Morsi supporters celebrate his election in Tahrir Square. (Photo: Reuters)
It has been hard for me to understand what’s happening in Egypt now. That’s partly because of the uncertainty that’s latent in any transition period, but it’s also because decisions are being made or negotiated away from public view. There are lots of Egyptian voices (on Twitter) that provide great analysis and qualified speculation so I’ll just describe what I’ve been seeing.
Yesterday I went to Nasr City – one of Cairo’s many urban districts comprised mainly of wide, chaotic avenues and condos. That’s where the Ahmed Shafiq camp organized its street demonstrations; the counterpoint to Tahrir. There were only two or three hundred people present when I got there and I only stayed for a few minutes.
Truthfully, I feel uncomfortable around the Shafiq people. They remind me of the baltagiya who were charged with knifing people during the revolution. I should add that I’m speaking only about a small subset of Shafiq supporters – the tragic men in the dusty Nasr City streets.
I listened to a local news show on the drive out which gave me more of a sense of where non-Tahrir, non-Nasr city Egyptians stood. Some people made statements about the necessity of asserting foreign policy independence (for whatever reason, no one seemed prepared to say “America” on the radio). But many also called for national reconciliation. This election has been viewed as divisive by almost everyone I’ve spoken to and what I heard basically reinforced that.
The woman leading the discussion evoked the American example. She spoke about the acrimonious nomination race that candidates Clinton and Obama engaged in, and then highlighted the fact that Clinton later came to serve in the Obama administration.
Her interlocutor went further. When the Supreme Court determined that Gore lost the election to Bush in 2000, Gore conceded “for the good of the country.”
Another interesting note: one of the experts underlined the fact that Morsi and Shafiq are fundamentally indistinguishable in their market-oriented economic outlook.
I made it back to the downtown area in no time at all. The drive can take anywhere from half an hour to an hour depending on traffic but it only took fifteen minutes yesterday. The roads were eerily devoid of people and businesses were mostly closed. I got out of the cab about a kilometer away from the center on Tal’at Harb street and began to walk. The election committee’s chairman’s voice issued from open windows and echoed in the urban canyon with no one around.
The scene changed as I approached Tahrir on foot. Groups of men crowded around parked cars – also listening to the news. They were tense and Tahrir was tense when I got there. Thousands of men packed into the square in the sun.
Then the news broke and all was noise and jubilation. Older men wept openly and praised god in groups. “Allahu Akbar” went up with “Down with military rule” and “Morsi, remember the martyrs.” Thousands more swept into Tahrir over the next few hours.
Unsurprisingly, Morsi has been calling for national unity and has promised to craft an inclusive cabinet (many liberals lent their support in the runoff). But he has also positioned himself for a confrontation with the military. His decision to refuse to recognize the dissolution of Parliament suggests that the President is ready to challenge those who would neuter the office.
I’m eager to see how the military will react. As Egypt’s largest economic actor and the beneficiary of considerable American largesse, SCAF’s interests are confused. Another sovereign debt downgrade (the result of political instability) will increase the cost of borrowing and doing business in general which is bad for the economy. But controlling the economy means asserting control over the presidency which means political instability. It also means potential alienation from the Americans which is another bad outcome for the military. Obama’s call to Morsi could be interpreted as a measure of support -but who knows.
I get the sense that SCAF is developing policy on an extemporaneous and not totally rational basis, so there’s no use in speculating what comes next. Which is another way of saying I have no idea what’s happening here.