The tragic situation in Egypt is so complex and unpredictable that one can find many opinions on what various groups and people in Egypt should do, but precious few predictions by ‘experts’ on what is actually going to happen. You can rest assured that whatever does actually happen will be seen as the ‘obvious’ way things were going to turn out in, say, 2 years time, but at this moment you find almost no dedicated analysts and observers willing to take a punt for fear that they will be conspicuously wrong. If you don’t believe me, just read this set of ‘on the fence’ analyses from no less than 15 ‘Egypt experts’ on Al-Jazeera yesterday, mainly American-based scholars on the Middle East. They are full of anger and advice, but very short on predictions.
Hence this is also the time to prove yourself as a political thinker interested in the broad sweeps of history. The situation is so difficult to read and changes are so fast that I truly think those with little prior knowledge of Egypt, but who have a good grasp of how humans and societies function, have almost as good a chance as the supposed Egypt experts (who speak the language and have been there often) to get it right: I really think it is knowledge of humanity and society that counts at this moment, more than country-specific knowledge. That is not often the case in international affairs where country-experts are usually miles ahead of the generalists, so I encourage you in the comment thread to have a go and give your considered predictions, though of course only if you say who you are. Anonymous predictions don’t count.
To help you get a grip on the basics, let me below give you what I regard as the key stylised political facts about Egypt, including information on balances of power that I always think journalists should tell you about a conflict but that they almost never do. I then give you my own reading of what has happened the last few weeks so as to bring you up to the question of what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, and the next year. For an intro to my previous posts on the topic, see here. I apologize in advance for the long read but there is simply a lot to cover.
Egypt is the most populous Arab-speaking country, with around 85 million inhabitants. Numbers are uncertain, but some 6 to 16 million of those are Coptic Christians, the rest Muslims, mainly Sunni. Fertility rates have gone down to near replacement levels in recent decades whilst education has increased across the board. With an urbanisation degree near 45% and a GDP per capita of around 2500 dollars, we are talking about a country whose level of economic and social development is roughly that of the US near 1900, yet it has modern communication with mobile phone reception almost everywhere in the populated areas and about 66% literacy. Its geography is somewhat unusual in that 98% of the population reportedly lives in 3% of the area (basically everyone lives close to some branch of the Nile), which in turn means that there really is no realistic place to hide in Egypt, making it a very different place to Syria or Afghanistan.
In terms of active political groups, Egypt has hundreds of them, each with their own ideologies, histories, ethnic and cultural backing, and geographic concentration. One has Sufis, salafis, socialists, Arab nationalists, Maoists, Bedouins, Copts, liberals, migrants, orthodox christians, Mennonites, Berbers, etc. The smaller groups operate a bit like fiefdoms in that whole communities decide to support this or that larger political force, leading to quite clientelist politics where larger forces become made up of coalitions of smaller communities whose loyalty depends on what they get out of the bargain.
In terms of larger political groups, one really only needs to know about four to get a good idea as to what is happening.
In one corner you have the army, which is currently in charge and attempting to stay in charge. Its officers mainly come from the urban elites and its power base is the mayor cities, particularly the capital Cairo in which close to 15% of the entire population of Egypt lives. The officers have large economic interests, reportedly up to 30% of the economy. You should hence see generals and other officers in Egypt as captains of industry. They too have smaller communities backing them up and supplying people to be appointed to key positions. They and their sons run businesses, schools, clubs, etc. In many ways, the army in Egypt is a parallel society that maintains its own sense of identity and history apart from the rest. It is thus a force to be reckoned with and difficult to infiltrate by other groups, certainly at the officer level. An important fact to know is that in 2011, the army did not stop the demise of Mubarak, partially because it wasn’t sure about the loyalty of the junior officers and the rank-and-file, and one of the funnier stories from that era was that the army immediately increased the incomes and bonuses of the junior officers and soldiers to keep them loyal. You can rest assured that in the last 2 years the new cohort of army generals that took over from the old Mubarak guard will have restored and extended their control over the junior ranks such that they are now much more in charge of the whole army than they would have been in 2011. The army now will be a lean and mean machine, with the officers hungry for another shot at power.
