Monday, June 26, 2017

جمود السياسة وأعاصير الفشل في مصر

فيما يواصل الخطاب الرسمي التبشير بالغد الصبوح الذي ينتظر الشعب المصري بعد هنيهة من الصبر الجميل، تجوس في سماء السياسة والمجتمع في مصر غيوم مدلهمة عابسة مكفهرة القسمات تخفي أضواء المستقبل، وتبسط ظلالاً داكنة من الجزع والوحشة في سماء الحاضر. أربعة عواصف على الأقل تجمعت نذرها في الأفاق، ويشتد أوارها يوماً وراء الآخر، ماضية - إن لم يتم إجهاضها سريعاً - بخطى واثقة نحو ما لا يحمد عقباه.
أولاً: اشتدت وطأة العمليات الإرهابية كماً وكيفاً. فمن ناحية شهدت الشهور الأخيرة اتساع نطاق الهجمات الإرهابية وخروجها من الحيز الجغرافي الضيق الذي انحصرت فيه لعدة أعوام في محافظة شمال سيناء، والذي أشار إليه الرئيس عبد الفتاح السيسي بكونه لا يزيد عن 1% من مجموع مساحة شبه جزيرة سيناء. خرج الإرهاب من مكمنه وامتدت أياديه لتضرب عدة مناطق استراتيجية بالعمق المصري - في أقاليم القاهرة والإسكندرية والدلتا والصعيد - وجنوب سيناء. أما على صعيد الكم فتشير الإحصاءات الصادرة عن معهد التحرير لسياسات الشرق الأوسط إلى زيادة عدد العمليات الإرهابية في نطاق محافظة شمال سيناء من 143 في عام 2014م إلى 426 في عام 2015م ثم 681 في عام 2016م. ثم كان أن دخلت القبائل مؤخراً على خط المواجهة المسلحة مع فرع تنظيم الدولة الإسلامية في شمال سيناء، وهو تطور مآله لا ريب تعاظم الصراع وإطالة أمده. أما الهجمات التي وقعت خارج نطاق شمال سيناء فقد انخفض عددها في عام 2016م مقارنة بالعام السابق، لكن زادت خطورتها وأعداد الضحايا الناجمة عنها في الشهور الأولى من عام 2017م.
سنوات تربو على الأربع انقضت من حرب ضروس مع الإرهاب أظهرت عجز الدولة عن التعامل بكفاءة مع هذا التهديد المتصاعد من زاويتين رئيسيتين. الأولى هي الخطط الأمنية المطبقة على الأرض في خضم المواجهات المباشرة، والثانية تتعلق بالإطار السياسي والفكري الذي زرع الريح فحصد العاصفة، إذ وفرت السياسات المتبعة البيئة المناسبة لبزوغ وتمدد الإرهاب من حيث أراد حصاره واستئصال شأفته. وهو ما أومأ إليه مؤخراً مفوض الأمم المتحدة لحقوق الإنسان حين حذر من أن الإجراءات الأمنية العنيفة التي تنتهجها الحكومة المصرية تغذي التطرف والإرهاب ولا تقطع دابرهما، مضيفاً أنه ما هكذا يُواجه الإرهاب.   
ثانياً: تشهد الساحة المصرية منذ ديسمبر الماضي استهدافاً منظماً للمسيحيين المصريين، شمل تهجيرهم قسرياً من منازلهم بمحافظة شمال سيناء، واستهداف كنائسهم بالقاهرة والإسكندرية وطنطا وسانت كاترين، إضافة إلى استهداف حافلة تقل مسيحيين في طريقهم للصلاة في المنيا. والأكثر مدعاة للقلق من استهداف العاصمتين الأولى والثانية للدولة المصرية في غضون أشهر قليلة هو أن استهداف الكاتدرائية المرقسية بالإسكندرية في أبريل الماضي وقع أثناء تواجد البابا تواضروس بها، أما حادث المنيا فيكشف عن اتجاه لاستهداف الأقباط في أكثر الأماكن الأمنية رخاوة، وفي أبعدها من الناحية الجغرافية عن مركز الأحداث. هذان التطوران – استهداف أهم القيادات وعامة المسيحيين على السواء - ينذران إن تكررا بتداعيات ونتائج بالغة الخطورة.   
ويدرك المتابع لسلوك وخطاب الفرع المصري للتنظيم أنه ليس في نيتها الإحجام عن استهداف المسيحيين، بل من المرجح أن يتسع المدى الجغرافي وتطول قائمة الأهداف الحيوية لحملتهم الدموية. وبديهي أنه لن تقف عقبى ذلك عند تهديد الأمن العام، وتقويض شرعية النظام، وخفض موارد الدولة من السياحة والاستثمارات الأجنبية فحسب، بل قد تتعداه إلى شق صفوف المجتمع وزرع بذور فتنة طائفية لا يعلم إلا الله آثارها ومداها. 
ثالثاً: مازال الاقتصاد المصري في حالة من التأزم شديدة ومستفحلة. فبعد أشهر من التلكؤ وجر الأرجل، استقرت الجكومة أخيراً في نوفمبر الماضي على ما رأت فيه حلاً للأزمة، وهو تحرير سعر الصرف. لكن الأزمة الاقتصادية مازالت تراوح مكانها بعد أكثر من ستة أشهر من تطبيق الإجراءات الرامية لتعزيز موارد الدولة من العملة الصعبة وتطويق السوق الموازية للنقد الأجنبي. وتشير الأرقام الرسمية الصادرة من الجهاز المركزي للتعبئة العامة والإحصاء إلى ارتفاع معدل التضخم السنوي إلى 31.7% و32.5% و32.9% في شهور فبراير ومارس وأبريل الماضية، وهو معدل قياسي لم يتحقق منذ أكثر من ثلاثين عاماً، أما زيادة أسعار الغذاء والمشروبات فقد تجاوزت على مدار عام حاجز الأربعين بالمائة. في نفس السياق، توقع تقرير لمؤسسة "يولر هيرميس" الائتمانية أن تشهد مصر في عام 2017م أسوأ معدل نمو اقتصادي منذ عام 1967م، أي منذ خمسين عاماً كاملة، وفي سنة تلقت فيها الدولة هزيمة عسكرية ثقيلة.  
رابعاً: برغم تلك الأزمات المستعرة، ما انفكت السياسة متابعة سباتها العميق، فيما يواصل سيف الأمن البتار العصف بالدستور والقانون، وانتهاك الحريات والحقوق بلا رادع أو وازع. وتُظهر أزمات السلطة المستمرة مع السلطة القضائية والأزهر وأطراف في الإعلام إلى انصباب اهتمامها على السيطرة التامة، بالتوازي مع سقوط معايير رأب الصدع المجتمعي ووأد الأزمات في مهدها من سلم أولوياتها. وما التطور الأخير بحجب العشرات من المواقع الخبرية على موقع الإنترنت إلا حلقة في سلسلة طويلة تشي بضيق صدر السلطة بأقل القليل من الاستقلال واختلاف الرأي.
يستمر انسداد الأفق السياسي هذا فيما تبدأ الإجراءات الممهدة لانتخابات الرئاسة 2018م في أقل من عام في بيئة سياسية جدباء، وغياب لكل أنواع الحريات، وعزوف لكل المرشحين المحتملين عن حتى البوح بنواياهم مخافة البطش وتلويث السمعة. يتزامن ذلك مع اختزال السياسة المصرية بكل تعقيداتها ومستوياتها في شخص واحد ومؤسسة واحدة. ذلك أمر جسيم في بلد كمصر، إمكانياته البشرية هائلة لكنها محجوبة ومحاصرة، فصارت كالسيوف في أغمادها يأكلها صدأ النسيان.
ثم جاءت موافقة مجلس النواب على اتفاقية تعيين الحدود البحرية بين القاهرة والرياض - والتي تتضمن نقل السيادة على جزيرتي تيران وصنافير للسعودية – ثم مسارعة الرئيس السيسي في التصديق على الاتفاقية (برغم استمرار النزاع القانوني حول سلامتها الدستورية والقانونية) لتصيب شرعية النظام في مقتل، ولتُفقد قطاعات واسعة من الشعب المصري ثقتهم في النظام السياسي بأكمله. يرى هؤلاء أن النظام القائم بشخوصه ومؤسساته ما عاد مؤتمناً، ليس فقط على رفاهة الشعب وتحقيق تطلعاته في الاقتصاد والأمن، بل حتى على الحفاظ على وحدة الوطن وسيادته على كامل أراضيه. يفاقم هذا التطور الجلل من عمق الأزمة السياسية، ويهدد بحدوث تداعيات سياسية ودستورية واجتماعية لا يبدو أن بمقدور السلطة الحالية التعامل معها بكفاءة.
***
تغذي هذه الأزمات بعضها البعض، ليزيد استحكام الأزمة وليتعمق مأزق الشرعية. لكن الدولة تجابه هذه الحزمة من التهديدات بجعبة خاوية الوفاض من الرؤى بعيدة الأمد والحلول السياسية الناجعة، مواصلة تربصها الدوائر بكل أشكال الاحتجاج، واتكائها على ما بقي من شعبية الرئيس عبد الفتاح السيسي وخطاباته العاطفية، التي توقظ مشاعر الأمل والحماس لبرهة، لكنها لا تغني ولا تسمن من جوع وفقر وإرهاب واستبداد.
ولهذا احتجبت الشمس في سرادق الغيم طويلاً دون بادرة على حل أو حلحلة لأيٍ من معضلات السياسة والاقتصاد والمجتمع الرئيسة في مصر. ومن نافلة القول أن أكبر النار من مستصغر الشرر، وأن تجاهل الأزمات يفاقمها، وأن العواصف الناشئة قد تتحول سريعاً لأنواء هوجاء تنثر الوبال وسوء العاقبة. وعليه فحري بمن بيدهم مقاليد الأمر أن يغوا وينتبهوا ويبادروا سريعاً بإصلاح الخلل من جذوره قبل أن يعصف الريح الصرصر بكل شئ.  

