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Abdullah al-Arian is assistant professor of history at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. He is a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English and his forthcoming book is entitled Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Egypt. Our conversation focuses on the political and social situation in Egypt since the July 3, 2013 coup, which deposed Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, Mohamed Morsi.
Paul Gottinger: Some elements of the left and liberal sectors of Egyptian society seem to have been taken in by the idea that Sisi and the military government is somehow a continuation of the revolution. How do you see progressive forces in the country faring?
Abdullah al-Arian: It’s important to distinguish between them. Some people saw the transition, which began in 2011, as being coopted by elements of the pre-existing regime. These groups maintained a consistent position by rejecting the presidency of Mohamed Morsi outright. So it wasn’t surprising that they were helping to cheerlead the call for Morsi’s ouster in favor of a more revolutionary track.
The problem was that the revolutionary groups’ support for the coup was very shortsighted. They didn’t understand that the problems of the transition would allow the military an excuse to reclaim power. The result was not just taking Egypt back to square one, but back into the negative column. The military used the problems of the transition as a pretext for ending discussion of any revolutionary transition. So I think that decision to support the coup against Morsi by many progressive elements of Egyptian society has irreparably cost Egypt any chance at revolutionary changes, at least in the near term.
The progressive factions naively believed that once the military was done with the complete repression of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) it would somehow stop there and allow the resumption of some kind of free and open political climate. However, history shows that in these situations the repression is going to be total and complete. What we see now is an unabashed attempt at the complete return of the old party politics of the Mubarak era.
Then there are those who are called liberals, but are actually ideologically bankrupt political opportunists. These are people within the ranks of the old political elite, who tried to reinvent themselves within a revolutionary context by engaging in democratic politics. But when they found that democratic engagement wasn’t favoring them, they simply reverted back to their authoritarian political arrangements. These people called on the military to come in and do their dirty work for them. When they couldn’t get elected at the ballot box, they wanted to come to power on the back of a tank. It was incredibly naïve to think that this tactic would work, but they did it nonetheless.
People that fall into this category include everyone from Mohamed ElBaradei, Hamdeen Sabahi, Amr Moussa, and other failed political idols that make up Egypt’s political scene. To their everlasting shame, these figures will be remembered for the fact that they supported a military coup that overturned whatever possibility existed for any revolutionary change in Egypt. One could go even further and say these figures helped legitimize the disproportionate state violence that took place in the aftermath of the coup.
PG: One of the things we’ve been seeing in Egypt over the last few years is the mobilization of the labor movement. The many strikes over the last few years have certainly not gone unnoticed by Egyptian authorities. In fact, one of the first statements that Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb made after his appointment on March 1 was that there should be a “Stop [to] all kinds of sit-ins, protests and strikes”. Can you give some background for the labor movement in Egypt and what potential it has to push the country in the more progressive direction?
AA: The labor movement has a very rich history in Egypt, which goes back to the colonial era. The labor movement led some of the most important actions of national resistance against colonial occupation, then against the monarchy, then against the authoritarian dictatorships, which emerged after the 1952 revolution. Part of the tragedy of the 2011 revolution is that the labor movement was used as pawns in the emerging political calculus among the various political forces. This includes those that supported the revolution, and those that were responsible for the counter-revolution. Although organized labor were helping to lead the protest movement since 2011, they were frequently being asked by all the different factions to put their main concerns aside for the interests of the nation.
This was done during the transition period, and this was done under the Morsi government. The MB government created the sense that somehow organized labor action was going to destabilize an economy, which Morsi was aiming to improve. Then once again after the coup, which was supported by some segments of organized labor within Egypt, labor was told that their interests would have to wait. They were told that they would have to sacrifice for the broader interests of the Egyptian economy. Labor hasn’t been included in any meaningful way in any of the discussions of the political realignments that have been taking place over the last three years.
PG: There has been a steady level of protest since the coup took place last July. To what degree is this the result of significant problems having to do with Egyptian quality of life, which haven’t improved since the coup?
AA: Try as the military might to rewrite history, the 2011 uprising was a revolution launched by people who were struggling for basic needs. The Egyptian people were calling for “bread, freedom, and social justice”. The issue of a new social and economic arrangement is one of the things that has gone almost completely unaddressed since 2011—but especially in the aftermath of the coup. Every single indication we see now is that the political order is moving in the direction to reaffirm the pre-existing socio-economic arrangements.
