Palestinian intellectual Azmi Bishara provides an overview of Egypt’s democratic transition. He spoke to Amira Howeidy in Doha
It’s been a while since leading Arab intellectual Azmi Bishara, 56, made an appearance — in either print or on our television screens — though in the first year of the Arab Spring he was a media fixture. His silence is deliberate. It’s time “for in depth writing” he says, and setting the foundations for the “next stage”. We are, after all, at the threshold of a “cultural renaissance” following the “age of Arab decay”.
Al-Ahram Weekly met with Bishara in the Qatari capital Doha, where he is based and which is home to the think tank, the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies, which he founded in September. The centre hosted a conference last week at which Bishara described the Arab revolutions as the “most important geopolitical event in the region since the 1950s”.
MOHAMED MORSI: Egypt is at the centre of the geopolitical shift, and it’s post-Mubarak history strewn with political hurdles the latest of which was caused by its first elected president, Mohamed Morsi, who last month issued a constitutional declaration — revoked three weeks later — placing himself above the law above the law and then followed up by fast-tracking a public referendum on the controversial draft constitution which was approved this week. Both moves added to an already volatile political situation which has seen the president and his Muslim Brotherhood group’s popularity plunge to a new low. Yet Bishara won’t call this a failure. “It’s a premature and thus untrue assessment”.
Morsi committed grave mistakes and has yet to free himself of a partisan mentality, and the challenges he faces are “complex and riddled with danger”. They require him to act as a president for all Egyptians rather than “entrenching his rule” and that of the parliamentary majority. On the other hand, the opposition isn’t behaving “responsibly” towards all Egyptians. Its job isn’t to “just oppose” but to contribute to building a new democracy. Were it doing that it would have been more understanding of the complexity of the situation and the positive steps Morsi has taken and have focussed on criticising his mistakes “more objectively”.
Bishara then suggests what is probably impossible: that the opposition places itself in Morsi’s shoes the better to contextualise any critique of his performance.
Morsi’s attempt to dismantle the deep state, he says, is like dismantling a “bomb without it exploding in your face”.
“Is it that easy? Does it happen by slogans?” asks Bishara.
Of course not, which is why the president’s attempts to lay off the prosecutor-general — one of the holdovers of the previous regime — should have been appreciated. Similarly, Morsi’s “peaceful” neutralisation of the military is something Bishara says the opposition should applaud.
Which is not to say he approves of Morsi’s “oratorical” style, his “excessive” factionalism and his failure to keep the promises he made to the political forces that supported him in the presidential run-offs against Hosni Mubarak’s prime minister Ahmed Shafik.
“He wouldn’t have made it on the Brotherhood’s votes alone.”
It is also “unacceptable” how the president approaches the issue of Copts, as if he’s “granting” them something or doing “them a favour”.
They’re “Egyptians, part of the people and not a minority,” says Bishara.
What’s happening in Egypt, argues Bishara, is not a “national dialogue” but more of a squabble. After having to rely on others to get through the run offs Morsi is actively seeking to secure Brotherhood rule, while those who have been marginalised or excluded from decision-making feel their only role is to oppose “both what’s good and what’s bad”. While the strategy might work in an established democracy it is singularly inappropriate for one that’s still in formation and requires “joint” participation above all.
PREMATURE COMPETITION: Bishara feels Egypt’s “partisan” problem is a result of its failure to build the solid democratic institutions without which pluralism will only fragment the country. This is why he believes that a set of consensual constitutional principles should have been written immediately following Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, reflecting the principles and demands of those who took part in the revolution.
“I mean the spirit of Egypt’s revolution, which wasn’t Islamic or secular but was a democratic revolution against tyranny and corruption and for freedom and dignity.”
He doesn’t go as far as the “constitution first” camp who demanded that an entire constitution be written ahead of any election. What Bishara is talking about is a document more like the “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” which was compiled before the French wrote their constitution in 1789. This would have been enough to serve as an introduction and most likely end as an integral part of the constitution.
“Democracy isn’t just about a multiparty system, the rule of the majority and elections. It’s a set of agreed upon principles which force every majority to respect it.” The big question in a democratic transition isn’t who rules but “how” they rule. Egypt, says Bishara, was forced too early into the “who” question.”
