Dispatch

In Power, But Not in Control

The Muslim Brotherhood may have the votes -- for now -- but Egypt is a ship without a rudder.

CAIRO — In the sparsely decorated waiting area just outside the Kafr el-Sheikh governor's executive offices, a photo montage depicts the governor overlooking scenes from his Nile Delta province. The artwork is dedicated to "His Excellency, Governor Saad Pasha al-Husseini."

It's an awkward way to address Husseini, to say the least. The Ottoman honorific "pasha" was phased out after Egypt's 1952 revolution, and its aristocratic connotation hardly suits a man who only two years ago was living on the edge of the law as a top leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, then an outlawed Islamist organization that built its reputation on providing social services to Egypt's impoverished masses.

The Brotherhood, however, has embraced the newfound trappings of power with gusto. "They were in prison two years ago," an aide to Husseini tells me. "They enjoy the cars and apartments they get as officials."

Now that the Brotherhood has climbed to the top of Egypt's political heap, it is doing everything it can to stay there. Brotherhood officials emphasize that their string of electoral victories since Hosni Mubarak's ouster two years ago has given them "legitimacy" -- a word that Muslim Brothers reflexively invoke to defend everything from President Mohamed Morsy's mass appointment of Muslim Brothers to top political posts to his Nov. 22 constitutional declaration granting him total authority.

But despite the Brotherhood's political power, it exerts virtually no control. Ever since Morsy's constitutional declaration and the rushed constitution-writing process that followed, a series of mass demonstrations, workers' strikes, and police-versus-protester clashes have plunged the country into near-chaos. Egypt's already weak economy is now in free fall, episodic instability has forced the military to assume control over three cities along the Suez Canal, and al-Gamaa al-Islamiya -- a U.S.-designated terrorist organization -- has deployed members to patrol the mid-Nile city of Asyut.

The Brotherhood's single-minded pursuit of power has catalyzed significant resistance to its rule, and thus contributed to Egypt's instability. But the Islamist movement shows no sign of changing course, apparently believing that further consolidating its power is the only way it can stymie what it views as a broad conspiracy against its rule.

In interviews that I conducted during a recent trip to Egypt, leading Muslim Brothers overwhelmingly traced this supposed conspiracy back to "feloul," an Arabic term referring to "remnants" of the previous regime. "Feloul are working against Egypt," Governor Husseini told me. "They're extremely against the ruling system now because the [president] is from the Muslim Brotherhood."

Mohamed al-Beltagy, a former parliamentarian who now sits on the executive committee of the Brotherhood's political party, was even more explicit. "There is a part of the system that, until now, is still connected with the old regime," he said. "This is found in many of the [state] apparatuses, like the police, media, and judiciary."

During the first year of his presidency, Morsy and his Brotherhood colleagues have focused squarely on addressing the perceived threats to their power in two of these three institutions. In August, the Brotherhood-controlled Shura Council appointed a new slate of editors to the major state-run newspapers and fired journalists who were critical of the Brotherhood. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood's critics in the private media were investigated for crimes ranging from "insulting Islam" to "insulting the president."

Brotherhood leaders still complain that the media is against them, but contend that the tide is turning. "The media is directed against the Nahda project," said former Brotherhood parliamentarian and labor leader Saber Abouel Fotouh, referring to the Brotherhood's political platform. "But now society hates the media."

The Brotherhood also moved against the judiciary in November, when Morsy's constitutional declaration temporarily put his edicts above judicial review. The Brotherhood later dispatched its cadres to protest outside the Supreme Constitutional Court, an effort to pressure judges just before they were prepared to rule on the legality of the Brotherhood-dominated constitution-writing body. And once the constitution was ratified, Morsy quickly appointed his own prosecutor general without consulting the Supreme Judicial Council, as required by law -- a move his critics decried as an attack on judicial independence.

Cornering the historically repressive Interior Ministry will likely come next. As Beltagy told me during his interview, he sees his future "role in civil-military relations and in restructuring and reforming the Interior Ministry."

Beltagy added that, among other measures, he would seek to "allow college graduates to train for police work," rather than limiting police training to graduates from police academies. When asked whether this meant allowing Muslim Brothers to enter the police force, Beltagy said that it was "the right of the Muslim Brotherhood to lift the ban" on Brotherhood enrollment that existed under Mubarak, but that the Brotherhood wouldn't seek any special privileges for its members.

