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Egypt’s Transition Six Months On: From Diversity to Divisiveness

Last month, I traveled to Cairo to gain a better understanding of the political transition now underway following the Egyptian people’s historic uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak from power six months ago. While the situation remains rather fluid today, several important observations can be made about the state of Egypt’s turbulent transition.

One of the more striking features of the current transition is the extraordinary diversity and dynamism of Egypt’s burgeoning political landscape. Since the removal of Mubarak, whose historic trial began in Cairo, Egypt has seen an explosion in civic and political activity across the country and in all areas of life, including the proliferation of dozens of new political parties, movements, and groupings of all stripes. Previously apolitical actors like the youth movements that led the January uprising and the ultra-orthodox Salafists have now entered the political fray for the first time. Even established powers like the Muslim Brotherhood are undergoing major transformations with defections and splits along generational and philosophical lines. Competition, debate, and shifting alliances among the various youth, liberal, leftist, and Islamist forces unleashed by the revolution (including those who had opposed it) have brought Egypt’s once comatose political culture back to life - but not without a price.

The overriding impression one gets in Cairo today is of growing tension and polarization. The social and political unity that was so clearly on display this past winter has now vanished completely, as the various political forces that now occupy the country’s increasingly unruly political landscape jockey for power and influence. The once unified demands of Tahrir have succumbed to partisan, ideological. and parochial agendas. More alarming, the social and political climate in Egypt is becoming increasingly divisive, confrontational, and polarized. Broadly speaking, this is occurring at two levels simultaneously: the first is within the big tent of the opposition camp, mainly between Islamists and secularists but also among secularists themselves; and second between the mostly secular and liberal revolutionary forces and the country’s interim military rulers, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). After months of simmering tensions, both of these exploded into full-blown confrontations in July.

Islamists vs. Secularists

Divisions within the opposition camp surfaced almost immediately after Mubarak’s fall, beginning with the March 19 referendum on a set of hastily assembled constitutional provisions for governing the transition. Among the most contentious issues was the proposal to hold parliamentary elections before drafting a new constitution. Once elected, parliament members would then go on to appoint a 100-member constitutional assembly that would draft the new constitution, which, in turn, would be ratified by a national referendum. Islamist groups, led by the country’s most organized and potent opposition force, the Muslim Brotherhood, campaigned hard for a “yes” vote. On the other hand, most (though certainly not all) liberal and leftist groups pushed for a “no” vote, fearing the better organized Islamists would have disproportionate say in shaping the new constitution. Secular groups also hoped to secure a constitution that would guarantee certain basic liberties and protections first. The measure passed overwhelmingly with 77 percent supporting the proposed amendments. The current debate over whether to adopt a set of “supra-constitutional” principles (something akin to a bill of rights), has intensified the rift as the Islamists, who strongly oppose to the measure, accuse secular liberals of seeking to overturn the will of the people as expressed in the referendum.

The divisions are not only substantive. Although suspicions go back many decades, the more secular liberal, leftist and youth-oriented opposition forces have become increasingly wary of the Brotherhood’s accommodating stance toward (or, as some have argued, collusion with) Egypt’s military rulers. The Brotherhood, for its part, seems to have adopted an ultra-pragmatic strategy of entering into alliances with virtually all key political actors—including the SCAF, liberal and leftist parties, and the ultra-orthodox Salafists. Secularists are equally if not more suspicious of the Salafists, not only for their puritanical reading of Islam but even more so for their perceived pro-regime inclinations and political naiveté. In addition to siding with the Mubarak regime throughout the uprising last winter, the politically inexperienced Salafists are seen as vulnerable to manipulation by the country’s military rulers or outside powers inimical to the revolution like Saudi Arabia.

Last Friday’s events in Tahrir, in which tens of thousands Salafists and other Islamists overwhelmed what was supposed to have been a “Day of Unity”, will no doubt deepen the divide between the two camps. Instead of adhering to the guidelines previously agreed to by all secular and Islamist opposition forces, the disproportionately Salafist crowd dominated the event with pro-shari’ah, anti-secularist, and pro-SCAF slogans and banners. Seeing it as an attempt at hijacking the event, some 30 liberal and leftist groups pulled out of the demonstration en masse. Salafists defended their behavior, saying they were only asserting a voice that had not been heard before. The Brotherhood, meanwhile, attempted to stake out a middle ground, condemning the violation of previously agreed protocols while defending the essence of the Salafist message as it related to Egypt’s “Islamic identity.” While the Salafists may be dismissed politically (both in numerical or organizational terms and for their staunch pro-SCAF and anti-revolution positions), the incident seriously complicated the Brotherhood’s position vis-à-vis other opposition and revolutionary groups.

