The Brotherhood, its fateful choices and safe exits

Hani Shukrallah , Thursday 27 Sep 2012

It is highly unlikely that Muslim Brotherhood rule will outlast President Morsi's four-year term; the real question is the manner of their exit from power

The ruling (in a manner of speaking) Muslim Brotherhood faces a strategic, even fateful decision: granting that they’ll be removed from power within 4 years at the outside, they need to make up their minds whether they’d rather bow out gracefully or be thrown out, exit via the ballot box, or revolution.

The two outcomes are very different in their ramifications. Pluralistic democracy assumes political parties bowing gracefully out of power; they move from government to opposition benches, certainly regret their loss of power and influence but enjoy the opposition’s privilege of criticizing any and all government policies, including blaming the standing government for economic and social flaws they themselves had contributed to making or failed to resolve.

Gracefully conceding the shifts in popular moods, inclinations and more important, in the social and political balance of forces in the society, also allows political movements to evolve, adapt, transform themselves. Ultimately, they get to fight another day, and have a hand at winning political office yet again and again.

This is very different from being thrown out of power, kicking and screaming all the way. There is almost invariably a certain finality about such a fate, as grim and final as the degree of kicking and screaming involved in the attempt to hold on to power. Mubarak and his NDP come to mind, but look around you, the region and the world, today and across the length and breadth of human history, are brimful of examples.

As things stand today, it does not look like the Brotherhood has opted decisively for any one of these two options. Their instincts, mind-set and political training all seem to push them towards option one, yet the pull towards option two is no less compelling, made up of their awareness that they come to power through the agency of a popular revolution, which they neither instigated nor led, and whose values and aspirations are at great variance with, and often in diametric opposition to many of the 84 year old group’s most deeply held notions and beliefs.

How far the spirit of the Egyptian revolution continues to infuse the nation and its people is not easily apparent. And certainly, it is tempting to consign it to the dust. Many Western pundits and media have done so, already; the recently departed but not forgotten erstwhile ruling military’s bouts of murderous viciousness were invariably carried out under the false impression that the revolution was over and all that was needed were mop up operations.

The Brotherhood’s leadership had been operating under the same misapprehension soon after the overthrow of Mubarak, which explains their alliance with the military lasting almost up to the eve of presidential elections, as well as the numerous shocks of discovering that hundreds of thousands could still be called to the streets in their absence and in defiance of their various condemnations.

It was this misapprehension also that would help cost the Brotherhood half their voters in the 3-4 months between the parliamentary elections and the first round of the presidential elections, their vote dropping from around 11 million in the first poll, to some 5 million in the second.

Admittedly, things appear to have changed dramatically since the presidential elections; Morsi’s accession to presidential power, and even more significantly, the ignoble, sudden departure of the Supreme Military Council, in what journalist and analyst Abdallah El-Sennawy aptly described as “half coup, half accord”, seem to have brought a decisive end to the tumultuous “transition”, with all its upheavals.

And what with the Brotherhood gradually yet swiftly consolidating its hold on power, extending its hegemony, very much in the style of Mubarak’s NDP, over the various organs of the state and beyond (including a concerted attempt to seize control of the media), feelings of despondency often bordering on despair are being felt among the ranks of even some of the most ardent of revolutionary youths.

Yet it is far too early to parrot what has become a common refrain among much of the Western media: Arab spring turning into Islamist winter. Indeed, if Newsweek’s regression into infantile Orientalism, with its ludicrous “Muslim rage” cover is anything to go by, many of our western colleagues much prefer to see us as the irrational, fanatical mobs of the recent American embassy frenzy, than as the freedom-loving, disciplined and heroic revolutionaries of Tahrir. After all, it makes “Western man” feel all fuzzy inside, as he basks in the wonder that is “Western Civilization”.

But let the tourism officials worry about “our image” abroad. What concerns us here is our reality at home.

