Interview with Emad El-Din Shahin

25 August 2014, Washington DC

Emad El-Din Shahin is a public policy and administration professor in the American University in Cairo where he also completed both his bachelor's degree and master's degree. He is currently visiting professor at Georgetown University.

He formerly taught at several other leading universities such as Notre Dome, Harvard and Georgetown. He currently holds positions at different advisory boards such as Oxford Research Directions, Center for Christian- Muslim Understanding and al-Hadara Center. He authored and co-authored more than seven books and he has more than 50 publications including articles, book chapters and encyclopedia entries. New York Times, CNN, Atlantic Monthly, Foreign Policy are some of the international newspapers he writes.

Pınar Akpınar: What has the Arab Spring changed in Egypt? Can we talk about a permanent impact of the Arab Spring?

Emad Shahin: Let us start with the concepts first. The first concept is what became known as 'Arab Spring.' Moving beyond clichés, what the region witnessed in 2011 is a massive wave of popular uprisings that reflected "People Power" that called for freedom, dignity and social justice. These demands were not welcome by the custodians of the old regime and some conservative regional and international powers that engineered a destabilization process in the transitioning countries and succeeded in turning the 'Spring' into a chilling 'Winter'. Nonetheless, a reassuring thing is that the driving causes behind the uprisings of 2011 are still there and indicate that we have not seen the end of these popular waves yet.

Now, turning to your question, there are obviously certain things that the Arab Spring has achieved. The question now is 'to what extent these changes are really sustainable or permanent as the question raises and to what extent they are temporary.' I think the most important thing is the manifestation of people's power. The outpouring of hundreds of thousands and millions of Egyptians to the streets all united on one goal broke the cliché or stereotype about Arabs that they do not protest except for bread or when they are told to by their autocratic regimes. This time, however, people went against corruption, injustice and against autocratic and authoritarian regimes. They were seeking freedom, social justice, economic growth and prosperity, as well. These values go beyond the material things and point out to a new framework of governance. They are closely related to democracy, human rights, rule of law, and balanced and sustainable development. This was the power of the people. People can express themselves on the streets; express their demands in huge numbers; and in the end, can overpower repressive authorities. This was one element that we can summarize is self-determination, emancipation and popular sovereignty.

The second element of the Arab Spring is the 'youth factor'. The former element was the 'people power'. It is being said that 65 per cent of the Arab population consists of youth from the age of 15 to 40. There is predominantly a young population in the Middle East. The word 'young' is usually closely related to the word 'future'. The youth are still out there and they need to write their future this time. This is at least how I believe. In Egypt and elsewhere the youth will, sooner or later, be the main stakeholders of the region, the agents with real interests in the future of the region.

The third issue on the Arab Spring is that it shows that when there is a common goal and a united objective, this brings the best out of the people. This, I believe, was clearly evident in the 18 days of protest in the Tahrir Square. People started to talk of a new Egypt with a new culture and new values that aimed to replace the three-decade-long values common under Mubarak's corrupt and decaying regime. The sum of values of cooperation, fraternity, solidarity, common goals and aspirations is the third element of the Arab Spring. Common objective and unity can bring the best out of people. There are surely other things such as the use of technology, change in how people assemble and organize social media.

Let us now focus on the negative side of the Arab Spring. There were exaggerated expectations that this was a wave going to touch not only Egypt but every corner of the Arab world. Like a massive upheaval, a tsunami is going to sweep autocratic and repressive institutions. This did not take place for different reasons. Of course, Egypt is an important country and is a trail-blazer; it sets the pattern in the region. The control of the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) of the transitional process and the failure of various political actors (the Muslim Brothers, the non-Islamist opposition, the revolutionaries) to understand and address the nature and requirements of the democratic transition, the nature of state-society relations, civil-military relations in Egypt was a big setback to the Arab Spring. There were high expectations about the power and ability of the revolution to continue, not maybe realizing that there were other forces, 'counter-revolutionary forces,' working hard to undo the Arab Spring. Remnants of the old regime that are well-entrenched on the Egyptian "State" managed to show a lot of resilience and persistence. This is hard lesson to learn: the Egyptian "deep state" will never allow anyone from "outside" to run the show, as long as this state and its custodians are still breathing.