د. نايل شامة

* نُشرت هذه المقالة بموقع المنصة (بتاريخ 26 يونيو 2017).


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Syria Questions


Over the past two centuries, Arabs asked themselves an endless stream of questions. The appropriate role of Islam in politics; the dialectic relationship between tradition and modernity; the merits or demerits of liberalism and socialism; the meaning and purpose of a true Arab or Muslim identity; the challenge of how to bring to Arab societies the light of renaissance out of the squalor of backwardness; and how to manage the relationship with the West and, after 1948, Israel were, to name a few, some of the theoretical debates that have preoccupied Arabs since the dawn of the 19th century.      
Hardly any of these questions have been settled and put to rest, adding to the travails of a nation seeking to come to grips with its wretched present and future. Still raging in the Arab mind, these open questions are causing confusion, the lack of a vision and the absence of a true sense of direction. Now, additionally, the powerful winds blowing from the civil war in Syria have triggered a number of political questions that could have far-reaching ramifications on the region’s state-society relations, interstate dynamics and international affairs.
First, with the escalation of the civil war in Syria, Arabs have found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place, supporting Bashar Al-Assad or jeopardizing Syria’s territorial integrity. The Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 had put down the roots of the modern Arab state system, carving new political entities in an area brimming with a jumbled mix of identities and peculiarities. Yet, after around 100 years of state ideology indoctrination and simmering nationalism, the artificial borders of Arab states are seen as deep-rooted, almost sacred. Even new states like Jordan (established in the 1920s) and the oil-rich Gulf states such as Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (born only in the 1970s), have forged a formidable national identity despite their late entry into the realm of nation-states. Although challenged by a number of sub-state and supra-state affiliations, the Arab state has prevailed, physically and psychologically. There is a belief in the region that Arab states are immortal, their land is sacred and their present-day borders will never change.  
But then came the stalemate of the Syrian civil war, which pitted the state against a motley group of militias that aspire to change the country’s political map. The kaleidoscopic nature of the combatants, and the many claimants to Syrian land, led to a situation summarized by the famous catchphrase ‘there will be no Syria after Assad.’ In the scheme of things, indeed, the chances of maintaining Syria’s integrity are slim if the Alawite-led regime of Assad is jettisoned. For Syrians and Arabs in general, this situation poses a political and moral dilemma. Is it morally right to support a dictator as ruthless as Assad in order to maintain Syria’s geographic integrity and avoid its partition? Or isn’t opposing a regime that killed hundreds of thousands of its people, and displaced millions, a moral obligation?
Second, the war in Syria pitted against each other two nefarious parties: A tyrant regime and fanatic Islamic groups. To be sure, in the course of the war, both parties looked in many respects like they were cut from the same cloth. Both demonstrated that they are enemies of freedom, committed hideous crimes against humanity; and stirred sectarianism and exacerbated the Sunni-Shia rift. Both are the past. There is no shred of doubt that neither, in the judgement of any sensible mind, can ever lead the way to a better future.
The same dynamics are at play in various, if not most, Arab states. In power, there is usually an autocratic regime - sultanistic, dynastic, or theocratic – that has a long history of oppression and socioeconomic mismanagement. In the opposition, there is an Islamic party whose ideas are incongruent with liberal democracy and whose cadres are short on the skills of governance. Without other alternatives, Arabs are confronted with hard choices. In Syria’s current “dance of death,” the choice has been between despotism and religious fascism, Mukhabarat barons and warlords, a republic of fear and a dystopian caliphate, or, more simply, between Assad and ISIS. In such a tradeoff between hell and inferno, neither predator is entitled to “the lesser evil” status.
The Arab uprisings of 2011 had offered a rare opportunity, a clear path out of the dilemma. In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Bourguiba Street in Tunis, the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, Bahrain, and other sites brewing with fury and hope, the pro-democracy activists raised the banner of reform. They advocated the creation of a humane and just political order that is neither autocratic nor Sharia-based. But the torch of revolution was quickly snuffed out, perhaps laid to waste by these two potent forces in Arab politics: Tyrannies defending entrenched interests, and Islamic parties, long waiting in the wing for a cunning takeover. Six years after the so-called Arab spring, Arab peoples wonder: Now what? Where is the way forward? And what kind of future lies ahead for Arab societies if the choice remains confined to these two forces of the past?
The third question raised by the war in Syria is whether resistance to tyranny by force is legitimate. Peaceful forms of dissent are unquestionably legitimate, both legally and politically. But taking up arms against a dictatorship is entirely different. Obviously, no such debate would take place in an established democracy, where peaceful dissent is tolerated, and where the system’s constitutional and legal lines are clearly demarcated. But when it comes to a regime as that of Assad - whose ruthlessness is unparalleled even by Arab world standards - a window for debate has opened.
This question is rooted in old philosophical debates about the state’s monopoly of the use of coercion, which Max Weber argued is “one of the defining characteristics of the modern state.” But Weber’s theory has many detractors. Frantz Fanon, for instance, posited that violence can have a cathartic and liberating effect; only violence pays, he said. In her cerebral book On Violence, Hannah Arendt used the perplexing argument that under certain circumstances (such as self-defense), violence “can be justifiable, but it will never be legitimate.” And wearing the hat of a public intellectual, Jean Paul Sartre went as far as advocating armed resistance against the state, using the famous line: Terrorism is the atomic bomb of the poor.
These arguments may be radical, but they could be extremely appealing to the oppressed, especially if backed by religious scriptures. In the drab landscape of Arab authoritarian regimes, whose resilience has bred vexation and despair, there are those who believe that state oppression justifies counter-violence, or jihad. Under duress, they believe, using “all” means of resistance is legitimate, or even imperative. Terrorism was clearly born from this belief. On the other end of the spectrum, there are the hopefuls who still believe that reform can originate from inside the sclerotic regimes, or through a gradual accumulation of social pressure, or perhaps through a stroke of historical luck.
Both are misguided. Neither violence nor inaction will do. Between the distress and the daydreaming, the road to a better future is lost. At any rate, the outcome of the debate on armed resistance will have serious repercussions on the future of political dynamics in the region.    
The fourth question is about the appropriateness of armed foreign intervention. The presence of foreign boots on Arab soil has long been a taboo in the Arab world. This is why, for instance, the majority of Arab people opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 despite their resentment of Saddam Hussein and his ruling clique. This is also why both the regime and the opposition in Syria are in a morally difficult situation. Both dragged foreign military forces to the civil war. Assad’s regime has invited a plethora of foreign parties to the conflict (including Russia, Hezbollah and several Shia Iraqi militias), and the opposition recruited to its ranks thousands of foreign fighters from more than 80 countries.
Now in its seventh year, the longevity of the Syrian conflict seems to have set a blatant precedent for the region, introducing a practice which was hitherto loathed. This begs a number of questions: Is it now legitimate for an embattled regime to seek, or invite, outside help if its survival was at stake? In the same vein, is it legitimate for “freedom fighters” to collaborate with foreign brothers-in-arms against a native ruler? And where should the line be drawn concerning the “acceptable” nature and extent of foreign military involvement in a domestic conflict?
The last question involves Israel, the longtime foe of the Arab nation. Egypt had made peace with Israel in the 1970s, followed by Jordan and the PLO in the 1990s. But Israel remained largely ostracized by other Arab states, who maintained that relations with Israel would only be normalized after Israel withdrew from occupied Arab territory—the ‘land for peace’ formula. Most Arab people take a tougher stance, casting Israel in diabolical light and opting for a complete boycott of the Jewish state.       
This hardline perception has not been consigned to memory but it seems to be changing. The horrors committed by the Assad regime and ISIS made the crimes of Israel look, in comparison, rather mild. In the game of calculation, it is apparent that the number of victims killed at the hands of any Arab state in response to social upheaval is significantly higher than those who perished as a consequence of Israel’s violence against the Palestinians. The Arab media has also softened its tone towards Israel. It was striking to note, during the heart-stirring battle for Aleppo, that several Arab dailies reported on Israel’s provision of medical assistance to Syrians injured in the fighting. Their coverage used words that, explicitly or implicitly, hinted at the gulf separating those who inflict pain and those who relieve it, the Arab/Islamist militias and Israel, respectively. This was hitherto unthinkable.  
Concerning Israel, accordingly, several questions have propped up: Has Israel ceased to be the paragon of evil in the Arab world? Is the Palestinian question still the central conflict in the region, as Arab governments have claimed for the past seven decades? If not, could this lead to a historic breakthrough in Middle East peace talks?  
As of today, these five questions have not been delicately nuanced in the minds of Arab thinkers and practitioners, let alone become part of a public debate. However, they will surface tomorrow as events continue to unfold with velocity in a region that has turned into an open war theatre, a ‘museum without walls.’ These bewildering questions, and the war of ideas they will probably generate, might mold and remold the region in ways never seen before. A change may be just around the corner, so we better be prepared for it.

