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Egypt Should Preserve Unity Among Disparate Parties

The Egyptian government needs some political panache.
A soldier stands next to an armoured personnel carrier (APC) near the al-Fath mosque on Ramses Square in Cairo, September 11, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany (EGYPT - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST MILITARY) - RTX13HEG

The arrest of several activists and journalists raised fears of a return to a police state in Egypt. Mohammed Abu Daraa, the Sinai correspondent of the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, was arrested and to be referred to military court on charges of reporting false news about operations of the armed forces.

Activist Haitham Mohammadayn, a leader in the Revolutionary Socialists movement, was also arrested and interrogated on charges that became the subject of ridicule among activists, such as "enabling a certain social class to control the entire society." He was later released.

Moreover, a lawyer known for his insolence appeared on one of the TV channels to insult January 25 revolutionaries and accuse them of treason. A media campaign was launched to discredit many human right activists and revolutionaries who emerged after the January 25 Revolution. News circulated that an investigation was opened by the prosecutor general’s office to interrogate them on charges of espionage with the United States and receiving illegal funding.

These charges were based on a translated document from WikiLeaks. However, the prosecutor general’s office denied that such investigations are taking place, as it turned out that the translation widely published and shared on social media was fake since the original WikiLeaks English document only mentioned that some of the concerned activists merely had dinner with the US ambassador in Cairo.

The media have been systematically accusing several writers and activists with betrayal and of forming a fifth column. Such accusations were made just because some of them criticized the way in which the transitional government had dealt with the Rabia al-Adawiya “sit-in” and blamed security forces of using excessive force, while some others demanded a swift political solution that would include reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs issued decisions to withdraw licenses of about 55,000 imams, so that preaching in mosques would be limited to Al-Azhar graduates. The decisions also included the closure of thousands of prayer rooms (spaces taking up less than 80 meters, or 262 feet) during the Friday prayers, which will be limited to major mosques only, so that the government might be reassured that the preachers are not politically using Friday sermons to incite dissent. Al-Azhar represents moderate Islam in Egypt, as opposed to the imported radical Wahhabi and takfiri currents with extreme doctrines that excommunicate the state and the whole society and considers them infidels. Add to this, news emerged of resurrecting the state security apparatus, the appointment of several former military generals as governors and extending the state of emergency.

With all of this news, many Western analysts would happily say "We told you so. We were right to describe what happened on June 30 as a coup."

If we were to look at the huge crowds that took to the street on June 30, calling for early presidential elections or the ousting of Mohammed Morsi, we would find a broad spectrum of people, political entities and state institutions with different, often contradicting, aims and ideals. At a certain moment in time, however, they all shared one common sentiment which saw in Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood a threat to Egypt’s survival. Thus, they came together to form a political force, an alliance of political and apolitical players and institutions.

This alliance began to form when on Nov. 22, 2012, Morsi issued a decree granting himself absolute powers. A few days later, Muslim Brotherhood militias besieged the Supreme Constitutional Court. The Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies monopolized the drafting of the constitution, undermining rights and freedoms in an attempt to change Egypt's identity. Thus, the January 25 revolutionaries, along with newcomers — including traditionally apathetic Hezb al-Kanaba, or the "Couch Party," and the “foloul,” remnants and supporters of the former regime — started to assemble in this alliance against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The January 25 revolutionaries themselves are not one single unified bloc. They include liberals, socialists, Islamists and even anarchists. The anarchists, who are against the idea of the central state, are few in number, yet they have managed to gain significant influence amid other groups of activists. Usually, they do not publicly call for overthrowing the state, but rather speak against corruption within the Ministry of Interior or big economic ventures operated by the army. Undoubtedly, these issues need to be addressed and these institutions must be reformed. Anarchists, however, use these flaws in discrediting all these institutions and thus creating a wide sentiment of dissent against the “state” as a whole. This especially became evident in the bloody clashes between the activists and security forces near police and military installations during the 18 months following the departure of then-President Hosni Mubarak.

So, there are several factions among January 25 revolutionaries who are not eager to preserve the state. They identify, or equate, the state with the army, the police, the judiciary and the administration, and see them all as a part of the corrupt Mubarak regime. The term, the “deep state,” was coined to indicate the change-resisting nature of the Egyptian administration. Let's not forget that the choice of Jan. 25 as a date to start the revolution was to coincide with Police Day, in protest of police brutality, corruption and overreaching dominion over all aspects of public life.

On the other hand, those identified with the Couch Party and the foloul are undoubtedly statists, ardent defendants of the Egyptian state. They seek to establish a strong Egyptian state and preserve Egypt’s identity. They fear that the persistent attacks against national institutions such as the army, the police and the judiciary may lead to the disintegration of the state and cause widespread chaos, which would disrupt basic services and food, fuel and medical supplies. This could result in waves of looting, unrest and violent clashes between various armed groups, and leave millions of Egyptians dead and homeless. They look at Iraq and Syria, fearing that the same scenario might play out in Egypt. Thus, they take a tough stance against any person or movement that could, in their opinion, push Egypt down this path. The statists are increasingly accusing the January 25 revolutionaries of treason and of being a part of a fifth column which knowingly or unknowingly aid in implementing sinister plans to destabilize Egypt.

