Hani Shukrallah , 4 Sep 2013-24 Sep 2013
Egypt’s current reality – muddled, chaotic and overcast with ambiguity – can be understood only by situating it within the nation’s tumultuous revolutionary history
“The memory of oppressed people is one thing that cannot be taken away, and for such people, with such memories, revolt is always an inch below the surface.”
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States
1. Real revolutions are red
Better still, have your revolution scripted by CNN, with Mr. Fukuyama providing “expert advice,” opt for pastels, preferably orange, put a few thousands on the street, have the ancien régime implode, rather than be overthrown, wind it all up in as little time as possible, go home, and let the benevolent wheels of the world market and corporate-led “liberal democracy” (in our case, with an Islamic flavour) get on with the business of turning.
Congratulations, you’ve reached the end of history.
If the above is your criteria for the kind of revolution you’d like to support, then sadly, you’ll find Egypt’s ongoing revolutionary upsurge sorely lacking.
Admittedly, we’ve all of us (myself included) waxed poetically about those wondrous 18 days in January/February 2011. There is nothing false in doing so. There is glory in millions of people throwing off the shackles of fear and submission, transforming themselves into subjects of history rather than its hapless victims; there is glory (and a great deal of poetry) in the heroism, courage and sheer determination of the young people who launched the Egyptian revolution and kept its spirit alive for the past 30 months, against seemingly insurmountable odds, and at great cost.
Yet, the 18 days were as glorious as the long months of resistance that followed them, against the military allied to the Muslim Brotherhood, against the military in conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, and against the Brotherhood’s frenzied grab of Mubarak’s authoritarian state – and no less messy.
It may be trite to say that revolutions don’t transform the people who make them into angels; nor for that matter do they reinvent them as fully aware, politically savvy, strategically sophisticated agents of change. Lenin (who knew something about revolution) said somewhere that people make revolution “half blind.”
The messiness in the Egyptian revolution, then as now, is primarily rooted in the fact that the people who made it were unprepared for the tasks it had thrown their way. Nor did they have anything close to a clear vision, let alone strategy, of how to bring their aspirations for a free, truly democratic and socially just Egypt into being. I’ve reiterated this before. See: “Egypt’s revolution: As it might have been; as it could be” (25 January 2013).
I would suggest further that no popular revolution is ever fully prepared for the tasks, vision and aspirations that set it into motion. For a people to garner the courage and will to rise up against oppression, rather than to submit, subvert and make do, they need to reach for the stars, yet the stars are invariably beyond reach.The Egyptian revolution was less prepared than most, thanks to 30 years of the eradication of political space, which defined the ugly Mubarak reign. The starkest and most significant ramification of this lack of preparedness lay in the fact that no sooner had the Egyptian people overthrown Mubarak’s obdurate, seemingly immutable 30-year rule, than they handed power over to his military.
This to my mind fully exposes the profound hypocrisy of the heated protestations of military coup this time around. Even in strict legal terms, the late Omar Suleiman’s uniquely brief television address of 11 February 2011 (in which he announced Mubarak’s surrender of his presidential powers to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) is no less a military coup than Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s rather more elaborate televised address on 3 July 2013.
We’ve yet to see a signed statement by Mubarak abdicating his powers to SCAF, and even if we did, how legal is an abdication with a gun held to your head, and tanks on the streets? Moreover, there was nothing in the Egyptian constitution that permitted the former-former president to abdicate to an entity called SCAF, which few of us knew existed before the 25 January revolution.
The only constitutional stipulation as to the handover of power by the president – when unable for whatever reason to exercise his prerogatives – was to hand these over to the speaker of parliament. The latter, a stalwart of the Mubarak regime, was in fact sent home, the parliament he presided over dissolved, his party banned, and he, eventually, thrown in prison.
In substantive terms, if you want to speak military coup then 11 February 2011 was much more a military coup than 3 July 2013, since then the military actually took over power, and stuck to it for a year and half. Is a coup then not a coup if it is backed, and very likely brokered, by the Americans?
By 11 February 2011 the deal was all but done. Mubarak’s regime had been convinced that the only real opposition it faced was the Muslim Brotherhood, and so was its military and so were the Americans.
And herein lay the source of another fundamental contradiction at the heart of the Egyptian revolution. The millions on the streets had not been calling for the application of sharia, they were not demanding “rule by what God has ordained;” they did not – for a single moment – proclaim the Muslim Brotherhood as their representative. They spoke of freedom, social justice and human dignity – notions which are as alien to the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau as the dread word "secularism."
Yet, they did not have a viable organisation of their own, nor did they possess a clear strategy of how to go about replacing the police state they rose up against by one which embodied – at least to some degree – their vision of a democratic, free and just nation.
And they were not seen. Everyone and his brother would come to hail the glorious Egyptian revolution, but rulers (no less than the hordes of pundits and commentators who move in their orbits) are inherently incapable of comprehending a people in revolution. For them, people don’t rise up on their own; they must be driven, instigated, incited and manipulated by some force. Add to which, the long-held conviction that Arabs and Muslim could be governed only by either semi-secular police states or Islamists of some sort; in Egypt, that force could only be the Muslim Brotherhood.
2. What’s the big deal?
A look at 'the best of all possible worlds' that was not to be
We now know (thanks basically to revelations by dissident MB cadres) that a deal had been more or less struck in early February 2011 – by the military, the late Intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman (a long time favourite of both the Americans and the Israelis, his name had been popping up regularly as an alternative successor to Mubarak Père), and the Brotherhood leadership – apparently with considerable American help.At its heart, that deal was based on what had become the conventional wisdom of “Greater Middle East” watchers everywhere: the Turkish model, or some synthesis of Turkey and Pakistan: a power sharing accommodation between a secular, semi-secular or just a little bit secular military – closely tied to the US – and “moderate” Islamists, ruling together in some sort of electoral “democracy”.
No convoluted conspiracies in any of it – a necessary caution in view of the deluge of nonsense currently pouring out of the Egyptian media, most recently given hilarious expression by the Upper Egyptian police arresting and locking up (temporarily as it came out) a stork (yes, the bird, not a code name) on suspicion of spying activities.
In fact, it all seemed to make perfect sense. For the best part of Mubarak’s 30 years in office, and certainly since the fateful 9/11, policy makers in Egypt and the Arab world as in Washington, London and Paris, had come to the firm conclusion that the Arab police states – stagnant, disintegrating and half-senile as they might be – were the only bulwark against Islamist takeover backed by ostensibly and intrinsically Islamic populations.
If you were sitting in Washington, or for that matter, at Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman’s office in Cairo, what would you choose once your long cherished and tenaciously bolstered police states came apart? Nice reasonable Islamists willing to play ball (with whom you already had open lines of communications), or the “crazies” of Al-Qaeda and Jihad – Mohamed Badei and Mohamed Morsi or Ayman El-Zawheri and Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi?
The sticking point was what to do about Mubarak. A question of “legitimacy”, you might say. Initially, the idea was to keep Mubarak nominally in office (sunning at his villa in the south Sinai resort of Sharm El-Sheikh) until the end of his term (then some six months away), have then Vice-President Suleiman assume presidential powers in the interim, legalise the Brotherhood and ensure them access to the legislature and the government. This, in return for Brotherhood assurances regarding what matters most to American/European Middle East policy makers, no less than the Egyptian military command: upholding the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty and guaranteeing Israeli security; assurances as well regarding power sharing with the military and sundry other sections of the old state bureaucracy, institutions and Oligarchs.
The Brotherhood leadership was more than willing to oblige, and were happy to pack up their supporters and send them home. It did not work. The millions on the streets (including many MB youth) would not go home, but rather escalated their protests, now joined by a great wave of industrial action. The rest is history.
The reason I’ve gone into some detail into what by now appears as a minor (and conveniently forgotten) glitch on Egypt’s revolutionary screen is that it reveals one of the basic laws of motion of post-revolution Egypt. The people, unprepared for determining the course of political reconstruction, were nevertheless more than able to act as the ultimate spoilers.
I never subscribed to the view that the military had the intention of directly ruling the country, even if in the interim they seemed to have developed a decided taste for it (they seemed to particularly relish TV exposure). Yet this was more in the nature of enjoy it while you can, fully knowing that the pleasure would be transient.
