Scattered thoughts on Egypt and accountability agendas

As I sit in a Lima hotel room writing this missive, Egyptian president Mohamed Morsy has more or less just finished a speech in which, as usual, he demonized opponents of his rule and called them “feloul” (remnants (of the old regime)). Referring to his democratic mandate as the elected president of Egypt, he dismissed the swelling chorus of demands for his resignation as counterrevolutionary hot air. These have come from the press, from an unprecedented mobilization of protesters in the streets, and from the military, which yesterday issued an ultimatum, ostensibly to all political actors, but really mostly to Morsy, which boils down to: fix this in 48 hours or we will.

In this very instant the New York Times is running a chilling photograph of a phalanx of Morsy supporters, gathering girded by pledges to defend his rule and give teeth to his defiant statements. Dressed neatly, polo shirts tucked into belted kahakis and pressed jeans, they’d look as though they’d stepped out of a mobile phone sales office were it not for the millwrights’ hard hats on their heads, the short staves that they hold by their sides.

I am trying so effusively and cross-disciplinarily to situate my readers in time because soon after I publish this essay, the piece will surely be outdated. Events in Egypt are moving too swiftly to keep up with, although plenty of folks are trying gamely to offer quality analysis in real time. The good people at Jadaliyya have done yeoman work in tracking the contortions, tactical shifts, and discursive strategies staked by the country’s major actors (this is of course not a new phenomenon). Egyptian journalist Sarah Carr renders deeply foreboding with abundant metaphor the atmospherics of the slow rolling confrontation:

The army is already swooping as the protests grow and all we hear from the MB is the steady sound of a grave being dug. There are several possible outcomes to this mess. Even if Morsy is not sacrificed there is likely to be a major army-imposed cleaning out at lower levels. Whatever the result the MB will undergo a military-led emasculation of some sorts and the bill will be written in civilian blood. Everyone loses.

Indeed, it is hard to see, at least in the short-term, a pleasant way for this to end. But events will lead on to events, most surely, and it is a necessity that those of us who follow Egypt and wish the best for its people should attempt to lay out some political heuristics. It is in this spirit that I offer an attempt to see beyond the current state of high tension, to the longer game that I suspect many of the revolutionaries have been striving toward: a more accountable Egyptian state, in all senses: democratic rule, citizen engagement, robust social and economic rights. So this will be cold comfort should Egypt in the next days descend into coup, or civil war, but I am going to talk here about accountability, and the prospects for an Egyptian “accountability ecosystem.” TLDR warning: 1600 words ahead (though that includes great block quotes from Sarah Carr, Hesham Sallam, and Issandr El Amrani).

* * *

Over the past several days I have been turning over in my head a vexed question: what would an accountable Egyptian state apparatus even look like? Attempts to envision such a beast are complicated, of course, by the profound polarization of the Egyptian public, who likely hold competing visions of such a hypothetical: some inflected by shariah, some holding a more maximalist conception of social and economic rights, some holding a more classically “liberal” sense of what the ties between governors and the governed might entail. And so on, according to individual variance in conceptions of legitimacy. Fortunately for me, some compelling journalistic and intellectual work on this has been done already.

In The National, Issandr El Amrani of The Arabist recently laid out three kinds of dueling legitimacy at play in Egypt today.* It’s an excellent piece and you should read the whole thing and then come back here, but I sum up a little bit. Revolutionary legitimacy is what keeps both Morsy’s supporters and opponents claiming that they are acting in the defense of the revolution. The need to harness revolutionary legitimacy is what leads to the application of pro-revolution rhetoric to profoundly reactionary gestures, like protesters’ calls for a coup, and indeed like the slow-motion “pretty much coup” currently simmering. Electoral legitimacy is of course conferred by winning an election, though the conferral of this upon Morsy and the FJP have been complicated immensely by their profoundly majoritarian understanding of democracy and their utter failure to speak to the 49% of Egyptians who did not vote for them. The third is institutional legitimacy –that is:

…the traditions, practices and power centres of the Egyptian state. These have been threatened by the revolutionary trend, which seeks to transform them, and by the rise of a political movement widely seen as intent on taking over institutions. The military, the civilian security services and the judiciary have thus far shown the most resistance and ability to alter the course of the post-Mubarak transition.

Indeed! And while this tendency of state institutions to resist incursions upon what they see as their own prerogatives, particularly by the judiciary, has been seen as a brake on “Brotherhoodization,” it has also undoubtedly been a brake on other, more salutary reform(ulation)s of the state. Surely, for example, fear of a bureaucracy throwing innumerable spanners into its own works has helped fix Morsy’s resistance to a rationalization of that apparatus, and his administration’s continued high spending upon that bureaucracy. One can only imagine what the bureaucracy might “think” about popular incursions into those prerogatives – doubtless nothing good. That is to say that like most state institutions, Egypt’s pursue their own, often narrowly construed, interests in an environment in which a great many factions continue to jockey for advantage. They are not – wait for it – accountable, nor interested in becoming more so.

One kind of legitimacy which El Amrani does not discuss, for the very good reason that precious few examples of it would present themselves, is the kind of legitimacy conferred by the establishment of robust connections of institutional accountability between governments and citizens, and which governments and political leaders must continuously earn in truly “democratic” contexts. In theory this sort of legitimacy would reside within both electoral and institutional realms, but this has yet to be established in Egypt, in even very tenuous terms, although of course the revolution is in no small sense about redressing the injustices of the profound accountability gaps inherent to Egypt’s pre-Revolutionary political order. On the contrary, the Egyptian state apparatus has routinely sought an exceptionally high level of autonomy from the society it putatively governs. This is aptly diagnosed in Steve Negus’ comment that one of the (many!) divisions cleaving contemporary Egypt lies between those seeking greater accountability from state institutions and “the considerable number of Egyptians who work for one of these institutions who want to be left to do as they please.” The Armed Forces’ attempts to cover themselves in glory by mediating the removal of Morsy, or by pulling off some other political clean-up operation, are in reality nothing more than another play, in a long line of plays made since their play made in removing Mubarak, to preserve a carved-out realm of autonomy, opacity, and impunity, the better to carry out their real function: self-enrichment.

