Four years since the famous 2011 uprising centered on Tahrir Square, the hopes then raised of a huge, and relatively peaceful, political transition now seem naïve. Egypt is under unambiguous military rule once more.
Despite the best efforts of the Western-facing Egyptian intelligentsia – alongside the Anglophone commentators with whom they overlap and intermingle incestuously – to obfuscate what happened and blame Egypt’s first elected government for its own demise, there is very little ambiguity as to what went wrong.
Inexplicably bewildered by predictable Islamist success at the ballot box, secularists rushed back into the waiting arms of the security state. They sought and found authoritarian protection from the electoral success of the Islamists, whose conservative populism successfully mustered feelings of national and religious pride behind a project of economic and socially centrist nation-building..
The secularists lack of foresight and disregard for their fellow citizens has been matched by a lack of honest hindsight and of any sense of accountability for their part in the ongoing horror-show on Egypt’s streets and in her full-to-the-brim prisons (where protests have apparently broken out among the inmates).
As recently as late December last year, Hisham A Hellyer, perhaps the archetypical denialist (de-Nile-ist?), wrote in Foreign Policy on the topic of a constitutional declaration in which Morsi stripped the courts (staffed by Mubarak-era appointees) of the ability to annul presidential decisions (which they had been doing with counter-revolutionary gusto):
Morsi, in a move of supreme hubris, granted himself freedom from judicial oversight, provoking large protests against his government. In the aftermath, Brotherhood members were accused of physically abusing dozens of opposition protesters. Not surprisingly, any trace of the trust between the revolutionaries and the Brotherhood evaporated.
Hellyer presents both Morsi’s move against the judiciary (really a move to secure an imminent constitutional referendum), and the violence committed by his supporters outside the Ittihadiya Presidential Palace, in a vacuum. He doesn’t mention the fierce obstructionism of the old, Mubarak-era judiciary, which had dissolved an Islamist-majority parliament and one constituent assembly already at this point. Nor does he mention that Morsi, relinquished his judicial immunity 17 days later.
From the outset Morsi had promised to do this once the constitution had been voted on and was no longer threatened with judicial derailment by the judges of the old regime. In the end, as a reaction to public disquiet and international hysteria, he did so even before this. Thankfully the referendum still went forward, with a large majority of Egyptians expressing their support.
Similarly Hellyer doesn’t explain that the violence that Muslim Brotherhood members were accused of perpetrating took place during a street-fight with secular forces who were themselves violent – and indeed killed some five Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Also absent is the fact that this was part of a pattern of aggression directed at Brotherhood supporters.
In hindsight, one wonders even of the cosmopolitan core of the Tahrir movement how much they really wanted or expected real democracy – like with actual elections, and stuff.
The extent to which they were unprepared for this can be gauged by the frenzied tracts written in reaction to their repeated electoral losses, and indeed at times written in attempts to stave off democratic competition. Novelist Alaa Al Aswany called for the illiterate to be banned from voting. Leading Egyptian liberal Mohammed El Baradei (a nuclear physicist) bafflingly declared Mohammed Morsi (a high-tech materials engineer) “not qualified to govern.”
Many secular Egyptians marched in support of both Shafiq and Sisi. While Islamists have often acquiesced to the military and police forces – whose main victims they have long been – it is difficult to find examples of large-scale Islamist support for the old regime. Despite all this it has been very difficult for secular Western progressives to accept that in Egypt the people who look and sound most like us, and who superficially at least think in the most similar terms, tend to be on the side of the state, of empire, of oppression, and horrendous inequality.
In the early days – the first three – of the uprising of January 2011, the Brotherhood vacillated before throwing its weight and numbers behind the revolution. After living in Egypt and meeting many people on both sides of the Islamist-secular divide, it became clear to me that one reason for the Muslim Brotherhood’s hesitance was that they doubted the revolutionary commitment of the young secular crowds in Tahrir.
This same segment of the population had, for decades, ignored the regime’s horrific oppression of Islamist opposition (and other opposition if and when it did crop up). The Islamists’ big fear was that if they joined the revolution and then halfway through the cool-kids-from-Cairo lost their nerve or their will to fight, it would be the Islamists left to face the regime’s wrath.
This is exactly what has happened, only far worse than anyone predicted.
Throughout its history the Brotherhood leadership has repeatedly stated that they see electoral democracy as compatible with the teachings of Islam, and stressed the importance of achieving change through peaceful and democratic means, while other groups advocated violent resistance.
In the immediate post-revolutionary period, it seemed this strategy would be vindicated.
Parliamentary elections were held, with voting taking place in stages from November 2011 to January 2012. The Muslim Brotherhood won a little over 40% of the seats in parliament, and, together with the more hardline Islamists, they formed a government.
