Voice

Reflections on Egypt's Latest Crisis

 

  or... a requiem for Calvinball

With the passage of its controversial constitution through a referendum marred by low turnout, a deeply dysfunctional process, and bitter recriminations on all sides, Egypt's latest crisis has finally moved on to a new stage. This offers an opportunity to take a step back from the intensity of crisis, the polarized rhetoric, mutual dehumanization and feverish speculation which has dominated the last month.  What has unfolded in Egypt is not a morality play, with good and evil clashing by night. Nor was it the unfolding of an Islamist master plan.  This was the worst kind of Calvinball politics: hardball, strategic power plays by sometimes obtuse and occasionally shrewd actors in a polarized political environment with no clear rules, unsettled institutions, high stakes, intense mutual mistrust and extremely imperfect information.  

As bad as the last few weeks in Egypt have been, there is a somewhat optimistic counter-narrative to be told.  I have the same sense now that I did this May in my "Egypt's Brilliant Mistakes" post:  for all the horrible political decisions on all sides, the stunningly mismanaged transition, and the mandatory mass panic of the analytical community, Egypt still has a chance to muddle through and end up in a pretty decent place by this coming spring.  It would not be the worst outcome for a chaotic transition if Egypt emerges in March with a constitution establishing institutional powers and limiting the powers of the Presidency, a democratically elected but weakened President, a Muslim Brotherhood in power but facing unprecedented levels of scrutiny and political opposition, the military back in the barracks, a mobilized and newly relevant political opposition, and a legitimately elected Parliament with a strong opposition bloc.  The costs may have been too high and the process a horror movie, but getting a Constitution in place and Parliamentary elections on the books puts Egypt just a bit closer to that vision. 

My guarded optimism comes in part from my diagnosis of the problem. For a while now I've been arguing that the core of Egypt's political problem is the institutional vacuum and absence of rules which creates radical uncertainty about the future.   This was the point of my "Calvinball" analogy, of a political game where actors made up the rules as they went along without referee or limits other than the response of other players.    This, as Professor Watterson points out above, "lends itself to certain abuses."  Morsi's, for instance. 

When Morsi made his move in late November, the Presidency was operating in an extremely dangerous institutional and political vacuum, with no Parliament, no Constitution, disorganized and fragmented political opposition, a politicized and erratic judiciary, diminishing returns on street mobilization, mounting economic problems, and rising social and political polarization.  An  overheated information environment combined with the effects of this extreme institutional uncertainty to produce a truly toxic political environment.   That's why simply getting a constitution in place, even if it isn't a perfect constitution, could have significant positive effects. This would for the first time since the revolution establish the rules of the game, addressing this core institutional void.

The institutional void inevitably drove polarization and fear. Whether or not the Muslim Brotherhood aspires to hegemony, Morsi could claim unchecked power because of the  absence of a constitution, the judiciary's dissolution of Parliament, and the deficiencies of the opposition.  Egyptians had to worry about the possibility that Morsi would create a theocracy because there was nothing to definitively prevent him to do so, and those fears of the possible were fueled by the reckless moves and rhetoric of a wide range of Islamist figures from the Brotherhood and beyond.  

Morsi's claiming unlimited power did not make it so, however.  In the face of popular pressure, he quickly abandoned his outrageous immunity decree, dropped his controversial new prosecutor general, and withdrew planned changes to food subsidies in a matter of hours. The political opposition is more relevant and the street more mobilized than it has been for a long time, while the Brotherhood is under greater popular pressure than ever before.  What's more, the crisis rapidly eroded the international goodwill he gained through his mediation of the Gaza ceasefire, and has complicated his pursuit of desperately needed economic assistance.  The rapidly spiraling economic crisis, and the measures which Morsi's government will need to take to meet it, will likely further cut into his and the Brotherhood's popularity. The costs of this informal pushback  -- the dead citizens, the intense social polarization, the lost trust -- were too high, though. 

Morsi's appalling decree granting himself unchecked powers and his subsequent move to rush through a hastily completed Constitution showed poor political judgment. But it isn't as if there were a better Constitutional process realistically on offer, given Egypt's fragmented political class, absence of social consensus or trust, and horribly mismanaged transition.  As valuable as a "good" Constitution which commanded real consensus might have been, nothing in the record of the last year and a half suggests that it was in the cards.  Morsi's power grab was not a particularly "Islamist" one, and the sharp response to his initiatives demonstrates the limits of his powers more than it shows his ability to act as some sort of absolute dictator.  It may be a mediocre constitution full of worrying ambiguities, but Egypt has not been remade as either a theocracy or a new dictatorship.  

