first impressions of Egypt’s politics

I’ve been in country now for a month. Have been reading two English newspapers on line. Diligently. Some other lit. Talked with foreigners, some middle class opposition supporters (that’s whom I meet in my wife’s English medium working environment, my language teaching institute), an occasional taxi driver, artist and shopkeeper. Walked Cairo streets. Agreed: not a solid basis for a political analysis. But although more information might be better, it not necessarily is.  Whatever I’ve collected as impressions so far is probably going to frame whatever comes next. Best to make that frame explicit in order to have any chance of it remaining flexible and open to change by new input.

My frame feels like the pic above. But hidden within it is the pic below. That looks much more ordered, it is much more ordered, and the point of writing it down is to bring out that order for it to become challengeable.

Without further ado: what are the actors on the Egyptian stage?

The Muslim Brotherhood (their own website), rules the country, lots of debate about the relationship with the political party it launched to contest the post Mubarak elections, but I pick up general agreement that the Brotherhood is the actual political force, sets the agenda and its goals are what drives government.

The Brothers are part of a wider Islamist scene, that is ideologically driven (never mind that power corrupts very quickly, that’s not particular to these players), and tends toward (many) splits in the more fundamentalist part of the spectrum (Salafist is the label here for that part of the spectrum, with the addition of jihadist for the most outlying position).  The Brothers present themselves as moderates but share core objectives with the others, see being in political power as legitimizing the acceptance by “the people” of their agenda,  and act as if staying in power by taking over the state is the short term goal.

I know that there is a whole lot more to understand about this scene. Although I cannot even direct you to where to start, I’m sure that you’ld end up with a multi-shaded picture of such complexity that it would enrich but not necessarily enlighten your understanding.

The state that the the Brothers inherited was weak, in need of serious reform (that’s what drove the popular revolt) , served increasingly narrow interests, was anchored in the army and relied on a Ministry of Interior police/security apparatus to enforce its policies. That’s not an easy creature to take over and change. Any political force inheriting such a disaster would have trouble living up to post-revolt popular expectations. One cannot blame the Brotherhood for the defective institutional framework that they inherited. One also cannot blame them for not dismantling the apparatus of the old regime. The German bureaucracy wasn’t dismantled after WWII, the Iraqi Baath party framework was, take your pick of the wiser course.  But the way they handled it so far doesn’t show much awareness of having to offer some sort of closure mechanism to deal with the past, think a Truth and Reconcilliation commission or some similar tool. “Brotherization” of the organs of the State is the impression one gets (reading the liberal English language press that is). Understandable because the prime objective is to secure the enforcement of a particular state vision. Because that  vision is socially contested one needs an enforcement apparatus. Taking over the existing one is the quickest (and dirtiest) way to acquire one.

Anyway, the army and the security apparatus are clearly two other powerful political actors about which much has been written. The army is currently presented as a powerful force that burned itself when ruling the country post-Mubarak, made a deal with the Brotherhood, and stays mostly out of politics as long as its own interests are not directly threatened. It is said to have more credit with the citizenry than the police, and doesn’t want to soil its image any further unless absolutely necessary to prevent the state from collapsing. The police is generally described as a corrupt and unreformed remnant of the old regime. Some articles, like this one, and this one, suggests serious organizational issues, and a tendency to withdraw from the political arena. If one is not sure who is going to prevail, it’s wise to stay on the safe side is what comes to mind. All the while the connections/overlap  between these two actors and the hazy bad-guys category of the fulul, Mubarak loyalists, remains unclear, also because description of fulul include businessmen and ‘thugs’, but as in many elsewheres, business, politicians, military, police and hired goons are bound to be interlinked in many ways. However that may be, I haven’t come across any explicit political economy analyses that map this terrain.

I can repeat: there is a whole lot more to understand about this scene. Although I cannot even direct you to where to start, I’m sure that you’ld end up with a multi-shaded picture of such complexity that it would enrich but not necessarily enlighten your understanding.

