Spitting image: The Brotherhood's fateful choices
The ruling (in a manner of speaking) Muslim Brotherhood faces a strategic, even fateful decision: granting that they'll be removed from power within four years, at the outside, they need to make up their minds whether they'd rather bow out gracefully or be thrown out, exit via the ballot box, or revolution.
The two outcomes are very different in their ramifications. Pluralistic democracy assumes political parties bowing gracefully out of power; they move from government to opposition benches, regret their loss of power and influence but enjoy the opposition's privilege of criticising any and all government policies, including blaming the standing government for economic and social flaws they themselves had contributed to making or failed to solve.
Gracefully conceding the shifts in popular moods, inclinations and more important, the social and political balance of forces in the society, also allows political movements to evolve, adapt, transform themselves. Ultimately, they get to fight another day, and have a hand at winning political office yet again and again.
This is very different from being thrown out of power, kicking and screaming all the way. There is almost invariably a certain finality about such a fate, as grim and final as the degree of kicking and screaming involved in the attempt to hold on to power. Mubarak and his National Democratic Party come to mind, but look around you, the region and the world, today and across the length and breadth of human history, are brimful of examples.
As things stand today, it does not look like the Brotherhood has opted decisively for any one of these two options. Their instincts, mind-set and political training all seem to push them towards option one, yet the pull towards option two is no less compelling, made up of their awareness that they come to power through the agency of a popular revolution, one which they neither instigated nor led, and whose values and aspirations are at great variance with, and often in diametric opposition to many of the 85-year-old group's most deeply held notions and beliefs.
How far the spirit of the Egyptian revolution continues to infuse the nation and its people is not easily apparent. And certainly, it is tempting to consign it to the dust. Many Western pundits and media have done so, already; the recently departed but not forgotten erstwhile ruling military's bouts of viciousness were invariably carried out under the false impression that the revolution was over and all that was needed were mop up operations.
The Brotherhood's leadership had been operating under the same misapprehension soon after the overthrow of Mubarak, which explains their alliance with the military lasting almost up to the eve of presidential elections, as well as the numerous shocks of discovering that millions could still be called to the streets in the absence of the Brothers and in defiance of their various condemnations.
It was this misapprehension also that would cost the Brotherhood half their voters in the 3-4 months between the parliamentary elections and the first round of the presidential elections, their vote dropping from around 11 million in the first poll, to some five million in the second.
Admittedly, things appear to have changed dramatically since the presidential elections; Mohamed Mursi's accession to presidential power, and even more significantly, the ignoble, sudden departure of the military council, in what journalist and analyst Abdallah Al-Sennawi aptly described as "half coup, half accord", appear to have brought a decisive end to the tumultuous "transition", with all its upheavals.
And what with the Brotherhood gradually yet swiftly consolidating its hold on power, extending its hegemony, very much in the style of Mubarak's NDP, over the various organs of the state and beyond (including a concerted attempt to seize control of the media), feelings of despondency often bordering on despair are being felt among the ranks of even the most ardent of revolutionary youths.
Yet it is far too early to parrot what has become a common refrain among much of the Western media: Arab Spring turning into Islamist winter. Indeed, if Newsweek's regression into infantile Orientalism, with its ludicrous "Muslim rage" cover is anything to go by, many of our Western colleagues much prefer to see us as the irrational, fanatical mobs of the recent American embassy frenzy, than as the freedom-loving, disciplined and heroic revolutionaries of Tahrir. After all, it makes "Western man" feel all fuzzy inside, as he basks in the wonder that is "Western Civilisation".
But let the tourism officials worry about "our image" abroad. What concerns us here is our reality at home.
Whether or not we have seen the last of the million man marches and ongoing nationwide uprisings is almost impossible to predict. Ultimate 'black swans", such massive upheavals have a "chaotic" logic of their own; they can neither be made nor anticipated with any degree of confidence.
Yet there is little doubt that just below the surface of Muslim Brotherhood dominated political life the hum of revolutionary energy continues to resonate across the land. The change in the authoritarian state structure may have been little more than a change of hats; yet for millions of Egyptian citizens, the change has been soul-deep.
The values of the revolution live on in the minds and hearts of hundreds of thousands; not for generations has Egypt seen such a wide section of the population so politically engaged; and everywhere across the country Egyptians now see themselves as citizens, no longer subjects, aware of their grievances as of their rights, willing and able to organise and to fight for these against the once fearsome ogres of power, patronage and money.
The upsurge of strikes and diverse forms of industrial action that have dogged Mohamed Mursi's presidency from day one is ample illustration of this, incredible in the breadth of its range and mixture of grievances, demands, protest tools and the staggering variety of those taking part, a range that easily extends from such "classical" blue collar industrial workers as the textile workers of Mahalla to white collar teachers and university employees, way across the social spectrum to the privileged students of the American University in Cairo.
Take also last week's remarkable graffiti backlash. The government moves to paint over the revolutionary graffiti of the main battle grounds of the Egyptian revolution, in downtown Cairo. This is done with almost theatrical swiftness and unusual thoroughness -- ostensibly delivering a strong symbolic message: the revolution is over. Two days later, revolutionary graffiti is back with a vengeance, and a concert is held in Talaat Harb Square to celebrate the victory. A counter message: the revolution lives!
If I were a Muslim Brotherhood leader I would see in this incident a signal no less ominous than the strike wave, or the almost daily protests before the presidential palace.
Young people made the Egyptian revolution; I've been privileged to see them in action. They are courageous beyond imagining, heroic beyond belief, and their love of freedom knows no bounds. And not only do they love freedom, they've tasted it, they've paid a great price for it, and they're not about to see it trampled under military or Muslim Brotherhood boots.
The Brotherhood leadership continues to hover between attempting to replicate the Mubarak regime, on one hand, and yielding to the transformed political landscape of the country on the other. Yet there is a sense that, aware as they are of the extremely short shelf-life of their rule, they are in a scramble to grab as much authoritarian powers as they possibly could, in order to perpetuate their regime, very much in the Mubarak mould.
What we have come to see of the new constitution is one indication, the battery of draft laws prepared by the infamous Interior Ministry, designed basically to criminalise popular protest and strikes, are another, and so are the on and off violent police clampdowns on student and worker strike actions. The attempt to seize control of the state-owned media, and further of the whole media landscape in the country is yet another.
With only a couple of weeks to go Mursi's first 100-day promises have proven to be the farce they always were. And as far as social justice is concerned, the Brotherhood have shown themselves no less zealous adherents of the neo-liberal doctrine than their NDP forebears. Indeed, removals of subsidies on basic goods and other social and economic disasters loom large on the horizon.
Neither have the new rulers shown the merest indication that the crimes committed against the revolution and the people are to be punished, nor are their perpetrators to be brought to heel. Mubarak's police is the Brotherhood's police, even if some of them are finally granted the right to grow beards.
As for the "Renaissance Project", even President Mursi has stopped talking about it, and one Brotherhood leader opined that Egyptians were in fact not ready yet for such a grand vision.
Civil liberties is where it all hangs. Attack civil liberties and you'll be booted out of office, possibly never to return; show them some respect and you may in turn be shown the door nicely, with the full opportunity to fight another day.