In another corner you have the state apparatus, the private sector, and their children. Here you should think of school teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, university administrators and academics, garbage cleaners, civil servants, councilors, state media, tradesmen, IT firms, tourist operators, transport companies, etc. From a Western point of view you would think of these as the urban-oriented civil backbone of the country. They, and then particularly their educated internet-savvy children, are whom one might call ‘the liberals’. They dream of Egypt becoming the same kind of country as is normal in the West and that is also the model copied in East Asia and Latin America. It is from these circles that the initial push to overcome the Mubarak regime in 2011 came as a new generation of educated kids dreamed of a better future of their country, taking the examples of other successful countries as the model to follow.
This group is at the moment somewhat leaderless and clueless as to what to do and also what to want: their ideals will not have changed and they wont want to go back to military dictatorship, but the strength of their idealism is certainly going to be tested in the months to come. The thinking of many pundits is that many in this group might decide democracy is not really for Egypt at the moment and swing behind the military, at least for a while. Does your knowledge of humanity make you agree?
In a third corner you have the Muslim brotherhood, with as its main power base the rural Islamic countryside, supported further by a majority of the clergy. They are made up of many smaller groups (youth movements and the like) and their modus operandi is a ‘hearts and mind’ approach to the poor and downtrodden, of which there are many in Egypt. The Brotherhood for decades has organised lots of schools, health clinics, security forces, street gangs, etc. They too hence are somewhat of a parallel society and they pick up the support from people usually neglected by the urban power groups, the ones i termed the military and the liberals. It is important to realise that that support is not going to go away since the poor countryside is still being neglected by the urban elites and the inequality and ruthless parasitism of both the army and much of the rest of the industrialists feeds an ongoing resentment that makes a steady stream of new recruits to the Brotherhood. The basic forces that keep these three groups in place and powerful are thus somewhat stable: the army is as big as it can be given that there is simply not all that much else to steal from the economy than they are already doing; the civil and private enterprise backbone is essential to both the army and all other groups to get minimal things done and so can’t really be eradicated; and the winner-take-all mentality of the ruling elites leads to a huge resentment of the have-nots that inevitably lead to some bottom-feeding group that organises them into a cohesive movement, which at the moment is the Brotherhood but in previous times would have been the communists of which you now only have small remnants (I count them as on the same side as the liberals though that is not how they would see it).
Then in a fourth corner you have ‘the rest’, essentially made up of smaller groups that compete with the Brotherhood, such as the more radical Islamists for whom the brotherhood is a rival, or that have no particular allegiance with anyone and merely goes for whatever advances their interests (such as the Copts or the Bedouins in the Sinai).
Now, the internal dynamics of Egypt are hard to understand without some sense of what foreign players are doing in Egypt. Though foreign influence in Egypt should not be overstated in that Egypt is an ancient civilisation where nearly the whole population has a strong sense of being part of the same nation, foreign players do try their hardest to influence events there.
The military has traditionally been able to count on ‘the West’, including the US (where some people are calling on the government to just back the new dictator), Israel and the EU, both in terms of money but also in terms of a sense of community. The military officers are partially trained in the West and relations between Western government and the military are usually cordial, often because of sheer commercial reasons. Don’t forget that the generals run much of the tourist trade and other businesses that involve other foreign governments!
The liberals are more home-grown and won’t get much help from anyone outside, but will get some moral support and recognition from civil society around the world. In a way, they will feel like normal world citizens and will be able to find some solace in the knowledge that the majority of the populations around the world will sympathise more with them than any other group in Egypt. Their most powerful foreign support is probably the Egyptian diaspora: normal Egyptians living abroad dreaming that their country too can become like the place they live.
The Brotherhood and its rival more fundamentalist Islamic groups are very strongly interwoven with the region. The Brotherhood has strong ties to the same kind of organisation that now runs Turkey (with whom it shares the same name!), as well as like minded groups in Jordan and elsewhere in the region (Qatar was until recently another key sponsor). You should think here of support in terms of money, ideas, and, if needed, weapons. Partially because of this regional support, other Islamic groups in the region strongly support anti-Brotherhood rivals. The Saudis for instance are currently supporting the military because of their hatred of both liberals and the Brotherhood. Large sums of money and training flow to the Salafists and other more Jihadist groups within Egypt from many other countries in the region, including Dubai, Jemen, and the Emirates. In a weird twist of fate their main target is the Brotherhood, to the degree that they prefer a military dictatorship that, via its alliance with Western militaries, would suppress those same Salafists and other Jihadist groups! Within this general picture of foreign support, you will of course find that various groups within Saudi Arabia support different factions, and that these differ again from the factions favoured by rich Dubai residents and others. It is a typical feature of the Middle East that everyone seems to be fighting everyone else at the same time and that alliances are really only temporary and for convenience. It is that utter hopeless and deep-felt division that is one main reason that we, ‘the West’, do not really have all that much to fear from Islamic fundamentalism. They are their own worst enemy.