It was to be the best of all possible worlds. The Muslim Brotherhood controlling the legislature and the government, allowing some presence for non-Islamist parties and individuals (mostly drawn from old NDP dignitaries, coming in as “independents”, or in the guise of new parties). MB control would be balanced out further by the presidency, which was to be left to military/intelligence preference (whether the president-to-be hailed from their ranks or was backed by them) and meanwhile, the military would maintain and even bolster its privileged status in the new political system, keeping intact as well as much as possible of the Mubarak authoritarian state structure (the only conceivable state then in military minds, thus their latter-day assertions that the revolutionaries were out to undermine the very existence of the state).
Let’s review the evidence: Mubarak’s last cabinet under Maj. Gen. Ahmed Shafiq was to be kept in place for the duration of “the transition”;
- the SCAF, headed by Field Marshal Tantwai, held the full authoritarian powers of Mubarak;
- Mubarak himself was made exempt from prosecution and comfortably retired at his no doubt sumptuous Sharm villa (curtsey of former intelligence operative, bosom buddy and one of the country’s top business tycoons, Hussein Salem);
- a constitutional declaration charting the transition “road map” was meticulously designed to effectively disenfranchise the revolutionaries while guaranteeing the Muslim Brotherhood and, it was then believed, the NDP dignitaries (oligarchs of various shapes and sizes, with intimate connections to the security apparatus) joint control over the drawing of the new constitution;
- This, by virtue of their combined control of the forthcoming parliament, which was initially scheduled for election within three months of the Constitutional Declaration, ensuring further that the only organized political forces in the country were the Brotherhood and the NDP network.
The Muslim Brotherhood were happy to fulfil their side of the bargain, swearing themselves blue in the face that they would uphold the Camp David Accords and the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, would not run a candidate for president and would compete only for a third of parliamentary seats.
Nearly unanimous predictions at the time regarding the then forthcoming parliamentary elections gave the Brotherhood their third, the NDP network (overseeing a huge patronage network built over decades) another third, and a final third to a mixture of old and new parties and independents.
It was picture perfect, a synthesis of Turkey and Pakistan with which the powerful – domestically, regionally and internationally – would be happy to work; the people would get their presumably long-held and deeply-desired Islamist (of sorts) government, go home to slumber away for another thirty years, or longer.
Alas, it was not to be!
3. Continuing revolution, the great spoiler
It may have been a marriage of convenience, but it had all the hallmarks of a match made in heaven. Why did it sour?
Looked at one way, the course of Egypt’s history since January 2011 would appear as a progressive descent into chaos and mayhem. There are indeed those who see it only as such – and if anything, they’ve lately become considerably more vocal and open about saying so. The overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood rule on 3 July has been deemed an opportunity by a variety of what I’ve come to call – with due apologies for political incorrectness – “Mubarak’s widows” to loudly bemoan the good old days of the tyrant, his gangs of vicious torturers, voracious crony capitalists and ever scheming party bosses.A wholly different picture appears, however, once you bring the people, their consciousness, political will, social aspirations and dream of liberty into perspective. And this is the picture of a people persistently battling to recapture their revolution, which – almost by definition – is constantly being hijacked.
We might now resume our narrative. The initial post-Mubarak arrangement seemed a match made in heaven, with each party getting just the right amount of privileges and making precisely the requisite commitments. It might not have been born of love, but then the most durable marriages aren’t. Happily, it enjoyed the blessing of Uncle Sam and a host of other lesser aunts, uncles and cousins in Europe.
It did not pan out that way. You may count the ways, but my basic proposition here is that whatever fault-lines and areas of tension there were in this marriage of convenience, these could have been contained, plastered over and more or less smoothly negotiated and re-negotiated, bargained and re-bargained away. (After all, look at Turkey where years of a gradual, fairly trouble-free political process eased the Kemalist, firmly secularist military out of its monopoly on power).
It should have worked. But for one thing: the Egyptian people, with tens of thousands of revolutionary youth at their vanguard, would not let go of the freedom and justice their revolution had promised, and by virtue of which they felt themselves entitled to.
In less than two weeks after Omar Suleiman’s fateful television address, when millions of Egyptians celebrated the fall of Mubarak to chants of “the people and the army one hand,” the occupation of Tahrir would resume, demanding the ouster of the Shafiq cabinet and the prosecution of Mubarak and his clique; the sit-in is attacked violently by army contingents attempting to break it up, for which SCAF would hasten to apologise the very next day.
It wouldn’t let up.
In March, the sit-in resumes yet again in Tahrir, triggering the first serious clash with the country’s military rulers by 8 April; tens of thousands would again hit the streets, by 27 May the second “Day of Rage” is called, and hundreds of thousands yet again rise up in protest, not just in Tahrir but in many parts of the country. Among their chants is: “Tahrir is here, where is the Brotherhood?” Ahram Online would quote prominent Egyptian blogger Sandmonkey summing up the day in a tweet from Tahrir: “I believe today has proven that we don't need the Muslim Brotherhood to turn out big crowds."
It is outside the scope of this brief history to provide a chronology of the relentless revolutionary upsurge of the Egyptian people during the past two years and a half. We might note however two key events, the Maspero massacre in October of that same year, named “Bloody Sunday” (in which 25 protesters were killed and hundreds injured), followed soon after, in November, by the Mohamed Mahmoud Street confrontation, possibly the fiercest and most violent since 28 January, in the course of which some 50 protesters were killed and hundreds injured. Many lost one or both eyes, which were particularly targeted by police shooters.
In Maspero, the ruling SCAF apparently saw an opportunity to violently bring an end to the revolution by making an example of the thousands of Copts, and their Muslim supporters, who had gathered before the state television building in downtown Cairo to protest the burning of a church by an Islamist-led mob. Copts, they seemed to have thought, would be “easy meat” – in view of the sectarian schism in the country, which for years had been deepening in scope and intensity, thanks to the rise of Islamism and the dirty tricks of the Mubarak police bodies.
The Mohamed Mahmoud confrontation which followed would prove this a vain hope. It was possibly the most heroic single event of the Egyptian revolution – at the very least, the full equal of the iconic battles of 28 January and 2 February’s “Battle of the Camel.”
I witnessed parts of the four-day saga, and will be haunted for the rest of my life by the scenes of young men and women, armed with stones and the odd Molotov cocktail bomb charging under heavy police fire, motorcycle ambulances whizzing to and fro to pick up the injured and dead, also under fire, a young man laughing after his eye had been shot out, and the volunteer doctors working non-stop in a field hospital they’d set up on the street corner, itself not quite out of firing range.
Taking to Tahrir and other “freedom” squares around the country was not the only form of resistance, however. Egyptians, almost overnight, had become politicised as never before. Political space, which under Mubarak had shrunk nearly to oblivion, widened exponentially, political debate became the nation’s primary pastime – in homes, offices, coffee houses and on the country’s chaotic transport system, it was politics, politics and even more politics. On television, public opinion programming would outpace soap operas, even soccer. And the internet would go wild.
The new generation of activists, now in the thousands, were not about to go home. And, in an explosion of creativity, they were constantly creating new ways of fighting on. The “Military Liars” campaign was one such remarkable initiative. Like the Tamarod (or Rebel) campaign a couple of years later, the idea probably originated within a small circle of friends, but – also like Tamarod – would spread like wildfire, with hundreds of young people informally and without the benefit of a “mother” organisation jumping on the bandwagon, setting up screens (usually made up of bed-sheets) and platforms on street corners, at universities and schools – anywhere they could find a foothold – and using almost every medium of expression available, from video footage to street theatre, to relay their message: the military rulers are liars, this is the truth!
I don’t have a full count of the activities of the Military Liars campaign. But they ran into the hundreds.
The walls of the nation’s cities (and there are plenty of those) would provide another medium of expression. An explosion of graffiti, some of it remarkably artistic, would make its signal mark on popular awareness. (An aside: anthropologists and cultural studies scholars would do well to explore the affinity Egypt’s young revolutionaries have for black America).
So determined were the young people to defend this new-found space of free expression I recall this one occasion when the military rulers sent city workers to paint over much of the Cairo graffiti; it was back the very next day.
Not only did the Muslim Brotherhood and their Salafist and jihadist allies (whatever their dubious share in the 18 days), consistently boycott these fierce and determined battles to fulfil the stated aims of the revolution, they worked actively against them, openly urging the military to crack down, justifying and indeed vehemently defending the killings, the abuse, the detentions and the torture, all the while singing the praises of SCAF (in their chants, they would call SCAF head, Field Marshal Tantawi, the Prince of the Faithful, and condemn the protesters as atheists, infidels, communists and – most insidiously – as Coptic Christians.)
