Hope for Egypt’s future lies at the grassroots
Preventing a dark future means protecting Egypt’s emerging tradition of civic entrepreneurship
By Maryam Jamshidi Posted on 7 October 2013
[caption align="alignright"]Maryam Jamshidi[/caption]Maryam Jamshidi (@MsJamshidi) is the founder of Muftah, a digital magazine on the Middle East and North Africa, and the author of The Future of the Arab Spring: Civic Entrepreneurship in Politics, Art, and Technology Startups, which was just published by Elsevier. She is a lawyer and writer with 10 years of professional experience working on issues relating to the Middle East and North Africa and related diaspora communities in the United States. As an attorney, she has represented Mideast governments and state owned companies in both judicial and diplomatic settings.
Jamshidi has a JD from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, a master's degree in political theory from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a bachelor's degree in political science from Brown University. She is based in Washington, DC.[divider]
On July 3, Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi was ousted from office by large-scale protests in Egypt.
Since then, circumstances inside the country have become increasingly tense and troubling.
The already faltering economy has continued to tumble, while political and social divisions have reached unprecedented levels in this bell weather of the Arab Spring.
But the gravest threat from this chapter in Egypt's tumultuous revolution may have less to do with macro-level politics or the state of the economy. Rather, it is the country's burgeoning grassroots civil sector that may suffer the most from recent events.
The rise of civic entrepreneurship
The rise of countless forms of civic entrepreneurship – from political movements to artistic collectives to civic-minded technology start-ups – has been among the greatest and most important legacies of the Egyptian revolution, which began in January 2011.
The Author's New Book: The Future of the Arab Spring
Civic entrepreneurship lies at the heart of the Arab Spring. From the iconic image of an occupied Tahrir Square to scenes of dancing protesters in Syria and politically conscious hip hop in Tunisia, people across the Middle East and North Africa continue to collaborate and experiment their way out of years of dictatorship and political stagnation. The Future of the Arab Spring examines the spirit of civic entrepreneurship that brought once untouchable dictators to their knees and continues to shape the region's political, artistic, and technology sectors. Through first-hand interviews with some of the region's leading civic entrepreneurs, including political activists, artists, and technologists, Jamshidi broadens popular understandings of recent events in this misunderstood region of the world.
These initiatives have created an active public arena, where people have come together for the first time, collaborated on issues of common concern, engaged in public discourses on a range of topics and taken ownership over their local communities.
A 'witch hunt' against Muslim Brotherhood leaders
In both words and actions, Egypt's new interim government, which took office after Morsi's removal, seems inclined to stifle and circumscribe this nascent public sphere. Together with its military backers, the regime has acted to marginalize the Muslim Brotherhood – an important political and social group in the country – restrict basic freedoms and otherwise undercut grassroots challenges to its authority.
With military and security forces spearheading these efforts, a witch hunt has been in effect against Brotherhood leaders and members since Morsi's removal.
In late September, an Egyptian court issued an order banning the Brotherhood and its affiliates, and freezing the group's assets. The decision evoked memories of former authoritarian regimes, which had variously outlawed or limited the Brotherhood's public activities in the country.
A day after the court decision, the head of Egypt's Ministry of Social Solidary announced that the government would "postpone" the group's court-ordered dissolution.
For all effective purposes, however, the Brotherhood has already suffered debilitating blows to its internal structure and leadership, thanks to the government crackdown.
Morsi, who was swiftly arrested upon his ouster, currently remains in custody. Brotherhood deputy leader and chief political strategist Khairat el-Shater was detained soon after the president's overthrow and is still behind bars. The group's spiritual guide, Mohamed Badie, was arrested on August 20 and has since joined scores of top Brotherhood leaders held in Tora prison outside Cairo.
Morsi, Shater and Badie, as well as several other high-ranking Brotherhood members, have been accused of various crimes, ranging from murder to incitement of violence, and are currently facing trials described as "politically motivated."
As reported by Amnesty International, security forces have arrested at least 3,000 civilians since July 3. The vast majority of detainees were rounded up at various Brotherhood sit-ins and protests as they exercised their rights to peaceful assembly and expression.
According to Amnesty, hundreds of these individuals have been deprived of basic legal protections, including due process. As of September 12, approximately 2,200 people are being held in detention facilities around the country.
Emergency law re-emerges, giving government sweeping powers
After finally expiring in May 2012, Egypt's notorious emergency law has come back to life. Its reinstatement came on August 14 as violent government crackdowns were underway against sit-ins at Raba'a al Adaweya mosque and Nahda Square, where Brotherhood supporters had gathered to protest Morsi's ouster.
According to conservative estimates, approximately 1,000 civilians were killed during the incursion, which was described by Human Rights Watch as the "most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history."
First enacted in the 1950s, the emergency law remained in nearly continuous effect from 1967 until its termination after the revolution.
Bestowing sweeping powers of arrest and detention upon the government, the law has historically provided the state with cover to silence dissent and persecute political enemies, often through force.
The reemergence of this legal regime has rightly struck many as a worrying sign of a return to illiberal practices. As first announced by the government, the emergency law was intended to last for a month. In early September, however, it was extended for a period of two months, under the guise of national security and combatting the terrorist (read: Brotherhood) threat.
The regime's onslaught against the Muslim Brotherhood has not stopped at arresting the group's membership. After the "second revolution" began, all TV channels and newspapers connected to the Muslim Brotherhood were also forcibly closed.