Now, with this very rudimentary sketch of the key elements of Egyptian politics, we can make some salient observations on the last few months that should enable you to make some predictions.
- In the last two weeks, the army has been increasing its economic power, such as via appointing new regional governors from within its ranks.
- There seems to be heavy-handedness on both sides: one is probably talking about a few thousand Muslim Brotherhood deaths, but reportedly also 100 police dead. That is a lot and, if true, would indicate that the Brotherhood leadership, which for decades has been non-violent, has seen a loss of control over its more radical youth elements. In a strange twist of fate this would mean that the military’s policy of locking up all the Brotherhood leaders is backfiring in that it unleashes the Brotherhood youth which merely escalates matters immensely. Indeed, it would show that the generals have not really thought things through much and are finding it hard to read and adapt to the situation on the ground: it might well be to the advantage of the military to release most of the Brotherhood leadership so as to let them reign in the youngsters. Yet, within the logic of having laid legal charges at much of the Brotherhood it would require an open conciliatory gesture from the top to make this happen.
- Violence numbers are the sort of thing one cannot be sure of in the Middle East. Governments there are quite capable of arranging violence against parts of the state apparatus to legitimise their own brutality. Perhaps the generals thus were taken aback by the strong international reactions to the previous bloodbaths and are actively encouraging some degree of armed opposition. These things can happen and yet are almost impossible to verify in the Middle East. You can rest assured that you will get accusations and conspiracy theories in all directions and you merely have to Google the one you are prone to believe anyway to find it argued in detail somewhere on the net.
- Lots of media manipulations and posturing. From the reported ‘miraculous recovery’ of basic utilities in the major city just after the June 2013 coup, as well as the large-scale coordinated attack on Brotherhood institutions, one suspects the whole operation has been planned for weeks, if not months. This will surely have entailed a degree of media planning too, such as an immediate demonization of the Brotherhood. The foreign players, particularly governments, of course also have their own incentive to spin. The large layer of fog this creates on the internet makes it hard to know key things, such as just how bad the Brotherhood’s policies really were in the year in power. You can’t even trust opinions of people living in Egypt because even if you live in Egypt you will only live in one bit and will be reliant on media and relations to find out more. Still, I can’t find an observer and resident I would regard as reasonable who does not seem to be convinced that the Morsi rule was sectarian and terrible so I take it as a highly probable fact.
- Bewilderment in the West. From the fact that the US did not condemn the coup but then has been taken aback by the massacres of Brotherhood supporters, one should probably conclude that the Egyptian military took the lack of early condemnation as a sign that they could do whatever they wanted without fear of US reprisals and went full pelt, only to be disappointed when finding out that the appetite for violence amongst the US policy makers, at least in public, was much less than that of the Egyptian top military. From the anti-US rhetoric on all sides in Egypt one should realise that all parties there are thus only interested in the domestic audience, paying no attention to the media needs of people elsewhere. In turn this strengthens the suspicion that the West indeed is an irrelevance there that has not been part of the active planning process. The slowness of the EU response underscores this.
- In terms of what is happening in these weeks, we seem to be looking at yet another try at dictatorship by the army. From the initial reactions to the coup in Egypt, by salafists and liberals and others, it seems clear that the Brotherhood had indeed alienated everyone (including other Arab countries who were using their financial muscle to undermine the Brotherhood). Yet, with all that initial support quickly melting away when the massacres started, it is clear that the degree of brutality and absolute control that the military has displayed has come as a surprise to the initial coalition supporting the overthrow of the Mursi government. This of course tells you that lots of groups in Egypt are ill-informed and naive about their own military (which is all too normal: it is very hard for people to think bad of power and all too easy to forgive power for past mistakes), but it moreover tells you that there must be a group of people in the military very eager to give dictatorship a try: probably the next generation of generals and officers who want to resurrect the days of the Mubarak regime with themselves in charge. Of course, the military already had a go at this in 2011 when it tried to dictate a constitution to the rest and was then resisted by a broad coalition of everyone else.
