Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Public Audit

AP Photo/Amr Nabil
He didn’t know it, we didn’t know it, and they didn’t know it, but Mohamed Morsi planted a time bomb on September 6, 2012, when he appointed Hisham Geneina as chief auditor. Geneina had plenty of name recognition and public esteem as a leader of the judicial independence movement of 2005-2006, but unlike his fellow judges in that movement, he is not thought to have Islamist sympathies. When the revolution broke out, he did not delve into its politics, as did Zakariyya Abdel Aziz, who gave rousing speeches in Tahrir Square, or Mahmoud al-Khodeiry, who was elected to the first and only real parliament after Mubarak’s ouster. And he was not discredited in office as was Ahmad Mekky, who frustrated many people as Morsi’s Justice Minister and then, frustrated himself, huffily resigned in April 2013.

Morsi was fairly easily removed by the longtime hoarders of state power, but ironically they’re finding it much harder to eliminate his most fateful appointment. This March, Sisi dismissed Geneina from his post, but the story is far from over. Today is Geneina’s first trial session, where he stands accused of “disseminating false news that disturbs the public peace.” But the coup makers had to take a tortuous path to get to this stage, and the trial portends the beginning of a second and possibly more embarrassing phase. Geneina’s shrewd tactics and unassailable reputation have made this a very costly mess for Sisi and his confederates.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Specter of January 25th

Protesters in Suez attempt to enter hospital to retrieve body of dead protester, January 26, 2011

Reuters/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany
There is nothing surprising in the Sisi government’s anticipatory prep work for the five-year anniversary of the revolution. For weeks now, media shills have disseminated a message of terror, assuring viewers of the state’s violence if they dare go out on the streets. More subtle though no less vicious, Hamdeen Sabahy, once an opposition maverick and now one of Sisi’s civilian stooges, was trotted out in an interminable interview to deliver the same warnings. Sisi himself is trying to reclaim the date as a police commemoration, surrounding himself with the families of killed police officers like so many props

The only surprise is the transparency of the fear gripping Egypt’s rulers. For a military clique hyper-concerned about projecting an image of effortless control, the package of anticipatory measures virtually screams panic and insecurity. This is odd, since Sisi’s government has already updated a law criminalizing public demonstrations; filled prisons with both critics and supporters of the Muslim Brothers; imprisoned the elected president, Dr. Mohamed Morsi, on outlandish charges, with no international censure to speak of; turned the civilian political class into adjuncts of military rule; and shows no compunction about arresting and/or killing peaceful demonstrators and passersby. So why the fear?

It seems to me that the most lasting legacy of Egypt’s revolution is not that it banished fear within the population, or somehow imbued Egyptians with a new consciousness that they didn’t have before. The majority of Egyptians have always been and are acutely aware of the workings of oppression in their lives. Like other subjugated people, they have no illusions about how arbitrarily and violently they’re ruled, they just lack the means to change it. For a brief, wondrous interlude in 2011-2013, a breathtaking historic accident, they outflanked their rulers and made themselves sovereign. One day, they went out to protest police brutality, and in short order, toppled a thirty-year autocrat, threw out some governors and other mini-dictators, bitterly fought over a new constitution, freely elected a parliament and president, and practiced other forms of politics with a gusto and sense of purpose unseen even during Egypt’s other great revolt in spring 1919.

The wonderfully subversive happening that was the 2011 revolution put fears in the hearts of Egypt’s privileged castes: the military generals who basked in unearned assets and a false mystique of professionalism; the business clique that grew out of the illegitimate union between public power and private wealth; and a pathetic, parasitic cultural elite animated by nothing more than hatred for the general population and its ‘primitive,’ ‘traditional’ ways.

Even though they’ve decisively recaptured the summits of state and economy, I don’t think that this generation of military generals, big bureaucrats, crony capitalists, and cultural hacks will ever forget the humiliation and displacement that January 25th meant to them. I think they more than any of us will always remember the concrete, daily details of living through a popular uprising, when ordinary people with no connections and no education (oh the horror!) acted like masters, insolently demanding a full public accounting for every decision, every ordinance, every utterance, every public office from base to summit.

Egypt’s revolution was defeated, its extraordinary details willfully forgotten, its magnitude belittled, its meanings reduced to dumb clichés. But in the traumatized memories of a grasping ruling class, it remains evergreen, a terrifying interlude of mass emancipation. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Rhetoric of Egyptian Reaction

June 16, 2015. AP Photo

This upsetting photo of Ikhwan members sentenced to death by hanging dredged up a memory of another courtroom cage many years ago. In December 1999, on the Haikstep military base, 20 Ikhwan professionals were being tried in a military tribunal on charges of “infiltrating professional associations.” It was the first courtroom I’d ever been in, and what a strange one it was. A cage took up the entire left length of the room; all 20 men in it were dressed in spotless white gallabiyas. I remember Khaled Badawi, a loquacious lawyer and bar association activist, now a member of Dr. Mohamed Morsi’s legal team. Next to him was Mokhtar Nouh, a big personality who loved the limelight, now a rabid anti-Ikhwan propagandist. Mohamed Ali Bishr was there, the engineer who later became a governor then a minister during Morsi’s presidency and is now in prison. And usually sitting quietly deep inside the cage was Mohamed Badie, the veterinarian who became the Brothers’ General Guide in 2010 and who is now among those sentenced to death.

