Abdullah Al-Arian is assistant professor at Wayne State University. His research interests include Islamic social movements, globalization and the Muslim world, and United States policy toward the Middle East. His writing has appeared in Foreign Policy and Al Jazeera’s websites. Our conversation focuses on the events that led to Morsi’s fall and the likely consequences of the military coup.
Paul Gottinger: After Morsi took power in 2012 the Egyptian military generals maintained comfortable economic privileges and political autonomy. Would you say the Muslim Brotherhood ever had control of Egypt?
Abdullah Al-Arain: It’s important to understand that it was not always a zero sum game. What you had was an opportunity for the revolutionary forces, which included at one point the Muslim Brotherhood, to try and restrict some of the power and privileges that the military had enjoyed. Now of course, that’s not to say that the military wasn’t on it’s heals at certain points and time. I think you can point to specific moments during the last two years where it was restricted to a certain extent. This is particularly true after Morsi’s election when his popularity was quite high, and when he was able to retire senior level military generals. He was able to easily put to bed the idea of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) actually maintaining an overt role in governance.
However, the constitution preserved the military’s immunity from prosecution and the privileges it had enjoyed under the Mubarak regime. That was the arrangement. It wasn’t that the military had maintained overall power to govern; I don’t think they were ever really interested in that. I think they simply wanted to maintain their economic privileges, the lack of civilian over-sight over the military, and also immunity from prosecution for any of the atrocities that they committed when they were in power during the transition from the Mubarak regime.
PG: The speed with which the Muslim Brotherhood was repressed indicates that the military never lost control of the security apparatus. Would you agree with that?
AA: When you look at the revolutionary forces the Muslim Brotherhood clearly proved to be the most successful in the transition. It was able to obtain certain advantages and access to political power. The Muslim Brotherhood won one election after another and then proved itself to be adept at becoming a partner in government.
But one thing that Morsi seemed unable or unwilling to do was to take on the power of what’s called the “deep state”. By this I mean the institutions that are deeply rooted enough to weather the storm of accountability and the calls for reform and complete overhaul. The most obvious example of this is the security regime. This includes the police, the internal security service of the state, the military, but it also includes things like the state bureaucracy, the state media, and the judiciary. The judiciary blocked a number of attempts at reform that Morsi tried to put through. These reforms would have started to peel back some of the layers of old regime power that continued to exercise itself long after Mubarak had left the scene.
PG: How dangerous do you see the military’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood after Morsi was removed from power?
AA: The military’s crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood, which started in the first hours after Morsi was overthrown, signals a number of very troubling things. On the one hand it certainly signals the fact that this was all premeditated and orchestrated well in advance. We know this because they immediately went to all the media stations that were run by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and shut them down. They even went to Al Jazeera’s offices and detained some of its staff. Then they went to detain a number of high profile Muslim Brotherhood figures, in addition to leading a violent crackdown on the pro-Morsi demonstrators. That situation continued to escalate itself in the days after that including, of course the bloody massacre in which over 50 people were killed and hundreds more injured. All the evidence so far demonstrates it was an unprovoked attack by the Egyptian military on the pro-Morsi demonstrators, which were demonstrating peacefully.
The Muslim Brotherhood now finds itself in the strangely comfortable position where it’s always been: it is the opposition to an authoritarian and repressive regime. This was the position it maintained for decades. I don’t think the Muslim Brotherhood’s opinion on the coup will change due to the harsh military response. They believe their cause is just and they still support the elected president. This has serious implications for the legitimacy of the next Egyptian president. All indications are that the Muslim Brotherhood will be boycotting the upcoming process. This means boycotting the transition, the writing of the constitution, the referendum, and even the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for next year.
Unless there is a serious effort by the military to reengage the Muslim Brotherhood, they will continue to boycott the transition process. And I don’t think you can have a legitimate political process as long as you have a significant segment of the Egyptian population that is disenfranchised. Even with the Muslim Brotherhood boycotting the process the oppression of it has not ceased. In fact, July 10 there was an indictment for Mohammed Badie, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. He is being charged with incitement of the events, which led to the massacre of pro-Morsi supporters. This is something that is very troubling. As long as people keep calling for dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood, but the actions on the ground are nothing but repression and violence, it’s doubtful that the current transition process will be able to move forward smoothly.
