There is a lot to lament in Egypt and lots of blame to go around. Sometimes, this excess blame takes on a collective form: “Egyptians deserve what they get” — a mean spirited variation on “you reap what you sow” — is a not-uncommon refrain. Some are even hoping for things to get worse so that “they” can “learn their lesson.” So long as Sisi is in power, these detractors reason, how could you possibly wish Egypt and its people well?

To be sure, these days it is easy to dismiss Egyptians — to write them off not only as patently undemocratic, but as amoral (if not immoral). In the first instance, it has been a year now since scores of Egyptians took to the streets demanding Muhammed Morsi, the country's first freely elected president, step down from office, which ultimately paved the way for a military overthrow. The latter critique draws directly on the public's indifference, acceptance and, at times, outright support of the coup's violent aftermath. Indeed, the past twelve months have witnessed mass slaughter, thousands incarcerated on political grounds, hundreds sentenced to death, and numerous show trials — all without any sign of abatement.

One man, of course, is the common denominator across all these transgressions: Field Marshall Abdel Fatah El Sisi. Once suspected of being Morsi's ace-in-the-hole in light of his seemingly Islamist leanings, Sisi would end up coordinating (some might even say orchestrating) the former president's removal from office. Subsequently, he served as de facto leader during a transitional period that ultimately led to his coronation as de jure chief executive — a position that many presumed was always his for the taking.

What many find surprising is not the authoritarian backsliding so much as the relative paucity of pushback from the broader public. Is it fair, then, to associate the actions of the regime with the state and its people? Are Sisi and Egypt now one and the same? Is it no longer possible to support the country while denouncing its ruler? As with many issues in Egypt, there appear to exist two polar positions and both miss the mark. The more balanced, nuanced alternative that bridges some key pragmatic and normative concerns is altogether elusive.

Sisi? Yes

sisi

There is a sizable contingent in Egypt that believes Sisi can do no wrong. These partisans regard Sisi as a savior that “rescued” Egypt from the “tyranny” of Morsi. Under the ensuing accord — part Stockholm syndrome, part Faustian bargain — the promised ends of security and stability justified all “necessary” means.

For this faction, as Sisi goes so goes Egypt. It simply does not make sense to talk about one succeeding or failing without the other following suit. As such, any criticism (really, anything short of superfluous admiration) is tantamount to treason.

Clearly, this perspective is as short-sighted as it gets. Handing a former military leader carte blanche to rule the country as he wishes, as history has shown time and again, never ends well. So long as Gulf money keeps flowing and Sisi keeps projecting the image of the Egyptian strongman, however, it will be hard to convince uncles and aunties nostalgic for bygone “prestige” and trying to make ends meet, that Egypt's leaders need to be held to account.

Morsi? No

Egypt Protsts Intensify As Army Deadline Approaches

At the other end of the spectrum are the former president's ardent supporters who feel that no good can come to Egypt if Morsi is not reinstated. They regard Sisi as a usurper, his regime as illegitimate, and his security forces guilty of crimes against humanity.

For this faction, there can be no progress unless Sisi is removed from office and the political clock is turned back to June 29, 2013. Between spearheading the overthrow of an elected president and presiding over the Rabia massacre, along with many subsequent human rights violations, any “progress” would simply be the fruits of a poisonous tree.

Yet this framework is blind to the changing calculus not simply in Egypt, but in the broader region. With the 2011 uprising and the coup in 2013, Egypt has weathered two major shocks to its system; it is quite possible that the next one may prove crippling. That is, while Egypt may not be inextricably bound to Sisi, that does not mean that it can survive his forceful removal; it would likely prove too great a blow to absorb for an already fragile state. Moreover, with regional security in disarray, any action that could leave Egypt's military weakened may be just as short-sighted as granting them unchecked power.

Simply put, there is just no scenario (as of now) in which Morsi returning to office improves Egypt's political, economic, or security situation.

Working Both With and Against the System

There is a more prudent (if decidedly bitter) path for those opposed to the country's current trajectory.

