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Last Updated: 01/11/2013
Egypt in Flux: A Conversation with Karim El Mantawi
Carl Kouri and Ross Ryan

The PCM catches up with Karim El Mantawi, Egyptian-Canadian researcher and media consultant. We discuss the current situation in Egypt in terms of increasing insecurity in North Sinai, the recent constitution crafted by the Muslim Brotherhood, the upcoming parliamentary elections, worsening economic conditions, and the shifting media landscape.

Q: The situation seems especially volatile since the vote on Egypt’s constitution. Could you give us a snapshot of the situation on the ground at the moment?

Sure, I was in Cairo from the end of November until early January, and that was precisely when the debate for and against the draft constitution was being put to referendum. As you can remember, it was extremely heated; there were some very violent clashes outside the presidential palace in northeast Cairo. I would say that this was possibly the most volatile and dangerous point since the beginning of the revolution back in 2011. That’s because it was one of the few cases where we saw hundreds of civilians bearing arms -- not against the police forces, or even the thugs of the police forces, but against other civilians, simply due to the debate over the constitution. You could say that it has passed safely, at least for now, but tensions and emotions were extremely high -- you could see how everyone in the country -- in urban or rural areas, different generations, different socio-economic groups -- everybody was really involved in this debate, it was all that was happening, all day long. People were extremely emotional about it, and were willing to actually die for what they believed in -- which is what actually happened -- in terms of laying the groundwork for Egypt’s political future.

Where are we now? Well, it’s tricky. We have moved, since the beginning of the revolution, from popular protest over to the political realm, so where we are now is deeply in the political realm, I would say. When we speak about “on the ground”, though, we have to differentiate between physically on the ground -- in terms of the street protests and the youth movements that are still extremely active and opposing a lot of the politics going on -- and the political situation, which is developing in several ways. What we’re seeing in both the social and the political realms is a gradual polarization with the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters on one hand, and those who are opposing the Muslim Brotherhood on the other. What we could say, I think, is that the clashes and the heated debate that we saw over the constitution and the referendum, in the minds of many people, was a vote for or against the Muslim Brotherhood. So what we are seeing is, of course, power grabs by the Muslim Brotherhood, power grabs by their president, and their party, and what we have now is an upcoming parliamentary election at the end of February, next month. So we are seeing a lot of political maneuvering by the emerging opposition party and we’ll have to see what the results of the elections will tell us.

Q: Where can we fit the other social groups in the country with those you have mentioned? For example, do we fit in the Salafists under the Muslim Brotherhood? Do we bring in the Coptic Christians under the secularists?

Let’s take a step back to 2011. What happened after the initial uprising, and once the struggle moved into the political realm, is that we saw the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood, of course, but also, as you mentioned, the “right-wing” or the “Salafist” or the “extremist” Islamic political parties. What we also have in that political game is, of course, the remnants of the former regime and the secular or “liberal” forces spearheaded sometimes by Mohamed ElBaradei, who has himself formed a political party called the “Constitution Party”. In the presidential elections of 2012, we saw a victory by Mohamed Morsi by a very narrow margin over his opponent in that second round, who was said to be affiliated with the former regime, who was from the military and one of Mubarak's ministers. So what we’re seeing now is an alliance, if you like, of those who are opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood calling themselves the National Salvation Front. The National Salvation Front, which is opposing the Muslim Brotherhood’s domination of the political arena, is bringing together Mohamed ElBaradei, former secretary general of the Arab League Amr Moussa, presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahias, as well as several other political forces. They are not, however, bringing under that umbrella remnants of the former regime, but what they do have in common with the former regime is that they are opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood. So you are seeing something very strange happen, which is that many of the so-called “revolutionary” forces that are not from the Muslim Brotherhood are suddenly finding themselves aligned with remnants of the Mubarak regime in opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood. This is happening mainly in the social arena and in the street protests, and not really in the political arena because, of course, the remnants of the former regime are finding it hard to have a political presence in the current situation.

Q: So what’s happening in the streets is “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”?

