An Exchange with Smart and Decent Former Student

July 24, 2013

In Blog

From Finkelstein:

Since the July putsch in Egypt, I have been engaged in a lengthy, occasionally testy, correspondence with a former student of mine, who is Egyptian and lives in Egypt.  Below I reproduce below the last installments.



1.  You now state that you were against the military coup.  I do not recall any emphatic or even implicit statements on this score in your initial correspondence.   If you originally opposed the coup, we wouldn’t have been at loggerheads: I obviously support the right of people to mobilize and demonstrate, so why would we have quarreled, were it not for the fact that you supported the coup?  However, this is not a game of “gotcha,” so I will not belabor the point.   But, you also now state that you are against a restoration of the status quo ante the coup.   In effect, it logically ensues that ex post facto you do support the military coup.

2.  I originally stated that the overthrow of a democratically elected government can only be justified if two conditions obtain: (A) a clear majority of the population opposed the elected government, and (B) all democratic procedures for replacing the elected government had been exhausted.  

3.  Condition (B) clearly did not exist.  Some coup apologists accused the elected government of “Brother-ization” of the state, while others (e.g., ElBaradei), accused the MB of having created, or being on the verge of creating, a “fascist” state.   Not a scintilla of evidence was adduced to support either of these allegations.  In fact, the MB barely controlled any of the “deep state,” while it did not so much as hint that it wouldn’t carry out the parliamentary elections scheduled for six months hence.  Insofar as an overwhelmingly Opposition victory in these parliamentary elections would have enabled the impeachment of the president, as well as scrapping the constitution, all of the Opposition’s demands could have been met while preserving the democratic process.   Accordingly, a critical precondition for overthrowing the democratically elected government was absent.

4.  Bearing in mind that, failing to fulfill condition (B), it is impossible to justify removal of a democratically elected government, let us, for argument’s sake, concede that condition (B) was met, and turn to condition (A).   Throughout our correspondence, you have endeavored to justify the ousting of the MB on the grounds that “democracy is more than elections”–i.e., that the massive protests in the streets demonstrated the “people’s will” and that accordingly the MB had to step down.  A basic democratic principle is that of one person, one vote.  Although the MB received only a little more than 50 percent of the vote in the presidential election, no one disputed that it won the election and therefore was entitled to hold office.  So, in order to justify the ousting of the MB, and setting aside condition (A), it is critical to ascertain whether a popular mandate existed.  In these circumstances, raw numbers clearly are vital.  If 52 percent of the vote entitled the MB to hold office, then one must show that at least 50.1 percent of the population opposed the MB in order to justify removing it.  The Opposition was clearly aware of these facts, which is why they alleged that 22 million signed petitions calling for the government’s removal and 32 million were protesting in the streets.   When I questioned these frankly absurd numbers, you made every manner of argument to evade condition (A) for justifying the MB’s removal: to wit, you alleged that more people were in the streets now than in July 2011 (but Mubarak wasn’t democratically elected); that these were the biggest demonstrations you had ever seen (perhaps true, but so what?), that if protest numbers were critical, then it would invalidate the very purpose of protests (but in a democratic society the purpose of protests is to register discontent with a policy or policies, not to oust a democratically elected government).   The bottom-line is that, not having met conditions (A) or (B), let alone (A) and (B), and even setting aside the military putsch, you have provided zero grounds to justify the MB’s ousting, if you believe in basic democratic principles.

