Thursday, 13 December 2012

The Four Futures of Egypt

Looking into Egypt's coming years, I see no sign of Iraq, Iran or Saudi Arabia and certainly none of Lebanon.

Four other countries do loom though depending on the interactions between the key players on Egypt's political playground.

Briefly these players are: the army, the "Islamists", the "revolutionaries", the "liberals", Mubarak regime remnants and of course the 40 million or so Egyptians who belong to none of these teams. (Inverted commas indicate the caricaturish nature of these groupings).

I will purposefully ignore the 40 million spectators, because they do little more than cheer when a goal is scored or scream foul when the referee makes a poor call.

Here are the four countries Egypt may metamorphose into. They are in no particular order. Parallels may not be exact, but the form and flavour are clearly there.

Scenario 1: Islamists "win"

Should the MB led government manage to hunker down and ride the storm then align with the army and together either co-opt or "remove" the liberals, revolutionaries and old regime die-hards from the scene, we are likely moving in the direction of Pakistan.

That's where a quasi-Islamic government leads the country with the army, intelligence apparatus and security forces in tow. What little opposition exists, does so in silence and/or impotence. Presidents and prime ministers come and go but the general picture remains the same. While some may romanticise  the idea of an Islamic and nuclear Egypt, others may dread the collusion of army and semi-theocracy.

 2: MB et al wake up and smell the revolution. Revolutionaries wake up and smell reality.

It is also possible that the current spate of unrest will end up with no clear winner. This may lead to a moderation of all positions. The FJP could decide it is wiser and more profitable to reach out to other players. The liberals/revolutionaries could decide it is best to accept the fact that in any popular vote, the Islamists likely have the upper hand - having started grass-roots work decades ago. The army will most likely take a neutral position in such a situation assuming its most critical demands are met. Naturally this is the scenario least favoured by remnants of the old regime. A conciliation among current conflicting parties means they have no crack to place a wedge in. Should all these "ifs, coulds, mays and mights" come to life, we are likely moving in the direction of Turkey.

That is where a moderately Islamic, ostensibly secular government shares some power with the liberal secular Kemalist parties and both keep the army at bay.

Scenario 3: Revolutionaries "win"

Should the current turmoil lead to the overthrow of President Morsy by the revolutionaries, liberals and Mubarak's remnants through continuous demonstrations, large scale civil disobedience and low but consistent and rising levels of violence, Egypt may turn into the Algeria of yester-decade.

It is there that the Islamic Salvation Front party was leading first round parliamentary elections but was denied its impending win and democratic right to govern. "Les generalles d'Algerie", through the National Liberation Front, were neither neutral enough to stay off the pitch nor adventurous enough to stage a full-fledged military coup and decided to cancel further election rounds.

The disgruntled Islamists, having played by the rules only to have them changed halfway, waged a guerrilla war on the government and the army. The army and the various security forces fought back. This led to a decade of violence between the state and the Islamists with deaths on both sides totalling an estimated 2% of the population. For Egypt that translates to some 1.6 million dead.

Scenario 4: Nobody wins. Chaos. Army intervenes.

It is also possible that none of the previous scenarios will come into play. Perhaps the MB will not be able to weather the storm but the revolutionaries/liberals/Mubarakists will be unable to wrest power from them. Maybe neither side will moderate their position and explore the middle ground. Those yearning for a return to Mubarak's Egypt would love to see such a scenario unfold. Their interests would go unharmed, they will revive their pre-revolution situations and all's well that ends well. To push in this direction they could well foster continuous unrest on Egypt's streets, more bloodshed, more deterioration in the economic and security situations hoping that at some point, the army will yell: "Enough!"

Should that happen, it will not be for the first time since the January 25th revolution. Last time round, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was forced into a temporary caretaker governor position and decided to honour "temporary".

If the messiness continues they may intervene on a somewhat less short-term basis. Should that happen, we will be moving in the direction of rather familiar territory. The country we will most resemble in this scenario is geographically identical to ours, it has the same composition of political players, the same economic problems and the same history. The only difference is temporal. That country is Egypt 1952.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Five Facts Beyond Good and Bad. SCARY

Much has been - and I am sure, will be - said written of the rights and wrongs of the past two years. And much has been and will be said about who's to blame and what could have been or should have been, if only this or that.

But with the political scene in Egypt as it is, with opposing groups taking unbridgeable opposing stands, how this is relevant at this dangerous juncture is beyond me. Who did what to whom and who to blame for what is irrelevant. 

Who is responsible now though, is very clear.

Responsibility lies with the President. The buck stops with him. He who took it upon himself to guide Egypt into the future.

As things stand right now, that future is scary.

Not because the liberals may never unite and stop bickering and get themselves organized; sooner or later, they probably will. And not because the MB et al will turn Egypt into Afghanistan/Pakistan/Iran/Saudi Arabia; they probably won't. Not even because we are moving blindly, but at full speed, towards a more-likely-than-not soon-to-be-approved constitution which many are unhappy with and which by most reasonable accounts is not what post-revolution Egypt had hoped for and deserves.

All of the above is just more material for discourse i.e. not scary. More discussion, more blame throwing, more endless eloquent lines added to each side's argument. It doesn’t scare me.

