Who's in Charge in Egypt? Short Answer: We don’t know. Pulitzer Center grantee Lauren Bohn, who is based in Istanbul, offers her take below.
Transitions to democracy have never been easy. It’s hard to tell if the last few weeks in Egypt are a rewrite of the past two years, a new chapter, or a separate book entirely. While millions convulsed in celebration over the military’s removal of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi, many concede the road ahead will be uphill.
Navigating Egypt’s political turmoil can be headache inducing. My social media feeds and networks on the ground are often split feverishly between two myopic and exclusionary camps. But the country is deeply polarized across political and cultural fault lines that are more complicated than the familiar binary tropes of Islamist vs. secular, or rich vs. poor.
Most of the youth and “secular/liberal” (a label that’s surely reductionist) forces that backed the military’s removal of Morsi haven’t submitted to convenient amnesia: they vividly recall a less-than-sunny military rule and a host of abuses under the military’s 17-month-leadership following Mubarak’s ouster. The same advocates who protested the direct rule of shadowy generals now face a difficult reality of making sure the military heeds their calls for reform. Many constantly tell me they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, between a power-hungry Muslim Brotherhood and a military better suited for staying in barracks than mediating democracy. What's more, the new interim civilian cabinet has been disputed from the get-go. (To help one navigate the intense carousel of analyses and counter-analyses on the military’s removal of Morsi, here’s a cohesive reading list put together by Guardian journalist Jack Shenker.)
The forces behind Morsi’s ouster, a disparate cornucopia of leftist and secular movements, face the same difficult task they did following Mubarak’s ouster two and half years ago: translating the discontent and momentum that make for riveting street protests into effective and durable political movements. It’s a lot easier to stand together in a square against one figure, be it Mubarak or Morsi, than it is to unite after he’s gone. The question of what one stands for, rather than merely against, is much harder to answer.
For their part, the Muslim Brotherhood has quite a bit of soul-searching to do, not least in acknowledging how and why they lost the streets. But when it comes to the knowing what they stand for, they’re at ease. Simply put, splintered and nascent opposition groups are hard to compare to an organization that wields decades of grassroots experience. The Brotherhood’s tentacles are stretched across the country in every city and countryside hamlet.
Sure the Muslim Brotherhood inherited a combustible catalogue of catastrophes, but they proved inept at governing. At the final hour, they failed to acknowledge the widespread discontent on the streets and calls for compromise. Beyond incompetency, they ruled with a heavy hand, pushing forward controversial unilateral declarations (Michael Hanna cogently tracks Morsi’s factional missteps and penchant for zero-sum game politics here). Along the way, the Brotherhood approached democracy with a majoritarian sensibility, operating in a land of no proper checks and balances and lingering in exclusionary discourse. They often forgot they presided over all of Egypt, not just their well-oiled constituency.
What Defines Democracy?
But their removal by the military, though propelled by robust people power, sits uneasily with many, not just Islamists. People and analysts alike are tussling over a larger, defining question: What constitutes democratic legitimacy—the ballot box or vast street demonstrations?
“I feel like I just shop-lifted Egypt,” one Egyptian activist told me immediately after the military’s announcement of Morsi’s removal. “I feel good, but a little guilty.” Egyptian analyst Ahmad Shokr and blogger Baheyya have painted vivid portraits of the now dizzying political landscape, traversed by a motley crew of forces vying for legitimacy.
While many of my Muslim Brotherhood contacts are deflated and angry, many have responded to the situation with an interesting calm. After all, this is an organization that’s been largely suppressed—and banned—since its inception 85 years ago. They’re obviously opposed to recent detentions and investigations into the organization’s top leaders (which they deem arbitrary), but this isn’t anything new for them. It’s simply a punctuated extension to an already long narrative of victimization and “being misunderstood.” It’s their natural state—certainly more familiar terrain than running a country.
The Egyptian uprising is a marathon, in which no one’s really sure which mile they’re on. And despite being decapitated, the Brotherhood vows it has Gatorade. They’re not going away anytime soon. Whether people like it or not, they will need to be integrated into Egypt’s future (Egyptian writer Sarah Carr elucidates current societal polarization and the dangerous exclusionism behind efforts to suppress the organization).
Many members and supporters have told me participating in a new set of parliamentary elections isn’t out of the question (though many doubt elections will be soon or fair). In fact, many tell me if elections were held tomorrow, they’d be ready.
The somewhat elusive key buried in the mayhem lies in political inclusiveness and reconciliation—gestures Muslim Brotherhood supporters argue run contrary to the opposition-backed military “coup.” Morsi’s opponents argue the Muslim Brotherhood never used these keys while in power, however. Navigating out of the cul de sac of blame and political opportunism is easier said than done, especially in a country that was bereft of true political dialogue for the past several decades. One could call the last couple weeks in Egypt necessary birth pangs, growing pains, or pre-pubescent frustration. Many Egyptians are simply trying to find themselves in a country struggling to define itself.
