Everyone in Egypt woke up on Monday 8 July with the horrible news that the army had shot dead 51 Muslim Brothers near barracks in Cairo. Immediately, two different stories got propagated. Muslim Brothers claimed their people were unarmed, held a peaceful protest when suddenly the military opened fire. They even showed images purporting infant casualties. The armed forces –and its sympathizers- showed images of (what appeared to be) armed Muslim Brothers trying to attack the barracks. They claim the first casualty was a soldier. They also demonstrated that the images of dead children were old footage.
It is characteristic of the propaganda battle currently raging in Egypt. This battle over truth is extremely important. It sets the mood of the international community just as much as it does that of the Egyptians. A similar propaganda battle is fought over what actually happened on Wednesday July 3th: a military coup or a military intervention. This is no innocent word game but a crucial point that determines the future of Egypt and many Arab states.
To understand what is happening now, every detail of these last months is important. A brief overview. In August it was president Morsi that deposed the hated military leader Tantawi and replaced him by general Sissi. Morsi was convinced Sissi would never be unfaithful. People first took to the street in November, when Morsi grabbed all power while forcing a constitution on Egyptians. Back then it is army commander Sissi that called for dialogue. In the months that followed Sissi repeatly implored Morsi to transform his government to a coalition of national unity. Morsi refused.
When it became clear protests on June 30th would be massive, it was again the army by way of Sissi that asked Morsi to present a solution. When Morsi did exactly the opposite in a speech a couple of days prior to June 30th, even threatening the opposition, Sissi advised the president to resign in order to avoid spiralling violence. Morsi kept repeating he was legitimately elected and that nothing could ever change that. For Muslim Brothers the prevailing sentiment was that all would eventually pass.
The number of people that turned out on June 30th was surprisingly big. Google Earth counted 33 million. That more than a third of Egyptian population. Everybody in Egypt realised that very soon the situation would become untenable. Nonetheless, acting as an go-between, general Sissi sought a solution. He gave all Egyptian politicians 48 hours to come to an understanding. He himself was thinking of the organisation of a referendum.
He ran that idea by the powers that be: the Islamic university Al Azhar, the Coptic church, the opposition through the figure of Mohamed El Baradei and by the youth that was at the origin of the so-called ‘Rebel-campaign’, the actual organisers of the street protests. It was the youth that refused. They wanted Morsi resignation and nothing else. One of their leaders told Sissi: “I want to tell you sir, you might be the commander of the army, but for the moment the people are your commander. Now you must listen to the people and support us”. Apparently this was the decisive contribution that lead to the military intervention. The so-called transition plan advanced by the army was a copy-paste transcription of the plan the “Rebel-youth” had circulated earlier.
Coup or no coup, today Egypt has two presidents: one elected president supported by the Muslim Brothers and one appointed president supported by a large majority of the Egyptian people. No side wants to budge. This is the reason for the current violence in the streets. Up to and including the unacceptable violence of the military directed at pro-Morsi protesters.
What now? Either we enter a French Revolution scenario with one faction reckoning with and succeeding to another every year, finally ending in dictatorship. Or genuine talks recognising all political groups are initiated. Recent events clearly forfeit any scenario that includes Mohamed Morsi. What happened this week makes it increasingly obvious that a stable future is just as impossible with the military in the cockpit. The fact that almost none of the parties and factions of the new coalition agreed on the new constitutional declaration shows that the army can’t just do whatever they want.
The only valid script that can bring Egypt from chaos to order will have to be based on the very principles that got 33 million Egyptians in the streets. It’ll have to be an Egypt that allows everybody the freedom to be themselves. Whether they are Salafi, Muslim, Copt or even atheist. Every government or president that tries to curtail this freedom in one way or another will once again face a full Tahrir and a new revolution.
You can follow @koertdebeuf on Twitter
(with thanks to Kristof Debergh for the translation)
“We are not leaving before Morsi does.” Such was the reaction I heard just about anywhere in Cairo these last days. The determination was reinforced by the historic turn out on June 30th. The armed forces initially spoke of 13 million people, the ministry of information called it at 17 million. Some media stated that in the whole of Egypt no less than 30 million people had taken to the streets.
Whatever the correct number, millions of Egyptians were united in one single message: erhal the Arab word for ‘leave’.
Non-Egyptians wonder what Morsi must have done wrong to get that much people in the streets? Some point to the economy as the main reason. It is certainly true that Egypt is at the brink of the economic abyss. Every day there are multiple outages of power and running water. There is hardly any petrol left, creating very long queues at gas stations which in turn cause big traffic jams. Tourism, Egypt’s major source of income, has fallen drastically to a fraction of what it once was. The currency lost a quarter of its value, making everything more expensive. This is particularly hard on the large group of very poor Egyptians.
Yet, this is not the reason for the massive turn out at protests. It is clearly not a hunger revolution either. While having a cup of tea close to the presidential palace, I could observe the massive crowds passing by. The diversity was apparent: young and old, veiled and unveiled women, poor and rich, Muslim and Christian. Furthermore, it is important to stress that the atmosphere was and still is positive. Yesterday Tahrir and neighbouring streets looked like one big festival. Fireworks were lit. There was singing and dancing.
What brings all of these people together is a sense of betrayal. The Muslim Brotherhood was given a chance after the revolution. They were the best organised and had the most thought-through ideas. People imagined the brotherhood to be the best shot at fulfilling the ideals of the revolution: freedom, dignity, justice and bread. Exactly what was expected of Morsi. And Morsi was off to a good start. He replaced the hated military leader Tantawi and re-seized the power the armed forces had taken from the president.
