egypt: mistaking the storm for the spring?

When protestors marched on Tahrir Square in February this year many rejoiced that the Arab Spring had reached Egypt. On November 28, after another round of protests at Tahrir, Egyptians took the first step in charting a new future as the first round of voting commenced. However, it is beginning to look less and less like spring in Egypt.

Since February, the miltary has tried approximately 7000 people, including journalists, bloggers and protestors in closed military trials.  In May military leaders announced that they should be protected from parliamentary scrutiny under Egypt’s new constitution; in July, it argued that the military should be permitted to intervene in Egyptian domestic politics; and, in September, the generals renewed Egypt’s emergency law. Arguably, the military’s expressed commitment to elections was not based on a commitment to democracy but a means to preserve its own power and standing. Under Mubarak, the military was a pivotal actor in the ruling regime and was consulted on key issues; the military’s holdings within the national economy also provide as an important source of patronage and influence. The military also has the authority to appoint 80 members of the  new constitutional assembly, leaving only 20 seats for democratically elected parliamentarians. Events since February have in fact left the Old Guard in the best position to assert itself; some even argue there has been a military coup in Egypt.

Skepticism is evident in Egypt as some civil society activists boycotted the elections before they even began. A recent article in The New York Times notes public sentiment: “Where is Egypt heading? Were we mocked?” “The revolution is stolen; the revolution is dead; the revolution is lost. We were deceived. History is repeating itself.” Viewed as such, one can’t help but wonder – did civil society, the media, western governments, and the new generation of social media activists read the Egyptian situation all wrong? Was it really an Arab Spring in Egypt?

Egypt has been a long term ally of the US in the Middle East. It has been seen as a force for stability in the region and Mubarak, a special friend. Obama’s first response to the events in February was to call for a return to peace and stability under Mubarak;  the concern was Egyptian stability. A week later Obama changed his position, arguing that the ‘universal right of the Egyptian people must be respected, and their aspirations met.’ The post-Mubarak transition, Obama argued, ‘must immediately demonstrate irreversible political change’. Some argued that this marked a turn in American policy to an idealist foreign policy, motivated by beliefs rather than strategic interests.

However, as is becoming increasingly apparent, a transition led by the military allowed the Obama administration to kill two birds with one stone. The US could appear to be siding with the protestors while still securing its strategic interests in the region through a stable Egypt led by generals who, appearances aside, were no different from the Mubarak regime.   American support for the protests were driven by American strategic interests and the rhetoric of human rights and duty to assist civilians provided an essential justificatory tool.

Obama spoke like an idealist but acted like a realist; the idealist rhetoric provided a moral justification for a realist foreign. What was seen as a new era in Middle Eastern politics driven by the people themselves was arguably a continuation of an older era in Middle Eastern politics, with the US as the regional hegemon, this time however legitimated in terms of the grieving voices of the people. The Tahrir square protests allowed the US to frame and justify its concern with a stable and loyal Egypt in terms of human rights rather than strategic interests. It provided the moral cover and justification to continue playing the game of Middle Eastern Politics while diverting criticism that  it supports autocratic and repressive regimes in the Middle East.

EH Carr noted that for rulers to maintain authority they have to legitimate their power to the ruled; un-legitimated power is short-lived and attracts social backlash. The framing of a continued realist geopolitik game in the rhetoric of human rights allows just such an opportunity: a chance for the US and its western allies to legitimate their continued dominance over the Middle East to the people, while still backing the Old Guard, albeit wearing different clothing.

The American concern is a stable and loyal Egypt. This could become problematic if the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power, even if it does so without the support of the Salafi conservatives. The Muslim Brotherhood is currently leading the elections, followed by the Nour Party that seeks to impose Islamic law. It thus seems likely that this time around, the US, Britain and other western nations will not forcefully pressure the military, and wait for the Spring to loose steam on its own accord. As Simon Tisdall noted in a recent piece in The Guardian, ‘ Their bottom line priority is an Egypt that works for them, not a democracy that works for Egypt.’

A final point. Enabling the construction of the Arab Spring narrative were the the arm chair social media revolutionaries, the Facebookers and Tweeters. While not challenging the merits of the democratization of information and news, the mass hysteria that swamped youth social media websites during the Arab Spring prevented commentators from asking critical questions about the future of Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood or the military, whether the protestors are representative of the broader population, and the role and interests of external powers. To even hint that Egypt might be better off under Mubarak amounted to becoming a social pariah – a liberal, ‘you’re either with us or against us’.

It is worth noting that subsequent sit-ins at Tahrir Square, as in July,  saw dwindling public participation, and most protesters were full time activists rather than the general public. Also, alongside last month’s protests at Tahrir, there was another set of protestors in Abbassiyah, just a few kilometers from Tahrir square, supporting the military. A recent survey posted on Foreign Policy noted that Egyptian support for the protests is dwindling and were it not for last months violent crackdowns, the common Egyptian is more concerned with economic stability, even if under military rule. American strategic interests and social media enthusiasts have formed unlikely bed-fellows that have enabled the construction of a one-side Arab Spring narrative, obscuring the much more complicated and fragmented situation on the ground.

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December 7, 2011 · 4:29 pm

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