Georgetown Conference Examines Egypt’s Struggle for Democracy

Georgetown Conference Examines Egypt’s Struggle for Democracy

WRMEA, May 2014, Pages 59-60

Georgetown University’s Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding hosted a day-long conference in Washington, DC on Jan. 29 to discuss “Egypt and the Struggle for Democracy.” Throughout the day, panelists had harsh words for Egypt’s military-backed government, critiqued the international community’s response to the July 3 coup, and lamented the polarization that is currently crippling Egyptian society.

A Planned Coup?

(L-r) Michele Dunne, Wael Haddara and Mohamad Elmasry discuss the impact of the July 3 Egyptian military coup. (Staff photo D. Sprusansky)

Wael Haddara, a former adviser to deposed President Mohamed Morsi, accused individuals loyal to former President Hosni Mubarak of orchestrating a counterrevolution to oust Egypt’s first democratically elected president and return Egypt to the pre-January 2011 status quo.

Members of the “deep state” have made it clear in the past few months that they are willing to use violence and repression to destroy Egypt’s revolution, Haddara stated. As evidence, he noted that more Egyptians have died since the July 3 coup than during the 30 years of Mubarak’s rule. Haddara described the current level of violence as “previously unknown and unheard of in Egypt.”

According to Emad Shahin, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is leading a “watchful, fierce counterrevolution” and is bent on killing dissenting Egyptians into submission. However, he contended, this strategy is not working, and the field marshal eventually will be forced to unclench his fist.

Shahin, a well-respected Egyptian academic who has been charged with espionage by the Egyptian government, said Sisi now has three options: rely on Mubarak’s men for assistance, consolidate power, or kill more individuals. In his opinion, a broad coalition is needed to stop or at least slow down the military’s seizure of power.

Mohammad Fadel, a law professor at the University of Toronto, argued that Sisi’s government has committed crimes against humanity and thus violated the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Fadel predicated that Sisi would not easily cede power because he is aware that he and other senior officials could be held responsible. “There’s no way that the current leadership of Egypt will risk democracy,” he predicted.

Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, a former parliamentarian for the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Freedom and Justice Party, complained that Morsi was never given the opportunity to transform Egypt. “The forces of the old regime were still there,” he said of Morsi’s year in office. “The old state was blocking any changes in the country.” Dardery specifically criticized the military, police and judiciary for refusing to cooperate with Morsi’s government.

Dalia Fahmy, a professor of political science at Long Island University Brooklyn, speculated that the Egyptian government has decided to hold presidential elections ahead of parliamentary elections in order to allow Sisi to consolidate power. If, as expected, Sisi wins the presidential race, he would oversee the legislative elections and ensure his new party’s success, she said. This, Fahmy added, would allow parliament to become the executive’s rubber stamp.

Combating Polarization

(L-r) Dalia Fahmy, Maha Azzam and Mohammad Fadel say the military-backed government in Cairo is using nationalist rhetoric to divide the country. (Staff photo D. Sprusansky)

Dalia Mogahed, CEO of Mogahed Consulting, expressed concern that some Egyptians have begun to question the humanity of their fellow countrymen. This, she said, shows that the country is in need of deep societal reconciliation at the popular level. State-sanctioned violence, she added, is “a result of a moral and spiritual crisis in Egyptian society.”

Maryam Jamshidi, founder of Muftah magazine, accused the military-backed government of intentionally dividing the Egyptian public by using xenophobic and ultra-nationalist rhetoric. The Muslim Brotherhood has been portrayed as an organization working to destroy the country, she said, while anyone critical of the state is accused of not being a real Egyptian. Added Maha Azzam, an associate fellow at the Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Program, “There is no room in Egypt for an alternative view.”

Mohamad Elmasry, a professor in the department of mass communication at the American University in Cairo, noted that the Egyptian media is helping the military spread its nationalist narrative. Allegedly independent networks have reported that the military’s forceful tactics against the Brotherhood are necessary to cleanse and purify the country from a treasonous terrorist organization, he said.

While the media had plenty to criticize Morsi about, Elmasry continued, many news outlets invented or fabricated stories to spread the myth that the Brotherhood was taking over the country. Writers who were told by their superiors they had to create negative news about the Brotherhood reported satire-worthy news—such as Morsi wanting to sell the pyramids and the Suez Canal—as fact, he noted. “None of these things were based on any reality, but they were taken seriously,” he stated.

George Washington University professor Nathan Brown ascribed Egypt’s current polarization in part to a legacy of decades of authoritarian rule. Given that pluralism was not previously tolerated, he explained, many Egyptians are not accustomed to sorting out their political differences. Instead rival groups talk past one another and put most of their focus on riling up their own constituencies, Brown said.

Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program, opined that much of Egypt’s present unrest is due to the fact that a clear transition plan was never created following Mubarak’s ouster. “It all comes down to a failure to build consensus about where Egypt was going after the fall of Mubarak,” she said, adding that the opposition relied on such vague themes as bread, freedom, social justice and dignity to propel their movement forward.

When it assumed power, Dunne said, the Brotherhood acted with the confidence that it had the support of the military and a wide segment of society—a premise that caused it to decline to work with other political forces. As a result, Dunne believes the Brotherhood squandered the good will it had built up. “There was an opportunity to reach across the aisle and build a broader coalition, but it didn’t happen,” she said.

Mohammed Abbas, a leading member of the Revolution Youth Alliance, recalled that many in his organization lost faith in Morsi when he issued a constitutional declaration in November 2012 granting himself far-reaching powers. This move, he said, was a betrayal of an agreement between the youth and the Brotherhood to fight the old regime. As a result, Abbas pointed out, many youths collaborated with the old regime to depose the Brotherhood.

Islam Lotfy Shalaby, a member of the Revolution Youth Alliance, expressed his belief that there is a deep generation gap in Egypt. While the older generation believes only limited reforms can be achieved, the youth believes there is no limit to the revolution, he said. Shalaby cited lack of experience, lack of funding, and marginalization from influential roles in policy circles as other obstacles faced by Egypt’s youth.

Nevertheless, Shalaby is confident young Egyptians can bring about a better future. The older generation, he argued, read the historical moment incorrectly by discounting the youth.

Criticizing the U.S. Response

(L-r) Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, Nathan Brown, Dalia Mogahed and Emad Shahin express fear that Egyptian society is becoming increasingly polarized. (Staff photo D. Sprusansky)

Several speakers used their remarks to voice their displeasure with Washington’s response to the July 3 coup. “The international community needs to withdraw its support,” Maha Azzam stated, expressing her disapproval with the U.S. decision to continue to supply Egypt with $1.5 billion in annual aid. Most of this aid goes to the Egyptian military.

Wael Haddara also took aim at the “silence, if not collusion, of the international community.” Supporting the coup government will not help restore stability in Egypt, he warned, saying that there are a significant number of young Egyptians who “would rather die than go back to the [pre-January 2011] status quo.”

Washington’s silence is “stunning to the youth,” Abbas added, and seen as a form of support for the military government. Asked Dardery, “How come Europe and the United States betray the wishes of the Egyptian people?”

Dale Sprusansky

Source: The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

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