahead.

As Chandra Muzaffar, the widely respected Malaysian scholar who  religion and justice, compelling argues, the replacement of the old order by electoral democracy, while impressive as an accomplishment given the dictatorial rule of the past in these countries, will not be nearly enough to vindicate the sacrifices of the protestors. It is significantly better than those worst case scenarios that insist that the future will bring dismal varieties of ‘Mubarakism without Mubarak,’ which would change the faces and names of the rulers but leave the oppressive and exploitative regimes essentially in tact. This would definitely be a pyrrhic victory, given the hopes and demands that motivated the courageous political challenges embodied in withstanding without weapons the clubs, rubber bullets, live ammunition, and overall brutality, as well as the uncertainty as to what the soldiers in the streets would do when the order to open fire at the demonstrators came from the beleaguered old guard.

What is needed beyond constitutional democracy is the substantive realization of good and equitable governance: this includes, above all, people-oriented economic policies, an end to corruption, and the protection of human rights, including especially economic and social rights.  Such an indispensable agenda recognizes that the primary motivation of many of the demonstrators was related to their totally alienating entrapment in a jobless future combined with the daily struggle to obtain the bare necessities of a tolerable life.

There is present here both questions of domestic political will and governmental capability to redirect the productive resources and distributive policies of the society. How much political space is available to alter the impositions of neoliberal globalization that was responsible for reinforcing, if not inducing, the grossly inequitable and corrupting impact of the world economy on the structuring of domestic privilege and deprivation? Not far in the background is an extended global recession that may be deepened in coming months due to alarming increases in commodity prices, especially food. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization the world Food Price Index reached a record high in December 2010, a level exceeded by another 3% rise in January of this year. Lester Brown, a leading expert on world food and environment, wrote a few days ago that “[t]he world is now one poor harvest away from chaos in world grain markets.” [International Herald Tribune, Feb 23, 2011]

With political turmoil threatening world energy supplies, oil prices are also surging, allegedly further endangering the uneven and fragile economic recovery in the United States and Europe. Global warming adds a further troubling feature to this deteriorating situation, with droughts, floods, fires, and storms making it difficult to maintain crop yields, much increase food production to meet increasing demands of the world’s growing population.

These impinging realities will greatly complicate the already formidable difficulties facing new leaders throughout the Arab world seeking with a sense of urgency to create job opportunities and affordable supplies of food for their citizenries. This challenge is intensified by the widely shared high expectations of improved living circumstances. If the autocratic prior regime was held responsible for mass impoverishment of the many and the scandalously excessive enrichment of the few, is it not reasonable to suppose that the more democratic successor governments should establish without much delay greatly improved living conditions? And further, how could it be claimed that the heroic uprising was worthwhile if the quality of life of ordinary citizens, previously struggling to avert the torments of impoverishment, does not start improving dramatically almost immediately? An understandably impatient public may not give their new leaders the time that need, given these conditions, to make adjustments that will begin to satisfy these long denied hopes and needs. Perhaps, the public will be patient if there are clear signs that the leaders are trying their hardest and even if actual progress is slow, there is some evidence that the material conditions of the populace are, at least, on an ascending slope.

Even if the public is patient beyond reason, and understands better than can be prudently expected, the difficulties of achieving economic justice during a period of transition to a new framework of governance, there may be still little or no capacity to fulfill public expectations due to the impact of these worsening global conditions.  It is quite possible that if the worst food/energy scenarios unfold, famines and food riots could occur, casting dark shadows of despair across memories of these historic victories that made the initial phases of each national uprising such a glowing testament to the human spirit, which seemed miraculously undaunted by decades of oppression and abuse.

It needs also to be kept in mind that often the slogans of the demonstrators highlighted a thirst for freedom and rights. Even though there is little experience of democratic practice throughout the region, there will likely be a serious attempt by new governing institutions to distinguish their practices from those of their hated forebears, and allow for the exercise of all forms of oppositional activity, including freedom of expression, assembly, and party formation. Unlike the problems associated with creating jobs and providing for material needs, the establishment of the atmosphere of a free society is within the physical capacities of a new leadership if the political will exists to assume the unfamiliar risks associated with democratic practices. We must wait and see how each new leadership handles these normative challenges of transition. It remains to be seen as to whether the difficulties of transition are intensified by counterrevolutionary efforts to maintain or restore the old deforming structures and privileges. These efforts are likely to be aided and abetted by a range of covert collaborative undertakings joining external actors with those internal forces threatened by impending political change.

And if this overview was not discouraging enough, there is one further consideration. As soon as the unifying force of getting rid of the old leadership is eroded, if not altogether lost, fissures within the oppositions are certain to emerge. There will be fundamental differences as between radical and liberal approaches to transition, and especially whether to respect the property rights and social hierarchies associated with the old regime, or to seek directly to correct the injustices and irregularities of the past. Some critics of the Mandela approach to reconciliation and transition in South Africa believe that his acceptance of the social and economic dimensions of the repudiated apartheid structure have resulted in a widely felt sense of revolutionary disappointment, if not betrayal, in South Africa.

There will also be tactical and strategic differences about how to deal with the world economy, especially with respect to creating stability and attractive conditions for foreign investment. It is here that tensions emerge as between safeguarding labor rights and making investors feel that their operations will remain profitable in the new political environment.

This recitation of difficulties is not meant to detract attention from or to in any way diminish the glorious achievements of the revolutionary uprisings, but to point to the unfinished business that must be addressed if revolutionary aspirations are going to be able to avoid disillusionment. So often revolutionary gains are blunted or even lost shortly after the old oppressors have been dragged from the stage of history. If ever there exists the need for vigilance it at these times when the old order is dying and the new order is struggling to be born. As Gramsci warned long ago this period of inbetweeness is vulnerable to a wide range of predatory tendencies. It is a time when unscrupulous elements can repress anew even while waving a revolutionary banner and shouting slogans about defending the revolution against its enemies. And a difficulty here is that the enemies may well be real as well as darkly imagined. How many revolutions in the past have been lost due to the machinations of their supposed guardians?

Let us fervently hope that the mysteries of the digital age will somehow summon the creative energy to manage the transition to sustainable and substantive democracy as brilliantly as it earlier staged the revolutionary uprisings.

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 10,162 other followers