The Brotherhood-military marriage would begin to crack under the strain.
4. It’s the people, stupid!
The people’s revolutionary upsurge strikes at the foundations of SCAF supremacy, paradoxically whetting the Brotherhood’s appetite for power
At the risk of over-tiring a metaphor, let me recount a bit of personal history.My paternal grandfather was a clerk with the British army in Egypt. I never knew what the job involved exactly, but apparently back in the first half of the twentieth century it was a fairly lucrative job for a rather humble effendi to have. My paternal grandmother was tough, witty, very fat and barely literate, besides being an amazing cook (of traditional Egyptian fare, naturally) and an inexhaustible wellspring of stories.
As family history would have it, my grandfather was a kindly but tyrannical patriarch rather typical of the effendi class of these times. Quick to anger, he would shout commands, eat his meals with the family, take his siesta and spend the balance of his day either at work or at a cafe with his cronies – leaving the management of the household and the rearing of his two sons to my grandmother.
It seems to have been a fairly prosperous household, if my grandmother’s cuisine is any indication (almost invariably involving an abundance of meat cooked in unrefined butter), able to provide both my father and uncle with a good education, my father at Cairo University (then, Fouad I) and my uncle at the then highly regarded, Military Academy.
All of this was passed on history as far I was concerned. By the time I could take in my familial environment some drastic changes had taken place. In 1951, the Wafd Party declared a National Jihad against the British occupation. (There was nary an ounce of religious connotation to the word Jihad at the time, it might be noted). This included a call on Egyptians working for the British army to leave. My grandfather resigned, putting his savings into a print-shop operation. Life-time clerks don’t make good entrepreneurs, it seems, and the print-shop went bust.
The family I grew up in was very different from that of my personal pre-history. The balance of forces between my paternal grandparents had been overturned. You could possibly detect a shadow of the old Effendi. Though jobless, he would invariably spend most of the day (up until he was too ill, and bed-ridden) out of the house. He would go out in suit, tie and fez, sporting an elegant cane. Where he went, I have no idea, but there was absolutely no doubt in my childhood mind, the upper hand in that old marriage was solidly my grandmother’s. If there were any arguments – and there were many – it was she who invariably came out on top.
This, pretty much, describes the shifting fortunes of the SCAF-MB marriage we discussed in the last section of this history. SCAF’s misfortune, however, was not due to a bad investment, but to the ongoing resistance of a rebellious people.
But before resuming our historical narrative, we might pause a little before a question which has no doubt occurred to many over the past three instalments. What you may well ask, is the point of going over all this past at a time when the present is charged with such urgency?
Why, context of course – and the kind of memory which, in Howard Zinn’s words, keeps revolt an inch below the surface. A major failing of much that has been written and opined on the 30 June uprising against Muslim Brotherhood rule (or the third wave of the Egyptian revolution) has been the remarkable absence of a sense of its place in Egypt’s recent history. I have warned repeatedly of failing to see the forest for the trees. And here I try to situate some of those trees back into their surrounding foliage.
Once we do this, the most significant actor in our remarkable story of unremitting upheaval comes into sharp focus. It’s the people! Not liberals, leftists, Muslim Brothers and Salafists, not secularists and Islamists, not military, deep state, and Mubarak regime remnants, but an Egyptian people on the move, in this, our time of the inundation.
That so many intelligent and sophisticated analysts, scholars and commentators can fail to see them is not new, but it’s a failure that may be barely tolerable in normal times, but is disastrous in times of revolutionary upheaval. If in doubt, have a read through Howard Zinn’s magnificent, A People’s History of the United States.
Having said this, the first point that needs to be underlined here is that it was the incessant pressure from below, by the ongoing rebellion of the Egyptian people – unafraid, determined and empowered by their revolution – that lay principally and, indeed, overwhelmingly behind the deepening cracks in the SCAF-Muslim Brotherhood power-sharing accommodation, leading up to its ultimate demise.
Incredibly, this constant revolutionary pressure from below – boycotted and vehemently opposed and condemned by the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies – would act paradoxically to whet their appetite for power.The military, which saw itself, and was seen by the Brotherhood and the outside world as the “senior partner” in the power-sharing deal was discredited as never before – indeed, more so than during its darkest hour, in the days that followed Egypt’s traumatic and humiliating defeat at Israeli hands in June 1967’s “Six-day War”.
The police, shattered, demoralised and half rogue, yet as vicious and brutal as ever, is under constant attack from the people, and is thus rendered unable to regain even a semblance of its old powers.
The erstwhile ruling NDP network, rooted in intimate, corruption- packed business-state linkages, state patronage and police repression proves all but irreparable; again under popular revolutionary pressure, its leaders are hauled into prison one after another.
A reminder: initially, the SCAF would act to bring to justice less than a handful of the ostensibly overthrown regime, with the former organisational secretary of the NDP, steel magnate Ahmed Ezz being a nearly unique exception. It is only under intense pressure from the ongoing revolution that they would be forced to prosecute Mubarak himself, Interior Minister Habib El-Adly, and along with them, one by one, most of the top figures of Mubarak’s ruling clique.
By the day, the senior partner to the post-revolution power-sharing entente proves more paper than tiger. And yet, the paradox at the heart of the Egyptian revolution from day 1 sees very little change. Able to shatter the Mubarak regime, it is unable to replace it, and yet again able to drastically weaken the SCAF and its associated ancien régime handles, it continues to lack the vision, or the organisational and political machinery, experience and skill to fill the vacuum, even partially.
For the Muslim Brotherhood, whose relationship with the revolution has been governed from the very first day with the opportunistic mind-set of a hijacker, there is now more than sufficient cause not so much to break the partnership (in fact, they never do), but rather to change its terms. The self-imposed limit of running for a third of parliamentary seats is the first to go out the window; they run for every single seat.
The election itself emboldens them further. The one third predicted for the NDP network never materialises – who wants a patron who’s unable to deliver either a carrot or a stick? The non-Islamist parties, the decrepit old and the as yet nascent new, capture a measly share, while the revolutionary youth are in possession of no unified organisation of their own, and are spread thinly among several political parties; the latter invariably dominated by political figures from considerably older generations, whose mindset had been configured in the course of thirty or more years of helpless and hapless opposition. (The contrast between the irreverence, even contempt in which the young revolutionary generation held power, and the profound awe with which their older comrades – however well intentioned – held it, is well worth studying on its own).
The revolution would continue to find expression on the street, and very little if at all in the formal political realm, which – in any case – had been rigged against it from the start.
Meanwhile, to the chagrin of the SCAF, the Muslim Brotherhood would continue to exploit the growing weakness of their senior partner, even as they dissociate themselves and condemn in the strongest terms the very people who are doing the weakening. Their publicly reiterated promise not to run for the post president, which was to be the principal institutional embodiment of the power-sharing deal would go out the window as well.
If the SCAF had been worried by the Brotherhood’s earlier reneging on their promises viz. parliamentary share, they were now extremely worried. The alliance begins to fracture. Field Marshal Tantawi, hurtling towards political oblivion, would tell confidantes that while he and his SCAF colleagues had never sought to maintain direct rule, he would not go down in history as the man who handed Egypt over to the Muslim Brotherhood – as pathetic a refrain as his whole reign as supreme leader of the nation and Islamist-designated “prince of the faithful” had been, and as his political demise would prove to be.
5. 'We at the height are ready to decline'
Unable to impose its emergent political will, the Egyptian revolution is able to frustrate, foil and bring down the political wills of its opponents
The course of the Egyptian revolution, always contradictory, always complex, dialectical, non-linear and “messy,” is destined to take prominent place in the “sociology of revolution.” An ever-present, ever-shifting popular agency seems to bring political actors to the summit, only to pull them down all the more swiftly. (Give it a few years, and you’ll find universities across the world offering courses in the sociology of the Egyptian revolution – happy to take bets.)It was such popular revolutionary “agency” that brought down Mubarak, clearing the way for the military to ascend to the very summit of Egypt’s polity and society – to chants of “the people and the army are one hand,” yet the very moment of ascendency is at once that of decline – as swift and brutal as was the proliferation of the Field Marshal’s elongated Pinocchio nose on the country’s city walls amid resounding chants of “down with military rule.”
And it was such popular revolutionary agency that would clear the way for the Muslim Brotherhood to ascend to the summit of political power in the country, only to bring them hurtling down in the course of a single year.