Nael M. Shama

* This essay appeared in The New Arab (English) on April 17, 2017. 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

مصر: ثنائية الهزيمة والثورة


في المرحلة المضطربة التي أعقبت الإطاحة بالرئيس الأسبق حسني مبارك، صك شباب الثورة المصرية عبارة "الثورة مستمرة"، ورفعوها شعاراً في الساحات ومنابر التواصل الإجتماعي، بعد أن بلغ بهم السيل الزبى وبلغ الأمل الحلقوم. واجه الشباب حينئذ عواصفاً تنوء به تجربتهم الغضة: أحلاماً تتبخر، وأوهاماً تستعر، ودماءً تنهمر بغزارة، وقتلة رفاقهم يفلتون بسلاسة ودعة من سلطان القصاص. فبعد ليل فبراير/شباط 2011م الذي لمعت نجومه "كدرر نثرت على بساط أزرق" جاء ليل آخر "تهاوت كواكبه" بغتة فوق رؤوسهم. مثَّل استمرار فعل الثورة للشباب ملاذاً آمناً، وعداً مكتوماً بأن في الإمكان استعادة الزمام، وامتلاك المبادرة من جديد، ومواصلة السير نحو المقاصد التي دفعتهم للثورة ابتداءاً.
في مقابل هذا، جاء رجال السلطة والسياسة ممن احتكروا لأنفسهم الحكمة والرؤية الثاقبة بقضهم وقضيضهم على الشعار الوليد وفلسفته ومدلوله، رافعين في مقابله مقولة الشيخ الشعراوي الشهيرة: "الثائر الحق يثور ليهدم الفساد ثم يهدأ ليبني الأمجاد". كانت رؤية هذا المعسكر أن الاستبسال في رفع شعارات الثورة والنضال ما هو إلا نزق طفولي يخلو من المسئولية، وغلو يفت في عضد الدولة في أحرج اللحظات. اعتبروا أن هؤلاء الشباب وصل حبهم لفعل الاحتجاج حد الوله، ومن ثم باتوا يلهون بلعبة الثورة - ومن ثم مستقبل الوطن - كما اعتادوا اللهو بألعابهم الصغيرة. أما الثورة في نظر الحكماء فضرورة لا تلجأ إليها الشعوب إلا مكرهة، وحين تفعل فينبغي أن تكون لمرحلة مؤقتة قصيرة يعقبها على جناح السرعة عودة إلى ميادين السياسة وتفاهماتها.  
بيد أن تعمقاً يسيراً في جوهر الأمور يثبت أن فطرة الشباب حديثي العهد بالسياسة تفوقت على "حكمة" من أمضوا دهوراً في دروبها ودهاليزها. فالثورة ما هي إلا الإبنة اليقظة للهزيمة. والاعتقاد السائد بين كثيرين بأن الهزيمة الأخيرة في عمر الوطن وقعت على أديم سيناء وفي سمائها في صباح الخامس من يونيو لعام 1967م ليس إلا وهم كبير. إذ من ذا الذي يهيئه قصور تفكيره ليتصور أن الهزائم تقع في ساحات الوغى وفي خضم مقارعة الجيوش والأسلحة فحسب؟ الشاهد أن الهزيمة الحضارية – في المدارس والجامعات والمعامل والمصانع والحقول – هي الأصل الذي تنبثق منه بقية الفروع. الهزيمة العسكرية فقط أكثر لفتاً للأنظار وعصفاً بالقلوب، فيما تفلت الهزائم الأقل دراماتيكية عادة من الفحص، لكنها تتوغل تحت الجلود وداخل الألباب إن امتد بها الزمان لتصير شيئاً من طبائع الأمور.  
الهزيمة الحضارية في مصر تبسط وجودها على كافة الأصعدة وفي كل الميادين. مثلاً كل مؤشرات التنمية في السنوات الأخيرة تقذف بمصر في آخر القوائم، بداية بالمؤشرات السياسية كالديمقراطية والشفافية وحرية الصحافة، ومروراً بمؤشرات التنمية البشرية والخدمات العامة والسعادة ونمط الحياة، وانتهاءاً بمؤشر التعليم الذي يضعها في المرتبة قبل الأخيرة بين دول العالم. ولئن لم تفلح الأرقام في بيان حجم الطامة ونذر الكارثة، فتكفي الصور. ثمة مثلاً صور لآلاف في عمر الشباب يلقون بأنفسهم بكل استماتة في اليم الأسود بحثاً عن فرصة للحياة على الشاطئ الآخر، وهناك صور الذين ضحوا يوماً بنور أعينهم بحثاً عن الحرية، فسلبتهم السلطات حريتهم وكافأتهم بزنازين عطنة يرزحون فيها كالموتى الأحياء. إضافة إلى صورة بانورامية واسعة لشعوب طحنتها المعايش، ورافقتها خيبة الأمل كظلها، فصارت في أوطانها غريبة الوجه واليد واللسان، بينها وبين السعادة آماد وآماد، لا تجد موئلاً من نوائب الدهر سوى الصبر الجميل.  
بديهي أنه ليس من مفر في مواجهة هذه الردة الحضارية الهائلة سوى تغيير سياسي واجتماعي ضخم وشامل وسريع. أما سياسات التغيير التدريجي والحلول الوسط والتعويل على انتصارات صغيرة هنا أو هناك فلن تسمن أو تغني عن جوع. بيد أن العقبة الكؤؤد في سبيل تحقيق ذلك هي أن كل الأطراف الفاعلة في السياسة والمجتمع، كالدولة والجيش والأحزاب والإخوان المسلمين والأزهر والكنيسة، قوى أبوية وصائية، مفرطة في المحافظة، تفضل الأسفار بطيئة المسير، وتكره التغيير الواسع إذ ترى فيه شراً مستطيراً وتهديداً مباشراً لمصالحها ونفوذها. ولذلك كانت انحيازاتها حتى في مفارق الطرق العظيمة لا ترتفع لحجم الخطر، معبرة عن نفسها في شكل اختيارات باهتة وشعارات خجولة، من نوع "الإصلاح من الداخل" و"مبدأ الخطوة خطوة" (اللذين ذاعا أيام مبارك)، أو مقولة "البلد تحتاج رجلاً عسكرياً"، أي من داخل الأطر التقليدية للحكم (والذي انتشر عقب الثورة لا سيما بعد عزل محمد مرسي). 
الهزيمة إذن هزيمتان: هزيمة فعلية تحاصر المرء أينما ولى وجهه على امتداد القطر وعلى مدى قرون خلت، وهزيمة فكرية، إما لا تعترف بالواقع البائس هاربة من آلامه، أو متحايلة عليه بشعارات الوطنية الزاعقة ومشاعر التفاؤل الساذج، أو أنها تعترف بالداء لكنها لا ترى مداه وعمقه، ولذلك لا تعتقد أن الدواء يتحتم أن يكون جذرياً وعميقاً. فقط حزمة من المسكنات مدعومة بتمتمات الدعاء والأماني الطيبة تفي بالغرض، وكفى الله السفن في مراسيها شر الريح العاصف.   
الثورة مستمرة (بكافة أشكالها حتى الصمت البليغ) لأن الهزيمة مستمرة. فالثورة في جوهرها رد فعل مباشر على الهزيمة، وعلى إنكار الهزيمة، وعلى تطبيع الهزيمة في الوجدان الشعبي، والإعلان – قسراً أو تلميحاً – بأنه ليس في الإمكان أفضل مما كان وما هو كائن.  
حين يتأمل المرء كلمات موال "عدى النهار" المخضبة بالشجن والأمل معاً، قد يتصور أنه وُلد من كنف الواقع الحالي. المفارقة أن الموال الذى غناه عبد الحليم حافظ (من كلمات عبد الرحمن الأبنودي وتلحين بليغ حمدي) ولد من رحم هزيمة 1967م، وصار أغنيته الرئيسية ورمزاً لعنفوان الإرادة في مواجهة نير الهزيمة المريرة. لكن ليس ثمة أغاني اليوم تعترف بالهزيمة وترفضها بإباء وشمم، ولا نخب تنعي الواقع وتصدح بكلمة الحق، ولا مؤسسات تعي أن الإصلاح الشامل ضرورة ملحة وإلا جرفنا الطوفان. ليس ثمة سوى مهرجانات من التهريج الفج، وسيمفونيات مغشية بالابتذال والنفاق السياسي، وفي جانب المشهد صرخة الشباب الناضحة بالحنق والرجاء: الثورة مستمرة.

د. نايل شامة

* نُشرت هذه المقالة بموقع المنصة (بتاريخ 13 نوفمبر 2016).