PROJECTING VIEWS ON THE ISLAMIST STREAM: So did ex-judge and historian Tarek Al-Bishri have too much faith in pluralism when he headed the committee which amended the 1971 constitution and laid down the roadmap for the transition which started with elections?
Like most of the elite Al-Beshri didn’t view the Islamist stream as it is but through the lens of how “it should be” vis-à-vis his own conclusions about the relationship between religion and politics: “I can’t stress how much I appreciate and respect him and other Islamist intellectuals and I agree with most of their views, but these thinkers were never partisan, never joined a political party”, which Bishara believes explains the gap between their political views and what party politics actually produces.
But all this is “spilled milk”. Now Bishara wants to talk about “saving what can be saved”.
There has to be a distinction, he says, between the “democratic majority and the constitutional majority”.
Morsi can rule not only with the 52 per cent he got, but also with 50+1 per cent, “only if there is advance agreement on the rules” of governance. No one “should doubt Morsi’s legitimacy” but that does not mean accepting a constitution that’s approved by a majority when more than 30 per cent of society, including “central streams”, do not agree with the rules of the constitutional game “and feel excluded”.
The truth is Egyptians didn’t vote “yes” or “no” on the constitution “but as supporters and opposition”. The “constitution was never the issue and everything has been subject to partisan competition”.
But what now?
Based on the urban voting pattern in both Cairo and Alexandria Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood must understand approximately 40 per cent of their population are antagonistic. This percentage constitutes around 70 per cent of Egypt’s middle class.
“Will Morsi rule without the middle class and the intelligentsia? If he wants to establish a democratic state he can’t dispense with the middle class or the urban population. If they’re not with him, there will be a problem.”
The president and the Brotherhood should “immediately” reconsider their relationship with political forces in forming a new government. All the controversial articles in the constitution should be modified consensually, with the president’s support, once the new parliament is elected, he says.
“Morsi must fulfil all the promises he made, but never kept, when he was seeking support in the runoff elections. It’s inappropriate to begin his reign with broken promises.”
But just how flexible is Morsi or the Brotherhood? Are they able to reconsider their political performance given their discourse, which has shown no signs of change? Bishara ponders the question for a moment before he confesses that not only did other observers focus too much on the “reformist face” of the Brotherhood put forward since the 1990s when the debate on Islam and democracy was all the rage, but that he too overlooked some important facts.
“We should have noticed that those who adopted a democratic line eventually found themselves outside the Brotherhood” — men like Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, Abul-Ela Madi and others.
It would be a “grave mistake” for the Brothers to start celebrating now that the constitution has been approved by 64 per cent of a low turnout. “If I were them I’d be grateful about scraping through this test… what they got isn’t a constitutional majority but a partisan one. Again, I invite them to separate the two.”
Bishara says he thought the group had learned its lesson when Morsi got 25 per cent in the first round of the presidential elections and only 52 per cent in the runoffs.
“He was walking on the edge” and one would have thought they would have avoided a similar scenario. They didn’t.
In this climate of polarisation, tension and uncertainty, the “tone” of Brotherhood strongman Khairat Al-Shater is the last thing Egypt “needs at this stage”.
The Brotherhood’s deputy supreme guide made a rare public appearance at a presser on 8 December during which he said the group has been monitoring individuals that oppose Morsi. He also referred repeatedly to the Islamists as one entity and disparaged massive opposition protests against Morsi.
“It’s his right to say what he wants as a competing political party, but this isn’t a tone for the presidency or even the next parliamentary majority,” says Bishara.
THE ARMED FORCES: In this same climate the military reappeared for the first time since Morsi sacked their generals in August. Says Bishara: at best their appearance might be a reflection of their concern and interest in dialogue and at worst “they want to say we’re still here and we’re the party that everybody agrees on”.
In both cases it was a mistake for the military to have issued a political statement on 8 December. It’s not the army’s job to “invite” various parties, including the presidency, to a dialogue since the “military establishment has to obey the elected legitimacy. The military doesn’t deal with ‘parties’, but with the state and that’s what neutralising it from politics means”.
Yet opposition figures Amr Moussa, Mohamed Al-Baradei and Hamdeen Sabahi welcomed the invitation issued by the Minister of Defence Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi on 11 December and then retracted.
“True, but they would have lost half their supporters had they gone.”
