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Spectacle and political power in Egypt
The military's responses to recent unrest shows it is learning to use manipulate events to its own political advantage.
Somewhere, Field Marshal Tantawi of Egypt's ruling military council must have been laughing to himself. When MP Mamduh Ismail of the Salafi al-Nur Party interrupted a session of parliament to deliver the Muslim call to prayer earlier this month, the chamber erupted in outrage over the presumptuous nature of the act. Saad al-Katatni, the parliamentary speaker, representing the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, shouted him down to a wave of applause, declaring that Ismail was not holier than anyone else in parliament.
One could interpret this bizarre scene as the fulfillment of Western apprehensions about a democratic Egypt transforming the parliamentary floor into a pulpit from which to legislate morality and enforce public piety. A case could even be made that, based on such outward displays of religious demagoguery, Islamic politics is poised to hinder Egypt's transition to a pluralistic state that respects individual freedoms and the rule of law.
However, to do so would be to miss the point entirely. For the better part of the past year, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), led by Tantawi, has depended on the occasional public spectacle to aid in cementing its increasingly tenuous grasp on political power. Since the fall of the Mubarak regime, Egypt's revolution has been hanging in the balance as the military attempts to preserve a status quo, marked by its historically dominant role in Egypt's political and economic spheres. These spectacles have taken on various forms and fulfilled a number of different objectives, all of which have ultimately served to bolster the military's power while giving the appearance of change.
Turning into spectacle
The so-called "football riots" that resulted in the deaths of 74 fans at Port Said Stadium on February 1 is another such incident. While many Western news outlets framed these events in the context of historic tragedies and fan violence in the world of football, the venue in reality just provided a convenient cover story for the actual developments of the day. The frequent government crackdown on popular protests - whether by uniformed officers or plain clothed thugs - that have become a fixture of the Egyptian revolt had continued under the guise of violence among competing football ultras. Tahrir Square was transported to Port Said Stadium (and subsequently transferred back in front of the Interior Ministry on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo).
Such seemingly spontaneous eruptions of violence in recent months have contributed to the sense of instability that would presumably force Egypt's young revolutionaries to reassess their political objectives by raising the costs of their continued activism. The message seems to be that, not only is it the occasional gathering of the country's impetuous youth (whether in public squares or football stadiums) that is at the heart of Egypt's prolonged insecurity, but that the military is the only institution defending the country against total anarchy. Tantawi implied as much in his brief comments immediately after the Port Said incident, expressing little sympathy for the victims at a time of deep national sorrow, and lending further credence to the widespread belief in Egypt that the violence was used to settle political scores that date back to the launch of the protests more than one year ago.
Similarly, the SCAF has attempted to score an additional strategic victory through the manufacture of a highly politicised legal case intended for widespread public consumption. Many observers have been puzzled by theproceedings against 19 US citizens representing a number of democracy promotion organisations such as the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. While the charge of foreign manipulation of Egypt's fragile democratic processes is certainly serious enough to warrant thorough investigation, the Egyptian military, itself a recipient of $1.3bn in annual US aid, is hardly in a position to determine whether Egyptian civil society has been subject to undue foreign influence.
Despite the international fallout from this incident, including the threat of suspension of US aid, the Egyptian government has pressed on with its case. While SCAF leaders may be privately expressing their apprehensions about the consequences of this trial for US-Egyptian relations, they are also sure to recognise its success in channelling popular nationalist sentiments in their favour. In fact, the effect of this spectacle is doubly beneficial to the military: While Egypt's emerging political parties and revolutionary youth groups have been compromised by foreign agents, the SCAF has acted as the state's guardian against external threats to its sovereignty.
This brings the discussion full circle. Having thus violently repressed the revolutionary forces in the street and poked holes in the credibility of the rising political class, the SCAF has proceeded to respond to every impending or actual crisis with a healthy dose of democracy. It enthusiastically supported the early push for parliamentary elections endorsed by last year's March referendum, and months later relied on those elections to defuse a rapidly escalating confrontation between the military and protesters.
But whatever authority the SCAF supposedly sacrifices through opening the political field it has more than made up for by effectively limiting the power of the newly elected legislature from exercising actual governance. Unable to appoint ministers or forge policy independently, the parliamentarians have instead engaged in pointless political wrangling and spectacles, such as that which surrounded the pronouncement of the midday prayer. Egypt's democracy in action, or so the SCAF would have citizens believe.
In fact, the cycle has continued almost effortlessly. Like clockwork, in the immediate aftermath of the Port Said stadium deaths, the SCAF attempted to placate protesters demanding the military's accountability by announcing the official nomination of presidential candidates to commence on March 10, several weeks ahead of schedule. One spectacle replaces another.
How the SCAF will respond to the election of Egypt's first president in the post-authoritarian era remains to be seen. But given that the powers of the office have yet to even be determined and the independent candidates will also have to contend with a parliament attempting to secure its own authority, the military is sure to exploit the developing situation to its own advantage - all while claiming that it is, in fact, retreating to its barracks.
This is not to suggest that Egypt's military ruling institution is an all-powerful or omniscient Wizard of Oz figure. Far from it. It has made frequent mis-steps that have only emboldened the revolutionaries, and when it has succeeded, has only done so due to other actors playing their parts in the spectacle. What is becoming more clear, however, is that the SCAF has learned to adapt to the changing conditions more quickly, and has become more adept at managing the spectacle to its own political advantage. For Egypt's revolution to succeed, the curtain must be pulled back and the wizard must be exposed for all to see.
Abdullah Al-Arian is an Assistant Professor of history at Wayne State University, where he specialises in the modern Middle East.