Mohammed Morsi is effectively a prisoner in his own castle. The Egyptian president who earned the cover of Time magazine last November – shortly after helping to broker an Israeli-Hamas ceasefire in Gaza and shortly before arrogating to himself unprecedented executive powers – is politically finished. Hubris, stupidity, and one of the largest rallies in recorded history were his undoing. So was one of his own appointees. On Monday, Defense Minister Gen. Abdel Fattah Al Sisi gave Morsi 48-hours to meet the “people’s demands” before Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), now more than ever a junta in reserve, “disclose[d] its own future plan” for the country. But the people’s chief demand, as Sisi well knew, was to topple Morsi, and as the popular reaction to the general’s demarche and to the flag-draping army helicopters flying low over Cairo made clear, the people were fine with using the military to achieve that end.
SCAF sounds like a bad skin condition but it might as well be another term for amnesia. Was this not the same state institution, unchanged from the bad old days of Hosni Mubarak, that conducted “virginity tests” on women, fired lethal rounds at protestors, conducted an anti-Christian pogrom at Maspero, and otherwise oversaw a calamitous 18-month “transitional” period that it itself was only too pleased to see the back of? Well yes, but that was such a long time ago, before Morsi decided that the unsmiling transformation of Egypt into Ikhwanistan took precedence over food and fuel shortages and sweeping unemployment. Now, thanks to a conveniently leaked “road map,” we were all made aware that SCAF would be taking it from here by instituting a civilian interim governing council and forestalling parliamentary elections until the vague, menacing mess of the jammed-through Egyptian constitution was torn up and redrafted. As I write, mere minutes from the expiration of Sisi’s ultimatum, the military has established a “presence” in the newsroom of Egyptian state television where it intends to screen all broadcast content in the forthcoming hours. Meanwhile, Tahrir Square is jubilant.
In a way, it’s hard not to sympathize with former anti-Mubarak agitators turned army nostalgics such as Mahmoud Badr, now the de facto leader of the Tamarod (“rebel”) movement to unseat Morsi. If his ideology weren’t a big enough problem on its own, Morsi’s tone-deaf incompetence surely was. Presented with a national complaint that exceeded in both size and scope the one that ousted his predecessor, Morsi has done everything to legitimate the opposition’s argument that, at a time of emergency, Egypt is being lorded over by an authoritarian nincompoop who thinks he’s got all the time in the world. (One way to make the word “coup” suddenly palatable again is to appoint a member of a terrorist group the provincial governor of the region where that group once perpetrated it worst terrorist attack.)
Morsi has indeed treated his opponents as if they simply do not exist, surely a reflex response of decades of having kept only the counsel of his fellow subscribers of a cult movement that seems to borrow from both Bolshevism and Heaven’s Gate. Even as half a dozen or so members of his own cabinet tendered their resignations, even as Brotherhood heavies were being seized and placed under house arrest, and even as Brotherhood HQ was being set alight, the president was neither seen nor heard from. When he finally took to the airwaves at midnight last night to reject Sisi’s ultimatum, Morsi affirmed that the price for his maintenance in power could be his own life – not realizing that this was a price many are eager to see paid.
The United States, meanwhile, is caught in another one of those embarrassing moments of strategic confusion that are so easily the handmaids to foreign conspiracy theories. There may not be truth in the allegation that Washington “backs” the Brotherhood, but Washington’s silence at the steady, Brotherhood-led erosion of civil liberties and human rights in Egypt has not endeared Tamarod to the billion-dollar financier of the new-minted savior army. Such paradoxical politics are the stuff of fun on Twitter, but Tamarod’s opportunism is the result of the double bind it now faces between Sisi and Morsi.
President Obama has said recently, though only discovered belatedly, that democracy must not be confused with the mere holding of elections. Whatever happens from here, one lesson that should be learned from Egypt’s latest round of convulsions is the sentimental pieties and determinisms with which we continue to approach history require a serious rethink. The image of an ink-stained finger or an old man arriving at a polling station to participate in the first free election of his life are undeniably more captivating for viewers of CNN or Al Jazeera than the latest report from the International Monetary Fund or Human Rights Watch. And yet, because the more significant bricks-and-mortar work that goes into building a functioning state and safeguarding an independent civil society is so easily ignored, that work is usually the first victim of the aspiring tyrants of the ballot box. Critical journalists can thus be fired from their jobs, NGO workers can be put on trial for phantom conspiracies, women can be characterized as Adam’s rib, opposition leaders can be beaten or locked up – all in the name of a concept “democracy” that been fetishized to near meaninglessness. Put it this way: if the ruling party in a true democracy is shown to be running torture facilities out of the official residence of the chief executive, it will not take a new election to remove that party from power.
“A toothache will cost a battle, a drizzle cancel an insurrection” was Nabokov’s mordant indictment of Marx’s attempt to ascribe scientific “laws” to history. But the great Russian could have just as easily been speaking of the legion of Western commentators who have brought their expertise to bear on the Arab Spring. Many whom you’ll now recognize by their nervousness have managed to marry outsize aspirations for popular demonstrations with cynical, if often unstated, prescriptions as to what must follow therefrom. I don’t know what to call this school of thinking but Orientalism turned on its head. It holds that what Arabs need most is to rid themselves of secular dictators and submit to the majoritarian rule of elected religious reactionaries. A quick scan through the opinion pages of international newspapers over the past two and a half years indicates that Islamism was the inevitable alternative for the Middle East because its adherents were the best organized and most disciplined, and their history of persecution had lent a patina of authenticity to their decades-long struggle. As such, the blatant totalitarian tendencies of Islamists had to be whitewashed or minimized in favor of a happier propaganda that depicted this 'ism' as tolerant, pluralistic, “moderate”, and sincere in its avowals (usually made in English) to be all those things.
There is actually very little intellectual difference between the supporters of the ancien regime of Mubarak who warned of a pending “Islamist Winter” and the apologists of the Muslim Brotherhood who said that this was the best that could be expected. Both camps have condescendingly consigned Egypt to a role that it does not wish to play: that of a ward of modernity which must choose between strongmen in epaulettes or beards.
Shall we maintain the illusion that if and when SCAF wins today, the people won’t be back tomorrow?