Jul 9th 2013

Egypt's Second Act

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

Those who had given up too soon on Egypt and the "Arab Spring" received a jolt this week from the Tamarrod movement. The Egyptian people's resilience and resolve as manifested in massive and sustained demonstrations were a wonder to witness. As events unfolded in Tahrir Square and beyond, Egypt once again established that it is the "big stage" that can hold the world's attention. 

The organizers of Tamarrod were, no doubt, aided by the public's outrage over President Morsi's moves toward authoritarian rule and his party's efforts to monopolize the reins of state power. But the protest movement's ability to organize this growing unrest into a massive petition drive and nation-wide protests has been remarkable.

Critics have condemned the military's decision to intervene and depose the elected head of state, calling it a "coup"—with some in the US, including President Obama, going so far as to question a continuation of US assistance programs. But before making a snap judgment, it might be best to listen to the millions of demonstrators who were calling on the military to act and who have celebrated the downfall of the Morsi government. It might also be wise to take note that the generals did not name one of their own as interim president. Instead they turned authority over to the Chief Justice of the country's Supreme Constitutional Court.

We will see, in the weeks to come, how committed the military is to their "road map" back to an elected civilian government. Whether this is a "coup" or a "course correction" will ultimately be decided not by their action on July 3rd, but by the degree to which rule of law is restored, rights are protected, and civilian rule is established through a new constitution and elections. 

In a real sense this is not a "Second Revolution" as much as it is a continuation of the process that began two-and-one-half years ago. Whoever said "you don't get do-overs in politics" got it wrong. What the Tamarrod movement has done, with the support of the military, is given the Egyptian people another opportunity to redo their revolution. But demonstrations alone don't make change. Organization, strategy, and the ability to implement that strategy are critical to success.

This time, instead of rushing into new elections, the sequencing of events will be important. First the constitution must be amended—this time by a body that is representative of the character and demographics of the Egyptian people. The fact that the military has invited the participation of liberals and conservatives, Christian and Muslim leadership, young people and women is a hopeful sign of the inclusiveness that will be needed if the aspirations of all the people will be reflected in what is to be the country's charter document.

This time, the leaders of the protest movement must join with the existing political parties or form a party of their own that can turn their petition and mobilization successes into electoral victories. The structure they created to collect 22 million endorsements and to turn out and effectively administer mass nationwide demonstrations was no small feat. But now this must be converted into a permanent structure that can be effective in organizing and turning out voters and representing their interests. That was what was missing the last time. With the dissolution of the Mubarak-era NDP, the Muslim Brotherhood was left as the country's only remaining effective political structure, thus enabling it to win a series of elections in rapid succession. 

And this time, Egypt's leaders, both civilian and military, must focus on the needs of the people. Our polling, before and after the downfall of President Mubarak, established the fact that the principal concerns of the majority of Egyptians were and remain economic. The only political concerns they raised were "corruption and nepotism" reflecting their frustration with wealth and power being concentrated in the hands of a few, at the expense of the many. The Brotherhood appeared not to understand this reality. Instead of immediately turning their attention to economic development and job creation, they focused on consolidating power, imposing their agenda, and punishing critics. This was surprising given their supposed business acumen and reputation as social service providers.  In their failure to focus on meeting people's needs and their failure to develop a more inclusive approach to governing, they ended up redefining "nepotism and corruption" to mean the Brotherhood.

If this "second act" is to succeed, Egypt's people will need to see immediate signs of change. The promised interim government of technocrats will need to be made up of respected and competent figures. The committee charged with amending the constitution will need to be inclusive of all segments of society and parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Between now and elections, those who want a different outcome, must undertake the hard work of organizing for political power. And beginning now, efforts must be made to address the country's dire economic conditions. While long-term planning and structural reform is a must, "quick fixes" should be considered as a way to buy needed time. Here is where the resources of the military, Egypt's business community, and friends of Egypt can be helpful in designing and implementing a short-term job-creation and benefits program that, in the term used during America's Great Depression, can "put a chicken in every pot". 

Change is never easy and is most often messy. If the events of the last two years have demonstrated anything it is that the Egyptian people want change, they feel empowered to demand change, and, when it is not forthcoming, those in power will be held on a short leash that can be pulled back.

I was pleased that our last poll was able to define the political context leading up to the June 30th demonstrations. I only wish we could predict the future with the same precision as we are able to take a snapshot of the present. What is clear is that Egyptians are finding their way through uncharted waters. They have made a "course correction" giving themselves a second chance. This time, we can all hope they get it right.



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