The second negative issue of the Arab Spring is the early disagreements and polarization that started to take place between the different factions; between the youth and the old politicians, organizations, old structures either in the opposition or in the state itself. There was disagreement on the path that the revolution should take and whether that path should be a revolutionary one (and what that really means in the Egyptian context) that focuses on purification or total restructuring of the state repressive institutions or to adopt another process that tries to accommodate and reconcile with the existing state structures to achieve some kind of a gradual, non-confrontational self-reform. Self-reform did not take place, and the revolution should have immediately run its course. The Muslim Brothers did not want to get this lesson and insisted on reconciling with these anti-revolutionary institutions and structures. Obviously, the three-decade-long repressive institutions of the old regime with their coercive and bureaucratic structure were able to overcome this revolution.

Third element, which is a byproduct, is the deep scar, the deep polarization that not the Arab Spring itself but the inability to translate the Spring to a reality created. This failure caused deep scar in the Egyptian society. All poles showed that there is a strong division that is taking place within the society. The high level of polarization -political, generational, ideological, and regional requires great effort to bring about some kind of national reconciliation. Yet, it seems to me that the incumbent authority is feeding, promoting and benefitting from this division.

Last point I want to make is about the 'fear barrier'. One of the early consequences of the Arab Spring was this remarkable "challenge of authority" and the collapse of the fear barriers. The Egyptians began to challenge the authority. I remember one of the slogans during the early days in Tahrir Square that protestors used to chant 'Down with the next president'- whoever he is. This means that the ability to act as a monitoring power a party that can exercise oversight over any authority at the present or in the future. This means that they can always bring that authority down when they feel that it is not fulfilling their aspiration and needs. Unfortunately, with the coup of July 3rd, there have been deliberate bloody attempts to rebuild this fear barrier and early on through excessive use of force, massive massacres, use of torture and rape, and the return of the police state. The coup leaders and the military backed regime managed to reinstall the fear barrier into the heart of the many Egyptians. But this situation is temporary because, as I said earlier, the underlying factors behind the 2011 popular uprisings are still there and have not been addressed.

Pınar Akpınar: Who do you think made the revolution in Egypt? What is the current situation of the coalition?

Emad Shahin: The Egyptians made the revolution. It was mainly sparked by the youth, embraced by the people in general. Otherwise it would not be a massive popular uprising. Unfortunately it was later badly managed by the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces). The Muslim Brotherhood got into the line through elections but they too mismanaged the process and made fatal strategic choices. The revolution ended up falling into the hands of the military. The military from the early weeks of the revolution started to adopt strategies that would undermine the revolution. On the top of these strategies, of course, was the deliberate fragmentation of the revolutionary forces from day one, encouraging the establishment of all sorts of self-proclaimed youth and revolutionary coalitions. Almost more than 300 youth coalitions mushroomed up in a few weeks and each of them claimed to be the revolutionary youth movement. This of course was not healthy.

Secondly, they started breaking the morale of the revolutionaries themselves. You hear about virginity tests, arresting youth (reportedly 12,000 civilians) and subjugating them to "military tribunals," humiliating them and forcing them to chant for Mubarak even after his downfall, using excessive force against protesters and sit-ins, among other repressive measures. The third strategy was raising the socio-economic cost and later the political cost of the revolution, unnecessarily. If we are talking about a mass upheaval, it was actually confronted by broader repression especially at the first three or four days of January 2011. Of course, every Egyptians soul and blood is precious, and the early victims were estimated at 860 dead. The cost of the Revolution has been relatively small when compared to other revolutions. I am not talking about the coup and its large number of victims, yet. The cost of the January revolution has increased by the military substantially and unnecessarily. The economic and social cost has increased by not responding to the demands, mismanaging the economy and not restoring stability. This created instability and affected the economy. It affected the classical sources of revenues that Egypt relies on (tourism, investments, remittances), and eventually, turned many Egyptians against the revolution and the revolutionaries, who were blamed unrightfully for the de-stabilization that was taking place. In hindsight, we now know who was behind this deliberate destabilization: the deep state with all its arms and some regional powers.

Pınar Akpınar: Which elements of this coalition were behind Morsi and Sisi?