I would say that is what’s happening in the streets, and that is what happened in last month’s violent confrontations at the presidential palace. It was quite a surprise to the Muslim Brotherhood that a lot of the opponents they were facing in the protests were actually armed. Those arms are commonly believed to be held by the remnants of the former regime. Suddenly, the youth protesting peacefully against the Muslim Brotherhood found themselves standing side-by-side at the front lines with the remnants of the former regime.

Q: How are outside actors affecting the internal politics of Egypt?

Well, I think in terms of the foreign influence on the situation, a lot of it has to do with the rise of political Islam in the Middle East over the past couple of years, not necessarily the Muslim Brotherhood, but from parliamentary elections in Morocco to (potentially) the situation in Syria and what might come out of that. So what we’re seeing there is what you might call Sunni Political Islam flexing its muscle regionally. The reason I say that is because we have the strong regional force of Iran, a Shi’a Muslim nation, which was never really balanced by Sunni Muslims. The only regional power with a Sunni Muslim background was the Freedom and Justice Party of Turkey. Of course Turkey is not an Arab country, so although it is heavily involved in the region, if we talk about an Arab country, Egypt would really be the emergence of a strong Sunni force. The implication, as we’re seeing already, is that it is going to give a sort of boost to the Sunni political factions in the region: Tunisia, perhaps in Libya, potentially in Syria, Jordan, and Bahrain. All of this will have in impact for the region, and perhaps for the world as a whole.

Q: What about the influence of Israel?

I think this is where we have to talk about the international balance of power and not just regional power struggles. This is because the power of Israel within the region is closely tied to its Western allies, be they European states or the United States. I would say it is no secret that it is in the United State’s long-term national security interests to keep the Middle East somewhat divided; let’s say for the sake of the security of the state of Israel, and to dominate natural resources such as oil, and perhaps other interests as well. If we take that as a guiding principle of United States’ foreign policy in the region, then it would make sense, strangely, that the US would be happy to see the rise of Sunni political Islam. It would be actually supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power in Egypt and elsewhere in the region. Because that would help counter the power of Iran in the region, and would help keep the region divided.

What this means for Israel in the region, regardless of the United States, is that the Muslim Brotherhood, whether they have the support of the Egyptian people or not, will be extremely sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Although the Muslim Brotherhood has made it clear since coming to power that they will respect the Camp David agreement, they have slowly started to show that perhaps they will seek a revision of the established relations with Israel.

We can’t forget that Hamas, in Palestine, is in many ways an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. You can call it the Muslim Brotherhood’s sister-in-law, maybe. There is no doubt that there is a very close relationship and coordination between the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and that has really changed the name of the game with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic and the role that the US plays in viewing Hamas as a terrorist organization -- which, of course, is bound to change sooner rather than later. We’ve seen in the recent Gaza crisis, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, together with Mohamed Morsi, brokering a ceasefire in a situation that was not likely to de-escalate easily. The ceasefire was quite a surprise and I think it was a strong indicator of the influence that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt holds over Hamas and over the developing situation between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Q: How much are these external actors affecting domestic politics? How much influence does the US have over Egyptian Military officers, for example, and how much of an influence is there from Gulf States on the Salafists?

If we talk about foreign influence on the domestic scene in Egypt, the US is a major player; it provides 1.3 billion dollars of aid to Egypt, which is the largest recipient of US aid after Israel. But of course the other country that seems to be meddling in Egypt’s internal affairs is Qatar. Now Qatar seems to be very strongly allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, and it is no secret that some of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leading preachers and leaders reside in Qatar, and some of the funding comes for Qatar. However, we have to be careful not to group all of the Gulf States together as supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. The situation in the United Arab Emirates is extremely different. There is a huge rivalry between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Emirati Royalty.

You asked about the military. Again we have to separate the political situation from the security situation and also from the economic situation. What we’ve been talking about so far is the political situation. We cannot be absolutely sure at this point that Egypt’s military is actually loyal to the ruling regime. Whether or not they’re backing President Morsi is hard to say, the Egyptian military, after handing power to Morsi after his election, sort of withdrew behind the scenes, as it did when it took power 60 years ago. That doesn’t mean that it’s not playing a role, we just don’t know what kind of role it’s playing.