All changed in November 2012. Morsi and his party were convinced of a major conspiracy in the making. Mursi’s response was a constitutional declaration seizing all power and shoving an Islamic constitution down Egyptians throats. As of that moment more and more Egyptians got convinced Morsi was just a Muslim Brotherhood president and not the president of the Egyptian people.
That is at the core of this week’s protests: people do not accept one group forcing its agenda upon an entire nation, regardless of whether that group has an electoral majority. This rising against “the tyranny of the majority” we see in Egypt today and we saw in Turkey these last months. In Turkey too, people do not accept the economic progress generated under Erdogan’s rule as an excuse to govern as he pleases.
This is Mursi’s and the Muslim Brotherhood’s big error of judgement. Convinced of their majority, they thought the opposition was small and divided and that people would eventually side by them. June 30th that certainly turned out differently. No one can withstand such masses. Not even the army. The military brass saw what happened and saw that it could result in a huge spiral of violence. This is probably why they issued an ultimatum, to avoid Egypt turning into one giant street fight.
In the meantime everybody is abandoning ship. Ministers resigned. The president’s press secretary quit, as did a number of governors. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are increasingly isolated as the people seem determined to continue to protest. Some claim an elected president cannot simply be deposed. That would be special, but not unique. US president Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment. French president Charles De Gaulle resigned upon losing a referendum. A referendum that was organised in response to the many street protests seen by France in those days.
Whatever the outcome of this battle of titans, some conclusions are already clear. For one thing, a very religious country such as Egypt does not accept its religion to be politically abused in power plays. Islam, like Christianity, is a very diverse religion. Imposing one interpretation on the rest of the population is not tolerated. Secondly, citizens of a country in transition are very aware that democracy is not just holding elections. Whomever is elected will have to listen to the rest of the people. Majority-reasoning is refuted. Finally, it is clear people do not accept the hard won freedom to be restricted again by anyone. Those who try are removed immediately. Those are the signals in Egyptian streets today. And those are reason to be optimistic about the outcome of the Arab Spring.
Hayat TV to close down
Hayat TV, a progressive Turkish TV channel of the working people, the youth, women and the intellectuals is facing closure.
We believe this is a blow to people’s freedom of information.
The decision for the closure is made by the broadcasting regulator RTÜK, Radio & Television High Commission with the pretext that Hayat TV has no licence.
This is not true.
Hayat TV has been broadcasting since 21 March 2007 by ofcom license via TURKSAT satellite. But a recent change in broadcasting rules via TURKSAT requires broadcasters to obtain a RTÜK license to be able to broadcast via satellite.
Our application for a RTÜK license has been submitted and pending for a decision. We have taken all the necessary steps and RTÜK agreed that we could carry on broadcasting as it is until a RTÜK license is granted.
However, RTÜK is now making an arbitrary decision to close down our channel because of, we believe, our broadcast of recent protests in Istanbul and across Turkey.
RTÜK says they investigated “the complaints received for our coverage of the Gezi Park protests” and made a decision for the closure.
We believe this closure is part of the overall repression on the media in Turkey during the more than two-week-long Gezi Park protests. Four other TV channels have been given a fine by RTUK because of their coverage of the recent events.
RTUK sent a letter to TURKSAT to put an end to Hayat TV broadcast at 12:00 p.m. on Friday, 14th June 2013.
We believe this arbitrary and unlawful decision should be reversed.
We call on all democratically minded people to show solidarity with Hayat TV.
Hayat TV Broadcast Coordinator
(Red. Support freedom of press and spread this letter. For more info you can follow @koertdebeuf on Twitter)
One of these days Libyan Members of Parliament, Ministers and most probably even the President of the GNC (General National Congress) will have to resign, due to the Political Isolation Law. After this law was voted by the Libyan parliament I wrote on Twitter: “Mahmud Gebril is excluded from running in elections. The man who prevented the Benghazi massacre. Justice?” I was pretty surprised about the reactions I received. And not by the least informed. They all found my statement very much exaggerated. It was not because Gebril was on TV a lot that he also has done something substantial, they said. It made me realize that in fact the real story behind the no-fly-zone in Libya has not been told.
The most told version of what happened has been loudly spread by Bernard Henri-Lévy. On how he went to Libya, came back to Paris and convinced Sarkozy to plea for a no-fly-zone. It was also BHL who convinced Mahmud Gebril to come to Paris and it was he who pushed the president to recognize the National Transition Council. A very short version of the heroic story of Henri-Lévy is most probably true indeed. If Sarkozy was the first one to call for a no-fly-zone in Libya, just one week after the revolution started on February 17, 2011 I do not doubt BHL did play his role. In the rest of this history the starring role was not for BHL, but for Mahmud Gebril.
In the first week of March a Libyan opposition member in Brussels called Louis Michel to ask if he could see some members of the National Transition Council. Michel is the former Foreign Minister of Belgium and now Member of European Parliament. The first thing Michel does is calling Guy Verhofstadt, former Prime Minister of Belgium and now president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament (ALDE). They both agree they should invite these Libyan to the ALDE Group in the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
Getting the Libyans to Strasbourg was not easy. The meeting of the ALDE group was on 8 March, but we could only start with the procedure for the visa on Saturday the 5th. I called the Chief of Staff of the Foreign Minister of Belgium. Apart from the fact that he was not very cooperative (who are these Libyan rebels?), he explained me that there exists an urgency visa procedure, but that this only counted for the country that issues it and not for the entire Schengen zone. So, we had to call the French government. My colleague got permission and a security clearance from the French Minister of Interior. As an former advisor of President Sarkozy, he of course warned the President that two members of the NTC would be in France: Dr. Mahmud Gebril and Dr. Ali A. S . Al-Issawi.