Monday, February 09, 2015

The Tasreebat

The latest leaked recording of Egypt’s generals conferring in Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s office is the most damaging one yet. Earlier leaks were interesting, but not exactly shocking. The generals scrambled to legalize Mohamed Morsi’s detention after July 3 2013; dictated talking points to their media shills; and gave the Prosecutor-General instructions about high-profile cases. This surprised neither the coup’s friends nor foes, since everyone knows that the generals control every government official and micro-manage propaganda.

The recent leaks, however, take things to a new level. The generals don’t just rubbish their Gulf backers; scorn Egyptians as a starving, miserable mass; and generally ooze contempt for anyone outside their ranks. The recordings reveal how, in private, Egypt’s peak military officers see themselves. In frank, relaxed banter, they discuss how to milk the Gulf monarchs for more billions; rue the Nasser military’s non-profiteering mindset; and generally come off as money-grubbing hirelings ready to deploy military force anywhere in exchange for cash.

Thus in a five-minute conversation, the generals unmask their own elaborate self-mythologizing as nationalist, selfless public servants who have rescued Egypt and the region from an Islamist cabal. They reinforce critics’ longstanding claims that the Mubarakist Egyptian military defends not the national interest but its own sectional concerns.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Grand Entente

In the old days, when the Israeli military bombed and shelled Palestinians and sought to destroy their society, Hosni Mubarak used a well-worn formula, fully abetting Israeli actions while uttering pro-Palestine platitudes. Occasionally, when huge protests rocked the streets, he green-lighted theatrical gestures such as his wife heading a relief convoy to Gaza in 2002, and his son fronting a delegation to Beirut when Israel bombed Lebanon in 2006.

Today, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has not only steered clear of a single expression of token solidarity with Palestinians. He and his media creatures have actually ventriloquized Israeli talking points: Hamas is responsible for the staggering civilian death toll; Hamas is a terrorist organization; Hamas ought to be tried for war crimes. One of Sisi’s shills even instigated a diplomatic crisis with Morocco when she attacked King Mohammed VI for allowing Islamists to form the government, prompting an official apology by the Egyptian ambassador to Morocco.

What accounts for this baffling state of affairs? Mubarak’s and Sisi’s are both dictatorial regimes, and Sisi is seen as the logical heir to Mubarak (albeit rudely interrupted by the evanescent Egyptian revolution). But why is Sisi going out of his way to advertise his identity of interest with Israel? Surely it’s better for him to be circumspect and keep up appearances?

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

State Prestige Redux

(Anadolu Agency)
When historians review this first year of Sisi’s rule, they will note that the military regime’s core priority was to crush popular mobilization. Under the doctrine of restoring “state prestige,” the entire state machinery went into avenger mode, brutalizing both supporters of the ousted president Mohamed Morsi and his diehard opponents. For despite their myopic hatred for each other, the Muslim Brothers and their critics espouse the same dangerous belief, the conviction that they should be able to control the state, not the other way round. This revolutionary idea and its shortlived practice is what Sisi is out to destroy.

Some like to pretend that the scale of state violence since July 3 2013 is a sign of a government that’s out of control or somehow getting off track. In a stunning abuse of language even by the forgiving standards of diplomatspeak, the American State Department continues to proclaim that Egypt is on “a path to democracy” but unfortunately experiencing a “chilling detour.” In reality, the mass killings, mass jailings, mass death sentences, mass hysteria-mongering, and mass leader worship perpetrated by Egypt’s government are not some unfortunate aberration. They are what putschist generals do after they overthrow elected governments.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Sisi's Challenge

Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has certified his seizure of power with an electoral pantomime, and looks set to preside over a reconstructed Mubarakist system. The revolution appears as a blip in the stubborn tradition of one military dictator transferring power to another. But try as he might, the new leader of Egypt can’t rule the way Mubarak did. Sisi faces an entirely different set-up than the relatively tame country Mubarak inherited, and will have to devise a ruling formula from scratch to deal with a country in a protracted political transformation.

It’s strange to me how so many commentators are unanimously declaring the economy to be the make-or-break test of the new autocrat’s rule, as if the survival of any of Egypt’s military rulers depended on economic performance. Inequality, immiseration, and corruption accelerated under Sadat and flourished under Mubarak, but neither was brought down by those conditions. Their fates hinged on the tools of political control they designed to channel and contain economic discontent and political ambition.

Sisi’s survival depends on how he’ll pacify and roll back the mass politicization that erupted post-revolution, a feat that no other modern Egyptian ruler has had to attempt. From January 25 2011 to June 30 2013, in a spectacle unseen in the modern history of this country, crowds filling streets determined the fate of powerholders. On July 3, Sisi terminated that dangerous pattern, co-opting popular mobilization into state-sanctioned folk festivals and using overwhelming state violence against oppositional protests and sit-ins.