Then there is the so-called opposition, which consists of a shopping cart of groups including secular democrats, technocrats with former regime connections, Islamists, you name it; its platform is anti-Brotherhood, with a big question mark about what it is in favor of. What worked against Mubarak doesn’t work against the Brotherhood. Grass roots organization is weak – nothing like the mass of well organized Brotherhood cadre with a legitimacy among the poorer strata based upon decades of ideological and service provision work. I get the impression that the liberal middle class seems to consider that  grassroots organizing based support  in some way improper, a perspective that doesn’t show much understanding of what makes for effective political movements. An all-encompassing ideology, hard work, hierarchical military-like command structures, active proselytization in religious and educational institutions, and filling the service vacuum most shitty governments leave in areas populated by the poorer classes that’s how communists and religious fundamentalists build a well organized large grassroots following.

However that may be, there is a whole lot more to understand about this opposition. Although I cannot even direct you to where to start, I’m sure that you’ld end up with a multi-shaded picture of such complexity that it would enrich but not necessarily enlighten your understanding.

Interestingly, there is another ‘actor’ that figures prominently in the media debate here, the so-called “street”. Again a disjointed collection of groups, ordinary Egyptians who feel that the Brotherhood has stolen their revolution, ultras, hardened football supporters who provided the revolution with the necessary battle-the-regime’s-police experience, a fuzzy new group calling themselves the black bloc , street kids joining in. The street is described as operating independent of political parties, although all parties try to use street actions to their discursive and tactical advantage. A dangerous game because street violence and its repression by the state is a deadly dance with its own dynamics, which are by definition attractive to the criminal fringe and those interested to hire them because they judge chaos to be to their advantage. There is never a space without rule. It doesn’t take long for the most ruthless to take over.

Again, a whole lot more to understand about the street. Although I cannot even direct you to where to start, I’m sure that you’ld end up with a multi-shaded picture of such complexity that it would enrich but not necessarily enlighten your understanding.

To keep things simple, and because there is hardly anything written about it in the press I leave out a couple of foreign elephants in the room.  Like the disaster capitalists who as always will try to condition their keeping Egypt financially afloat upon as complete a liberalization of its economy as possible (not that the economy is currently run to serve the country’s populace well, so changes would be welcome, the question is which changes); or Qatar’s billions that are bound to come with substantial strings attached whatever the official PR.

I’ve clarified my impression of the order within the mess, so it now looks something more this:

However, as I tried to indicate, knowing a couple of the main players doesn’t make you understand the game yet. My personal understanding, based on where I come from rather than what I have learned in and about Egypt, the frame I brought with me to the country in the first place, is bleak. Cambodian and Nepalese communist parties have sensitized me to the importance of the state theory underlying a political actor’s program. Alternative Theories of the State are not to be taken lightly, and they are certainly not comparable to just any other political position. They are not tradeables in the give and take that is the ‘normal’ in multi-party democratic compromise. Going along for a bit in that version of the political game should be seen as strategic choice, making compromises with it as tactical moves, the ultimate point of it all is to change the rules of the game. The alternatives are different visions of rules of the game and don’t indicate, as international democracy promoters seem to think, a lack of ‘understanding’ that can be turned around with some ‘capacity building’. My pessimistic nature would translate that into the expectation that the Brothers and their larger scene of fellow travelers will try and hang on to controlling the state apparatus as long as they can. And their foreign ideological and financial supporters will help out as long as they can. So I expect a lot more blood and chaos, and I wouldn’t want a make a bet on the outcome.

I normally try to end on an upbeat, some self-questioning or depreciating tidbit, a picture or a video that offers some sensual enjoyment. Haven’t got one for this post. I am sorry.

About roger henke

Still figuring out the story line that would satisfy myself here. Listening to what my family and friends evoke, what the words I absorb, the images that move me, the movements that still me, point to.
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1 Response to first impressions of Egypt’s politics

  1. Pingback: wondering about Cairo, episode one | roger henke's fancies

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