Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Qena: The Revolution Moves On

            The last week, but especially the last few days, have placed in relief the great challenges that confront Egyptians now.  What kind of decisive role these events themselves will have on where things go is obviously difficult to say but they do indicate the immense problems that confront the core of a highly centralized government in Cairo as it attempts to deal with the demands for participation in a large, diverse and still significantly rural society.  There are now challenges to the authority and structure of the central state (and not only to the regime) at least two of which are serious and which, so far, the government has not been able to find a way to influence, let alone resolve.   These days will certainly test the political capacity of Egypt’s current government as well as the resolve and ability of the army. 

            To say that the capacity of the government will be tested does not mean that the government is about to dissolve, any more than nuclear disaster in Japan or the need to raise the debt ceiling of the United States indicate that those states are near collapse.  Nevertheless both social conflict and technological disaster do test the administrative and political capacities of governments.  In their wake, people ask themselves whether both their leaders and their institutions are up to the challenges. 

            If these events throw into relief the challenges the new government faces, they also indicate some of the positive changes that have occurred.  Most crucially what the present situation reveals is that for the time being the government either does not wish to or is not able to use the kind of force that the old regime more routinely used.

            Egypt, like 19th and early 20th century France (on whose example it is, in part, modeled) has a highly centralized state.  It is divided into provinces or governorates and the governors are appointed rather than elected.  They serve under the Ministry of the Interior and therefore are closely connected to a police force that is, in Egypt, itself a large, centralized and national force.  Although there are elected local councils their powers are relatively minor compared to those wielded by the local unit of the country’s executive authority. The provinces, or governorates to use a somewhat more accurate translation, are convenient administrative units for the central government.  They do correspond, in some rough way, to the country’s regions but—unlike the regions whose names they often share and which have known (even if sometimes imagined) characteristics—they have no independent political life.  An indication of how fluid they can be is that even as the government was appointing new governors it also abolished the two governorates of Helwan and October 6. They were transferred back into Cairo and Giza respectively whence they had been created in 2008.

            On April 14, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf re-shuffled the deck of provincial governors.  His choice for a new governor of the Upper (southern) Egyptian province of Qena was met with nearly immediate and widespread protests.   Sharif had chosen a police general as the new governor, Emad Shehata Mikhail, who is a Coptic Christian.  In the general re-shuffling he also chose new governors for Minya province (between Qena and Cairo), Daqahliya (in the northeast of the Delta), and Alexandria (in the northwest of the Delta).  In the past week protests against these choices have grown.  These protests necessarily link some of the most vital and unresolved issues of the future structure of the Egyptian state with very basic concerns about what the dominant values of the emerging Egyptian polity will be together with pressing and sometimes violent local social conflicts and national contests for influence.  In other words, it’s very very complicated. 

            To some degree what is at stake is whether the national government is able, and is seen as able, to resolve some of the most basic conflicts in Egyptian society.  There are also other questions of the resolve of the government to carry out decisions that may be unpopular with sections of society for what it deems to be illegitimate reasons such as religious prejudice.  In the absence of a clear sense of where the transition is heading there is also the question of whether the future Egyptian democracy is to remain a strongly centralized state ruled from Cairo or whether democracy also means allowing more local control.  These events will also reveal something about the relative balance of forces in the country between those committed to a vision of liberal democracy and those who see democracy as a path to the maintenance of Islamic supremacy or perhaps an Islamic state.  In practice the political preferences of the Muslim Brothers, the Azhar as the representative of official Islamic institutions, the armed forces, as well as Egypt’s left and liberal forces will become more apparent. 

            What makes this complex is that, as the late Isaiah Berlin put it, it is quite possible for fundamental principles to clash rather than to harmonize.  If you believe that all good things necessarily go together then the story I am about to tell will seem obtuse, bizarre, and perhaps morally bankrupt.  If you believe that democracy is about constant attempts to resolve conflicts based in principle as well as between divergent interests then what I am about to describe may make more sense. 