Whether or not we have seen the last of the million man marches and ongoing nation-wide uprisings is nearly impossible to predict. Ultimate “black swans”, such massive upheavals have a “chaotic” logic of their own; they can neither be made, nor anticipated with any degree of confidence.

Yet there is little doubt that just below the surface of Muslim Brotherhood dominated political life the hum of revolutionary energy continues to resonate across the country. The change in the authoritarian state structure may have been little more than a change of hats; yet for millions of Egyptian citizens, the change has been soul-deep.

The values of the revolution live on in the minds and hearts of hundreds of thousands; not for generations has Egypt seen such a wide section of the population so politically engaged; and everywhere across the country Egyptians now see themselves as citizens, no longer subjects, aware of their grievances as of their rights, willing and able to organize and to fight for these against the once fearsome ogres of power, patronage and money.

The upsurge of strikes and diverse forms of industrial action that have dogged Mohamed Morsi’s presidency from day one is ample illustration of this, incredible in the breadth of its range and mixture of grievances, demands, modes of protest and the staggering variety of those taking part in them – a range so wide, it easily extends from such “classical” blue collar industrial workers as the textile workers of Mahalla to white collar teachers and university employees, way across the social spectrum to the privileged students of the American University in Cairo.

Take also last week’s remarkable graffiti backlash. The government moves to paint over the revolutionary graffiti of the main battle grounds of the Egyptian revolution in downtown Cairo. This is done with almost theatrical swiftness and unusual efficacy and thoroughness – ostensibly delivering a strong symbolic message: the revolution is over. Two days later, revolutionary graffiti is back with a vengeance, and a concert is held in Talaat Harb Square to celebrate the victory. A counter message: the revolution lives!

 If I were a Muslim Brotherhood leader I would see in this incident a signal no less ominous than the strike wave, or the almost daily protests before the presidential palace.

Young people made the Egyptian revolution; I’ve been privileged to see them in action. They are courageous beyond imagining, heroic beyond belief, and their love of freedom know no bounds. And not only do they love freedom, they’ve tasted it, they’ve paid a great price for it, and they’re not about to see it trampled under military or Muslim Brotherhood boots.

The Brotherhood’s governmental prospects are not merely delimited by the continuing revolutionary spirit, however, but also by their own rather substantial imperfections.

For an octogenarian movement that presumably has been preparing to take power at the very least for the best part of Mubarak’s 30-year reign, it’s been astounding to observe the sheer mediocrity and dearth of imagination and talent of the new leaders of the nation.

It’s pretty pathetic that the first cabinet of the first elected president after the revolution should be made up of presumably estimable nonentities, with hardly a single member of the 30-something ministers, including the prime minister, having previously been known to the public.

Compare Morsi’s cabinet to the post-revolution cabinet of Essam Sharaf, impotent as it had been, and be amazed at the contrast, the latter having been top-full of renowned intellectual, scholarly and public figures, many of whom widely published. In Morsi’s cabinet you’d be hard pressed to unearth a single coherent public statement, let alone article or book among the lot.

President Morsi’s first 100-day programme is remarkable only for its utterly pedestrian nature, as if the Brotherhood leaders who put it together were randomly picking issues out of a hat. Bringing an end to traffic congestion within three months is to my mind the starkest example not only of the sheer randomness of the plan, but of its fictitious character, as if those who put it together had not the least intention of fulfilling their promises.

Now, we’re nearly a couple of weeks short of the first 100 days and traffic is worse than ever. And for the rest: Morsi had promised to resolve the problems of lack of security, garbage collection, and shortages of fuel and subsidized bread. The country’s poor quarters continue to be inundated with garbage, but hey, take a walk through the upper class district of Zamalek and discover that wading through strewn garbage has become an Egyptian way of life. And not only has there been no improvement in the availability of subsidized bread and fuel, but plans to introduce new and drastic cuts  in subsidies loom large on the horizon.

