Bringing Down the Muslim Brotherhood

An Islamist power grab has given Egypt's secular opposition an opening to shape their country's political future.

Egypt's Tahrir Square is once again making headlines all over the world. Protesters have filled Cairo's downtown to the brim twice in the past week -- just as they did last year, during the heady 18-day revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak. This time around, however, the square was packed with Egyptians opposed to a power grab by the country's Islamist movements.

The message was clear: There are movers and shakers on the Egyptian political scene, and they are not Islamists.  At long last, Egypt's non-Islamist opposition has a chance to get in the driver's seat -- building a powerful political machine of their own and changing the direction of their country.

How did it come to this?

On Nov. 22, President Mohamed Morsi issued a constitutional decree that turned Egypt's balance of power on its head. Two of the declaration's six articles may ostensibly address the demands of Egyptians: One orders a retrial of those implicated in the killing of protesters during the revolution, and another sacks the prosecutor general -- a remnant of Mubarak's regime. Both actions, however, only served to sugarcoat the rest of the articles, which effectively transform the president into an omnipotent leader.

The declaration not only gives Morsi, a longtime leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, the authority to issue any necessary decision or legislation without overview from any other branch of government, it paves the way to set up revolutionary courts. This "revolutionary protection" law essentially gives the president the power to put on trial anyone deemed to be enemy of the revolution, state, or regime. The ambiguity of its language is dangerous -- as tens of thousands of ordinary Egyptians saw immediately.

The response was an immediate uproar by Egypt's infamously fragmented opposition -- and within a few hours, that well-known fragmentation was giving way to unity. The Nov. 27 marches and protest in Tahrir were the largest since the revolution's heyday, and were followed by another huge protest on Nov. 30 after Morsi refused to retract his decree. Disturbingly, many Egyptian provinces have also seen violent clashes between supporters and opponents of the Brotherhood. Clashes led to the burning of several offices belonging to the Brothers' political wing, and the death of a few protesters from both camps.

Many skeptics, including the Brotherhood, are convinced that the current unity between Egypt's opposition forces will be short lived. This could not be further from the truth.

Emergency constitutional decrees and similar measures are in themselves not foreign to democracies, and have been exercised successfully across the globe at numerous points in history. Egypt, however, is different: Egyptians well remember the country's disastrous experience with them during the previous dictatorship. Lest we forget, a major motivator for last year's revolution was the long-standing emergency law, which was in effect for 30 years straight and suspended Egyptians' constitutional rights. In fact, this was one of the common grievances that all factions of the revolution could agree upon.

But since Mubarak fell, Egypt's fractious non-Islamist groups have had a hard time maintaining that unity. Unlike the decades-old institutionalized Muslim Brotherhood and the hard-line Salafi movements, these groups only gained the space to operate freely less than two years ago. They have had to learn how to structure their political institutions, build their ground operations, and develop their policies -- not to mention negotiate their electoral alliances and navigate the various crises of Egypt's post-revolutionary landscape.

Initially, these new parties splintered into many small groups, failing to provide a united vision for Egypt's future. They feared successful alliances, worrying it would dilute their influence and blur their ideological message. Today, these concerns do not exist -- instead, these groups fear marginalization and political annihilation if they don't unite against Morsi's power grab.

It's not only secular voices that are joining the opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies. Many unaffiliated Egyptians who previously voted for Islamist candidates are bitterly disappointed by the performance of the short-lived Parliament, and by Morsi's inability to address the country's real problems in the first five months of his presidency.

What's more, the ranks of the opposition are increasing. Egyptians who had previously seen figures of the old regime as the sole bulwark against the Brotherhood, or Islamist radicalization of society more broadly, are slowly coming to the side of new opposition leaders like liberal Mohamed ElBaradei, Nasserist Hamdeen Sabbahi, or even former top diplomat Amr Moussa.