Monday, May 30, 2016

A Film and a Failed Revolution

So rarely does a work of art, whether painting, music, film or otherwise, epitomize the complex sociopolitical realities of its time. One such example from Egypt’s past does so, simply yet profoundly. That film, “al-Baree” (The Innocent, 1985), was indeed a tour de force, telling the tale of tyranny and elucidating its dynamics with skill. Starring the iconic Egyptian actor Ahmed Zaki - often seen as Egypt’s Al Pacino - and directed by Atef al-Tayeb, a leading pioneer of the “new realism” wave in Egyptian cinema, the Innocent says a lot about politics in Egypt, and the failure of its 2011 revolution.  
The Good, the Bad and the Ignorant
The Innocent poignantly pulls together drama, artistry and a subtle message of great significance. With impeccable talent and skill, Zaki took on the character of Ahmed Sabe’ al-Leil, a hapless, illiterate young man who spends his years in obligatory government service as a conscript working in a prison. Ringed by infinite desert sand, the prison looks from afar like an island. But far from being an oasis, it is instead an infernal place, where savage punishment is meted out upon political dissidents. There, in the middle of emptiness, there is nothing but an eerie silence, poisonous snakes, and a scorching sun that bakes the prisoners’ faces. And of course there are the dark practices of systematic torture and humiliation.
Sabe’ al-Leil is the quintessential naïve peasant. With a mind like a blank paper and a soul accustomed to servitude, he is as pliant as a reed. He is indoctrinated with ease, injected by the prison’s nefarious jailers with what usually works better and quicker: hate and pride. A war is going on, he’s told, and he must be honored to defend the nation against the evil guys. The inmates are “the enemies of the homeland,” his superiors keep telling him. Sabe’ al-Leil quickly buys their narrative and becomes one of them. He takes part in ‘reception parties,’ beating-up sessions which form the new inmates’ reception at the prison’s gates, to make them realize they are about to enter a very different world. In fact, Sabe’ al-Leil became so dedicated that when one of the detainees - a renowned writer called Rashad Oweis - attempts a reckless escape, Sabe’ al-Leil chases him in the open desert. He wrestles him, and then chokes him to death. The last words of Oweis were spoken with a mixture of indignation and sympathy. He gazes at Sabe’ al-Leil and says: You’re a donkey; you don’t understand anything.
The movie raises a compelling argument: the sad story of oppression involves not only the oppressor and the oppressed, but also – perhaps, more importantly – those who lend the oppressors a helping hand. Among the ranks of those who ‘know,’ there are those who come to the aid of injustice out of personal greed for spoils; those who toe the line out of fear; and those who resent injustice but avert their gaze out of despair. But the movie focuses on the largely uninformed, men of ignorance who support men of power with unreserved conviction and blind submission. They don’t know, and they don’t know they don’t know.  
Thirty years later, the movie’s message is still very relevant. The melodramatic contours of the 2011 Egyptian revolution - its peaks and troughs, moments of triumph and years of despondency - are all well-known. By now, it is not debatable that it has failed, especially since the rise of the military’s strongman Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi to the summit of politics in 2013 and his election as president in 2014. The Arab Spring in Egypt was but a brief interlude between two winter storms. Thousands of innocents lost their lives, were thrown behind bars or vanished behind the sun; politics and the media have turned into a state-controlled Muppet show; and dissidence is punishable without delay. The mood among the community of Egypt analysts is very gloomy; many fear that the worst is yet to come. What caused that retreat is still a matter of great controversy.
It strains truth to argue that the Egyptian revolution went awry because of the revolutionaries’ lack of courage or the old state’s lack of resolve. There has been a great deal of both over the past five years, but in a country of ninety million, both groups represent small minorities. Rather, it went wrong because of the silent majority-- the great mass of Egyptians reduced by their political unconsciousness into, at best, mere spectators in their homeland; at worst, accomplices in crime. Victims of their own ignorance, they took the shadow for the substance, favoring despotism, condoning state violence and detesting liberties. The revolution failed at the altar of their ignorance.
Dramatic and eye-opening as it was, the revolution of January-February 2011 was not disillusioning to this majority on any level. Insouciant about public affairs, many of them then asked with infantile curiosity: What do the protestors in Tahrir want? It was, to them, as though the events were taking place in some strange, distant land, not in their own city’s central square, a stone’s throw from where they live. Today, the majority of Egyptians echo the preposterous accusations hurled at the revolution no matter how little coherent or convincing they are. Parroting the clowns performing nightly on television in the guise of pundits, they condemn the revolution as a “conspiracy” orchestrated by the US, or Israel, or Iran, or Qatar, or Turkey -- or indeed all of them colluding together. In a display of foolish irony, they grant the murderers of the ancien regime both amnesty and amnesia, while describing the victims of the revolution - those who perished or lost an eye or a limb - as Khawanah, traitors. Some even pine for the days of Hosni Mubarak, the despot recently convicted for embezzling public funds, saying he is a hero deserving an apology. It is this critical mass that sealed the fate of the Egyptian revolution. Had they not so cheerfully accepted the return of the old authoritarian state, winked at - even celebrated - its most grave human rights abuses, and raised its new leaders to the status of unaccountable heroes, the unmaking of Egypt’s revolution would not have taken place, and certainly not with such ease. 
The Power of Ignorance
It is no exaggeration to say that education in Egypt is in shambles. The illiteracy rate stands at around 25% (more than 20 million people), and exceeds 30% among females. (1) But the poor quality of education and a school system that is based on rote memorization leaves many of the educated little better off. In the 2015-2016 World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, Egypt was ranked next to last (139th out of 140 countries) for the quality of its schools and universities. (2) “Egyptian education is in the worst era in its history,” said a researcher at Egypt’s National Center for Educational Research and Development. (3) Many university graduates lack basic literacy skills, misspelling as simple words as “but,” “this” and “that.” Last September, it felt awfully surreal when it turned out that the Facebook page of Egypt’s newly-appointed Minister of Education was replete with many grammar and spelling mistakes. Ironically enough, prior to his appointment as minister, al-Helaly al-Sherbiny served as a university professor, vice president of Mansoura University and under-secretary of the Ministry of Higher Education. Online activists were quick to quip that the education minister needed to be educated, to enroll in an illiteracy-erasing program. In January 2016, sixty seconds of the opening statement delivered by the parliament’s new speaker (a former law professor) included at least ten catastrophic pronunciation mistakes as he struggled to speak in formal Arabic.
The prevalence of Illiteracy and poor education has taken a great toll on society. Unawareness of basic political facts is rampant, including among university graduates. According to a poll conducted by the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research (Baseera), only 23% of Egyptians knew the year of the Suez Crisis, (4) an event as significant to Egypt’s modern history as the battle of Normandy is to Britain’s. The awareness of many Egyptians does not extend past the parochial domains of their personal lives or the results of their favorite soccer teams. A culture of mental laziness has led to an inclination by many to readily embrace the ideas offered by others. This is arguably an understandable option. The pursuit of knowledge carries with it the burden of thought, the responsibility of choice and confronting discomforting truths. This is why benighted people - the “bewildered herd” using Walter Lippmann’s expression - view ignorance as a shelter from evil, a feeling of sheer bliss.
On the whole, Egypt is missing a lot of sobriety. The susceptibility to emotional populist rhetoric is widespread. As a result of the gravitation toward emotional rhetoric and the absence of critical thinking, basic instincts - anger, fear, hope and desire - have taken charge. Obviously, too scared to think, too angry to contemplate, and too complacent to change, this majority opted for conformity. Judging by the results, this is no less detrimental than evil.   
