Five years after 30 June 2013 the scene in Egypt is much clearer and the vision far stronger. Egypt is still far from being a perfect democracy, but it is also far more democratic than it was prior to January 2011, and it is definitely far better than when theocracy took its first steps in the country six years ago.
On 18 June 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood declared its candidate, Mohamed Morsi, to be the winner in Egypt’s first presidential elections following the 25 January Revolution. The first round of these said a lot about what was simmering underneath the revolutionary slogan of “bread, freedom and social justice.” What the Brotherhood understood by this was “bread for my supporters only,” “freedom as long as it goes with my beliefs,” and “social justice when and if required when justice simply means the way to power.”
The results of the first round of the elections in which voter turnout reached 46 per cent were Morsi at 25 per cent of the vote, former minister Ahmed Shafik at 24 per cent, leftist politician Hamdeen Sabbahi at 21 per cent, ex-Brotherhood member Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh at 17 per cent, former foreign minister Amr Moussa at 11 per cent and the remaining two per cent going to unknown candidates.
The percentages were significant. Forty two per cent of the vote went to Islamist candidates, reflecting years of work in poorer areas to breed future voters. Added to this was the effect of generations of Egyptians going to the rich Gulf countries for jobs and then returning to Egypt with a new Islamist style of life, the women wearing black abayas (the traditional Gulf robe for women) and observing a religiously-based style of life.
However, this style of life, together with the huge financial and “playing with religious emotions” investments made in the poor and needy, was not enough to change Egypt into a theocracy, even if this was widely hailed in the West as “real democracy in action.” Even in the second round of the elections, in which Morsi took 51.7 per cent of the vote versus 48.3 per cent for Shafik, the results were significant for a society on the verge of deep polarisation.
Revolutionaries who had toppled the former Mubarak regime fought Islamists in the elections, and both found themselves in contradiction with the majority of Egyptians who woke up to find the country laying the foundations for theocratic rule. “Islam” rather than the rule of law was now the Brotherhood’s solution.
This “solution” was hailed by the majority of Western governments and the Western media as the best political transformation in Egypt, but of course it was not what it seemed. It meant that Egypt was being transformed into a theocratic dictatorship after democratic elections. Those who went to vote and chose Morsi as president, whether because he was “God’s representative on earth,” or because they thought Egypt would be better off with any candidate other than one related to the former Mubarak regime, did not foresee what would then happen in the future.
That future further split Egypt and the Egyptians. Decades of political corruption, cultural transformation and educational deterioration showed their real faces in post-Revolution Egypt. The gentleman’s agreement between the state and the Islamists to control poorer areas, where a state-within-the-state developed in return for the Islamists’ support for the Mubarak regime paid off as well.
All did not go well in the one-year rule of the Muslim Brothers. They did not realise that they were supposed to turn from being an underground organisation born in the dark into the country’s ruling party. They continued to act like a gang rather than a ruling elite. Revenge guided them, and the seizure of absolute power ruled their minds.
The revolutionaries, part of whom had voted for the Muslim Brothers thinking they were an ordinary political party, were helpless. They had no vision for the future or plan for the present. The state was in need of both at this time of upheaval.
The upheaval of the year of Muslim Brotherhood rule helped millions of Egyptians to understand what really lay behind the ideology of the Political Islam groups. Ordinary people’s perceptions of the Muslim Brothers were no longer misled by the image of “kind-hearted,” “charity-loving,” and “devout” members of the Brotherhood.
Instead, they were in a race against time to take absolute power. Not only that, but the Brothers started a suicidal attempt to bring down the state of Egypt itself, rather than just the former regime.
When singer Ali Al-Haggar released a song entitled “They are a people, and we are a people,” people were faced with a truth that they may have been trying to ignore. There were two categories of people in Egypt: the Muslim Brothers and the Egyptians.
The latter realised in June 2013 that taking to the streets was now not for the sake of “bread, freedom and social justice” but instead to fight for “existence, citizenship and salvation.” Grandmothers along with fathers and mothers and young people took to the streets in 2013. Some flooded the country’s major streets and squares, while others moved out in front of their houses, calling for the ousting of the Muslim Brothers, their supreme guide and their theocratic mafia-like rule. These were the millions of non-politicised Egyptians who had been long called the members of the “sofa party,” in other words the silent majority.
Pictures of then minister of defence Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi were raised up in the mass protests against the Muslim Brothers. Pictures of then US president Barack Obama were also raised. The first was considered to be the saviour of the state, the latter a supporter of the Muslim Brothers. Whether or not that was an oversimplification, the target of the millions of people who demonstrated was clear. They were known for being religious. Some were even considered to be on the conservative side of religion. They were desperate for change. They had had enough of the former Mubarak regime. But they realised that the Muslim Brothers represented a dead end.