A remarkable number of key constitutional clauses refer back to interpretation by law.  I hope that the Shura Council, elected at a time of political exhaustion and apathy, doesn't do anything significant on those before the election and seating of a new Parliament.  I also hope that the opposition sticks to its stated plans to form a unified electoral list for those elections, doesn't get sidetracked by debates over boycotting, and is able to convert its political energy into electoral success.  Even those who would prefer a boycott should recognize the high stakes.  An Islamist sweep two months from now could allow for some truly alarming legislative encroachments on personal freedoms and civil rights.  But a strong electoral performance by the opposition could also - finally - create meaningful checks on Presidential authority for the first time in modern Egyptian history.   The best case here would be that the opposition can build on the energy of its protests, its newfound unity and the strongly felt antipathy towards the Muslim Brotherhood, to compete effectively two months from now in Parliamentary elections. That would position it to legislate more liberal interpretations of the Constitution, and to block any Presidential efforts to impose a more autocratic or more Islamist agenda. 

Finally, what lessons should be learned about the Muslim Brotherhood from this crisis?  The Brotherhood's enthusiastic embrace of quite nasty street politics and sectarian rhetoric understandably frightened and outraged a wide swathe of the Egyptian public.  But the crisis has revealed little new about the Muslim Brotherhood's "true nature", other than that its years in opposition prepared it poorly for the absence of the political limits which shaped its ideology, strategy, and internal organization over decades.  It suffers from the departure of many key reformist leaders and most creative, driven youth who had been so crucial to the evolution of its political thought and practice in the previous decade.  Faced with a radically new political environment and with its conservative wing internally ascendent, the Brotherhood has become increasingly rigid internally, more high-handed and defensive, and less willing to compromise or treat its political rivals respectfully.  Its decision to seek the Presidency after promising to not do so continues to be revealed as a great strategic blunder. The mediocre turnout at the constitutional referendum suggests that  they will be punished at the ballot box for these failings -- if their political opponents can work effectively to capitalize on the moment.  

I do think that most analysts have read too much about the Brotherhood's ideology into its political behavior over the last month.  Just consider the counter-factual. Morsi's frustration with this stalemated, overheated political scene would have likely been shared by any other President who had emerged from that intensely contested June election.  A President Shafik or Moussa or Abou el-Fotouh or Baradei would likely have become equally frustrated with judicial obstruction, failed dialogues, and institutional paralysis.  If, like Morsi, this President had tried to then govern through force d'majeur, it would have (and should have) produced great concern and condemnation.  When Muslim Brothers and Salafis then took to the streets to denounce liberal overreach and a new Mubarakism and call for a renewed revolution, their critics in Egypt and abroad would have leaped to portray this as decisive evidence as the inability of the Brotherhood to accept democracy.  In that counterfactual debate, many shoes would be on different feet. 

I realize that this is a perhaps overly optimistic reading of Egyptian politics.  I recognize the intensity of the political passions unleashed during this crisis, the legitimate doubts over the intentions of the Brotherhood and the military, and the many possible ways in which things could go horribly wrong.  But I also think it's important to visualize a pathway towards a more successful transition. What Egypt needs now is a roadmap towards completing the Egyptian transition to an instituionalized democratic system, and to head off the polarization and alienation rather than fan the flames.   Let's hope that Egypt can once again muddle through and get there.

 

Professor Emeritus of Egypt Studies Bill Watterson

Marc Lynch

The Middle East Channel's Greatest Hits (2012)

2012 has been a difficult year in the Middle East in many, painfully familiar ways: descent into civil war in Syria, political polarization and frustration in Egypt, unrepentant repression in Bahrain, war in Gaza, the U.S. Ambassador's death in Libya, stalemate and backsliding in many other countries in the region.  But it's been a great year for the Middle East Channel!  

