Roger Owen: "Whatever Has Happened to Egypt?"

By Roger Owen, A.J. Meyer Professor of Middle Eastern History, Emeritus

This piece was written by Professor Owen for his friends and colleagues, and is published here with his permission.

Roger Owen, A.J. Meyer Professor of Middle Eastern History, Emeritus
How did poor Egypt ever get into such a pass? I have been visiting the country for over fifty years and I have never before known such a moment when divisions run so deep, with feelings so polarized, compromise so difficult and the country so close to civil war. Nor could I possibly have imagined a moment when reasonable men would malign their political opponents in such an unreasonable way, shout each other down, turn each other’s shortcomings into alleged crimes and speak and act so impulsively without regard for the obvious dangers involved.

For an answer we must look first not to the fevered opinions of the participants themselves but to a process which began with the period of intense emotions, hopes, and excitement ignited by the rapid overthrow of the Mubarak regime and then to the much more fumbling attempts to create a legitimate new political order. Much seems to have been dictated by the revolutionary timetable itself which decreed a fast passage from elections for a provisional government and a constituent assembly. And much too by the fact that, given Egypt’s recent history, those elections were pretty much bound to be won by the well-organized Muslim Brothers, latecomers to the revolution itself and with a huge historical baggage of persecution by the army, the police, and the state, as well as a leadership lacking any experience of government and with political skills better suited to managing the secretive movement itself than governing on behalf of the entire Egyptian people.

Nor did it help, of course, that all this revolutionary commotion excited resistance from counter-revolutionary forces who stood to lose from the changes now unleashed, while exacerbating a difficult economic situation in which dependence on outside forces was made worse by the fact that any attempts at a permanent solution were circumscribed by a necessary adherence to the principles of free market economics demanded by the international aid agencies, which made strategic planning difficult.

So much was given. But what made matters even worse were a set of accidental factors which can best be summed up as a combination of the magnitude of the task at hand, including the establishment, de novo, of a working system of participatory parliamentary democracy, and failings of leadership and institutions and in the sequencing of key events. Of course, all real revolutions pose huge challenges to a set of new and untested leaders. By the same token, it does matter enormously just who these leaders are, what personalities they possess, and what priorities they choose to focus on: witness Tunisia, where things were managed very much better.

The two men with most responsibility for events, including the present slide towards civil war, are the deposed President Mohamed Morsi and the commander of the army, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Morsi, for all his early and rather theatrical attempts to make himself appear as a president above politics, took electoral victory as a sign that he possessed the legitimacy to create a new political order increasingly dominated by members of the Muslim Brothers. While we can see his point—that is his belief in the need to create new institutions as quickly as possible—we can also see, in retrospect, that his view of what constituted democratic practice was not only not shared by many Egyptians but also generated real fears among many of the Tahrir revolutionaries that he was establishing a religiously-inspired dictatorship to replace the Mubarak one they had so triumphantly overthrown.

Suspicions were then further aroused by his appointment of his supporters to key positions in both the central and provincial administrations, as well as, among women, by his growing practice of appearing to address only Egyptian males in his presidential speeches. Perhaps most damning of all was his decision to proceed from popular elections to the writing of a new constitution by an assembly which turned out to have a religious majority, rather than the other way round, constitution before elections.

As for General Sisi, success in preventing civilian oversight over Egypt’s bloated, inefficient, and cozily corrupt military establishment emboldened him to move the army from a position of neutral umpire in the political process to a political player in its own right with a highly divisive campaign against the Muslim Brothers, deposing the elected president on trumped up charges in what is best called a “coup,” attacking and imprisoning Morsi’s supporters, encouraging the destruction of the Brotherhood’s  offices and allowing the judiciary to bring suit against many of its leading lights for financial dishonesty. As with all people who come to see their opponents as the epitome of evil, the desire to get rid of them seems to have trumped any recognition of the consequences this would have for the country and for future prospects of establishing a system of elected government with rules of fair play and for peaceful resolution of disputes.

What lessons may we learn from all this? First, transitions from dictatorship towards some system involving great public participation require not just patience and the practice of accommodation but also the fortunate presence of leaders wiser and more insightful than Morsi and Sisi to see it through. Moreover, given the historical experience of Europe and North America in this area, it may well be that it is better to start with a less ambitious aim rather than attempting to leap into a vaguely-defined system of so-called “democracy” all in one go. Second, for all the talk of the need to address Egypt’s pressing economic problems, it was the political that triumphed over the economic every time. And it will continue to do so until a disorderly system of tens of separate off-budget accounts, including that of the military, can be reformed and a reasonable system of medium to long-term planning introduced. Let us all wish the wise and experienced Mr. Hazem Beblawi well in his difficult endeavors.