This begets the question: How can politics in a society with such a mental geography be reformed? How can history’s longtime subjects turn into its agents? The enlightened few can instigate a revolution (and they did, demanding freedom and social justice), but the realization of its goals on the long run needs more than the efforts of a small minority, however great its courage and devotion. More than two centuries ago, Maximilien Robespierre rightly opined that the “secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant.” Indeed, when the simplest verities are lost, vulnerability to propaganda deepens. The perverted, state-sponsored propaganda of the counter-revolutionary forces in Egypt had, directly and indirectly, induced people to believe that revolution is sin, dictatorship benevolent, torture necessary and silence a virtue.
The Innocent had presented another veritable irony to contemplate. The majority of those incarcerated were intellectuals and writers, but all the brutal conscripts, just like Sabe’ al-Leil, were illiterate. In other words, lout men enslaved erudite men. By way of analogy, here’s a society where those afflicted with irrevocable ignorance wreak havoc on those blessed with knowledge. In 2011, this artistic representation was turned into a vivid reality in the breathtaking clashes that took place in Tahrir Square and the bridge of Qasr al-Nil. The street battles between the educated, full-of-vigor youth and the black-clad, black-eyed soldiers armed to the teeth with rifles, gas canisters and water cannons embodied the battle between enlightenment and the dark ages. Or as the New York Times put it at the time, “rarely have we seen such epic clashes between the forces of light and darkness.” In the heated action of those days, there was not one soldier like Sabe’ al-Leil; there were thousands, but they were outnumbered by the protestors, and taken over by their inimitable valiance. Mubarak was soon overthrown and a new dawn seemed imminent.
Now that the revolution has been defeated, and a return to the ways of the grim past institutionalized, the victors have opted for writing their own narrative. Indeed, for decades, Egypt’s victors - the formidable state and its allies in the security apparatus and business circles - have in search of survival relied on two instruments: guns to subdue the sober few and myths to intoxicate the rest.
Clowns as Mentors  
The problem in Egypt is not that the narratives which have no fidelity to truth are aplenty; it is that they always find a receptive ear and an open heart. In the literature on modern Egyptian politics, the brief encounter Ahmed Lutfi al-Sayed (1872-1963) had with competitive politics is oft-repeated. Al-Sayed was one of the most influential liberal Egyptian intellectuals in the first half of the 20th century, a man of true enlightenment. In the 1920s, he ran in parliamentary elections in his small village in the Daqahlia province on a platform of democracy and modernity. In response, his devious rival rumored among the constituency of villagers that democracy is tantamount to impiety and polyandry. Consequently, Al-Sayed, dubbed in Egypt’s cultural circles as “the educator of a generation,” got trounced in the election.  
This incident took place around 90 years ago, but the more things change, the more they stay the same. As it spread knowledge and raised awareness, the advent of globalization and the proliferation of information technology also gave a new tool to the ruling elite to tell its version of the story. A mutual need for an unwritten pact has in fact arisen. Power wants to survive, and the weary masses, which face the squalors of life from sunrise to sunset, cannot afford to lose hope. They need to be constantly assured that tomorrow will be a better day. It is a reasonable win-win, formula: survival for opium. But then, obviously, agreements need enforcers; stories need storytellers.
Much of the popular mood in today’s Egypt and the level of awareness in society can be gleaned by watching the theatrics of Tawfik Okasha and tracing the barometer of his popularity. Okasha is a controversial TV host who rose to prominence shortly after the 2011 uprising, appearing as host and full-time guest on the satellite channel he also owns: El-Faraeen. On air, he rambles on for hours, haranguing with inflated confidence about politics, economics, theology and even science and medicine.        
Okasha sells his style, which is a mishmash of zealous rhetoric, whimsical humor and a dose of self-praise, to the uneducated, the poorly-educated and the unconscious members of Egyptian society— together, making the vast majority. He once predicted that the freemasons would invade Egypt on 13/13/2013 (yes, the 13th month in the calendar). Indeed, sketching at length the mischievous masonic conspiracies against Egypt is among his favorite subjects (he recently published a book entitled God’s Country: The Freemasonry and the Happy Millennium). Despite, or because of, his hallucinations and hocus-pocus, Okasha is massively popular. Last November, he was elected to parliament, securing more votes than any other candidate in all constituencies across Egypt. But as outlandish as he is, Okasha is not alone. The most watched talk show in Egypt, according to the TV audience research firm Ipsos, is hosted by Ahmed Moussa, a man widely labelled as “the informer” (he once said that he takes pride in being an informer for ‘security agencies’). Moussa’s modus operandi is to defame state critics and promote state policies in the most blatant, often slanderous, and eccentric manner.
It has become familiar to hear Egyptian journalists and anchors sputtering flimsy arguments such as that the world is run by an underground secret organization, that earthquakes and tsunamis are the product of a sinister US plan, and that Egypt would - thanks to a miracle - turn overnight into a superpower. Others defend rotten values with unmistakable alacrity. Hypocrisy is virtuous, a leading journalist once said. Another argued that the country was in need of a “repressive police state.” Others advocated the formation of death squads to liquidate every source of irritation, be it dissidents, demonstrators or street children.  
There are a number of commonalities among Egypt’s clown-like influencers. First, they’re all middlebrow, even though they’re so popular and influential. Their massive popularity does not create Egypt’s malady of ignorance; it reflects it and then nourishes it. And so delirium has become the official language of Egypt’s public landscape. On the other hand, intellectuals who devoted themselves to a life of knowledge and rectitude, have been, sadly, pushed out of the public space. In exile, solitude, or a self-induced bubble of life’s inanities, they seek inner-peace, and forgetfulness of the fact that their country was once the beacon of enlightenment in the region. If they attempt to debunk the official narrative, they would get quickly witch hunted by those in power, their media puppets, and the dogmatic imbeciles who tend to believe both.
Second, all these agents of ignorance consider the “January revolution” to be a term of opprobrium. They dare not speak its name unless wedding it to some manufactured tale of conspiracy. To be sure, the revolution in 2011 did not just target an unjust authority, but also the entire culture of incompetence it had sponsored. At heart, these influencers are at variance with change, especially fundamental change, lest it deprives them of their prerogatives, and puts into place a system that judges them by their genuine skills, not their capacity for hypocrisy.
Third, they have totally aligned themselves to the regime. It is widely believed that the regime pulls their strings, unleashing them whenever needed to defend, attack, justify, sneer at opponents, and bay for more iron-fisted measures while it, simultaneously, makes sure they are always coyly silent about its own wrongdoings. In a sense, these icons of ignorance have become like a service class, the regime’s PR representatives. They are, to borrow the articulate expression attributed to Lenin, the “useful idiots” of Egypt’s new old regime.   
***
In the climax of The Innocent, Sabe’ al-Leil encounters his moment of disillusionment. Amidst the frenzy of a regular ‘reception party,’ he finds himself beating and whipping his childhood village friend, someone he well knows is not “an enemy of the homeland.” He is thrust into the painful revelation that he had been stupid and stubborn—a donkey. In response, he bristled with rage and revolted. He is finally conscious and liberated.   
Sadly, most Egyptians have not been as fortunate as Sabe’ al-Leil, despite the many moments of inspiration they have been offered. The lessons of the revolution, which came in 2011 like a lightning bolt, and the events of yesteryear, went unnoticed. Knowing that the lives of thousands of victims have gone up in smoke in Tahrir and on the streets of Cairo and other cities was not enough to make them see the glaring truth about what is really going on in their country. And still they fail to see the injustice, the suffering, and the role they inadvertently play in perpetuating both.  
The revolution erred because it clamored for freedom to a sleeping people. Before setting off on the pilgrimage to Tahrir, the revolutionaries had to wake them up first.