Examples of this include the oligarchy’s continued benefit from the neoliberal arrangements, which were put in place during the late Mubarak era, the military’s continued hold over a massive segment of the Egyptian economy, and the prevention of worker’s rights and any kind of economic redistribution within the country.
PG: Do you see the ongoing protests and strikes potentially forcing concessions from the Egyptian military government?
AA: It remains to be seen. So far the government has shown a complete unwillingness to concede on anything whatsoever. The high degree of repression, the unprecedented use of force and state violence, and the signals that the military wants to achieve political power (the military passed a constitution of its own design) all demonstrate that even in the face of regional isolation and international condemnation the government is moving forward with its commitment to revert back to some version of the politics of the Mubarak era.
PG: Nationalist sentiments have become very popular in Egypt with General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi enjoying immense popularity for the military’s overthrow of Mohamed Morsi. You stated earlier that you don’t see Sisi being able to greatly improve the security situation or economic situation. Given this how long do you see this overwhelming support for Sisi continuing?
AA: A big problem with authoritarian systems of governance is that it is almost impossible to measure popular sentiments. The number of people who support Sisi, or the number of Egyptians who supported the referendum on the constitution is impossible to verify in the current climate of complete and total repression.
The popularity of Sisi is really just part of a guessing game. But it’s safe to say that a cult of personality has arisen around him. Remember just two years ago no one knew who Sisi was, but now you can’t go one city block in Cairo without seeing his image. This mythology has been built at an alarmingly fast rate, all in the last 8 months.
Just because Sisi has had such a quick rise doesn’t mean that he’s going to be granted a free hand to do whatever he wants. I think there will be a certain degree of frustration in the early months or years of his rule. This will be especially true if the economic and security situations don’t improve and the atmosphere of fear and total repression is maintained within Egypt.
At that point you may see a more revolutionary movement take hold again. The problem is that this is exactly what the military and Sisi himself are anticipating, which is why they’re taking as many steps as they can to try to prevent it preemptively. For this reason they’re trying to recreate the culture of fear in Egyptian society. This explains the excessive and in many cases indiscriminate violence, where at times people on the sidelines of protests have been killed.
There have been attempts to silence not only the MB, but also intellectuals. Even university professors have been dragged into conspiracy cases. They’re showcasing the ex-president Morsi on the soap opera that they call a trial, all in an attempt to bring back a certain culture of fear in Egyptian society, and prevent a revolutionary movement from emerging in the future.
A recent law states that any gathering, which has ten or more people, needs to have government approval ahead of time. This approval would, of course, never be granted in the event of any anti-government non-violent protest. The military argues that there are no longer emergency laws in place, but remember emergency laws in Egypt, which suspended people’s rights, lasted for the entire Mubarak era. Despite the fact there is no emergency law in place, the constitution, which was just passed, institutionalizes some these of emergency laws. It grants law enforcement a much freer hand to abuse their power and doesn’t guarantee citizen’s rights in a way other Egyptian constitutions in the past have attempted to do.
PG: Do you see any seeds of a revolutionary element still existing within Egypt?
AA: At this stage it’s far too early to tell. First of all, the most powerful opposition group, the MB, is more or less defunct at this stage. Its ability to mobilize has been completely decentralized to the point that low level and midlevel leaders at the local level are the ones who lead the protests. How sustainable that is remains to be seen.
If we move beyond the Muslim Brotherhood the remaining independent voices are waiting to see if there is an opportunity to try to engage in some kind of opposition to the new political arrangement. Some are debating whether or not they should take part in these elections, whether or not could actually compete within the new rules, which are being established by Sisi. Others are waiting to see how widespread this repressive climate will be, how long it’s going to last, and whether there will be a window to engage in a popular protest movement.
The problem is that the revolutionary movement is quite divided. This is the legacy of the success of the military and the interior ministry security forces in keeping these movements as fractured as possible. You can also say the MB deserves much of the blame for that because it maintained a very exclusivist approach in its politics and its protest movement. In fact, even in the face of state repression targeting all of them, there still is a tremendous amount of ill will between the MB and the other opposition forces. As long as this fracturing occurs, these forces will pose no serious threat to Sisi and the Egyptian military government.