The course of the Egyptian uprising offers reason for both optimism and pessimism.
On the down side, the post-Mubarak system, such as it is, exhibits plenty of characteristics of the old one. As Ahmad Shokr and Joshua Stacher detail in this issue, Egypt’s new civilian government, drawn from the ranks of the Society of Muslim Brothers, has advanced no comprehensive reform vision adequate to address the country’s deep-seated inequality and poverty. The Brothers rather seem stuck in “Washington consensus” nostrums of the 1990s and 2000s. They are asking Egyptians simply to trust them to execute “structural adjustment” in ways that ameliorate social injustice, rather than exacerbate it, as Husni Mubarak’s programs did.
In this gambit, they are relying upon their image of incorruptibility, projected over the decades by means of careful self-distancing from the post-1952 regimes, and burnished, of course, by their repression at the hands of State Security. It is very worrisome, then, that the Brothers seemed to countenance torture of their political opponents outside the Presidential Palace in December 2012, as part of their broader move to ram through an illiberal draft constitution by popular referendum. It is vexing, as well, that the Brothers have consolidated power with the aid of clandestine deals with the army high command and the shadowy, but still present Mubarak-era security apparatus.
The Muslim Brothers object that Egyptian voters have approved every step of their political rise — from the elections that gave them a majority in the interim parliament to the presidential contest to the constitutional plebiscite of late December. They are correct, within their narrow majoritarian understanding of democracy, by which the majority rules and various minorities, again, are called upon simply to trust their rulers to be scrupulous and self-policing. They have repeatedly shown that they do not aspire to represent all Egyptians, whether the secular-minded, Copts, non-Islamist women or others.
In these views, the Muslim Brothers of Egypt are similar to other Islamist parties that have risen via the ballot box, from Hamas in Gaza to Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition in Iraq and, albeit to a lesser degree, Ennahda in Tunisia and the Justice and Development Party in Turkey. All of these parties face challenges that do not obtain in Egypt. But all are likely to find that long-term political viability depends upon their performance in power, chiefly, in the Egyptian case, progress toward the “bread, freedom and social justice” that vast swathes of the country demanded in Tahrir Square in January-February 2011.
Two years after that epochal uprising, Egypt is a country that remains, if not in revolt, then in social ferment. As Asya El-Meehy, Paul Sedra and Ted Swedenburg write in this issue, the Tahrir uprising unleashed and channeled bottom-up energies that have continued to push up against not only institutions of state, but also class and communal hierarchies. Some of these forces may be retrograde, such as the sectarian salafi groups, which, in any case, lose a bit of their grassroots credibility with each Saudi riyal they pocket. These “little Tahrirs” across Egypt are both a reprise of the country’s distinguished pre-Tahrir history of protest and a harbinger of disruptions to come. More prosaically, they are an expression of Egyptians’ ongoing struggle for a decent life. The parts should not be dismissed because they do not, at present or in the foreseeable future, add up to a sum of all-out social revolution. That was Mubarak’s mistake.
The glass is still half-full.