Nael M. Shama

* A shorter version of this essay appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique (English) on May 30, 2016 under the title "Egypt's Innocent Donkeys".



(!) “More than 25% of Egypt’s Population ‘Illiterate’,” Egyptian Streets, 9 September 2014, http://egyptianstreets.com/2014/09/09/more-than-25-of-egypts-population-illiterate/
(2) World Economic Forum, The Global Competitiveness Report (2015-2016), http://www3.weforum.org/docs/gcr/2015-2016/Global_Competitiveness_Report_2015-2016.pdf , p. 179.
(3) Quoted in Ahmed ElShamy, “Global Competitiveness Report Puts Egypt in the Dust,” Al-Fanar Media, 27 October 2015, http://www.al-fanarmedia.org/2015/10/global-competiveness-report-puts-egypt-in-the-dust/

Friday, January 23, 2015

New Book: Egypt before Tahrir




Nael Shama’s newly-released book “Egypt before Tahrir: Reflections on Politics, Culture and Society” is now available in the bookstores of Cairo and Alexandria. Through a careful examination of Egypt's politics, culture and society in the period from 2005 to 2010, the book delves into the state of Egypt in the last five years of the leadership of Hosni Mubarak, the second longest-serving ruler in Egypt's modern history. It merges political analysis and social observation with historical insights, cultural critique and psychological inspection to provide insights into Mubarak's regime, what went wrong with it and why revolution erupted in 2011.

