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.
A triumvirate is a political system in which the leadership is given to three dominating political figures. During history it has been used in times of major crises, to solve major problems and lead the state to a new era. The most known triumvirate in ancient times was the one of Caesar in Rome, where it was made to balance powers and to bridge a difficult period. Also famous was the triumvirate in France by Napoleon (1795-1799) in order to safeguard the French revolution. Another well known modern one existed in the Netherlands in 1561, where it was installed to guarantee the civil and religious liberties.
In the current situation of Egypt, a triumvirate could also be the solution. Egypt lives through a major crisis, and it looks for a guarantee for civil and religious liberties and wants to safeguard the revolution. How could this triumvirate work in practice?
1. Before the elections (preferably this weekend) the main presidential candidates Morsi, Sabahy and Aboul Fotouh agree to form a triumvirate (or presidential three-mans-council) in order to face the elections of 16-17 June together. It is very important to ask for a mandate through elections. Any other option would be a major setback for democracy.
2. If they win, they agree to work together for the next four years in this triumvirate. They need enough time in order to be able to make the necessary changes and reforms.
3. They will be equal in hierarchy.
4. They will have clear separated competences that comprise and divide all executive powers, but decisions will be taken together.
5. The division in large could be the following
- President 1 will be responsible for the reform of everything which lies in the competences of social, economic, cultural and education affairs. He will lead the government.
- President 2 will be responsible for the writing of the Constitution. He will lead the Constitutional Committee. He will also be responsible for the reforms of the Ministry of Interior. He will be responsible for civil and religious liberties.
- President 3 will be responsible for anything which is foreign affairs and defence, for the relationship with the military and for the reform of the judiciary system.
6. They agree to balance the composition of the government and the Constitutional Committee with all the groups that exist in Egypt.
Sometimes history can be useful to find creative solutions. But of course, it’s just an idea from an outsider’s perspective.
We all saw the horrifying images. Dozens of children who were mercilessly slaughtered in the Syrian city Houla. It is one of the many massacres since the Syrian revolution started on 15 March 2011. Men, women, children are killed by the regime’s soldiers by grenades, bullets, knifes or bare hands. Those who are captured, are tortured to death in the most brutal ways. We all know it. We all see it. But the focus on Syria is decreasing. It’s hard to broadcast the same news every day. Meanwhile the international community keeps on “observing”. It’s a crying shame. How much longer are we going to leave Bashar Al-Assad untouched?
Cynically enough the comparison with the war in Bosnia is more than obvious. The scenario is nearly identical. A quick memory refresher: the violence in Bosnia started in April 1992, after the disintegration of Yugoslavia. The Bosnian Serbs proclaimed their own republic and carried out an ethnic cleansing through the whole territory, mainly of Bosnian Muslims, which caused a hundred thousand victims. The most horrifying images, especially those of Sarajevo and Srebrenica, remain deeply embedded in our minds and are one of the darkest pages in the history of the international community.
Why? Just like in Syria the international community tried a peace plan for Bosnia, on 1 May 1993. Also 13 months after the war and the slaughtering had started. The plan required that the Serbs would stop shelling Sarajevo. The comparison with Homs and Hama is clear. When the horror continued, Western countries scanned each other for months in order to measure their readiness for a military intervention. Alas, nobody was ready. The reasons for their hesitance sound familiar: the situation was complex, it was a sectarian war between Orthodox, Catholics and Muslims who all had committed crimes, which made it difficult to choose a side, Russia was objecting because of its ties with Serbia and there was no “post-war-plan”.
Only three years and a hundred thousand victims after the beginning of the war, a military intervention took finally place. A few months after the intervention all the Dayton agreements were signed by all parties concerned. Bosnia had to wait until the ethnic massacre of Srebrenica, where seven thousand Bosnians were massacred at once, while they were actually under UN protection.
It is a disgrace that the international community is using identical reasons for not intervening in Syria. The situation is complex in Syria, there is fear for sectarian violence, Russia is objecting, there is no “post-Assad-plan” and the opposition is divided – even if they are united in the request for Assad to leave. Since 2001 there is another argument that is cunningly manipulated by Assad: the presence of Al-Qaeda. Although we can doubt to what extend Al-Qaeda still exists, since a few months there are indeed members present in Syria. That was the case in Bosnia as well, and there are probably as many of them in Syria as there used to be in Bosnia at the time: a few hundred. The only difference is that back then they were called Mujahedeen.