“We at the height are ready to decline.” William Shakespeare’s words (voiced by Brutus) sum up the dialectic of the Egyptian revolution as any words possibly could. However, no commentator on the Egyptian revolution could have put it as succinctly as Iranian scholar Asef Bayat: “Egyptians,” he wrote in a recently in an article on Ahram Online, “have mastered the art of being ungovernable. This is a formidable power in bad times.”
The process of dissolution of the Muslim Brotherhood had begun, in fact, before their takeover of the presidency. After all, they had been junior power-partners with SCAF during its disastrous year and a half rule. Even if you’re blind to the shifting moods and consciousness of the people – as most scholars seem to be – there is no avoiding the speech of the ballot, of which the Brotherhood and their western sympathisers are so fond. In the space of 4-5 months, between the parliamentary elections (Nov-Jan 2011/12) and the first phase of the presidential elections (May 2012), the Muslim Brotherhood lost some 7 million votes, more than half of its electoral support. I very much doubt there is another example in modern political history, anywhere, of such a swift descent in political fortunes.
Yet again the paradoxical nature of the course of the Egyptian revolution is brought into focus. Unable to impose its emergent political will, but well able to frustrate, foil and bring down the political will of its opponents, the revolution’s success in bringing down the foremost opponent of the moment seems only to clear the way for another member of the power-structure to try a hand at filling the vacuum.
We’d do well to keep this in mind as we approach the murky realm of the revolution’s “third wave.”
No revolution in history has taken on all of its foes – immediate, real and lying in the wings – at the same time, nor should it. Popular revolutions set out to win, not to commit mass suicide, and irrespective of the phantasms (real or imagined) weighing on the minds of the more politically and ideologically “formed” within the revolutionary camp, a genuinely popular revolution will steer a course of its own, imminently practical, goal-oriented, and rooted much more in lived experience and learned lessons than in a priori bias and/or knowledge.
There is good and bad in this, as we’ll see. But let’s – for a moment – take up one supreme example. From day one, the Egyptian revolution faced the latent prospect of having to take on the armed forces. It was Mubarak after all who called the armed forces onto the streets, once his massive police force was roundly defeated. “The people and the army are one hand,” let alone the flowers, the welcoming of army tanks, and the photo-ops with child-kissing soldiers on top of the tanks, doubtlessly contained much that was illusory (as was to be revealed soon), but it contained considerable wisdom as well.
I described it at the time as the “sentimental education” of the military (plagiarising Flaubert wholly out of context). For its own reasons (not least of which the top priority of maintaining the soundness and internal discipline of the armed forces) the military command was hesitant to shoot into the crowds. There is little doubt in my mind that however illusion-laden the “one hand” might have been, it helped check the impulse to shoot.
And even at the height of the revolution’s confrontation with military rule, with all its brutality and blood-drenched repression, the Egyptian military’s need to justify its actions, to maintain even a shadow of its positive image among the people, would continue to act as a check on its repressive impulses. Sceptical? See: Syria.
It would also go a long way towards fomenting intense dissatisfaction with SCAF’s leadership within military ranks, which would ultimately lead to the overthrow of SCAF at military hands.
Already in decline, the Muslim Brotherhood would nevertheless find itself at the summit of Egyptian state and society. Who to thank? Why, the paradoxical agency of a rebellious, revolutionary people. With no help from the Brotherhood, the ongoing revolution had weakened, demoralised and undermined the “senior partner” so resoundingly, SCAF all but gave up.
SCAF’s last ditch effort to stave off the inevitable – characteristically foolish and ill-advised – was to try and mobilise to the fullest extent possible the shattered “remnants” of the Mubarak regime, backing a verbally challenged (even more so than the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi, if you can believe it), corruption-tainted symbol of that regime, Maj. Gen. (rtd.) Ahmed Shafiq, for the presidency.
The great “lemon squeeze” would tip the balance in the Brotherhood’s favour.
In Egyptian popular idiom, inferior food is made more palatable by squeezing a lemon on it. Faced with two bad choices, the bulk of revolutionary Egypt would drench themselves with lemon juice, and opt for the Brotherhood’s Morsi in the second phase of the presidential election.
In a poll rooted in fear on both sides (wherein both Morsi and his contender would garner the balance of their votes not for love of either of them, but out of dread of the other), the Egyptian electorate would show it dreaded Mubarakist Shafiq more than Muslim Brother Morsi by two percentage points.
6. One-way ticket to cliff edge
Bemoaning the Muslim Brotherhood’s lost democracy? Well, think again
No sooner would the Muslim Brotherhood, the very mother of modern day political Islam, seem to have achieved its decades-long dream of ascending to the very summit of power in Egypt than it would rush headlong towards ruin, possibly bringing down along with it the whole “Islamic revival” project of the previous 30 years.The law of unintended consequences symptomatic of a popular revolutionary agency that is sufficiently vigorous and determined to continuously upset the apple cart of the power structure but insufficiently prepared to transform it, is yet again at play.
The writing was on the wall. Nearly three months into Morsi’s presidency, I would write: “The ruling (in a manner of speaking) Muslim Brotherhood faces a strategic, even fateful decision: granting that they’ll be removed from power within 4 years at the outside, they need to make up their minds whether they’d rather bow out gracefully or be thrown out, exit via the ballot box, or revolution.” (The Brotherhood, its fateful choices and safe exits: http://english.ahram.org.eg/News/53973.aspx.)
It all depended, as I explained in the article, on the ruling Muslim Brotherhood’s attitude towards basic civil liberties, human rights, and democratic process. These, however, would all come under concerted attack by the up-and-coming, would-be masters of the nation. They made their choice and would suffer the consequences, though much sooner than I, for one, could have imagined.
I’ve written a fair bit on what would prove to have been the Brotherhood’s route to 30 June. For those interested in looking back on Morsi’s year in power, these examples of my own perspective might be useful:
Minerva's owl flies at dusk: A quick reading of Egypt's presidential vote (1 June 2012)
The Decline and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood (6 Dec. 2012)
Revolution interrupted (8 Feb, 2013) http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/02/08/revolution_interrupted_egypt_muslim_brotherhood;
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Samson option (19 March, 2013) http://english.ahram.org.eg/News/67267.aspx.
Yet before we hit the fateful 30 June – modern history’s first ever popular revolt against an Islamist regime, we might ponder the following.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s project in power would prove authoritarian to its very core; nearly every single action they undertook after Morsi’s accession to the presidency was designed to ensure their electoral win was a one way ticket to perpetual rule by the self-styled interpreters of God’s will on earth.
One can only marvel at the Western chorus (politicians, pundits, academics and journos) bemoaning the 30 June fall of Egypt’s fledgling democracy, even as they grudgingly acknowledge the “mistakes”, even the “ineptitude” of Morsi’s rule.
Think again fellows. Concerted attacks on freedom of speech and expression don’t make for an even playing field, neither do attacks on the Judiciary and whatever margin of independence it was able to maintain (to which, by the way, a characteristically ungrateful Brotherhood fully owes every single electoral advance it was able to make under Mubarak); nor also does holding the nation’s Christians (estimated at 10 million) hostage to intimidation and occasional pogroms; nor yet again does the willy-nilly flaunting of the law, constitutional norms, and basic human and civil rights.
Torture, possibly the Mubarak regime’s most operative instrument of government does not make for free and fair elections, see: (http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/74930/Egypt/Politics-/Torture-continues-under-Brotherhood-rule-NGO.aspx) and (https://alnadeem.org/en/node/439) Nor are trumped up criminal charges, often ironically targeting the very revolutionaries who helped pave the way to Morsi’s rule, and actually win him the vote (http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/0/67790/Egypt/Summoned-activist-rejects-legitimacy-of-investigat.aspx).
For the new president to nonchalantly trample the very constitution he swore to uphold in his oath of office by immunising his decisions against judicial review does not bode well in terms of his and his group’s democratic intentions (http://english.ahram.org.eg/News/58947.aspx).
Yet one particularly crucial feature of Muslim Brotherhood rule has received little attention, or rather has not received nearly the attention it deserves. The Ikhwanisation (or Brotherhoodisation) of the country’s gargantuan and highly intricate administrative state apparatus has been sited alternatively as evidence of greed for power, a redistribution of spoils, as standard practice in a “democracy” and as exaggerated propaganda by the Gamaa’s enemies.
