December 20, 2014

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  • Egypt’s fragmented politics

    Protesters gather in front of the State Council on July 9 against the dissolution of parliament, seen as a prelude to a confrontation between the ruling generals and the Islamist president.

    BY NATE WRIGHT

    As a news journalist in Cairo, I have written my fair share of leads over the last year which feature an Egypt “plunging” in and out of crisis or its leaders “squaring up” for another decisive “showdown.” It has been a year of dramatic headlines and extraordinary confusion, as time and again the country’s major players have tried to launch themselves into power, only to find that the platform they were aiming at has shifted beneath them.

    This was my first post-revolution transition to witness up close — if I can still be permitted to suggest that, perhaps, we shouldn’t close the door on that word “revolution” just yet. It’s also my first major reporting gig, so I have been hesitant to make sweeping statements about the staggering path to elections that Nathan Brown reportedly called “the stupidest transition in history.” Politics is always and everywhere absurd when examined up close.

    Egypt, in the last 17 months, has been an object lesson in the convoluted, counter-intuitive and constructed nature of political power. Is this as crazy as it has felt or should I have expected it all along?

    When Marc Lynch said that politics in Egypt is a game of Calvinball — a mad dash without rules or norms — his post was passed around repeatedly because it encapsulated the frustration of analysts who can no longer say much with confidence, except: “Let’s wait and see.” But it also speaks to something important about what is happening in Egypt, and how I, as a journalist, have framed those events.

    Since the protests which ousted Mubarak last year, this country has weathered military crackdowns, explosive political fractures, an economic disaster, a counter-revolution, a constitutional crisis which was resolved, begun again and now may be resolved again, and a soft military coup precipitated by a judicial coup, which was itself precipitated by an Islamist takeover. It’s a wonder this country hasn’t descended into civil war like its neighbors. But perhaps that is because each of these potentially decisive blows, interpreted at times by myself and others as points of no return, have been as much a fantasy as a reality.

    Power in Egypt has not been monopolized since it was scattered in February 2011 and no hegemonic force has proved capable of capturing both the administrative reins of the country and the legitimizing streams of its civil society. Little has changed in the machinery of the state, but this is not a sign that the old regime remains in power so much as it is a sign that no one has accumulated the political authority to force them out of the building. The old regime’s electoral network sprang back to life in the presidential runoff after months of laying low because no one had come for them. Like the generals and the Muslim Brotherhood, they glimpsed the possibility of success and lunged for it. And like the generals and the Muslim Brotherhood, their failure has been no more decisive than their opponents’ victory.

    In this sense, President Morsi’s decree to reinstate parliament, and the court ruling which has overturned it, may not provide clear winners and losers. Instead, they are markers, laying down the battle lines that will linger unresolved for years. A judiciary, empowered by the military and the “deep state,” could act as a check on the democratic institutions of the nation, which will be monopolized by the Muslim Brotherhood as long as they can cultivate allies prepared to legitimate their authority. We saw this in the military council’s statement Monday night, which made it clear they would avoid a direction confrontation and instead draw on the judiciary to fight a proxy war with Morsi. And we saw it in parliament’s actions today, which posed itself as the legitimate authority to govern legislative affairs, but passed the final decision on its future to the courts.

    As destabilizing as this judicial tit-for-tat has been for the economy and the psychological security of Egypt’s weary citizens — not to mention my relationship with my editors, who want to know who is running the country — this latest crisis could be the first step towards a stabilization of political power, a modus operandi with clearer lines of division and a stable set of norms.

    Nate Wright (www.themelian.com) is a Cairo-based journalist. He writes regularly for The Times of London. Follow him on Twitter at @nwjourno.

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