5.   There is no disagreement between us that the MB bears some responsibility for the popular discontent that erupted during its term of office.  In my first email to you, I even conceded that the MB “perhaps bears the lion’s share of responsibility.”  The point of disagreement is whether it bears all, or nearly all, the culpability.  In your recent “Picture this” email, you completely omitted any culpability of the Opposition for the turn of events that climaxed in the popular protests and the coup.  It was to this monumental omission that I reacted, and recommended that you read Sami al-Arian’s latest article.  al-Arian is perhaps wrong on some points, exaggerates others, and unjustifiably infers yet others, but the overall picture — the forest, not each of the trees — is surely correct.  A vast, powerful array of domestic, regional and international forces was plotting the MB’s downfall from day one of its ascension to power.  Indeed, it would be a surprise were this not the case.  It would not be the first time in history that a counter-revolution succeeded a revolution.  You think that the MB could have won over the original “revolutionary forces” in Tahrir Square.   I myself am skeptical.  We can both agree that they couldn’t have won over the fulool, the army, the courts, etc.  As for “the revolutionaries,” their attitude was that the MB “stole the Revolution,” which is understandable, because the MB didn’t come on the scene until late in the day of Mubarak’s overthrow.  But it is also true that the MB is historically the only organized opposition in Egypt—it  which made the personal sacrifices, struck roots among the poor, suffered imprisonment and torture, etc.  If the MB won the elections, it’s because they earned it the hard way.  As you yourself pointed out, “the revolutionaries,” living in denial, refused even to accept the results of the first referendum, which the MB won by 77 percent.   Moreover, “the revolutionaries” loathe Islamists, loathe the Muslim religion, and hold the Brotherhood to be backward, primitive, etc.  On this point, I think Khaled Abou-Fadl was very illuminating.  The portion of the population that the MB could potentially have won over were those who took to the streets because of economic discontent, which was probably the overwhelming majority of protesters.  But was the MB given a fair chance?  The IMF was holding up the loan, the Mubarak-era capitalists were sabotaging the economy, etc. etc., and, anyhow, the MB was in power for all of one year, which is hardly long enough, even in the best of circumstances, to restructure an economy teetering on the brink of collapse when Mubarak was ousted.  So, it is my opinion that, even with the best of intentions, the MB would probably not have lasted very long.  I lived through Popular Unity in Chile (under Allende), and remember quite well how the CIA/counter-revolution fomented economic chaos (the truckers’ strike, the middle-class women’s pots-and-pans protest march) as a prelude to the coup. 

6.  Let me end on a ironic note.  I have the whole of my conscious life considered myself a political radical.  I certainly do not believe that democracy=casting a ballot every four years, and I wholeheartedly support, and often participate in, street demonstrations.  I am also a resolute atheist/secularist.  You, on the other hand, are more conventional in your politics, and a practicing Muslim.  So, logically, I should have supported “the revolutionaries” and you should have supported the MB.  What, pray tell, then accounts for our bizarre reversal of roles?   Here’s my take.  My fundamental belief, out of which all my “politics” grows, is the equality of human life, no doubt because of my late parents’ suffering during World War II.  Consequently, I have come to despise the holier-than-thou superiority complex of the atheist/secular liberal-left, and the manifest contempt in which they hold Muslims.   I also don’t believe that the atheist/secular liberal-left holds a monopoly on truth or the desirable mode of living one’s life.  If I had to decide between wearing a headscarf, on the one hand, and gobs of make-up, on the other, as a matter of rational choice (comfort, convenience, cost), I’d choose the headscarf.   So, as always and ever, I stand with the underdog: and in the current alignment of global opinion, this means with Muslims.  Second, I respect hard work and sacrifice.  The MB went into the slums and landed in the jails, while “the revolutionaries” preen on Twitter, Facebook and blog sites.  Tamarud leader Mohammed Badr says he committed his first political act in 2011, but he is already planning to run for president.  Like I said, he’s a megalomaniacal flake.  Okay, that’s me, but what happened to you?  In my opinion, and of course we can disagree, you have internalized the ethos of the Western media outlets for which you work and which you read.  How else can one explain your reaction to the brutal murder of more than 50 Muslims during morning prayer?  Go back and read what you wrote: “eyewitness testimony shows it began after prayer” (in fact, you’re wrong, but anyhow what difference could that possibly make?), “there needs to be an open investigation” (echoing that wretched whore, elBaradei, and as if the military putschists would investigate their inaugural bloodbath!).  Where was your OUTRAGE?   For Christ’s sake, these were fellow Muslims being massacred during the same ritual you observe each day!  


Former Student:

I do not think we dramatically disagree despite our impassioned e-mails. I think we do it more because we like to differ, not that we have a whole lot to differ about. Our primary point of contention is how culpable the Brotherhood are for a coup that deposed Morsi one year into his term.