But to build an enduring authoritarian order, Sisi will have to go beyond his crude strategy of crushing real mass mobilization while staging medieval pageants of mass acclamation. The limits of this approach couldn’t be clearer in the election debacle. Apparently, Sisi and his machinery didn’t anticipate that claiming a popular mandate is far easier with protests than through elections. Hence the hilarious government panic and desperate eleventh-hour measures to compel people to take part in a choreographed election, an exercise more idiotic than herding cats.

Managing Opposition

Simply put, Sisi has to construct a sophisticated new system for handling opposition. The state terror he’s unleashed on opponents since July 3rd may work in the short term, but begins to signal state weakness in the face of unabated acts of resistance. Similarly, the spectacles of popular acclamation à la Syria’s Asads quickly become liabilities, showcasing a ruler’s mendacity and megalomania rather than his invincibility.

Mubarak’s rule lasted because it managed different kinds of opposition. There was a parliamentary space inherited from Sadat, for channeling the political energies of the reformist Muslim Brothers and a dozen maverick non-Islamist politicians. When a protest culture began to emerge in the 2000s, Mubarak’s police didn’t crush it but instead worked to ensure that workers’ protests never merged with pro-democracy demonstrations. Mubarak even kept Sadat’s risible state-created opposition, the neo-Wafd, Tagammu, and Nasserist outfits that were useful when he needed a stooge to stand against him in sham elections.

This system chugged along for 30 years and would have lasted longer, had an internal and external shock not overturned everything. Mubarak’s son and his friends over-managed the 2010 parliamentary elections and hogged all the seats, radicalizing the tamed parliamentary opposition. A month later, on January 14, 2011, the Arab authoritarian order was changed forever when one of its architects ran away in the face of massive street opposition, electrifying crowds all over the Arab world. The stage was set for the separate worlds of opposition under Mubarak to converge and terminate his storied longevity.

Revolutionary Creation, Military Destruction

The uprising inaugurated an era of mass politicization, breaking down the barriers between people and politics Mubarak had maintained so well. It seems like a different country now, but recall the heady year of 2011, when every part of Egypt was alive with boundary-breaking political action: protests against mini-Mubaraks in the state bureaucracy; protests against governors; evolution of neighborhood popular committees; protests against church burnings; the first free internal university elections; freetrade unions; the first sustained Tahrir sit-in after Mubarak’s ouster; and crowds’ storming of two of the most fortified symbols of power in Cairo: the State Security headquarters and the Israeli embassy.

At the same time as Egyptians were actively remaking politics in their neighborhoods, streets and workplaces, a new national political tradition was born: the Friday mass protest or melyoneyya, radiating out from Tahrir in Cairo to the central squares in provincial capitals. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to claim that this was the first time since 1919 that crowds steered national policies, via a weekly outdoor mass parliament more potent than any legislative body.

When that body was seated in January 2012, it was peremptorily dissolved less than six months later, part of the military’s long game of torpedoing every popular achievement both at the ballot box and in the streets. In short order, the first elected president was overthrown; the first popularly-authored constitution suspended; Tahrir Square was closed off with barbed wire and army tanks; protest encampments at Rabaa and Nahda burned and thousands of protestors killed; an anti-protest law promulgated; and thousands of students, activists and non-political citizens arrested, jailed or sentenced to death.

Writing of the 1851 coup d’état that arrested the 1848 revolution in France, Marx’s words illuminate equally well the Egyptian drama of revolutionary creation and military destruction: “Instead of society conquering a new content for itself, it only seems that the state has returned to its most ancient form, the unashamedly simple rule of the military sabre and the clerical cowl.”

Sisi has yet to go beyond the primitive Bonapartist impulses of using the state’s brute force and crude propaganda. But to recoup the investment in him by his Gulf, US, and Israeli friends and backers, he will have to build a viable authoritarian political order that can calibrate and not just indiscriminately crush opposition.

Sisi's Gamble

If Mubarak inherited a country with tame levels of conflict, Sisi seized power in a scarcely recognizable Egypt, a place that in three remarkable years has undergone three political upheavals: a popular uprising; an intensely competitive, hard fought presidential election; and a military coup cheered by half the population and resisted by the other half.

Residues of these conflicts have made deep grooves: the nightly anti-coup processions and Friday demonstrations in Greater Cairo and several other cities; student protests of stunning bravery and heroism; an armed insurgency in Sinai; workers’ protests that are likely to increase in frequency and magnitude; and a thriving satirical subculture dedicated solely to ridiculing Sisi’s every gesture and utterance.

Sisi’s gamble requires that he figure out a workable formula for ruling Egypt without the participation of Egyptians, at a historical juncture when Egyptians have become much harder to rule.

Friday, January 10, 2014

A Military Constitution

Now that the Egyptian military has ousted the first elected president, installed a government of civilian executors, massacred the former president’s supporters and sympathizers, and declared his organization a terrorist group, it is set to produce a document it calls a constitution that codifies military superiority over state and society.

Not content to delegate the task of selling the document to the 50 people it appointed to write it, the military is doing its own sales pitch. It has issued this video laying out how all three branches of the armed forces, as well as special forces, border guards and military police, will deploy 160,000 men to assist the Interior Ministry in “securing” the referendum on the document.