In Cairo I regularly meet Syrian opposition leaders. Each one of them fled from Syria in the past six months. Many of them lived under cover for many months. Others were tortured in Assad’s prisons. They all say the same thing: after the massacre in Houla it should be clear for everybody: Kofi Annan’s peace plan doesn’t work and it will never work. Assad will do everything to stay in power, no matter what. His army will continue to rape, to kill and to destroy. His secret service will continue to arrest people who dear to talk to UN-watchers and torture them to death. Those who openly oppose against Assad, will be killed as well as their entire family. The terror will remain, even though if Assad is not in a strong position at all. The part of the army actually fighting consist of only twenty thousand soldiers. He doesn’t trust all the others. More than hundred thousand soldiers are kept in their barracks. Last week I heard from somebody who had just fled Damascus that Assad even has confiscated all passports of ministers and army generals, in order to prevent them from escaping the country.
There is only one way to stop this terror and that is an international intervention. The creation of one or two safe zones where people can find refuge and from where humanitarian aid can be sent to the right places. Sooner or later this intervention will take place, just like in Bosnia,. With the UN if possible, with NATO if necessary, just like in Kosovo in 1999. The only question is: how many more children will need to be massacred before proper action will be taken?
Two days before the presidential elections, I had a dinner in my place with some revolutionaries and bloggers. One of them suddenly asked the question: “What are we going to do if it’s a run-off between Morsi and Shafiq?” A moment of silence followed. Nobody had really thought this could have been a possibility. Voting for Morsi would give the Muslim Brotherhood all the power in Egypt, a secular’s worst nightmare. Voting for Shafiq, the last Prime Minister of Mubarak, would turn the revolution back to square one, a revolutionary’s worst nightmare.
But here we are. The worst case scenario for the secular revolutionaries is today’s reality. How could that happen? The answer is quite obvious: fragmentation. It was fragmentation that led to the defeat in the Parliamentary elections, earlier this year, and it is fragmentation that blocked revolutionary candidates to make it to the second round of the presidential elections. If they would have combined forces, they would have easily made it. But for some reason, every revolutionary wants to become the next President of Egypt.
So what to do now? Boycotting the run-off is useless. If you don’t participate in the election you have no right to speak afterwards. Counting on a new revolution, in case there has been no electoral fraud, is strange. You cannot demand for democratic elections and refuse to recognize the results if you don’t like them. Even not if you profoundly dislike the results. Doing nothing at all, finally, and giving everybody the freedom to vote for the candidate he dislikes the least, is the worst strategy as it throws away the power of all revolutionary votes combined and it leaves the revolution with empty hands.
In my opinion, there is only one way to safeguard the revolution: think strategically and negotiate! Neither Morsi, nor Shafiq are sure about winning the presidency. So no doubt both of them are desperate for any proposal that could lead them to victory. With some 40% of the votes, the revolutionary power and thus leverage is much bigger, than most might imagine. Here lies the opportunity. For once, the other candidates should stick together. As one block they should offer their support in exchange for non-negotiable conditions. The secular/revolutionaries must be guaranteed on paper 1) the vice-president, 2) the prime minister, 3) half of the government ministries, 4) half plus one of the Constitutional Committee 5) all decisions will be signed by both the president and the vice-president. This is politics. This is democracy.
Public statements will not safeguard the revolution, but tough negotiations can. I would first go to Mohamed Morsi with this package. If he agrees, the power of the Muslim Brotherhood and the new President of Egypt will be seriously reduced. But he will realise, this is the only way to unite the country again and make it move forward. If he refuses, it means that not Egypt but the Muslim Brotherhood is on top of his agenda. In that case, go with the same package to Shafiq.
Is this package the ultimate guarantee that the voice of the revolution will always be heard? Perhaps not, but if one of the candidates agrees, signs the paper and announces this publicly during the campaign, he cannot act as it doesn’t exist, once he is elected. It will give the revolutionary forces the opportunity to safeguard what millions of Egyptians have been fighting for. If the next President of Egypt breaks his promises, then and only then a second revolution can start again.
Today, just as yesterday, millions of Egyptians are casting their vote in the first democratic presidential elections ever. Already since 5 am men and women are waiting in line in front of the polling stations. Around 8 am I have seen thousands of people quietly standing in lines of hundreds of meters, hoping to seal the change Egypt is going through since the revolution of beginning 2011. Since many weeks and even months Egyptians discuss these elections all the time and everywhere. The first question people asking each other in metro, taxi or teahouse was always: who are you going to vote for? Without doubt the most remarkable moment of the presidential campaign, was the debate, live on two commercial televisions, between the two top contenders, Amr Moussa and Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh. The actual debate lasted not less then four and a half hours. Until two o’clock at night. All pubs were packed with people cheering the debate as if it was the finale of the Champions League. It is very clear: Egyptians adore free elections and no-one is going to take this away from them anymore.
Although today is only the beginning of the presidential process – on 16-17 June there is the second round and on 30 June the transfer of power – some conclusions can already be drawn.