The only thing we knew about both gentlemen was that Al-Issawi was the Libyan ambassador in India and that he defected to the opposition in February as a reaction to the violent response of Muamar Gaddafi. Of Mahmud Gebril we knew near to nothing. The contact person we had to call for more practical arrangements was a lawyer, living in Geneva. His name was Ali Zeidan. I only realized a few weeks ago that this was actually the same person as the current Libyan Prime Minister.
At the meeting of the ALDE group (which was open to other parties as well) on 8 March, Mahmud Gebril surprised everyone. This unknown man was so short and precise in his description of the situation of the Libyan revolution and in his demands to the European Union that for the audience it was almost impossible not to be convinced. Gebril spoke with authority. Most of all, he made clear to everyone that there would be a serious alternative if Gaddafi would fall.
Gebril asked three things from international communitiy:
1. the recognition of the National Interim Council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people;
2. guarantee the supply of humanitarian assistance to the Libyan people particularly where there is shortage of food and medicine and a lack of secure telephone lines;
3. enforce a no-fly-zone (but no military intervention) to prevent further killing.
Guy Verhofstadt asked me to write these demands literally down in a press release together with the plea to the international community to support each one of this.
We also tried to convince EU High Representative Cathy Ashton to meet with Gebril. She hesitated. A few days earlier she had received a common letter from all European ambassadors in Tripoli in which they stated it would be best for the EU not to take sides in the conflict. After all, what would the EU do if Gaddafi would win? But a few hours later her spokesperson told me at the coffee bar that she would meet him, but that it would be a secret meeting. The meeting apparently went well as he called me to say it was ok for the press to know about it.
During the debate in the plenary of the European Parliament the next day Ashton refused to promise anything about the possible recognition of the NTC. Even though most speakers did ask for it. I even had to go to her with a compromise proposal in which she would promise to put it on the table of the European Council. But as Ashton never moves without having consulted with the other Ministers of Foreign Affairs, she even refused to say that.
President Sarkozy on the contrary did not hesitate. Originally, the plan of the Libyan delegation was to go to Geneva after the plenary debate in Strasbourg. Zeidan knew his way there and would organize some interesting meetings. But the plans changed as the Elysée called them: the President of France wanted to meet them. Sarkozy knew he didn’t make a very good impression by not supporting the revolution in Tunisia. Next to that, he was not doing well in the opinion polls for the presidential elections. As he knew from his Interior Minister that the Libyan opposition was in the country and probably saw the ALDE press release, he saw his chance. So, on 10 March that’s where they went.
I was driving in my car back home when I heard on the news that Sarkozy recognized the National Transition Council and of course supported the other two demands of Gebril, as he called for a no-fly-zone already before. Nobody in the French government was informed. Even not his Foreign Minister Alain Juppé. Juppé and his German colleague, Guido Westerwelle just closed their bilateral meeting and were walking towards the press point. A few meters before the press point one of the advisors of Juppé gave him a small paper. To his surprise he read the message that his president just recognized the NTC. Although not known for hesitating, Sarkozy must have been very convinced of what he heard and saw of Gebril.
Although winning the support of France was very important, it would not be enough to convince the UN Security Council to install a no-fly-zone over Libya. It of course helped a lot that the Arab League asked for a no-fly-zone on 12 March, in a unique moment of decisiveness and consensus. But to push it through it needed the support of the United States was needed. That was a problem. The US was very much surprised by the demand of the Arab League, but still had no appetite at all to go into another Arab war. Colum Lynch (Turtlebay, October 23, 2012) wrote that the US Ambassador to the UN snapped to her French colleague who asked for support: “You are not going to drag us into your shitty war”.
Two days before the vote on Resolution 1973 on March 17, 2011 Susanne Rice changed position and started very actively to convince the other countries to endorse the resolution. On March 15 Rice said: “We are discussing very seriously and leading efforts in the Council around a range of actions that we believe could be effective in protecting civilians — those include discussion of a No-Fly Zone. But the U.S. view is that we need to be prepared to contemplate steps that include, but perhaps go beyond, a No-Fly Zone. At this point, as the situation on the ground has evolved, and as a No-Fly Zone has inherent limitations in terms of protection of civilians at immediate risk.” What happened?
Lynch writes that “the United States held a high-level teleconference with Obama’s top national security team, including Rice and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had just met with Arab leaders, agreed to intervene.” On 15 March, Clinton went indeed to Cairo where she met with Egyptian Foreign Minister El-Arabi and with Amr Moussa, Secretary-General of the Arab League, who explained to her why the Arab states were convinced about an intervention in Libya. It’s no secret that Gaddafi was not especially liked by the other Arab leaders.
However, few people know about the meeting Clinton had the day before, on March 14, in Paris. She had to be there that day for the G8. It was most probably Sarkozy who convinced her to meet with Mahmud Gebril. After his meeting with the French President, Gebril, Al-Issawi and Zeidan took the train to Brussels. He quickly had to come back to Paris for probably the most important mission of his life: convincing the United States to support the UN resolution that would allow the installation of a no-fly-zone in Libya. Clinton and Gebril met for 45 minutes. After the meeting however no declaration was given and no information was leaked which is usually an indication that something important happened.