The video is an endless parade of military prowess: rolling tanks and armored personnel carriers; formations of ramrod-straight troops bearing huge rifles; and of course the military’s treasured helicopters, this time not to draw hearts in the sky but “to monitor any obstructions to the electoral operation.” At the end of the video the voice-over narrator avers, “This comes at a time when the armed forces are undertaking vigilance and preparedness procedures to execute their principal duties on all the strategic fronts of the state.”

One could be forgiven for thinking that Egypt is on the cusp of war, not an impending plebiscite. But war is what militaries do, and when countries are blighted by politicized militaries that control their politics, the guns are turned inward. This isn’t a figure of speech. Since July 3rd, the military and its junior partner the police have repeatedly killed opponents of the coup, not content with “just” arrests and jail terms.

The once unfathomable is now routine, with at least one killing at every protest, and a stunning 17 people killed just last Friday. The general public’s manufactured indifference and silence is the biggest kick in the gut, a testament to the military’s lethal power to mold reality and cow citizens.

In frighteningly methodical fashion, every hard-won gain of the January 25th revolution is reversed and trampled upon. The collective emancipation of the revolutionary crowds is turned into fear and conformist state worship. The once-revolutionary act of burning police cars, a time-honored Egyptian resistance tactic, is now rubbished because only the Muslim Brothers are daring it. The greatest and most brittle achievement of the revolution, the possibility and practice of ruling ourselves, is defeated by the armed enforcers of elite rule.

In these times of daily state violence, a law criminalizing protest, a government decree declaring the largest political group in Egypt a “terrorist organization,” and a state-sponsored silencing and fear-mongering campaign, Egyptians are being badgered to go out and endorse a document that spells out the terms of their subjugation. Such is the military’s constitution.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Fetishizing the State

An old and pernicious idea is back in circulation since the July 3 coup. It was a running theme in the military ruler’s speech on July 24 where he demanded a popular mandate to “confront terrorism.” Right on cue, government officials parroted it repeatedly in their stern warnings to dissenters. Pro-military activists, politicians, and intellectuals happily invoked it in their jihad against the Ikhwan. The idea is haybat al-dawla, or the state’s standing and prestige, a central plank of the Arab authoritarian order that’s making a big comeback.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Public Service Announcement

On the same day that Egyptian police shot dead at least 74 Muslim Brother demonstrators and wounded scores, the Interior Ministry released what it called its first animated short for children. A little boy and his grandfather (a retired police officer) sit on a couch in a spare living room, watching television footage of an earthquake in Turkey. The boy asks his grandfather, “Geddo geddo, what’s an earthquake?” The grandfather recites the geological definition of an earthquake and sagely schools the child in the proper safety procedures in such an event. To the awe of his grandson, he highlights the heroic role of the civil defense forces, “who will sacrifice their lives for us.” The video ends with the message, “We seek to upgrade the thinking of the Ministry of Interior and to provide excellent services, so please cooperate with us.”

Saturday, July 27, 2013

A Litany of State Violence

Rabaa Sit-in Mass Shootings, July 27 2013 (AP Photo)
A non-exhaustive list of organized violence by military and/or police forces against unarmed citizens since the January 25th revolution. The list doesn’t include countless episodes of deliberate police inaction in the face of deadly citizen-on-citizen violence, most notably the March 2011 Manshiyyat Nasser Christian-Muslim clashes (15 dead, 114 injured), the February 2012 Port Said soccer deaths (74 dead, 1,000 injured), the December 5, 2012 Muslim Brothers’ break-up of the Ittehadeyya Palace sit-in (10 deaths), and the June 2013 lynching of four Shi’a Muslims and injury of eight.

The 18 days, 25 January-11 February 2011: 848 dead, 1,000+ disappeared

Balloon Theater clashes, June 2011: 1,114 injured

Maspero massacre, October 2011: 28 dead, hundreds injured

Mohamed Mahmoud St. clashes, November 2011: 45 dead, 60 eye injuries

Cabinet Offices sit-in, December 2011: 17 dead, 928 injured

Mohamed Mahmoud St. clashes, February 2012: 15 dead

Defense Ministry sit-in, April-May 2012: 12 deaths

Ramlet Boulaq clashes, August 2012: 75 arrests

Qursaya Island clashes, November 2012: 3 dead, 5 injured

Port Said protests, January 2013: 42 dead, 874 injured

Presidential Guard massacre, July 2013: 92 dead

Rabaa Sit-in mass shootings, July 2013: 70 dead, scores wounded

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Middling Muslim Brothers

Muslim Brothers' Guidance Bureau

It’s a small detail of great consequence. On July 3, members of the presidential guard stepped away and let Dr. Mohamed Morsi and his aides be arrested by army commandos. If men with guns and tanks can simply arrest an elected president, then what’s to keep them from doing it again and again?

The horrible precedent this sets is buried under the partisan fury for and against the Muslim Brothers. Haters of the MB apparently see nothing wrong with the military summarily detaining the first elected national leader in Egyptian history. Boosters of the MB are so caught up in their own injury that they’re not pausing to wonder why a great many people feel relief and even satisfaction at the demise of the Morsi presidency.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Military Tutelage, Egyptian-Style

If there were lingering doubts that the military pounced on the June 30 protests to re-establish its political supremacy, Gen. El-Sisi’s Sunday address removed a lot of them. Using convoluted language and tortured logic, the speech’s organizing premise is that the “people summoned the armed forces for the mission of balancing the tipped scale and restoring diverted goals.” 