In short, this alternative calls for the opposition to finally set aside the comfortable fictions of street/revolutionary legitimacy, on the one hand, and get over the undermining of their electoral legitimacy, on the other, in order to establish lasting institutional legitimacy. In the first instance, liberal/secular groups will need to coalesce and offer coherent platforms while, in the latter case, jilted Islamists will need to lick their wounds and rebrand themselves for a parliamentary push. In both cases, acquiescence to the current status quo (however distasteful that may be) is simply unavoidable.

Admittedly there are drawbacks to this tactic. For one thing, it may very well be the case that meaningful participation/opposition is simply not possible in the current climate. What's more, participating may serve as a stamp of legitimacy or political cover for the current regime. Even worse, if Sisi actually succeeds in pulling Egypt out of its current fiscal maelstrom and establishes some semblance of stability, such a performance may lend credence to the notion that only through military leadership could Egypt prosper.

These are all valid concerns and I don't take any of them lightly. But the current crisis requires considering options that are the lesser evil, as clearly no good ones are abound. Less cynically, those looking to skew the trajectory of Egypt away from dictatorship must take more seriously the expected outcomes of their actions, weighing each possibility and the probability that it will occur. On balance, continued protests and boycotts will do little to change the situation, while the fostering of a viable alternative to military political rule, with the support of the few remaining pockets of independent journalism, can yield long term positive results.

This is a marathon — it always was, despite the numerous, reckless recourses to impatient sprints. A commitment to building viable democratic institutions, to imbuing them with public trust above and beyond any individual or group, is the only way to combat Sisi's bid to entrench a cult of personality and continue Egypt's descent into authoritarianism. It is a long and largely unsatisfying road, but the prize at the end is dignity and accountability: a political environment where “the people” and “the revolution” are not merely pawns in a dictator's game.

 

Photos: AFP

12 Responses

  1. Mohammed

    Salaam,

    Whilst I am a fan of your writing brother Youssef, I find it hard to agree that in the interests of Egypt the oppressed need to be pragmatic and partially accept their oppression.

    The very nature of the corrupt secular liberal fetid sissi-supporters in Egypt is that they will not accept any detente with the Islamic groups. At all. Ever.

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    • Youssef Chouhoud

      W/Salam Mohammed,

      I get – and respect – your perspective. This wasn’t an easy position for me to come to and, now, advance. What ultimately lead me to it was the realization that there simply is no short term remedy to the regime’s transgressions that does not leave the overall state and its people in a worse off position. Moreover, the situation is such that appealing to a sense of justice will leave individuals and groups unsatisfied. What may have a chance in the longrun, however, is offering pragmatic solutions to the country’s ills and offering a viable alternative to indefinite rule by military strongmen.

      It’s not and easy row to hoe, but it’s one that, in my humble opinion, has more of a chance to bear fruit in the longrun.

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      • Hassen

        I agree with your outlook, Youssef, (looking for long-term solutions to get Egypt out of a military-controlled government) but participating in upcoming elections is a wasted effort- there’s no doubt they’re going to be rigged. They learned their lesson from the 2011/2012 elections and there’s no way they’re going to leave the results up to the people again. All the referendums/elections b/w the revolution and the coup have consistently shown that a majority of Egyptians will choose Islamists, and that Cairo doesn’t represent the rest of Egypt. So free elections aren’t even an option for them.

        The real shame in all of this is that the Egyptians missed out on their opportunity to turn a page in their history and make this shift to a truly democratic society. I hope the April 6th movement and everyone in that camp have finally woken up and realize how naive they were in thinking Sisi would just take over and let the people press the reset button on this democracy experiment.

        Now that the military/power elite have regained power their grip is going to be 10 times as tight. Sure, they’ll probably want to give the impression of implementing democracy but the last election (if it can even be called that) is a telling sign that it’s just a show.

        The only long-term solution in my opinion is to work on the people’s hearts. Once they begin to live virtuously they will be able to see truth and falsehood for what they are and deserve a leader who will truly work for their benefit (as Heba Sh. pointed out in her comment below). Wallahu A’lam.

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  2. md333

    Well written article that provides a sane and healthy outlook on the current afair in egypt. The situation in egypt is more serious than sisi vs. morsi and people need to start realizing this. We need to set aside our biases to work together for a common benefit.