The rest of the story is well known. The Security Council adopted Resolution 1973, after intensive lobbying by France, the UK and the US. At the beginning of the meeting with those countries that agreed to participate to the no-fly-zone, France immediately send fighter jets to Benghazi. Not less then sixteen miles of military vehicles were at the gates of Benghazi. Some of the vehicles, full of soldiers and mercenaries loyal to Gaddafi already entered the city. The goal was very simple: erase Benghazi, rape as many women (and men) as possible, kill everyone and destroy every building. Executing the warning of Muamar Gaddafi: “We will find you, wherever you are”.
The new Political Isolation Law is now preventing Mahmud Gebril to become even Member of Parliament. But it’s not only about Gebril. It’s about all those courageous Libyans who defected as soon as they could. Together with so many Libyans who gave and risked their life for a better Libya, they are the ones who made the revolution succeed. Moreover, they are probably the best place people to rebuild the country Gaddafi left destroyed in the past. It seems that the Political Isolation Law might destroy the future of Libya as well.
You can follow @koertdebeuf on Twitter
A few days ago, a Belgian mother called me to ask if I could contact the Syrian Jihadists of Jabhat Al Nusra. Her son left his family to join them a month and a half ago and since then she hasn’t heard anything of him anymore. I had to disappoint her, as I have no contact with the Jihadists. In fact, when in Syria, I always try to avoid them.
She was of course very worried, but also embarrassed. Her son is fighting in a battle she does not at all support and even not understand. I kind of recognize this embarrassment as it made me recall the story of a relative whom my family barely ever talks about. He was killed in the Second World War when he decided to fight with the Nazis against the Communists. He believed he had to choose between Rome and Moscow; between God and the Devil and that this choice needed sacrifice even if it meant his own life.
Each time I travelled to Syria during the last months, I saw Jihadists taking the same plane and the same bus as I did and following the same illegal way to enter northern Syria. What drew my attention and worried me each time is the self-confidence in their eyes, the acceptance that they will die in Syria. Above all, they are proud of it. They know they are going to be at the front line of the battle and that some people will admire them for that. And for them, this is exactly what they missed in their lives; admiration, guidance and heroic acts.
What disturbed me most however, wasn’t seeing these Jihadists entering Syria. I can’t stop them anyway. No, what is worse is that I didn’t see any others entering Syria. No relief teams, no doctors and no trucks loaded with aid for the other Syrians, for the vast majority of the rebels who have nothing to do with the Jihadists’ ideologies. While Al Qaida’s friends possess weapons and money to distribute to their fighters, people are dying of hunger in refugee camps supervised by the FSA.
We in the West are so mesmerized by a small group of radicals that we lost the ability to see the reality. By fearing the ghost of Afghanistan, we decided to do nothing. Because if we do nothing, we can’t do anything wrong. And this is precisely the huge mistake we are committing today. Because by doing nothing we only make Assad and the Jihadists stronger. While we are leaving those who share our values on their own.
The main excuse I hear for not intervening is: we don’t know what the Free Syrian Army is and we don’t know what they want. It’s a silly excuse. Because if you don’t know, it’s simply because you haven’t done the effort. It’s not that difficult. Two weeks ago, I had a dinner in Turkey with the Chief of Staff of the FSA, Salim Idriss and four of the five Front Commanders. Anyone who does the effort to go to Antakya will be able to meet any officer of the FSA. You will hear that they want freedom and democracy, that they try everything in order to respect human rights, protect the minorities and help the refugees. But you will also hear that they don’t have the means to achieve these goals properly.
Anyone who makes an effort can reach the refugee camps in Syria very easily and will be able to see how disastrous and inhuman the situation is there, how children spend sometimes days without food or even weeks without milk, how they die because of injuries, caused by a shrapnel, due to lack of medical care. You will see how our aid to Syria is mainly distributed through Assad, which is the reason why almost no aid is reaching the liberated areas. Whoever makes an effort will see that it are the soldiers of Assad and no one else that are attacking and bombarding civilians.
But, apparently all this requires too much effort. We prefer to do nothing “as we don’t know what will happen after Assad falls”. Just imagine that the Americans and the British wouldn’t have entered in WWII because of fear of communists, and because, they too, didn’t know “what would happen after Hitler falls.
Should we be surprised then that those who fight for a better Syria are getting more and more angry and frustrated with the West? They have to witness how the only thing that comes from the West are Jihadist fighters – whatever small and insignificant their number is – while the secular forces and the Syrian people are being left on their own.
It is of course justified to feel uncomfortable and even fearful for “our boys” who go to this far away and unknown Syria to fight for the sake of forming an Islamic State. However, we will not solve this problem by trying to stop them. We will only solve them if we start to engage in Syria itself. It’s less difficult than we might think. We just need to do an effort.
(with thanks to Maha Alasil for helping with the translation from the Arabic version)
The day Mohamed Morsi was elected as the first civilian president of Egypt in June last year most reform minded people were hopeful. With many leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood Morsi spent many years in prison. No doubt they would do everything to change this ‘society of paranoia’, wouldn’t they? In his first speech as elected president Morsi also promised to form an inclusive government and to appoint a female and a Coptic vice-president. The main question back in June was how Morsi would deal with the army. In a ‘mini-coup’ the army curtailed the president’s position and absolved the People’s Assembly.