The basic demands of the January 25 protest including transforming local government. There have been proposals, in the wake of the collapse of the old regime, for governors to be elected. For now the Egyptian government remains largely as it was before January 25 albeit with very different people in charge.  Many of the old governors, both due to their career paths in the police and to the events surrounding the revolution, have been at least tangentially connected to severe repression and there have been claims that some of them participated in the decision to use deadly force.  As far as I know none of these claims has been substantiated but they certainly remain a potent political charge.

            There has been significant dissatisfaction with many of the new governors and demonstrations have occurred but in Qena a severe political storm blew up.  The police general placed in charge of the governorate, Emad Shehata Mikhail, is a Christian.  The previous governor, Magdy Ayoub, was also Christian.  Although the majority of the population of the province is Muslim, it most likely has a much largely proportion of Christians than Egypt as a whole (it’s a little difficult to be precise in the absence of some kind of census or survey records which I don’t believe exist). I have not been in Qena but I have followed the news reporting (print, state television and some of the large number electronic accounts via both Twitter and Facebook) from Cairo. 

            Within hours of the announcement of Mikhail’s appointment, and well before any similar protests against other governors occurred elsewhere, protestors gathered.  Appointing new governors seems to have been a decision by the government to respond to complaints that many of the personnel in the bureaucracy, and especially the police and administration, had not changed with the revolution despite the arrests of former high officials.  Some of the early reports of the unrest in Qena describe a demand to replace Mikhail with a governor who was both civilian and Muslim and the demonstrators themselves were frequently described as Islamists or salafiyyin. 

It is usual to describe salafiyyin as “rigorous” or “extremely orthodox” Muslims.  Whatever else can be said of it, its adherents claim to be adhering to an “originalist” reading of the Qur’an as a text.  At the beginning of the 20th century the Salafi movement as an intellectual current was often associated with liberal and modernizing intellectuals but during the last half century it has become associated with a radically conservative force in Egyptian society. Whatever name one wishes to use, it is clear that in many parts of Upper Egypt (and elsewhere as well) there are Salafi groups that practice what they claim is a pure form of Islam and which also seek to subject the entire population—especially Christians but also Muslims who they view as insufficiently or improperly observant—to their own political and social rules.  They are intolerant, often violent, and often refused to engage in politics until after the collapse of the Mubarak regime.  They generally oppose the concept of citizenship because it would allow non-Muslims to govern Muslims in a predominantly Muslim society (and usually also women to govern men) and also democracy.  They have had some severe conflicts recently with other religious trends, notably the Sufi orders and the mainstream Azhar clerical establishment.

            There was also some dissatisfaction within the Christian community at Ayoub's performance as governor.  During his tenure a terrible crime occurred in the city of Nag Hammadi when a drive-by shooting at a church as Christmas services were over took several lives.  Although the early claims were that the shooting was a generalized form of revenge for a sexual relationship elsewhere in the province between a Christian man and a Muslim woman, investigations by human rights groups indicated it was a part of a fairly cynical action designed to increase sectarian tension to allow a member of the national ruling party to regain a seat that the Mubarak machine had pushed him out of.  At least some members of the local Christian community felt that Ayoub had and Mikhail would not be able to deal with these kinds of issues given the emotional tensions they evoked.  They therefore also joined the demonstrations for his ouster.

            The demonstrators, who rapidly came to number thousands, quickly occupied the railway tracks that go through the city.  They were thus able to prevent train movement on the north-south rail artery that connects Cairo (at the head of the Nile Delta) with Aswan (where the High Dam is located in the far south).  For several days they also blocked entry to the central administrative headquarters of the governorate and allowed neither the governor nor his assistants to enter.  Toward the end of the protest they were also demanding the ouster of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf who, despite numerous reports in the press of his intention, never himself visited Qena.

            The demonstrators were at pains to present themselves as part of the January 25 revolution and to avoid being described as motivated by religious prejudice.  They claimed that the appointment of a Copt as governor of Qena in the wake of the previous governor who had also been a Copt indicated that the government was operating under a “quota” system in which Qena would henceforth always be governed by a Christian even though the majority of its inhabitants are Muslim.  Quotas have become a more salient issue in Egypt in the past decade since the Mubarak government instituted a quota system to ensure the presence of women in the national legislature (and also to refine a different channel for its control over the legislative branch). 