“The people” are mentioned 28 times, but their sovereignty is not once affirmed. What’s emphasized is that the armed forces are the unmoved mover, guarding the country’s politics, not just its borders.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Fashioning a Coup

I understand the outrage of honest citizens who went out to protest against Mohamed Morsi on June 30 only to have their efforts branded a coup. When you’re in the middle of a crowd of boisterous humanity that stretches farther than the eye can see, nothing exists outside of that overwhelming reality. The feeling of mutual recognition and collective empowerment erases all context and constraints. As well it should. You don’t go to a protest to think carefully or make necessary distinctions. But when you exit the protest and survey the big picture, you do have to face inconvenient facts.

One such fact is that the protests were unscrupulously appropriated and packaged for ends I’m pretty sure many protesters find abhorrent. A genuine popular protest and a military coup aren’t mutually exclusive. The massive protests of June 30 came in conjunction with a much larger scheme that began very soon after Morsi took office. This long term project by entrenched state elites seeks more than simply ejecting the Muslim Brothers from power, although that’s a highly prized outcome.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

On Morsi's Opponents

Morsi’s opponents in the “National Salvation Front” have garnered plenty of criticism for being obstructionists, sore losers, or bad faith interlocutors, depending on who’s leveling the charge. My own view is that their fault is more basic than that, having to do with their half-baked idea of what a political opposition is. Effective opposition doesn’t mean stomping one’s foot like a toddler and rejecting everything that comes from the government. It means keeping tabs on officials and informing citizens of their misdeeds. Above all, it means persuading the public that the opposition can do better at running things than the government.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Death Knell for an Old Political Style

In his fatally belated public address on Thursday, Mohamed Morsi was a man reduced, reading awkwardly from an underwhelming script, mouthing stale words without energy or conviction. He looked very much like a party elder preaching to the faithful, not a president reaching out to a divided nation. What a sharp contrast from the president-elect taking the oath of office before jubilant crowds in Tahrir Square, or the responsible leader who addressed the nation hours after the tragic Asyut train crash.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Democracy v. Oligarchy, Round 2

Tahrir Square, June 8 2012

It's real cause for celebration that the counter-revolution, with all its might, still failed to capture the presidency via the ballot box. For the first time, an unremarkable civilian will become president of Egypt. True, he's the choice of a slim majority in an imperfect election, but compared to his predecessors, Mohammad Morsi is the most democratically-chosen national leader in Egyptian history. 

Perhaps now we can look forward to the disappearance of the ridiculous nuisance Ahmed Shafiq, though we must think hard about the conditions that compelled 12 million people to vote for him. I also can't help marveling at the discipline and commitment of all those voters who chose Morsi, not because they like him or his organization, but because they know that the grand struggle is to rid Egypt of foreign-backed oligarchic military rule.

Mohammad Morsi is a very odd figure to spearhead that struggle, not just because he lacks any visible leadership qualities, but because he and his fellow party apparatchiks are themselves oligarchs, although of the civilian kind. Morsi is a stand-in for Khairat al-Shater, the Muslim Brothers' real leader. Shater is the consummate party oligarch, with only a reluctant appreciation for the practice and doctrine of popular sovereignty. That's why the Americans love him so much; he's an "impressive" man they can do business with.

To add an even greater hurdle, from day one the SCAF knew that it faced the juggernaut of popular sovereignty, so it quickly did an end-run around it. By dissolving parliament and grabbing its power, stipulating that the president swear the oath before unelected judges and keep his hands off the military's fiefdom, and establishing a veto over the constitution-writing process, SCAF effectively stopped the exercise of popular sovereignty before it could begin.

A hamstrung president who hails from a party of oligarchs is hardly the leader many of us wanted to launch the offensive against military rule. That's why this election has the feel of a Pyrrhic victory. But then when I think about the ghastly alternative, of Shafiq winning and SCAF cementing its rule with democratic legitimacy, I'm filled with joy at the election's sub-optimal but not disastrous outcome. 

Limping but proud, the revolution continues its valiant fight against the evils of oligarchy.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Striver

In normal times and places, elections are moments of emotional overdrive. Egypt’s extraordinary elections take that intensity to a new level, evoking a welter of dizzying emotions. There’s lots of doubt, a good dose of fatigue, plenty of heart-pounding anticipation, and an irrepressible sense of hope that things will turn out well. Nowhere is this bundle of feelings more manifest than on the campaign trail of the charismatic neo-Nasserist politician Hamdeen Sabahy.

During the final stretch of presidential campaigning, Sabahy cranked up an already hectic schedule, visiting dusty hamlets and provincial capitals alike while making sure to appear on every single TV talk show during the past three weeks. In both his stump speeches and media appearances, Sabahy casts himself as the citizen-president who’ll put an end to the aloof, imperial mien of the modern Egyptian president. “One of us” is his campaign's brand, and it resonates with those who want a peer and not a patrician as their national leader.

