Bassem Youssef, Egypt’s popular television comedian, expresses the irreverent confidence this country will need to regain stability. On air, he mocks the autocratic tendencies of both the Muslim Brotherhood leaders and the army generals who toppled them from power.
Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi and his adoring supporters unfortunately seem to have lost the celebrated Egyptian sense of humor. Youssef presented a hilarious episode on Oct. 25 that showed footage of Sissi admonishing the nation. Then a muscular hand emerged from under the table and placed a new script before Youssef. When he shouted the Arabic word for “freedom,” the anonymous hand dove for his groin and began squeezing.
Youssef’s next show was pulled from the air, and last week an Egyptian prosecutor referred 30 complaints to a judge for investigation. It was a chilling response. But more than that, it was stupid: It made Sissi’s government look petty and dictatorial.
I came away from a visit here convinced that Egypt can find its way to civilian democracy — but only if officials lighten up and create the more tolerant, robust country that was envisioned by the Tahrir Square revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak. If Sissi decides to run for president next year, he will almost certainly win. But the general’s victory would retard Egypt’s political development.
The U.S., after months of confusing stop-go policy toward Egypt, may finally be moving to help its long-standing ally find some balance. The State Department is forming a team to work with the United Arab Emirates, and perhaps Saudi Arabia, to support the Egyptian economy and smooth the political transition.
American policy over the past year had managed to offend nearly everyone here. The U.S. was seen as too supportive of President Mohamed Morsi during his year in power. When the military intervened, some Islamists thought (wrongly) that the U.S. was complicit in the bloody crackdown. American attempts to punish the regime by cutting military and economic assistance further angered people.
Unfortunately, high-level confusion in U.S. policy appears to be continuing, with Secretary of State John Kerry supporting more assistance for Egypt and national security adviser Susan Rice resisting what might appear to be support for the military coup. The U.S. can’t afford such policy disarray.
Hossam Bahgat, a leading Egyptian human rights activist, correctly says there must be accountability for the deaths of hundreds of pro-Morsi demonstrators.
But that accountability must come from Egyptians, not Americans. “The country goes down the drain, and the U.S. responds with its usual policy of ‘managing the crisis.’ That sends the wrong message,” complains Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister. “If the crisis has to be managed, it should be managed by us. We don’t want a lose-lose situation here like Syria or Iraq.”
Moussa is heading a 50-person commission that is writing a new constitution for Egypt as part of its road map back to democracy. The plan calls for the constitution to be completed in December, and a public referendum in January. Parliamentary elections will follow in April, and presidential elections in June.
But this constitutional framework may have the regrettable effect of legitimizing military rule, if Sissi decides to run for president — following in the path of generals-turned-presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Mubarak. “We don’t want a new pharaoh,” says Bahgat. Many Egyptians share this wariness of another military leader.
Egypt’s political problem is that the secular parties haven’t yet generated a popular leader as an alternative to Sissi. “Three years of revolution have not produced one person who can speak for the revolution,” says Hani Shukrallah, the former editor of Al-Ahram Online and a vocal critic of both Mubarak and Morsi.
Westerners should take hope, as Egyptians do, from the fact that most people here decided they didn’t want to live in the rigid Muslim society that the Brotherhood was creating. When Morsi suspended the constitution last November, the U.S. was slow to react; it was too supportive of the new Islamist regime. That still grates with Egyptians.
A slogan among Egyptians these days is “Ayzeen ne’aish,” which loosely translates as “We just want to live.” But this understates the desire for change that’s still evident when Egyptians talk about their “revolutions” — first against Mubarak and then against Morsi. People want to live, yes — but with the freedom and dignity the revolutions promised.
A U.S. policy tilt back toward Egypt, as urged by Kerry, makes sense — most of all if it aligns America with the narrative of change that began in 2011 in Tahrir Square.