This is to miss one of the most fundamental features of the Egyptian state, especially as it took obdurate shape in the course of Mubarak’s 30-year reign. State patronage and police repression (intricately connected) have been the foremost instruments of governance in the country for decades – from the very summit of the state down to the remotest hamlet in Upper Egypt.
The Brotherhood, playing the mantle of the revolution for all it was worth, was patently uninterested in taking up that revolution’s commandment to dismantle the profoundly authoritarian structure of the Mubarak state. Rather, it sought to take it over as is, replacing Mubarak with Morsi, the NDP with itself.
Take over the corruption-ridden, sycophantic state-owned media as is; attack and constrain freedom of expression, organisation and protest; subdue the Judiciary and replace Mubarak’s men with your own; bring the police under your wing, so that the killings and torture would now be in your favour rather than against you; effectively disenfranchise the country’s Coptic minority through continuous incitement and by holding them hostage to pogroms; seduce and pressure the army and the intelligence bodies into conceding your supremacy, pending their gradual Brotherhoodisation – and give it all a taste of your very own, whereby your opponents are now, not only subversives and agents of foreign powers (paid in kind via Colonel Sanders and his “secret recipe”), but also enemies of Islam, secularist atheists and Christians who reject rule by what God has ordained, as set down by the Supreme Guide, and the Guidance Bureau.
And take over the bureaucracy, not just its top echelons, but the whole octopus like apparatus, extending into every nook and cranny of Egyptian society.
During Morsi’s one year in office, not a single measure was taken to reform anything, not a single authoritarian piece of legislation was repealed or amended, not a single authoritarian structure touched by democratic reforms, not a single attempt made to deal with the massive inequities of a nation lorded over by the insatiable greed of a bunch of plunder-hungry Oligarchs with one foot in the state, the other in business, producing next to nothing, but consuming voraciously.
Western pundits and journalists like to attribute the failings of Brotherhood “democracy” to inexperience and ineptitude. The Egyptian people saw intent and manifest betrayal.
And even as they protested and fought back in defence of their revolution, the new rulers busied themselves with appropriations. Tens of thousands of posts throughout the state bureaucracy would change hands, given over to MB cadres and their Salafi and Jihadist allies. There would be no dithering on that front, but deliberate, systematic and meticulous planning and execution.
If there was method in the madness of Morsi’s one-year rule this was it. Ignore, shrug off, and deploy the instruments of repression – effectively or otherwise – against the growing resistance of the people, but all this is, for the time being, by way of distraction. The real battle as far as the Guidance Bureau was concerned was being fought elsewhere. Dozens of deputy ministers and ministerial advisors, governors (5 in the first batch, then a full 17 a mere three months before parliamentary elections were due to take place), dozens more deputy governors and gubernatorial advisors, all the way down to hundreds of heads of local government departments on city, district and village levels – health, education, agriculture, irrigation, social insurance, whatever, if it’s there for the taking, grab it.
Faced with protests, Mubarak used to say: “let them entertain themselves”. I have little doubt that similar quips were being made in the course of that year, if not by the superbly mediocre president himself, then by his “evil genius” string-masters in the wings, Khayrat El-Shater and co.
For as the people “entertain themselves”, we’ll have given them the Mubarak state, fully reconstructed – but with a little, trim beard.
Anyone who’s ever come near a polling station in Egypt, not as a foreign tourist with a press card, but as someone who’s capable of actually seeing and comprehending what he/she sees, knows that if you control the state bureaucracy you control the elections.
And not just through rigging the poll. The millions of Egyptians who live outside the upper middle class urban districts of Zamalek and Heliopolis (who rarely bother to vote) are caught up in an intricate web of state largess and impunity, exercised via state bosses who invariably have footholds in business and – more often than not – local family and clan power and patronage authority, inherited over generations. You vote in the right way (via the clan-based mobilisation of local “dignitaries”) and you have a better chance of receiving some state favours (anything from irrigation water for you tiny plot of land, a licence for a cigarette kiosk, a low-paid job for your son, or for that son to – hopefully – avoid whimsical torture at some police station).For more on this you might look up my piece on the last parliamentary elections under Mubarak: NDP may get more than it bargained for (27 Nov. 2010) (http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/4/0/686/Opinion/NDP-may-get-more-than-it-bargained-for.aspx)
Rigging the poll is more often than not merely the icing on the state/business/clan patronage cake, and for a great many of the nation’s constituencies it acts as a final assertion of patronage. How else could you explain rigging in favour of one ruling party member against another ruling party member, each claiming his slice of state/business patronage?
And it’s the petty bureaucrats, dependent for their very livelihood and hopes of promotion on even bigger bureaucrats, who do the rigging – as they zealously stuff ballot after ballot on our behalf. (We’ve had candidates winning by over 100 percent of the vote, dead people voting in droves, voters actually going to electoral stations and discovering they’d already voted).
The 2011 parliamentary elections were the exception that proves the rule. Why did the NDP patronage network (which had been predicted to win some 30% of the seats) fail so miserably? The answer is obvious: they’d lost their control of the state bureaucracy, which at the time was embroiled in confusion as to who is master. No one in his right mind would cast his vote, let alone herd clan and dependents, to back a patron who’s been rendered incapable of exercising patronage.
A fairly independent state bureaucracy, accountable to the public on every level, is in fact considerably more crucial to a free and fair election than international monitors or judicial supervision. Democracy means transforming the relationship between the state bureaucracy and the people from that of master and client to one in which a sovereign people exercise effective oversight on their “civil servants”.
In Egypt a free and fair parliamentary election on the national level, means that citizens also elect governors, city heads, city, district and village councils and that the local police station, the health, education, agriculture and irrigation authorities (to name but a few) are subject to public oversight.
That was the will and testament of the Egyptian revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood, working from a Mubarak template, contemptuously brushed it aside, in this as in everything else. “Let them entertain themselves,” Supreme Guide Mohamed Badei et al must have been whispering to one another as they nonchalantly dismissed growing popular outrage at their bungling, oppressive regime, meanwhile busying themselves with ensuring perpetual rule by “what God has ordained”, not by transforming Mubarak’s authoritarian state into one governed by “righteousness” – whatever that means in the second millennium AD, but by taking it over, each and every nook and cranny of it.
On Sunday 17 June, Morsi issues a sweeping decree appointing 17 new governors, a mere three months before parliamentary elections were due to take place. In theory the appointments made no sense. According to the Constitution, a new parliament means a new government, and a new government means new gubernatorial appointments across the board. Why fill the bulk of gubernatorial posts across the country, when forthcoming elections were due to change them all within a few months?
There was just one explanation. Egyptians got it, even if the hundreds of Western politicians, pundits and journalists who continue to ask in the most anguished tones: “why not wait for the parliamentary elections?” did not.
The Egyptians of June 2013 were not the same Egyptians of Mubarak’s 30 years, however.
Morsi’s and Muslim Brotherhood rule would not outlast the month.
7. Uprisings, love-fests and strange bed-fellows
Popular revolutions inevitably have strange bed-fellows; the point is who gets to be on top
There is a Sisyphean aspect to the Egyptian revolution. Incessantly pushing the boulder of radical democratic transformation up a steep, jagged hill composed of the resistance of the old authoritarian society, the very moment it seems to have reached the summit is also the moment it appears to find itself back at the bottom of the hill – yet again and again.This is mirrored in the psyches of Egypt’s young revolutionaries. One need only follow their blogs, Facebook postings and tweets or, better still, actually talk to them, to note the remarkable mood shifts as euphoria and renewed hope almost overnight give way to despondency, invariably coupled with grim determination to fight on, to keep pushing that bloody, blood-drenched boulder up that accursed hill.
Certainly, on the surface of events since 25 January 2011, it looks like it: Egyptians overthrow Mubarak, to get the SCAF, with the Muslim Brotherhood as junior partner doing their damndest to reconstruct the Mubarak state; they rise up against SCAF, and get the Muslim Brotherhood doing the same; they rise up against the Brotherhood, and get the military again, with hordes of Mubarak “remnants” cheerfully, and with brazen aplomb, jumping on the bandwagon – their hopes of restoration seemingly at an all time high.
Zeus punished Sisyphus for deceit. History was punishing the Egyptian revolution for naivety – for being insufficiently prepared to carry its vision of a free and just society through to fruition.