Despite these assurances, Beltagy's statement regarding his anticipated "role" in "reforming" the Interior Ministry, which I first raised during a presentation at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy two weeks ago, created a major media firestorm in Egypt. Many Egyptians worry that allowing Muslim Brothers to enter the Interior Ministry would, over time, enable the Brotherhood to use the ministry as a tool for imposing its theocratic agenda.  And the military's recent announcement that it has lifted its ban on admitting Muslim Brothers into its academy will likely heighten concerns about attempts to "Brotherhoodize" powerful institutions.

In response to my initial reporting, Beltagy disputed the notion that he would be "in charge" of Interior Ministry reform, which is how I interpreted his statement that security reform would be his "role." He also emphasized that this work would occur through the parliament once it reconvened following the next elections. But he still declined to explain what "restructuring and reforming the Interior Ministry" -- his words -- would entail, and the episode culminated in a debate, of sorts, between Beltagy and me on Egyptian television, in which Beltagy opted to attack me personally as a "Zionist" and anti-Islamic rather than answer these questions.

Whether or not Beltagy ultimately explains the Brotherhood's specific plans for "reforming the Interior Ministry," Egyptians are right to be alarmed. All Muslim Brothers, after all, are bound by oath to "listen and obey" Brotherhood leaders, which raises important doubts about their willingness to follow other chains of command.  Moreover, the Brotherhood has used violence against its critics in the recent past: When non-Islamists staged protests outside the presidential palace following Morsy's constitutional declaration, the Brotherhood dispatched its cadres to attack the demonstrators. As the New York Times reported, Morsi supporters tortured some of the protesters, "pressuring them to confess that they had accepted money to use violence in protests against [Morsy]."

For Brotherhood leaders, however, the "evidence" derived from these "interrogations" only affirms the broad conspiracy against them. "When we took some people there and interrogated them, they confessed that businessmen gave them money," Abouel Fotouh, the former Brotherhood parliamentarian, told me.

Yet the Brotherhood's power plays in these sensitive ministries have only further destabilized the country, undermining their ability to exercise control. When Morsy rammed the new constitution through in a referendum in December, the state-owned news site al-Ahram joined independent media sites in a two-day blackout in protest. Meanwhile, most Egyptian judges refused to supervise the referendum, forcing the vote to be held over two consecutive weekends to ensure sufficient coverage for Egypt's roughly 13,000 polling places. And as the tensions between Morsy and the Interior Ministry increased, police officers went on strike in at least 10 of 29 provinces.

Moving forward, the Brotherhood can therefore be expected to rely on two strategies in its bid to achieve control.

First, where possible, it will likely bypass the bureaucracies it now oversees. "The bureaucracy is the killer enemy for all these developmental initiatives -- it is a wild monster," Youth Minister Osama Yassin, one of eight Muslim Brothers in the Egyptian cabinet, told me. "And we are all working together to kill it." Yassin explained that he is attempting to create a "ministry without fences," in which the ministry would circumvent its own institutions so that services -- including cultural programs, camping activities, and employment trainings -- "go directly to the youth" or relevant NGOs.

Yassin denied that these services would be delivered through Muslim Brotherhood-controlled channels to advance his parent organization's political ambitions. However, the Brotherhood's performance in other ministries suggests that this is its modus operandi. The Brotherhood-run Ministry of Supply and Social Affairs, for instance, recently commissioned activists affiliated with the Brotherhood's political party to distribute below-market food commodities as a mechanism for winning popular support in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Similarly, the Brotherhood's political party announced on March 10 that it was considering legislation allowing the state to hire private security firms to restore security, given the absence of the police. Such a step would circumvent the "blackmail of the Interior Ministry by former regime loyalists," Abouel Fotouh told Ahram Online.

Of course, these attempts to use the Brotherhood's own networks in place of state institutions may enhance the movement's power in the short-run. But in the long run, this strategy promises to undermine the official institutions, thus weakening the Brotherhood's control.

Second, the Brotherhood will continue its bid to accumulate power through the upcoming parliamentary elections, under the apparent assumption that another victory will bolster its "legitimacy" and thereby enhance its control. "The Egyptian people admire and respect the Muslim Brotherhood," said Suez-based Brotherhood leader Abbas Abdel-Aziz, whom Morsy recently appointed to Egypt's Shura Council, the upper house of parliament. "Our history is well known and, until now, there's no other choice."

Local Brotherhood party leaders say that they are already focused on the elections, which in the aftermath of a recent court decision remain unscheduled. The Brotherhood's final list of candidates, which will include many younger faces, is in the process of being approved, and the Brotherhood has run a "We Build Our Country" campaign that uses social services for attracting -- some say buying -- votes.