And yes, Morsi’s first decisions were bold. He tried to reinstall the People’s assembly. He turned back the ‘mini-coup’ of the army and took the power back. On top of this he fired Field-Marshall Tantawi (and his number two Sami Anan), to replace him with general Sisi. Morsi also appointed as his presidential advisors people from all over the political and religious spectrum. All these steps were of major importance. Not only for Egypt that seemed to be on the way to a rapid reform from a autocratic to a democratic state. The entire world was watching closely.
Moreover, it is hard to underestimate the leading role of Egypt in the Arab world. Egypt is by far the most populated country and claims the historical leadership of the Arab society. Not less important is the fact that the largest political organisation in the Arab world has its origins and its leadership in Egypt: the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is like the communist party in Russia in times of the Soviet-Union. All sister parties in the region are following very closely what they are saying and doing.
Generous in victory, gracious in defeat.
Contrary to their promises the Muslim Brotherhood was not very generous in victory. No female or Coptic vice-president was appointed. The government appeared to be not inclusive. The presidential advisors from outside the Brotherhood were not listened to, while the ones of the Brotherhood had nothing to say. Very soon the old underground culture of following orders instead of discussing them found back its place at the presidential palace. What came back as well was suspicion: every one is against us. The consequence was a bunker mentality: outside the bunker there is a huge conspiracy against the Muslim Brotherhood. The only option is to fight back.
So, that’s what the Muslim Brotherhood did, fighting back. First they replaced the editors in chief of most of the main newspapers. Then they tried to sideline liberal and Coptic voices in the Constitutional Committee. Then Morsi took all power by presidential decree. He sidelined the Constitutional Court and installed his own public prosecutor. He finished the Constitution and put it to a referendum two weeks later.
As the reaction of the people was much bigger than they thought, the Muslim Brothers saw their conspiracy theory confirmed. The only way was fighting back even harder. On the streets and by court. The new public prosecutor started accusing opposition politicians, activists and random people in the street.
However, it must be said that the opposition wasn’t gracious in defeat either. After they organized themselves in the National Salvation Front (NSF) they boycotted as good as everything. By doing so the NSF didn’t miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. They refused to talk to president Morsi, to vice-president Mekki and to the Muslim Brotherhood. They boycotted the Constitutional Committee, the referendum and the elections. If 38 percent of the Egyptians went to vote against the referendum, it was despite and not thanks to the opposition.
The collapse is becoming very close
If all political turmoil would happen in an economic prosperous environment, then the citizens would react with increasing apathy. Unfortunately, the exact contrary is happening. Morsi launched his presidential decree and the constitution during the negotiations with the IMF. Although the IMF is politically neutral, turmoil and fights in the street does make them doubt about the political stability and thus the ability to reform.
Today the IMF doubts proved to be right. No deal has been made. This means that Egypt misses a loan of in total 14,5 billion dollar as the loans of institutions as the EU, the EBRD and the African Union are connected to the one of the IMF. At the same time the Egyptian Pound is faltering, power cuts become a daily issue, rows of cars and trucks waiting for diesel are growing. Tourism – the main source of income – is a disaster. Investors are waiting, while large foreign companies are one after the other leaving the country.
For the average Egyptian the cost of living is becoming a nightmare. The anger is clearly growing. And instead of seeing politicians working hard to improve this situation, they see them fighting and taking decisions about blocking porn on the internet or allowing police officers to grow a beard. Instead of creating an investment friendly environment, the Muslim Brothers are targeting activists, journalists and comedians for insulting the president or insulting religion.
The question is not if but when it will explode
It is hard to overestimate the anger and the fear of the Egyptian people. You could compare it with a room full of gas. It only needs one spark in order to make it explode. That spark could well be the subsidies for bread and energy that need to be reformed. The last time Egypt tried to cut subsidies was in 1977, under Sadat; it immediately lead to the only uncontrollable riots ever. If we see the anarchy today in cities as Port Said, Suez or Malhalla, it is clear that no party will be able to control the streets if the situation explodes.
In the meantime, president Morsi and his government are making the one mistake after the other. It’s as if the Muslim Brotherhood is on a suicide mission. Not only for Egypt but also for the entire Arab world. The same day Morsi issued his decree in November 2012, the protest for political reform in Jordan halted as they feared only the Jordanian Muslim Brothers would profit from it. A few days ago the Syrian Muslim Brothers even complained that their Egyptian counterparts were ruining their reputation.
We know from history that the situation of Egypt is not exceptional. France for example did eighty years from revolution to a stable democracy. And the transition in Central-Europe took almost two decades. History teaches us that the biggest danger in times of collapse and anarchy is the rise of a new populist or a new strong man. That could be someone like the Salafist Abu Ismael or again someone of the army. That would bring the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the opposition back to square one.
But that doesn’t mean chaos is the only way. Although it is already very late, it isn’t too late to move this country forward. Egypt has everything: natural resources, a young ambitious population and the most attractive touristic combination in the world. The only thing that is needed is parties and politicians forgetting their ego and their honour and start a real dialogue about solving problems together. The last window of opportunity is closing rapidly. Dear politicians, for the sake of the people of Egypt, don’t miss this last chance. Otherwise, there will be no winners left.
Egypt is in total chaos. In a few days people will have to vote on the new constitution of the country. This is a moment of utmost importance. If Egypt votes in favour it will set the lines for all politics in the next ten years. Such an important decision should be made with at least some knowledge and in a calm atmosphere. Egypt’s situation today is the complete opposite.
