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The Crisis in Egypt Today: An Interview With Mohammad Fadel

An interview with Professor Mohammed Fadel on his recent analysis of the political situation in Egypt.

Mohammad Fadel is Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of Toronto, where he is cross-appointed in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, the Faculty of Law, and the Department of Religion. He has written widely on liberalism, democratic theory, international human rights, and Islamic legal history. He blogs at
The Center for Middle East Studies and the Ved Nanda Center for International and Comparative Law at the University of Denver recently co-hosted a lecture by Fadel on “The Crisis in Egypt: Liberalism, Islamism and the Struggle for Democracy.”
It was the most intellectually far-reaching analysis of recent events in Egypt I’ve yet heard or read. (The text will appear in a forthcoming issue of Boston Review, with several responses.)
After the lecture, I sat down with him for the following discussion.
Postel: The situation in Egypt today is grim, but you argue that things could be getting even worse. You go so far as to conjure the specter of state failure in Egypt.
Fadel: I think state failure is the best explanation for the January 25th (2011) revolution in the sense that the Mubarak regime had reached the natural limits of its capacity to govern. Corruption had reached such an extent that the state could no longer extract enough value from society to preserve its control over it. The revolution created an opportunity, a moment in time, where Egypt could engage in far-reaching reform of the relationship of the state to society in a way that could give some kind of long-term viability to the state.
Now, with the coup, I think we’re back at square one, meaning that the military government, or the government appointed by the military, lacks the legitimacy to pursue the difficult reforms that are required, and as a consequence, the only source of legitimacy they have is security-related, i.e., war on “terror” (i.e., war against the Muslim Brotherhood). And so what we’re going to see is further entrenchment of the security state.
The security state will be indifferent to structural reforms. In fact, they’ll probably demand a larger share of the shrinking Egyptian pie, and that will simply exacerbate the kinds of problems that Egypt has and leave fewer resources for solving what’s approaching to be existential problems for the survival of the Egyptian state in terms of its ability to fund basic things like education, healthcare, protecting the environment, all of which are seeing catastrophic declines. And there’s no evidence that this is going to change, nor is there any reasonable basis to believe that they will change as long as the number one priority is security-related.
Postel: One of the most disturbing things to me is that there seems to be popular support amongst ordinary Egyptians and across a wide spectrum of the population for the military regime, and personally for General el-Sisi. To what extent are the Egyptian people themselves implicated in this state of affairs?
Fadel: Sadly, I think you’re right, the Egyptian people are implicated in this. I tend to excuse rank and file Egyptians simply because I don’t think they have the same degree of political sophistication as do political leaders, and therefore I don’t really hold them responsible as much as I view them as being victims. Essentially, I see think they’ve been manipulated by their leaders into supporting this, and I understand why.
The situation in Egypt in terms of the objective, day-to-day circumstances of living, have been difficult for a long time and they became more difficult after the revolution and removal of Mubarak. But returning to the security state is precisely the wrong answer, since the security state was responsible for those conditions in the first place. They’re not in a position to solve them, since they created them.
I think part of the problem is that Egyptians have become conditioned to believe that solutions to their problems lie in the hands of a magical ruler who can come and fix everything. They think, on the one hand, that everything is bad because they had a terrible president in Mubarak and then a worse one in Morsi, and now everything will be good because el-Sisi is going to be in charge of everything, without understanding the causal connections between structures, policies and outcomes, and why this is a problem that’s much bigger than one person, or even a group of people, but rather of systematic policies, and that there are vested interests that are opposed to reforms, and inchoate interests that need to be organized to change the status quo. It’s not simply a question of getting the right person.
There needs to be the formation of a public will capable of pursuing the public good, and that’s where the role of politics comes in. This is what’s so disastrous about the coup and the rhetoric behind it — it totally negates politics. It returns things to an era of charismatic leadership that is fundamentally incapable of pursuing reforms even if it wanted to, and I’m not really sure it wants to.
Postel: On July 2, during the mass demonstrations in Cairo, Chris Hayes did a segment on his MSNBC show in which he remarked:
I’m watching this unfold…and I feel quite torn. Because at one level I have zero love for the Muslim Brotherhood or for Mohammed Morsi…the way he’s acted as a kind of quasi-authoritarian figure. At the same time, it does seem to me maybe not the greatest thing for the development of Egyptian democracy for the first democratically-elected government to collapse within a year, under threat of essentially a military coup. How should I be feeling about this as an American liberal, watching this unfold? I want someone to tell me whose side I should be on…
I appreciated the raw honesty of this. It gave expression to the cognitive dissonance and confusion that a lot of liberals and leftists in the West felt.
Fadel: I think there were genuine grounds for opposing Morsi, as there should be in any democracy. It would be an unhealthy democracy where the political leaders have the support of 80% or 90% of the people. That would be a very dangerous development. I think what was problematic about what happened on June 30th was that members of the old regime, in alliance with some members of the opposition, manipulated that to overturn an elected president instead of using lawful channels for dissent, mainly electoral competition.
And we shouldn’t forget the fact that the privately held media is owned entirely by Mubarak-era businessmen. Although Morsi was nominally the head of state, he wasn’t able to purge the state media and fill them with journalists sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood.
