Elite Angst in Sisi's Egypt
I doubt I'm alone among people with an interest in Egypt in finding myself shocked in recent weeks by the dramatic changes I've seen in many people I know. I'm talking about people who used to hold liberal views, professed to believe in democracy and the usual freedoms and respected the work of human rights activists, for example. Many of these people are well-educated and had travelled abroad and could see that Egypt had some serious governance problems at the most basic level – corruption, waste, cronyism, favouritism, negligence, inertia, lack of accountability and so on. The vast majority of them supported the 2011 revolution against Mubarak and looked forward to a fresh start that would try to put their ideals into practice and redress some of the deficiencies that were part of Mubarak's legacy.
The ones that have shocked me most have been transformed into reactionary, intolerant, xenophobic, chauvinistic and irrational people who advocate the repression, exclusion and in some cases even the wholesale slaughter of their political opponents. They have called for the closure of television stations and newspapers whose editorial line does not please them, and even for the arrest and prosecution of the people who work in them. They are highly sensitive to criticism from non-Egyptian individuals, institutions and governments, and in many cases have started to dismiss out of hand such notions as democracy and human rights. “We don't want 'your' democracy!” is a phrase I have heard or read on numerous occasions this past month. On top of all that, they have embraced with the fervour of converts an institution that represents some of the worst aspects of late 20th century Egypt – an army that is parasitical, unproductive, wasteful, incompetent, class-ridden and ruthless in pursuit of its commanders' corporate and private interests.
The other striking feature of this group is that, unlike in 2011, they do not appear to have any vision for how they would like Egypt to be, except in the most crude and negative terms. The phrase 'We don't want your democracy', for example, is not followed by proposals for improvements on the imperfect models of democracy prevalent in other parts of the world. Except for the previously unloved and now seriously compromised Mohamed ElBaradei, they have no inspiring leaders of any stature, no one with a high-minded long-term plan to turn Egypt into a functioning democracy.
How to explain this sudden shift?
My initial hypothesis (and I welcome any comment or input from others) is that many of these people saw themselves as the natural rulers of Egypt and assumed that once the dust settled after the 2011 revolution they would take their rightful place at the top of the hierarchy. In 2011 advocacy of democracy and human rights seemed like the best strategy for getting rid of Mubarak and correcting some of the worst features of his regime. Their liberalism won them foreign support and sympathy, and enabled them to assemble a broad domestic alliance bringing together groups that could not possibly aspire to political domination alone but would have a fair chance of some influence under a democratic system. They relished foreign approval at the time and many of them looked forward to Egypt taking its place in the world as a respected nation – a status it had signally failed to achieve under the corrupt and incompetent rule of Mubarak. This broad coalition largely held together through the first year of rule by SCAF, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, though differences did emerge over the extent to which people should challenge military rule.
The turning-point came when SCAF started to organize elections, firstly for parliament and secondly for a civilian president who would replace the generals. The various Islamist groups, of course, won much more support in the elections than people had expected and completely dominated the first pro-revolutionary parliament, with more than 70 percent of the seats.
Looking back at the course of events, and at the psychology of this elite demographic, we can detect during this period the first signs of serious alarm among Egypt's traditional rulers. It was at this stage that we started to hear complaints about the campaigning methods of the Muslim Brotherhood ('They tell people they'll go to heaven if they vote for the Brotherhood', 'They give them free sugar to win their votes') and references to the gullibility of the great unwashed. A well-known author openly questioned whether illiterate people should be allowed to vote at all (literacy tests were famously used in the southern United States to prevent black people from voting).
The Supreme Constitutional Court also took dramatic decisions that in effect undermined the popular will, dissolving the lower house of parliament on a tendentious technicality. The membership of the court was relatively diverse in conventional political terms but as a whole it certainly represented a traditional statist and elitist view of how the country should be run.
The second round of the presidential elections helped to bring the polarization into focus. Faced with a choice between Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had no track record in government despite more than 80 years in the political arena, and Ahmed Shafik, a Mubarak associate who represented the traditional power system, about 15 percent of the electorate defected from candidates who embraced the 2011 revolution and voted instead for Shafik. Morsi won by 52 to 48 percent, a margin often described by the term 'wafer-thin' or other such adjectives, though decent enough by normal standards. That's about the same as Obama's margin in the 2012 elections.
During the one-year period between the time Morsi took office and the time the army overthrew Morsi on July 3, the Egyptian elite faced no particular crisis of ideology. They could attack the Brotherhood from a traditional liberal perspective, accusing the movement of harassing the independent media, imposing a constitution that served its own special interests and trying to plant its representatives in every key position in the bureaucracy. Some of their arguments were rather feeble, but the framework was familiar and they could still elicit some sympathy from their traditional allies in Europe and North America.
Everything changed with the army's intervention on July 3 and the welcome that this received from the main groups opposed to Morsi - the National Salvation Front (NSF) and the Tamarrud Movement.
Faced with the reality of an Islamist movement that has millions of supporters and that does not recognize the legitimacy of the new rulers, and with foreign commentators who are sceptical about the wisdom of using military force to overthrow elected leaders, some of the Brotherhood's opponents seem to have been going through real trauma at the personal level, particularly with respect to outsiders.
Let me cite one victim directly, someone who thinks that anyone abroad who didn't speak out against the Brotherhood while they were in power should now shut up and keep out of Egyptian affairs.
"When you'd been ignored for over a year and decide to make a "pact with the devil" you no longer want to be distracted with "the voices" and you wonder: why now? And where were you before? Why you seem to care all of a sudden? And yes, when one's set of beliefs is shuffled ... one is in psychological turmoil," the woman wrote.
An actor who hated the Mubarak regime and always advocated freedom of expression has been campaigning to close down media hostile to military intervention. When I pointed out the contradiction, he posted a term of common abuse against me and 'unfriended' me before I could respond.
I suspect that this trauma is contributing to the clamor for the security forces to disperse the pro-Morsi encampments in Cairo. The encampments are a constant reminder of the Other in their midst, of those millions of Egyptians who do not agree with them. They want us all to close our eyes while they mandate the men of violence to 'solve the problem' for them. They don't want to see the blood, they don't want to hear the screams. As they keep saying, they want 'their country' back - a country cleansed of irritating troublemakers who have ideas above their station.