Chaos started with the Constitutional Declaration of President Morsi on November 22. In this decree, he took all power in order to prevent the Supreme Constitutional Court to abort the constitutional process. This would be a logical step for the Court as it declared the People’s Assembly unconstitutional before. And it was this Assembly that selected the Constitutional Assembly. Morsi believed that rather than a legal point of view, the court was taking a political one, with a goal: obstructing the Islamist majority. True or not, Morsi went much too far than necessary for his purpose.
When the Islamist majority (the others had left) voted the constitution in a rush, everything pointed in the direction of an Islamist takeover of the country. Most worrying indeed, but the question is, is it illegitimate? I think everyone agrees that the power grab of Morsi was not legitimate. I am sure he thinks so himself. More importantly however is the question if the constitution is illegitimate? Frankly, I don’t see why it would be. The people elected the People’s Assembly. The one third of the candidates that should have been independent from any party, weren’t independent. However, not only the FJP failed to do that; all parties were complicit. So, it might be unconstitutional but is not undemocratic or illegitimate. (By the way, I never understood why nobody ever said before the elections to all parties that party people would be barred from running for these seats.) In any case, this free and fair elected assembly selected a Constitutional Assembly of 100 people. One can discuss whether this selection is fair, but it is certainly not undemocratic or illegitimate.
Why did so many representatives run out of the Constitutional Assembly? Writing a constitution is not the same as making a budget. The latter can easily be voted majority against opposition. That’s politics. But a constitution is different. Constitutions are essentially the protection of minorities, of weaker groups and people, of individual freedom as well. Constitutions are the protection of the minorities against whatever majority. The fact that several ‘minorities’ felt insufficiently heard, gives this constitution a flavour of fundamental unfairness. But that doesn’t make it illegitimate.
In short, President Morsi took power in an illegitimate way in order to protect a legitimate draft constitution. But that doesn’t mean that the constitution is a fair and fully democratic piece. Also from a legal point of view one might have some questions. How on earth, for example, can a constitution say that it is forbidden to insult a human being? Is saying to my neighbour that I don’t like his shirt unconstitutional?
But back to the chaos. The soap of the last days is of almost mythical proportions. From the opposition side as today it is totally unclear what its position is. They said yesterday that they are against all presidential decrees. But at the same time some parties are campaigning for a no in the referendum. It is still unclear if the opposition (or a part of it?) will boycott the referendum or not. Some say Morsi has to go, others that he has to change his decrees and change the constitution. The chaos from the president’s side however is much more confusing. The day after he gives his (much delayed) speech in which he says nothing is going to change, the Vice-President said something might change. Even more, VP Mekki said the President might delay the referendum, while Al-Awa said after the negotiations that a delay is impossible. The President said the constitution is not going to change, but at a bit later he says (through his spokesman) that if the opposition agrees on the articles it doesn’t like, he will put them in a law and bring it to the next parliament. One week before the referendum the President issues a law that increases taxes on a lot of things, but he cancels the law the same night at 2.30 am. The government wasn’t informed. And there is also the question of the organisation of the referendum. Some judges decided to boycott, others said they will overview. What is the army going to do? Who is going to count the votes? Who is going to supervise the counting of the votes?
This is the atmosphere in which the people of Egypt have to decide on the most important document of the next ten years, at least. One can disagree if the constitution or the process is democratic or not. But everyone cannot but agree that a referendum in the current chaos would be very undemocratic. Democracy is essentially a system to disagree in a civilized way. It also means giving people a chance to disagree. Organizing a referendum in one week time is denying the people the chance to discuss about the constitution and yes, also disagree.
So there are essentially two sides. Morsi and his Islamist forces exude confidence that this constitution is fair and representative of Egypt’s values. And they are confident of victory. Fine. Then they should have no problem with a delay. The other side feels the constitution is flawed and does not represent Egypt’s values. Fine again. Then they too should support only one constitutional decree that gives a thirty-day delay to properly make their case to the Egyptian voters. So, it becomes simple: hold the referendum in mid-January 2013. And let’s have a proper debate.
What was Morsi thinking on the evening of November 22? Everyone expected him to take some measures to appease the clashes that commemorated the many killed revolutionaries one year ago in Mohamed Mahmud Street. Instead he made a Constitutional Declaration of seven articles, giving himself unlimited powers. Article 2 says: “All constitutional declarations, laws and decrees made since Morsi assumed power on 30 June 2012 cannot be appealed or canceled by any individual, or political or governmental body until a new constitution has been ratified and a new parliament has been elected. All lawsuits against them are declared void.” Article 6 says that “The president is authorized to take any measures he sees fit in order to preserve the revolution, to preserve national unity or to safeguard national security.”
Not only the world was stunned, Mohamed Morsi himself was also surprised, by the overall negative reaction. Didn’t he take these powers to give blinded revolutionaries pensions, to reopen the trials that let those responsible for the killings unpunished, to give the liberals more time to finish the constitution? And above all, didn’t he fire one of the most hated remnants of the old regime, the public prosecutor, who refused to investigate so many cases filed by revolutionaries? So, what was Morsi thinking when he issued his declaration? Was it amateurism or bad will? A lot of people on Tahrir said: “Told you so. The Muslim Brotherhood is a Masonic-like organization who wants to take power in order to turn Egypt into a second Iran.” I believe the problem lies somewhere else.
I asked sources, close to the president and the government, in private what was going on. What they told me struck the historian in me. They unfolded to me that the government had proof that the judges, the administration and the media were conspiring against the president and the government. Not to overthrow them but to block whatever they wanted to do to make progress. The media, they said, did not bring the good news. They only criticize. No wonder, because they were paid by foreign funds. There was even proof that some liberals were in the same kind of conspiracy.