What does scare me is the extreme and deepening polarization in my country.

We are at a point where on one side some are calling for boycotting MB owned businesses – yes, a la Israel-aimed Palestinian BDS movement - while on the other, some are advising liberals who dislike the way things are to leave - as if Egypt were their private club and not all of our country. 

This is not a sustainable situation. We have to learn to live with, talk to and (I dare dream) cooperate with each other.

The deeper these positions get entrenched - and all evidence points in that direction - the harder it will be for them to get de-trenched. And de-trenched they will have to be, regardless of who "wins".

The following five facts necessitate de-trenchment. 

1. Neither side is going away any time soon.

What both sides seem to be thinking is that by "winning" they will somehow eradicate the opposition. Just before the presidential elections, happy rumours were raging among the Shafik crowd that as soon as he wins, there will be a massacre of MB leadership and survivors will be thrown back into jail "where they belong".

Likewise among the MB/Salafists many believe that once the referendum is over (and they win), the liberals will just shut up and/or disappear. As if the mere cosmetic of an approved constitution will lead to change in people's minds and dreams.

You know what? It's not happening. We're all here to stay.

2. Both sides have sincere hopes and beliefs

Through a steady "demonization of the other" process, both sides now fail to understand that "the others" are sincere in their positions. Being lucky enough to have (and unlucky enough to have lost a few) friends on both sides, I can assure you this is true.

On the one hand, the MB and their supporters have a sincere belief that if only we were to have an Islamic constitution, things will get better for all of us (there are strong theological - let alone logical - arguments against this, but this is not the venue for them).

On the other, the liberals point to the prosperity of secular nations and the failure of theocracies worldwide as evidence of the veracity of their claims (again, there are many arguments against this line of thinking, and again, this is not the venue for them). 

You know what? It is as impossible to expect a Salafy to forget about Sharia as it is to ask a liberal to forget about personal freedoms. (Between you and me and imho, the two platitudes are just about completely compatible).

3. This is Egypt! Accept it

Whether or not we like it, Egypt is home to both these sets of Egyptians. The "MB can only win votes by handing out oil and sugar" mantra may or may not be true, but its truth or lack of it are  irrelevant. The fact is some  40% of the population lives on less than $2 a day, and any time you give such a person a jerry-can of oil and a few kilograms of sugar you're a good guy. Similarly the silly question "what ill has God ever done to you that makes you hate his Sharia?" is equally irrelevant. Many Egyptians want the freedom to decide their level of religiosity or lack of it without it being mandated by law. 

Egypt, as has been made crystal clear over the past 24 months, houses us all. 

4. The Economy is a Time Bomb

Of all the statistics that came out of the presidential elections, the one that scared me most was the 50% of eligible voters who never even bothered to go to the polling stations.

Think about this for a second please.

This was the first ever presidential election in the 7,000 year history of Egypt and half those allowed to vote couldn't care less. Barring the thousands (or hundreds of thousands) who decided to boycott, the rest of that 50% is people who are apathetic to the outcome. 

This is the 50% who could care less whether Sharia is applied or whether the constitution specifically mentions Baha'i rights or whether the President is from the MB, the army or whether we even restore the monarchy. They are living hand-to-mouth and so long as there's enough in the hand to fill the mouth, they will neither participate nor, crucially, complain. 

But, and here's the biter, the hand in these last couple of years, hasn't been earning enough to fill the mouth and soon (I hope I am wrong), those who cannot put food on their tables will become angry. Nobody wants to see that.

More pragmatically, nobody will be able to do anything to stop their anger should it erupt.

5. Morsy is an elected President

For better or worse, this is an undeniable fact. He may have won by the slimmest of margins, and there are even claims of foul play, but the fact remains. Dr. Morsy is our first ever elected President. The success of any stupid adventure aimed at removing him without due process will be disastrous. I am happy to report that to date his wisest opponents have not set this as their goal.

His being an elected President doesn't just mean we need to respect the democratic process (flawed as it may have been) which brought him into power.

What it means is that ultimately, he is responsible for closing the schisms which are widening by the day. He must offer confidence building measures (yes we're flat in the middle of conflict-resolution linguistic territory now) to his opponents. He needs to reach out to those who see him and his clan as tyrants in the making and reassure them with concrete steps.

Such steps might look like this:

A.   Given the sweeping powers he has given himself, Morsy can and should alter the acceptance threshold for the Constitutional referendum from 50% to 67%. This is a constitution, 50.0001% just doesn't cut it.
B.    Voting should be Chapter by Chapter rather than wholesale take it or leave it.
C.    Define what exactly the limits are on decrees he can make with immunity/impunity. He has already vaguely hinted that they only include a certain level of decision. We need specificity.
D.   Commit to and implement a bi-weekly state of the union type address where he talks less and says more than he usually does. We need a performance report. What is being done, why, what is the level of achievement. Facts only please, no rhetoric

Such steps would go a long way to starting the dialogue which must be started. Tough positions can and likely will be taken by the opposing parties, but as President, Morsy needs to elevate himself above this conflict and send all Egyptians clear signals of neutrality, wisdom, foresight and levelheadedness.