The Brotherhood and its politically-subservient Salafi allies, represented by the Nour Party, have strong-armed their rivals and excluded them from political decisionmaking. Nowhere has this been clearer than in the Constituent Assembly, which was tasked with drafting Egypt's new constitution. The Brothers and the Salafis set the rules of the game in the assembly, and ensured that they occupy enough seats to make any debate futile. Many opposition members quit in protest.

Opposition parties are quickly learning that the Brotherhood and Salafis' behavior in the Constituent Assembly is not an isolated event, but a defining aspect of how they plan to govern Egypt. With religious rhetoric, military-like obedience from its members, and seemingly unlimited funds, the Brotherhood and Salafis' "Holy Alliance" has marched onward, convinced it has a mandate to impose its agenda and giving little thought to opposing points of view.

With all democratic channels of communication effectively shut down, the only venues left to the opposition are peaceful protests and civil disobedience. This dynamic culminated in the massive protests on Nov. 27 -- it was simply the only way for the opposition to break the political bottleneck and make its voice heard in the new Egypt.

Islamists were always bound to enjoy a political honeymoon after the revolution, but recent events show that initial support is fading. At first, the Brotherhood was ascendant not only because its political message was popular, but because it was able to present itself as the only organized alternative to the old regime -- a legacy of Mubarak's old divide-and-rule tactics. With or without Morsi, the non-Islamist opposition would have united as part of the normal evolution of post-revolution political development. The president's miscalculations merely hastened the process.

The watershed protests in Tahrir Square challenge the conventional wisdom of an Islamist tide washing across the region. Finally, there is late-blooming proof that the promise of the Arab Spring is real: We are not a homogenous entity demanding Islamist rule.

This is nothing less than a wakeup call for Egypt and the world. As the Egyptian opposition increasingly gets organized, the international community must better understand the evolving Egyptian political scene -- and make sure it is on the right side of history. Our revolution is far from over. Indeed, it may just be beginning.



The Tale of the Kidnapped Princeling

How critical can the powerful be of the truly powerful in modern China?

Two years ago, on June 4 -- the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre and the most sensitive date in the Chinese political calendar -- Ji Pomin received a text message from a high-placed friend: It said that former president Jiang Zemin had been taken to a military hospital in a critical condition. Ji fired off a coded message to hundreds of people in his address book to seek confirmation, asking: "The Supreme Old Master ascended to heaven?" Many of Ji's politically connected friends forwarded the text to their friends, who misinterpreted the cryptic question as a statement. By June 6, overseas Chinese websites were reporting that former president Jiang Zemin was dead.

In established democracies, a false rumor about the health of an ageing Ronald Reagan or a Margaret Thatcher would be promptly debunked and have little bearing on the workings of government. In China's powerful but brittle dictatorship, built on almost invisible lines of patronage, the false reports of Jiang's death immediately became a major matter of national security. Chinese officialdom is extremely paranoid about anyone releasing unauthorized information about the leaders.  The 67-year-old Ji, a princeling -- a term that refers to the sons and daughters of high ranking leaders -- had long disliked Jiang for clinging on to power after his retirement, which he felt hurt China's ability to institute a system of laws. And when security agents kidnapped him three days later, his fears were vindicated. But that Ji was able to survive the kidnapping unscathed, and even criticize Jiang with near impunity, shows how the party state still protects its own.

At that point in 2010, high-profile extra-judicial abductions, such as the very publicized disappearance of artist Ai Weiwei in mid-2011 had not yet become common. (Ai has survived as a critic for so long in part because his father, Ai Qing, was a leading poet for the party.) Since Mao Zedong's death in 1976, children of top leaders have been mostly immune from not only the law but also the teeth of the secret security apparatus, a freedom of which Ji is well aware. Over a series of several meetings over the next two years, Ji recounted the events that followed his fateful text message, on the condition it would not be reported until after China's leadership transition -- the twice-a-decade Party Congress, which ended on Wednesday Nov 14. Ji had told his captors he would not publicize his ordeal, and he told me he wanted to delay the release of his story until a less politically sensitive time.  