- Can this new attempt at dictatorship succeed? In my previous blog, I said I thought it couldn’t and instigated a bet with Conrad Perry that we’d eventually get a re-run of the electoral cycle in 2011-2012 with a kind of Brotherhood 2.0 winning. This is still my front-runner but it is clear that the military will be even less inclined to halt its power grab than it was in 2011.
- What are the differences between 2011 and 2013 in terms of this latest grab for control by the military? For one, the Brotherhood has now been openly brutalised and humiliated. Democrats might hope that that would push them to moderate their views and re-form their temporary alliance with other parties in Egypt, such as to form an effective block against the military. Yet, a brutalised movement tends to become purer in its faith and promise itself total victory at some later date rather than openly take the insults and injuries and move on pragmatically. A brutalised population, like the Kurds in Iraq, the Tamils in Sri Lanka, or the Chechens in Russia, does eventually become more pragmatic in its alliances, but not overnight. The Tamil Tigers and the Chechen guerrillas had to be utterly destroyed before their populations gave up the struggle (often by fleeing, leading to those boats coming to Australia). Within the culture of the Egyptian region, wherein family honour is very important and the religions carry an element of glorifying victimhood anyway, deaths and torture of some family members furthermore lead to large knock-on radicalisation. The idea that the family members and communities with ‘martyrs’ are going to pragmatically negotiate with the urban intelligentia or the state bureaucracy they had just tried to take over in the Mursi era, seems wishful thinking. Licking ones wounds and vowing revenge, either immediately or in the long run, seems more plausible, certainly in the next few weeks. Who would actually bridge those two camps and bring them together in the alliance they should have? The only ones who could do it would be the salafists and their inclinations (including that of their financial backers in the Arabian peninsula) are to be either in competition with the Brotherhood or at least to have nothing but contempt for liberals. So it is hard to see how the coalition-that-should-arise is actually to take shape.
- In a way, the Egyptian military seems to have learned from the Syrian conflict: brutalise the opponents so much that the rest has to make a ‘for us or against us’ choice as that opponent becomes embittered and starts mobilising. By extending the brutalising to the Salafists and other Jihadist movements, the army seems to be actively trying to create an appropriate enemy to legitimise its rule by. It tried a similar thing in 2011 already, by allowing the burning of many churches and actively shooting at demonstrations of Egyptian Copts, thus inciting sectarian violence in the hope of being needed as keepers of the peace. It did not work then, but signs in the same direction are the burning of more churches and other acts of violence, possibly by Brotherhood members. One might thus wonder whether the military actively wants the Brotherhood to have no senior leadership to reign in its youngsters, in order to create enough destabilisation and bloodshed to get away with the trick that did not work in 2011.
- Yet, can this succeed? I have a hard time believing it can. One of my doubts concerns the degree to which the Brotherhood can form a credible enemy for the whole of the rest of Egypt, even with the demonization that the Egyptian state media is engaging in now. The firepower of the Brotherhood is simply not enough to credibly threaten the rest and hence I dont think that liberals, salafists, urbanites, and religious minorities have to choose to the same extent as the stark choices on offer in Syria. They can still switch sides as soon as there is a new leadership of the Brotherhood and they must know it.
- A related doubt is that the Brotherhood youth must know its own military weakness or at least must have realised it by now. Even in the absence of its usual leaders, local leaders must also be trying to keep its more radical elements disciplined and non-violent.
- The Brotherhood has shown itself capable in the past of coalitions of convenience. Even though its political leadership is now in jail, at the local level its leaders will still realise its weaknesses and form alliances to survive. You see, within Egypt the fact that everyone lives in such a tiny sphere means everyone knows who is in favour of the Brotherhood and who is not. So ‘going into hiding’ is simply not a real option: one must have some local support of others to survive. Hence there will be strong local pressure to compromise, though the question is with who the deals will be made.
- Another doubt is that the Egyptian military cannot really ‘take on Islam’. It is too firmly rooted and also too well financed from abroad and internally. The days of the 1950s in which the army could completely repress an ill funded movement are simply over: the general level of Islamic fervency is much higher than in those days and the army is less in control now than it was then, simply because the degree of urbanisation has increased and there is a lot more ‘other state’ than just the army, so whilst the Brotherhood may be militarily weak, Islamic fervency is too potent a force to have a hope of stamping out in Egypt.
