Binary Fascism and its Hindrance to Democratic Consolidation

hassanelbanna nasser

Egypt’s social and political dichotomy between the Armed Forces and the Muslim Brotherhood has bred a historically languid civil society, a challenge among many others on the road to consolidated democracy.

Binary Fascism

In an interview with the BBC on August 16, Egyptian actor, activist, and revolutionary Khalid Abdalla stated both the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood are “fundamentally fascist organizations” and that he “rejected the binaries” they have presented to Egyptian society. Abdalla went on to state that the future had to be “inclusive with everyone represented.”

Abdalla was referring to the need for a pluralistic society. A basic tenet of consolidated democracy and a concept in the company of many others believed by powerless revolutionaries and liberals caught between the strength and organization of a Muslim Brotherhood and military with little interest in their existence. Since the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Muslim Brotherhood and the military have competed for power within Egyptian society; as the most organized actors in Egyptian society, these two organizations were most poised to take over after Egypt’s 2011 revolution. This dichotomy explains the reasons behind the success of the Brotherhood in 2012 and the widespread appeal of the military in 2013. However, with the Muslim Brotherhood  calling the military  murderers and the Armed Forces pointing the finger back and calling them terrorists the masses are forced to decide between two highly polarized organizations with a great deal of power. With the Brotherhood feigning to be in the interest of democracy and the military feigning to be in the interest of security and stability; revolutionaries and liberals face an uphill battle in advancing the goals which brought people to the streets on January 25.
The Absence of a Vibrant Civil Society

Precipitant from this power vacuum is the historic inability of civil society to rise and flourish in Egypt. This is particularly problematic considering that a vibrant civil society is perhaps the most significant characteristic of a consolidated democracy. According to Larry Diamond, civil society is the intermediary entity between the public and private sphere that is home to “organized social life that is voluntary, self-generating, (largely) self-supporting, autonomous from the state, and bound by a legal order or set of shared rules.” Civil society exists to achieve public ends, not so much by reaching formal power or office but rather seeking concessions from the state. Diamond writes that places where civil society is working towards democratic transition are not places where civil society does not exist. Rather, they are places where civil society is oppressed and is working in the interest of public good.

However, in Egypt, this civil society working in the interest of public good is marginalized and increasingly unable to function. This is a product of a political pedigree which has never allowed for the sincere formation of opposition parties. The Brotherhood’s power and influence stems from being a religious organization able to carry out its activities at the local mosque and create its own civil society organizations such as NGO’s which address the needs of Egypt’s masses. Leading up to the 2011 revolution nearly every other party was outlawed, leaving Egyptian society deeply polarized. A vibrant civil society means interest groups, NGOs, lobbying firms, and rights activists serving a wide array of interests. Such a society fills the gap between the only two organizations ever to possess any sort of political power in Egypt and forces the formation of a government meeting the competing demands of a pluralistic society.

Diamond writes that a consolidated democracy is “the process by which democracy becomes so broadly and profoundly legitimate among its citizens that it is very unlikely to break down.” This inability to break down stems from multiple stakeholders having a direct interest in the government’s functionality and ability to meet their needs. Ideally, civil society evolves into a fourth branch of government that checks the powers of the legislative, judicial, and executive branches by “balancing the tensions in its relations with the state” (between autonomy and cooperation, vigilance and loyalty, skepticism and trust, assertiveness and civility).

It is this balance that allows democracy to thrive and endure. However, until Egypt’s highly polarized political landscape is dismantled at its core and organically reconstructed to provide a space for an unadulterated civil society; the scales will remain tipped.

In Less than 200 Words – Why Egypt’s 2013 Constitution is No Good

Constitution

The constitution for “all Egyptians” puts many of the liberals and revolutionaries who set the uprisings in motion in the same predicament they were in when they started on January 25, 2011. There are a few issues which I think are non-negotiable when it comes to forming a democratic system of government and no matter what other pros exist and are enough to make the entire document unfit for a functional democracy. These issues are anti protest law, loose definitions of ‘libel’ and ‘defamation’ which make it easier to imprison journalists (effectively nullifying a law saying they can not be imprisoned), and military trials for civilians. Beyond these specifics is the issue of a drafting body comprised of people (in some way shape or form) paid by the state. This has yielded a constitution which is extremely state-centric. Additionally is the issue of unprecedented powers for the military (picks its own defense minister; no presidential loyalty in oath) and judiciary ameliorating these bodies’ ability to entrench their supremacy.