1. On a couple of occasions, the military warned that it would reinsert itself in the political process. (I gave you the details in an e-mail on July 11.) If a president was committed to democracy, he would know that risking a military coup is a whole lot worse than making compromises to pacify the masses, not vilifying them or organizing counter-demonstrations of his supporters. Mass demonstrations against Morsi, which started across the country on June 30, were larger than pro-Morsi rallies at the time and larger than the rallies of the revolution. (The fear factor was gone and Egyptians have already had the experience of going through a revolution.) Protesters demanded the president’s impeachment and new presidential elections. And the rallies were having an effect. Both presidential spokesmen and a number of ministers resigned. The protests were on the verge of achieving their goal, but before they could the military prematurely intervened to lay down its own roadmap. The military did not have to orchestrate a coup. Morsi could not show up to his offices in the presidential palace, international pressure would have mounted for him to make significant concessions, he would not be able to go anywhere or do anything until the masses were satisfied. Morsi would not have been so foolish as to have the country descend into the convulsions of civil strife—what is sadly happening now. Rewind to the revolution of January 2011. The people’s demand was for Mubarak to step down. They got their wish. But who took over the reigns of power? The military council. Was that the demand of the revolution? No. The demand of the revolution was for a civilian presidential council to manage a transition to democracy. Egyptians accepted the military rulers because their main demand was met—Mubarak’s downfall. So there is no contradiction with being against a coup and feeling that Morsi needed to be impeached, just as there is no contradiction between being against Mubarak and against military rule. Being against the coup does not mean returning Morsi to power. As I stated in a previous e-mail, it means either having a referendum on whether Morsi should rule or holding early elections, or to have immediate elections for parliament and the office of the presidency. I am concerned about the military’s intervention to alter the course of political affairs. If elections drag out, the political turmoil will only increase. Morsi and detained Brotherhood leaders need to be released and elections held, not after some revised constitution is put in place under the watchful eye of the military.

2. I agree completely on the conditions you set for the overthrow of a democratically elected government. But that’s if we are talking about a mature and fully functioning democracy. But in the Egypt, Morsi and the Brotherhood were making up the rules. Why was an election law that violated the principle of equal representation issued, clearly advantaging the Islamists in legislative elections? Opponents had to fight in the courts, delaying elections until the matter was resolved. So even the vehicles for democratic change were being usurped. Meanwhile, the Shura Council had drafted a bill that would emasculate the judiciary by retiring 25 percent of judges, thus placing it under the domination of the Brotherhood (Joseph Massad called this “pre-crime”). That does not express a commitment to democracy, but the intent to undermine it. I believe the November 2012 constitutional declaration was the beginning of Morsi’s unraveling. It was a clear message to those who allied with Morsi against Shafik that: 1) The Brotherhood could not be trusted to keep their promises; 2) The Brotherhood was a danger to democracy. Taking to the street became the only alternative. Mobilization took place through a mass petition campaign. This was democracy in action. Any elected government would try to mollify the situation weeks before the masses took to the streets. That is a lesson the leadership should have learned from Mubarak. Morsi and the Brotherhood instead planned for counter-demonstrations. I already suggested to you in an earlier e-mail what Morsi should have done in such a situation. If he were truly concerned about protecting the democratic process, he would have met the demands of the street for early elections. The army would have had no reason to intervene. He could have even been smarter: agreed to meet demands for a unity government, worked in passing a fair and constitutional election law, held legislative elections in which the opposition participated, and then agreed on a referendum for early presidential elections.

3. One of Morsi’s flaws was that he did not embark on a process of transitional justice. The fiefdoms of the state bureaucracy were not reformed to be more efficient, democratic, and transparent. I agree that this is a tall order, but some steps could have been taken. For example, why are governors appointed by the president and not elected?  That could have easily been written into the constitution. Morsi also made official appointments largely based on the qualification of loyalty. On June 16, Morsi appointed 17 new governors by presidential decree, many from the Muslim Brotherhood or factions allied with them. Chosen to be the governor of the tourist city of Luxor was Adel al-Khayat, a member of al-Jama‘a al-Islamiya and its political arm, the Building and Development Party—certainly not the most qualified contender for the job. The decision was met with alarm within Egypt and abroad because the group was responsible for the November 1997 massacre of 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians at the Temple of Hatshepsut, a pharaonic mortuary temple in Deir al-Bahari. Demonstrations erupted, particularly in Luxor, to prevent newly appointed governors from entering their offices. (Under pressure, al-Khayat resigned a week later.) Why was al-Khayat chosen? Because al-Jama‘a al-Islamiya leaders were spearheading a counter-initiative to Tamarod. When mass protests are two weeks away, why make decisions that will only frustrate the population more?

