The Middle East is in turmoil. And, while this might seem to most of us to be a statement of an obvious and forever fact, like “the sky is blue” or “the Cubs lost,” the last three years have really been quite different even by Middle East standards. The Arab Spring revolutions have toppled dictators, and the future is uncertain. That’s where The Hoover Institution Press comes in with The Great Unraveling, its new series of short books written by those who have firsthand knowledge of the revolutionary changes happening from Syria to Egypt. FTW interviewed Samuel Tadros, author of Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt. Tadros was active in Egyptian politics until 2009. Today, he is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and a contributor to the Hoover Institution’s working group on Islamism and the International Order.
Isn’t the revolution in Egypt still very much in the category of “current events” rather than “history?” You say the revolution “failed,” but how do you measure failure? Mubarak’s fall from power was not enough of a first act that can be reflected upon separately?
History and current events are not mutually exclusive categories. Historical events continue to shape future developments, and the Egyptian revolution is no exception in that regard. Its ramifications will be felt for a long time to come. This, however, does not mean that we cannot take a look at what has transpired in the past three years. Time is not always the best measurement by which we can determine whether we can examine an event. By any objective form of measurement, the revolution has failed. Revolutionaries are today between the jailed, the cursed, the emigrant, and the depressed. Revolutionaries and the revolution banner have been continuously defeated and rejected at every electoral contest that Egypt has witnessed. Three years after, the slogans raised by the revolution are as far away from being carried out as ever. The failure of the revolution is not only a failure to deliver or to change, but more importantly, it’s a failure to connect with the very people it supposedly championed.
Your book is interspersed with song lyrics and poetry. How important or influential are writers among all the players in the Egyptian revolution?
While the Arab Human Development Report has painted an accurate and frightening picture on the state of knowledge and reading in the Arab world, writers continue to have an impact on shaping the public discourse. It is true that in a society where a large percentage of the population is illiterate, their direct impact may be limited, but their ability to set the parameters of the debate is still strong. They have also, at certain moments, played a critical role in political developments, such as Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik’s public humiliation at the hands of a writer during a TV program, which helped bring about his resignation. The songs and poetry that I chose to include in the book really capture the spirit of the times. They offer an accurate portrayal of the revolutionaries’ mindset, hopes, and aspirations.
Like most issues in the Middle East, the situation in Egypt is complicated and contains few pure “good guys” and “bad guys.” What did you hope to accomplish through your reflections?
That is very true. Unfortunately, it is not the way the narrative has been constructed in Washington, where the story has been presented more like a fairytale of the fight between the young courageous freedom loving revolutionaries and the old corrupt tyrannical regime. The struggle in Egypt was never a beauty contest but more like the least ugly person contest. My goal in the book was simple: while both the role of the military and the Muslim Brotherhood have been examined and scrutinized and have received the blame for the failure of Egypt’s transition to democracy, the revolutionaries have escaped any critical examination or blame. They have been both mythologized and portrayed as helpless victims incapable of affecting developments around them. My aim was, in a sense, to humanize them, looking at the dreams they had and the steps and decisions they took. In the process, I trace their story, not to the eruption of the volcano on the twenty-fifth of January 2011, but to the very beginning of the story, to the days when the first revolutionaries were beginning to come together and formulate their political opinions.
As we read about current events, such as the Egyptian elections or the sentencing of Muslim Brotherhood members to death, what questions should we be asking in order to understand these events in context?
The most important question is the future of Islamism. This future trajectory inside Egypt will have profound ramifications well beyond Egypt’s borders. While talk of Islamism’s demise and post-Islamist politics is fanciful, there is no doubt that Islamism is at a critical turning point in its history. The ideology still dominates the commanding heights of politics in the region, yet the means for its achievement have largely been discredited. The Muslim Brotherhood’s approach of working through the electoral system has proven a failure, but so has the Salafi approach of changing from below, and the Jihadist approach has not achieved any tangible results either.
The name of this series is The Great Unraveling. But many of us see simply business as usual. Civil war in Syria, lawlessness in Libya, military control of Egypt, and, as usual, stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks. Has anything really “unraveled?”
The first two countries cited hardly point to business as usual. Both countries are facing unprecedented changes after more than four decades of complete state repression of society. Syria’s very existence as a state is coming under increasing question. The picture in Egypt may appear on the surface as a return to normalcy, but this is hardly the reality. The regime that President Sisi will construct will not resemble that of Mubarak. Mubarak was best described in a 1995 article by Fouad Ajami as “a bureaucrat with the rank of president.” The man hardly had any ambitions or dreams of greatness and was content with managing Egypt’s decline. Sisi is made of different material. He is a very ambitious man with grandiose dreams. In his eyes, Mubarak was too soft and allowed too much freedom for society. In the Egypt he will attempt to construct, there will be no room for dissent or independent action in the public sphere. The media, civil society, even religious institutions will all be expected to work in complete harmony following the state’s vision just like body parts following the commands of the brain.
Look into the future for us, if you can, and tell us what Egypt will look like in five years. If you want to be really prophetic, how about the entire Middle East?
The Middle East is witnessing tremendous change. Borders will be redrawn, maybe not in legal terms, but certainly in reality. The example of Iraqi Kurdistan of de facto autonomy will be repeated. The regional fault line will no longer revolve around the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In reality, it hasn’t for a very long time, but Washington seems to be slow in realizing that. Two fault lines are drawn in the region, that between the two sects of Islam, Shi’a and Sunni, with Iran and Saudi Arabia leading each camp and Syria being the main battleground. Egypt will continue to be on the verge of collapse but never completely collapsing. It will face tremendous challenges from a growing terrorist war in the Sinai and potentially on the Libyan borders to a low level insurgency by revolutionary Islamists in the cities, to an unstable political system due to the exclusion of huge segments of the population and their repression and finally to a disastrous economic situation. It will be more dependent on Gulf handouts to keep it afloat. On the foreign policy front, there is potential for a military adventure in Libya.