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  3. wael77

    The Egyptian saga is done, for now. No further change or progress will occur in Egypt for a long time. The Egyptians demanded a return to dictatorship in the name of “security”, and they got what they asked for. Egypt will be stuck with Sisi for years to come, while the country continues along the familiar path of human rights abuses, stifled free speech, military control of the economy, and general stagnation.

    I suspect it will be at least 10 years until the majority of Egyptians wake up to the realization that they sold their own revolution for an illusion. Or maybe 20 years, or 30. We will have to see what the next generation can do, because this one proved themselves incapable of handling democratic change.

    As an Egyptian-American myself, I am deeply disappointed.

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    • Youssef Chouhoud

      There were always bound to be fits and starts. For the time being, it seems there will be a few more fits and a few less starts. So yes, the near-term doesn’t look hopeful, but 1) democratization is always a long-term game, and 2) if the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that the political and social winds in Egypt can shift quite rapidly.

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  4. ZAI

    Big problem with our discourse and socio-political culture in Muslim
    majority countries is that ALL “groups” tend to view it as a zero-sum
    game wherein the other “side” must be suppressed, oppressed, silenced
    or “defeated”. There is no tolerance for different opinions, behavior or
    ways of just being. Goes for all sides.

    Secular people and people who prefer a civil non-ideological form
    of non-intrusive government must make peace with the fact that religious
    people are part of the fabric of the nation and have EVERY right to
    influence and participate in governance/society through the prism
    of their religious values. They have just as much right to shape the nation
    as anyone. Supporting a military or secular fascism betrays any claims
    of human rights or progress they claim to stand for.

    Flipside, the ideologue Islamists must get it through their heads already
    that they do NOT have the right to craft laws that intrude in every single
    aspect of peoples lives. Most people will draw the line of government
    intrusion at their private lives and things which are moral personal issues…not
    issues of civil and criminal state and governance. Furthermore, religion…including ours…has
    different interpretations. Better to not intrude or interfere with people’s choices
    in that matter and foist on them an interpretation they don’t believe in as a matter of state.
    In other words there are LIMITS to their religious/ideological platforms and crossing
    those limits will GUARANTEED lead to rebellion. Sorry, but Morsi and co. blew it
    by trying to sneak a Brotherhood ideological document into place. They
    shoulda looked to Ennahda in Tunisia or AKP in Turkey to see how important
    balance is and how to get people on your side, including opponents…for
    the good of the country.

    Enough with these paradigms already. It’s way past time for us all
    to learn how to co-exist, compromise, cooperate and have tolerance
    already…and until we do, we’ll keep experiencing violence, oppression
    and destruction in the Muslim world…and keep falling prey
    to SIsi’s and ISISes who capitalize on the state of the social fabric.
    No one is going to “win” this way….

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    • Youssef Chouhoud

      I think you’re spot on in your assessment of political/ideological parties in Egypt. There is a feeling that those on the other side of the divide are not just political opponents, but actually comprise an existential threat.

      It’s important though to understand why this is the case. The situation in Egypt now is not merely about setting in place particular laws or forming a short term governing coalition. What is at stake, in many ways, is the essence, the character of the nation-state. The questions being raised will have long term ramifications, and as such those with a vested interest are far more hardline than would be normally prudent. There is no underlying consensus — liberalism, for example — that a compromise can be based on; everyone is basically just playing it by ear.

      The other thing is that it’s not entirely clear that the norms you cite — tolerance, and the like — can be established absent a commitment to the democratic process. If the elites in society that control the messaging that trickles down to the masses don’t appear to buy into the utility — let alone the normative superiority — of democratic governance, it’s hard to imagine tolerance or any other related norms taking root.

      That is part of the reason why I advocate participation and a plea to pragmatic solutions. As of now, the government pretty much has carte blanche to do as it will (as evident from the recent unilateral prices hikes on gas). If leaders from the various groups can actually show a commitment to the democratic process, offer and alternative, and package that alternative as superior to effective dictatorship, then they can begin to sway the populace and lay the groundwork for the norms that will lead to actual stability (as opposed to the mere veneer of stability that exists today).

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  5. fritz

    its amazing that some people in egypt would rather burn their country to the ground by handing it over to the Field Marshall Pillager that is Sisi than serve under a modest but collaborative govt with morsi

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  6. Heba Sh.

    Please note that for the sake of argument I am going to make some generalizations.

