Encountering Egypt's Instability

February 26, 2013 Topic: Democracy Region: Egypt

Encountering Egypt's Instability

Chaotic protests are just one problem in an Egypt that seems to have no way forward.

Days before I arrived on a recent visit to Cairo, the lobby of the InterContinental Cairo Semiramis was ransacked and looted. This brazen attack on a luxury hotel, in what had been a prime location for wealthy travelers pre-revolution, is indicative of the state of affairs in Egypt today.

On the whole, Cairo is safe. But localized disturbances pop up, with growing regularity and in unpredictable fashion. Trouble still brews on Fridays in key protest spots. But nowadays conflagrations occur on any given evening in a small but central area from Tahrir to the Qasr al-Nil Bridge and a couple blocks down the Corniche road along the Nile.

What is most striking is how quickly the atmosphere can turn.

Afternoon protests feel like festivals. As the sun descends, families walk away and those streaming to replace them are predominantly younger men. In an instant, the sound of landing rocks becomes noticeable. Within 20 minutes, stones are replaced with Molotov cocktails, and a head-on confrontation between protesters and security forces is under way.

“The day is ours, the night is theirs” has become a popular saying among Cairenes interested in going about their regular business. The few tourists in Cairo should heed similar advice. On a Thursday evening ride in from the airport my driver turned to me and said, “Go see the Pyramids tomorrow. See all the Pyramids. Stay away from Tahrir.”

Moreover, while probably still as safe as any city in the world, the artificial blanket of security that existed pre-revolution disappeared when the police did on January 28, 2011. Long-time residents of Cairo warn of increased armed robberies.

The police, where they have returned to work, have in no way reformed. On my second night in Cairo, video circulated of a protester being beaten, stripped and dragged into custody by the police. In an Orwellian scene reminiscent of the Mubarak regime, Hamada Saber—recuperating in a police hospital—told state television that he in fact had been beaten by protesters and was saved by the police! Two days later, following an on-air telephone shouting match with his daughter, Saber finally admitted the truth.

One reason for the violence in the streets is a lack of respect for authority among Cairo’s youth, who have yet to see the positive results they imagined when Hosni Mubarak left power two years ago. Another is the inability of political actors to achieve such results peacefully.

There is a complete lack of trust between the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies and opposition forces. Both sides blame each other not just for the political stalemate, but for all sorts of ills. Those loyal to the government blame hooliganism on remnants of the Mubarak regime—felool—or say they take direction from opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei. Revolutionaries and civic forces are certain that the Brotherhood was installed by the United States to rule Egypt, and that the current chaos is an American-Zionist plot—I heard these and similar conspiracy theories throughout my trip.

The problem now is that there doesn’t appear to be any way forward. Each side, and individual parties within each camp, has an inflated sense of its legitimacy, popularity, power and the leverage it holds.

The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) is weighed down by governance. The group’s rhetoric and actions are often at odds with the moderate front that Mohamed Morsi must present as the head of state. This internal struggle, though, alienates others across the political spectrum. At once, the Brotherhood galvanized the opposition by ramming through a constitution that lacked broad consensus; and it failed to satisfy the harder-line Salafi bloc by its “go-slow” approach to Islamicizing society through the updated document.

The National Salvation Front (NSF), a coalition of opposition groups, is itself a reflection of how bad Morsi has governed. The NSF was referred to as an “Alliance of the Reluctant,” between political figures that otherwise do not speak to each other, and whose politics are very different. On the one hand, the Brotherhood’s failures give a huge advantage to the opposition. But NSF coordination in the upcoming parliamentary elections is much easier said than done.

The state of Egypt’s economy could hurt the Brotherhood in the parliamentary vote; but his party’s prospects also explain Morsi’s reluctance to raise taxes and cut subsidies, both of which are requirements to get the stamp of approval—and a $4.8 billion loan—from the International Monetary Fund.

Economic and political problems are closely intertwined. The economy could collapse and, worryingly, some members of the opposition see such an outcome as perhaps a necessary if painful shock to get back on track.

As this vision plays out, an economic collapse would sweep the Muslim Brotherhood from power and the military would return. The flawed constitution could be rewritten, and a salvation government would guide Egypt back to stability. Basically, the transition failed to play out as the revolutionaries expected; the collapse of Egypt’s economy could allow for a do-over.

Military leaders, however, have no interest in returning to the political scene. Though they will not allow the country to collapse, they warn that it is up to the politicians—through comprising with one another—to keep the military in its barracks. It has yet to be seen if this mixture of warning and threat will get political actors’ attention.

Those that express optimism about Egypt’s future do so over a five to ten year timeframe. Despite genuine day-to-day concerns, there have been real changes for the better since the revolution. There are huge political forces willing to go out in the streets to make their voices heard. Despite distressing government interference, Egypt now has both a real, active civil society and vigilant media. Even the average man drinking his morning tea openly criticizes the president.

Everyone is learning what this means. There is a depressing sense on the streets today, but eventually the chaos and violence will end. Once that happens, these factors could help build a vibrant, noisy political life on the Nile.

Zack Gold, a Washington-based Middle East analyst, was in Cairo earlier this month. Follow him on Twitter: @ZLGold

Image: Flickr/Dennis Jarvis. CC BY-SA 2.0.