Yet real human history is always much more complex and nuanced than its mythical representations – or, for that matter, than whatever literary metaphor we choose to enfold it in. Real revolutions never actually fall back upon themselves, even when they most seem to have done so. The path of such revolutions is never linear, moving from one triumph to the next. Rather, they realise themselves in convoluted ways, their legacy, values, and the new political will these embody, making their imprint on history even as they appear at their darkest moments, at their most defeated.
We don’t need to search far for historical precedent. The French revolution would lead to Bonaparte then to Bourbon Restoration, yet Old Bumblehead (Louis) the 18th, famed for having “learned nothing, forgotten nothing”, was no more than a glitch on French and human history’s panoramic screen.
Each of the three waves of the Egyptian revolution would carry with it its own distinct baggage of illusions, weaknesses, distortions and unique challenges, yet each would find the revolution had inched closer to its objectives, more able to impose its will, leaving its antagonists weaker, their ranks considerably more fractured and disorganised. And, no less significantly, at each phase, the revolution finds it has “re-educated” sections of its traditional opponents, rendered them more willing to concede at least some aspects of the people’s revolutionary will, even as many among them act to undermine and hijack it.
Two points need to be underlined here. The first is that the Egyptian revolution has always had “strange bed-fellows”, which it has tended to shuffle and exchange – not for the most part consciously or willingly, but effectively – as it strove to fulfil its destiny.
The second point -- by no means unique to the Egyptian revolution -- is that not only do popular revolutions exploit fractures in the prevailing power structure; they tend to count on them. Indeed, such fractures seem to be a precondition for a popular uprising’s ability to overturn a particular regime, even if it falls short of replacing it with a truly new and genuinely popular power of its own. The examples are manifold: from the Russian revolution, which seemed to have required a world war to overthrow Tsarist autocracy, up to the much more recent overthrow of Apartheid in South Africa and the military dictatorships in much of Latin America.
Mind you, it goes both ways. Insofar as you use (consciously or not) the divisions within the extant power structure, you open yourself up to being used by them (there’s no “free lunch”, at least not in this dynamic). Invariably, the very forces within the power structure you neutralise or win over, however transiently, will want their “pound of flesh” in return.
For “it must follow, as the night the day”: counting on fractures in the power structure and using them – consciously, half-consciously, or not at all – renders the revolutionary upsurge of the people vulnerable to that power structure’s attempts to manipulate and even hijack it.
Whether you default on your debt, give over half a pound or ten or have your kneecaps shot out depends on a great many factors, all of which boil down to a basic balance of forces between the revolution and its strange bedfellows.
One crucial feature of this always-highly-complex dynamic is awareness. Revolutionary risings invariably “re-educate” sections of the ruling class – sentimentally or otherwise – but yet again, in doing so, they also render the revolutionary ranks vulnerable to a host of illusions about those they’ve “re-educated”. Teachers take pride in their brighter, more responsive students – though it might transpire that they’ve only taught them to become better cheaters.
It’s a fact of life that while you can re-educate the ruling classes in becoming cleverer or even into conceding different rules of the game, ameliorating their dominance, you can’t educate them out of their fundamental nature; individual members certainly, but not whole institutions, interest- and privilege-based sections of it.
Love fests of the sort we saw repeatedly from the 18 days of 2011 onwards reveal an intermixture of two contradictory impulses in people’s awareness: their will to win, on the one hand, and their illusions on the other. Thus, the “people and the army are one hand” and the photo ops on the top of tanks; the Tahrir inauguration of prime minister Essam Sharaf; the Tahrir inauguration of president Mohamed Morsi; and, most recently, “the people, the army and [even] the police are one hand”, with portraits of El-Sisi held high in Tahrir next to portraits of Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Illusions, after all, are never merely products of the moment, but no less of memory.
None of it was lasting. The morning after would invariably bring with it break-up and acrimony.
The basic argument I have tried to elaborate throughout this “short history” goes farther, however. The Egyptian revolution did not merely make use of the rifts within the various power structures it came up against from 25 January onwards, and was in turn used by them, but was – in fact – the formative element in creating them.
By their very nature, power structures sit on fault-lines made up of the diverse interests and orientations of the groups and institutions amalgamated within them. Authoritarian power structures tend to be more internally disciplined, fixed and less adaptive, but as such are considerably more brittle than the more “hegemonic” variety, wherein changes in the power structure’s external environment (made up first and foremost by the “hegemonised”) is much more readily reflected in renegotiating the power relations within it. (An African-American Democrat, of Muslim descent, coming to the White House on the heels of a right-wing Republican in daily conversation with a jealously Christian God being a notable case in point).
For fault-lines to become deep schisms, in power structures as in the Earth’s crust, you need pressure from below, in the shape of volcanic activity or indeed, popular uprisings. My basic thesis here is that it was the ongoing revolutionary upsurge of the Egyptian people that would repeatedly disrupt attempts at rebuilding the power structure, transform fault-lines into fissures.
I have – rather presumptuously, I admit – borrowed the title of this essay from Howard Zinn’s remarkable A People’s History of the United States, which in turn inspired another remarkable, if less universally-known work by Chris Harman, A People’s History of the World, for this reason: Where many have seen the turbulence of the past 30 months of Egyptian political history in terms of “elite” conflicts (civil and military, civil forces and “deep state”, secularists and Islamists, liberals, Muslim Brothers, leftists and feloul), I see first and foremost the hand print of the revolutionary upsurge of an Egyptian people unchained, battling on for emancipation.
8. Tanks at the tip of revolt
30 June was a massive revolutionary uprising by millions of Egyptians. Was it also a military coup? Sure, but so was each wave of the Egyptian revolution – the alternative is Syria
We need first to clearly set out the most fundamental feature of the 30 June uprising; to see the forest, before we can begin to examine the trees, shrubs and weeds. This in a word is: revolution. Millions of Egyptians once again rose in rebellion against their rulers, and for the first time in modern history brought down an Islamist regime through a popular uprising.This is history making, and I’m speaking world, rather than merely Egyptian history. Take it or leave it, but on 30 June the death knell of so-called “Islamic revival” – going back to the late 70s of the last century – was sounded.
Having devoted much of my writing over the years to critiquing the “Islamic revival” paradigm (Westernised elites versus immutably Islamic populations/ Arab-Muslim exceptionalism/ Muslims’ allegedly immutable Islamic identity), I expect to revisit this topic in the future, but for the moment let’s leave it in history’s hands.
At all events, win or lose, Islamism – for the first time since its “revival” – is under attack not by state agents but by the people – millions of people in Egypt, in Tunisia and even in the heart of its most perfect model – Western-cherished Turkey itself (even if kept at arm’s length, EU-fashion).
I have no intention here of playing the numbers game, which has been rendered absurd by sheer exaggeration – on all sides. However many millions went out on Egyptian streets on 30 June and 3 July, there is little doubt that these were the largest numbers of protesters the country – and possibly the world – had ever seen. And they were no longer confined to the big cities.
From its start, the Egyptian revolution had been almost wholly urban. The Tamarod (Rebel) campaign, the abject failure of Muslim Brotherhood rule and the widening cracks in the power structure combined to resolve – at least in part and possibly momentarily – one of the fundamental contradictions at the heart of the Egyptian revolution. For the first time since 25 January, the revolutionary upsurge would involve large sections of rural Egypt, south as well as north.
The breadth, depth and intensity of the Egyptian people’s rejection of Muslim Brotherhood rule did not require millions on the streets (however many) for us to see it. Anyone who hadn’t just stepped off a plane or confined his/her stay in the country to wine and cheese soirees with English speaking academics could have done so.
And it wasn’t merely the ineptitude of Brotherhood rule, the gas shortages and economic hardship. Self-conscious “intellectuals”, secretly basking in their cultural superiority even as they pay homage to subaltern resistance, tend to see the poor as creatures of basic needs and wants, motivated solely or principally by their next meal-ticket.
It doesn’t work this way. People don’t rise up in rebellion because they’re starving, but because they’re aware – however partial and clouded such awareness may be. On year in power proved more than sufficient for a rebellious Egyptian people, who had thrown off the shackles of fear, submission and servitude to see the hideous Mubarak state behind the Muslim Brotherhood’s bearded mask. They rose up in rebellion.
You might like to check my: “Something in the soul” (3 July 2013) http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/4/0/75509/Opinion/Something-in-the-soul.aspx And: Egypt’s second revolution: Questions of legitimacy (4 July 2013) http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/4/0/75712/Opinion/Egypt%E2%80%99s-second-revolution-Questions-of-legitimacy.aspx
Popular uprising says the most fundamental fact about the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt on 30 June, but what of its stickier aspects, its “strange bed-fellows”?
