Egypt & the Future of Islamism, Democracy, and Authoritarianism in the Mideast

As the pressures mounted on president Mohammed Morsi in the first two days of July from the army to resign or hand over all his powers to a prime minister from the opposition, the president remained defiant. Citing his legitimacy as an elected president, Morsi insisted that he would rather sacrifice his life than concede to these demands. The president also reiterated the same stance in reply to a last minute call from an Arab foreign minister who tried to sway him.

Like everything Morsi had said or done to that point, his defiance was interpreted in contradictory ways. His opponents saw it a sign of a Mubarak-like syndrome. The minister of defense who took the decision to overthrow the president said as much in his most recent speech.  In contrast, his proponents portrayed it as a courageous and selfless stance in defense of democracy against a corrupt system of entrenched malfeasants trying to mute the popular legitimacy.

A week earlier, Morsi’s opponents had started a campaign of peaceful demonstrations and a parallel campaign of insurrection, where the police either declared indifference or actively abetted the anti-Ikhwan crowds. During this campaign dozens of Muslim Brothers headquarters were torched and scores of their supporters were killed, some with disgusting brutality. This campaign saw its peak with the June 30 mass protests, which local and international press described as unprecedented in its scale in Egyptian history. The army, which closely watched the crowd grow, gave a 48-hour-window to the president to find a resolution to the political stalemate or else the military would introduce a “roadmap for a transition” in Egypt.

Previously, the army had given a one-week ultimatum for the parties to end a year marred by divisions, unrest and economic crises.  On July 3, the military delivered on its promise, ousted the president, suspended the constitution, dissolved the upper chamber of the Egyptian parliament and appointed a judge as an interim president.

President Morsi and members of his team were taken to an undisclosed location and their families and lawyers have subsequently been unable to visit them. The opposition, which had battled Morsi’s allies both in the streets and at ballot boxes, and had lost in both venues, celebrated the army’s action as a response to people’s demands. In tandem, the army painted its intervention as a necessary measure to end a gridlock that threatened to tear the country apart and stressed that it had no interest in the political process, but hinted the current minister of defense may run for the high office one day. In contrast, outraged Morsi supporters were adamant that this was undemocratic and that the legitimacy— which to them Morsi represents—must be restored.

What’s in a name?

For most, it is a no-brainer to describe the process wherein an army deposes an elected president, suspends a constitution approved by over sixty percent of the voters, and dissolves a parliament.  But in Egypt that seems to be the hundred billion dollar question for Egyptians and for international press writing about their country. Two weeks have lapsed since the ouster of president Morsi and the Egyptian streets and airwaves have been the loci of intense battles between the two sides, each side trying to convince domestic as well as foreign audiences that its position is the most reasonable and legitimate. Central to this debate locally and abroad is the proper way to characterize what took place: Was it a coup and if it was, what kind? Was it a people’s revolution, a people’s coup, a premeditated, military assisted counter-revolution, or (stranger still) a second coup d’état?

Although no side is likely to give up its narrative, the most authoritative take on the issue was the commentary made by the judge Tariq al-Bishri. Bishri is a highly reputed judge, legal scholar and author of a few books on Egyptian politics. Until recently he was respected and trusted not only by the governing elites but also by the political parties and factions in Egypt. This position made him the ideal candidate to head the committee entrusted by the Supreme Military Council (ruled in the aftermath of the January 2011 revolution) to devise constitutional amendments paving the way for the transition to democracy. No one objected in 2012 to his appointment and his amendments were approved by the overwhelming majority of voters. Subsequently, Bishri opposed almost all constitutional declarations issued by Morsi and had some reservations about the constitution which Morsi’s allies backed. Despite that, Bishri described Morsi’s ouster as a coup, a betrayal to 2011 revolution and a serious affront to democratic institutions and processes.

Whatever way one brands the ouster of president Morsi, all subsequent acts and pronouncements by the new rulers of Egypt and their adversaries were framed in the context of ‘coup’ or ‘not coup’ narratives (these phrases became Hash tags for ongoing debates on the virtual space as well). Spokespersons for the army and the amalgam of political groups that supported its power-grab knew that the hours and days after the events were extremely crucial to winning the public opinion war, especially in the West. As a result, they quickly went on the air (for example on BBC and  CNN) stressing that the sudden change in the power configurations in Cairo was a popular demand, and not a military encroachment on the civilian power. Key to making this argument was the use of powerful images of massive crowds played on Egyptian state stations, which had switched alliances a week earlier to the anti-Morsi camp. The volume of the crowds, which the army filmed from the air and distributed to local and international media agencies, was said to have exceeded the 12 millions votes, which brought Morsi to office a year earlier. Other estimates cited 33 millions, a figure which surpasses the total number of votes won by Morsi and his rival, Ahmad Shafiq, combined. To ensure the unhindered dissemination domestically of the message that General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi acted with a mandate from the people, the army closed within hours of dismissing the president all Islamist TV stations and raided the offices of the local branch of Aljazeera, which provides 24-hour coverage of Egyptian news. The Islamists who have been demonstrating in different locations in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt, continued to do so in the dark, at least in the immediate aftermath of the power-grab as their channels and Aljazeera Misr Mubashir went off the air, and as the freedom of foreign reporters was severely restricted. The army also arrested scores of leading Islamist politicians and clerics to mute the voices of dissent.