There is significant discrimination against Copts including in the presumably more liberal confines of higher education.  The late Ra’uf Abbas, a prominent historian, revealed some extremely crude instances of the exclusion of Christians carried out by Muslim colleagues.  In the typically thoughtless way of those who discriminate they assumed that Abbas, a Muslim, shared their views.  In the broader society one tactic of extreme Islamist groups has been to call for boycotts against Coptic businesses.  In the fall of 2010 the Azhar Scholars Front called for such a boycott, but they were far from the first.  In his memoirs, Brigadier General Aziz Ghali, a Christian who commanded a division in the 1973 war, describes his shock at hearing such a call broadcast over a loudspeaker from a mosque in Cairo one morning in 1990.  In the 1990s as well members of armed Islamic groups robbed Christian jewelers and shopkeepers to finance their own activities under the pretext of carrying out war against the enemies of Islam.  The police played a significant role in repressing armed Islamist organizations in the 1990s but in the process it more or less trampled on the rights of anybody who even remotely got in the way, leaving a further tangled legacy.

As is often the case with disadvantaged regions where people are poorer, education is less common, spending on public welfare lower, access to upward mobility less frequent, and extensive family connections stronger there is also significant prejudice among more sophisticated and wealthier against people from the Sa’id as Upper Egypt is called in Arabic.  Stereotypes abound and Sa’idis, whether Muslim or Christian, are said to be not very bright, hot-blooded, excessively religious, generally emotional and prone to violence. 

There was unhappiness in many of the 20 governorates which woke up, had occurred in the past, to discover that they had suddenly had new governors who they had not chosen.  The promises of the revolution, coupled with the uncertain political structure of the country and the degree of centralization that would continue to exist, along with the powerful forces of discrimination made Qena a particularly complex flashpoint.  Moreover, the kind of open discrimination against Christians which was until quite recently not merely open but a proudly acknowledged part of some Islamist discourse has now receded.  Not the discrimination and disdain, certainly, but the degree of openness with which it is expressed.  So even many of those in public life who completely disdain Christians have been cautious about placing the grounds of their opposition on religious supremacy.  They have, more recently, at least verbally accepted the construct of the civil national state and equality of citizenship between Muslims and Christians.  This is a question that has particularly bedeviled the Muslim Brothers whose draft program for an election campaign in 2007 pointedly refused to accept the idea of a Christian (or woman) as president.  Some of their leaders have recently said they could accept such a president and the former Supreme Guide of the Brothers has even been quoted as saying that the head of the Brotherhood itself could be a Christian should the members so choose.  In the past few days the MB, mindful that the constitution will not allow the creation of a political party (which they desperately wish to form) which preaches religious discrimination have announced that although anyone, whether Christian or female, can be nominated for president no one is obliged to vote for such a candidate.

A plethora of slogans and explanations for the revolt in Qena emerged.  There was and is no doubt that a significant portion of the antagonism to Mikhail was that he is Christian and that many Qenawis, especially but not only the salafis, simply refused to accept the appointment of a Christian to govern Muslims.  The government despite (or because) it’s the creature of the armed forces will not use massive violence.  This has also led critics of the government, especially in Cairo, to wonder if the army has made some kind of agreement with both the Brotherhood and the Salafis.  After all, they argue, in early April the Armed Forces used violence to disperse peaceful secular middle-class activists in Midan al-Tahrir in downtown Cairo which is far less important to the country’s economy than the major north-south train line.  The army, for its part, denies that it favors any particular political group in the country.  There was therefore an important struggle both in Qena and elsewhere to define the nature of the demonstrations which brought together an array of different forces. 