The book comes in a 250-page hardcover edition and is being sold for LE 100. You can currently find it in the bookstores of Alef and very soon in Al-Shorouk bookstores. If you live in Cairo, you can have it delivered free of charge to your residence or office through the service of Ingez (Call 19783 to place an order).  

Monday, December 8, 2014

In the Vortex of Power: Man and State in Arab Politics


A few days ago, the Cairo Criminal Court acquitted Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak and his top security aides on charges of killing hundreds of protesters during the January 2011 uprising. Yet four years ago, the revolutionary youth had focused in their quest for freedom on deposing the octogenarian leader who had ruled, and misruled, the country for 30 years. Soon after Mubarak’s ouster they started questioning whether the real stumbling block to freedom was a man, or a system. Now, as they lament the death of their stolen revolution, they realize they have been facing an entire regime all along, not a single man.
Emphasizing the wide-reaching influence leaders have over their institutions, Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: "an institution is the lengthened shadow of a single man." This is a plausible argument. However, influence also moves in the opposite direction, from bottom to top, doesn’t it? Or to put it differently, who exerts more influence over whom: the man or the institution? In politics, for example, can a single man, in or out of office, change or restructure a deep-rooted regime that is heavily guarded by vested interests and an abundance of guns, resources and microphones? Or does the system inevitably prevail, forcing the men on top to conform to its ways and doctrine?
Arabs narrate their history in terms of men, not ideas. In their tales, anecdotes and myths, they tend to focus on people, searching for heroes—men of courage, nobility and charisma—or, if necessary, inventing and then glorifying them. But the complex, modern systems of rule are so powerful and overwhelming that in the corridors and vestibules of the state machinery, Arab officials melt into the structure of the state, losing their idiosyncrasies and taking special pride in becoming the system's most ardent guardians. They become toxified; they and the state become one and the same. Take Bashar-Al-Assad. A few months after the Western-educated oculist succeeded his father in 2000, the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs called him a "modern-day Ataturk" who was implementing a "cultural revolution" in Syria, and the New York Times depicted him as a "shy young doctor." A decade in power, and the 'shy' Al-Assad turned into a bellicose, brutish dictator of a rare kind.   
Indeed, in the land of Arabs, it was the system that subdued the man—all men, friends and foes alike. There has been no towering figure like Gorbachev or Mandela in the modern history of the Arab world. Even the petty reformers, insiders who at a certain moment in time believed in a limited, piecemeal approach to reform, were soon sidelined or swallowed by the vortex of the state machine. The Arab state has been like a revolving door; the faces at the apex of power changed frequently, but the entrenched systems beneath did not. Despite its drastic failures in economy and development, this Draconian state has stayed intact over the years, exhibiting its willingness and capability to travel any distance and to incur any cost in order to uphold its prerogatives and keep democracy at bay.
It’s understandable. For one thing, power in authoritarian states is both seductive and addictive. Writing about the effects of power, a former Egyptian politician, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, said: "To me, it [authority] became like drugs…It has a special taste; it resembles alcoholic drinks, with a 50 percent alcohol that scorches the throat." For another, the Arab state has put down the roots of a potent, gigantic patronage network that is sustained by an army of clients, beneficiaries, agents, intermediaries and dependants. These have been the soldiers of the system. With the top-down movement of resources, and the bottom-up submission of loyalty, the system endured against all odds.    
The extraordinary resilience of the Arab state has propelled scholars of democratic transformation to examine the region's "exceptional" character: its immunity to democratic governance, its long-lasting marriage to authoritarianism and banditry. There certainly came glimmering moments for reform, brought about by the interplay of powerful internal and external pressures. Yet, the Arab state shrewdly adapted to such incidents, offering a generous package of concessions and promises, only to quickly pounce on its rivals, thwart the offense, repair the rupture and return to where it had always been, dominant and unreformed. 

Egypt’s Tahrir Moment      
Among Arab states, the modern Egyptian state provides the best example of this resilience. Established after the 1952 coup of the Free Officers, this state seemed for decades both metaphysical and invincible. It is not only a "deep state" (a term originally used to describe the statist, anti-democracy forces in Turkey's political system), it is also wide and resilient. A huge edifice built over the years with arms stretching in all directions like a giant octopus, the state in Egypt presides over a vast network of entrenched interests and deep-rooted loyalties, and it owns a massive arsenal of guns. This state is made up of a bloated bureaucracy, a sizeable military that controls an economic empire, and in recent decades, it has been allied to the segments of the business class whose economic interests are closely tied to, and dependent on, state institutions. Yet this state had begotten poverty and injustice. And by the beginning of the 21st century, it seemed that its days are numbered.  
Without a doubt, the biggest opportunity to dismantle Egypt's authoritarian state and build another, more consonant with modern times, came in early 2011. During the momentous 18-day uprising, protestors not only clamored for Mubarak's removal, but also, with unbounded optimism, for the downfall of the entire regime. And Mubarak stepped down. But his state—represented by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)—was given the mandate to oversee the transition period to democratic rule. It soon became clear that this was merely a leadership reshuffle. And in truth, the system jettisoned Mubarak not to uproot the regime but to protect it.
Mubarak's resignation put Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak's faithful defense minister, in the driver's seat. Like most Arab World autocrats, Mubarak had planted his loyalists in key institutions. And the more docile they were, the longer they stayed in their positions — Tantawi was defense minister for 20 whole years. This colorless, taciturn military bureaucrat, raised in the womb of the state, was faithful to his superiors to the point of self-effacement and fundamentally opposed to change. But the threat posed by the uprising was massive, and Tantawi floundered.
Tantawi was 76 when the revolution broke out in January 2011, too old to understand its underlying causes, too slow to respond to its rapid dynamics. To be sure, the cloistered general felt no affinity with the revolution. He eyed with suspicion, even hostility, the young revolutionaries who toppled his patron and changed his world, but unlike other elements within the state bureaucracy, he sensed that a new status quo had been born, and that there had to be a new approach to governance. Egypt's political landscape had changed dramatically after Mubarak's sudden ouster. Demonstrations took place every Friday in the iconic Tahrir Square, a cascade of labor strikes swept industrial plants across the country, and, perhaps more importantly, Mubarak, his sons and henchmen were put on trial. The internal security institutions were melting down, which allowed the revolutionaries, in a hitherto unthinkable move, to break into the headquarters of the notorious State Security Intelligence, grabbing classified documents as souvenirs and taking photographs of the personal belongings of Habib Al-Adly, Egypt's ruthless pre-revolution Interior Minister.    
Taken by surprise, and lacking skill and vision, Tantawi improvised. He had no strategy or blueprint, but he had a sharp sense of threat. Accordingly he felt the need to adapt to a perilously precarious period. Authoritarianism was giving way to an era of electoral politics and freedom of assembly and expression. Sitting astride internal and external pressure to reform, Tantawi promised free elections and a return to the barracks, but he sought to retain the privileges of the military in the new order. To the military, the revolution was a test—a junction to be crossed, not a change of lanes. Concessions had to be made, and they were.  
After months of tiresome pushing and pulling with political forces, the state grudgingly accepted that the moment of change had come. Tantawi believed Mubarak had erred by planning to groom his son as his successor, and that his brand of intransigence would not survive against the high tides of the Arab spring. So aside from securing the interests of the military, Tantawi did not choose his successor. The 2012 presidential election was free and fair, bringing to power the Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi. Not only did Tantawi endorse the election results, he also agreed to serve as defense minister to the new president—the newcomer to the system from the the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the regime’s arch-enemy. 
In power, the MB failed drastically, playing into the hands of the state that was girding for battle. In the months from July 2012 to June 2013, as the mismanagement and opportunism of the MB became apparent, the state got what it sought, a casus belli, the justification of a war that only needed a catalyst. The mass demonstrations on June 30, 2013 emboldened the state to recover lost territory. While in 2011 the military had the patience of a saint, waiting for 18 turbulent days before eventually forcing Mubarak to leave, in 2013 it quickly ran out of patience. One day after the huge protests, the military issued an ultimatum, and two days later, Morsi was ousted and arrested.   
The coup put paid to the age of revolution and street politics, inviting back the pre-2011 practices and mentalities. So the period from 2011 to 2013 seems like a parenthesis between two remarkably similar eras. The system has prevailed over the biggest threat it has faced since 1952, capitalizing on popular anti-MB hysteria to retain its dominion and dodge reform, and cutting the tongues of critics in the name of restoring "the prestige of the state." The agents and allies of the state believe that it has to be fearsome once again. With the unprecedented levels of coercion it has employed since Morsi's ouster (killing thousands and arresting more than 40,000 in less than a year), the state now seem invincible, even metaphysical. And Egypt is back to square one.  