Yet far from enhancing its control, the Brotherhood's focus on the next election means that it is avoiding the critical choices that come with governing. Specifically, Egypt is facing a severe cash crisis, and this year's allocation for gas subsidies has already run out.

Brotherhood leaders insist that Egypt can stop the depletion of its cash reserves by focusing on attracting foreign investments and reining in corruption -- the latter of which echoes their firm belief in a massive feloul conspiracy against them. "It's not just about subsidies," Mohamed Nasr, a member of the Brotherhood party's economic team who previously worked at the World Bank, told me. "People would definitely be willing to see this kind of cut. But they have to see on the other hand that corruption has been fought against." Nasr asserted that 40 percent of the economy under the old regime went into people's pockets.

Brotherhood leaders promise that they will be willing to undertake "cruel steps," as Governor Husseini puts it, such as cutting subsidies or raising taxes -- but only after the parliamentary elections.

"These kinds of measures, in order ... to sell them to the people, you need to put them through the parliament," said Nasr, the economist. "They have to be debated [within] the parliament."

Yet given that Egypt is unlikely to have a new parliament before the end of the summer, the country is running out of time before the economic deterioration becomes a crisis. And even once a new parliament is seated, it is hard to imagine the Brotherhood reaching across the aisle to build the kind of broad political consensus that it says is necessary to achieve difficult but necessary economic reforms. After all, the Brotherhood accuses its non-Islamist critics of being "against democracy," given their opposition to a constitution that was affirmed via referendum.

"The Egyptian people don't like them," Governor Husseini told me, when I asked him why he thought the Brotherhood's relatively secular opponents were politically weak. "The Egyptian people have morals. ... [Non-Islamists] have culture [that] is not here. And that's not our mistake -- that's their fault."

No matter how many elections the Brotherhood wins or political titles it collects, it will likely to continue to see itself as engaged in two struggles -- a historic one against the old regime, and a more recent one against its non-Islamist critics. So rather than making the tough -- and politically unpopular -- decisions that governing requires, it will likely continue its focus on power consolidation.

But as resistance to the Brotherhood's domineering style escalates, nobody should mistake this power for control. The Brotherhood's deficient governance of Egypt and refusal to build political consensus, after all, is bringing the country closer to chaos day by day.

CHRISTOPHE DE ROQUEFEUIL/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Leaning Out

How the United States is abandoning Afghanistan's women.

KABUL — In the months leading up to the 1929 overthrow of King Amanullah, the dynamic Afghan reformer whose wife Queen Soraya notoriously tore off her headscarf in public, historians say, the girls and women of Kabul detected change in the air. They shied away from the handful of schools he had painstakingly opened for them, and reluctantly took back the veil, ambitiously declared optional by the king only one year before.

Now, as the protracted NATO-led war rumbles towards its official close, Afghan women are once again pondering their fate. Fearing that the power vacuum created by the withdrawal of foreign troops in 2014 might be at least partially filled by the Taliban, Afghan women are following their ancestors and retreating. They are leaving work, government, and, in some instances, abandoning the public sphere.

"Everyone in the country knew my voice, and it got to a point where I wasn't prepared to risk my life anymore," says Aminah Bobak, who in April abruptly ended her successful career as a journalist after a decade of radio and TV work around the country.

She is one of around 200 female reporters from Afghan news outlets who voluntarily left their jobs in 2012, said Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar, executive director of the Afghan media advocacy group Nai -- a drop of 10 percent and by far the largest single-year dip since the U.S.-backed invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001.

Perched in a dimly lit corner of a slanted, mud-brick cafe in central Kabul, 28-year-old Bobak poured out her passion for journalism. She started as a biology student at university, working in her free time for a radio station. She later moved to Rasaa TV, an Afghan news channel set up by global media development organization Internews, eventually becoming its deputy editor. Bobak remembers her time fondly, causing her soft brown eyes to crinkle. "I loved it," she says.

Currently, just short of a fifth of Afghanistan's 11,000 journalists are women. For the first time since the 1970s, Afghan women have become noticeable to their compatriots -- often as an authoritative female voice parachuted into the wilds by airwaves.

