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Op-Ed

Sometimes, I Am Not Sure Whose Shenanigans Are Worse

H.A. Hellyer

On the one hand, in the past couple of weeks, the Muslim Brotherhood has resorted to citing the popularity of pages on Facebook, TV polls, and 24-hour street surveys to ‘prove’ the popularity of President Morsy’s recent decree giving him supra-legal powers.

I may be biased in my view of those claims. I do not refer to my bias vis-à-vis the Muslim Brotherhood. To my cost, I’ve always tried to portray the Brotherhood as a regular political force, rather than a group of aliens from outer space, hell-bent on sending Egypt into the dark ages.

Rather, I refer to a bias built over years of sociological research and survey analysis. That background corrupted me: otherwise, I might have more easily forgotten that, for example, a Facebook poll in a country where the internet has less than a 15 per cent penetration rate is somewhat preposterous. Perhaps I might have been more easily convinced that a survey on a TV station that is already renowned for its bias towards the Muslim Brotherhood is perhaps not the most objective source. Or maybe I might have neglected the fact that face-to-face street polls in a country of 83 million people can’t actually be done in 24 hours, even if your sample sizes are perfect.

On the other hand, I’m not quite sure what to make of the opposition, and its strategy. Actually, let us not call it a strategy – I’m not actually sure if there is one to speak of. There is mobilisation: that is for sure. What they are mobilised for, on the other hand, remains a bit of a mystery. Calling for a sit-in in Tahrir is not a strategy – at best, it’s just fodder for those who outside of the square ask, ”Where are the youth of the revolution who wanted elections to be delayed, so they could prepare?” At worst, it’s just whining.

I support the existence of a strong, effective opposition in any country under any system, whether I support the ruling party or not. Because a healthy political system is one where the ruler is held to account, and knows he is going to be held to account. But while this opposition is good at the ‘opposition’ part, it needs some urgent work on the ‘effective’ aspect.

It’s a long, old story now. Following the constitutional referendum in March 2011, the results should have taught the opposition that it needs to plan a lot more effectively. But when parliamentary elections took place nine months later, they were still badly organised and performed miserably as a result.

When the presidential elections took place the following year, perhaps they might have considered that splitting the non-Brotherhood, non-feloul vote, in a critical vote for Egypt’s transitional process, was probably not a great idea? Perhaps they could have foreseen that different pro-revolution, non-Brotherhood candidates meant that the vote would be split right down the middle?

The constitution is due to be voted on, and the opposition wants a ‘no’ vote. Is the strategy to stay in Tahrir, and not talk to the rest of the country? Was the strategy to maintain the call for a press strike on the 4th of December, losing a precious day to get the arguments out into wider society?

All very strategic. Not.

Tahrir is important for two things in Egypt: mobilisation in the short term, and change in the long-term. When I say ‘mobilisation’ I mean it has to lead to something else. When I say change in the long-term, I’m not talking political change: but the changing of people. Any person who was in Tahrir during the 18 days from 25 January 2011 can testify to the transformation it engendered in people – and indeed, the protests in Tahrir over the past two weeks are closer to those 18 days than any other protest. But for this political standoff, simply being in Tahrir is insufficient.

Egypt does not stand at a crossroads – it stands on quicksand. Polarised forces are pulling her in two directions. I place more responsibility for this polarisation at the feet of those who are supportive of the Brotherhood – because it is one of their own that is in the presidency. With that extra power comes extra responsibility – whether they like it or not. Moreover, if I wanted to play the religion card (which I won’t), then I’d say that if people want to use religious sentiment to get votes and support, they should expect to be held to account to extremely high standards of ethics and morals. They certainly do not get a blank cheque to be more partisan, and break public pledges.

On the flip side however, the non-Islamist political sector has missed opportunity after opportunity to be more effective. No one is in a position to ‘blame’ the Brotherhood for the disunity and impotence of the opposition – that blame should be laid at the door of the opposition itself. It’s really as simple as that. Moreover, the educational and economic elite of Egyptian society, which has generally flocked to the anti-Brotherhood position, has not lived up to its own historic responsibility. That elite, one has to remember, was almost completely absent from political life and activism prior to the 25 January revolution – and in many ways, complicit in the abuses of the Mubarak regime. After the revolution, many of them became active. But many of even those activists remained within their own bubbles, and did not break out to engage with wider society – including those sectors they did not agree with. There are exceptions, of course; but generally, that remains to be the case, and is part of a broader set of reasons as to why Egypt is where it is.

In all likelihood, there is going to be a constitutional referendum in 10 days. Regardless of the outcome, these issues of polarisation, self-isolation, and mental parallel universes are going to remain. Until those issues are tackled and resolved, no-one really wins in Egypt. And incidentally, Egypt really does lose.

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