Sure there is some truth to it. The media hasn’t been very kind. The Constitutional Court had dissolved the People’s Assembly and was poised to dissolve the Constitutional Assembly as well. The public prosecutor has indeed not been very cooperative. The judges seemed to have used legal grounds to motivate political rulings. The bureaucracy is dragging decisions into the administrative mud. And the liberals walked out of the Constitutional Assembly. But labeling al this as a conspiracy is more then one bridge too far. I have worked in opposition and government in Belgium. Every politician gets that feeling at least once in his career. The ‘they-are-all-against-us-motif’ is an all time classic. It happens in all countries in the entire world. The question is how do you react to it?
The biggest danger is going into the bunker-mentality, closing your self up in retreat, waiting for the right moment for a counter-attack. In a fully fledged democracy this counter-attack is always pretty harmless, because the bunker-mentality makes you misread the situation and loose the next election. Nicolas Sarkozy is a good example. In a post-revolutionary situation, the counter-attack is mostly very dangerous. Because whatever you decide, your bunker-mentality will make you only more suspicious and will encourage you to go down the path of dictatorship, step by step.
Egypt has seen this evolution before. When Nasser took power in 1952 he didn’t shut down democracy immediately. I even think his initial intentions were good. He wanted to liberate Egypt from its foreign occupiers and their puppets. But then he was drawn into the bunker-mentality. He didn’t trust his former friends anymore and surely not the political parties that wanted to block his plans. Gradually, Nasser turned into a brutal dictator himself, sacking president Naguib, abolishing political parties and imprisoning all ‘anti-revolutionary forces’.
This is the psychology of post-revolutionary dictatorship: fighting the enemy of the revolution from an ever smaller becoming bunker. Many revolutionary leaders went down the same path. After the French revolution some leaders wanted to fight against the counterrevolutionary forces. They weren’t butchers by nature. On the contrary, they were mainly intellectuals who were suddenly overwhelmed by the fear that the revolution might fail. Lenin made the same mistake. Initially, he wanted to install a government out of representatives of the Soviets. The Soviets were the councils set up by soldiers, farmers and workers against the reign of the Tsar. But when the councils – without which no revolution would have been possible – criticized the plans of Lenin, he labelled them as enemies of the people and sent them to Siberia.
I am not saying that Morsi is a dictator or that the Muslim Brothers are the same ruthless people as the Bolsheviks. But they should realize that there is no such thing as a big conspiracy against them. There simply is no human brain big enough to master media, judges, politicians and the street. That only exists in films of James Bond. Most people just fight for their ideas or for their own position. Of course, there are many opponents who would like to see them fail, but that is the case in every democracy. The Central-European countries needed two decades to become well-functioning democracies after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Transition is not easy and it takes an awful amount of time.
The problem is that once you go down the path to dictatorship, there is hardly a way back. So Morsi has the choice: either he sticks with his declaration and has to start a crackdown in order to maintain it. Or he leaves his bunker, cancels his declaration and faces the difficulties every post-revolutionary transition has to deal with. There is always a way out. The president and the opposition should start a dialogue instead of setting ultimatums. Deleting articles 2 and 6 and agreeing on a way to move forward with the Constituent Assembly might be the only solution to avoid a major political deadlock. It is not easy and often very frustrating. But thinking that a short period of dictatorship will set everything right is wrong. History proves that the path to democracy never leads through dictatorship.
«I didn’t realize that you hate us», said European Commissioner Stefan Fühle after a two hour discussion with Egyptian NGO’s. It was the last meeting of the EU-Egypt Taskforce. This Taskforce assembled four hundred politicians and entrepreneurs for two days in Cairo in order to see how we could better cooperate. The meeting was very high level. From the Egyptian side the prime minister was there, the foreign minister and many other ministers and members of the Shura Council. From the European side Lady Ashton was there, as well as EU Commissioners Tajani and Fühle, many foreign ministers and members of European Parliament.
The most important news from the Taskforce was the announcement by the European Commission to support Egypt with no less than 5 billion euro. Not without conditions. Egypt should comply with the conditions of the IMF. A thing Egyptians don’t really like to hear. They have a collective historical aversion of foreign loans. It was King Mohamed Ali who took loans from Britain and France to build the newly independent Egypt into a European-style power in the first half of the 19th century. When he was unable to pay the loans back, Britain took half of the Egyptian ministries. It was only until the Suez crisis in 1956, more then a century later, that Egypt succeeded in kicking the foreign powers out and regained its independency. This historical fear, together with the feeling of humiliation – why can’t we govern our own business in a proper way – makes Egyptians happy and unhappy at the same time with foreign support and certainly if it is conditioned.
Conditions, that is what it is all about. When I visited with some liberal Members of European Parliament the Prime Minister just after the revolution (it was still Shafiq…), he told us that we supported Mubarak before and that we were not well placed to tell the Egyptians what to do. A few months later we met with PM Sharaf and he told us the same thing. Guess what, this week PM Qandil and president Morsi gave the Europeans exactly the same message. And the Europeans feeling guilty about the Mubarak era back off. At least publicly. Not realizing that by being silent they make the same mistake as they did with Mubarak. The most obvious example during this week was the incident with the civil society.