Algeria: From Reform to Civil War
What happened in Egypt last year bears a striking resemblance to what took place in Algeria two decades earlier. The road from revolution to state-building and then state consolidation in Algeria was marred by corruption and mismanagement. By the end of the 1980s, under the leadership of President Chadli Bendjedid (ruled 1979-1992), the country had reached the brink of a crisis, the worst since independence. Its youth, in despair about the country’s economic and social situation, and indignant at the regime's corrupt nomenklatura, were boiling with rage. They called the 1980s les années noires (the dark years). Then in October 1988, they revolted.
The revolt was in one crucial aspect tantamount to the 2011 uprising in Egypt—an unforeseen earthquake that throws the system off balance and persuades the men in charge (or, to be accurate, some of them) that a change of sorts is necessary to keep the system afloat. Bendjedid thought the state was ailing and reform was needed. After riots that left hundreds dead, he sacked his prime minister and promised "greater democratization of political action" and "political and institutional changes." In early 1989, a new constitution was drafted that introduced multiparty elections to Algeria's political system for the first time since independence. A window of reform was left slightly ajar, and dozens of newly-formed political parties passed through it.      
The junta saw these measures more as a survival strategy than a wholehearted approach to democratic rule. Naturally, generals profoundly accustomed to a strict, chain-of-command culture do not have a penchant for the diversity, competition and debate that democracy brings. When the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won the municipal election in 1990, and the first round of the parliamentary election in December 1991, sending shock waves through the system, the army generals felt that the reforms were spinning out of control. The "deciders," who were ensconced behind the façade of a civilian leadership, intervened, cancelling the election, sacking Bendjedid and thrusting a new president, Mohamed Boudiaf, into office. But the new president was not as compliant as they thought. He vowed to combat corruption and target the "mafias" of banditry that had plundered the nation. A former politician, Abdel-Hamid Brahimi, admitted in a moment of frankness that "the equivalent of the country's foreign debt ($26 billion) was paid in bribes to government officials over a decade”, words which quickly became an adage in Algeria. Boudiaf's declarations, real or feigned, reassured Algerians that he would undermine the networks of patronage and enrichment that had become so enmeshed in the fabric of the state. A few months later, he was assassinated, allegedly by the military.  
Clearly, the state was unable to tolerate the reformers, even petty ones aspiring to modest change. With the elimination of two presidents inclined toward reform, the hardliners in the military took full control. The maximum scale of the state's violence was unleashed, no longer to be used only when necessary, but whenever possible. The reign of terror of the 1990s, les années rouges, harvested hundreds of thousands of lives. Algerians bitterly mocked that the struggle for independence had made Algeria "the land of one million shaheed (martyr)" but civil war turned it into "the land of one million zabeeh (slaughtered)." Reform was indefinitely postponed, even after the guns fell silent. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who became president with the blessings of the army at the end of the civil war in 1999, still maintains a tight grip on power. Last April, the 77-year old, wheelchair-bound leader started a new term in office. The images of Bouteflika's pale face at the poll station epitomize where his country stands today: behind a veneer of democracy, it is sick and still unwilling to reform.   
The story of systems overcoming reformists is one that repeats itself tediously in other parts of the Arab world. In Sudan, for instance, there is the case of General Abdel-Rahman Swar Al-Dahab, the defense minister who in 1985 toppled Sudan's president Gaafar Nimeiry in the wake of a popular uprising. Nimeiry established a military dictatorship that lasted 16 years. Swar Al-Dahab promised to hand power to an elected civilian government after a one-year transition period, and kept his promise. In 1986, parliamentary elections were held for the first time since 1968, bringing to power the leader of the majority party. But once more this liberal experience was but a short interlude between two dictatorships. In 1989, a military coup led by Colonel Omar Al-Bashir again threw Sudan into the abyss of military rule. Déjà vu. And despite the genocide in Darfur, secession of South Sudan, and Al-Bashir's own indictment by the International Criminal Court for committing crimes against humanity, the Sudanese president is still holding onto power, becoming the 12th longest-ruling leader in the world.   
***
If we think of the Arab spring as a prolonged sociohistorical process carried out over multiple layers of time and space, then it is fair to say that its ultimate fate is still unknown. The regimes of Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen have obviously survived the Spring's first offenses. Other Arab states are still governed by an unbroken chain of autocrats. If anything, the Arab spring has told us that change does not come from above. The men of the system have no appetite for change no matter how awash in corruption and ineptitude the state is; and if they do, the system has the capacity to oust them at once. Egypt is therefore standing in the streets of continuity, not at the gates of change. Al-Sisi, after all, is the offspring of Mubarak; preserving the state is his leitmotiv. To expect him to reform is to ask him to betray the institution to which he belongs, and in which he spent 45 years of his life. In a speech he gave last June, Al-Sisi clearly said that "state institutions shouldn’t be touched, and nobody should comment on their performance."
The massive changes in Arab societies notwithstanding, the Arab state remains curiously unchanged: Egypt has smoothly reverted to the notorious ethos of the Mubarak years; the sheikhs of Gulf states use petrodollars to sustain the rule of their tribes-with-flags brand of states; and a tyrant like Al-Assad starts a new term in office as his torn country turns into a mass grave. Perhaps the ink spilled in the Arab world on the popular "great man theory" should instead have gone to write in length about the "great state theory"—the dominant institution deserves the most thorough scrutiny.  

Nael M. Shama

* This essay appeared first on the website of Le Monde Diplomatique (English) on December 4, 2014.