In an effort to widen the narrative on Egypt’s uprising, I’ve focused my Pulitzer Center project on life outside Cairo, specifically Upper Egypt. It’s a telling lens. The region runs south of Cairo, extending more than 500 miles to Aswan. It’s been plagued by institutional apathy and corruption for years. The region is considered the most culturally conservative and traditional area of the country, where ingrained patriarchal values continue to inform attitudes and world-views.
While the region accounts for only 40 percent of the national population, according to a 2012 World Bank report, it constitutes 60 percent of those living in poverty and 80 percent of those living in severe poverty. With unemployment at staggering rates throughout the country, Upper Egypt has a highly combustible pool of frustrated and disenfranchised youth in danger of becoming a lost generation.
My project, The Country Outside the Square, attempts to hone in on what revolution means for the country’s neglected and downtrodden. What are their dreams for Egypt? For themselves? The answers are diverse and wide-ranging, underscoring the ultimate struggle over what type of society the past two and half years will birth.
One doesn’t need to travel outside Cairo to see how decades of mismanagement and neglect have slowly and brutally choked the majority of Egyptians. But traveling to oft-neglected provinces, hundreds of miles from the political elite’s deeply centralized nerve center, boggles the mind. Schools look like penitentiaries. Hospitals are understaffed and underfunded. Roads are barely navigable. People are hanging on by a thread. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups enjoy much support in these areas because they’re simply the only groups around and have often stepped in to serve the people when past regimes failed them.
I frequently find people who complain that life under Muslim Brotherhood rule is no better than it was under Mubarak’s. For most of them, the splintered and inchoate opposition—perceived as ineffective, too out-of-touch, too “liberal”—was not a potential balm; it was anathema. Some are simply waiting for a charismatic knight in shining armor to sweep in and make things right.
Nothing in Egypt is black and white anymore, and allegiances are complicated. Among the general public, the military is held up as the guardian of Egypt’s stability. They enjoy support all over the country, especially in Upper Egypt where most military conscripts come from. It’s far from impossible to find a family who loves both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. It will be interesting to see how these loyalties sway and falter in the coming months.
A Fractured Family
Over the past couple years, in an effort to effectively ferry between Egypt’s parallel universes, I have been tracking a staunch Muslim Brotherhood family in the Upper Egyptian city of Assiut. Their high-octane dynamics and shifting fidelities are a telling microcosm of a greater society bowed over in existential crisis.
Throughout the initial uprising against Mubarak, the family’s eldest son, Ahmed Mohamed Abdel Karim, was a bright-eyed Muslim Brotherhood activist. But during the military council’s rule, he realized “the Muslim Brotherhood slept with the military,” and criticized the group for standing silent in the face of grave missteps. “They just want the military to hold elections soon so they can win…winning is all the Brotherhood cares about now.”
His critical blog posts on the military landed him in detention for months at the notorious Tora prison, where most of the Mubarak-era clan are held (and where Muslim Brotherhood members are currently detained). Throughout Karim’s military detention, his family’s devotion to the Brotherhood never faltered, even though the organization remained silent and failed to counter the ludicrous, trumped-up charges against the 22-year-old. I first met Karim’s little brother, Omar, a meek 15-year-old, when Karim was still in jail, and the family was vigorously campaigning for the Muslim Brotherhood during the country’s first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections. Brutally shy, Omar’s energy fields buzzed at the mere mention of the Brotherhood and their “Renaissance” project for Egypt. Still, you could tell he was torn.
"I'm not sure if I want other people to know," he said walking home past red-stenciled “Free Karim” graffiti with his brother's face slightly eclipsed by Muslim Brotherhood campaign posters. "But, sometimes, I think about how things were before the revolution...me, my brother and the Brotherhood. Things were simple, not complicated. We all knew who we were."
When I met the brothers a few months ago, Karim, now a free man, looked much older. He’s considerably more jaded and listless, but still hopeful. Omar has grown a fierce beard along his sharp jawline, and while still withdrawn, he now speaks in deeper tones. He’s more confident, if not militant, in his religion and the Brotherhood’s power. When I tell him about several different Brotherhood officials and members I’ve recently interviewed, his eyes light up with childhood Christmas morning excitement. “They are amazing,” he said. “True leaders…they put the people first. They do everything around here.”
Following Morsi’s ouster, Omar spoke with the same restrained confidence, shifting between first and third person when referring to the 85-year-old organization. “We will win elections again. You can’t just get rid of them, they will triumph, God willing.”
Karim just laughs, treating his little brother as though he were a naïve young boy in love, desperately in need of console over an irrevocably broken relationship.
Still, the brothers, arms frequently intertwined, agree on one point: “All this chaos soon will pass…the country needs time.”
But just what the recent chaos will leave in its place when it passes and what the country will ultimately become are points they—and the country itself—might not agree upon anytime soon.