There are “big differences” between these men and their support bases, notes Bishara. He adds there’s also a difference between their partisan audience and the general public opposition. These differences mean they can “move freely” but because they don’t have “specific” party bases one day they might look behind them and find they have no audience at all.
The most important development here is what Bishara describes as the “big danger” in excising factionalism.
He talks about “Arab regimes” which oppose the revolution and found an opportunity in the polarisation to play a role via remnants of Mubarak’s regime. These Arab and Gulf regimes consider pluralism a form of “chaos”. They might not necessarily support a specific party in Egypt “but they won’t allow the country to stabilise”.
The second dangerous thing is for partisan polarisation to transform into social polarisation. “If political forces on both sides allow for the division of society into supporters of Islamic Sharia and those against between secularists and non-secularists, then they’re not acting responsibly enough from a nationalist viewpoint.” Egyptians are not divided this way and its “unacceptable” to export such divisions.
EGYPT-GAZA: Bishara disagrees with critics who accuse Morsi of adopting the same foreign policy as Mubarak, a view he describes as lacking “any objectivity”, symptomatic of the “partisan competition” that overshadows everything.
Those incapable of differentiating between Egypt’s role in the war on Gaza in 2004 and last month “are incapable of making comparisons at all”. He demands a “minimum” of credibility from intellectuals who claim to see no difference.
“How can Morsi be compared to former minister of foreign affairs Ahmed Abul-Gheit and the way he handled his then Israeli counterpart Tzipi Livni when she declared war on Gaza from Cairo?” The Mubarak regime “wasn’t even a broker in the war, it was a partner,” he says. Then chief of General Intelligence Omar Suleiman was even “part of the war’s design”.
Understandably Egypt doesn’t want to go to war with Israel but its position is now different, “it’s sympathetic to Gaza”. Public opinion and a new president changed Egypt’s posture which “now wants to help Hamas”.
Egypt is still a long way from returning to its international and regional role and Washington is pleased that Cairo is still playing the role of broker. “But this time the broker’s heart is with the Palestinians” and isn’t pressing them to accept Israel’s conditions in order to help them escape Israel’s aggression.
“The Morsi regime was consulting with the Palestinians on how to get them out of the war.”
True, he says, Egypt hasn’t cancelled its peace treaty with Israel but “this is the future work of both the government and the opposition”. They should push Egypt back to “itself”, rejecting normalisation with Israel as Egypt becomes gradually less dependent on US financial aid. Egypt, recommends Bishara, should diversify its sources of military armament and articulate its position towards Palestine and Libya for “Egypt can’t afford to lose Libya to Italy or France.”
“These are the duties of the national movement, whether Islamist or non-Islamist.”
Morsi’s foreign policy in general is underappreciated, he adds. His first visit to China was very “important”, as was his speech in Tehran at the opening of the Non-Aligned Movement in which he supported the Syrian revolution and outlines a more nuanced approach towards Sudan.
“The important thing here is that Mubarak’s regime — allied with Israel and fully subordinate to the US and Saudi Arabia — has gone.”
WASHINGTON AND THE BROTHERHOOD: But isn’t it legitimate for critics to worry when the Barack Obama administration seems so supportive of the Morsi regime? Any presidential candidate who won with a majority would have the US’s support, says Bishara. “Or at least it will accept him because it doesn’t want to enter into a conflict with the choices of the Egyptian people after the revolution.”
But that does not change the Brotherhood’s comforting messages to the international community.
Bishara doesn’t deny the Brotherhood’s “pragmatism and willingness to work with the West” in order that it holds the reigns of power more effectively, be it in terms of economic development, trade relations, armaments, etc. This pragmatism could “possibly” reach the level of “you can count on us”. Yet Bishara is “confident” that in Egypt’s democracy, “in the street, in political parties and in movements, there are no secrets and everything is under the limelight.”
Things will change, he says, “through trial and error”.
What has happened in Egypt since the revolution is not only that the Brotherhood is stronger, everybody else is stronger too. “The revolution has strengthened the secularists, the Islamists, women, Copts, youth and liberals.” Which is why he finds it both “partisan” and an “exaggeration” to claim that the “Islamists kidnapped the revolution.”
The revolution’s “gift” to everybody is that it proved the Brotherhood-Mubarak regime dichotomy was “the dichotomy of autocracy” and once autocracy falls Egyptian society is much more diverse than this fictitious polarity.
“Those who can’t see this can’t see anything.”