Contrary to what many people used to think, that the US strongly opposes mixing religion with politics, on this occasion the US seemed to support a theocratic state in Egypt despite the clear will of the people. Obama issued a statement following the mass protests against the Brotherhood that reflected real concerns regarding the organisation. Of course, one could argue that these concerns were based on human rights. However, the US concerns were not there when police officers, Christians and non-Muslim Brothers were killed or subjected to violence during Brotherhood rule.
In a statement issued by Obama on 3 July 2013 expressing concern regarding the “fluid situation” in Egypt following the mass protests against the Muslim Brothers, he said that “the United States continues to believe firmly that the best foundation for lasting stability in Egypt is a democratic political order with participation from all sides and all political parties, secular and religious, civilian and military.”
However, other voices in the US criticised the silence regarding Morsi’s abuses. Author Anne Pierce wrote in an article entitled the “US Partnership with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its Effects on Civil Society and Human Rights” that “without a word regarding Morsi supporters’ violent attacks on Christians and secularists, Obama said that ‘we deplore the violence against civilians. We support universal rights essential to dignity, including the right to peaceful protest. We oppose the pursuit of martial law, which denies those rights to citizens under the principle that security trumps individual freedom, or that might makes right. And today the United States extends its condolences to the families who were killed and those who were wounded.”
“What Egyptian secularists, Christians, women and Muslim moderates would have done for such displays of support from the American president,” Pierce commented. “What peaceful Iranian protesters and peaceful Syrian protesters would have done for such words on their behalf. But this presidency has been defined by not issuing such words, by moral neutrality, and by ‘engagement’ with the world’s worst tyrants.”
Pierce said that Obama would have been right to insist that the new government make a distinction between Islamist extremists and peaceful Muslim protesters and that it cease its excessive and often discriminatory use of force.
“But Obama himself overlooked the distinction, instead painting the Muslim Brotherhood with broad, mostly flattering strokes… So, too, he failed to reach out to the large numbers of Egyptians who, even though glad Morsi is gone, favour neither the Brotherhood nor the military and could benefit from guidance as they work for the creation of truly accountable and representative government,” she said.
Five Years Later
Today, people in Egypt cannot claim that they are enjoying an absolute democracy, a flourishing economy, a free press, an independent media and a harmonious society.
The very same people who considered the ousting of former president Hosni Mubarak to be the best thing that had happened in modern Egypt now realise that their life was easier under his rule. But they also know that an easy life does not necessarily mean a sustainable one. Most Egyptians realise that they have opted for the more difficult, yet more lasting, path. The list of challenges is anything but short or easy.
Terrorism continues to be a threat in Egypt today in a region that has been hit hard by fanaticism and Islamist factions. The educational system is a mess, a result of more than 30 years of disintegration and corruption. The health system has been falling apart for more than three decades. Social strife is obvious. The present economic reforms are hitting people hard where it hurts most. Corruption is almost everywhere.
Governments since 2013 have inherited many problems. These have been aggravated by an organised conflict aiming at causing Egypt and the Egyptian people as much damage as possible. The Russian plane that crashed over North Sinai in October 2015 killing all 224 passengers on board strongly affected tourism, which contributed 12 per cent to Egypt’s GDP, in addition to the almost three million jobs generated by the industry. And the list goes on.
The key to real change in the new Egypt rescued on 30 June 2013 is religious discourse. Despite the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is no longer in power, Egypt is still suffering from cultural, social and religious hijacking. President Al-Sisi’s courageous and much-needed call to modernise and purify religious discourse has been largely ignored by some, probably intentionally. Yet, the president’s call was not only crucial to stop and cure fanaticism and ultra-conservatism in Islam, but it could have played a major role in rectifying things that have gone badly wrong.
Whether it be practised by a carpenter who grew a beard and spent years listening to extremist preachers, in turn becoming a religious reference in a remote village warning people against family planning, or a teacher who is himself a fanatic teaching fanaticism to the younger generations and warning them against critical thinking, or a government employee treating bribery as a halal obligation that should be paid by fellow believers as a condition to accomplish his work, such superficial devoutness is a curse.
The curse of hating critical thinking, refusing to face the signs of darkness, in other words the symbols of fanaticism, allows the virus of corruption to spread, slowing down the rule of law and sometimes bringing it to a halt. These things are the social, cultural and political obstacles that we must face.
Another aspect of contemporary Egypt that needs rejuvenation is political expression, participation and activism. The country’s political parties are in a coma. Part of this has to do with the general atmosphere that does not welcome opposition activities. But another part has to do with an acute case of party disintegration and lack of vision.
People’s eyes are now on the future. They know that the present is full of challenges. But they are also thankful that their near past has escaped from violence, religious hatred and political opportunism. Despite the hardships and the economic situation, going back is not an option. Adhering to theocratic rule is not on the menu. And five years later, the 30 June 2013 Revolution is the best thing that has ever happened to millions of Egyptians and Arabs.
The writer is a journalist at Al-Hayat newspaper.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Eyes on the future