A people’s history of the Egyptian revolution (6)

Hani Shukrallah , Friday 13 Sep 2013

Bemoaning the Muslim Brotherhood’s lost democracy? Well, think again

6. One-way ticket to cliff edge

No sooner would the Muslim Brotherhood, the very mother of modern day political Islam, seem to have achieved its decades-long dream of ascending to the very summit of power in Egypt than it would rush headlong towards ruin, possibly bringing down along with it the whole “Islamic revival” project of the previous 30 years.

The law of unintended consequences symptomatic of a popular revolutionary agency that is sufficiently vigorous and determined to continuously upset the apple cart of the power structure but insufficiently prepared to transform it, is yet again at play.

The writing was on the wall. Nearly three months into Morsi’s presidency, I would write: “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 Brotherhood, its fateful choices and safe exits:  http://english.ahram.org.eg/News/53973.aspx.)

It all depended, as I explained in the article, on the ruling Muslim Brotherhood’s attitude towards basic civil liberties, human rights, and democratic process. These, however, would all come under concerted attack by the up-and-coming, would-be masters of the nation. They made their choice and would suffer the consequences, though much sooner than I, for one, could have imagined.

I’ve written a fair bit on what would prove to have been the Brotherhood’s route to 30 June. For those interested in looking back on Morsi’s year in power, these examples of my own perspective might be useful:

Minerva's owl flies at dusk: A quick reading of Egypt's presidential vote (1 June 2012)


The Decline and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood (6 Dec. 2012)


Revolution interrupted (8 Feb, 2013) http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/02/08/revolution_interrupted_egypt_muslim_brotherhood;

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Samson option (19 March, 2013) http://english.ahram.org.eg/News/67267.aspx.

Yet before we hit the fateful 30 June – modern history’s first ever popular revolt against an Islamist regime, we might ponder the following.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s project in power would prove authoritarian to its very core; nearly every single action they undertook after Morsi’s accession to the presidency was designed to ensure their electoral win was a one way ticket to perpetual rule by the self-styled interpreters of God’s will on earth.

One can only marvel at the Western chorus (politicians, pundits, academics and journos) bemoaning the 30 June fall of Egypt’s fledgling democracy, even as they grudgingly acknowledge the “mistakes”, even the “ineptitude” of Morsi’s rule.

Think again fellows. Concerted attacks on freedom of speech and expression don’t make for an even playing field, neither do attacks on the Judiciary and whatever margin of independence it was able to maintain (to which, by the way, a characteristically ungrateful Brotherhood fully owes every single electoral advance it was able to make under Mubarak); nor also does holding the nation’s Christians (estimated at 10 million) hostage to intimidation and occasional pogroms; nor yet again does the willy-nilly flaunting of the law, constitutional norms, and basic human and civil rights.

Torture, possibly the Mubarak regime’s most operative instrument of government does not make for free and fair elections, see: (http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/74930/Egypt/Politics-/Torture-continues-under-Brotherhood-rule-NGO.aspx) and (https://alnadeem.org/en/node/439) Nor are trumped up criminal charges, often ironically targeting the very revolutionaries who helped pave the way to Morsi’s rule, and actually win him the vote (http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/0/67790/Egypt/Summoned-activist-rejects-legitimacy-of-investigat.aspx).

For the new president to nonchalantly trample the very constitution he swore to uphold in his oath of office by immunising his decisions against judicial review does not bode well in terms of his and his group’s democratic intentions (http://english.ahram.org.eg/News/58947.aspx).

Yet one particularly crucial feature of Muslim Brotherhood rule has received little attention, or rather has not received nearly the attention it deserves. The Ikhwanisation (or Brotherhoodisation) of the country’s gargantuan and highly intricate administrative state apparatus has been sited alternatively as evidence of greed for power, a redistribution of spoils, as standard practice in a “democracy” and as exaggerated propaganda by the Gamaa’s enemies.

This is to miss one of the most fundamental features of the Egyptian state, especially as it took obdurate shape in the course of Mubarak’s 30-year reign. State patronage and police repression (intricately connected) have been the foremost instruments of governance in the country for decades – from the very summit of the state down to the remotest hamlet in Upper Egypt.

The Brotherhood, playing the mantle of the revolution for all it was worth, was patently uninterested in taking up that revolution’s commandment to dismantle the profoundly authoritarian structure of the Mubarak state. Rather, it sought to take it over as is, replacing Mubarak with Morsi, the NDP with itself.

Take over the corruption-ridden, sycophantic state-owned media as is; attack and constrain freedom of expression, organisation and protest; subdue the Judiciary and replace Mubarak’s men with your own; bring the police under your wing, so that the killings and torture would now be in your favour rather than against you; effectively disenfranchise the country’s Coptic minority through continuous incitement and by holding them hostage to pogroms; seduce and pressure the army and the intelligence bodies into conceding your supremacy, pending their gradual Brotherhoodisation – and give it all a taste of your very own, whereby your opponents are now, not only subversives and agents of foreign powers (paid in kind via Colonel Sanders and his “secret recipe”), but also enemies of Islam, secularist atheists and Christians who reject rule by what God has ordained, as set down by the Supreme Guide, and the Guidance Bureau.

And take over the bureaucracy, not just its top echelons, but the whole octopus like apparatus, extending into every nook and cranny of Egyptian society.

During Morsi’s one year in office, not a single measure was taken to reform anything, not a single authoritarian piece of legislation was repealed or amended, not a single authoritarian structure touched by democratic reforms, not a single attempt made to deal with the massive inequities of a nation lorded over by the insatiable greed of a bunch of plunder-hungry Oligarchs with one foot in the state, the other in business, producing next to nothing, but consuming voraciously.

