Egypt's New Politics of Desperation

The secularists are in crisis in Egypt. Two weeks ago, following Islamist triumphs in the lower-house elections, the largest party in the secular Egyptian Bloc announced a boycott of February's upper-house contest. A week later, Mohamed El-Baradei, the venerable former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and icon of the revolutionary left, announced his refusal to run for president. Both of these decisions came amid serious allegations of electoral irregularities and broader concerns over the military’s handling of Egypt’s fragile post-revolutionary order.

At the center of Egypt's battle for a renewed politics is the Free Egyptians Party, who led the boycott of the Shura Council elections and have become the country's strongest rejoinder to decades of Islamist momentum and civil society decay. In the verdant Cairo neighborhood of Mohandeseen, the party meets behind doors controlled by fingerprint-scanners, only barely trying to hide the fact that they have never done this before.

“I am not political and have never been political,” says the party's director of operations, Walid Mohamed El Daoudi. “But I have dedicated myself to this party because I see now that daily life is a question of politics.” In the next room, a half-dozen of El Daoudi's colleagues process the 150,000 membership applications the party has received since its founding six months ago.

“Almost all of the people here were not involved in politics before the revolution, but many were among the first people in Tahrir,” El Daoudi continues. “We all want to be stakeholders in the building of our country.” So far, the FEP's message has resonated to the tune of 59 offices and more than 70 full-time employees since its founding this summer. By El Daoudi’s estimate, it will take six to eight weeks to process outstanding applicants. But the party's success will not be determined by numbers. Its challenge lies ahead, in reconfiguring the very ethic of political involvement in Egypt, in repairing the country's civic and cultural backbone.

“The idea of volunteer work is a novel concept in Egyptian political behavior,” says El Daoudi. “The only party that really existed [Mubarak’s National Democratic Party] relied on monetary incentives to get people involved in any way, even to vote. There will be a certain element of reconfiguring people’s conception of political participation and convincing them of this ethic of volunteership, and have them really see the value of political involvement.”

“Egypt is first going to have to go through the struggle of developing its identity,” says the party's director of membership, Ehab Samir. “And that’s where we’re going to need to have a strong coalition of liberals together, facing the Islamists on the other side.”

Across from me, Dr. Ahmad Hassan Said talks of Egypt while his iPhone chimes impatiently. “We need a lot of time,” says the newly-elected Member of Parliament who serves as the FEP's president. “Take Egypt when Sadat was killed and assassinated in 1981. You didn’t have a single veiled woman in Egypt at the time. Mosques were rarely visited except on Fridays. Look at this transformation. It took thirty years to change the habits, the behavior, the mode of operation. So you need another thirty years in the right direction. If you go in the wrong direction, it will be like that forever.”

Dr. Said speaks of the Islamist victory in Parliament as a necessary evil, a case study that will demonstrate, once and for all, that Islamists are long on rhetoric and short on solutions. The fundamentalists fail even at implementing their religious agenda, he offers:

“These people are so busy with rituals. They want to get people to pray, you can’t get people to pray; it’s against human nature to force people to do things that they don’t want to do. Look at Saudi Arabia: headline news in 2011 was that a girl was crazy enough to drive her car. I mean, come on! And still, do you think they have managed to get rid of all their ethical problems, that people really believe in God?”

Sitting in a room with Dr. Said, listening to his sweeping remarks and thirty-year timeframe, it is hard to imagine that this is a conversation with a political party. When our discussion turns to Egyptians under thirty—a demographic that accounts for 60% of the general population but only 10% of the FEP—Said underscores the need to appeal to this group. Indeed, the FEP project amounts to no less than political and social engineering on a grand scale, a radical re-envisioning of the Egyptian polity itself. Back in El-Daoudi's cramped office, he spoke of a future in which the party could short-circuit the religious establishment entirely, relying, one day, "on our own newspaper" and lively gatherings at party offices for political discussions and debates.

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Vicious puppeteers who traded in fear, suppression, and strategic provocation, Mubarak and his predecessors relied on an elaborate vision of Egypt as a nation perpetually on the brink of explosive violence. The heavy hand of the state was advertised as the only thing keeping the diverse factions of society from each others' throats. Coaxing a healthy civil society out of this legacy is a challenging task, the apparatus of authoritarianism still alive through the machinations of a partially state-controlled press.

“The state press needs not just a purge, the whole thing should just be thrown in the trash,” says the British-American journalist Max Rodenbeck, who has been The Economist's Chief Middle East Correspondent since 2000. “It’s a preposterous legacy no government [since Nasser] has had the guts to deal with.”

Authoritarian Egypt's cultural command-economy, orchestrated by the byzantine Ministry of Information, leaves a mark that poses a unique challenge to the FEP and its sympathizers. Working in tandem with a far-reaching coercive state apparatus, the restricted flow of information has seriously stunted Egypt's cultural and political development, leaving today's secularists with the task of mending not just the country's politics but its civil society.

