The nature of polarization is diverse and complex, reflecting context. It can be socially constructed around the split between religion and secularism as in Egypt or Turkey or in relation to divisions internal to a religion as in Iraq or as between classes, ethnicities, political parties. In the concreteness of history, each case of polarization has its own defining set of circumstances, often highlighting minority fears of discrimination and marginalization, class warfare, ethnic and religious rivalry (e.g. Kurdish self-determination). Also, as in the Middle East, polarization is not just a domestic phenomenon. Polarization is being manipulated by powerful external political actors, to what extent is unknowable. It is revealing that in the demonstrations in Cairo during the past month both pro- and anti-Morsi protesters have been chanting anti-American slogans.
Egypt and Turkey
The circumstances of polarization in Egypt and Turkey, although vastly different, share the experience of Islamic oriented political forces emerging from the shadow land of society after years of marginalization, and in Egypt’s case brutal suppression. In both countries, the armed forces had long played an important role in keeping the state under the control of secular elites who served Western strategic and neoliberal economic interests. Up to now, despite periodic trials and tribulations, Turkey seems to have solved the riddle of modernity much more persuasively than Egypt.
In both countries, electoral politics mandated radical power shifts unacceptable to displaced secular elites. Opposition forces in the two countries, after enjoying decades of power and influence, suddenly saw themselves displaced by democratic means with no credible prospect of regaining political dominance by success in future elections, having ceded power and influence to those who had previously been subjugated and exploited. Those displaced were unwilling to accept their diminished role, including this lowered status in relation to societal forces whose values were scorned as anti-modern and threatening to preferred life styles that were identified with ‘freedom.’ They complained bitterly, organized feverishly, and mobilized energetically to cancel the verdict of the political majority by whatever means possible. Recourse to extra-democratic means to regain power, wealth, and influence seemed to many, although not all, the only viable political option, but it had to be done in such a way that it seemed to be a ‘democratic’ outcry of the citizenry against the state. Of course, the state has its own share of responsibility for the traumas of polarization. The elected leadership over-reacts; it acts on worst case scenarios; it adopts paranoid styles of addressing opposition grievances and contributes to a downward spiral of distrust and animosity. The media, either to accentuate the drama of conflict or because is itself often partisan, tends to heighten tensions, creating a fatalist atmosphere of ‘no return’ for which the only possible solution is ‘us’ or ‘them,’ that is, the mentality of war that is an anathema for democracy in which the losers at any given moment still have a large stake in the viability and success of the governing process. When that faith in the justice of the system is shattered democracy cannot generate good governance.
The Politics of Polarization
The opposition waits for some mistake by the governing leadership to launch its campaign of escalating demands. Polarization intensifies. The opposition is unwilling to treat the verdict of free elections as the final word on the entitlement to govern. At first, such unwillingness is exhibited by extreme alienation and embittered fears. Later on, as opportunities for obstruction arise, this unwillingness is translated into political action, and if it gathers enough momentum, the desired crises of legitimacy and governability bring a country to the brink of collapse. Much depends on material conditions. If the economy is doing reasonably well, calmer heads usually prevail, which may help explain why the impact of severe polarization has been so much greater in Egypt than Turkey. Morsi has succumbed to the challenge, while Erdogan has survived. Reverse the economic conditions, and the political outcomes might also be reversed.
The Egyptian experience also reflects the extraordinary sequence of recent happenings. The Tahrir Square upheavals of January 25th came after 30 years of Mubarak rule. A political vacuum was created by the removal of Mubarak that was quickly filled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAP), but accompanied by a promise that a transition to democracy was the consensus goal binding all Egyptians, and once reached the generals would retire from the political scene. The popular sentiment then favored an inclusive democracy, which in 2011, was a coded way of saying that the Muslim Brotherhood should henceforth participate in the political process, competing for power. There were from the beginning anxieties about this prospect in the anti-Mubarak ranks, and the Brotherhood seemed sensitive to secular and Coptic concerns even pledging that it had no intention of competing for the presidency of Egypt. All seemed well and good, with popular expectations wrongly assuming that the next president of Egypt would be a familiar secular figure, a renegade member of the fuloul, that is, a former beneficiary of the regime who joined the anti-Mubarak forces during the uprising. In the spring of 2011, the expectations were that Amr Moussa (former Secretary General of the Arab League) would be elected president and that the Muslim Brotherhood would function as a strong, but minority, force in the Egyptian parliament. As the parliament would draft a new constitution for the country, this was likely to be the first show of strength between the two major poles of Egyptian political opinion.
