Egypt's Foreshadow, Once And Again

Monday, July 22, 2013

I remember listening to Egypt’s then president Hosni Mubarak’s speech with Farzi (short for Farzaneh) on Feb. 10, 2011 on Al Jazeera Live via internet.  She and I were together via Skype, she in Paris and I in Chattanooga, and, fortunately for both of us non-Arabic speakers, there was a near simultaneous translation.  

It was the 16th day of the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo.  The speech was defiant and confident, and Mubarak sounded strong.  Although he was willing to negotiate his leaving, there was no way he was just going to walk away. 

“He’ll be gone in a week,” I remarked after the speech was finished.

“No way!” Farzi exclaimed.  “Didn’t you hear him, how confident he sounded?” 

“Yeah,” I answered, “but he’ll still be gone in a week, maybe two, a month at most.”  I felt pretty sure of myself due to the very recent example of Ben Ali’s resignation of his 23-year presidency of Tunisia on Jan. 14 after 28 days of “people power” protests that began with the self-immolation of vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in the south of the country.

“Well, you may be right,” she conceded, “but I’m worried about what’s going to happen after he leaves.  I’m afraid the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) will take over the country and turn it into another Islamic Republic of Iran.” 

Farzi, who is French Iranian, had been 13 when Iran’s 1979 revolution overthrew the decrepit, corrupt government of the Shah, which initially had been spearheaded by secularists, liberal democrats, progressive students, and workers as well as bazaaris (owners of small businesses retailing in the country’s bazaars).  Precocious for her age, Farzi had warned her father, a secularist and anti-Shah business leader, not to trust Khomeini and stay away from his people and followers.  I had been 15 at the time, a high school sophomore, on the long distance team at Ooltewah High, and an avid watcher of the evening news.

Back in the less distant past, Mubarak resigned the day after his defiant speech, Feb. 11, which was also the 32nd anniversary of the abdication of the Shah in 1979, celebrated as Revolution Day by the Islamic Republic.   

I was reminded of the time my fraternity brother and then best friend Chris Mahoney and I were watching ABC’s General Hospital one afternoon and there was this scene of Rick Webber and former paramour Ginny Blake arguing vehemently about the welfare of the offspring of their affair, Rick Jr.  This was during the early 1980’s when GH’s popularity was at its astronomical height and UTC student center’s TV lounge was standing room only at 3 p.m.  I said they were going to get married, he said they hated each other too much, so we bet $5 on it.  I collected the very next day.

When Farzi and I connected on Skype the day after Mubarak’s speech, I was, of course, very gracious and mature about being proven right and being proven right so far ahead of schedule.  As soon as our video call connected, I stuck out my tongue and chanted, “Nyah! Nyah! Nyah! Nyah! Nyah!”.  I guess you could call it a Rick Castle moment.  Farzi laughed, but then got serious and said to me the same thing she said to her father about Iran in 1979, “Watch and see.” 

The Muslim Brotherhood, the biggest and most organized of the opposition groups, formed the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP)  just 10 days after Mubarak resigned.  A little later, it formed the Democratic Alliance for Egypt with 14 other parties of various shades of the political spectrum of the country, including Salafists (Islamist hardliners), secular democrats, leftists, centrists, and Nasserite nationalists.  

Before the parliamentary elections, however, the Brotherhood drove most of the others away by insisting members of the other parties run under the FJP label.  By the time of the elections to the lower house, the People’s Assembly, which took place in stages from November 2011 to January 2012, the caolition was all but completely defunct.  Elections to the body’s upper house, the Shura Council, took place from the end of January through February. 

At the end of the series of votes to the People’s Assembly, the FJP got 47.2 percent of the vote while the Salafist Al-Nour Party got 24.3 percent, leaving the new parliament overwhelmingly dominated by Islamists.  Elections to the Shura Council were similarly lopsided, 45.04 percent and 28.63 percent for the two afore-mentioned parties.  

Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court later declared the elections invalid and parliament dissolved in June 2012, but the new president, Mohammed Morsi of the Brotherhood’s FJP (elected with 51.73 percent of the run-off vote; he got 24.78 percent in the first round), countermanded the court’s decree.  Ruling in September 2012, the Supreme Administrative Court reiterated the earlier court’s judgment, but Morsi refused to adhere to the legal ruling of either court. 

In the meantime, the overwhelmingly Islamist legislature had elected an overwhelmingly Islamist constituent assembly to write a new constitution (which ultimately turned out to be overwhelmingly Islamist) in March 2012.  

Okay, maybe Farzi wasn’t so wrong after all. 

The constituent assembly was ruled unconstitutional the next month by the Supreme Constitutional Court.  A more balanced and representative assembly was formed in June 2012, but Islamist elements in parliament once again elected some of their own MP’s to the assembly.  The liberal democrats, secular nationalists, leftists, Nasserites, and other non-Islamists declared a boycott even as legal challenges began.

In November 2012, Morsi assumed powers roughly equivalent to those enjoyed by Mubarak under the 30-year state of emergency.  He did so partly to avert any judiciary authority declaring the constituent assembly invalid.   

By this time the Islamists were virtually the only members left, and due to resignations and withdrawals, the assembly lacked a quorum of members necessary for a vote to send the constitution for a referendum.  Despite this, Morsi ordered the assembly to vote and send the draft of 234 articles for a referendum, which took place in December 2012.  The invalidly adopted draft constitution was approved by 64 percent of a voter turnout of 33 percent, meaning that just 21 percent of the electorate expressed its approval of the Islamist drafted and adopted document.