Many secular Egyptians criticized the Brotherhood for this alliance. It is clear in hindsight, however, that they had very little choice. The secularists were not interested in a partnership with them. When assuming the presidency, Mohammad Morsi would offer Hamdeen Sabahi the job of vice president. He refused, instead joining with other losers from the election and Mohammed El-Baradei, a prominent Egyptian secularist and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, in Tahrir Square, from where they called on Morsi to join them as equals in a “presidential council.”
The new government’s first order of business was the creation of a new constitution; a constituent assembly was created, its membership roughly reflecting the proportions of each different political block. This wasn’t good enough for the secularists, who walked out of the process repeatedly, complaining of Islamist
domination. Most of their complaints focused on the demand that the Islamists surrender their voting majority and engage in a consensus-based process. The Islamists, who felt that they had made more than enough concessions – leaving the sections of the constitution relating to religion and its role in government basically untouched from the nominally secular constitution that preceded it – carried on without them.
As all this unfolded, the presidential elections took place, with Morsi claiming victory in June 2012.
Through elections monitored and approved by international observers like the Carter Institute, the Islamists had won control of both the legislature and the executive. Only the judiciary, and Egypt’s unofficial fourth branch of government, the military, remained in the hands of the old regime.
As Morsi assumed the presidency, the courts ordered the parliament dissolved over a technicality and the generals issued a decree taking over not only parliament’s legislative powers, including the power to choose a new committee to the constituent authority, but even a veto power over decisions by the president on military matters such as the declaration of war.
Attempting to regain the political momentum, Morsi pushed back. In August 2012, a little more than a month into his presidency, Morsi was emboldened by the armed forces’ embarrassment in the aftermath of an ambush which apparently caught the well-funded military unawares. The ambush led to the death of 16 soldiers and the loss of two military vehicles, which were then used in an attack on Israel.
Subsequently, Morsi forced the Head of the Armed Forces and Defense Minister Mohammad Hussein Tantawi into semi-retirement, naming Tantawi and his right-hand man, General Sami Annan, as presidential advisers.
In a compromise that arguably sowed the seeds of his downfall, Morsi did not name a civilian as the new defense minister. Instead he named former Head of Military Intelligence El-Sisi, the man who would lead the coup against him in less than a year’s time.
Morsi also tried to move against the courts, seeking the retirement of Chief Prosecutor Abdelmeguid Mahmoud by offering him the position of Egyptian ambassador to the Vatican. Mahmoud refused.
As Morsi announced his move, Egypt’s famous Tahrir Square was full once more with many of the urban secular youth who had been at the forefront of the 2011 uprising. They weren’t cheering against the prosecutor however; they were cheering against Morsi. The prosecutor kept his job.
This was just one of the battles between the elected branches of government and the judiciary, which remained staffed by officials appointed under the old regime. The courts had already dissolved one constituent assembly and the parliament that had selected them.
The second constituent assembly, however, was able to finish its work after Morsi made an extraordinary declaration: until a referendum was held on the new constitution, his decisions could not be challenged in court. The declaration also included more general attacks on the judiciary and the military. He ordered the former to conduct fresh investigations into protester deaths and reclaimed the extraordinary powers the latter had granted itself by decree. These had included legislative powers, which Morsi took over pending elections of a fresh parliament. This was something he eagerly sought, but which was thwarted first by the courts, who prevented him from bringing the elections forward, and then finally by the military, who staged a coup three months before their scheduled date.
In the large section of the Egyptian media that was hostile to the Brotherhood, and basically the entire international media, however, the decree played very differently. Morsi was presented as riding roughshod over the wishes of the people, with fingers pointed to fresh protests in Tahrir as proof.
Yet, when the referendum went ahead (in the face of threats from the judiciary that judges would refuse their role in overseeing the vote), the anti-Morsi protesters were shown to represent a clear minority. The Brotherhood-backed constitution was approved; the yes-vote prevailed with a 63% majority.
Morsi had by then lifted his power of immunity from judicial review, earlier than promised. This action had gone largely unreported at the time though, making the misrepresentations of Hellyer and his ilk possible even now, more than two years later.
The Empire’s Pet Rebels
These events did not stop Morsi’s critics from questioning his legitimacy. Prominent members of the protest movement against Mubarak increasingly used the same tactics and language they had used against the dictator against this newly elected leader, accusing him of appointing himself as a new pharaoh. This while press controlled by military regime accomplices published protest movement claims of mass popular opposition to the elected president alongside editorial calls for the army to retake power.
Over the first half of 2013, a movement called Tamarod, which means “Rebel” emerged, calling for mass protests to force Morsi from power. Tamarod collected signatures calling for an early election and claimed they had gathered more than 20 million, but refused independent verification of this.
The combined efforts of Al Jazeera and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley would later reveal Tamarod’s leaders had long histories of receiving funds from the United States. Following the coup, they threw their support behind Sisi despite his ever expanding crackdown leading to the arrest of many secular protesters and activists, including those who had participated in their anti-Morsi campaign.
