Time to let go of futile binaries
Since the polarization of pro-revolution and counter-revolution camps in the aftermath of the March 2011 referendum, post-revolutionary Egypt has seen several consecutive binaries.
Following months of divisions over whether to write the constitution or hold elections first, Egypt was split yet again around the binary of choosing between political solutions or continuing the revolutionary path. Later, Egyptian society was polarized between the adoption of religious and civilian references, as though frames of reference alone could address and shape daily political problems.
Then yet another binary surfaced, with people dividing on whether to cooperate with Islamist activists or to consider everything religious as part of a reactionary, sectarian, patriarchal worldview.
The election of President Mohamed Morsy ignited many other divisions, with discord on whether the constitution-writing committee should stay and disagreement over the removal of the prosecutor general. Then came the constitutional declaration issued by Morsy in November, causing people to split on whether he should stay in power after what seemed to be a clear misuse of his electoral legitimacy.
2013 saw splits flare over new issues that stemmed from previous unresolved ones, such as the rift on the legitimacy of the return of the military to power and calls for early presidential elections.
Here again, controversy over these issues was governed by a mutually exclusive logic of binaries, whereby no single voice has called for organizing those demands and creating a minimal common ground for the opposition, with both its wings: the organized opposition, represented in political parties and its popular wing, represented in social movements and protest groups.
This mindset has intensified the disagreement between political powers that called for boycotting the coming legislative elections and those that saw electoral campaigning as the best way to knock out the ruling elite.
Over the coming months, there is a need to emphasize that the alliance between the Brotherhood, the military, security forces, figures from the former regime and several partisan Islamist factions requires the so-called revolutionary powers to review their performance and come up with new mobilization strategies that disregard these divisive binaries.
A careful reading of the present political context reveals that there are three levels that deserve urgent engagement with the current regime and its five constitutive components — the Brotherhood, Islamist parties, the military, the security apparatus and representatives of the former regime in state bodies. Evidently there are other levels, but these seem to be more pressing than the others at the moment.
The first level concerns the current regime’s repressive practices, which has at points surpassed the disgraceful performance of Mubarak and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces when it comes to detention, torture, violence and intimidation.
The second level relates to the authoritarian trend of the new regime, which is manifested in its attempts to entrench its power through the swift formulation of new freedom-suppressing policies and laws with the help of the Shura Council — which has been granted exceptional legislative powers by the November constitutional declaration — and governmental circles and experts who help put together law drafts criminalizing protest, free syndicalist action, the work of independent NGOs, the right to information and other laws intended to restrict the public sphere.
The third level concerns the conservative economic policies of the Brotherhood regime and its rush to implement structural adjustment recommendations dictated by international financial institutions, which Mubarak himself had not dared to implement over the past 20 years. Not only does the new political regime show undivided loyalty toward international financial institutions, but it also seeks to link all aspects of the economy to foreign investment and to unconditionally submit to the unfair rules currently governing international trade agreements, just to emphasize that the new elite is in total harmony with the neo-liberal orientations of the international economic order.
These three issues represent urgent fronts for confrontation. They constitute key issues for any political conflict, while any other disagreements on government change, elections, sit-ins and civil disobedience are merely tools of conflict.
On the other hand, the long-term struggles to obtain full citizenship rights for non-Muslims and to preserve the rights of women are battles that should be governed by an incremental, perseverant and step-by-step strategy rather than through written, international or elitist pacts. It is a mistake to confuse the tools of conflict for its core in the long or short term.
And it is a mistake to continue to waste time on useless binaries that only serve counter-revolutionary powers and their ability to gain the loyalty of wider social groups who are losing faith in change. Bypassing those binaries does not mean avoiding social and political conflicts, but it aims at focusing on certain battlefronts, defining needed tools and skills for the months ahead.
There is an urgent need to set up cross-partisan forums, working groups and vibrant independent platforms to address each of these three levels. Additionally, the formulation of a clear, coherent political discourse with policy alternatives are practical steps that would progressively allow the marginalization of the old generation of elites who thrive on accentuating polarization to cover up their intellectual, political and popular deficits.
Focusing on those fronts will not only transform the opposition into a more dynamic, youthful force that has concrete political alternatives, but will also bring back to the forefront the lines separating the social base concerned with ending authoritarianism and expanding a rights-related culture, rather than a new regime that builds on people’s despair.
Dina el-Khawaga is a professor at the Cairo University Faculty of Economics and Political Science, and programs director at the Arab Reform Initiative in Paris. This article was translated by Dina Zafer.