So what you had was a body of questionable validity elected by an invalid legislature mandating a new constitution for all Egyptians which just 21 percent of the citizens approved.

A series of large demonstrations against the virtually all-Islamist government and its invalid constitution broke out at the anniversary of Mubarak’s resignation, and, while these eventually died down, rose up again in June 2013 at Morsi’s first anniversary in office.   

In time, there were millions of people (17 million according to Radio Sawa) out in the streets demanding Morsi’s resignation, both for his and his party’s attempts to Islamicize the country and their incompetence at governing the country and managing its economy, brought about in large part by their refusal to compromise and cooperate.  When the military moved in and removed Morsi on July 3, they did so with the backing of those millions in the streets.  

After Morsi’s removal, the top leaders of Egypt’s two major religions, Imam Ahmed al-Tayib, Grand Sheikh of Al Ahzar (both the Mosque and the University), and Pope Theodoros II, Coptic Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria, publicly gave their blessings to the army’s actions. 

Many (including Wikipedia) have called the actions of the military in Egypt a coup d’etat, but if that’s what it was, then so too was what occurred in the Philippines in February 1986, when far fewer people in a country with a much larger population (even then) came out in support of a rebellion by a small group of military officers and their soldiers that eventually deposed the long-term dictator Ferdinand Marcos.  To Coryistas (supporters of Cory Aquino, wife of slain Marcos opponent Ninoy Aquino), it was the People Power Revolution; to Loyalistas (supporters of ousted president Marcos), it was an illegal coup d’etat.

Incidentally, the Al Ahzar Mosque in Cairo was founded in 972 under the Fatimid Caliphate that then ruled Egypt, North Africa, Sicily, Palestine, and Hejaz (western Arabia, where the cities of Mecca and Medina lie), and in 975 welcomed its first instructors to what became the Al Ahzar University, making it the oldest continuing university on the planet.   

The Fatimids were Shia Muslims (of the Ismaili branch of Shia, as opposed to the Alawi Shia in Syria or the Jafari Shia in Iran and Iraq) originally based in Tunisia.  They were conquered in 1171 by the Kurdish leader Salah al-Din Yusuf  ibn Ayyub, or Saladin, on behalf of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, who ruled it in their name.  From there Saladin, one of the greatest generals in history, conquered the Crusader States of the Levant in 1187.

The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, on the other hand, dates back to the first century and has been a separate entity since the Melkites (those wishing to remain in communion with Constantinople) left in 536.  The Patriarchate had been out of communion with Rome and Constantinople since the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451. 

One of the major backers of the Muslim Brotherhood and its FJP in Egypt, and of Brotherhood affiliates in other countries around North Africa (the Maghreb) and Southwest Asia (the Mashriq), has been the crypto-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) of the Republic of Turkey, whose most prominent figure is the country’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In fact, the AKP has supported the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates throughout the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria, which is a key part of the rebel opposition; the Ennahda (Renaissance) Movement of Tunisia, currently the leading party in parliament (41% of seats); the Justice and Construction Party of Libya; the Movement of Society for Peace in Algeria (formerly known as Hamas), part of the current ruling coalition in parliament; the Coalition for Reform (aka Al-Islah) in Yemen, the leading opposition party; and the Justice and Development Party (PJD) of Morocco, the country’s explicitly Islamist ruling party that models itself on the supposedly secular but socially conservative AKP. 

The AKP also advocates for Hamas in Palestine, which began as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt.  The Turkish party has been a strong influence among the faction in Hamas which desires to move it away from armed conflict and enter elections, which it did in 2006, winning a majority of the seats in the Legislative Council (resulting in punitive sanctions against Palestine by the U.N., U.S., U.K., and Russia as well as the State of Israel).

When I visited Paris in spring 2011 (I left the day after the April 27 tornadoes), Farzi and I watched a video on Youtube of a man in New Jersey whose family had lost their boat, both cars, basement, and part of the first floor of their two-story home to heavy flooding.  Smiling broadly, he proclaimed, “At least none of us are hurt and the second floor is all okay”.  Farzi shook her head in wonder, saying, “You Americans, no matter how bad things are you always find something good about the situation.” 

Most of those groups mentioned above reached the position they are now in during and in the aftermath of the Arab Spring risings, the very outcome which Farzi greatly feared and about which I was concerned.  Being an Iranian and having lived since adolescence under the Islamic Republic before emigrating to Paris, Farzi was naturally inclined toward pessimism, though objective enough to at least hope she was wrong.  In the short run, at least, it has appeared her fears were well founded.  Recent events in Egypt, however, may signal a change of direction.

I remember when Morsi and his FJP fellows first flew to the fore with politicians and pundits pompously positing perhaps the style of Islamism practiced but not espoused by the AKP was what the peoples in the region newly freed from autocracies really needed…as opposed to the actual freedom that they marched, demonstrated, were abused, and died for.  Having seen them pursuing invariably the same object, Egyptians rose up to throw off their government in order to provide new guards for their future security.  They were not the only ones paying attention; those living under the authoritarian rule in democratic garb of Prime Minister Erdogan fear that the direction in which the Freedom and Justice Party was taking Egypt is the same in which the Justice and Development Party wishes to take Turkey.

Chuck Hamilton 


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