Some of the demonstrators objected to Mikhail because he was involved in repression in Giza during the January 25 revolution the shooting of demonstrators.  This objection might be a good one if Mikhail’s former posting in Giza had not been in the office concerned with tax evasion.  On the other hand, former Presidential candidate Aiman Nour has accused Mikhail of personally overseeing his torture in 2008. Mikhail has twice offered to resign with the understanding that if he leaves Qena he would return to his former unit.  Both times the government has refused to accept his resignation since to do so, under pressure, would appear to be an act diminishing the authority of the state.  If Mikhail were in fact guilty of any criminal acts the evidence would by now have surfaced and the government would have been compelled to let him go.

The refusal of the government to accept Mikhail’s proferred resignation indicates another dimension of these events.  The government certainly wants to appear (and probably to some degree actually to be) responsive to popular protest and preference.  But both the government and political activists are painfully aware that the authority (or haiba which has overtones of “awe” as well as power) will be damaged if it accedes to every protest including those that have one clearly illegitimate dimension even if that one has popular resonance and is associated with other, more politically palatable issues.

Once the demonstrators had occupied the train tracks and as the interruption of traffic spread from the train to the major road arteries as well, Qena became a source of national debate.  As far as I can tell from a quick Google search this has been almost completely absent from the Western media, but it has been in the headlines nearly every day in Egypt.  The demonstrations took place in the capital city of the province, also named Qena.  Not far from anyone’s mind, however, is that the nearby city of Nag Hammadi where as I mentioned above a horrific drive-by shooting occured a couple of years ago.  Stereotypes aside, therefore, there is a legitimate fear that sectarian violence could occur which, once begun would be difficult to end.

 Some indication of the religious and political divisions in the region is found in the recent plebiscite result on amending the constitution.  The central Qena city electoral district voted “no” by about 20% as did Nag Hammadi.  In the areas surrounding the city fewer than 5% did. 

Although the Prime Minister did not go to Qena, fairly early on he sent the Minister of the Interior, Mansour al-Issawi and the Minister of Civil Management, Muhsen al-Nu’mani to negotiate with the demonstrators.  Several prominent Muslim preachers, including from among the Salafi groups, also arrived in Qena to attempt to bring the protests to a conclusion.  Priests and Muslim clerics held meetings and at one point jointly led a demonstration calling for a new governor. As the affair continued on, however, it was increasingly clear to all concerned, as summed in an op-ed published in one of the Cairo dailies on April 24, that there were three clear dimensions to what was happening:  the need to preserve the authority of the central state, the need to insist on the equality of all citizens (both in terms of holding power and being subject to the law), and the need to ensure that private individuals not commandeer public property and prevent free movement and commerce.  Parenthetically under the recently promulgated laws governing both thuggery and demonstrations, it is very difficult to understand how a demonstration that effectively prevented commerce and industry in a large swathe of Upper Egypt from functioning for over a week do not merit criminal prosecution. 

Toward the very end, some members of the January 25 movement went to Qena to try to find a resolution.  Mostafa El-Naggar, a prominent activist now closely associated with the candidacy of Muhammad al-Baradei for the presidency, wrote of his visit to Qena.  El-Naggar met with several different groups including Christian and Muslim religious leaders and came away with the dominant sense (shared by others) that the urban elite in the capital have misunderstood events in Qena.  He and his group proposed a different solution in which Mikhail would indeed cease to be governor but in which Qena would become the laboratory for democracy: after a three-month caretaker arrangement the governor of Qena would be elected and henceforth all governors would be elected. As part of the solution both the government and demonstrators would have to formally recognize that denying political authority to an Egyptian citizen because of religion was unacceptable.  Attractive as this sounds it is doubtful that either the government, the army, or indeed the population at large is really prepared for such an undertaking. 

