Saturday, April 13, 2013

Egypt: An Addiction to Violence

Source: ISN

Egypt: An Addiction to Violence

Two years after the dramatic events in Tahrir Square, Egypt is sinking into political turmoil. Felix Imonti also detects a parallel and equally worrying trend – the formation of hardened street armies on both sides of the political divide.

By Felix Imonti
The revolution that overthrew Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was, at the beginning, more of a spiritual outburst than a political protest movement. Thousands of people from every segment of Egyptian society gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo with the singular aspiration of pulling down a regime that had oppressed them for thirty years. Two years on from those momentous days, many Egyptians have now abandoned any hope that there will be a truly free Egypt. Instead, many have opted to take their frustration onto the streets where violence has now replaced hope.

No Consensus

There had been many local demonstrations in Egypt prior to the Arab Spring, but they did not necessarily translate into demands for the removal of the president. That did not occur until 25 January 2011. But once the diverse segments of society assembled in Tahrir Square, it took only a mere eighteen days of their combined weight to crush the regime. The demand of the revolution was for "bread, freedom, and justice." The slogan had a meaning, but it was different for each of those who shouted it. They could agree upon the destruction of the autocratic regime, but they had not decided upon the nature of the phoenix that would arise from the ashes.

Two years later, the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square have still not agreed upon a single vision. There are the Salafis, who see the structure of Egypt as an Islamic society that lives under Sharia Law. Even then, they do not all agree on what Egypt under Sharia Law should look like.

In addition, there are those who argue that Egypt should be a secular democratic society without the burden of corruption and political abuse. Like the Salafis, those promoting democracy often have different interpretations of a free and democratic Egypt. And in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptians have been exposed to a movement that neither promotes traditional Salafism nor a secular vision of a more liberal society. Instead, the Brotherhood is perceived by many Egyptians to have created its own tyranny.

Dissatisfaction and Disillusionment

The Brotherhood’s 85 years as a subversive opposition movement allowed it to foster anti-regime views without requiring it to create a formula for governing the country. As a result, they came to power in 2012 conditioned in the techniques of secrecy and subversion and unfamiliar with the art of government. This prompted Hamdeen Sabahi, a former presidential candidate and the leader of the leftist Popular Current, to describe Mohammed Morsi as the "new Mubarak." Morsi’s presidential campaign was heavy on promises of affordable food supplies, garbage-free streets and better public infrastructure. But instead of fulfilling any of these promises, the first priority of the new President was to push through a new constitution that was voted into law by a mere 20 percent of the electorate.

It also needs to be remembered that Morsi won the presidency with a two percent majority in an election that saw only half of the electorate bother to vote. This places the Morsi government and its Muslim Brotherhood backers on shaky foundations. Indeed, the exhaustion of the disillusioned demonstrators from Tahrir Square may have saved Morsi from the same fate that Mubarak suffered. Most of the demonstrators from the early days of the uprising have now returned home to attempt to survive in a society with escalating inflation and expanding unemployment. There is little inclination to take the protest into the streets when more revolution seems to be futile and when bellies are empty.

Instead, what is forming is a hard core of loosely organized and violence-prone protestors who are prepared to go into the streets to fight the Muslim Brotherhood’s private militia or the Ministry of the Interior security forces. Prosecutor General Tal'at Abdullah has accused this group of engaging in "terrorist" activities and called for its members to be detained.

The Black Bloc

Opposition to Morsi gained fresh impetus in November 2012, after he played on worries that the courts would throw out the Constituent Assembly - just as it had the parliament – to bolster his presidential powers. Morsi had, in effect, abolished any semblance of democracy in order to preserve democracy, or so he justified. In response, demonstrators gathered in front of the Ittihadiya presidential palace to express their opposition to what they perceived to be “the new tyranny”.

This time, the president did not call upon the security forces of the Ministry of the Interior to clear the streets. Instead, Morsi summoned from the sports clubs a private army of street thugs to disperse the protestors. Five demonstrators were killed by the armed private militia in the process. It was amidst the dead and injured that a new force took shape in the form of the Black Bloc. As the government resorted to unlawful means to break peaceful demonstrations, it would be necessary for the peaceful demonstrators to have their own army of street hardened muscle for self-defense, or so they reasoned.

Wearing black clothes and masks, the Bloc made their first appearance at demonstrations in Tahrir Square on 25 January 2013. Beating drums and declaring that they had come to protect the people, the Bloc is increasingly regarded as the beginning of a new force in Egyptian politics. Sharif al-Sirfi, who is credited with founding the movement, declared: “We seek to get the rights of martyrs, and this cannot be achieved except through fair revenge, which is the execution of those who are found guilty of killing the martyrs.”

What also makes this latest round of demonstrations different is that they are more numerous, widespread and often concerned with local problems. Among the more notable sites of unrest was Port Said, where twenty-one men were recently sentenced to death for the murders of seventy-two football fans. Demonstrations also erupted in Ismailia and Suez. In response to the unrest, the police withdrew from the streets leaving it to the army to protect public buildings. Some sixty demonstrators have died in the protests.

Hope Abandoned

The Black Bloc has abandoned any expectation that mainstream politicians will turn the course of events. Instead, the movement takes its inspiration from similar violent protests in Germany during the 1970s. Webpages with instructions on how to deal with the police have sprung up over the past two months. Membership appears to be fluid with people joining and withdrawing from a loose and informal structure. This, in turn, makes it impossible to assess the size of the movement and difficult for the police to infiltrate its ranks. It has also become the blueprint for other newly-formed opposition movements. Like-minded organizations have also appeared in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada where they have protested against globalization.

What does appear to be a common feature of the Bloc’s members is that most are young men who are either students or unemployed. One of their slogans is: “If you won’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep.” It reveals much about the sense of frustration that is at the core of their campaign. Conversely, the loose structure of the ‘Bloc’ also makes it unlikely that it can ever garner enough support to actually threaten the survival of the Morsi government. At most, it can disrupt and assure a continuation of the government’s inability to solve any of the problems that are fueling support for the Bloc.

It should also be noted that the Bloc’s members have yet to use fire arms during their protests. However, an increase in the flow of arms from Libya into Egypt could change that in the not-too-distant future. In order to address the challenge posed by the Black Bloc the Muslim Brotherhood is considering the formation of a counter force – known as the White Bloc - that would be sent into the streets to confront demonstrators. Like the Black Bloc, the counter organization would also be illegal and will create even more tension in a society that is teetering on the brink of chaos. Ultimately, both organizations are by-products of the Morsi government’s inability to serve the needs of ordinary Egyptians.
Felix Imonti is the retired director of a private equity firm and currently lives in Japan.

For additional reading on this topic please see:
The Military and Egypt's Transformation Process
From Prison to Palace: The Muslim Brotherhood's Challenges and Responses in Post-Revolution Egypt
Egypt's 2012 Constitution: Devil in the Details, Not in Religion

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Felix Imonti is the retired director of a private equity firm and currently lives in Japan. He has recently published a history book, Violent Justice, and currently writes articles in the fields of economics and international politics.