Last week’s “Egypt and the Struggle for Democracy,” jointly sponsored by the university’s Center for Muslim–Christian Understanding and its Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, drew an overflow crowd of more than 400 to the Rafik B. Hariri Building on campus. The audience was in turns pensive and distressed as they listened to the panel discussions, whose participants included youthful revolutionaries from Tahrir Square in 2011, Egyptians openly opposed to the military takeover, and academics from the United States, Britain and Canada.
The topics included whether the events of July 3, 2013, were inevitable (probably not), the current status of democracy, human rights and the rule of law (horrible) and the role of the international community in restoring a democracy-building process in Egypt (everyone seems to have gone AWOL).
There was agreement that dictatorship has returned, as one attendee put it, “with a vengeance,” given the rising number of political detainees, bombings, attacks on Copts, detention of journalists, laws banning peaceful protests and the military trials of Muslim Brotherhood figures on dubious charges. Most ominous, however, was the conclusion that the country’s 85 million residents are more divided and polarized than ever before.
Deep bitterness and dismay surfaced over the US stance since the Egyptian military deposed the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Mursi, in July. Apparently hoping to influence the military by going easy, Washington refused to call their action a coup, and has been timid in its verbal denunciations of the military’s human rights abuses, its killing of more than 1,000 peaceful protestors, its designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, and its closure of more than 1,000 charities run by the Brotherhood and other NGOs. The government has also seized approximately 1.5 billion US dollars owned by those charities.
In October, the administration of US President Barack Obama belatedly announced that it would not be delivering certain types of military equipment, such as tanks and fighter aircraft, to Egypt, nor would it be providing 250 million dollars in cash aid pledged during Mursi’s presidency. But a new spending bill passed by Congress in January will allow a resumption of that aid under certain conditions, including steps being taken by Cairo to restore democratic processes.
Washington’s faint-hearted response to the aftermath of July 3 was scorned by many of the panelists. “There is a sense that there is a conspiracy among Western countries [because] they were always talking about democracy but they supported [former president Hosni] Mubarak for so long . . . Now we see a return to this support,” said Mohamed Abbas of the Revolutionary Youth Council. “It is the support of being silent. It’s stunning to me.”
Maha Azzam, an associate fellow at Chatham House and Chair of Egyptians for Democracy UK, said in an interview on the sidelines of the conference: “The United States needs to rethink its policy . . . There has to be a clear message to the Egyptian regime that they cannot pursue a policy of killing protesters, that they cannot kidnap an elected president . . . under the umbrella of a war on terrorism. These people are not terrorists . . . The United States needs to take a stance on political detainees and arbitrary arrests.”
Other panelists noted, however, that outside powers such as the US and Britain were faced with the fact that complicated the adoption of a hardline stance, which was that many Egyptians supported the military’s actions, and they are likely to send the leader of the takeover, Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, to the presidency when elections are held.
Mohammed Fadel, associate professor at the University of Toronto Law School, said this raised questions about whether Egyptians really were interested in democracy. Noting that 55 percent of Egyptians lived on between two and four dollars a day, Fadel said: “Maybe a lot of Egyptians don’t want democracy. People don’t want to make sacrifices because they are already in a bad situation . . . It’s a challenge to convince these people that democracy matters to them.”
With polls showing popular confidence in the army consistently high at around 95 percent, “democratic institutions hardly have a chance,” said panelist Dalia Mogahed, president and chief executive of Mogahed Consulting.
And Nathan J. Brown, an expert on Egypt at George Washington University, remarked on another Egyptian trait that had contributed to the country’s current predicament, which he said was the “failure to appreciate the fact of pluralism.” As a result, Egypt’s political culture has been permeated instead by a winner-take-all mentality that makes compromise and effective political alliances impossible.
When it came to the future, predictions were far from optimistic and listeners were left with the awful feeling that things were going to get worse before they get better. As Dalia Fahmy, assistant professor of political science at Long Island University, put it, Egypt and other states in the region were suffering the ill effects of “an Arab polar vortex.”
Economically, the picture is definitely going to worsen, and though the Egyptian military is hoping they will be saved by their friends in the Gulf even Saudi Arabia’s deep pockets won’t produce a viable, growing economy for 85 million people without the return of millions of tourists, which seems unlikely to happen.
For now, Washington and Riyadh are not so far apart when it comes to Egypt. Both are hoping that the military will be able to restore peace and stability. But the country’s downward trajectory and unforeseen events could make it increasingly impossible for Washington to maintain its flabby approach to the crisis in Cairo.
As youth leader Mohamed Abbas said, “We are waiting for another revolution, a big one, within two to three years [because] the youth between 15 and 35 have tasted freedom and they want it.”
If that scenario develops, the US may be forced to distance itself much more from Egypt’s military rulers, which would further stress the already strained US–Saudi relationship.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.