Just before the crisis ended, the Muslim Brothers (moving in the opposite direction from El-Naggar although they had been involved in pushing the demonstration forward in its earliest days) issued a stinging critique of the demonstrators in Qena.  They called the demonstrators remnants of the old regime and warned of the danger both of diminishing the authority of the state and of evoking civil conflict.  At the same time the Muslim Brothers, who were evidently not invited to the Easter services at the central Cairo Cathedral, seem to have made something of a point of showing up at other, local services.  The Muslim Brothers continue to proclaim their adherence to a civic state albeit one that, in the minds of several of their prominent leaders, can easily coexist with being an Islamic state.  The Brotherhood, as parliamentary election slowly draw closer must keep an eye (or two or three) on their primary base, the possibility of losing some of it to the salafis, and the need to convince both the army and the bulk of the urban population especially in Cairo (which is about 20% of the country) that they can be trusted with power. 

The crisis in Qena was brought to an end on April 26 when Prime Minister Sharaf, just before leaving on his first official foreign mission (to the Gulf), issued a decree “freezing” Mikhail’s activity as governor.  For three month’s Mikhail’s assistant governor (his “secretary”) will manage affairs in the province.  Clearly, despite repeated attempts to get him to do so, Sharaf decided not to address the issues in Qena directly nor to visit.  It is clear that it takes a very long time for the present council of ministers to work through their daily agenda but Sharaf did manage to address the inhabitants of South Sinai just before the Sinai Liberation Day. Sharaf could have taken the occasion to enter into a deeper dialogue with the country about what constitutional democracy will mean:  the rights of citizens and the prospect not only for free parliamentary elections but also for the devolution of power.  On the other hand perhaps in the present atmosphere he decided that a frank discussion of these issues would only spoil everybody’s picnic on the popular Shamm al-Nessim which corresponds to the official holiday.  Egyptians were enjoying herring, roe and eggs on whatever green space they could find while official religious figures from the Azhar were calling for the government to outlaw the sale of both fish products on the grounds that unscrupulous merchants sell rotten merchandise.  Not, of course, because it’s been a traditional way to celebrate spring since before either Islam or Christianity were popular religions.  And yet this seems to be one of the ways that democratic regimes resolve problems: they kick them down the road.  In three months time everything may look very different. Perhaps then Mikhail can resume his work as governor.  Or perhaps he can quietly return to Giza.  Either way the government has avoided a serious and possibly violent confrontation as well as a serious debate.  A government committed not to use violence against its people when they are engaged in political protest will have to use the measures of temporization, delay and inaction as well as persuasion and vigorous enforcement of the law.  There is clearly something to be said for letting social forces contend without intervening too quickly if Egyptians are going to gain the experience, so long denied them since 1952, to resolve local problems locally. 

But there is also something to be said for confronting issues as they arise and at least clarifying what choices the Egyptian people confront.  The last ten days in Qena brought several issues to light in a particularly salient way because of how they reinforced each other to create a real, if limited, crisis of governance.  These events are less dramatic than what happened in Tahrir Square in February 2011 and they are certainly less dramatic than what is now going on in Syria and Libya.  Yet for all that they are important not just to Egypt but to the future of self-rule in the region.  First, the government did refrain from the use of violence.  Second, while much attention is correctly focused on whether the new government will be a parliamentary or presidential regime, an equally important question is how power the center is prepared to devolve to the regions and provinces.  An Egypt which lives in a highly centralized parliamentary regime may not be much more able to affect their own destiny than in the past 60 years.  For those with a taste for historical analogy, it may be an Egypt that spends the next 60 years re-living the experience of the French Third Republic.  Third, however, there is little doubt that devolving power from the center to the provincial level runs the severe risk of allowing local prejudice to trump republican principle.  There is no particular reason to believe that the majority of Qena (or any other province) will choose a Christian political leader in the new future.  As I noted above, that such political figures may run does mean they will win.  Fourth even if mass demonstrations in Midan al-Tahrir become a thing of the past, Egyptians feel for now that they have reclaimed the right to assemble and to protest.  This is no longer simply something written into the text of the constitution but has become part of the pattern of political life across the political spectrum.  I am not suggesting every political force respects others who deploy this right but for now everybody expects to use it without repression.  Lastly, politics will clearly involve major conflicts from here on out to define the public agenda in ways that 60 years of dictatorship repressed.  Leaving aside what "really" happened in Qena, which some very unsavory aspects that many people would like to put aside as well as providing some important challenges to the structure of the transitional regime, political groups are struggling to capture control of the national debate by explaining them and hoping broad audiences will buy the explanation and the underlying assumption.  Some of the Salafi leaders have gotten very good at this.

