Mbaye Lo on "Political Exhaustion" in Egypt

Duke professor says the Arab Spring lives on, but activists' mood is somber

Mbaye Lo, left, with DukeEngage students this past summer in Cairo.
Mbaye Lo, left, with DukeEngage students this past summer in Cairo.

In the aftermath of a week of political violence in Egypt, Duke Professor Mbaye Lo says the dreams of the Arab Spring are still alive, but for now Egyptians are in a state of "political exhaustion."

Writing by email while he was traveling in Tajikstan, Lo said the mood remains somber in Cairo and throughout Tunisia, Libya and other Middle East countries that were home to popular uprisings.

The Assistant Professor of the Practice of Asian and Middle East Studies said he believes Egypt will not become a failed state, in part because the world "cannot afford a failed state in this crucial part of the region."

"The return of dictatorial rule, supported by popular will, is highly possible in the current situation. Remember millions of Egyptian came out two weeks ago to support General Sisi’s request for popular mandate to fight terrorism. The most popular regimes in modern Egypt were both dictatorial -- Mohammad Ali and Gamal Abdul Nasser. They are also the most successful ones in building Egypt economically and politically. Both had strong military components."

In the following interview, Lo, who led the DukeEngage in Cairo program this summer, discusses the political climate in Egypt and its future.

Q: What is your assessment of what happened in the security forces' assault on the pro-Morsi supporters last week?

Mbaye Lo: There are two parts in analyzing this tragedy: The political decision to dislodge the two Muslim Brotherhood camps at Rabia al-Adawiya and al-Nahda squares, and the manner of executing that decision. The first part was a response to a popular call from Egyptian people who wanted to put an end to the failing social order in Cairo.

[Prior to the action] protesters of the two camps had adopted a strategy of blocking the streets and jamming the traffic across Cairo. Neighborhoods organized vigilante groups to fight back the pro-Morsi protesters as they passed through the neighborhoods. Many businesses around Nasr City and Ramses Squire were forced to closed down because of robbery and firebombing. All these are signs of a failing of order.

This political decision therefore is debatable, but its execution went wrong. and there needs to be investigation and accountability for wrongdoing. Who initiated the use of deadly force? Was it necessary? And what was the strategy in dislodging the two camps? Egyptians deserve answer to these questions.


Q: Why when there is so much evidence that there is support for other paths, the dynamics of the situation led to only two options of military rule or Islamist authority?

Mbaye  Lo: The political dualism reflects the modern history of the Arab world. The dominant ruling class of the Arab world since World War II has been associated with either:

  • Military dictatorship as is the case in the Sudan, Egypt, Mauritania, Algeria;
  • Oligarchical rule, as is the case in Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Tunisia;
  • Tribal monarchies, as is the case in the Arabian Gulf, Jordan and Morocco.

Obviously, the boundary between 1 and 2 in this listing is fluid because when military dictatorship adopts superficial democracy it becomes some type of oligarchy as was the case with [former Egyptian President] Mubarak and [Syrian leader] Bashir Assad. The repressive nature of these regimes has been widely documented. It is because of this notoriety that only religious, Islamist groups were able to offer a counter argument to their claimed legitimacy. The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in the third decade of the last century, is the father of modern political Islam in the region. It has garnered more experience and built a wider regional if not global network than any other political group. 

Since the Arab uprising or spring only occurred in countries in the first two categories, the available choices to the Arab streets were between the ruling military/oligarchy elements and the Islamist groups. It is against this backdrop that we should explain the binary order that followed the Arab Spring.

I believe, however, that with time and opportunity, other political groups will be able to develop to the point that they can offer a third way.  I think the current developments in Egypt, Tunisia as well as in the Sudan where Islamist governments are or were at the front seat will ultimately result in a more open political sphere, diversity and political pluralism. The upcoming political pluralism will be the greatest achievement of the Arab uprising.


Q: What should the US government be doing in Egypt and the region?

Mbaye Lo: In general in the region, the US needs to be as proactive in the Middle East as it was in Germany and Japan [following World War II] and as the European Union was toward Eastern Europe [after the Soviet collapse]. The US government should be forthcoming in supporting democratic opening and progress in Egypt regardless of the governing party.

I think the Obama administration contributed to the political impasse in Egypt. When Morsi was elected to office, he had no positive models of democratic governance in the Arab world. The US needed to pressure and reward him to adopt good practices from elsewhere. What he needed was an inclusive governance, empowerment of women, revolutionary youth, minority groups and those liberals in the civil society who supported Morsi against the SCAF [Egyptian military leadership].  He failed and the result is the current instability.