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Middle East and Africa

A divided Egypt and the need for a compromise

Almost four years after the revolution, an historical analysis can help us identify some of the main causes of a period of turbulent change that shows no signs of abating. Egypt is now a fragmented country in economic turmoil, seeking a compromise between the old and new powers, and a genuine political solution.

An interview with Sherif Younis, Helwan University, Cairo, by Michele Brignone



Islamism, despite all its variations, seems to be both an avant-garde and a mass phenomenon. Which aspect is prevalent, in your opinion?



Islamism is both an avant-garde phenomenon and a mass cultural expression; it is widely diffused and has various faces. Despite the fact that Islamist organisations have played an important role in the spread of Islamism, we cannot say that it is limited to them. It is not merely a party operation, it is a very broad question and not always linked to a society or to particular groups, and the same applies to the question of violence. Islamism is a huge wave that has continued for 40 years through various manifestations. The most important are discrimination against other religions, a conservative attitude towards women and a kind of belief that Islam can save the nation and the Islamist himself.



It has been nearly four years since the outbreak of the Egyptian Revolution. Could the Revolution be described as incomplete? How important has the army’s role been in the transition?



The Egyptian revolution took everyone by surprise, even those who participated. The people who took to the streets on 25 January 2011 wanted to protest against the Minister of the Interior, who had a very bad reputation. It was not the first time that there were demonstrations in the streets; some had occurred over the previous five years and strikes were on the increase in factories. The political tension was escalating, but no one knew what would happen next. Between 25 and 28 January 2011, growing numbers of people took to the streets in many of Egypt’s major cities and engaged in confrontation with the police, ultimately defeating them. At this point, the army came out from the barracks, causing a shift in the country’s power balance. The army had been behind the scenes for forty years and the police, allied with Gamal Mubarak, the heir to the presidency, and a number of large capitalists (enriched more through their relations with the Mubarak family than their own ability) had left the country in a critical situation socially, economically and in terms of security. The arrival of the army changed the political atmosphere and, together with external pressure from Obama and some European states, forced Mubarak to abdicate. It would have been neither plausible nor patriotic for the army to fire on the protesters.


Once Mubarak was ousted, the problem arose of who would replace him. The Egyptian revolution was not really a radical one like those of France, Russia or China, in which a social class was completely eradicated. Thus, no matter what path is taken, a compromise has to be found between those who were in power under the old regime and the revolution itself, because none of them are truly capable of fully assuming and maintaining power. On the one hand, the new players are too fragmented and lack sufficient power and organisation, and on the other, the old regime cannot be restored, because it has failed and there is no easy way for it to regain its positions.



How did the Muslim Brotherhood become part of this context?



In this scenario, the Muslim Brotherhood was neither part of the revolution, nor of the regime. They negotiated at first with the old regime and then with the army, with only sporadic participation in the revolution; they were watching to see what would be more to their own advantage. From the beginning, however, it was clear to the army that the Brotherhood was the only player willing to cooperate and the coalition was formed as a result, although it remained quite weak in some respects. Firstly, the officers who were leading the country were not politicians, nor good negotiators, and they were unfamiliar with the Egyptian socio-economic agenda, since the army had been out of the sphere of politics for a long time. Secondly, the Brotherhood focused mainly on their image of an Islamic state through elections, and, after accepting some compromises (no revision of the treaties with Israel, acceptance of the IMF and the safeguarding of American interests), they obtained the support of some Western countries.



How do you explain the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood to govern the country?



Once the elections were won, everything seemed decided, because the Brotherhood (and their allies, the Salafists) were riding high from their victory in some referendum and their puppet Mohammad Morsi had obtained 51% of the votes in the presidential elections. The problem was that they then failed to realise that in a fledgling democracy such as Egypt, 51% of the vote is not enough to form a government – which, in any case, would have been weak. With that share of the votes, they should have broadened their spectrum of allies to achieve a consensus of at least 70%. However, the Brotherhood has been moving in the opposite direction, alienating even those who had supported them in the hope that they would bring stability. At a certain point, even the Salafists broke with them, and when drafting the Constitution, the Brotherhood was mainly concerned with the Islamic identity of the country, with disastrous results. They also failed to gain the trust of the social strata close to the old regime, which are strong in the private sector, and thus found themselves in a position halfway between the revolutionaries and the old regime. They could have sought a compromise at this point, but as they relied on themselves alone, they lost the trust of both sides. On 30 June 2013, through a simple petition, Tamarod became the most powerful protest in Egypt’s history and the army was able to depose Morsi and assume power. We now know that the military had offered the President then in office the possibility of a referendum on the organisation of early presidential elections, but he refused. So we arrived at the outright clash for which the army had been preparing for some time, for example, through the events of the days prior to 30 June.



What prospects do you see for Egypt?



I think that the conflict will continue, because it is the path chosen by the Brotherhood, but also because of what has ensued from this: the Brotherhood has killed some civilians in the streets, whereas the army and police have lost men at the hands of people, who, while not being actual members of the Brotherhood, for one reason or another were protesting against the dismissal of Morsi. Meanwhile, the new regime was created through the referendum on the new Constitution, and General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was elected to the presidency. It is likely at this stage that we are headed toward a chronic, low-scale civil war, but at the same time it is unclear how the new presidency will manage the compromise between the old regime and the revolution. There are signs indicating that the situation can improve, but since all the parties involved are unstable, with poor political organisation, decisions continue to be taken from on high by al-Sisi rather than through political debate. Not long ago, for example, the General asked for the introduction of a law condemning those who offend the revolution. This is because some private media, belonging to supporters of the old regime, are constantly attacking the revolution and accusing al-Sisi of conspiracy and illegality; the recent acquittal and release of Mubarak marked a victory for them. Now, however, we have to wait for the elections of Majlis al-Sha’b (the People’s Assembly) to see whether this compromise will be less orchestrated from on high and more political.


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