Q: Are any external powers actively seeking to destabilize the situation in Egypt?

The question would be: why would they want to do that? To destabilize Egypt is not necessarily in anyone’s interest in the region -- the Israelis, Palestinians, the Gulf states, or the international players in Europe, America or otherwise. A destabilized Egypt is likely to destabilize the whole region at a time when the region is already very shaky, given what is happening in Syria in particular. Unless a foreign power had a clear objective of bringing back the former regime... but I think it’s pretty clear that, at this stage, with the amount of power that the Muslim Brotherhood has been able to consolidate in the past 2 years, it would be very difficult to envision a scenario where the Muslim Brotherhood would be giving any of their power away voluntarily, with or without foreign influence. It would be rather naive to even imagine that anyone would be able to influence them to give away any power and not to progress in the direction they are progressing without them putting up a struggle -- potentially a violent struggle. Nobody wants to see a repetition of the Algerian situation, where, in the 1990s, denying political Islam’s democratic gains resulted in bloody civil strife.

Q: How are economic conditions affecting the political situation?

Well yes, there is the economic situation and the political situation, both of which are complex, and they tie-in closely with those international influences that we have been speaking of. The most pressing issues are the economy and security -- and personal freedoms, because that is, of course, what this revolution was striving for. Now the economy is in one of the worst states in decades. The average Egyptian is struggling to put food on the table. We have seen a period of tax hikes just in the past couple of weeks, and austerity measures are likely to be introduced in the coming weeks as preconditions to an IMF loan, which Egypt is desperately seeking. In the meantime it is being given grants and loans by Qatar, which brings us back to the political influence of the Gulf vis-à-vis the Muslim Brotherhood. And in the past 10 days we have seen a tragic devaluation of the Egyptian pound relative to the American dollar. The Egyptian Central Bank has spoken of running out of foreign currency reserves. So the situation is quite grim, economically, and this adds to the tension in the streets.

If you were to ask me what situations were to derail the Muslim Brotherhood’s pattern of dominating power, if the economic situation worsens to the point where they are unable to control it, I would have to say that this might be the one thing where we could see a popular uprising against them.

Q: Speak to us about the emerging, and fragile, security balance between the military, police and non-state actors.

We have to remember that there has been a traditional rivalry between the security powerhouses of Egypt: the military and interior ministry, and they have already had tensions in the 70s and 80s. The fact that over the past few months we have seen the military out in full force on the streets was, of course, a careful balancing act in their relationship with the police.

What is really interesting is that we do have the apparent emergence of non-state actors in the security realm in post-revolution Egypt. What I am referring to is sometimes called the ‘Security Vacuum in the Sinai Peninsula’ -- in particular, in the North Sinai region. What we are hearing discussed in the Egyptian media is this idea of Muslim Brotherhood militia or militia affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood. Whether they exist or not, we are hearing of something called “Unit 95”, which apparently is a Muslim Brotherhood militia that is active on the streets suppressing anti-Muslim Brotherhood protests. This is a very significant and worrying development. This security situation plays into the dynamics and power alignments in the region, and is a threat to the security of the State of Israel.

The violence that has plagued North Sinai has really been happening in the shadows in the last couple of years. There has been a complete information blackout, although some would characterize it as quite a violent situation. What we know is that the Egyptian armed forces are carrying out wide-scale operations against armed extremist groups that have suddenly emerged in the security vacuum of a post-Mubarak Egypt.

Now what’s interesting -- and this is pure speculation -- is that some have noted a correlation between the political rise in power of the Muslim Brotherhood and the security situation in the North Sinai. I don’t want to imply that there is a direct connection between the two. After all, the groups operating in North Sinai are previously unknown and have been said to involve foreign elements; we don’t know if that’s only from Gaza or elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood is a moderate and progressive political Islamist movement.

There is very little information coming out. All we do know is that there is actual violence and there is a lot of military activity in that region. A lot of the roads are closed. If you try and cross Central Sinai, many roadblocks are set up and foreigners are not allowed to travel on these roads anymore. And so, the situation is alarmingly vague in the North Sinai, I would say.