Sabahy made his name contesting rigged elections under Mubarak, turning his seaside hometown of Balteem into a flashpoint electoral district that witnessed several voter deaths in 1995 and 2005. After the revolution, he immediately set to work on cultivating a national political profile, trying to maintain his Nasserist core while building a broader constituency to launch a credible presidential bid.

In this he faced the same political and organizational dilemmas as his university mate and competitor Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, but the latter has had more success in crafting a broad-based winning coalition. A maverick without the Islamists’ formidable electoral machine or the national name recognition of Mubarak-era insiders, Sabahy’s electoral fortunes depend on whether voters are persuaded that he represents a viable third way.

Presidential Campaigning, Egyptian-Style

On a recent Friday afternoon, Sabahy’s campaign cavalcade eases into Tamay al-Amdeed, a dusty town in Daqahliyya province, Egypt’s third-largest population center. Daqahliyya’s fertile countryside is a stunning procession of emerald fields, holding cabbage patches, vineyards, drenched rice paddies, citrus groves, and bushels of freshly harvested golden wheat.

It’s onion season, and the main roads were dotted with stands selling just-picked onions in red mesh bags. A little girl riding next to her father on a huge tractor tugs at his gallabeyya sleeve and points to the passing campaign cavalcade, laughing in delight.

Rather than focus only on strategically important, densely-populated cities, Sabahy’s campaign makes sure to visit out-of-the-way places like Tamay al-Amdeed, to the delight of the locals. They gather to watch him go in and out of mosques, churches and other places of local repute, and old and young alike run alongside his motorcade, snapping cell phone photos, bantering with him, and shaking his hand heartily.

On the Daqahliyya trip, Sabahy was escorted by the district’s MP Mostafa al-Guindi, Sabahy’s fellow opposition parliamentarian from the Mubarak days and a co-member of the shadow parliament formed after the rigged 2010 general elections. al-Guindi’s endorsement was an added attraction, drawing people out on their balconies and into the streets to watch the ever-smiling Sabahy waving to them as he stood out of the sun-roof of Guindi’s gigantic black Hummer.

Earlier in the week, at an evening rally in Luxor in the public plaza adjacent to the magnificent Luxor Temple, Sabahy was accompanied by other local luminaries who were his warm-up acts before he took the microphone. The charismatic young Saïdi poet Hisham al-Gakh was by far the most rousing speaker, expressing southerners’ signature mix of intense regional pride and intense resentment at their marginalization in national politics. “The rest of the candidates are afraid of us Saïdis,” al-Gakh bellowed, “Except him!”

The crowd cheered wildly as Sabahy took the microphone and shouted out his love for this neglected part of the country. “We love you too ya Rayyyyyyes!” screamed out a middle-aged woman behind me. A man near the stage called out, “Ya Rayyes, when are you going to get Saïdi citizenship?!” Sabahy retorted playfully, “But I’ve had the citizenship min zamaaaaan!”

The crowd went bonkers, clapping and pumping their arms in pure delight. A turbaned older man to my left called out to no one in particular, “A second Abdel Nasser walllllahi!” A young man standing next to me beamed and sucked his teeth appreciatively, “What a respectable man. He just looks presidential, mesh keda?” Hussein is an army conscript so he can’t vote, but he’s assigned to secure a voting station in Cairo’s Nasr City, he told me excitedly. On his day off, he attended Sabahy’s rally to show support for the candidate he would’ve voted for.

The Sabahy Brand

Sabahy is a superior communicator both on outdoor stumps and in television studios. He’s a magnetic public speaker, holding listeners’ attention with his unscripted, conversational style and lucid arrangement of ideas. He never prepares or practices his speeches in advance, so there’s very high variation in what he says, depending on audience, context, and TV interlocutor. This makes for an entertaining listening experience and draws crowds, but it’s not always a good thing.

The lack of preparation hurt him on his television appearance on Hafez al-Mirazi’s show, where he was grilled on his policy positions by several experts. He passed the political questions with flying colors, but his answers on economic policy revealed a lack of interest in crucial details. Sabahy gave the impression that he’s not aware of the tough economic trade-offs that must be made if he becomes the chief decision-maker.

But perhaps more than any other presidential candidate, he’s a natural politician. He rarely looks tired, stiff, or uncomfortable, is very quick on his feet, and appears genuinely sincere in his meet-and-greets, not just glad-handing. He’s the only candidate who seems to enjoy unstructured physical contact with large crowds, often riding into his rallies on the shoulders of a supporter surrounded by a huge human wave.

When his aides and escorts appear frazzled, sweaty, and short-tempered, Sabahy is the picture of cool poise, kissing babies, cracking jokes, and engaging in simple gestures that delight his audiences, like drinking frothy sugar cane juice from local shops and throwing carnations into the crowd.

The link between Sabahy and his supporters tends to be highly personalized. His core devotees who’ve known him for years are like groupies, brooking no dispassionate discussion of their man. The new ranks of supporters he’s drawing from the large pool of undecided voters are attracted by a mix of charismatic and programmatic appeal.

At a huge rally in Mansoura where people waited two hours for him to appear, a Syrian woman from Der’aa married to an Egyptian and living in Egypt for 19 years said she decided on Sabahy because she didn’t like either the Ikhwan or the old regime. “Shafiq is buying votes and just look at how the Ikhwan behaved in parliament, and they’re pressuring people to vote for Mursi. When I listened to Sabahy I believed him, I feel that he’s sincere in what he says.”