            If these issues have been thrown into high relief by the last 10 days they appear elsewhere.  Demonstrations have occurred, although not relatively as large or intense or prolonged, in Minya, Daqahliyah and Alexandria provinces.  Protests against the imposition of police officials on local administration have occurred but in the case of Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city, they have focused on a former university president, a particularly unloved group in today’s Egypt.  University presidents may not have been from the police but they frequently actively cooperated with them and they preside over one of the disaster areas of Egyptian life: the degraded state of higher education (not I hasten to add necessarily of those who provide it) as a system.

            It is always tempting to view revolution through the lens of our comfortable but schematic conceptual frameworks shaped by hindsight and the necessity of scholarly explanation.  Having lived, even if only on the margins, of the events of the last 90 days it seems implausible to me that anyone in Paris in October 1789 or Saint Petersburg in May 1917 or Boston in September 1776 had any inkling of where it would all go.  And where it “went” depends in part on where you place the arbitrary end of the process.  In France was it the Terror of Robespierre or the Empire of Napoleon, the battle over Dreyfus or the installation of the Programme Commun?  In Russia was it the Bolshevik coup or the Stalinist assault on peasant society, the period of perestroika or Putin’s ascendancy? And in  own country was it the now-forgotten Articles of Confederation or the belated (and certainly undemocratically written) compromise known as the Constitution, was it the Civil War or the civil rights movement?  Ninety days into a process that will take years if not decades to correctly name and to unfold we can only watch for clues.  We will need to let future observers explain, as they will, the inevitable and inexorable steps to a conclusion that now eludes us.


Evan Levine said...

Some extremely interesting stuff here. A lot of which has, indeed, not been covered by the press in the. Although I was aware of the protests in Qena and the appointment of a Christian Governor, your analysis about the implications for a centralized versus localized government is fascinating. One question/comment that I had concerns the pluses and minuses of these two forms of governments for both Islamist and secular force (to lump the diverse groups that make up each into these broad categories for arguments sake). It seems to me that depending on their relative strengths each group would either push for a centralized or localized system, i.e. if the Islamists or secular groups thought they had the constituency to take the whole pie they might focus on a centralized state, but if they were concerned about their relative weakness they might push to allow for greater regional power, especially in areas considered to be their base. Is this an accurate way of looking at it, or what might be the best interpretation of the reasons why certain groups might push for centralized or localized rule?

Ellis said...

Very few people are focusing on the issue of devolving power; the question of national institutions and the importance of retaining a unified state are uppermost in almost everyone's minds. However, generally the left and secular forces favor less reliance on local, community-based political structures and prefer some form of proportional representation. The religious forces probably also favor PR but would also probably prefer to see more devolution of power. BTW that's a very good question.

Evan Levine said...

Without being able to read Arabic (unfortunately), I have been stuck mostly reading Western news, AJE, AM-AY, and blogs. While I came across this piece this morning (http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/416211), talking about efforts to limit Presidential powers--and to a certain degree the executive branch (or is it just shifting the power within Egypt's President-Prime Minister-Cabinent Executive?)--I'm curious how the strengthening of community-based or local power can occur without the complete rewriting of the constitution.

Although the rewriting of the constitution is still the road that Egypt seems to be going down following election, right? It's confusing to me, as an observer with very little constitutional insight, that branches of government empowered by one constitution can be elected, tasked with writing a new constitution and then still remain in power once that new constitution is written without there being any sorts of conflicts of interests. What's more, I keep hearing about the appointment of a constitutional drafting committee, but what does that exactly mean and how will that be appointed? It seems that questions of centralized versus localized rule will be dependent on who makes up this committee and what they propose. Will this all come down to further national referendums? Not sure if anyone has these answers, but it all seems very confusing.

Your insight is very much appreciated.