Robust institutional lines of vertical accountability (even in a “newly democratized” system) are absent, and polarization of the state apparatus itself has largely precluded functioning systems of horizontal accountability. Thus more participatory ties of accountability – linked to freedom of information, the publication of state budgets, and such things – are especially absent. And thus, the crowds of Cairo (and well beyond) have come into the streets, repeatedly, as a sort of proto-institution of accountability, and been to boot the only accountability “institution” in existence. That this is not a long-term sustainable institutional situation is a truism, barely worth stating (though some do in essence make this statement). But it is what currently exists in a bewildering ongoing state of institutional, revolutionary flux.

Current events are of course by no means promising. The Armed Forces’ return to the scene as an arbiter of democratic contestation is, as noted above, is not being attempted with the national best interest in mind, and sets a(nother) awful precedent. So, as Sarah Carr notes, would be (probably) the removal of Egypt’s first elected president by popular mobilization (and, Carr again – the worst precedent perhaps involves both together):

Ideologically, I am extremely torn about the protests’ demands. I would like nothing better than for Morsy and his arrogant, obstinate Brothers to be booted out of Egyptian political life (and I voted for Morsy in order to keep out Shafiq) but have three issues:

1. It would hit the Muslim Brotherhood harder if they were ejected from Egyptian public life via elections. They would not be able to cry foul, and this would hit at their precious legitimacy in a way that the protests don’t. I have long been of the opinion that the Muslim Brotherhood should be left to their own devices as long as the economy can stand it, so that they continue to fuck up, destroy their support base, and we can be rid of them forever. This is a problematic and unpopular position, I know and it assumes firstly, they hold elections and secondly, they don’t forge results.

2. I keep imagining that it was ElBaradei or Hamdeen or someone non-MB and palatable to those taking to the streets on Sunday was elected. I imagine, what if Mr Palatable did something to garner the ire of his (Islamist) opposition on a par with Morsy’s constitutional amendment, something along the lines of removing all reference to Sharia in the constitution (PEDANTS: I AM JUST IMAGINING FOR THE PURPOSES OF THIS EXERCISE AND AM NOT SUGGESTING THEY WOULD).

Say that this inspired mass protests similar to those at the presidential palace in December 2012 and that Mr Palatable’s supporters used violence against the raging Islamist mobs. Now imagine that the political impasse dragged on and on until the exasperated Islamist opposition, together with ordinary Egyptians fed up at the economic situation and turmoil (I am assuming that no president could have fixed much in a year) took to the streets demanding Palatable go.

What would my position be? I would most likely stand against the Islamist mob and one of the arguments I would invoke is that Palatable was democratically elected and you, raving Islamist mob, represent nobody but yourselves.

3. If a miracle happened and Morsy did step down as a result of these protests it sets an awkward precedent. Particularly if the army is involved.

Then again (to read Hesham Sallam in fruitful dialogue with Carr, perhaps) it may be wiser to read the ongoing popular action as the exercise of a participatory proto-institution, demanding the removal of an elected president who has manifestly declined to rule as someone benefiting from a sovereignty conferred upon him by the nation as a whole. In opting for the sovereignty only of his own constituency, one might argue, Morsy has forfeited his sovereignty on behalf of the nation as a whole. As Sallam writes in Jadaliyya:

In the absence of real national politics, there have been no credible means for channeling widespread popular discontent with the current government. This is explains the surge in protests and strikes throughout the country, as well as the overwhelming support for the Tamarod Campaign’s grassroots initiative. It takes a lot of diligence to ignore the reality that the existing political system is defunct. In such a context, prevalent media sound bites that the current protests are aimed at “aborting Egyptian democracy” are simplistic and naïve. That so-called Egyptian democracy never saw the light of day.

…Rectifying this problem demands, at the very least, a new, inclusive transition that could generate the type of politics capable of bridging part of the long-standing gap between people’s basic demands, and national political institutions. Certainly no alternative transitional framework can succeed in Egypt if it is managed by the partisan sensibilities of the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi, though it must not exclude them either. After all, if the current mobilization leads to an NDP-style marginalization of the Brotherhood, then what was the point of the January 25 Revolution? Whatever its mechanisms and details, any solution must begin by heeding to people’s demand for Morsi’s resignation.

In other words, the revolution will – or must – continue. And as events continue to lead on to events, perhaps la revolución continua is the precedent that must take precedent over the terrible precedent of that-which-is-occurring. If a genuinely accountable political system with a progressive and participatory institutional configuration is currently difficult even to conceive of, it will become no less difficult to imagine and implement in the absence of revolutionary will and pressing forward. This means not only prosecuting the people’s case against Morsy and the Brotherhood, but also against the Armed Forces, whatever the next days and weeks may bring. In the face of tremendous uncertainty, the revolution must continue for the realization of any accountability agenda, and for the fight to build a politics of “bread, freedom, and social justice” in Egypt.


*And this is without even the presence of a fully functioning legislature to lend to Egypt’s battling institutions the kind of dual legitimacy problem currently plaguing, say, the US system. On the other hand, if this did exist perhaps one might expect some of these other forms of legitimacy to lose their individual points of salience, and to converge in a more consolidated democratic institutional setting.

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