A sum of zero

Galal Nassar
Monday 1 Jan 2018

Egypt’s year in review appeared dominated by a collage of competing forces in all fields that cancel one another out.

We are at the end of 2017 and we look back at a year that weighed heavily on Egyptians due to unprecedented economic hardships that clearly impacted all classes, and terrorist attacks that targeted the state and the people. Nonetheless, Egypt became a beehive for economic development projects in all fields.

The political backdrop was complex, domestically and internationally, which resulted in a zero-sum. Regionally, the aftershocks of the Arab Spring continued to impact the region’s politics due to the collapse of regimes, armies and institutions in several countries. The conflict became a zero-sum game that led to clashes between various regional and international powers. Self-interest trumped regional cooperation and joint interests, and all regional issues reached the precipice, making destructive military confrontations most likely, while proxy wars continued on the ruins of Arab Spring countries in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Iraq and to some extent Gulf countries and Egypt.

The struggle for existence and interests is leading funding and support for military operations — without distinction between national armies and terrorist organisations — operating under the banner of religion. This led to an inevitable clash between countries that support terrorism, such as Qatar, Turkey and Iran, and those whose national security and interests are in jeopardy, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain. It was necessary for Cairo to make demands, along with Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Manama, to confront this threat.

These dangers forced Cairo to move on several fronts simultaneously to defuse possible military confrontations, ease tensions and create a different climate from one that funds and encourages terrorist groups to operate under various banners and pretences. It began with the Palestinian issue, out of concern for the unity of the people and land under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, especially due to the terrorist threats from Gaza by groups to the left and right of Hamas that are more fanatic and hostile to Egypt and its army. Conciliation between Hamas and Fatah was the quickest way to fend off these threats.

Continuing this policy, Egypt moved on the political track with regional and international powers on Syria and Yemen in an effort to revisit dialogue between the parties and build bridges to end zero sum postures that fuel conflicts. Cairo was intent on being an honest mediator trusted by all sides despite attempts to push it in the rival’s camp. This enabled Egypt to become a neutral mediator in the Lebanese crisis, which embodied the condition of regional conflict, and Cairo was able to defuse a potential civil war in Lebanon that would extend to the entire region.

Cairo also witnessed the signing of a political agreement between rivals in South Sudan at the headquarters of Egyptian Intelligence, demonstrating that Egypt’s influence is strong and continuous in the sphere of its vital interests and along the River Nile, which is under threat due to unilateral action by Ethiopia which has illegally built 15 dams along the river’s course. Ethiopia’s massive Grand Renaissance Dam is controversial inside Egypt after technical negotiations failed to prevent interference in Egypt’s historic and legal right as an estuary state, entitled to 55 billion cubic metres annually.

Cairo’s great success in political action overseas was not mirrored in domestic policies. The domestic scene is entirely void of political activism; political parties are no longer active to the extent that neither experts, the man on the street nor observers can tell who is who in the 100-odd registered political parties. They all achieved a big zero on the political scene, in engaging the public, taking action and addressing the concerns of citizens.

Parties considered from the “democratic current” raise the banner “work a little, boycott many” which has become their first choice in every election. They boycotted parliamentary elections and all events such as youth conferences, and may even boycott the presidential election next year because they object to the laws regulating the electoral process, especially the protest law. It is as if their definition of political action is confined to organising and mobilising demonstrations. Like other parties, they also suffered from internal splintering and power struggles in central secretariats and regional offices.

Even the liberal Wafd Party and its extensive history became peripheral with leaders keen on good relations with the regime, which has been their attitude since Hosni Mubarak’s time, through Muslim Brotherhood rule, and continued under the incumbent regime. It is now understood that to be in the opposition is to be silent. To protect the personal interests of the party’s leaders, the Wafd’s traditional role as wise opposition has now vanished. It was a zero-sum game: either personal interests or an active party on the political stage.

The other liberals, the Free Egyptians Party, are only six years young but have already gone through a major splinter and an intense power struggle between founder and main financier, businessman Naguib Sawiris, and chairman Essam Khalil, who was supported by Sawiris. The party ended up with two headquarters, two leaders, two general secretariats and its cadres and regional offices were split. The dispute went to court in this zero-sum game, where both sides lost the ability to dialogue, find common ground, or honour the interests of the party above all else. Instead, each side decided to eliminate the other.