PG: Do you see any threat of a militant faction of the Muslim Brotherhood forming and sectarian violence breaking out?
AA: Here I think we have to be careful before we jump to that kind of conclusion. So far all indications are that the entire organization has adopted non-violent/peaceful means to protest what they perceive as the illegal overthrow of the elected Egyptian president. This is not to say that certain people will not be disillusioned with the democratic process. I think that is a danger anytime you undermine the democratic process. But the Muslim Brotherhood has maintained non-violence as the cornerstone of its activist mission for the better part of the last 3 decades. And I don’t think that is going to change over night. I do think there are already militant elements that exist throughout different segments of Egyptian society that could flare up into isolated incidents of violence. But I don’t think that is something that can be traced directly back to the Muslim Brotherhood, or even to any elements of the opposition. The only side that is focusing on violence as a means of accomplishing their goals is the Egyptian military.
PG: The Egyptian Military has destroyed many of the underground tunnels into Gaza nearly stopping the transfer of goods. Given the Israeli siege, these tunnels are essential for the Gaza economy and for the population to have access to essential food and basic goods. What effect do you think the military coup will have on the people of Gaza?
AA: This is a very important question considering once again that this military coup received so much support from liberal/progressive and revolutionary/leftist forces in Egypt and even beyond Egypt. I think some of that misguided support is the inability to see the immediate effects. This is just one area where we can see the immediate consequences of what this coup actually means. Here we’re talking about a humanitarian situation, in which the people of Gaza have been sieged for nearly a decade now and have needed all kinds of humanitarian support. The Mubarak regime was a chief partner in the siege of Gaza and once the revolution happened one of the bright spots was that the people of Gaza would have a little bit easier access to food, medical attention, goods, as well as an ease in the movement of people in and out of what is essentially an open air prison for 1.7 million people. But let’s not idealize the situation. Even under the Morsi presidency there were still an enormous degree of restrictions on the Palestinians in Gaza.
But I think we see that situation ratcheted up tremendously the moment that the military took charge—essentially resuming the siege situation. We’re now reading reports that not only has the military destroyed the tunnels used to deliver goods, but they’ve even closed the overland boarder, which allows the movement of people in and out of Gaza. On top of that the Egyptian government has said that any Palestinian traveling into Cairo on any airline will be turned back and will not be allowed to continue on. The only route to get into Gaza is to fly into Cairo and take the overland route crossing from Egypt. A lot of these signs are deeply troubling. I think it points to a certain brazen behavior on the part of the Egyptian military, which extends beyond the Egyptian people to include the treatment of the Palestinians as well.
PG: Where do you think the revolutionary energy of the youth movement will go from here? Do you see any progressive force gaining political power?
AA: I would say that I’m not very optimistic for the future prospects of the transition. The first reason is what I mentioned before: there has already been a disenfranchisement of the largest political party in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood is being completely excluded from the transition process and is being violently repressed. We’re also seeing a certain amount of horse-trading and deal making between the remaining so called revolutionary forces. These forces are made up of different revolutionary movements including the youth movement, the leftists, liberal political leaders within Egypt, and others. All of these groups seemed to have made their peace with remnants of the old regime.
So we’re seeing the temporary makeshift government is appointing former Mubarak loyalist judges to the heads of the judiciary body. We’re also seeing this within the constitution writing committee. We’re even seeing some of the ministries starting to go to figures whose reputation has been compromised by their behavior during the Mubarak authoritarian era. That is not encouraging because Egypt was expected to rid itself of a lot of these elements. We’re probably just going to see a resumption of business as usual. Perhaps there will be some slight democratic practices in which people are able to select from among a few different bad options, but I don’t think Egypt will develop any kind of alternative leadership anytime soon.