International reactions

Whether because they believed the ‘people’s coup’ narrative, or because of a latent or open hostility to Morsi’s group, the Ikhwan, several countries welcomed the new change in Cairo. The removal of Morsi received a warm welcome from the Israeli political class at home and from supporters abroad. Other countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Syria were especially rapturous. Bashar al-Asad of Syria was evidently joyous that the president that had two weeks earlier closed the Syrian embassy in Cairo and vowed to help the Syrians in their quest for freedom was gone. The fact that the popular aspiration for freedom, which ignited the Egyptian revolution and inspired similar movements in the region, seemed in tatters on the eve of July 4th was even more pleasing to Bashar—a feeling he surely shares with the rulers of the oil potentates of KSA, UAE and Kuwait. The latter were quick to express their happiness in money terms, offering the new rulers of Egypt a generous financial package of 20 billion dollars. For the UAE the matter is almost a domestic issue. Its public figures have repeatedly declared the Muslim Brothers, Morsi’s group, to be the greatest danger the Arab World is facing today, a danger greater than that posed by Israel and Iran.

In the West, the feelings were and still are mixed. Publicly, the EU and the US neither condemned, nor endorsed the coup. The US administration is still taking all the necessary time to battle its public conscious as to whether this was or wasn’t a coup, while it seems privately very much at ease, having bestowed favors on most, if not all, of the new victors.  This is true of the civilians and the army. Testimonies by Morsi’s key allies were clear that the US, as well as Europe, approved the coup, and pressured Morsi to endorse it by either resigning or accepting to stay a president just in name. In short, the American apparent confusion can only be adequately captured through caricature.

Unlike the much poorer African Union, which took a principled stance from the coup in Egypt, the EU’s most audacious move so far has been to call on Egyptian authorities to allow Morsi to go home and to treat Muslim Brothers’ prisoners humanely. The exception to this ambivalence is the former PM of UK, Tony Blair, who was unequivocal in his defense of the coup.

Turkey, a country that was denied entry to the EU in part on grounds of its human rights record, took the strongest position against the coup— in defense,  it insisted, of Egypt’s infant democracy and not for any other reasons.

Massacres, scabies, sex-Jihad, and other lies

In the business of coups, it is usually not orchestrating a coup that’s the hardest, but rather making sure that the new reality endures. To achieve that goal, military might is crucial but so is the popular acceptance. In first three days of July, the new putschists seemed to have something of both. The army led the venture and the opposition seemed to have thousands in the streets to cheer them. But one variable in that equation quickly changed. Supporters of the former regime, and other Egyptians who are opposed to the army’s intrusion into politics, and those who were driven by religious sentiments to look unfavorably at the ostentatiously secular advocates of the putsch took to the streets and gathered in key locations in Cairo. Steadfast, they were finally able to take away some of the light directed at the festive atmosphere of Tahrir Square. The latter gradually lost its crowds and repeated calls by Tamarud and National Salvation Front for million-man marches and a mass Breakfast turned only dismal numbers.

The tide seemed to be gradually shifting in a manner that neither the closing of Islamist channels, nor the intimidation of foreign press could stop. The army grew nervous and trigger-happy. The first taste of the new attitude came to the open on the first Friday after the coup when a few thousands supporters of Morsi gathered to protest before the Republican Guards club in Egypt. Soldiers directly opened fire on the protesters, killing three and wounding several others. The army denied shooting protesters and later accused the MB of shooting their own supporters. A BBC correspondent, who was an eyewitness, refuted the army’s story. This will become a pattern and army brutality will only increase. Before dawn on July 8th, the army opened fire again killing dozens of Morsi supporters as they camped outside the Republican Guards Club. The army claimed that the Ikhwan were armed and in the process of storming the compound, prompting them to fire in self-defense. An investigation by the Guardian, an analysis by the CNN, and a report by Human Rights Watch all seriously challenged the official story.