Over the last twelve months, we have published more than 250 essays by an impressive range of scholars, journalists and analysts, and introduced or expanded a number of new initiatives.   Subscriptions to our outstanding Daily Brief have almost doubled in the last year.  I am delighted with the continuing evolution of the Middle East Channel's role as a premiere source of informed, high-quality analysis of the region's turbulent politics.

We aim for both breadth and depth on the Middle East Channel.  The top two topics on the Channel this year, unsurprisingly, were Egypt (20% of all posts) and Syria (15%). We ran more than ten articles each on Bahrain, Jordan, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, and the Arab monarchies of the Gulf, along with extensive commentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran.  We also published outstanding essays on countries which don't often get attention, such as the fate of activists in Oman, the ongoing mobilization in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, the battle over a Turkish soap opera, and "Morocco's Resilient Protest Movement."

We also aimed to dive deeper into particular issues this year by commissioning multiple articles on a similar theme and then collecting them in the free PDF "POMEPS Briefing" collections. We released a dozen of these collections in 2012, including "Breaking Bahrain", "Kuwait's Moment of Truth", "The New Salafi Politics", "Morsi's Egypt", "Jordan, Forever on the Brink", and "The Arab Monarchy Debate."  We also published an eBook, Islamists in a Changing Middle East.

We also moved into multimedia by introducing a new series of (mostly) weekly "POMEPS Conversations" with leading Middle East scholars to the video box on the top of the Channel's home page.   Those fifteen minute chats have been enormously interesting (to me, anyway), with some focusing tightly on a single political current issue and others ranging widely across themes, regional trends, or academic debates.  The scholars who have joined me for these conversations recently include Nathan Brown, Greg Gause, Wendy Pearlman, Curt Ryan, Jillian Schwedler, Michael Willis and many others.  Subscribe to the podcast here and don't miss a convo!

And now, since tradition demands it, a list.  Here are the top posts on the Middle East Channel this year, based on a highly scientific formula combining traffic and personal taste.  It's hard to choose, since of course all the pieces we published were my favorite, so when in doubt I let pageviews and Facebook likes break the ties. Keep in mind that these articles are drawn only from articles published on the Middle East Channel, not from the huge variety of great content on the region published directly by Foreign Policy or on other channels. 

 The Israeli Debate on Attacking Iran is Over, by Shai Feldman (August 20).   Foreign Policy and the Channel ran a lot of articles about the challenges surrounding the Iranian nuclear program this year.   Feldman intervened at the height of the Iran war fever with this sober and important analysis of Israel's internal debate, explaining why the Israelis would not take advantage of the American electoral calendar to strike.   Fortunately, he turned out to be right.

Islamism and the Syrian Uprising, by Nir Rosen (March 8).  Well before anxieties over the rise of Jubhat al-Nusra permeated Western discourse on Syria, Nir Rosen wrote this powerful dispatch about the emerging Islamist role in the uprising.  Rosen provided important reporting at a time when few journalists were able to get access on the ground, pointing to uncomfortable trends which cut against then-prevailing narratives.  The Middle East Channel ran a lot of really great analysis of the Syrian crisis this year, but Rosen's reported piece stood out.

Jordan is not about to collapse, by Nick Seeley (November 14).  Jordanian politics have been moving backward for years, with the Palace stubbornly refusing to make significant political concessions to a rapidly growing protest movement. (When protestors took to downtown Amman in response to fuel price hikes, with some chanting for the overthrow of the regime,  a flurry of commentary suddenly saw the monarchy on the brink of collapse.  Seeley, former editor of JO Magazine and a long-time Amman-based journalist, thought this was a bit much and explained exactly why the monarchy was unlikely to rapidly collapse even as it failed to address its grinding and growing problems.  For now, he was right.

Jordan's New Politics of Tribal Dissent",  by Sean Yom and Wael al-Khatib (August 7) and "Identity and Corruption in Jordan's Politics," by Curt Ryan (February 9). It was difficult to decide which of the many other fantastic articles on Jordan to include, but these two stood out by identifying vital developments beneath the headlines which have been reshaping the contours of Jordan's politics. They avoided the sensationalism of impending collapse in favor of digging deep into the real changes in Jordan's political scene.  Richly detailed and analytically pathbreaking, these articles should be required reading for students of Jordanian politics this year.