Emad Shahin: We talked about a high level and intense state of polarization that started to plague the Egyptian society. This polarization started early on, with the constitutional amendments of 2011. The Egyptian society started to be polarized around main camps; civilian, liberal, secular, democratic, revolutionary, pro-old regime forces, on the one hand, and the Islamist forces, on the other hand. There was clear overlap between some of the elements of the two camps that could have been used to create some kind of a common ground. However, due to the intense atmosphere fomented by the media, the decisions of the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), and the pro-old-regime judiciary the two camps started to grow apart. In the end, we ended up with a 'National Salvation Front', which was formed mainly by the secular and "liberal" forces. The other camp consisted of Islamist forces. The youth was divided between the two. Some of them stayed on the sidelines, hoping to move on as a third way. After the situation started to escalate, especially after the constitutional declaration of President Morsi in November 2012, the Sisi camp started to materialize. It mainly consisted of the state apparatus and state institutions and what we call the 'deep state' in Egypt. This is of course a borrowed term from Turkey. The main pillars of the deep state were the security forces, the military, bureaucracy, media and the judiciary. All of these have been working for more than a year prior to the military coup of July 3, 2013. These have been the pillars of the counter-revolution. They have been working diligently to undermine the democratic process and to undermine the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition to these clear structures, there were also large numbers of discontented ordinary Egyptians. They were not happy with how the Muslim Brotherhood managed the transition process. There was also the 'sofa party,' people that stood on the sideline throughout the process and then the counter revolutionary forces managed to attract them to their side.

Pınar Akpınar: Were they mostly middle class people?

Emad Shahin: Yes, mainly middle class, civil servants, older Egyptians, housewives and working women. They did not take side in the beginning, but of course, in the end, the media charged people and systematically promoted hatred against the revolution. Many of them were affected by the continuation of instability, economic uncertainty, and lack of order and security. They wanted the country to go back to its early stability and they were willing to trade in their liberty. It became a classical choice between security and freedom. Of course they wanted stability and security even it comes at the expense of democracy and human rights and even if it brings back the old state. The process that happened in Egypt was a classic case of de-stabilization that in the end would invite the iron man, the general to take over. What we can say here is that, the coalition behind Sisi started being built up early on. It took its power both from state structures, disobedient state to Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood, inability of the Muslim Brothers to control and exercise real authority, distortion of the revolution, and highlighting the instability that was taking place. Also the right of center coalition behind Morsi alienated large segments of Egyptians. You can see it even from the beginning of what we call the 'Fairmont Accord'. The accord was in June, few days before Morsi took over power. There was an attempt to build a coalition of liberals and democrats and diverse political forces behind Morsi. In my view, this would have been the right and logical coalition to build. This could have formed the beginning of a broad coalition, but it started to shrink and shrink to an extent that even reached Morsi's own advisers. Many started to resign and leave the boat as people say and in the end he had to actually go to the right of center, losing the mainstream of Egyptians. So, we had a coalition behind Sisi moving into the center and a coalition behind Morsi moving outside the center towards right of center, that is moving to the other side of the end of the political spectrum. It was to the far end of the political spectrum. They got out and lost to millions of discontented protestors that took to the streets and to a military intervention.

Pınar Akpınar: What do you think the 'rights' and 'wrongs' of Ikhwan and Sisi?

Emad Shahin: Let us start with the Muslim Brotherhood. I would say a few things about the wrongs of the Brotherhood. I will focus on the fundamental issues. One major issue is trust and confidence. This is one of the biggest mistakes of the Muslim Brotherhood. They should have always cared about securing the confidence and trust of Egyptians even if it comes at the expense of immediate political gains. I will give you some examples. At some point they said they were not going to run for the presidency. Then they ran for the presidency. That shook the trust and confidence of many, regarding their true intentions. I am sure they had their own reasons, even though I personally think it was a fatal strategic mistake. We are talking about an initial phase. The initial phase is different than any other phase. You have to build credibility at the beginning to have a political future. The same is with the Fairmont Accord. They had an accord with main political forces and actors in June 2012 and they should have stuck to that accord and keep that coalition, at any price in order to save the democratic process.