Although it is important to document the human right abuses that the putschists have committed or are about to commit, the significance of the above reports lies in revealing two facts key to understanding the current crises in Egypt. The first is the campaign of vilification of the Muslim Brothers by their detractors in Egypt and the willingness of the latter to commit atrocities in the process. This is not a product of the post-coup environment, but rather a culmination of a yearlong process, some of its grand lines have been exposed in recent revelations. Many commentators already noted that the unsolvable crises of oil and gas supplies that crippled Egypt, which climaxed in the days leading to the June 30th mass protests, disappeared shortly after the coup. We have also learned that contrary to the image of the army as a neutral arbiter in the weeks and days leading to the coup, the army was for months holding secret meetings with the opposition, and the leaders of the latter made concerted efforts to convince the West to approve a removal of Morsi by force. Furthermore, a closer look at the number game in retrospect suggests that the great and unprecedented mass protest of June 30th, wasn’t only not that great, but fake as well. It is not conspiratorial to call it a conspiracy.

Although there will be some time, perhaps years, before we know the full picture of what took place in Egypt, and although much of what scholars or commentators would write would be rich in speculations and short on facts, we know for sure that what happened was not a product of a one-day or one week rally, where the protesters crippled the state institutions gradually rendering a military intervention inevitable. What we know so far raises serious questions about what else the opposition was lying about. It seems prudent to believe that Morsi’s team was perhaps truthful when they accused the opposition of obstructionism and disinterest in dialogue, a charge the opposition consistently denied. A comparison between the content of Morsi’s final address before the coup, and the roadmap which Army Chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi claimed Morsi rejected, brings this to an even sharper focus. Morsi accepted all the opposition demands, short of giving up all his powers as an elected president. Still the army went through with the coup.

Of course, the campaign of lies continues unabated. When the mass arrests, freezing of the Islamists’ financial assets, the massacres that left more than 100 dead, and when the dropping of leaflets which vacillated between cajoling and intimidation failed to stem the rise of the anti-coup crowd, the army opened the door ajar for its press to attack the Islamists in more vicious fashion. The press started to spread rumors that the Muslim Brothers encampments are seething with violence, invested with contagious diseases such as scabies, and house persecution chambers and wide scale prostitution scheme, through a process known as Jihad al-munakaha. Of course, to further alienate the anti-coup movement, the press loyal to the military claimed that the greater part of Morsi supporters is made of Syrian refugees and Palestinians, creating an unprecedented atmosphere of xenophobia, calling for the two groups to be beaten and killed.

Will the coup succeed?

To determine whether the coup is likely to succeed, one has to identify the overt and covert goals of the putschists. Two goals seem to have been behind the coup. First, the army and its supporters cited the goal of taking the country out of the state of polarization, from which it suffered during the one-year rule of the Ikhwan. Second, although not officially declared, both the army and the opposition hoped to deal political Islam a crippling blow. Many celebrated the coup as a sign of a death sentence to Islamism.  Neither of these goals is tenable, and the indications so far suggest that they will backfire. Egypt is now more divided than it was on the eve of the coup, and the Muslim Brothers and many others will never sit silent, no matter how many of their supporters are imprisoned, injured or killed. The streets will more likely continue to be restive and the fracturing within the putschists camp, already evident, will continue to grow. The happy story of a post-Islamist world, declared many times in the past, has been proven to have no happy endings. Two weeks now after the coup, the army’s wet dream, which is everybody else’s nightmare (the violent radicalization of the Islamists), is not taking place either. The Islamists, while embittered and feeling betrayed by the Egyptian army and the West, and while willing to die for their cause are neither going to sit home, nor wear explosive vests and blow themselves up in in the markets and streets. They have learned from the Algerian experience of 1992 and from the much closer (both in space and time) ordeal of the Syrians. They will die in peaceful protests, with their death toll broadcasted live, not in the darkness of dungeons or on suicide missions.

 Finally, Morsi, who may have probably earned a footnote in history as Egypt’s first elected president who failed to overcome the century old edifice of corruption in the Egyptian bureaucracy, has become a hero in the eyes of hundreds of millions of Muslims, some of whom went to streets in Jakarta, Kuala Lampur, Algeria, Istanbul and Tunis to chant his name. Rather than precipitating the end of political Islam, the ouster of Morsi has probably shielded the Islamists from a rapid death. Had Morsi stayed in power until the end of his term, and had Egypt continued to be the poor and divided country we all followed this past year, the Ikhwan would have lost a great deal of sympathy in Egypt and in the Arab World. Now, they look like victims and very few sane human beings enjoy lecturing a rape victim about the safety procedures she failed to take or blame her for the crime.

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