(Presumably, Morsi’s 100-day programme was put together by the best minds of the Brotherhood; I urge readers to compare it to the alternative 100-day plan suggested in Ahram Online by my friend and colleague, Salma Hussein who, while admittedly extremely talented, had only her own brain and knowledge to rely on.)

 As for the restoration of security, what we’ve seen hitherto are police raids on street vendors, which moreover are proving ineffectual, with the vendors brutally removed, only to return a couple of days later. Add to which the random appearance of police check points on city roads and highways, which while of highly dubious efficacy in heightened security tend to exacerbate another item on the 100-day promise list, notably traffic.

In fact, the fundamental source of the lack of domestic security lies in an area which the ruling Brotherhood is determinedly unwilling to recognize, let alone deal with. And this is nothing less than radically reforming, in the sense of totally overhauling, the domestic security structure, i.e. the Interior Ministry and its two or three hundred-thousand-strong police force. Here we have a state body responsible for countless crimes against the Egyptian people, before, during and since the revolution. It is an extra-legal force that has killed thousands, humiliated, tortured and detained hundreds of thousands, all outside the law, and in flagrant violation of the law.

It is moreover a crooked, half rogue body, steeped in corruption and overseeing a virtual army of thugs and outlaws, which we’ve seen deployed for subversion (including instigating and taking part in mini-pogroms against Copts), murderous attacks on protesters and, why not, profit. It’s been widely claimed that the wave of ancient Egyptian artifact robberies that were conducted after the revolution were made by the security personnel assigned to protect them.

This body has yet to be touched. The military, with not a whimper of protest from their then Brotherhood allies, had charged this very body with investigating its own crimes, with the complicity of the concerned Mubarak formed prosecution bodies. So it was no surprise that, save for a six-year sentence for a low ranking provincial policeman charged with the killing of a dozen people, no one has been punished for the televised and video documented murder of hundreds, maiming and blinding of thousands, let alone for the previous 30 years of torture and extra-judicial killings.

As in the state-owned media, the Brotherhood’s policy is to seize control rather than to reform. They’re fine with a lawless law-enforcement body so long as it is willing to do their bidding; they seem to even be willing to turn a blind eye both with regards to seeking retribution for past crimes against their own members, and to whatever present and future crimes that body, vampire like, deems necessary for its survival.

It is however on the social front that Brotherhood rule is destined to fall on its face, practically guaranteeing that their political mastery won’t outlast Morsi’s four-year term. The Egyptian Revolution was waged under the banner: Bread, Freedom, Social Justice. The social lies at the heart of the new political energy permeating Egyptian society since January 2011, almost inseparably tied with the struggle for freedom.

 It was bound to be so, if only as reflection of the fundamental nature of the oligarchic, crony capitalist regime that held the country in a strangle grip for decades; a regime where money and political power were so intimately tied, and in which billionaire capitalist bureaucrats and bureaucrat capitalists, all happily lay in bed together, saw the nation as their private estate, and safeguarded their plunder via a highly sophisticated and intricate system of selective repression, whereby the middle classes were to be intimidated, bribed, contained and occasionally smacked, while a war of terror was waged, daily, albeit silently, against the poor and dispossessed, the great majority of the people.

Pity then that the Brotherhood, brought to power thanks to that revolution, if not as an expression of its conscious agency, is for all practical purposes at one with the erstwhile ruling NDP on economic and social policy. Their leaders, not least the president, spout neo-liberal dogma with as much ease a Mubarak père, Mubarak fils, and the defunct regime’s once golden child, a no-neck monster called Ahmed Ezz.

In his last TV interview, the Brotherhood’s President Morsi, who’s been growing more presidential by the day, came across as perhaps a kinder Hosni Mubarak, but a Hosni Mubarak nonetheless.

Expressing his sympathy for the plight of the impoverished majority of his “beloved” flock, Morsi, who often sounds like a protestant pastor, parroted his predecessor: raising wages in the absence of real growth means printing money, which means inflation, which in turn means that wage rises will be eaten away, and growth stifled.