With the exception of the anarchists and their sympathizers, the majority of the January 25 revolutionaries would also defend the Egyptian state, although they are more aware of the dire need to reform its institutions. They respect the army, even if most of them are dissatisfied with the military council, Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, led by Tantawi. In private talks or on social media, some of the January 25 revolutionaries now express a sense of guilt for helping the Muslim Brotherhood arrive to power. They helped to mobilize for the June 30 uprising against Morsi, as they felt that the Muslim Brotherhood had ruined the country and dragged it to the verge of collapse and civil war. Some revolutionaries even believe that many of the bloody skirmishes with police and army forces during the first transitional period were pointless and counterproductive, often initiated or prolonged by egoistic activists obsessed with adrenaline rushes and suicidal urges who would intentionally provoke security forces to flare up ferocious clashes. The clashes would spark a bloodshed which revolutionaries would use to progressively undermine the state’s legitimacy. This was facilitated by the crookedly long road map that was devised by the Muslim Brotherhood to enable them control the Constituent Assembly and the rest of state institutions. The said road map left the military council in charge for about two years, in a way that amplified the chances of clashes between the council and the revolutionaries and dwindled its popularity; though the council itself announced in February 2011, once it assumed power, that it would hand over power to civilians within a period of six months.

Further, feelings of jealousy are certainly rife among some January 25 activists whose fame is now challenged by the new Tamarod youth, who led the June 30 protests and took their spot in the limelight. Should we sense a conflict arising between the two revolutions? Well, the National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood somehow shared power prior to the January 25 Revolution. When the January 25 Revolution removed the National Democratic Party, this naturally allowed the other organized group to assume the seat of power. Once in government, Egyptians felt a grave danger to the state, thus deposing them through the protests of July 30. In this light, the June 30 uprising is another wave of the January 25 revolution. June 30 comprises, however, a broader alliance between the January revolutionaries and other fabrics of society.

Why are we mentioning this?

Many wonder about the Muslim Brotherhood’s plan, and why they rejected joining the political process when they could. There could be many reasons for this, but they must, however, be hoping that cracks are bound to emerge within the June 30 odd alliance and that they will widen and deepen them until a window of opportunity opens for the Muslim Brotherhood to make a grand comeback. They hope to unite ranks again with some of the disenfranchised revolutionaries where they can topple the interim government and disrupt the road map.

The Muslim Brotherhood must be hoping that what happened following the January 25 Revolution will recur. At the time, the people supported the army until the latter became embroiled in gigantic problems and fierce clashes, leading to large protests to call for the downfall of “military rule.” The Muslim Brotherhood and possibly some other activists who are unpleased with the current situation hope for these clashes to be renewed and for the misdemeanors committed during the clashes of Balloon Theater, Maspero, Mohammed Mahmoud and the cabinet standoffs to transpire once again, so that a new alliance can be formed through which the Muslim Brotherhood will return to power.

Is it possible?

The return of the Muslim Brotherhood to power is unlikely to happen in the near future because of the animosity they have engendered among most Egyptians. But they can, however, manage to create a broad alliance to topple the existing government and impede the road map. Everything is possible in Egypt, and the advice given by activist Nawara Negm in a series of articles may perhaps hold valuable lessons, which the current government can benefit from. Political interactions have shown that there are at least three active blocs: the Islamists, the January 25 revolutionaries and the rest of the June 30 activists. And although there are other dimensions and overlapping which occurs among these blocs, experience shows that an alliance between any two of these blocs may destabilize a regime supported by the third. This is probably true despite the disparity in weight and capacity of these blocs to mobilize the public opinion and manage influential protests and stand up to the authorities.

This is why the government must preserve unity between the coalitions of January 25 and June 30 through prudent policies, so that it can sustain popular support of the interim administration and its road map. Failure to do that could lead to a new wave of protests and clashes that could consume the entire country at a time when Egypt’s economy has been weakened by several years of unrest. The authorities must also even try to attract members of the third bloc, the Islamists, into an inclusive political process to bolster stability. This is what the economy desperately needs, be it for the sake of tourism, the flow of investments or the recovery of consumer and business confidence.

The main danger that was shown through the practices of the Muslim Brotherhood has been its indifference toward Egypt’s security, integrity or national interests. The Muslim Brotherhood seemed even happy for Egypt to fall under the thumb of occupation as long as this may bring it back to power. Contrary to this, the June 30 alliance must develop an “Egyptian Ideology,” which spells out national priorities which transcend political differences. For example, reforming state institutions was a core goal of the January 25 Revolution, but such reforms must take place without risking disintegration of the army or the police, to save the country from descending toward chaos, a scenario similar to what is happening in Syria. A shock therapy that can lead to killing the patient is probably not the best cure for an illness.

At the same time, the government should exert more effort in understanding the political structure and drivers of the public opinion. It must acknowledge priorities and red lines of existing blocs, their relative weights, and calculate possible reactions to potential policies. It should also seek to strike a balance between security considerations and the preservation and even widening of the June 30 alliance. The government, which had positioned itself as technocratic, must acquire political panache, monitor the public opinion and continuously listen to its political advisers before embarking on a slippery path that could take it to murky waters where its predecessors lie beneath. Let's hope lessons of the first transition period have been well-learned to avoid repeating the same deadly mistakes.

Wael Nawara is an Egyptian writer and activist. He is also the co-founder of Al Dostor Party, the National Association for Change and El Ghad Party. Formerly president of  the Arab Alliance for Freedom and Democracy, he was a visiting fellow at the Institute of Politics, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. On Twitter: @WaelNawara

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