Two days later, at Sabahy’s last public rally, in Cairo’s densely-populated Matareyya neighborhood, a 23-year-old law school graduate said she decided to vote for Sabahy two weeks ago after watching his interview on the CBC channel. “My vote in 2016 will go to Khaled Ali, but this time I’m voting for Hamdeen. The reason I’m attracted to him is that he focuses on the completely neglected strata of society. If he succeeds in bettering their condition, then the revolution will have succeeded.”

Her friend, a social work graduate, said that until recently she was an Aboul Fotouh supporter. “I felt that Sabahy had no chance, but after a negative experience volunteering for a day with the Aboul Fotouh campaign and watching Hamdeen on CBC, I sensed his sincerity in defending poor people’s interests.”

Despite his apparent surge in the last two weeks, Sabahy’s brand of personal appeal and pro-poor policies are unlikely to match Aboul Fotouh’s bandwagon. The question is whether his vote share will keep him an underdog or lift him up to third or fourth place.

Politics as Spectacle

In the days of Mubarak, and by his design, politics was a ridiculous, vacuous spectacle, unconnected to most people’s real concerns. The political class was intentionally made to look foolish and venal, to reinforce in people’s minds the notion that politics is futile, dirty, and dangerous.

As many commentators have pointed out, the revolution reversed Egyptians’ forced alienation from politics. It put politics back in its rightful place, in people’s daily lives where it belongs. And not just in the form of freer political speech and expression, but more importantly in the form of political praxis.

On Sabahy’s campaign trail, I saw regular people enthusiastically partaking of this new field of politics. It was a different kind of political spectacle, one where people came of their own volition to engage in a meaningful political performance, not be forced to act out empty political rituals.

Both on weeknights and weekends, entire families came out to listen to Sabahy’s speeches. Enduring the heat, dust, and stifling crowds, they stood patiently waiting for his arrival, politely suffering through boring, untalented introductory speakers and sometimes appalling logistics.

In assembling, they instantly created a public sphere, an Egyptian agora where they exchanged political views with strangers, watched other people, drank tea and ate tirmis, and clowned around to pass the time.

These little guys were heroic, waiting quietly for hours until Sabahy finally took the stage at 11:50 pm in Mansoura. Like me, one of them began to wilt, but the other kept us awake with his valiant cheer leading.

Not everyone who showed up did so to support Sabahy. Some were curious, others hostile, and others just looking for laughs. In the town of Belqas, a group of young men kept parodying the revolutionary slogan Sabahy has appropriated: “‘Aysh! Hurriya! ‘Adala Igtima’iyya!” turning it into “’Aysh! Hurriya! Ta’meyya!”

In Tamay al-Amdeed, as the campaign cars filed out of the town to head for the next stop, a resident called out from a balcony, “And don’t you come back here again!”

In Matareyya, a woman in the audience was livid, railing the whole time. “These politicians are doing all this just for themselves and for fame! They all want the seat! Why doesn’t Hamdeen Sabahy go visit this kidney hospital right here? Let him go see the conditions of the people in there. He’s just good at talking.”

After Sabahy left Matareyya, organizers started swiftly dismantling the stage and putting away chairs. An elderly resident with a cane took the microphone and started speechifying. No one lingered to listen; people scattered to pursue the rest of their evening’s plans. The man gave a moving lecture on the impending danger of a feloul comeback, instructing everyone to make sure to vote.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Egypt's Extraordinary Elections

These are no ordinary presidential elections that we’re about to experience in two weeks, and not just because they’re the first real competition for the top job. They’re extraordinary because they’re being held in the shadow of an American-backed military junta. So instead of delving into exciting, substantive debates about the presidential candidates’ comparative strengths and weaknesses, or bickering over their relative electoral fortunes, we first have to deal with the higher-order problem of presidential elections under military rule.

Like any stubborn oligarchy, SCAF and their foreign patrons won’t simply step aside and allow an elected president to exercise real power. I think their game plan is to preside over a new and improved form of elite rule where the president and parliament are popularly elected with great fanfare, but SCAF retains power over three reserved domains: foreign policy, economic policy, and domestic policing.

It’s a grim prognosis, but it doesn’t warrant defeatism, or the lazy assumption that SCAF pulls all the strings and we’re all hapless bit players in a dirty Machiavellian game. Instead, this is the latest and perhaps most exciting chapter in Egypt’s revolutionary drama, the struggle to replace rule by the few with rule by the many.

The Big Fight between Oligarchy and Democracy

Since February 11, 2011, every corner of Egypt has been locked in a power struggle between bottom-up self rule and the attempt to re-impose oligarchic control. In every government department, university faculty, shop floor, and far-flung governorate, the forces of the ancien regime have been desperately trying to reimpose old hierarchies. In some sites, the revolution has won and in others the counter-revolution reigns supreme.