It’s back to “patience” then, the catchphrase of the Muslim Brotherhood’s economic and social policies since their accession to power, as it had been of Mubarak and his gang until the very eve of their removal from power.

It’s is the “wait for growth” argument: we need to stimulate foreign and domestic investment (basically by keeping you at starvation wages - ostensibly our “comparative advantage”), and once the desired high growth rates are achieved (when and how high is never stated), the magical, mythical, faith-based (since we’ve never really seen it happen) trickle-down effect will have an effect, and we’ll all be one great happy prosperous family, under the watchful benevolent eyes of the father of the nation.

The “wait for growth” argument was also reiterated by the president with respect to the provision of basic services, including health and education. Unlike Mubarak who would harangue the Egyptian people for having too many children, Morsi was effusive in his sympathy and understanding, giving little mini promises of rapid improvement here and there; yet his most fundamental refrain was: patience, wait for growth.

This argument has been shown for the patent nonsense it always was, to all who are not firm followers of the IMF religion. In an economy whose fundamental feature is a massive gap between wealth and poverty, raising wages, no less than the provision of decent health services and education to the poor, shifts the distribution of wealth from the insatiable minority of super rich (what can one family do with 4 or 5 summer villas, for God’s sake?) to the majority of a population struggling feverishly to make ends meet, with a great many failing to do even that.

And, in fact, a distributive economic and social policy is an engine of growth, much more reliable in this regard than trying to attract foreign investment by the “comparative advantage” of a labour force hovering just above starvation levels, and having little or no real access to half-way decent health and education, let alone recreation. (They can of course take solace in President Morsi’s calming interviews and speeches, laden with appropriate quotes from the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet.)

We might refer here to a very recent report issued by the UNCTAD, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, which was passed on to me by my friend and colleague, Fouad Mansour, Ahram Online’s managing editor and a very talented economic journalist in his own right.

The report, issued on 12 September, is summed up in a news release as focusing on “the trend towards widening income inequality that has prevailed within and between most countries since the 1980s.” It goes on to declare its opposition to “the view that growing income gaps are a necessary byproduct of increased economic efficiency and globalization. It says instead that greater inequality limits nations’ potentials for growth by reducing demand and investment. “

The report’s summary underlines the following three findings:

  • “Austerity did not lead to growth: supportive government policies are still needed;
  • “Rising inequality is not inevitable – and economies will perform better with more even income distribution;
  • “Reducing inequality through fiscal and incomes policies is key for growth and development.”

Meanwhile, the Brotherhood’s leadership continues to hover between attempting to replicate the Mubarak regime, on one hand, and yielding, as little as possible, to the transformed political landscape of the country on the other.

However, there is a growing sense that, aware as they are of the short shelf-life of their rule, they are in a scramble to grab as much authoritarian powers as they possibly can, in order to perpetuate their regime, very much in the Mubarak mold.

What we have come to see of the new Constitution is one indication, the battery of draft laws prepared by the infamous Interior Ministry, designed basically to criminalize popular protest and strikes, are another, and so are the on and off violent police clampdowns on student and worker strike actions and various attacks on freedom of expression. The attempt to seize control of the state-owned media, and further of the whole media landscape in the country is yet another ominous indication of bad intentions.

With only a couple of weeks to go Morsi’s first 100-day promises have proven to be the farce they always were. On social justice, the Brotherhood have shown themselves no less zealous adherents of the neo-liberal doctrine than their NDP forebears, and removals of subsidies on basic goods loom large on the horizon.

Civil liberties is where it all hangs. They’re the sole guarantee that today’s minority may be tomorrow’s majority, and that the competition for elected office is played on a relatively even field.

Attack civil liberties and you’ll be booted out of office, possibly never to return; show them some respect and you may in turn be shown the door nicely, with the full opportunity to fight another day, and why not, to change, learn, adapt and even transform yourself.

 A shorter version of this article is published in the 27 Sept. edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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