The second is the inability to remain in the mainstream. The mainstream in this case is not the right of center of Islamic groups or the left of center of liberals. The mainstream is the ordinary Egyptian voter that the Muslim Brotherhood did not understand and eventually lost. These were the people who the Brotherhood needed to keep and gain to their side. The third wrong was the "change" process, its nature and which direction it should take. The Muslim Brotherhood is by nature a reformist organization, not a revolutionary organization. It came in a revolutionary time that required revolutionary measures and revolutionary process. Instead of siding with the revolutionary youth and the people of the revolution, they opted for gradually reforming the "state." Instead of purging the corrupt and anti-revolutionary elements within the state and restructuring the state completely, they opted for reconciling with the old state. This was a strategic mistake. They should have sided with the people and the revolutionary forces instead.

The final wrong was the inability to understand the nature and dynamics of the Egyptian state and how it operates. They thought that winning elections and being at the top is enough to make the state machinery work and cooperate. This was a fatal strategic mistake. It was obvious that the state machinery has responded to them with disobedience and subversion. Here what I mean by state machinery is the intelligence, security apparatus, the ministry of interior, and the bureaucracy. These elements messed up things for the people; messed up the traffic, the services, did not collect the trash, did not contain violence, and made people's life miserable under MB rule. Unfortunately, the MB kept hoping that the state will at some point to a realization of self-correction and self-reforms. The deep state kept digging and digging under their feet until they fell into that deep hole. In his latest speeches Morsi was describing the military and the police, that both were conspiring against him, as 'people of gold' and 'precious.' Not realizing that actually these people were so close to toppling him. There is another problem of the MB alienating their allies. I know for a fact that they tried to be inclusive and reach out to personalities from different ideological backgrounds, but their inclusiveness was not accommodating of others' concerns. For example, let us say we are ideologically different and you ask me to come and join you in the government, of course I will have conditions. At least, I as a government have to reconcile and accommodate some of these conditions. One thing we always say is that the majority has the right to rule, i.e., to be allowed by the opposition to rule. Meantime, those who rule must not intimidate the opposition and push them to mutiny or violence. This did not happen throughout the democratic transition in Egypt. I think both sides, the MB and the opposition, did not get that fact. The opposition didn't allow the MB to rule and acted as spoilers who did not care about thwarting the entire democratic process as long as the MB were in the driver's seat; and the MB alienated the opposition to the extent that they went into mutiny and allied with the old regime.

There are many other things regarding the mistakes of the Muslim Brotherhood. I just conclude with the ambiguity regarding the relationship between the group and its political arm, which is the party (the Freedom and Justice Party). When President Morsi took over power he was unable to convince Egyptians that he was really 'the president for all Egyptians' because of a number of reasons. First, the media and the deep state kept framing him as the representative of the Muslim Brotherhood. They kept stressing unjustly that he was only ruling in the interest of a small group; his people, his clan, his tribe of the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite his repeated public assertions, he could not succeed in projecting himself as a president above all political parties, above all differences and a leader of the entire nation. This was due to a number of things. The Muslim Brotherhood did not draw the lines clearly between the party (FJP), the group, and (the Jama'a), and the presidency. Clear lines should have been drawn between the three, this was not happening. The language itself and the communication, I do not think that Morsi was skilled in terms of communicating with the people and sending out right messages at the right time.

Pınar Akpınar: What about Sisi's presidency?

Emad Shahin: Sisi faces a deep dilemma. So far he has indulged in a lot of blood. He thinks that he can restore stability and secure acquiesce through coercion and repression. But repression will not bring about stability. It will bring more violent responses from the ones that are being repressed. So, the more repression he enforces, the harder it gets to achieve national reconciliation. He himself symbolizes polarization and the difficulty of achieving national reconciliation. Many view him as being part of the problem and the current stalemate. Eventually, Egyptians will realize that Sisi is now in this vicious cycle of violence and polarization and is dragging the country into an intense division. If you talk about the good and bad about Sisi, in terms of support, Sisi had reached his peak of support last July. We can see that this initial support began to decrease after the massacres of Rab'a and Nahda, the crackdown on the opposition, the anti-protest law, and the return of the police state with its old and fierce ways. This was evident in the low turnout during the presidential elections. I think Egyptians gave him a very strong message, enough is enough. He has to change ways; he has to change approach. He cannot continue ruling with coercion and repressing opponents. This was seen when people refused to go in huge numbers to polling stations because he wanted 40 million to vote. According to international organization reports, 11 million voters went to the polls. This is a strong indication. The other indication is of course the fund raising project that he is sponsoring and how it is becoming a means of extortion and pressure for people to pay. While Egyptians responded positively to the New Suez Canal Fund that promised a yield of 12%, people have not responded in the same way he wished in terms of donating money to the "Long Live Egypt" Fund. That is another indication.