But, the troubling measures taken by Egypt's new rulers have extended beyond the Brotherhood and its affiliates.
Most recently, a number of news outlets, unconnected with the group but critical of the regime, were shut down by court order on grounds ranging from hurting national security and "broadcasting lies" to vilifying the military. As a sign of the pervasive nature of this media crackdown, a large number of journalists, from inside and outside Egypt, have been detained or faced government harassment.
The threat to non-Islamist groups
Non-Islamist political and civic groups, like the April 6th movement, have also found themselves in the crosshairs of various government-aligned forces.
One of the country's preeminent youth organizations, April 6th, was a primary force behind organizing the January-February 2011 protests that led to President Hosni Mubarak's ouster. The group also supported the demonstrations that led to Morsi's overthrow in July.
Soon after the interim government came to power, however, the movement began to speak out against growing human rights violations committed by security and military officials. Now, because of these criticisms, the group faces the threat of dissolution.
Prominent politicians who have spoken out against the new regime have faced comparable attacks. Amr Hamzawy, a popular liberal political figure and government critic, was arrested in late July on charges of "insulting the judiciary."
The well-respected Egyptian statesman, Mohamed El-Baradei, was formally accused of "betraying national trust" for his resignation from the interim government and is currently facing trial in a Cairo court. Baradei stepped down as deputy vice-president in protest against the August 14 crackdowns.
Will labor movement be the next target?
According to some experts, the country's powerful labor movement may be the government's next target.
In September, the prime minister proposed a minimum wage law, which was roundly rejected by most labor groups. As highlighted by critics, the legislation, which does not apply to the private sector, is based on demands made in 2008 and fails to account for the currency devaluation that has since taken place.
According to Hossam el-Hamalawy, a prominent Egyptian labor activist and revolutionary, this legislative proposal masks deep-seated government hostility toward organized labor: In a September 12 article in The Guardian, he was quoted as saying: "It's just to postpone the fight with workers til January. During that time they will have killed off the so-called terrorists [Brotherhood], and then they can turn their full attention to the workers."
April 6th co-founder Ahmed Maher recently described the challenges facing activists and government critics in today's Egypt: "(Since Morsi) was ousted there have been human rights violations, the killing of innocent demonstrators, and the arrest of journalists and activists that had nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood," he was quoted as saying in an Oct. 1 article in ANSAmed. "We are back to where we started from just after Mubarak's fall. We have to start from scratch."
Why Brotherhood rule was less problematic, despite failures
This is not to say life under Brotherhood rule was rosy.
The Morsi government was far less interested in realizing the revolution's goals of bread, freedom, and dignity, than it was in preserving its power. While the president gestured at inclusiveness, the Brotherhood's inherent drive for self-preservation led his administration to cozy up to the military, whose support many believed was key to the group's survival.
Nor was the Brotherhood particularly interested in preserving civil rights; during Morsi's tenure, Bassem Youssef, a government critic and popular television personality likened to Jon Stewart, was charged with insulting Islam and the president, among other allegations.
Despite its many strategic failures and general incompetence, however, the Morsi government did not present a potent threat to civic entrepreneurship in the country.
Under Brotherhood rule, power in Egypt was dispersed. While the army played a relatively quiet (but still significant) role in politics, it did not outwardly throw its muscle behind any one in particular. In this atmosphere, the grassroots thrived, as groups vied for political influence.
By contrast, the military alliance with the interim government has created a political powerhouse with the physical force to execute on an illiberal agenda where opposition to regime policies and support for the government's opponents (namely the Brotherhood) are not to be tolerated.
Crisis spawns grassroots initiatives
But all is not doom and gloom in Egypt. In fact, the current crisis may be creating new prospects for civic entrepreneurship and even lead to the founding of various grassroots initiatives.
For instance, the jailing of the Brotherhood leadership appears to be paving the way for a younger generation to shape the group's future. Already, the youth have breathed new life into the organization and found opportunities to have more say in the Brotherhood's activities.
According to one pro-Morsi activist quoted in The Guardian, "Now the youth are just by themselves. And they work together far better than when the leaders are involved. Now that the leadership is gone, no one needs to ask permission for anything anymore."
Inspired by the country's troubling turn, a new group recently formed to oppose both the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, and advocate for the revolution's goals. The Revolutionary Path Front was launched on September 25 and calls for the redistribution of wealth, deepening of democratic institutions, eradication of oppression and discrimination, creation of transitional justice mechanisms and institution of a more just foreign policy.
Should Egypt's crisis continue to inspire these kinds of developments, there may be hope for the future. After all, it was massive popular opposition that led to Mubarak and Morsi's overthrow. If the people so chose, they can ensure their new rulers remain accountable as well.
If they fail to do so, however, and current government practices continue or increase in severity, the Egyptian public sphere should be expected to contract. While its complete obliteration is unlikely, the spirit of civic entrepreneurship that has overtaken the country will become a shadow of what it has been over the last two and a half years.
Less like the dynamic, self-generating, and ever expanding public sphere that has formed since the revolution, Egypt's public arena may become more like it was under Mubarak — a place where only limited forms of dissent, activism and civic discourse are allowed.
This turn of events would be a tragedy for Egypt's transition.
While the ultimate success of the revolution will turn on developments at the state level, the grassroots is a key driver of this positive change. It is here that popular commitment to the goals of the revolution continues, where individuals are organizing to bring about social, political and cultural changes, and where a refusal to be controlled or dominated by the government has most firmly taken root.