Several unforeseen developments made this initial set of expectations about Egypt’s political future unrealizable. Above all, the Muslim Brotherhood was far more successful in the parliamentary elections than had been anticipated. These results stoked the fears of the secularists and Copts, especially when account was taken of the previously unappreciated political strength of several Salafi parties that had not previously competed for governmental influence. Religiously oriented political parties won more than 70% of the contested seats, creating control over the constitution-making process. This situation was further stressed when the Brotherhood withdrew its pledge not to seek control of the government by fielding a candidate for the presidency. The whole transition process after January 2011 was presided over by administrative entities answerable to SCAP. Several popular candidates were disqualified, and a two-stage presidential election was organized in 2012 in which Mohamed Morsi narrowly defeated Ahmed Shafik in the runoff election between the two top candidates, the last Mubarak prime minister, epitomizing the persisting influence. In a sense, the electoral choice given to the Egyptian people involved none of the front rank Egyptian revolutionary forces that were responsible for the overthrow of Mubarak or representing the ideals that animated those who filled Tahrir Square in the revolutionary days of January 2011. The Brotherhood supported the anti-Mubarak movement only belatedly when its victory was in sight, and was not ideologically inclined to support inclusive democratization, while Shafik, epitomizing the fuloul resurgent remnant of Mubarakism, never supported the upheaval, and did not even pretend to be a democrat, promising instead to restore law and order, which would supposedly lead to economic recovery.
It was during the single year of Morsi’s presidency that the politics of extreme polarization took center stage. It is widely agreed that Morsi was neither experienced nor adept as a political leader in what was a very challenging situation even if polarization had not been present to aggravate the situation. The Egyptian people anxiously expected the new leadership to restore economic normalcy rapidly after the recent period of prolonged disorder and decline. He was a disappointment, even to many of those who had voted for him, in all of these regards.
It was also expected that Morsi would immediately signal a strong commitment to social justice and to addressing the plight of Egyptian unemployed youth and subsistence masses, but no such promise was forthcoming. In fairness, it seemed doubtful that anyone could have succeeded in fulfilling the role of president of Egypt in a manner that would have satisfied the majority of Egyptians. The challenges were too obdurate, the citizenry too impatient, and the old Mubarak bureaucracy remained strategically in place and determined to resist the tidal wave of change to the extent that their positions allowed. Mubarak and some close advisors had fallen, but the judiciary, the armed forces, and the Ministry of Interior were fuloul activist strongholds. In effect, the old secularized elites were still powerful, unaccountable, and capable of obstructing the elected government reflecting the political will of the Egyptian majority. Morsi, a candidate with mediocre credentials, was elected to the presidency with an ominously narrow margin, and to make matters worse he inherited a mission impossible.
The Authoritarian Temptation
What was surprising, and disturbing, was the degree to which the protest movement so quickly and submissively linked the future of Egypt to the good faith and prudent judgment of the armed forces. All protest forces received in exchange was the forcible removal of Morsi, the renewal of a suppressive approach to the Brotherhood, and some rather worthless reassurances about the short-term nature of military rule. General Adel-Fattah el-Sisi from the start made it clear that he was in charge, although designating an interim president, Adly Mansour, the recently chief judge of the Supreme Constitutional Court, a longtime Mubarak careerist. Mansour has appointed a new prime minister who selected a cabinet, supposedly consisting of technocrats, who will serve until a new government is elected. Already, several members of this civilian gloss on a military takeover of the governing process in Egypt have registered complaints about the excessive force being used against pro-Morsi demonstrations.