"But joining the channel was a good chance for my enemies to recognize me, and I got scared. I mean the Taliban of course," Bobak says. The Taliban have often regarded Afghan reporters as their enemies, and this view intensifies when they are women. Nai's Khalvatgar points to "the thinking that the Taliban are coming back. Men will need to keep women in their homes to avoid insult, and the women themselves are also making these decisions." By the ultra-conservative code that most Afghans still live by, women must seek permission from a male relative or husband for most decisions.

Women have won back hard-fought rights such as voting, education, and work since the Taliban were toppled in 2001, and the last decade produced a league of knowledgeable, determined young women for whom the Taliban's return is anathema. But these women's worrying retreat from the public sphere hints at failure by both the local government and its international backers.

So fragile are the gains that Western diplomats in Kabul privately expressed concern at Hillary Clinton's February departure as secretary of state, wondering how the tenuous progress could be maintained without her commitment, let alone furthered. "Many of us had this feeling of ‘how are we going to keep this up?'" one told me.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is increasingly ambivalent on women's rights. He stressed the importance of girls' education in a January speech at Georgetown University, but female lawmakers and rights workers say he changes his tune on home turf. In March 2012 he appeared to back comments by the Ulema Council, a powerful group of Afghan religious scholars, which said women are worth less than men. Human Rights Watch, in its most recent annual report on the state of rights in the world, warned ominously that "the Afghan government's failure to respond effectively to violence against women undermines the already-perilous state of women's rights." It added that growing global fatigue is "reducing political pressure on the government" to safeguard women.

Increasing anguish over security left Bobak feeling she had no choice but to quit her job."If foreigners were staying, I'd go back to work right away," she says.

This pervasive fear of the unknown means women are making fewer appearances on the dust-coated, rutted roads zigzagging Afghanistan's major cities, observers say. "You hardly see women on the streets nowadays. As a woman, you feel everyone is looking at you. Even going to restaurants has become tense," says the 37-year-old Fawzia Koofi, a member of parliament from Badakshan province, on Tajikistan's southern border. The widowed mother of two daughters, Koofi campaigns for girls' education, and has launched an idealistic bid to become president next year.

She is riding on the international success of her memoir, The Favored Daughter, detailing her youth as the 19th child of a polygamous father who had seven wives. Koofi was recently forced to change the security policy at her palatial home after receiving more written and verbal threats "than usual" from the Taliban, she says. Several years ago, gunmen riddled her car with bullets when she was in it, but she survived unscathed.

"We're more at risk, and I think as we get closer to 2014 the risk of being targeted and attacked will increase," Koofi says.

The ubiquitous feeling of oppression returned in 2012, when the "double whammy" of the 2014 troop withdrawal and presidential election reduced the ability of politicians and activists to fight for women's rights, says Erica Gaston of the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. "It is not surprising that given this shrinking political space on all progressive issues, women activists are the first to feel it."

Last year proved exceptionally violent for women, including a wave of high-profile killings, such as the car bomb attack on Hanifa Safi, head of women's affairs in eastern Laghman province. Months later, her successor Nadia Sediqqi was shot dead. According to the United Nations, 301 women and girls were killed last year, a 20 percent increase from 2011, with deliberate targeting by insurgents rising threefold.

In January, the head of women's affairs in northern Balkh province, Fariba Majid, fled to Finland, where she reportedly claimed asylum. "They wanted to kill her," the department's caretaker Miriam Muradi whispered down a crackly phone line.

Koofi says the damaging effects of targeting high-profile women are far-reaching: "This can silence the whole women's movement, leading sons, husbands, brothers and fathers to think twice before they allow women out of their homes."

Educated Afghan women often evoke history when evaluating their status, capturing the tug of war between urban female emancipators and the rural conservatives. One of the first orders the illiterate bandit Habibullah Kalakani gave after deposing Amanullah in 1929 was to shut girls' schools. In the early 1930s, after Kalakani was deposed, his successor reopened them. Afghanistan's gender policy continued to swing like a pendulum for the rest of the twentieth century. The 1950s saw the arrival of female doctors; a decade later women joined government for the first time, followed by years of mass literacy campaigns. The Soviet war of the 1980s, and the civil war that began in 1992 increasingly excluded women from the public. When the Taliban took power in 1996, they banned women from talking to men who were not a relative or husband, and ordered the windows of homes be painted so that women could not be seen inside.

At the back of a shoddily painted police station in Kabul, 47-year-old First Lieutenant Zakiya Mohammadi is unwavering in her assessment of the future. "Once the Americans go we'll have to sit at home again, bored," she told me in the office where she has intermittingly worked for decades-depending on who was running the country.

Paula Bronstein/AFP/Getty Images