Egypt's incompetent politics turn citizens against the state
On a recent late morning stroll through Tahrir Square, I stopped by the stage where political activists, musicians and poets take turns addressing the crowds. The crowd was sparse and looked haggard from weeks of camping on the once-grassy roundabout in the middle of the square, where tents have taken on an air of permanency with the addition of wooden frames and a tangle of rudimentary electric wiring.
The previous night, as on most nights in the past week, hardened protesters had carried out their ritual battle against riot-control police on a nearby street sandwiched between two five-star hotels whose windows are now permanently boarded. It is rarely clear what exactly they are fighting over - sometimes police provoke protesters in the square, other times protesters just seem to be looking for a fight - and the acrid stench of tear gas hung over a good part of Downtown Cairo. Tahrir Square itself looks a far cry from those glorious 18 days of early 2011: holding on to the square for weeks on end has taken its toll, lending it an apocalyptic air reminiscent of Mad Max.
On the stage, a man in his 30s led the crowd in the usual chant of "the people want to bring down the regime" and something else about stomping on President Mohammed Morsi with his shoes. But he did not stop there. Rattling off name after name of opposition leaders - Mohammed ElBaradei, Amr Moussa, Hamdeen Sabahi - he then chanted, "they do not speak for us, the square speaks for itself". Many heads bobbed in approval in the audience. He continued: "Neither the regime nor the opposition can give the poor man the rights the rich have usurped from him ... we either make a true revolution or there will be no one left in this country."
Let us set aside the question whether, at this juncture, protests are an effective manner to achieve political change in Egypt or if demonstrations are turning into a "revolution of the hungry". The events of the last two weeks in Egypt have taken on a different meaning than the main narrative seen in the press: that of a dominant and increasingly autocratic Muslim Brotherhood battling a hapless secular opposition.
This kind of elite politics does not explain the protests in Port Said and other provincial towns where citizens have attacked police stations and local administration buildings. They do not explain why the defiance is not simply against the Morsi administration, but against the state itself: its arbitrariness, its neglect, its brutality and perhaps most of all the way it has been able to resist any serious change since the 2011 uprising.
Very soon after that uprising began and protesters took to Tahrir Square, the country's elites began to plot an end to revolutionary politics. First, a "council of the wise" tried to negotiate with the regime - essentially for a takeover of the presidency by Egypt's top spy, Omar Suleiman. When that was rejected by revolutionaries, the military took over and rushed the country into a referendum that would approve its rule.
The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists supported it, in exchange for a transition timetable that would let the winners of the elections determine the future constitution. Others, mostly secularists, would have preferred to agree on a constitution, or at least the general outlines of one first. In hindsight, this would have avoided the current crisis, caused by Mr Morsi's outrageous railroading of the constitutional process in December. But the secularists also tried to cut deals, cheering the dissolution of an elected parliament and the army's attempt at restraining Mr Morsi's power. Ultimately, this was a disastrous decision: the military decided to cut its final deal with the political forces that were winning votes.
By focusing so much on tactical advantages and deal-making, Egypt's politicians forgot about the revolutionaries. The Brotherhood only cares about securing its recently acquired power, and is willing to give up almost everything to do so: give the army autonomy (even though the Brotherhood joined forces with others against this in 2011), reconcile with a police force that continues to act with total impunity (even though the primary victim of this unreformed force under Mubarak was the Brotherhood), negotiate deals for corrupt businessmen to return to the country (even though fighting corruption was the Brotherhood's battle cry for years), and so on.
The opposition, rather than positioning itself against the Brotherhood's dealmaking and providing leadership to the many Egyptians who feel they are unrepresented, pushes the military to rein in the Brotherhood and focuses on narrow gains: a chance to rewrite the constitution and a place in a national-unity government. What is worse, some of these demands are completely out of touch with reality: some speak of early presidential elections, others of banning the Brotherhood. Yet no one has proposed a comprehensive plan for transitional justice, or reform of the security services, or a policy to address the needs of the majority of Egyptians that live under or barely above the poverty line.
The disconnect between Egypt's political class and ordinary people is staggering. This is not just the protesters who, fed up with two years of broken promises and self-interested leaders, are turning increasingly militant and unruly. It is also the ordinary citizen who, while often opposing the disruptive protests, has lost all confidence in the political class's ability to manage the country and rise to the historic challenge of the 2011 uprising.
Egyptians are not asking for miracles - they are asking for competence, to be treated with a modicum of respect, a healing of the unnecessary divisions of the last two years and a little bit of vision for the future. Mr Morsi and the Muslim Brothers have spectacularly failed to deliver, but the opposition is acting in a manner that suggests it has no real alternative to offer. Where else can those who have been left behind in the last two years of politicking look, but back to the streets?
Issandr El Amrani is an independent journalist based in Cairo who blogs at arabist.net
On Twitter: @arabist
Updated: February 7, 2013 04:00 AM