4. The demand of protestors opposed to Morsi was for the president to step down and early presidential elections held. I have affirmed that it is important to have free and fair elections immediately. That is the only practical manifestation of the people’s will. I will never know how many people took to the street to support or oppose Morsi. But if you were the democratic leader of a country and the masses took to the street to oppose your policies, would you ignore the demands and mobilize your supporters in counter-demonstrations?

5. Morsi’s greatest failing is that he divided Egyptians instead of giving them hope for a better future. I will give you a telling example:  A couple of weeks before the June 30 protests, President Muhammad Morsi met with Ahmed al-Tayib, the grand sheikh of al-Azhar, and Coptic Pope Tawdrous II (whose papal inauguration in November 2012 the president declined to attend). Both religious figures refused to issue statements discouraging people from taking to the streets on June 30. To solidify his base and shore up his popularity, Morsi held an Islamist rally at Cairo stadium on June 14 in support of the Syrian resistance to Bashar al-Asad, announcing that Egypt was shutting down the Syrian Embassy in Cairo and severing its ties with the Arab nation. One speaker after another urged opening the doors of jihad in Syria and spoke in strident, sectarian tones pitting Sunnis against Shias as the president looked on. He did not utter a single word of protest. The supplications of Sheikh Muhammad Abd al-Maqsoud were directed pointedly against Morsi’s political rivals: “I ask God Almighty to make Islam victorious and bring glory to Muslims, and to make the 30th of June the glory for Islam and Muslims and to break the backbone of the infidels and hypocrites.” The audience responded with wild cheers. The Islamist supporters of the Morsi turned political disagreements into a battle between Godless secularism and Islam, between constitutional legitimacy and chaos, between infidels and believers. In a direct challenge to the president and the sheikhs he surrounds himself with, al-Tayib, al-Azhar’s highest religious authority, issued a declaration affirming that peaceful opposition to the ruler is acceptable and religiously permissible, and has nothingto do with belief or non-belief. On 23 June, days after the Morsi’s infamous stadium rally, a mob purporting to uphold Islam surrounded the home of a Shia family in the Giza village of Zawyat Abu Musalam, shouted angry slogans, and viciously struck with sticks and pipes a group of Shia believers assembled for a worship ceremony. The raving mob, cheered on by onlookers, attempted to demolish and storm the dwelling. Four men were dragged out, including prominent Shia spiritual leader Hassan Shehata. They were whipped, beaten, stabbed, and their bloody corpses dragged through the streets as crowds rejoiced. The homes of other Shia families were torched; tens were injured. What set off the madness was the divisive, sectarian language of local Salafi sheikhs during Friday mosque sermons, berating the Shia Muslim community for insulting the Prophet and his Companions and then leading enraged marches through the village in the weeks prior to the lynchings. What did Morsi do in response to the attack? He issued a statement condemning it. That was it. Nothing more. Did he protest when a sheikh at stadium rally supplicated against his own citizens? Not a word. I don’t find this behavior by a national leader commendable. It only encouraged more people to take to the streets on June 30. It seems that Morsi and the Brotherhood were working hard to undermine themselves, which only helped the forces that wanted them out of the game. In an television interview a few days ago, Hany Ramzy, a Coptic Christian actor, said that had Morsi stood up in the stadium and said, “Every Egyptian has the right to protest and I wont allow anyone to call them infidels and hypocrites,” he would have earned the people’s instant respect. “Morsi was not my president and he was not the president of all Egyptians,” Ramzy said. Morsi contribution to political life was a deeply polarized rhetoric, which did not help him in managing one crisis after another.