The revolution or military coup debate is both tired and childish, revealing as it does an almost deliberate blindness to the real course of the Egyptian revolution since January 2011.And let’s put it bluntly: if it’s military coup you’re looking for, then there’ve been military coups at every major wave of the Egyptian revolution, against Mubarak in February 2011 and against Tantawi, Enan and the bulk of their Supreme Council in August 2012, as in that of June/July of 2013.
To put it even more bluntly, the ultimate instrument for the actual removal from power of these three consecutive regimes has been the military – not NATO bombers, an Egyptian Free Army, or worker and peasant battalions at the barricades.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow, and invariably comes at a hefty price, but denial doesn’t make it sweater or any less real.
In strategic terms, the Egyptian revolution always came up against the task of neutralizing the army, if not necessarily winning it over. We might hate to admit it, deny it or gloss over it (strategic thinking hasn’t been a particular forte of our revolutionaries, sad to say), but rejecting it would imply that the actual practice of the Egyptian revolution (civil disobedience and largely peaceful protest) has been misguided from the start: “Aux armes, citoyens” and good luck to you (though you might give a thought to the advance in weapons technology since 1789).
As for Western liberals and leftists who continue to bewail the military stigma tainting our revolution (conveniently if paradoxically, in this particular third wave and not the previous two), they might have a look at Syria. Translate the number of victims of the ongoing Syrian carnage as percentage of the population into Egyptian terms, and you get nearly 3.5 million Egyptians killed. If that’s what it takes to keep your consciences clear, friends; it is a price we would rather avoid, thank you. We might add as well that it is a price the Syrian revolution would have much rather not been forced to pay, even if the Jihadists seem to have a particular relish for it.
With this in mind, we might get back to military coups and conspiracies in Egypt post-25 Jan 2011. That the first wave of the Egyptian revolution involved “a military coup” at the tip is not a subject for debate; it’s fact. Conspiracy? Sure, since it’s highly doubtful that Mubarak was privy to SCAF discussions of his possible ouster. The Americans almost certainly, but not the old man himself who, like the late Shah of Iran and many other tyrants the world over, must have felt betrayed by his own men and erstwhile allies. Morsi would drink from the same cup two and a half years later.
Yet the second ouster – of SCAF itself – a little over a year ago (12 August 2012) bears closer inspection. Morsi has been credited widely with a brilliant coup, if not a military one, in unseating the Muslim Brotherhood’s now humbled, battered and demoralized partners in Mubarak’s inheritance. Brilliance, to say the least, has hardly been a feature of the Brotherhood’s performance in and out of power, yet the real point here is that crediting Morsi and his group with unseating SCAF reveals either complete ignorance of the institutional makeup and real dynamics of the Egyptian state, or plain hypocrisy. Morsi did not overthrow SCAF, the military did.
The story is now well known: Field Marshal Tantawi and Chief of Staff Enan called in to the Presidential Palace for a meeting with Morsi, are made to cool their heels in one salon, while in another, Abdel-Fatah El-Sissi, the youngest member of SCAF, is being sworn in as Armed Forces chief and defence minister. It goes without saying that El-Sissi wouldn’t have dared make that particular visit to the Presidential Palace behind his commanders’ backs without already having ensured the full support of the most important field commanders of the armed forces. Had it been otherwise, “the coup” against the Brotherhood would’ve come much earlier.
The fact that the officers corps (from general to lieutenant) overwhelmingly welcomed, even celebrated, the humiliating removal of their high command is equally well known to a great many Egyptians, many of whom have friends or relations in the army.
And it was not because the army had been Islamised or Brotherhoodised in the interim, though Western observers had a field day pontificating on El-Sissi’s possible Islamist sympathies, presumably evident by virtue of his wife’s veil and his regular observation of Muslim prayers.
It so happens, the Egyptian military had been scrupulously immunised against political allegiances of any sort, and in particular against political Islamism in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, which the Mubarak regime no less than his military saw as their most serious challenge. Officers showing even the least sign of sympathy to Islamism would be weeded out with great alacrity, while the Brotherhood’s top leadership was made fully aware that any attempt to infiltrate the military would be considered the ultimate deal breaker in the “banned but tolerated” formula under which the state and the Brotherhood played their cat and mouse games from the time of president Anwar Sadat onwards. Simply, it would be back to the concentration camps, with which the Brotherhood had become quite familiar under Nasser.
The reason the second tier of the military command structure opted to utilise Morsi’s presidential legitimacy to rid itself of its high command – to wide ranging support from the officers’ ranks – was fundamentally military in nature. It was to protect the military institution itself, and the nearly sacrosanct and privileged position it had held for decades within the Egyptian state. The aged, tyrannical and bungling leadership of the SCAF had in the course of its year and a half rule brought the military to the most terrible moment in its history.
Hated, despised and ridiculed as never before, the writing was literally on the wall – take a walk in any large Egyptian city, and you’ll find remaining examples of the profusion of anti-military graffiti of the time.
Needless to say, it was neither Morsi nor the Brotherhood, nor indeed the Islamist trend as a whole that brought the military to this unenviable position. Till the very end, Muslim Brotherhood leaders and officials persisted in singing the military’s praises and condemning any and all resistance to SCAF’s authoritarian rule, even as they acted to use that resistance to shift the balance of forces within the post-revolution ruling alliance in their favour.
Again, it was the people’s continuing revolutionary upsurge that led to the unseating of SCAF, and – as an unintended consequence – caused the reordering of power relations within the power structure of the country, with the Brotherhood now enjoying nearly uncontested supremacy.
9. Mapping the fault-lines
It seemed to be working: the army was – more or less – back in the barracks, the police were now doing their torture and killing for the Brotherhood, the Judiciary was being subdued and MB and Mubarak Oligarchs were making nice
Muslim Brotherhood supremacy would prove eminently fleeting, as we now know. It needn’t have been, at least not in terms of the new power arrangement as it unfolded with the overthrow of SCAF.The new military command had deeply absorbed the extremely harsh lesson of SCAF’s reign: if the Egyptian military was to maintain its institutional integrity, cohesion as well as its privileged status within the power structure, it was best to stay out of the political morass that was Egypt’s post-revolutionary reality. El-Sissi set about trying to heal the scars, focusing almost exclusively on internal institutional concerns.
The Muslim Brotherhood rulers, for their own part, were happy to maintain and even widen the privileged status of the military in the Egyptian state structure. The Constitution drawn up exclusively by the Brotherhood and its Islamist allies would ostensibly set this in stone, including the military prosecution and trial of civilians, which the people had resisted fiercely.
The police, which under Mubarak had become the mainstay of the regime (far superseding the military in this respect), seemed happy to work under the very Muslim Brotherhood leaders they’d hounded and persecuted for decades, even as they maintained open lines of communication with them throughout.
The 25 January revolution had delivered a devastating blow to the gargantuan police apparatus in the country, and from 28 January 2011 onwards we would have a police force that had gone partially rogue, partially on undeclared strike (with horrific ramifications for the personal security of citizens, including the rise of vigilantism and mob violence throughout the country). They would flex their muscles mainly on such occasions as would allow them to reassert their viciousness and take vengeance on the rebellious people who had so soundly humiliated them. This had been the case under the SCAF and would remain so under the Muslim Brotherhood.
In January 2013 Morsi would hand pick his new interior minister, Gen. Mohamed Ibrahim, from among police ranks (he’d been assistant Interior Minister for Prisons). Ibrahim would continue in his post till today, with nearly everybody conveniently forgetting that if Morsi is to be prosecuted and tried for the killing, injuring and torture of protesters, Ibrahim would have to share the dock with him, just as former interior minister Habib El-Adly shared Mubarak’s on similar charges.
Throughout Morsi’s year in office, not a single attempt would be made to reform the police (a major demand of the revolution), not a single attempt would be made to bring retribution to the killers and torturers (another prominent revolutionary demand, let alone an oft repeated pledge by Morsi and his group), and the killings and torture would continue – now against the opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood rulers.
Unlike the military and the police with which the Brotherhood was obliged to deal as partners in power, even if now in a subordinate capacity, the judiciary seemed there for the taking, for a number of reasons.