1. These elections are democratic because the outcome is totally unpredictable. Where three weeks ago everybody would have said that Moussa and Abul Fotouh would go to the second round, today it is impossible to make a prediction. There are five top candidates and every single one of them has the possibility to win.
(1) Amr Moussa (former foreign minister of Mubarak and former secretary-general of the Arab League) has started his campaign almost the day after Mubarak was ousted from office. Moussa is popular because he talks like the people in the street do. Some call him even populist. His advantage is his experience, his disadvantage his links to the old regime.
(2) Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh (former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, left to become presidential candidate) is also one of the first candidates. He promotes himself as someone who unifies people. Despite his conservative past, he is a progressive Muslim and an early supporter of the revolution. That’s the reason why many young revolutionaries are campaigning for him. Strange enough he also has the support of the Salafis, as they didn’t want to support the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, many Egyptians distrust Abul Futouh as they believe that ‘once MB always MB’.
(3) Mohamed Morsi (president of the Freedom and Justice Party from the MB) entered very late in the race. The candidate of the MB was initially Khairat Al Shater. But as he was kicked out of the race because of ‘legal reasons’, Morsi came in as the ‘reserve-candidate’. Morsi has no charisma at all. But he is backed by a formidable machine: the Muslim Brotherhood. I have seen towns change overnight from no Morsi into all Morsi.
(4) Ahmed Shafiq (last Prime Minister under Mubarak, general) had to wait long before getting the permission to run. The parliament voted a law that barred former ministers of Mubarak (last ten years) to run for president, but the Election Committee overruled that. He is the candidate of the Army and did an huge campaign in a short period of time. Because of the deteriorated security situation in Egypt, many people like his image of law and order.
(5) Hamdeen Sabahi (long time Nasserist and revolutionary) might become the biggest surprise of the elections. Until three weeks ago, one could hardly hear his name mentioned. Now half of the taxidrivers say they are going to vote for him. Most of all candidates, Sabahi embodies the revolution and secularism at the same time.
2. It is surprising but clear that three months after their huge victory in the parliamentary elections the Muslim Brotherhood is loosing ground. Many people who voted for the MB are now despising them. Why? First of all, there is disappointment. Egyptians voted for the MB because they were the most organised and stable factor after the revolution and thus the best guarantee to make Egypt moving forward again. Egyptians were that enthusiastic about the new parliament that they watched the live broadcasted plenary sessions every day. There they saw MB not doing what they had hoped for. Secondly, Egyptians are angry about one specific broken promise: that MB would never issue a presidential candidate. The moment Khairat Al-Shater announced his candidacy, the reaction of many people was very harsh: MB wants all the power and we will not let this happen. A Gallup poll confirms this tendency, saying that MB has lost one third of their support since February : http://www.gallup.com/poll/154706/Support-Islamists-Declines-Egypt-Election-Nears.aspx
3. In general, this campaign proved that the role of Islam in people’s life and convictions is much more complex than assumed. One could say that Egyptians are very religious, but don’t like someone to impose on them how to be religious. Moreover, the debate on how to combine Islam and democracy is far from ended, and is likely never to end. A great majority of Egyptians do support the article 2 of the constitution saying that ‘Islamic law (sharia) is the main source of legislation. At the same time they fiercely disagree on what the sharia exactly is and how to interpret it. For many this article 2 is what the ‘Judeo-Christian tradition’ was for the European Constitution. Nathan Brown, from Carnegie, has written a very good article about this : http://carnegieendowment.org/2012/05/15/egypt-and-islamic-sharia-guide-for-perplexed/argb
4. Not one candidate likes Israel, but the fiercest opponent is not an Islamist but the socialist-Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi. He openly said many times the peace-treaty should be thrown in the dustbin. One should also not forget that Amr Moussa became popular as foreign minister by being tough on Israel. If we can believe a study of Brookings, a huge majority see Israel and the United States as biggest threats. (http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/reports/2012/5/21%20egyptian%20elections%20poll%20telhami/egypt_poll_results.pdf) Obama has lost a lot of popularity, while Erdogan remains a hero. An old opinion poll of the BBC shows that only 10% of the Egyptians see the EU as a positive force. It is hard to say what the current perception of the EU is. But in general people have no idea what the EU is doing in Egypt; they even don’t know the EU is giving money to the country. Europe does have huge opportunities in the region, but a lot of work still needs to be done.
Whatever the results will be of this historic election, it is clear that from today on we can put Egypt on the list of the world’s democracies. And this is thanks and only thanks to all those brave revolutionaries who risked their life time and again on and around Tahrir Square. As Europe failed to support the revolution, it should use this new key moment and make sure the EU is finally the neighbour that Egypt deserves.