US Policy in Egypt Inconsistent and Counterproductive

Joint Piece with Seth Binder

Since Anwar Sadat signed the peace treaty with Israel in 1979, the United States has promoted stability in Egypt by supporting autocratic regimes. While this stability worked against both the interests of the Egyptian people and US principles of democracy, it allowed the US to serve its strategic interests in Egypt. Frustrated by the Mubarak regime, on January 25, 2011 the Egyptian people struck back at over 30 years of American-supported authoritarianism and took to the streets in mass protest. In the two years that have followed, Egypt’s transition to democracy has been plagued by political turmoil, threatening US interests. Seeking to preserve stability in Egypt, American inconsistency in following its laws and principles has only exacerbated the problems of Egypt’s transition and adversely affected US interests. The US stands a much better chance of serving its interests by consistently articulating and executing policies aligned with its calls for inclusive democracy.

At the onset of Egypt’s revolution, US attempts to support Egypt’s stability were in clear contradiction with its democratic principles. Before Mubarak’s resignation on February 11, Vice President Biden told PBS’s NewsHour that he was not a dictator and that he should not step down. However, a week later, President Obama expressed the need for Mubarak to resign immediately. Contradictions continued in the following years as the draconian measures of both the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party were met with minimal chastisement and continued economic and military support.

Following the military’s removal of democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, the Obama administration again displayed inconsistency by failing to abide by US law. Section 7008 of the FY 2012 Appropriations Bill requires aid suspension if “the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’état or… decree in which the military plays a decisive role.” Instead, the administration chose to focus on whether or not a coup had taken place, an exercise which, as the law dictates, is unnecessary. Several months later the US responded to the Egyptian military’s violent dispersal of the pro-Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins at Rabaa al-Adaweya and al-Nahda and increasing human rights violations by partially suspending military aid. The administration insisted the reason for the unprecedented suspension of delivery of F-16′s, Apache helicopters, M-1/A-1 tanks, Harpoon missiles, and $260 million in cash assistance was due to concerns over Egypt’s transition to democracy rather than a violation of the coup clause in the FY2012 Appropriations Bill. A senior administration official declared that the US “didn’t make a determination, haven’t made a determination, don’t think [they] need to make a determination” whether it was a coup, but noted they were “acting consistent with the provisions of the law.” More recently, amid growing concern over a weakening alliance, Secretary Kerry traveled to Egypt to meet with government officials; not only did he praise the interim government’s commitment to the transitional roadmap, but he indicated the aid suspension was “not a punishment,” but instead, “a reflection of a policy in the United States under our law,” that, “we’re bound by.”

The United States’ inconsistent rhetoric and policies have strained its relationship with Egypt and harmed its interests in a stable Egypt. Evidence includes insults towards former US Ambassador Anne Patterson and popular conspiracy theories detailing US support for the Muslim Brotherhood or the Armed Forces. Further, Egypt’s has showed an interest in exploring the prospect of partnerships with Russia and solidifying its alliance with Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia. Each of these events is the byproduct of an inconsistent policy that has thwarted progress toward a stable Egypt. The confusing policies have also frustrated regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, who criticized the lack of explicit US support for the events of July 3rd. Regardless of national interests, the administration’s enforcement of the coup clause of the FY 2012 Appropriations Bill would have at least elicited the respect of Egyptians and other regional allies for implementing consistent policy. Instead, the administration was criticized for threatening US national security, losing leverage with an important ally, and betraying principles of democracy. In a speech in May 2011, President Obama acknowledged that “societies held together by fear and repression may offer the illusion of stability for a time, but they are built upon fault lines that will eventually tear asunder.” It is not too late for the administration to assertively re-declare this sentiment and adopt a policy that consistently supports a democratic transition that benefits Egypt, the region, and US interests.

In Egypt, Inclusive Democracy is no Longer just a Suggestion

source: jinsa.wordpress.com

source: jinsa.wordpress.com

According to recent statements made by the Obama administration, an inclusive democracy which embodies the goals of Egypt’s 2011 revolution is the only way Egypt can continue to be a partner and friend of the United States.

Since when?

A little background that you have probably already heard

With the revolution, its supposed correction on June 30th, the violence on August 14th, and the Obama administration’s recent decision to withhold aid, a multitude of stories detailing Egypt’s strategic importance to the United States have materialized. I won’t waste your time with the details that have since littered the internet, but just so we’re on the same page, here’s the gist: The US has key interests in Egypt; it wants to protect its close pal Israel, it wants access to the Suez Canal, and it wants cooperation on counter-terrorism efforts. Of much greater importance than any of these interests though, is influence. The 1.5 billion dollars in aid (1.3 to military and 250 million to economic efforts), which until very recently the United States provided to Egypt on an annual basis, afforded Americans a seat at the Egyptian political decision-making table. Knowing that Egypt is a major player in the region, such a seat can, and has has proven to, be invaluable to the strategic foreign policy interests of the United States in the Middle East.