Yes, the Gulf monarchs are in trouble, by Christopher Davidson (November 13).  Based on his recently published book After the Sheikhs, Davidson's article anchored our "The Arab Monarchy Debate" collection.  As a group, those articles underscored the limitations of monarchy as an explanation for the patterns of protest and regime survival of the last two years.  Whether or not his predictions pan out, Davidson has been at the leading edge of identifying the converging problems facing the Gulf monarchies.

Why the U.S. won't cut military aid to Egypt, by Shana Marshall (February 29). At a time when many policy analysts were calling on the Obama administration to use its military aid to Egypt as leverage over its military leaders, Marshall pointed out exactly why it wouldn't likely happen:  most of the money involved went not to Egyptian generals but to American corporations.   This detailed explanation of the unglamorous realities of such aid programs should have put into sharp perspective the easy talk of leveraging aid.

The Libyan Rorschach, by Sean Kane; "Militia politics in Libya's elections" by Jacob Mundy; and "Libya's volunteer peacekeepers" by William Lawrence. 

After the horrible death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, "Benghazi" became the most important place and issue in the entire Middle East for certain American political trends.   But what happened on that dreadful day only revealed a small part of the story of post-Qaddafi Libya.  A country being rebuilt from a virtual tabula rasa, full of contradicitons and aspirations, deserves far more careful attention than the politicized glances which it usually receives.  The Middle East Channel has remained committed to offering ongoing coverage of the new Libya, and these three articles struck us as among the best surveys published this year. 

The Egyptian Republic of Retired Generals, by Zeinab Abul Magd (May 8).   The real interests and intentions of the leaders of Egypt's military dominated Egyptian political debate for over a year.   Abu Magd's post offered a full, rich account of the economic interests and social place of Egyptian officers and how they might conceive of their place in a post-SCAF Egypt.  Her essay nicely complements two outstanding essays by Robert Springborg also published this year:  "Egypt's Cobra and Mongoose" and"Egypt's cobra and mongoose become lion and lamb".

Rethinking the Muslim Brotherhood and Old Habits Die Hard, by Khalil el-Anani.  The intentions and the nature of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood have become an all-consuming question for many Egyptians and analysts over the last year.  Anani, who has been studying the Brotherhood intensely for over a decade, offers some of the best perspective on the internal battles and ideological debates inside Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. 

Monopolizing power in Egypt and Morsi's Majoritarian Mindset by Michael Wahid Hanna.  These two essays struck me and our readers as particularly incisive accounts of the deeper problems with Egypt's transition, laying bare some of the significant problems with the Muslim Brotherhood's majoritarian approach to democratic rule.  Among the many other superb essays on Egypt (more than 20% of the total, remember), I would also recommend  "Contesting Egypt's Future" by Elijah Zarwan; "Cairo's Judicial Coup" and "Egypt's State Constitutes Itself" by Nathan Brown; "Can Egypt Unite?" by Daniel Brumberg;  "The battle for al-Azhar" and "A better Egyptian constitution" by H.A. Hellyer.

Building a Yemeni State at the Loss of a Nation by Silvana Toska (October 28).  Of the many articles published by the Middle East Channel on Yemen this year, Toska's stood out for its panoramic view of the emerging Yemeni state and nation.   I also quite liked Madeleine Wells "Yemen's Houthi Movement and the Revolution" for its in-depth, on the ground look at a little understood part of that emerging political landscape.  

Calvinball in Cairo by Marc Lynch.   I didn't plan on including any of my own articles in this list -- and might have preferred this one on the fizzling of Muslim protests against the YouTube video - , but if rules are going to be broken then Calvinball is the time and place for it!   Calvinball was by far the most read article on the Channel in 2012, I'm happy to say, and remained relevant all the way up to the end of the year.  The absence of fixed rules plagued Egypt's political transition, driving uncertainty and fear while too often rendering Cairo's political game absurd.   

Why Won't Saudi Arabia Write Down its Laws? By Nathan Brown (January 23).  I have no idea why this seemingly obscure topic proved so irresistable, but Brown's essay on the Saudi legal system remained among the highest pageviews of any article over the course of the entire year.  Go figure. 

Thanks to everyone - authors, readers, tweeters and retweeters, FP editors, Kanye West and all the rest - for contributing to another great year for the Middle East Channel.  We're looking forward to another great year in 2013!

-- Marc Lynch and Mary Casey