In the course of the previous three decades, Islamists and in particular the Brotherhood had made a fair headway within judicial ranks (rulings of apostasy providing a prime example). Nevertheless, the bulk of the top judiciary in the country was proving an obstacle to Brotherhood plans, basically through the Supreme Court’s unconstitutionality rulings against electoral laws.
How far such rulings reflected an anti-Brotherhood political bias, or yet another instance of the assertion of a measure of judicial independence from the executive authority is debatable. Yet there is no denying, first, that such rulings were almost symptomatic of Mubarak’s reign, wherein two Mubarak parliaments (elected in 1984, 1987) were dissolved by the Constitutional Court, forcing Mubarak “legislation tailors” to amend and re-amend electoral laws to render them passable under the court’s oversight – an authority which even Mubarak could not openly flaunt.
How far such rulings reflected an anti-Brotherhood political bias, or yet another instance of the assertion of a measure of judicial independence from the executive authority is debatable. Yet there is no denying, first, that such rulings were almost symptomatic of Mubarak’s reign, wherein two Mubarak parliaments (elected in 1984, 1987) were dissolved by the Constitutional Court, forcing Mubarak “legislation tailors” to amend and re-amend electoral laws to render them passable under the court’s oversight – an authority which even Mubarak could not openly flaunt.
And there is no doubt; secondly, that judicial supervision of the polls was the single obstacle to outright rigging. Under pressure to introduce political reforms, the Mubarak regime provided for “full judicial supervision” of the 2005 parliamentary elections, without which the unprecedented win of 88 parliamentary seats by the Muslim Brotherhood would have been impossible. The Mubarak chorus launched a concerted attack on “the politicisation of the judiciary”, and by 2007 the stipulation for full judicial supervision was removed. The 2010 parliamentary elections would give the Brotherhood zero seats in parliament.
With not a little irony, the Muslim Brotherhood would take up where Mubarak left off. The aim here as in every other field of government was not to foster the independence of the judiciary, which indeed had been subject to continuous attack and subversion of its independence under Mubarak, but to take it over and subordinate it to Brotherhood will and, indeed, whim.
In yet another twist of irony, the Brotherhood would use, wholly cynically, the flawed court cases against the Mubarak clique as a pretext for its attack on the judiciary. Yet whatever the complicity of some sections of the judiciary in this (evident more on the prosecution than on the bench side of the institution), the real culprit here was the unreformed police force, and behind it, the wilful failure of the SCAF-Brotherhood alliance to introduce even an iota of a transitional justice process. It was a case, as I pointed out at the time, of the criminal being charged with investigating his crimes, and even providing incontrovertible evidence for his having committed it. In short, a farce.
The Brotherhood would make considerable noise about “retribution” (a hilarious video of Morsi’s electoral campaign unearthed by the brilliant TV satirist Bassem Youssef, shows Supreme Guide Badei audibly whispering the word “retribution” in Morsi’s ear as the then presidential candidate was making a public speech); they would – of course – do nothing about.
Islamist mobs would lay siege to the High Constitutional Court to prevent it from convening and issuing then inevitable rulings of unconstitutionality against both the Islamist-dominated Shura Council and the Constituent Assembly, on the same basis that led to the dissolution of the lower house of parliament, and indeed to the dissolution of two Mubarak parliaments.
Morsi – now almost universally hailed as Egypt’s first freely elected president – would exchange his ostensibly constitutional “legitimacy” for a “revolutionary” one, immunise the twin assemblies and his decisions against judicial review.
Yet, initially and despite judicial rumblings, the Muslim Brotherhood’s drive to subdue the judiciary seemed to be meeting with tremendous success. They would prevent the Constitutional Court from issuing its then eminent rulings of unconstitutionality against the Constituent Assembly and the Shura Council; retire some 3000 senior judges (clearing the deck for their own people), and would get rid of the most troublesome members of the Constitutional Court itself. Morsi would illegally appoint one of his own as Prosecutor General. The latter, Talaat Ibrahim, would show himself to be the same kind of obedient henchman of the new masters of the nation, just as his predecessor had done under Mubarak and SCAF.
This ostensibly highly successful attack on the judiciary would prove a significant nail in the coffin of Muslim Brotherhood rule in the country. But that would come later.
Then, of course, there were the Mubarak-era Oligarchs and NDP feloul. Both have been attributed with extraordinary influence in both the 30 June uprising and beyond – indeed such influence as would have saved the Mubarak regime and aborted the revolution back in January 2011.
But irrespective of the opinions of impressionable foreign journalists and conspiracy-theory inclined Egyptian intellectuals, the Brotherhood/Mubarak remnants fault-line was not, initially, as sharp or as profound as some would like to believe. The presidential elections had witnessed the highest and most efficient level of mobilisation these “remnants” would be able to pull together since the first few months of the Egyptian revolution left them largely headless, shattered and demoralised. The fact that the best presidential candidate they – along with the SCAF and the security and intelligence bodies – could come up with was the hopelessly mediocre Ahmed Shafiq is revealing of the extent of their political disintegration.
Yet these are imminently realistic people. Unlike Muslim Brotherhood leadership and cadre, whose highly opportunistic pragmatism is constructed within a sense of Divinely-inspired and -sanctioned mission (lies, betrayals and subterfuge come a lot easier when ostensibly approved by God Himself), the Mubarak feloul were always and would remain the ultimate homo economicus, driven by very little more than crass self-interest.
Leading NDP cadres had been ardent socialists under Nasser, zealous supporters of open door economic policy and realignment with the West under Sadat, and devoted neo-liberals under Mubarak.
To describe them as secularists is a joke born out of sheer ignorance. One need only recall the amount of Islamist-oriented legislation and rhetoric throughout the Mubarak years, the book bannings and the bouts of fury by the NDP dominated parliament against books and works of art deemed “un-Islamic”, the constant ruling party led redrafting of school curricula to render them more “Islamic”, the continuous fostering of bigotry and anti-Coptic sentiment by these same NDP leaders throughout these same squalid years. Indeed, the closed, exclusivist and bigoted “Islam” that came to overwhelmingly dominate public discourse in the country during Mubarak’s three decades in power was as much a product of his regime, as of its Islamist opposition.
For its own part, the Muslim Brotherhood was willing to play ball. Morsi’s year in office would see the release of most top NDP leaders from prison. Reconciliation negotiations with Mubarak era Oligarchs charged with, or sentenced for corruption were ongoing with nearly all of them (under which charges and/or sentences would be dropped in return for their handing over some of their loot back to the state), including the most notorious representative of the bunch, Mubarak-buddy and business tycoon, Hussein Salem.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s most prominent Oligarchs, Khayrat El-Shater and Hassan Malek, we would find out, had an open line of communications with business tycoon and minister of industry under Mubarak, Rashid Mohamed Rashid, who just happened to be in the UAE avoiding a 15-year prison sentence for corruption back in Egypt.
The president himself (who never tired of reminding us of his “legitimacy”) would take along Rashid, a fugitive from Egyptian justice, on a visit to Qatar. Apparently, business connections involving El-Shater, Malek and Rashid with both Turkey and Qatar would prove stronger than to be affected by such trivialities as old regime/new regime, revolution, corruption, prison sentences and the Supreme Guide’s cherished “retribution”.
The real love-fest, however, was occasioned by Morsi’s visit to China (in Sept. 2012), in which he was accompanied by some 60 Mubarak era business tycoons, the most prominent of whom was Mohamed Fardi Khamis, a leading member of the NDP and of Gamal Mubarak’s inner circle, who was implicated in organizing and financing the notorious Battle of the Camel. Needless to say, the Muslim Brotherhood’s very own Oligarch, Hassan Malek, headed the business delegation.
To hear the Mubarak Oligarchs talk upon their return from China; one could not help but be moved by the fervor of new-found love. Both publicly and privately, they would marvel at how affable, reasonable and open-minded they’d discovered the new Islamist president to be. Their plunder and greed would go on as before, their privileged access to the state and state resources unthreatened and unchecked, even if they have to open up their ranks a bit wider to allow the new up-and-coming Islamist actual and would-be Oligarchs their share of Egypt’s ever bountiful pie.
Fault-lines certainly, but just like those on which the SCAF-MB power-sharing accommodation had seemed to sit comfortably; they would prove eminently vulnerable to volcanic eruptions from below.
To be continued!
To be continued!
(The above was published as a series of 9 installments on Ahram Online: http://english.ahram.org.eg/english.ahram.org.eg)