Western pundits and journalists like to attribute the failings of Brotherhood “democracy” to inexperience and ineptitude. The Egyptian people saw intent and manifest betrayal.

And even as they protested and fought back in defence of their revolution, the new rulers busied themselves with appropriations. Tens of thousands of posts throughout the state bureaucracy would change hands, given over to MB cadres and their Salafi and Jihadist allies. There would be no dithering on that front, but deliberate, systematic and meticulous planning and execution.

If there was method in the madness of Morsi’s one-year rule this was it. Ignore, shrug off, and deploy the instruments of repression – effectively or otherwise – against the growing resistance of the people, but all this is, for the time being, by way of distraction. The real battle as far as the Guidance Bureau was concerned was being fought elsewhere. Dozens of deputy ministers and ministerial advisors, governors (5 in the first batch, then a full 17 a mere three months before parliamentary elections were due to take place), dozens more deputy governors and gubernatorial advisors, all the way down to hundreds of heads of local government departments on city, district and village levels – health, education, agriculture, irrigation, social insurance, whatever, if it’s there for the taking, grab it.

Faced with protests, Mubarak used to say: “let them entertain themselves”. I have little doubt that similar quips were being made in the course of that year, if not by the superbly mediocre president himself, then by his “evil genius” string-masters in the wings, Khayrat El-Shater and co.

For as the people “entertain themselves”, we’ll have given them the Mubarak state, fully reconstructed – but with a little, trim beard.

Anyone who’s ever come near a polling station in Egypt, not as a foreign tourist with a press card, but as someone who’s capable of actually seeing and comprehending what he/she sees, knows that if you control the state bureaucracy you control the elections.

Deposed president Mohamed Morsi inks his finger after casting his vote at a polling station during a referendum on a disputed constitution drafted by an Islamist-dominated constituent assembly (Photo: Egypt's Presidency, AP)

And not just through rigging the poll. The millions of Egyptians who live outside the upper middle class urban districts of Zamalek and Heliopolis (who rarely bother to vote) are caught up in an intricate web of state largess and impunity, exercised via state bosses who invariably have footholds in business and – more often than not – local family and clan power and patronage authority, inherited over generations. You vote in the right way (via the clan-based mobilisation of local “dignitaries”) and you have a better chance of receiving some state favours (anything from irrigation water for you tiny plot of land, a licence for a cigarette kiosk, a low-paid job for your son, or for that son to – hopefully – avoid whimsical torture at some police station).

For more on this you might look up my piece on the last parliamentary elections under Mubarak: NDP may get more than it bargained for (27 Nov. 2010) (http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/4/0/686/Opinion/NDP-may-get-more-than-it-bargained-for.aspx)

Rigging the poll is more often than not merely the icing on the state/business/clan patronage cake, and for a great many of the nation’s constituencies it acts as a final assertion of patronage. How else could you explain rigging in favour of one ruling party member against another ruling party member, each claiming his slice of state/business patronage?

And it’s the petty bureaucrats, dependent for their very livelihood and hopes of promotion on even bigger bureaucrats, who do the rigging – as they zealously stuff ballot after ballot on our behalf. (We’ve had candidates winning by over 100 percent of the vote, dead people voting in droves, voters actually going to electoral stations and discovering they’d already voted).

The 2011 parliamentary elections were the exception that proves the rule. Why did the NDP patronage network (which had been predicted to win some 30% of the seats) fail so miserably? The answer is obvious: they’d lost their control of the state bureaucracy, which at the time was embroiled in confusion as to who is master.  No one in his right mind would cast his vote, let alone herd clan and dependents, to back a patron who’s been rendered incapable of exercising patronage.

A fairly independent state bureaucracy, accountable to the public on every level, is in fact considerably more crucial to a free and fair election than international monitors or judicial supervision. Democracy means transforming the relationship between the state bureaucracy and the people from that of master and client to one in which a sovereign people exercise effective oversight on their “civil servants”.

In Egypt a free and fair parliamentary election on the national level, means that citizens also elect governors, city heads, city, district and village councils and that the local police station, the health, education, agriculture and irrigation authorities (to name but a few) are subject to public oversight.

That was the will and testament of the Egyptian revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood, working from a Mubarak template, contemptuously brushed it aside, in this as in everything else. “Let them entertain themselves,” Supreme Guide Mohamed Badei et al must have been whispering to one another as they nonchalantly dismissed growing popular outrage at their bungling, oppressive regime, meanwhile busying themselves with ensuring perpetual rule by “what God has ordained”, not by transforming Mubarak’s authoritarian state into one governed by “righteousness” – whatever that means in the second millennium AD, but by taking it over, each and every nook and cranny of it.

On Sunday 17 June, Morsi issues a sweeping decree appointing 17 new governors, a mere three months before parliamentary elections were due to take place. In theory the appointments made no sense. According to the Constitution, a new parliament means a new government, and a new government means new gubernatorial appointments across the board. Why fill the bulk of gubernatorial posts across the country, when forthcoming elections were due to change them all within a few months?

There was just one explanation. Egyptians got it, even if the hundreds of Western politicians, pundits and journalists who continue to ask in the most anguished tones: “why not wait for the parliamentary elections?” did not.

The Egyptians of June 2013 were not the same Egyptians of Mubarak’s 30 years, however.

Morsi’s and Muslim Brotherhood rule would not outlast the month.

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