Clarity in the Midst of Mud: Taking Stock of Egypt’s Situation

Clarity in the Midst of Mud

I wish I was able to succinctly summarize what is happening in Egypt these days. Instead, I am a victim of information overload and competing media narratives. Bear with me and I’ll do my best.

On one side, the president and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters have claimed a conspiracy against them. On the other, liberals see the working of an Islamist plot to seize control of the state and enforce a religious agenda through their flawed constitution.

But if understood only this way, it enforces the narrative that Egypt is witnessing a struggle between Islamists and liberals. Supporters of democracy around the world might say, ‘Didn’t the Islamists win? Don’t they deserve their agenda? It appears they are not nearly the bogeymen we thought them to be.’

Yes and no. Morsi won the election by the smallest of margins, and many of his supporters did so mainly to oppose the other candidate, of whom they feared a return to the former regime. The main youth movement of the revolution, called April 6, and his primary Islamist competitor for the presidency, Aboul Fotouh, now campaign against him and this constitution, after earlier lending their support.

One major complaint is the constitution and its formation. Liberals withdrew from the writing process, believing it was dominated by Islamists. Morsi then preached conspiracy to assume (allegedly temporary) dictatorial powers to preempt the courts from striking it down before a referendum. Amid the outrage Morsi gave up these powers but kept in place all decisions he took while possessing them. Among them was control over public prosecution and immunizing the constitution from judicial review.

The other major complaint is the conduct of Islamists during the protests against Morsi’s decisions. Though the Brotherhood swears innocence, they sent pro-Morsi demonstrators to an area occupied by the opposition. When violence erupted, they claimed to be the victims. Certainly their headquarters were attacked across the country, and they assert members of their group were killed. But testimony and video is plentiful that during the clashes they apprehended their opponents and, well, extracted confessions.

Furthermore, Islamists are camped outside the Supreme Constitutional Court, leading judges to suspend work at the offense toward and interference in the judiciary. They also surround Media Production City, where satellite channels and their popular talk shows are produced. They demand the media be cleansed for spreading lies about them, but so far, both Islamist sit-ins have been peaceful. They state, however, they are ready to act if Morsi is unseated.

Is there an effort to do so? Demonstrators have certainly chanted for his regime to fall like Mubarak’s, but political leaders say they wish only to delay or cancel the referendum and achieve a consensual constitution. For the reasons given above though, they claim his legitimacy is either gone or hanging by a thread. And, it is evident some in the liberal media speak with extreme hyperbole and perhaps manipulate the narrative in their favor.

So today, two rival, thousands-strong demonstrations are set to square off within a distance of several city blocks. Protestors will march to and encamp at the presidential palace in Heliopolis; supporters will gather in nearby Nasr City. Both sides assure their intentions are peaceful and will keep separate to avoid sparking violence. Yet just this morning the ongoing sit-in protest at Tahrir was attacked by unknown assailants.

Islamists insist the protests against the constitution are manufactured and reflective of a small minority of Egyptians. Morsi shows no sign of backing down, insisting to hold the referendum in four days. Indeed, no matter their numbers, it seems opponents can do little to stop what they believe to be an illegitimate process. Unless the army intervenes or social strife erupts, their only recourse will be to vote ‘no’.

It is hard to imagine good liberals justifying either military intervention or national riots to achieve their goals. It is also hard to imagine what Islamists have to gain by assaulting their opponents, as they own the status quo momentum. Perhaps the hardcore and corrupt old regime supporters have had a hand. Islamists certainly claim this, as they paint with broad strokes accusing them of collusion with the liberals. Presented evidence, meanwhile, is scant.

But despite the assurances of all, the threat of violence is in the air. Each side warns of violence if Egypt continues down this path, yet Egypt continues all the same. Perhaps nothing will come of today’s events but passionate demonstrations. Maybe there is only a narrative of violence, either to scare others from participation or tarnish reputations. Or, perhaps, further turmoil will soon ensue.

Above I warned about interpreting events as a continuing contest between liberals and Islamists. Taking much from the analysis that followed, many others prefer the description as a struggle between the cultures of democracy and authoritarianism.

But here is where you start to drown. Each event has so many subplots and possible interpretations. Narratives come through media, or experts, or partisans – all tinged, if not outright colored, by bias, unnamed sources, and simply lack of complete information. Throw in the strategic importance of Egypt in world politics, and the story is complicated even further.

So is it all a mess? Well, that is another proposed narrative. Is it a power struggle? There is another. Is it a fight for freedom? Take your pick.

But as you pick, I advise you to pick according to what is right and good, with all humility. As much as I struggle to define this, I excuse you from the certainty necessary to speak in these terms. The following days may change Egypt for years to come; let us pray that which is best for her people prevails.

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