Transformation without transition in Egypt?

EGYPT-POLITICS-UNRESTBy Paul Gready

This research project was motivated by a frustration that mainstream transitional justice fails to produce transformation in structures of exclusion and discrimination – in short, by transitions without transformation. As such, it is something of an irony that in one of our case study countries, Egypt, we are now faced with having to research the potential for transformation without transition.

When the funding application was written Egypt and Tunisia both seemed on course for (albeit contested) transitions. Now the comparison is of a different order. Transitional justice projects and funding applications are often hostage to political fortune, whether submitted by practitioners or academics. If successful, implementation requires the art of creative adaptation.

The core research team for this project, some Advisory Board members and local partners met in June in Cairo to try and make some sense of the question: What can we now research in Egypt?

The backdrop in Egypt was depressing. Al-Sisi had just won the presidential election, securing one of those majorities that is supposed to bestow legitimacy but in reality merely inspires disbelief (96.7 per cent of the vote). While we were in Cairo Tahrir Square, once a laboratory for a different kind of future, hosted a celebration of Al-Sisi’s ‘coronation’.

One local activist talked of feeling ‘disappointed’ by transitional justice – it was ‘useless in Egypt’ as it had been ‘used negatively’. It has been used narrowly and instrumentally, first to focus only on the 18 days of Revolution in 2011 and more recently to focus on the Morsi era. There is clearly not going to be positive transformation in or through transitional justice in the near future.

When we talked about transitional or transformative justice people frequently 1) glazed over or looked at us with incredulity (‘you are researching what?!’); or 2) stated that this was not a language that people in the country knew or spoke. This was not a surprise to any of the research team, but it illustrates the danger of arriving in a research site brandishing a grand label or concept.

With the help of local civil society actors we managed to identify some glimmers of hope. Below the level of the state and its increasingly repressive institutions, communities and civil society groups are engaged in creative activism, disengagement, deception, and more.

In Egypt, we will look at ‘spaces’ below and outside the state where people are challenging established ways of working, and modelling alternatives. These may be alternatives to neo-liberal economics or transitional justice, alternatives to ways of working within the state or civil society. We will also look at strategies for survival. Preconditions for transformation include preparations that can be made for a future when transitional or transformative justice might be on the state agenda.

Visiting tourist areas, such as the Giza pyramids and old town districts of Cairo, gave some sense of why the economy and security have become dominant issues in the retreat from transition. Tourists were few and far between. It was clear that many are desperate for income and economic opportunity. The economy is in decline; the military are seen by many as saviours from uncertainty and insecurity – by others the military is seen as the mastermind of such uncertainties and insecurities. A nostalgia for a repressive but predictable past is not unusual in transitional settings. It is more unusual for it to manifest such a literal return to the past as has been experienced in Egypt.

It is hard to see how Al-Sisi can deliver the change that is needed. The economy is sclerotic, ravaged by patronage and corruption. The military is part of the problem. Both the military and the economy will be propped up in the short term by a massive influx of aid from the Gulf ($12bn), which will fund infrastructure projects and social housing. This may buy the government some time, but it is unlikely to stimulate ideas or real change.

One academic participant at the workshop bemoaned the lack of ideas in transitional Egypt. This may well be true at a macro level. A general problem in transitional contexts is that the remedy for the past, whatever form the past has taken, is presented in the form of a single template (the liberal peace: a new constitution, elections, transitional justice mechanisms, neo-liberal economics). One dominant idea trumps all rivals.

In the absence of macro-level ideas I hope that this research project can map and support micro-level ideas. These are definitely there, in the spaces and strategies of survival that model alternatives now and for the future.

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