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Q&A with Stanford Humanities Center international visitor on the history of Egypt since the Arab Spring

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Stanford Humanities Center International Visitor, Amr Hamzawy.
Photo Credit: 
Credit: Khalid Almasoud

Amr Hamzawy studied political science and developmental studies in Cairo, the Hague, and Berlin. He was previously a senior associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace between 2005 and 2009. Between 2009 and 2010, he served as the research director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon. He has also served on the faculty at the American University in Cairo and Cairo University. Between September 2015 and June 2016, Hamzawy was a visiting scholar at Stanford University.
His research and teaching interests as well as his academic publications focus on democratization processes in Egypt, tensions between freedom and repression in the Egyptian public space, political movements and civil society in Egypt, contemporary debates in Arab political thought, and human rights and governance in the Arab world.

Hamzawy is a former member of the People’s Assembly after being elected in the first Parliamentary elections in Egypt after the January 25, 2011, revolution. He is also a former member of the Egyptian National Council for Human Rights. Hamzawy contributes a weekly op-ed to the Egyptian independent newspaper Shorouk and to the all Arab daily Al-Quds al-Arabi.

A human rights activist and public intellectual, Hamzawy was the 2016–2017 FSI-Humanities Center International Visitor at Stanford University. In an interview, he spoke about the indeterminate legacy of the Arab Spring and Egypt’s uncertain future.

What is the legacy of the Arab Spring in Egypt? How, in your view, has everyday life in Egypt changed since the uprisings of 2011?

It’s too early to respond to any questions about legacy, although I do understand why many would like to make grand statements about the Arab Spring, be it in Tunisia or Egypt — especially when you hear talk of Tunisia as a success story and Egypt as a failure. Where Tunisia continues to democratize, Egypt’s democracy collapsed after the coup d’état of 2013 that brought General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power.

But Egypt is also witnessing a new wave of activism on university campuses and the emergence of groups protesting human rights abuse, such as forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. Trade unions are active once again, as are professional associations. There are even eruptions of popular anger where citizens take to the street to protest police brutality. Egyptian civil society remains vibrant.
Egypt has also lived through cycles of authoritarianism and democratization since the 1950s — that is, since General Gamal Abdel Nasser Husseinoverthrew the monarchy in a coup in 1952. Egypt has since been an authoritarian republic where army generals and officers assume the presidency. There have, of course, been moments of political liberalization since the mid-1970s, like what we’re seeing right now. But the el-Sisi regime is distinct in that it’s used lawmaking to entrench itself and violated human rights on a level unmatched by previous rulers. None of this is new to anyone in Egypt.

The impact of what happened between 2011 and 2013 is still relevant. El-Sisi’s government can’t make anyone forget the images of a peaceful protest in Tahrir Square or Egyptians lining up in massive numbers to vote in different elections and referenda. Voter turnout in 2011 and 2012 exceeded 50 percent, reaching 65 percent during the parliamentary elections in 2011. As in the years before 2011, turnout now is between five and ten percent.

Egyptians haven’t forgotten the trial of Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt from 1981 to 2011. Sure, he’s back at home now, but it’s worth mentioning that this was the first time a country in the Arab world managed to put a serving president on trial. So as attractive as it may be to say that the Arab Spring in Egypt failed, I’d say that it didn’t.

The Muslim Brotherhood, one of the most influential political organizations in the Middle East, went from ruling party to underground organization within a few months. Why did this occur? How did it impact the Brotherhood elsewhere?

The Muslim Brotherhood was and remains the strongest social movement on the ground. We can corroborate that claim empirically by going back to the election and referendum results between 2011 and 2013, where they won almost every single contest. The Brotherhood is also a major provider of basic social services throughout the Middle East. By delivering social services you build trust, and trust translates into electoral support in times of political liberalization. In 2011, this is exactly what happened in Egypt: since political parties languished under the Mubarak regime, the only movement that was up and ready was the Brotherhood.

What’s happened since 2013 is repression, tout court. Mohamed Morsi, elected president in 2012 and ousted a year later, now sits in prison with other leaders of the movement. The Brotherhood has strained under a systematic campaign to repress its rank and file, and not just with imprisonment but with forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, too. The government has also taken full advantage of its legal prerogatives, pressing parliament and the judiciary to further suppress the movement. The Muslim Brotherhood is now banned in Egypt, its assets seized and its political wing added to the list of terrorist groups. Still, it continues to operate, although not to the same degree as in 2011–12 or during the Mubarak era. Every now and then, you’ll hear about a march somewhere, about the Brotherhood’s rank and file somehow continuing the movement.