The Egyptian government invited the civil society (NGO’s, human rights and development organisations) to participate to the EU-Egypt Taskforce. A few days before the actual meeting the government withdrew the invitation. The European Commission was not pleased and thought about what they could do. Or they could blow up the whole thing, but in their eyes that seemed a bit exaggerated. Or they could insist on meeting the civil society separate from the official program. That’s what they did.
So this is the core of the perfect mutual misunderstanding. The EU honestly thinks that as long as they listen to the civil society and take their remarks serious, everything is fine. Even more, a high-level European representative asked the civil society to be grateful as the EU did organise a dinner with them. The Egyptian civil society was utterly shocked that they were erased from the official delegation and sidelined to a dinner. Why? This is not only about pride. This is about the revolution itself. Not the organisers of the Taskforce risked their life on Tahrir square. On the contrary, they are exactly the same people of twenty (some even forty) years ago. It were these guys who sidelined the civil society every single time under Mubarak and it were the same guys who repeated the same scenario. As if the revolution never happened.
When European Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy, Stefan Fühle comes to explain during a dinner for the sidelined civil society that there are also human rights and democratic conditions in the EU package, he should not be surprised that the attendees react sceptically and even angry. Because if he is serious about these conditions, why did he then allow the Egyptian government to screw the first moment where his words could be applied? And this in the very week, one year after the clashes in Mohamed Mahmud street, where more than forty youngsters had been killed by police snipers. Nevertheless, Mister Fühle, the Egyptians don’t hate the EU. But they are vey frustrated and disillusioned. They had hoped for more. Much more. And frankly, they are right.
I was standing in the middle of Tahrir square when Morsi was announced as the first democratic elected president in the history ofEgypt. I have never seen such an outburst of happiness and relief. People cried, prayed and chanted. It felt like for the people on the square eighty four years of suppression and fear finally had come to an end. The liberal revolutionaries of 25 January however, were absent. Most of them were sitting at home, watching the result with glazy eyes. Their anxiety that in the end the Muslim Brotherhood would take over the revolution, had become reality. They didn’t forget that Morsi and other leaders from the Brotherhood first refused to join the revolution. Morsi even said on TV that they were talking to the regime in order to find a negotiated solution.
However, one must admit, Morsi deserves the presidency. The Muslim Brotherhood was not only the best organized, it frankly was the only one with an elaborated and coherent program. Besides, no one can claim they didn’t suffer under the military rule since 1954. One must also admit that inside the liberal camp the battle was about egos rather than about the future ofEgypt. The fact that Hamdeen Sabahi refused to form a presidential team and negotiate with Morsi half of the power for the secular camp in the government and the constitutional committee is more than symbolic.
Nevertheless, the victory of Morsi is probably the best that could happen. First of all, the only force capable of threatening the army not to leave the path towards democracy is the Muslim Brotherhood. The SCAF fears them which most probably is the reason why the generals didn’t dare to rig the elections (massively) or give the presidency to Shafiq. Secondly, after winning the parliamentary and the presidential elections the Muslim Brothers finally must prove to the Egyptian people that they are not only ‘good Muslims’ but real democrats and good rulers as well. If they can’t, they will be punished in the next elections. The third reason why it is good that Morsi won the presidency, is the fact that it shapes clarity. No more doubts of they are to be trusted, no more conspiracy theories, no more ‘what ifs’. Morsi is president and he will only hold accountable for what he does and does not realize. The debate now is about facts and no longer rumours.
This is an opportunity for the liberal/secular/revolutionary camp. With the election of Morsi a new era has started: the era of politics. Where there is on the one side the SCAF and on the other side the president it is time to organise the missing side: the liberal opposition. Time has come to create the liberal alternative. The potential for this alternative is huge as we have seen in the first round of the presidential elections. In order to convert this potential in an electoral victory the following universal political laws should be taken into account:
- Don’t try to negotiate functions in the government if you’re weak. Also forget about presidential teams, councils, etc. That’s too late. Right now the only legitimate politician is Mohamed Morsi. The government is his responsibility, as are the realisations of this government. He is responsible, but also accountable for what will go wrong.
- Stop the fragmentation. Unite forces. It is of no use to have dozens of parties with the same program and the same aims. All the meetings with all party presidents led to nothing. Small parties with less than five Members of Parliament should realise that it doesn’t make sense to continue alone.
- Talk about content not about tactics. People want to hear about solutions for the problems they have and not about tactical games. Don’t only talk about what you don’t want, but also about what your vision, your agenda is for the future ofEgypt. Make a positive narrative in which solutions for the everyday problems have their proper place.
- The duty of the opposition is to oppose. Be the watchdog of the new president and his government. Be constructive, give alternative solutions, but be harsh when needed. Play the role of the parliament and control the executive powers. But don’t criticize everything. Pick your fights.
- Talk to the people. Explain to the streets what you want and why. And listen to what they really expect from you. Only if you can convince the people about what you’re doing, you can become an alternative and win elections.
The first challenge for the liberal opposition is going to be the new constitution. The first fight will be on the procedure. If one needs a two third majority in order to agree on things, it doesn’t really matter if Islamists have 49, 52 or 57 percent of the seats. The second fight will be the content. The liberal opposition should agree on five or ten priorities or breaking points. Together they have a ‘blocking minority’ which is enough votes to ask whatever they want.
Normally,Egyptwill have in the six to eight months to come a referendum, parliamentary and presidential elections and even local elections. If the liberal forces are capable of joining forces and create a credible liberal opposition, the election of Mohamed Morsi will have been a blessing for the future ofEgypt.