Q: How free is the Egyptian military to operate in the Sinai given the peace settlement with Israel, which limits military operations on the peninsula?

Well, because of that security vacuum, and the rise of armed extremist groups sabotaging the gas pipelines supplying Israel, Jordan and beyond, Israel did allow a temporary amendment to the Camp David Peace Accords, allowing Egypt an extension of what would normally be permitted in the Sinai. That’s why we’ve seen tanks rolling in and troop carriers and other heavy weaponry going in there. So there has been a temporary modification in the agreement, in coordination with the Israeli side.

Q: How does all this affect the local population of the Sinai?

The native inhabitants of the North Sinai are the Bedouin people who do not have much affiliation to the modern state of Egypt and do not really recognize the boundaries of the nation states in the region and who were really some of most to suffer under the Mubarak regime. They are often involved in illicit activities -- such as weapons, drugs, and human smuggling across borders -- and their affiliation is often to whatever suits their best interests, really. They are also tribal peoples and so they do have tribal affiliations and the military has been trying to sit down with those tribal chiefs and see what’s going on in the mountains, in those areas that are beyond the control of Egyptian security forces and why, perhaps, some of the youth of the Bedouin tribes may be working hand-in-hand with some of these extremists, who may have affiliations elsewhere. And so there has been a lot of negotiation, but there is clearly still a struggle between those armed groups, which cannot really be separated from the tribes themselves, and the military.

Q: I know this is an impossible question to answer with any accuracy, but what are your short-term predictions for Egypt?

That is a very difficult question, but if we have to speculate, I do see a gradual progression of power grabbing by the Muslim Brotherhood. I think we will also see a unified opposition develop, whether it is led by the National Salvation Front or by other forces. Whether it involves remnants of the former regime or not, I think we will see continued polarization of Egyptian politics and a gradual increase in the power of the Muslim Brotherhood. We’re likely to see that in the upcoming elections.

Although the Muslim Brotherhood has been losing a lot of its popular support in urban areas, and we’ve seen that in those demonstrations about the constitution last month, for example, I would say that its support is the same if not stronger in the rural areas. Just to give you an example, one of the contentious articles of the constitution that was actually passed last month was that the Egyptian parliament would still be comprised of 50% peasants and workers. This is an article that was put in place by former President Abdul Nasser back in the 60s, at a time when most of the population was actually “working class”, if you like, and so that was justified at the time; now it is generally recognized that that is an outdated provision in terms of the composition of parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood insisting on that remaining in the new constitution has been viewed, by the opposition, as a way for them to maintain those seats in parliament because they still have popular support amongst those, let’s say, illiterate communities among the rural populations where they are still able to win the votes of most people. This is why the drafting of the constitution was so important, because it would dictate how much power the Muslim Brotherhood would be able to grab in the coming elections, not only in the first round, but in consecutive elections as well.

This is the anticipated route I see things progressing in, but again it is a very unpredictable and fluid situation. We’ve seen a lot of things happen that were unexpected in the past 2 years, since the uprising, and as I’ve said, the economic situation is extremely grim, there is a lot of tension due to that. I wouldn’t be surprised if, within the next few months, we saw people aggravated economically to the point that they rise up against the Muslim Brotherhood in a popular street protest. Another thing, as we mentioned, is the military situation. We don’t know what the relationship is yet between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. Things could change dramatically if we saw something like a military coup, where young officers from the military who are dissatisfied with the way things are progressing rise up against the old guard of the military and against the Muslim Brotherhood; similar to the “free officers revolution” of 1952, which was meant to bring in civilian rule in Egypt but was taken over 2 years later by President Nasser and by the military establishment. So we could see the military wanting to see a more representative and less Islamist-led civilian government structure. But again, these are only the outlying or unexpected scenarios that could derail the Muslim Brotherhood’s control on power.

Q: Moving onto the topic of media, and the important role it played in the revolution, could you give us an idea of the emerging media landscape in Egypt?

