The last two weeks were not a huge surprise. For some, it seems that the last couple of weeks were the result of a strategy by forces opposed to the presidency of Mohamed Morsi—that the violence was planned, arranged, and implemented. There is a corresponding logic to that line of thought—that had the violence not been planned, it would not have happened.
That is an attractive line of thought, but that narrative does not nearly do justice to the injustice that has been taking place in Egypt over the past two weeks. From the outset, if we are to be accurate, and our analysis is to be useful, the narrative has to begin much earlier than the last two weeks. Indeed, it begins years, if not decades, ago.
In a fully functioning state, the use of legitimate violence is reserved for the state and its delegated institutions. This is the difference between a country like Switzerland, and a country like Somalia.
In one, if a group or individual uses violence, the state intervenes on behalf of the citizenry to declare plainly and clearly that only the state can do so. Where vigilante violence, let alone criminal violence, occurs without challenge, the state has broken down.
It ought to be clear—Egypt is not Somalia. Nevertheless, it is also not Switzerland. In Switzerland, the state’s institutions were not built on the bedrock of fear, as it was during the former regime in Egypt. Rather, the state benefited from respect of the citizenry, where the broad, overwhelming majority of individuals believed that the state’s institutions were their institutions, and not the tools of a coercive elite, designed to impose their will upon everyone else.
In Egypt today, the state’s institutions are different from what they were under Hosni Mubarak. While fear remains, the critical ‘curtain of fear’ has been ripped to shreds. People are still afraid to a large degree—witness, for example, how a man beaten by the state’s police force a few days ago, denied it in court, out of fear. Yet, fear of the state no longer plays the same role it once did.
Many will speak favourably of this—and they are right to do so. Fear is not only an immoral and unethical way to maintain a society, it is an unsustainable one. A strong society is one where citizens feel their rights are protected—from and by each other, as well as from and by the state.
But Egyptians have not yet substituted fear for something else in their state institutions. Respect did not suddenly replace fear in those institutions. Respect did not suddenly become the predominant instinct inside the Ministry of Interior—whether inwardly, among its own officials, or from the citizenry toward its officials.
In the past, Egyptians feared the police—and hence they did as they were told, even while their rights were infringed upon. Today, they do not fear the police to the same degree at all—but they also do not respect the police. That means that there are cracks in the structure of Egypt’s state. These cracks aren’t causing the entire structure to break down and fall into wide-scale anarchy and chaos, but they are serious deficiencies and flaws.
When the state is thus challenged by a crisis or a set of unusual circumstances, it does so from a point of weakness. The real source of a strong state is the respect that the citizenry has towards its institutions. When that respect was almost absent to begin with, having been substituted with fear, it is a weak state indeed.
Imagine, then, when you have a state whose institutions are not feared, nor respected, but actually disrespected, because the institutions invite such disrespect when they do not uphold the rights of the Egyptian citizen, as the Ministry of Interior has done.
You then imagine, quite well, the Egyptian state.
The question becomes, then: Who is responsible for instilling respect in those institutions? The answer can only be: those who are in power. Those in power, who legitimately hold the reins as per the election results, must implement reforms and restructure those parts of the state that can and need to be restructured. There is no-one else who can do that.
If, on the other hand, those in power not only fail to carry out such reforms—but make the problems worse by prioritising their partisan share of the state? They can only be described as having failed their mandate—and in a time of revolution, they can only be described as having failed their mandate exponentially more.
Dr H A Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. Fellow at ISPU, he was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com .