This, however, is one side of the story. The other side is a story of splintering within the Brotherhood, leaving a core centered in Doha, Istanbul, London, and to some degree in the United States. The core is peaceful and nonviolent, no longer engaged in politics, while some splinter groups have resorted to violence for the first time since the 1970s. Repudiating the Brotherhood’s creed of pacifism, they see violence as a political instrument.

To understand the splinter groups you first need to understand what happens in Egyptian prisons. Imprisonment radicalizes young detainees who belong to the Brotherhood or to other Islamic movements. Over 50,000 Egyptians are political prisoners; of those, many haven’t received a proper hearing and some don’t even know what the accusations against them are. Torture and poor conditions in prisons fuel radicalization, making violence as alluring as it was to the Brotherhood between the 1920s and 1940s.

During the Cold War, many Western countries considered repressive military regimes a bulwark against communist revolutionary movements. After 1989, those same countries styled themselves champions of democracy and sought to promote and in some cases impose it. Yet more recently, heads of state in Europe and the United States have welcomed el-Sisi with open arms. Like American Realpolitik during the Cold War, do current relations with el-Sisi reflect a shift in priorities from democracy to stability? If so, how?

Recently, I was working on a documentary about the 1950s through the Reagan era, during which American presidents propped up dictators in the face of perceived threats of socialism and communism. What was at stake, however, was the ability of Latin American citizens to advocate for their rights and freedoms.

In Egypt today, the situation is similar, although no one is fighting communism or preventing a real Islamist threat. Nobody believes that if Egypt held free elections that the Islamists would win. No: although the Muslim Brotherhood won the 2012 elections, it wasn’t militant but nonviolent and moderate. Support for dictators in the Middle East isn’t about elections; it’s about instability. When you like at the Middle East right now, it seems that Western governments fear a collapse of states above all else. The state is weak in Iraq, has already collapsed in Syria, and is almost nonexistent in Libya and Yemen.

The real regional threat is the collapse of states. ISIS and ISIS-like terrorist organizations benefit from failed states, such as Syria and Iraq, where they find safe havens to operate. In the meantime, European fret about immigrants who flee across the Mediterranean; Russia and Iran operate unchecked by the West; and military conflicts like the civil wars in Syria and Yemen have spiraled out of control.

Now, as before, American and European policy in Arab World is to back the strongman, be he a monarch or a military ruler. Forget any discussion of democracy, human rights, or even economic development. This is why Western governments view el-Sisi as a partner: he’s needed to stabilize the Egyptian state. Egypt is the most populous country in the Middle East, home to more than 90 million people. If its government collapses and chaos ensues, the impact will dramatic. El-Sisi benefits from the West’s phobia of instability and the Trump administration’s apparent apathy towards human rights in the Middle East. So el-Sisi will continue to find doors open to him. Unfortunately, Western governments are committing the same mistakes they did during the Cold War. They didn’t just throw their support behind dictators in Latin America but in Africa and across the Arab World — think Mubarak or even Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, for example. None of this led to stability in the long run; it led to uprisings and is bound to again.

What does the future hold in store for Egypt?

I’d love for Egypt to return to a democratization process, understanding that full-fledged democracy won’t be attainable anytime soon. Still, I believe that because what’s happened in the last few years, el-Sisi’s regime is unsustainable. It won’t last because 50 percent of Egyptians are under 25. For them, defending human rights and affirming your role in the democratic process is vital. The regime is also unstable because the Egyptian military has undermined the public sector. In November 2016, the regime unpegged the Egyptian pound from the dollar, leading to devaluation in excess of 45 percent. The middle class has started to suffer, and it hasn’t voiced it concerns yet, it’s bound to soon.

The only way for el-Sisi’s government to stand is to moderate its policies and move towards a democratic opening. A major obstacle, however, is that military officers aren’t fond of pluralism or diversity of opinion. They especially despise criticism from the public. So nobody can predict what will happen, but I hope that el-Sisi’s government moderates its stance so that Egypt can gradually democratize.