Rodenbeck observes that the quality of the once venerable state-backed newspaper Al-Ahram has declined in inverse relation to the size of the editor's name on the front page. Today, the name eclipses many of the day's top headlines. Yet the dismantling of the Ministry of Information, with its vast menagerie of publishing imprints, broadcast programming, and redundant dailies, is unlikely in the near future. The Islamists will wish to preserve the apparatus, appropriating it to their ends: the Muslim Brotherhood speaks extensively of a cultural agenda, and their recent pressure on the state censorship board to ban the film Wahed Sahih lends credence to their stated plans. The leftists, meanwhile, are unlikely to disband a major state employer.

There are encouraging developments in the national discourse, including, says Rodenbeck, a recent across-the-aisle dialogue between the editor of the liberal Al Masry Al Youm and a prominent Islamist on a popular television talk show. Although nothing particularly groundbreaking resulted from the exchange, this was an especially meaningful event. The frank tenor of the conversation proved a refreshing break from the canned repartee all too common on the circuit. Televised talk shows, Rodenbeck explains, are also fairly incestuous in their intellectual reach. “There are about 20 talk shows and 100 guests between them,” he says.

Yet a fundamental issue remains unsettled. In many ways, Rodenbeck argues, little has changed in the makeup of the government’s coercive wing, the so-called “deep state” of entrenched military and security interests. The backbone of the old authoritarianism has proven itself resilient. Citing the widely-reported “raiding” of the State Security Investigations building in March, Rodenbeck highlights the revelation that the “whole thing was staged” by the security agency itself.

This—the enduring legacy of monolithic state institutions designed to manufacture obedience from above and below—provides the backdrop to Egypt’s cultural debates and electoral struggles. The challenge of dismantling the apparatus will fall to citizens whose disagreements emulate but do not encompass civil society. There is debate in Egypt, but there is not yet a sense of where it will lead. On my way home from my meeting with Rodenbeck, my cab driver pointed to the glorious January afternoon and exclaimed, “Egypt is blooming! With the old tyrants gone, one can feel Cairo's true beauty re-emerging.” Later that same day, a different cabbie, trapped in the snarl of traffic, hurled epithets as we inched past the British Embassy, its gates bearing spray-painted entreaties to GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT. “They should round up all the damn foreigners and their agents and shoot them. They’ve destroyed everything.”

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When a widespread popular discourse is stifled and intellectual culture routed, the demise of the old fascism isn’t enough to guarantee a positive rebirth in its absence. Egypt has only recently begun to emerge from a fundamental intellectual drought. The novelist Alaa Al Aswany, whom the FEP’s Dr. Said was sure to acknowledge as a personal source of inspiration, has become the scholar of record for this new secular politics. Two weeks ago, I found my way into one of his salons.

I had crashed on a friend’s living room couch in the once colonial-chic Cairo neighborhood of Garden City. Al Aswany is a dentist by trade—who, despite his fame, continues to receive patients—and his clinic was next door. Across from my window, the man at the top of Foreign Policy's most recent list of “Top 100 Global Thinkers” sat at his desk—usually alone, working, speaking on the phone and smoking prodigiously.

A purveyor of what one critic called “current affairs fiction,” Al Aswany has, over the course of the last decade, built an enormous following on the back of two politically-charged novels and a steady stream of newspaper columns and public appearances. He became a political visionary in 2004 when he co-founded the Kefaya (“Enough”) movement, which fought valiantly for the end of Mubarak long before the Tahrir uprising. I walked into his office and was invited to his nadwa, a sort of lecture-cum-literary salon. Many prominent writers and intellectuals in Egypt have traditionally held weekly nadwas, occurring, usually, on Thursday—the end of the week.

And so a few days later I traded my passport for a visitor’s badge to enter a decrepit Ministry of Investment edifice, host to that week’s lecture. The topic was economic reform, and Al Aswany mostly ceded the lectern to a scholar on the subject—an academic economist. Al Aswany opined briefly on the state of the secular left in the face of the Islamists, at times responding off-the-cuff to comments from the crowd, which numbered in the high double-digits. Nothing too out of the ordinary was said—his main points revolved around the futility of censorship and, echoing the FEP position, the necessity of an Islamist parliamentary failure to convince the Egyptian people of the need for a secular political ethic.

But the gathering was an instructive mise en scène of Egypt's political and cultural tensions. The group was fairly diverse, with a relatively high number of unveiled women in attendance. Many of them sported a hyperbolic amount of makeup—in caking on cosmetics, a symbolic riposte to the fascist austerity of the veil is perhaps achieved. Yet the event could hardly be considered a blueprint for free and open discourse: the metal detectors, the elevated podium bearing a government insignia, and the submission of written questions for screening created an atmosphere that was a world away from the freewheeling nadwas the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz was known to host in Cairo many decades ago.

As the intellectual fulcrum of Egypt’s political discourse shifts from Cairo’s gritty center to its leafy periphery, some growing pains are to be expected, especially when so much structural change is needed, both at the level of the citizen and the state. The FEP’s halls, gated by biometric scanners and filled with cell phone chatter and iPads, are a long way from the entropic efflorescence of Tahrir Square. How does one transition from a politics of insurrection to policy action, when the path between the two winds through such paradigmatic challenges? In the aftermath of the People’s Assembly elections, we see a microcosm of the treacherous road ahead, especially for those to whom the steering will fall.


Mostafa Heddaya