Loyal to my interests, unfaithful to my principles

At the risk of oversimplification, the relationship can be reduced to the following: I give you money and state of the art military weapons and training and throw some money at your economy; you give me some decision-making power on issues going on in your country/region that are of direct interest to me. In accordance with this understanding, the Egyptian military established itself as a dependable accomplice for US strategy in the region, “coming up big” in moments such as in 1991 when it helped the United States rally an Arab coalition against Saddam Hussein, or cooperating on intelligence efforts in the post 9/11 era. Coexisting with this deep commitment to the United States however, was an authoritarian regime. Mubarak’s deep state was just as committed to its relationship with the United States as it was to being a centralized government, characterized by rampant corruption, restricted media, police brutality, a massive gap between the rich and the poor, and a severe deficiency in civil liberties. Every now and then, the torment and suffering endured by the Egyptian people below the surface of this mutually beneficial relationship would catch fire and yield international condemnation; in such instances the US would respond with soft encouragement to the Mubarak regime to usher in democratic reforms. Such encouragement was matched by little to no action and although evidence of an increasingly authoritarian regime began to appear more frequently from 2005 – 2010, it did little more than leave a blemish on the two governments’ deeply entrenched relationship.

Why the sudden intensity?

If democracy was never something the United States aggressively pressured Egypt to move toward, why the sudden urges for inclusive democracy and the recent decision to withhold aid? Is it because we have suddenly made ourselves sick by supporting autocratic rulers who defy the supposed fabric of our political infrastructure? A quick scan of the US-Saudi relationship tells me otherwise. This contradiction is an integral piece to our diplomatic modus operandi and does not seem to be bidding us farewell anytime soon. So what is it then? Mubarak was an autocrat, SCAF’S period of interim rule was autocratic, and Morsi’s sweeping constitutional declaration in November 2012 wasn’t exactly the most democratic move in history. All of these leaders instituted authoritarian measures and all of them enjoyed the unfettered flow of US aid to Egypt.

General Abdel Fattah el -Sisi is the aberration. General Sisi is the only Egyptian leader to defy democratic principles in such a flagrant manner on the world stage the way he did when he ordered the violent dispersal of sit-ins at Rabia Adawiya and El-Nahda on August 14th. General Sisi is the reason hundreds of protesters were killed as they exercised their right to demonstrate, a right the United States firmly supports. Additionally, General Sisi was trained here in the United States and graduated from US Army War College here in Pennsylvania.

So now we’re in a tough spot. General Sisi has not only committed “deplorable” acts incongruous with democracy, he is also “one of our guys.” This is an unprecedented insult to Uncle Sam to the Nth degree and makes it nearly impossible for the United States to look the other way and continue business as usual. That is why the Obama administration’s calls for inclusive democracy are louder than ever. It’s why behaving more democratically is no longer just a suggestion and it’s why Harpoon missiles and Apache helicopters have recently been withheld.

El-Sisi’s actions are forcing us to do something we should have done a long time ago and that is to support the long-term goal of democracy in Egypt.

A long time ago you say?

It’s not as if we didn’t know that democracy was the right answer. Rather, we knew it was the right answer but that it would take a long period of instability to reach — an instability that could compromise our interests. The fact is, the long dark days that serve as the backdrop to the journey from authoritarianism to democracy are well documented in history and should be well understood by the Obama administration. In France, instability relentlessly plagued the 200 years which lapsed between the founding of its First Republic in 1792 and its Fifth Republic in 1958. Other countries such as Peru, Italy, and Indonesia also underwent difficult democratic transitions. Revolutions and democratic transition are all about taking a few steps back in order to go many more steps forward. The authoritarian lid which seeks to clamp down upon transparent government, separation of powers, and civil liberties must be completely removed so that all which dwells below may rise and manifest itself within the political sphere. Yes, the result is trying times which may be marked by executions and arrivals of autocrats, reigns of terror, and coups which temporarily threaten the interests of allies; but we must understand and accept this as the nature of democratic transition.

Embracing the nature of it

Supporting the transition to an inclusive democracy means accepting the transient instability that is indispensable to its pursuit. The recently intensified urges for inclusive democracy and actions that have followed accordingly are a signal to me that the United States is choosing to let go of a historically authoritarian Egypt that has provided it with the “stability” necessary to satisfy its interests. Rather, the US seems to have realized that its interests are best served by a relationship organically rooted in mutually held democratic principles.