- A further doubt is that the military has been so open and blatant about its power grab. This open attempt at dictatorship is clumsy and overly hasty. To already appoint governors and maybe even free Mubarak is a clear mistake: it alerts everyone who wants democracy in Egypt of ones plans. It is of course an attempt to create ‘facts on the ground’ that cannot be undone, but these new facts themselves are open and constant reminders of repression. A more subtle approach in which the same governors would be appointed by a new parliament and where the governors would have nominally stepped out of the army for a while before applying for the posts, would have worked much better. The haste and machismo of the generals is thus somewhat self-defeating. It misunderstands that with the Arab spring will have come a change in the self-image of Egyptians. Its ‘people’ see itself as in charge, even if potentially somewhat unimpressed with democracy, and it seems unlikely they will accept an open dictatorship so easily.
- I know what I would do as a liberal in Egypt: I would shelter a few Brotherhood leaders and have a real conversation with them. Now is the time for dialogue on a one-to-one basis.
- What is clearly in the way of both the Brotherhood and the army is the winner-take-all attitude of both groups. If the Brotherhood had been inclusive and patient, it could eventually in a few decades be really in charge, much like its sister organisation in Turkey. If the army would be able to become like the Chinese communist party, i.e. an army of the people with a welfarist mentality, it too could probably have control for a long time. But the somewhat fascist ‘grab as much as you can whenever it is not well defended’ attitude seems the undoing of both. But there is no sign of the army learning this yet (and the neighbouring country regimes don’t show much sign of learning it either), nor the Brotherhood. It makes you wonder: how does the process of learning to be a citizen take place?
My own ‘minimalist’ predictions at this point (I will attempt clearer predictions later, apart from my ongoing bet with Conrad) is that the current policies of the army and the Brotherhood cannot succeed and that we are thus poised to see changes in direction from both groups quite quickly.
One key thing I will watch out for in the coming days is whether the army generals start to realise they are overplaying their hand and will back-peddle on some of their decrees or whether they will keep going full pelt at the restoration of the Mubarak-style regime for a few more months until they are completely isolated themselves from everyone else in Egypt and again find they have to back down in a humiliating fashion. This is a particularly important question for the current strong man al-Sissi who is really gambling on all-or-nothing. Key indicators of backing down would be the release of some of the Brotherhood leadership, the continued imprisonment of Mubarak, a lifting of some of the media controls, or fewer journalists being shot.
Another key thing to watch out for is whether the liberals will try to re-group and become more cohesive. The probably military-orchestrated, or at least encouraged, civil court case against ElBaradei indicates that the military really still is going full pelt against anything it sees as opposition, but this is an attitude that would really only serve to gel the liberals together again. Indeed, the court case against Elbaradei in that sense increases his prestige and will help the liberal cause. Still, I wouldn’t expect the liberals to really rediscover the army as the common enemy for a few months at least.
It will be interesting to see how far the personality cult that the army and its supporters in the media and the legal system are creating around al-Sissi will go. I cannot really see it succeeding, but one does read reports of an increasing number of portraits of al-Sissi being put on display in shops around the mayor cities. The Mubarak-era reflex is thus on display but it is too crude and too obvious and it belongs to the pre-internet and pre-mobile phone age. It needs a level of media and thought-control that seems impossible to sustain in Egypt. Even in places like China where you also have one-party control, that one-party has incredibly broad representation and is constantly busy doing the right thing for the population as a whole in terms of economic growth and education and health, simply because even the supposedly omnipotent Chinese communist party must be seen to do the right thing. There is just no way that the much less powerful and respected Egyptian army, with its failed 2011 attempt to grab total control fresh in everyone’s mind, can succeed in what it is currently trying to do, even if it has drilled the junior ranks into much greater obedience than it could count on in 2011.
The difficulty in figuring out a realistic scenario is the mechanics of how the new cohort of army officers could be reigned in and just how a revived Brotherhood 2.0 could be encapsulated in some form of government that would prevent a re-run of its 2012 all-or-nothing attempt. The situation in which those two occur is sort of the ‘inevitable’ solution at this moment, but how could one get there?