The third indication so far is his inability to address the urgent problems that Egyptians suffer from. The Sisi government has been unsuccessful in resolving or even in proposing effective solutions to certain problems. I have not heard of an economic team that works for the government. During President Morsi there was; and during Dr. Hesham Qandil there was a vision and a social and economic program. We have not heard about an economic team or political advisors around Sisi yet. Even the last cabinet he appointed, it is a cabinet of muwazafin not even technocrats. Muwazafin or civil servants are different from technocrats. This is definitely a cabinet of muwazafin, who carry out his orders. We know what that means. This means that he, himself, controls the show. In terms of the coalition, look at his coalition which is called the June 30th Coalition, it is a thing of the past, completely fragmented. The so called liberal and secular forces, where are they now? Dr. Mohamed Baradaei left after the Rab'aa Massacre. The social democrats, some of them left, and Sisi sacked the rest. Even the Tamarud Movement, it disintegrated. He is now using the institutions of coercion, the media, and the judiciary to undermine his opponent, but has not built his power base yet. Of course, he is in the process of cultivating supporters in the same way that Nasser did in the 1950s and the 1960s; that is, through mobilization but not participation.

Pınar Akpınar: How would you explain the changing role of the military in Egypt?

Emad Shahin: It is not only Egypt. We as political scientist have always witnessed this kind of changes. In the 1950s and 1960s the militaries in the Arab World have acted catalyst for change. They revolted, engineered coups against reactionary forces, monarchies, corrupt politicians to introduce reform in societies. Coming from middle class with nationalistic outlooks, Nasser and other army officers sought to build modern and viable states. And we know their limitations and the rest of the story. This has changed. The military now is the protector, keeper, and watch-dog of the status-quo. They are anti-change. This is something you see very clearly. They have invested, economically and politically, in the status quo. They are willing to intervene to keep the status-quo and protect their vested interests. You see it in Algeria 1992, Turkey in 1997, you see it in Egypt. They are here to keep the status-quo, not change it. When it comes to their background, those who make the coup are top generals, not middle ranks as in the 1950s. They are well invested in economic projects and enterprises. The military institution has become a key player in terms of economic activities so they stand against any meaningful change. They are not interested in social justice, institutional reform, human rights, democracy or civilian control. They are keen not to lose their control over the political process.

They do not mind privatization as long as it is controlled and under the supervision of the military, and as long as the military generals benefit from it. In terms of social distribution, it is different from the militaries of the 1950s and 1960s. When you look at the nationalistic outlook, I think the Egyptian case is a shocking one. Egypt under Sisi is projected in Israel as a strategic ally. Egypt is becoming a strategic friend to Israel and is taking a hardline position against Hamas, the Palestinians and Gaza. Not only have these militaries been willing to fight against their own societies, but they have turned to protect the security and the interests of what their people consider as traditional enemies.

Pınar Akpınar: Beyond the immediate politics what kind of structural problems wait ahead against political stability in Egypt?

Emad Shahin: Beyond polarization and division there are pressing structural problems: economic and political. Let us start with the economic issues. Of course, the Egyptian economy is in real shambles and needs to recover quickly. It has lost its main sources of revenues like tourism, FDI and remittances. It is a tired economy, suffering from stagnation, unemployment, and lack of adequate growth. The fuel and electricity crisis further burdens the economy and reduces its productive capacity. More importantly, there is a lack of an economic vision on how to jumpstart the economy and embark on some form of an economic recovery. Egypt needs two immediate measures. One is structural reform: efficient and competitive financial institutions; swift and equitable judicial system to protect investors; an efficient and clean bureaucracy. Now the country is going through a state of uncertainty. Investors do not want to come and invest millions in Egypt. Nobody knows what kind of law they will face or who is making the laws. Who is making the law? It is Sisi who is making the law in the absence of an elected parliament. Before Sisi, it was the interim president, Adly Mansour, whom Sisi had appointed. So, this is not a conducive environment for investors. The state itself needs reform and restructuring. When we talk about the state, we are talking practically about the Ministry of Interior/security apparatus and the need to restructure it; the military and the need for civilian oversight; the judiciary and the need for depoliticizing it; the bureaucracy and the need to overhaul it; and the media and the need to make it accountable. These reforms are basic requisites for economic growth and economic revival, and more importantly for a healthy society.