The zero-sum mind set extended to the Salafist Nour Party that floundered after a strong presence under Muslim Brotherhood rule when it won 108 seats in what was labelled the “Brotherhood” parliament. It only won 12 seats in the current parliament, and retreated on the political scene once the public mood turned after the 30 June 2013 Revolution, even though the Nour Party was part of the 3 July 2013 declaration that ended Mohamed Morsi’s rule in compliance with the wishes of the people. The fight against terrorism that targets Egypt’s people, army and institutions was the reason for increasing public anger in non-Islamist circles against all extremism or sympathy towards these groups and religious parties. In fact, they are viewed as the strategic reserves of the Islamic State group and all armed groups operating under the banner of religion. Thus, the outcome of the conflict between those who champion the right to life, namely the people, and those who belong to this current (parties, militias, fanatic proselytising groups that view society and its institutions as infidels) was a zero-sum.

Terrorism itself represented a great challenge for society and politics in Egypt because it is a zero-sum game for groups that want to destroy and obliterate states, or remove incumbent regimes and their institutions to replace them with a different system under the guise of a caliphate, and superiority of the scholar or cleric, or religious guide or emir. This challenge ushered in the emergency law and its subsequent extrajudicial procedures, changing the priorities of society and delaying the move away from political stagnation that accompanies extraordinary measures and laws.

Absence of politics and terrorism is a duo that created zero-sum results on many fronts. During and before 2017, Egyptian society experienced stereotyping and monophonic perspectives in most fields of expression, such as the media and culture and arts, without understanding the importance of closing ranks in the face of threats. The single uniform voice that is ignorant of the nature of the battle stole from the benefits and importance of disagreeing. Creativity was marginalised under the pretext of superior interests and bad timing since the current phase does not allow for any disagreement. Everyone forgot that politics is the art of managing differences and diversity.

This condition dealt a strong blow to public services in the media and press to the benefit of unknown entities in a zero-sum game that aimed to eliminate them under the guise of creating bodies required by the constitution to manage and advance these institutions. What happened on the ground, however, is the polar opposite. Although public service institutions were in harmony with the monophonic voice, entities that are a blend between politics and interests of certain individuals and businessmen dominated the scene. Thus, the elements of the equation were all on the same side, resulting in a huge zero in terms of “results, impact, and domestic and overseas battles”. All the media, private and public, capable of making an impact and enlightening, or even entertaining, lost their power.

The same is true in cinema and the arts, which lost their balance and economic resources after the 25 January Revolution, and state support which made way for private production. In fact, organisers at the Cairo Film Festival this year could not find a single Egyptian entry to contest any of the prizes. Meanwhile, drama production collapsed and Egyptian channels chose to broadcast Turkish and Indian soap operas instead of Egyptian and Syrian productions that were impacted by the Arab Spring.

Despite winning a spot in the World Cup in Russia next year, the final scenes for Egyptian sports in 2017 were brutal elections at sports clubs and sports federations. The zero-sum game and fight for survival and obliterating the other dominated electoral and publicity campaigns. The electoral scene disintegrated into a moral cesspool, and a market where newspapers, television channels, magazines and websites promoted their biased positions. There was also unprecedented campaign spending of more than LE1 billion by businessmen to win seats on the boards of top sports clubs such as Ahly and Zamalek.

The Grand Renaissance Dam, floating the pound, the Tiran and Sanafir debacle, human rights, the performance of parliament and the cabinet, are all 2017 events that began before this year and are likely to continue next year, most notably because of the 2018 presidential race when they will be the centre of debate and platforms among candidates in a zero-sum game.

In conclusion, the domestic and foreign scenes in 2017 witnessed an existential battle and zero-sum formula on all issues, including arts and creativity. To change this bleak scene requires this formula to be shattered by returning to dialogue, common interests and understanding. Also, holding general joint interests above the interests of individual countries, peoples and regimes. Differences are enriching and necessary for society to progress, especially since challenges such as terrorism and economics need awareness not ignorance, and enlightenment and innovation rejuvenate religious, political and social discourse.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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