    As the common theory goes, “The ruler will be a reflection of its subjects”

    If we see oppression in the Middle East, it is because we Middle Easterners all have oppressive and unjust tendencies within us. Until we look inwards and change, the oppression will continue.

    You don’t have to be a killer to be an oppressor. When you treat someone negatively, in a way that you wouldn’t want to be treated yourself, that’s oppression.

    Yes….mashallah you pray 5 times a day and you fast and
    you are generous and hospitable. But how we treat other
    human beings is unjust and unkind.

    If you are a shop owner in one of the many souks and bazaars in the Middle East, then you probably tell 100 lies a day in selling your goods, that’s oppression. If you charge some of your wealthier customers more “because they can afford it”, that’s unfair and its oppression.

    If you live in the Middle East and you have a maid who is overworked and underpaid, that’s oppression.

    If you live in the Middle East and you see laborers from Bangladesh and Nepal and elsewhere working in hot temperatures and being paid peanuts for wages and you don’t do anything to prevent their injustice, that’s oppression.

    “But if I protest against the government, I will be arrested”, I hear you say.

    It doesn’t matter, if you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem, turning a blind eye to oppression, makes you part of that oppression.

    If a driver cuts you off and you get mad and yell “kharab baitak” (May your house be destroyed) then thats oppression.

    If you care more about the World Cup matches in Qatar in 2022 and less about the fact they are using slave labor to build the stadiums, then you are an oppressor

    If you are a Middle Eastern father who would never dream of marrying your daughters to a good Indian or Filipino Muslim because “they are not Arab”, then you are racist and that’s oppression

    If you live in the Middle East and you have ever mistreated the Indian taxi driver or the non Arab guy making your shwarma sandwich and looked at him as inferior, that’s oppression

    I could give you many more examples, but this comment would become too long.

    We keep looking at the sources of our problems as being outside of us. We blame Sisi or Morsi or this guy or that guy. As the wise man said, anytime you point a finger at someone, you are pointing 3 fingers at yourself.

    Try to think of one Middle Eastern or Arab country that has no oppression. The same type pf oppression that these days is absent in “The West”). I will wait….

    In fact, think of one Muslim country today that is free from oppression….Whether it be Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, The Gulf Countries and others.

    The closest one I can think of is Malaysia but I know that even they have their issues.

    Remember….as the The Prophet (sal Allahu alaihi wa sallam) said: “Each one of you serves as a mirror to his brother. Hence, if you see any fault in your brother, eliminate it.” [Tirmidhi]

    What you see in others(good or bad) is merely a reflection of yourself.

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    • M

      I’ll agree with your comment, But I would like to add that the west isn’t all free from oppression or some sort of discrimination either.

      One thing that shows up a lot in arguments against the middle eastern countries is the treatment of South Asian workers. I will not disagree with that. But if we go back a hundred years, when the countries like America were not the world power, the situation was pretty much the same. They had workers who were not paid enough and lived in unfair conditions, eventually the workers released that they deserve more and they fought for their rights. In return the large corporations moved their factories elsewhere so they can pay someone less and keep most of the profit.

      That’s how I feel these countries became rich and developed.

      Although it’s true that people in the west are more likely to stand for their rights, I feel that the discrimination still exists towards certain racial and immigrant groups, specially in the work place. People might not get hired because of their names, and women still get paid less. Discrimination still exists but it’s more subtle in the west.

      Also, the problems mentioned here occur in places like Saudi Arab and other neighbouring countries, I am not sure if the case in same in Egypt. A lot of people have problems with the governments in those countries but not to the extent that they might want them to be over thrown, (there are very few countries where people are 100% satisfied with their government). The argument is not that simple. The main oil producing countries are still doing at least a somewhat better job then most of the developing Muslim nations.

      But it’s true, as an Ummah we do need to reflect on what we do before we blame the leaders for our problems. After all, the leaders do not come from abroad (or another planet), they come from the same society.

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      • Akshay

        You are right. There is discrimination everywhere. And the westerners will be the first one to admit the dark ages of the past. But currently even though, atleast we have laws for equality. Laws to protect people. If you are discriminated against, you have laws to give you justice. But not so in the middle east. Discrimination will always exist due to human ignorance, but we need the laws to protect people from injustice.

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