So you had a situation where the most powerful institutions in the state, namely the military and the police, and the most powerful businessmen, were actively manipulating public opinion to overturn a democratically-elected leader against a backdrop of legitimate grievances. Of course there were legitimate grievances. The problem was they were manipulated for an illegitimate end. I think that’s the way we need to understand what happened.
Postel: This gets us back to the role of the Egyptian people themselves, because although, as you point out, there was manipulation of this mass popular discontent for nefarious ends, when the coup actually took place at the conclusion of those protests, we saw millions of Egyptians celebrating jubilantly.
Fadel: Well, of course they bear responsibility ultimately. People always have to take responsibility for their condition. Whether they’re personally responsibility or not, collectively they are. And I think collectively it showed the relative political immaturity of the Egyptian public in believing that they could pin all their problems on Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.
I think clearly Egypt’s problems have not disappeared. They’ve gotten worse. And they probably will continue to get worse for the foreseeable future because now we have a political and security crisis in addition to the economic crisis. So I think it’s going to take a while before people realize that they were snookered.
Postel: The repression under the military regime is now extending beyond just Islamists – liberal and secular Egyptians are now seeing their rights and liberties attacked as well. Some of them are now, if you will, “getting religion” (no pun intended) about what’s happening, as the repressive state apparatus comes after them. Some are saying, well, too little, too late. What’s your take on the state of repression in Egypt today?
Fadel: Well, I think one of the outcomes of the coup was the notion that we don’t need politics in Egypt because the people have delegated the army to take care of their problems. That was the whole point of el-Sisi’s call for delegation from the Egyptian people. And so of course now, what’s the role for politics — ordinary politics, electoral politics, political parties, freedom of expression, freedom to criticize the government — when the people have given the military this blank check to protect them? And so there’s no place anymore for politics, whether it’s Islamist, or liberal or socialist, because the military and the police dominate the field. And I think it took them a little bit of time to realize that. But I don’t really think it took a genius to predict that this was where it would go.
Postel: What’s your assessment of the role that Egyptian liberals have played in the journey from Tahrir Square and the January 25th (2011) revolution to the June 30th (2013) demonstrations and the coup, up to the present moment?
Fadel: Unfortunately, I think they’ve played a negative role. They’ve contributed to the crisis that we’re experiencing today. Although they’re not necessarily politically powerful in terms of their ability to generate votes, I think a lot of them, particularly somebody like Mohamed ElBaradei, because of his international legitimacy, his criticism of Morsi and the transition I think really undermined the ability of the Egyptian state to defend itself, to defend its legitimacy against this coup. The fact that he went to Europe and accused Morsi of recreating an authoritarian state really helped pave the way for a coup. So it’s only a little ironic that ElBaradei, after having paved the way for a coup and trying to legitimize the coup, and actually having served as an official in the government appointed by the military, ended up having to flee Egypt for Europe because he was shocked, scandalized, by the use of violence, when we know that violence is a normal consequence of military coups.
So I think there’s a mixture here of, for lack of a better term, political naiveté and an unwarranted sense of political entitlement that led Egyptian liberals to collaborate with the most authoritarian elements of the Egyptian state instead of accepting a role of an opposition to a flawed civilian-elected government, as all civilian-elected governments in democracies are. They could have exercised a little bit of patience. Maybe it would have taken 10 years for them to develop really functional and effective political parties. But today what’s the outlook? Much worse, I think.
Postel: To be fair, not all Egyptian liberals supported the coup. Some strongly opposed it — Amr Hamzawy, for example.
Fadel: Yes, that’s true.
Postel: What role do you think the United States should play in Egypt’s political crisis at this point?
Fadel: That’s a difficult question. The United States has played such a bad role in Egyptian politics for the last 40 years, since Sadatabandoned the Soviet Union and embraced the United States. The US brand has been so tarnished in Egypt, it’s hard to imagine what kind of positive role it could play. In fact, one of the most devastating charges that the Morsi regime had to deal with was that it was collaborating with the Americans. This was one of the more bizarre accusations, that the Muslim Brotherhood was in cahoots with the United States, that they were US agents, agents of Zionism and American imperialism — simply because the United States was acting in a reasonable fashion, respecting democratic elections.
So it’s really hard to know what the United States could do, even assuming it wanted to help Egypt, because right now everybody thinks the United States isacting against it. And so my personal preference is for the United States to take a stance of neutrality. I mean, I think the United States should stop military aid to Egypt. Not because it wants to support this party or that party, but it should tell Egypt very simply, look, if you guys think that we’re playing such a corrosive, detrimental role, then we are happy to cut all our ties. You don’t want us? Fine. I think that would be the most positive thing for the long-term health of the Egyptian-US relationship.
Right now, as an Egyptian, I think it’s crucial for Egypt to have good relations with the United States, but in the right way, one that backs civil society, not the military. But Egypt right now is not ready for that, because the United States, due to its history with Egypt, is too tarnished to be a credible interlocutor. So shrink the size of the US staff in Egypt. The embassy there is massive. Say okay, we’re going to bring back all but essential personnel. We’re going to stop all military cooperation, we’re going to stop further military sales, until you guys work it out. Because we don’t want to be blamed by anybody. I think that would be the best thing the United States could do.
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