The second immediate issue to address is corruption. Egypt needs to fight corruption as soon as possible. On both accounts, institutional reform and anti-corruption, Sisi declared several times that he did not come to do these things. For him, restructuring and reforming means dismantling the state. As for corruption, he considers corruption to be less serious than the issue of subsidies, and he advised Egyptians, 'If you see a corrupt official just whisper in their ears'. That is what he said; 'Just whisper in their ear." No need to make a big deal. These are structural issues. Youth, competitiveness, employment, ability to achieve sustainable growth and the revival of tourism... These are the immediate problems. Then of course, the trade balance, the trade deficit.

When it comes to political issues, I think I have touched on them. Political issues are, of course, issues of the rule of law, inclusiveness, participation in the decision making process, and respect of basic rights of Egyptians. Not long ago, the courts sentenced a defendant to death for a crime that was committed while this certain defendant had already been in jail for two years. The crime has been committed after this guy had been in prison for two years, and he still received a death sentence. This is what I mean. These are serious issues that violate the rule of law and fundamental rights. You cannot have a decent country without the rule of law. We say it in our Arabic proverbs; 'justice is the basis of governance'. National reconciliation, respect of human rights, rule of law, democracy, participation and governance... These are all essential issues. In terms of transparency and in terms of participation, who is making the decision now? Only one person! We are back to the future—a future that looks like the past, the old autocratic ways of the 1950s and 1960s. People like Saddam, Gaddafi, Asad , Ben Ali and so on, are out of date. This style of rule is out of fashion now and cannot sustain for long.

Pınar Akpınar: You have been a victim of the coup government discrimination, how do you see individual rights and freedom in Egypt?

Emad Shahin: I really do not like to talk about my case. Definitely, a politicization of the judiciary is taking place and results in the absence of due process and justice. Of course, it affects individual freedoms because basic fundamental rights are being violated. There is no oversight, and some judges are acting like the extra-legal arm of the regime to rid it of its opponents—Islamists or liberal. This is what is happening. This kind of a charged atmosphere needs to be relaxed. There needs to be an opening for national reconciliation and inclusiveness once again, re-integration of the ones who had been excluded, some kind of retribution and justice that will be delivered and served. But unfortunately this is not happening until now. I hope it happens in the near future. Sisi is in a state of consolidation of power, and national reconciliation will not take place until he feels secure. He is seeking to gain legitimacy as soon as possible through all these projects like the Suez Canal projects, external adventures like Libya and so on. I think he is going to embark on some adventures like these. Since June 30th, he is saying that there is a war against terrorism and Egypt is a state of war. The state of war suspends individual rights and participation in the name of national security and unity.

I think it is a historic moment for Egyptians on what kind of future they want to have for the country. It is a clear choice between the demands and the objectives of the January Revolution and the return of autocracy, authoritarianism and police state. The January 2011 Revolution was about freedom, dignity, social justice and a better life for all Egyptians. With this counterrevolution, Egypt has gone backward. It is a major decision that Egyptians have to make. Egyptians cannot continue being divided. The least is to unite again on a common objective. The common objective is not Sisi or the Muslim Brotherhood, but should be national reconciliation, reconstruction of democracy, rule of law and respect of human rights. This is the goal that we all should seek. If we think that short term gains like stability or security at the expense of human rights, democracy, rule of law is the best way forward we are making a strategic miscalculation. It is not only our present it is also our future, and the future of our children. The longer authoritarian regimes stay in power, the more entrenched they become and the more difficult it becomes to dislodge them. Look at the case of Mubarak who stayed for 30 years; Gaddafi who stayed for 40 years, and others. It took decades to overthrow these autocrats. Egypt does not have to go again down that road. It needs to move forward on the path of dignity, human dignity, social justice and democracy.