The climax of the Tamarod movement came with mass protests held on June 30, 2013. On 1 July, Sisi’s voice was broadcast across the nation, announcing that unless Morsi took unspecified actions to “respond to the people’s demands” within 48 hours, the army would step in and impose a “road map.” On 3 July the deadline passed and General Sisi declared Morsi’s presidency over. Egypt’s first elected president’s own presidential guard took him into custody.
The international press – and even much of the left-wing press – celebrated this as a display of Egyptian people power, largely ignoring the role played by establishment forces.
The Sisi Era
A few days later the army and police opened fire on a sit-in by Morsi’s supporters outside the republican guard building where they believed the elected head of state was being held. A minimum of 51 protesters were killed.
Despite this massacre, pro-Morsi protests continued, the main one being in Rabaa square. In August it too would be cleared with massive violence. According to Human Rights Watch a minimum of 817 people were killed, but they add that the real number was likely more than a thousand. We may never know. It was to be the beginning of the most violently repressive period in Egypt’s modern history.
On 28 April 2014, with the army still struggling to control the country and put down constant anti-coup protests, The Muslim Brotherhood’s General Guide Mohammad Badie was sentenced to death along with 680 others (mostly tried in absentia). The court case reportedly took less than 10 minutes. No defense was presented and the full list of defendants’ names was not even read. This was the second such mass trial, with the same court previously sentencing 527 people to death for murder following the death of a single police officer at a protest.
It was not just the top figures who faced threats from the resurgent security state. The Brotherhood’s leadership was systematically hunted down. A Carnegie Foundation report from March 2014 estimated some 2,590 political leaders, mostly from the Brotherhood, had been arrested along with at least 16,000 protesters.
In this context fresh elections were held, which Sisi won easily, having already put those who would be his main opponents in jail.
The turnout at the ballot-box was anemic. Estimates stand as low as 7.5% (for the first two days of voting); most observers accept that the official figure of 46% of registered voters was not credible. Even Hamdeen Sabahi, who ran again – this time coming third with around 3% of the vote (beaten by invalid or protest votes) – called the official turnout figures “an insult to the intelligence of Egyptians” during his concession speech.
The same could have been said of much of Sisi’s so-called “campaign,” during which he had several disastrous television appearances. When questioned about unemployment in one such appearance, Sisi detailed a job creation plan apparently off the top of his head, involving 1,000 refrigerated trucks, each with a staff of three to sell vegetables, creating a total of 3,000 jobs, when Egypt’s official unemployment figure is over 3.5 million. Most credible observers moreover believe this number to be a drastic underestimate. Sisi suggested the solution for Egypt’s bread crisis was to cut each loaf into smaller pieces. He suggested the solution to the problem of Egypt’s slums was to simply demolish them, saying:
We can very well go to 10,000 houses, and bring them down in two hours. Reduce them to rubble, like this [gestures a falling motion with both hands] reduce them to rubble like this, they will be reduced to the ground [still gesturing with both hands]. This will send a message. But will people endure this? Egypt’s problems have not been confronted for 50 years. Since ’67 they were not confronted. And they grew and accumulated, until it became like a monster, that will devour our country.
The most terrifying thing, perhaps, about this last rant was Sisi’s apparent lack of any understanding that others may see him as the personification of the problems that need to be confronted; that the military he led was the monster, devouring Egypt.
Incredibly Sisi’s visions of mass slum demolition did indeed go ahead during the early part of his presidency, only worse. Between four and twenty children were killed in the Cairo suburb of Dar EalSalam when one such demolition was shoddily conducted.
The Egyptian army, in a move reminiscent of Sisi’s deadly slum demolitions mentioned above, also destroyed hundreds of houses in the border town of Rafah to create a 500 meter buffer zone along the border with Gaza. Residents were reportedly compensated with payments of US $125, supposedly to get them through the first three months of homelessness while more substantive compensation is organized.
Protesters are being arrested and killed in unprecedented numbers. Even the taboos that had partially protected female protesters have eroded and they are subject to violence like never before. This should not be surprising considering Sisi’s role defending the infamous “virginity tests” back in 2011.
In general, it is business as usual, only worse. Similarly, terrorist tactics from the extreme Islamists have continued, but worse. A 24 October 2014 attack in Sinai was the deadliest on record, killing 31 soldiers. Increased attacks have also hit targets in Cairo and other built up areas like Mansoura. The group that carried out the Mansoura attack which killed 16 police, Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, has since pledged its allegiance to the nascent “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria.
This author cannot help but speculate more broadly that such forces – the violent fundamentalists – are gaining ground in the intra-Islamic debate between those who advocate violent means and those who say that Islam and democracy can be compatible. The latter position has no better representative than the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, who suffered repression for decades and continue to, while maintaining a strong ethos of non-violence. For a brief moment it looked like that might pay off better than anyone had hoped. But, in an example of history repeating (both as tragedy and farce) their peaceful victories were taken from them by men with guns and a line to Washington