Ji Pomin grew up in a family well aware of the mercurial nature of power and those that wield it. We talked in Ji's living room -- the old bedroom of his mother, now deceased -- surrounded by Qing Dynasty wooden panels, decorated with dragons, leftover from a time when Empress Dowager Cixi's most powerful eunuch used the home as his headquarters. Ji's father, a former member of the elite decision-making Politburo known for his honesty, had been moved there from a more prestigious home in 1980 after being purged. Because his father fell from power, Ji Pomin didn't get the same advantages as other princelings; he studied aeronautical engineering and worked as a scholar at the state think tank the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences before retiring in 2006. He is one of China's dozens of forgotten princelings who continues to enjoy status but not power.

A few days after Ji's text message, he received a phone call from someone claiming to be from a parcel delivery service. They said the package was too big to fit down the lane in which he lived, so he walked to nearby Dongdan, one of Beijing's busiest shopping areas, to collect it. Standing there, he said, in the blind spot between two security cameras outside an upmarket wedding photography store, were two burly men. They pulled a cloth hood over Ji's head and bundled him into a car.

Ji told me that his first thought was that a triad had abducted him for ransom, but his captors assured him that was not the case. His second thought was that the black cloth hood had been used many times before and never washed. "That hood really stunk," he said. After a long drive, they arrived at an isolated luxury villa, where the hood was removed, and his eyes adjusted to a room filled with plain-clothed officers who he presumed to be from the Ministry of State Security -- an agency that Ji's father used to oversee.

It was there that Ji realized how the rumor he had inadvertently spread was potentially destabilizing to Jiang and the thousands of officials who depend directly and indirectly on the former President'sprotection and patronage. Ji's captors seemed to know about his strong feelings toward Jiang, which Ji publicized in 2003 by posting a scathing letter on the Internet opposing Jiang's decision to keep control of the military.

During the half-day interrogation, the security officials wanted to know the origins of Ji's animosity towards Jiang, and Ji told them, he recounted. In his view, Jiang had made China virtually ungovernable by refusing to cede full authority to his successor, Hu Jintao, in 2002. Jiang held onto his position as chairman of the Central Military Commission, the body that oversees the military, for two full years after stepping down as chairman of the party in 2002. By contrast, Hu yielded control of his military chairmanship in mid-November when he stepped down as party chairman. Ji told me -- perhaps with some bravado -- that he spent three hours lecturing his captors on how Jiang had derailed China's efforts to institutionalize its leadership successions and had paralyzed China's political process, while they dutifully took notes.

"It's as if George W. Bush had to work for a decade with a Cabinet left over from Clinton," says Ji, recalling what he told his interrogators. "Or if Obama's State of the Union address was written by Bush. Jiang Zemin promoted dozens of generals while he was in power and those people are either morons or his henchmen. What a sad situation, and how ridiculous."

The daylight abduction of a princeling like Ji, in downtown Beijing, shows just how delicate the subject of elite politics has become. That Ji wasn't tortured, that he felt emboldened to speak his mind, and that his captors politely drove him back to where they found him two days later, shows the privileges afforded by his status. The secret police had originally lured him out on to the street, says Ji, so they would not disturb his then 86 year-old mother, who had joined the revolutionary struggle with his father at the age of 14 in 1938. By contrast, Ji says they ransacked the homes of several people who received his message. And a historian whose work had influenced Ji's negative views on Jiang was reportedly arrested and convicted of subversion in May 2011.

In July 2011, media again falsely reported Jiang's death; it is unknown whether security services investigated Ji or his associates that time. In November 8, Jiang, who had appeared in public several times in the last year, showed his immense political influence by walking on stage for the opening of the Party Congress right behind his successor Hu, which doesn't make Ji feel any better about the ex-leader. In a conversation in March he recalled what he told his interrogators: "Even if you kill me, my last words will be ‘the central government should investigate Jiang Zemin.'"

Feng Li/Getty Images