SCAF vs. Tahrir

Up until last Friday, the most palpable and significant confrontation in Egypt seemed to be the deepening divide between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has governed the country since Mubarak’s ouster, and the youth movements that launched the January 25th uprising, as embodied in Tahrir Square. Since Mubarak’s fall, the youth movement and its allies in the liberal and leftist camps have become increasingly distrustful of the SCAF and its handling of the transition. Frustrated with the slow pace of reform and by the military’s growing authoritarian tendencies, the youth have been among the SCAF’s harshest and most vocal critics. Foreign and domestic rights groups also accuse the military of engaging in torture and of trying thousands of civilians (including members of the protest movement) in military courts, even while failing to punish police officers involved in the killings of some 840 protesters during last winter’s uprising.

Thus when the call was made for another mass demonstration in Tahrir to protest SCAF’s heavy-handedness and foot-dragging on July 8, the youth were again at the forefront. This time, having decided that vacating the square last February was a major strategic blunder, some two dozen youth-oriented groups vowed to stay on until their remaining demands were met. Since then (with the exception of last Friday’s Islamist rally), youth protesters have essentially owned the square, forcing area shops and business to close and severely disrupting traffic flows and other aspects of life in a city of 15 million. Since beginning their sit-in, the youth have become increasingly confrontational, as highlighted by the ill-advised decision to march onto the Defense Ministry on July 23, which led to violent confrontations apparently instigated by angry local residents. Anyone visiting Tahrir today (or following it virtually through online social media) cannot but be struck by the intensity of the animosity directed at the SCAF and its leader, Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, whom the Tahrir youth regard as a little more than an extension of the Mubarak regime.

That sentiment is quite mutual. For its part, the SCAF sees the youth as a group of insolent and reckless kids with no understanding of politics. Despite affording them considerable latitude within the square, Egypt’s military rulers have launched an all-out assault on the youth movement and other pro-democracy forces, whom they view not only as a nuisance but also as threats to their interests. Although the SCAF insists on its political neutrality and its commitment to overseeing a democratic transition, its handling of the transition thus far is guided by two overriding interests: (1) to safeguard the military’s reputation as the defenders of the people; and (2) to preserve its myriad social, economic, and political benefits, including the military’s highly secretive shadow economy (estimated at around one-third of the national economy) and its immunity from public scrutiny or governmental oversight.

Stealing a page from the Mubarak playbook, the SCAF has resorted to innuendo-laden allegations against individuals and groups seen as threatening these interests. Just last month, the military accused the April 6th Youth Movement, one of the main groups behind the January uprising, of “sowing discord between the people and the army,” all but declaring it an enemy of the state. Similar accusations of treason were leveled at another key revolutionary group, Kefaya! (“Enough!”), accused of being a “foreign agent.”. Thanks to a compliant state-run media, military officials have invoked another tried and true tactic of the Mubarak era by attacking Egypt’s NGO community on grounds of receiving “foreign funding” and carrying out “foreign agendas” in order to destabilize an already fragile Egypt—a rather disingenuous allegation given that Egypt’s military receives $1.3 billion in U.S. aid each year.

Meanwhile, the confrontation shows no sign of abating any time soon. The SCAF’s decision on August 1 to forcibly shut down what remained of the Tahrir sit-in, including the arrest of dozens of protesters (many of whom claim to have been beaten) is likely to provoke a response from the youth sooner or later. That a confrontation would emerge between these two forces, both of whom claim to be the true guardians of the “revolution”, was perhaps inevitable. That it has come about as quickly and as intensely as it has, however, should be cause for alarm—more so even than the ongoing struggle between Islamists and secular opposition groups.

Events like last Friday’s Islamist “show of force” are certain to grab headlines and fuel fears of an “Islamist takeover.” As a result, policy makers in Washington and other western capitals may be inclined to overlook other threats to Egypt’s nascent democracy. While many still doubt the democratic credentials of groups like the Brotherhood and the Salafists, their participation in peaceful protests and party politics suggest a willingness to play by the rules of the democratic game. On the other hand, the growing rift between Egypt’s military rulers and the movements that launched the uprising may pose an even greater threat to Egyptian democracy. In particular, efforts by the SCAF to delegitimize the Tahrir youth and discredit other civil society groups in Egypt, which can only be seen as an attempt to neutralize pro-democracy forces in the country, has the potential to derail the democratic transition altogether.

SERIES: Foreign Policy Trip Reports | Number 29