Peter Hessler (China 1996-98) Posted on New Yorker Website

AUGUST 15, 2013




Why now? This is the question most of us ask, looking at Egypt from afar. For nearly a month and a half, ever since the military removed President Mohamed Morsi from office, the authorities allowed his supporters to stage an extended and peaceful sit-in at two sites in Cairo. But early on Wednesday morning police suddenly attacked both sites, destroying camps and forcibly removing demonstrators, and triggering violence across the country. Nearly three hundred people have reportedly been killed, mostly supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Among the dead is Asmaa al-Beltagy, the seventeen-year-old daughter of Mohamed al-Beltagy, one of the leaders of the Brotherhood. Mohamed ElBaradei, Egypt’s vice-president for foreign affairs, has resigned in protest. ElBaradei, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, has been a key source of international legitimacy for the government. For weeks, ElBaradei and foreign diplomats have tried to persuade the military to handle the demonstrations peacefully, to wait them out and let the protesters drift away-a strategy whose soundness seemed obvious to any outsider.

In Egypt, though, it’s striking how many people expected this violence. In Cairo last month, I met with a foreign diplomat friend, who told me she had heard from security personnel that they would let the sit-ins go on for roughly a month, but would forcibly remove them before the end of August. “It’s Ramadan, so not much is happening, and traffic disruptions aren’t such a big problem,” the diplomat said at the time. She was referring to the Brotherhood’s strategy of organizing daily marches that blocked Cairo traffic. She said that the military would lose patience after Ramadan, which ended last week, and it wanted the city to return to normal before the new school year begins, in September. When I spoke with police, they seemed to accept and even welcome the inevitability of violence. There’s a long history of animosity between the Brotherhood and the security forces, and, in a country with no democratic tradition, officers viewed the protests as an indulgence rather than a right. Last month, I asked an officer in Upper Egypt what he thought about the ongoing Brotherhood demonstrations in Cairo. “If you take a toy away from a child, won’t he fuss for a while?” the officer said. “So let them fuss for a while.”

But there was always an expectation that eventually the military would draw the line. On Tuesday, when I telephoned a good friend from Cairo, the situation was still peaceful, but he insisted that the military would act within the next two days. He had no inside information-just a sense from the mood on the street. “The Army feels pressure from the people,” he said. “People in Cairo want the Army to do something. They’re saying that the army seems weak if it can’t get rid of the sit-ins.” This morning, after the death toll rose into the hundreds, and the interim government declared a state of emergency, I called my friend again. “Now that we’re in a state of emergency, the police and the army can do whatever they want,” he said. He expected that the majority of Egyptians would approve of this course of action, and blame the Brotherhood for resisting security forces. “The Brotherhood are losing every bit of popular support they once had,” he said. “Nobody is happy with them. There isn’t the least bit of sympathy for them. It’s like dogs dying in the street. Nobody cares.”

One of the tragedies of the Egyptian Arab Spring is that so many mistakes have been based on misguided interpretations of what democracy should be. During the year and a half in which the Brotherhood controlled the legislature and the Presidency, its leaders referred obsessively to “the ballot box,” believing that victory in free and fair elections gave them the right to govern as they wished. In fact, the Brotherhood’s support never ran very deep-in the first round of the Presidential elections, in May of 2012, Morsi received less than twenty-five per cent of the popular vote. But Morsi and other Brotherhood figures behaved as if they had a mandate. They showed no understanding of the more subtle and practical elements of democracy; they failed to make compromises or form alliances with other groups. Their approach to governance seemed abstract and theoretical-for a group with a reputation for grassroots organizing, the Brotherhood was surprisingly out of touch with what was actually happening in Egypt. This quality has only worsened since Morsi’s ouster. Over the past month and a half, the Brotherhood’s main strategy has been to appeal to the foreign press and diplomatic corps. In some ways, this has been effective-the organization clearly has the moral high ground, given that its elected government was removed in a military coup, and that its leader is being held incommunicado. But it has become dangerously isolated from the main currents of Egyptian society, and its tactic of disrupting Cairo traffic has created even more enemies in the capital.

Meanwhile, the military has taken the opposite approach to an extreme. It has followed a populist strategy, using helicopter flyovers and flag-waving to appeal to average Egyptians, who, after decades of military rule, respond positively to such symbols. From the beginning, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Minister of Defense, has portrayed the military as carrying out the will of the people. At a crude level, this is true-there’s no question that the majority of Egyptians wanted Morsi out of office, just as most people find the sit-ins and marches to be an annoyance. But, in the military’s attempt to give the people what they want, it’s trampled on core democratic values: the importance of legal process, and the need to protect minority voices.

The two sides in this showdown are typically portrayed in religious terms: the Islamists, who support the Brotherhood, and the secularists, who stand with the military. But religion has a way of dominating any discussion of the Middle East, until it’s easy to forget that other forces also shape the way people behave. In Egypt, the current conflict reflects the vastly different responses that groups can have to a fledgling democracy after decades of dictatorship. For the Brotherhood, this means stubbornly following what it believes to be the correct and legitimate political path, even if it alienates others and leads to disaster; for the military, it’s a matter of implementing the worst instincts of the majority. In each case, one can recognize a seed of democratic instinct, but it’s grown in twisted ways, because the political and social environment was damaged by the regimes of the past half-century.

As for average Egyptians, the last two years have taught lessons that won’t be easily forgotten. After the coup last month, I travelled to Upper Egypt, because I was curious to see how people outside the capital interpreted these events. Upper Egypt is home to about forty per cent of the country’s population, and it played an important role in the post-revolution elections, with the Brotherhood winning vast majorities in the region. But most people I talked to last month had discarded their affection for the Brotherhood. “I was very sympathetic to them,” one man told me, in the town of El-Balyana. “I was sympathetic with Morsi until they removed him. And now I’m going to be sympathetic with whoever comes next!”

“We’re just like football fans here,” an engineer named Mohamed Latif told me, in a village called El-Araba. “When somebody scores, we cheer. But it doesn’t matter. Do you really think that anything we do here matters? Why do you want to talk to us? I voted for Morsi, and I prayed for him, but he failed. I’m against what happened. We should have kept him as an honorary figure. We could have given the power to the Army and others, but left Morsi as the President in name.”

I asked him if he believed that the coup had been a mistake. “No,” he said. “He failed. I won’t vote for them again. I don’t want democracy.” He continued, “Does China have democracy? How is its economy doing? I don’t care about democracy and freedom.”

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