Social media and the Internet and citizen journalism played an important role in the uprising, and in the months and years leading up to the uprising, however, more recently, that has taken a backseat to the mainstream media. Within the mainstream media you have the state-run media on one hand, and on the other, you have independently run and opposition media. Within the state media there has been a lot of soul searching going on in terms of loyalties -- are we loyal to the former regime? The Muslim Brotherhood? Or should we follow the line of whichever government is in power? There have been a lot of contradictions in the state media and the line that they’re following.

On the other hand, it is very clear that the independent and opposition media have become extremely outspoken in the last few months, and have really enjoyed the newfound press freedoms, or let’s call it actually a vacuum of press control -- and I call it a vacuum because I do believe that it is temporary. I believe that as soon as the Muslim Brotherhood is done with its political maneuvering and new legislation is brought in, based on the constitution that they have carefully crafted, that the space for freedom of expression will again be closed for the opposition and independent media.

I might add that the opposition and independent media has become so outspoken that they have become actually unprofessional in terms of conducting reliable journalism. They have been very partisan in terms of taking sides against the Muslim Brotherhood and we’ve seen a decline of journalistic standards in Egypt in the past few months.

Q: The North American media and Al Jazeera have been talking about satirist Bassem Youssef, who has been referred to as the ‘Egyptian Jon Stewart’. What do you think about him?

If we look at Bassem Youssef and his popularity, and the way in which he has really pushed the limits of freedom of expression with regards to politics and the President especially, that really exemplifies how those boundaries have been expanded in the past few months. But let me also remind you that in the past few days, a civil lawsuit has been brought against him for his criticism of the President, and we’ll have to see how that goes because I think this might actually typify the tightening of the noose on freedom of expression and on the media in general. As I said, I do expect that this is the direction we will be heading in the coming months, once the Muslim Brotherhood is done with the political maneuvering, once the elections are over, and when we will likely see new legislation that may unfortunately deal people like Bassem Youssef a new deck of cards.

Q: If some levels of society are not being represented in the mainstream media, nor their issues, what are the implications for long-term stability? Can social media fill-in the gap? Is there any programming that speaks to the issues of, lets say, the lower classes?

I don’t see them being necessarily represented, but I wouldn’t say that they’re not being represented. I think for the “lower” socio-economic classes, if you will, their main concerns are economic. So the talk of the economic situation, I think, is enough to be representing them.

Now, other groups, such as youth groups, opposition movements, women’s rights advocates, other marginalized groups, and the Coptic Christian minority, I would say those are probably underrepresented in the media landscape. Whether or not we can expect alternative or social media to represent them, I think that as we see a tightening of the noose on the mainstream media, we will see a re-emergence of social media and citizen journalism; as mainstream media finds itself unable to push those limits anymore, and address contentious issues in the public sphere, I think we will again see social media playing a significant role.

We have already seen a significant role being played by indie media collectives and initiatives, guerilla media initiatives such as Kazeboon (liars) -- this was a guerilla media initiative that was trying to expose the lies of the military during the transitional period, and then once the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi came to power, has shifted its focus to expose the lies of the Muslim Brotherhood, but they are still very active at a grassroots and street level, so not necessarily “social media” but grassroots media literally “on the street” with the setting up of projectors on the street and flash screenings. Another one is Mosireen (we insist), which again is an independent media collective producing high quality media and distributing it, and is usually in opposition to the mainstream political trends that are happening.

Q: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us. It has been extremely insightful.
One last favor, could you recommend to us news sources to help keep a non-Arab speaking public abreast of events in Egypt and the Middle East?

Not a problem. Here are some of the more interesting English language news sources that I can recommend: (Lebanon) (Lebanon)

Karim El Mantawi is a Cairo/Vancouver based consultant. Previously serving at Soliya, a partner of the UN Alliance of Civilizations, Mr. El Mantawi used new media technologies to facilitate a media literacy-based dialogue between western and Middle Eastern universities. He also served as field producer for documentary films in Egypt, and as project manager at Sarmady, a Vodafone company specialized in digital communications and is a visiting professor and the University for Peace.