Control over parliament is testament to this mixed picture. The people delivered a resounding defeat to the noxious feloul, replacing them with more broadly representative, new social forces that were locked out of parliament for decades. But the majority Ikhwan and Salafi deputies poured icy water on revolutionary aspirations, opting for a moderate approach rather than building creative links with extra-parliamentary groups.

Then again, that isn’t so surprising since parliaments aren’t hospitable places for revolutionary politics, especially if they operate under the watchful eyes of greedy juntas (and if the parliamentary leadership shares the oligarchic worldview of the military overlords).

For SCAF and its American enablers, the fifteen months since the uprising have been an object lesson in the dangers of democracy. In every crucial domain, revolutionary action threatens sacred hierarchies. Relations with Egypt’s two regional allies experienced their greatest turbulence in decades when the people stormed the Israeli embassy, eventually forcing it to relocate, and surrounded the Saudi embassy, prompting its ambassador to leave in a huff. In the economic domain, the people have had the temerity to weigh in on matters of high state policy, under the subversive notion that “individuals should be involved in how the country is run,” as the great Wael Khalil put it.

As for the vast policing apparatus that ruled the population for 30 years, the people have simply refused to let it reconstruct itself again. After its initial devastating defeat on January 28, 2011 and citizens’ storming of State Security headquarters in March, the policing apparatus has been out of order. The SCAF now resorts to military police and the arming of plainclothed muscle boys to kill and maim peaceful protestors, and has so far evaded popular demands for civilian control over the police force.

If the SCAF continues to rule directly, it risks a very dangerous escalation of these cascading popular invasions of all its reserved domains. The Abbassiyya demonstration and sit-in outside the Ministry of Defense is simply the tangible physical embodiment of this unstoppable popular encroachment.

The presidential elections are thus a life raft, enabling the SCAF to take all the credit for organizing a free and fair poll. They can then let the elected president be the fall guy, and quietly wall off their key policy domains from further democratic meddling.

This wouldn’t be the first time that oligarchy retains the levers of power under a veneer of democracy. Authoritarians have always found ways to limit the power of elected institutions, not by the crude methods of election rigging alone but the trickier means of removing certain policy areas from their jurisdiction.

Who’s up to the Challenge?

But it’s not a stable formula. Even if the SCAF and their American friends get their best-case scenario and an anti-revolution man fills the office, problems abound. This “wise” president will be left to deal with a messy country and its rambunctious people, while SCAF gets full control over the sacred policy trio: foreign affairs, key economic decisions, and the domestic security sector. But does anyone really believe that the wise man will pacify a populace that now knows its own strength?

If a popularly-chosen renegade captures the most powerful state institution, then a real struggle for power will begin. An outsider president will be a huge headache for the oligarchs, because he won’t accept sitting duck status. He may get it into his head to whip up popular support, purge the bureaucracy, forge an alliance with parliament, and use this as a launching pad for a big fight with SCAF over democratic control of the three policy domains.

The conditions are there for such a confrontation. Not only is the public fed up with SCAF’s repeated killing of peaceful protestors, but there’s growing public awareness that the generals fancy themselves a caste of mandarins standing above the state. They themselves like to remind us of this periodically, while simultaneously using a paternalist-nationalist rhetoric that they’re selfless guardians of the republic. But thanks to the vigilance of citizen watchdogs, we have a very good understanding of how they hoard public resources for their exclusive gain.

A revolutionary president thus won’t have to convince the public that SCAF is a bunch of shady characters. He just has to create the conditions for a viable, sustained confrontation, working against the military myth-making machine that attempts to invoke sanctity around a caste of kleptocrats.

The wise man’s campaign ad says “we’re up to the challenge,” but the only challenge he faces is getting Egyptians to believe his preposterous sales pitch. There are only two candidates up to the real challenge of wresting executive power from the generals and subjecting them to public accountability. I love the fact that they both started their political careers on the same day in the same room (February 2, 1977), by standing up to a dictator.

I should add that neither Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh nor Hamdeen Sabahy are naïve radicals who will go after SCAF from day one. I think they’re very fine politicians and real leaders who will know how and when to pick their battles; what to prioritize; how to seize opportunities; and how to learn from mistakes. We have no precedent for a democratically-elected pro-revolution president, but I think either of them is a very good start, with Aboul Fotouh possessing greater chances of winning than Sabahy.

A Real Choice

Even if the new Egyptian presidency ends up being a hamstrung institution, popularly-elected but unable to do much, it’s remarkable that these elections do offer a choice between real alternatives. The alternatives aren’t religious rule and “modernity,” as the wise man would have it, but reconstructed authoritarian rule versus rule by the people.

The first option is represented by a middling insider trying to sell himself as an exceptional statesman, and the second is embodied in two talented outsiders propelled by the hopes of millions of people for a fairer, more democratic society. Each alternative has a substantial group of adherents on the ground, neither of which can be dismissed.

There is a third option: the Muslim Brothers. They’re neither consummate insiders nor total outsiders, occupying a hazy middle ground all their own from which they’re mulling their next move on how to become the new insiders.

At a slightly more abstract level, the presidential elections are a fight between two rival doctrines: the age-old and still-powerful doctrine of contempt for and fear of the demos, and the insurgent idea that Egyptians have the right and the capacity to rule themselves, without elite trusteeship, military guardianship, or foreign domination.