6. I agree with you that the Morsi and the Brotherhood faced formidable obstacles from the determined supporters of the Mubarak regime. But what disappoints me is the see the Brotherhood fall into a trap that they should have known would be their undoing; the signs were not difficult to decipher. And that is all the more reason they should have worked with compatriots in the pro-revolution opposition to find solutions to real problems facing the country—because there is an even bigger enemy lurking. I do not think the revolutionaries believe the Brotherhood stole the election. The forces supporting the revolution chose to either vote for Morsi in presidential elections or abstain. And those who abstained were relieved Morsi won and not Shafik. Many Brotherhood youth joined protests on the first day, January 25, 2011. The organization officially endorsed the protests on January 27, a day before the Friday or Rage. The Brotherhood, along with the Ultras and poor youth who identified with the revolution, were instrumental in winning the Battle of the Camel, when ruffians, paid by Mubarak’s cohorts, descended on Tahrir Square on February 2–3, 2013. I am cautious of your characterization of the revolutionaries because in a popular revolution everyone who participated is a revolutionary. The people who were the real heroes never had the spotlights on them. They are the ones who organized security for the square; who treated the wounded and injured, who bought medical supplies with their own money to stock field hospitals; who sacrificed their lives, the sight of their eyes, or suffered permanent injury in battles with police; or were subjected to sexual violence for their activism. They are the true nameless heroes—not a self-absorbed so-called revolutionaries who tweet in English and are followed around by foreign media. The aspirations of the revolution will always be bigger than those who speak in its name. 

7. I support the goals and ideals of revolution. I believe in principles, not ideology—principles or truth, justice, freedom, human dignity, social justice. I do not have to support people who label themselves as revolutionaries. The dreams of revolution are universal; they do not belong to anyone. I have always supported the Brotherhood’s right to engage in democratic politics. I objected every time the Islamists were used as the scarecrow that democracy was could never work in the Arab world. My opposition to Morsi was not because he hailed from the Muslim Brotherhood. I remember being invited to a Brotherhood iftar a few Ramadans ago, when Mubarak ruled Egypt. It was a year the security state gave them permission to organize the gathering. I found them to be really decent people. The sacrifices they made was one of the reasons they earned the trust and votes of the people, because they suffered and those who suffered, it was believed, would never let others suffer. So it was with a bit of consternation that Morsi avoided any type of security reform—like enhancing crowd control strategies or emphasizing human rights training. It was also with some disappointment that I saw respected moderates within the organization being pushed aside, like Abd al-Moneim Aboul Futouh, who I have met on several occasions, and Muhammad Habib, the former deputy supreme guide. If Morsi was only 10 percent better than Mubarak, he would have went down in the annals of history as one of Egypt’s great presidents. After the autocracy of Mubarak and the mismanagement of military rulers, an elected president chosen by the people could have done a substantial amount to improve the lives of citizens by simply listening and caring. 

8. It is hard to keep up with the death toll. It is going to get uglier, all mixed in a witch’s brew of distrust, violence, and hatred. In these circumstances, it is easy for people to believe lies, to vilify the other side, to ratchet up the rhetoric until it becomes a shrill incitement to violence. People believe in their cause. I cannot say that the moral right belongs to the anti-Morsi or pro-Morsi crowd. And it is for this reason that a coup was the worst of all possible decisions—not that citizens took to the street, or expressed their anger against a president or outrage at his removal; many even got murdered for it. The crisis was allowed to get out of hand. In the heat of passionate debate, we may think the differences are great between those who stood side by side during the revolution, but they really aren’t. Instead, a very polarizing and toxic political climate is created where name-calling and crude labeling become the norm.

9. The revolution is a concept. It cannot be stolen or appropriated by anyone. Revolutions and popular movements develop their own intrinsic dynamic. Sixty-one years ago today marks another coup (rebranded byNasser a revolution) that promised so much and delivered so little.

10. Egyptians are still paying the price of an incomplete revolution—of a security apparatus that beats, tortures, and humiliates them, of disease and corruption, of poor education, inadequate health care, of higher prices and lower living standards. And unless these needs are met, the revolution will continue. It is a process that will take years, with some victories and many defeats along the way.