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Shadow of the Army Over Egypt’s Revolution

by ALAIN GRESH

There may be surprise that an army source said 14 million Egyptians (some sources claimed as many as 33 million) demonstrated on 30 June, and that the army supplied the media with photos taken from military planes to back the claim (1). Or that interior ministry officials claimed the demonstrations were the biggest Egypt has ever seen. There may be scepticism over the 15 (or possibly 22) million signatures collected by the Tamarod (“rebellion”) movement for a petition demanding the resignation of President Mohammed Morsi; and over the claim by an “Egyptian philosopher” that the signatures were “recounted by the Supreme Constitutional Court” (2).

Whatever the exaggerations, the demonstrations were the biggest since January/February 2011. Egyptians gathered to repeat their demands for dignity, liberty and social justice, and to reject the policies of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood, founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1928, has often suffered repression, arrests and torture. But at every election, parliamentary or of a professional association (engineers, doctors, lawyers), it has had significant successes. For decades, its slogan “Islam is the solution”, its solidarity network and the genuine self-denial of its activists gave it an aura. The Brothers also won a majority at Egypt’s first free parliamentary election (2011/2012), with the unprecedented participation of 30 million citizens. Besides its own hardcore supporters, many others wanted to give the Brotherhood a chance.

The writer Khaled al-Khamissi recorded a taxi driver’s views just before the 2011 revolution (3). The driver said the Egyptians had already tried every other form of government — monarchy, socialism (under Nasser, but even when socialism was at its strongest the army and intelligence pashas were still pulling the strings), centrism, capitalism — and none had worked. So they might as well try the Muslim Brotherhood. At any rate, they had nothing to lose, said the driver. Earlier this year, I heard another cabdriver say the Brotherhood wasn’t working either. Two and a half years of political life and pluralistic debate, open and often polemic, have achieved what repression never managed — to force the Brotherhood into retreat.

For several months, election results have confirmed this: at the first round of the presidential election in May 2012, Morsi won just a quarter of the votes, and only gained a majority at the second round with the support of those who rejected his opponent, Air Marshal Ahmed Shafik, the candidate of the Mubarak regime. A honeymoon period allowed Morsi last August to get rid of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), responsible for the disastrous transition period after the fall of Mubarak and for many incidents of violent repression (including at a peaceful demonstration of solidarity with the Copts) (4). After that, Morsi and his organisation suffered a collapse in popularity and a decline in results, in student elections in universities, and elections of the journalists’ and pharmacists’ trades unions.

Unable to adapt

This failure is not entirely the fault of the Brotherhood, but it has not been able to adapt to the new pluralistic political situation, or escape the old habit of clandestinity, or transform itself into a political party or build alliances. It did establish the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) (5), but that is still entirely under Brotherhood control. A senior Social Democratic Party official told me that talks between his party and the FJP had to be suspended hourly so that the FJP representatives could consult the Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood had been updating itself since the 1990s, accepting the ideas of democracy and popular sovereignty. But it withdrew into itself again because of the repression after its success at the 2005 parliamentary election. At the 2009 congress, its most conservative faction, led by businessman Khairat al-Shater, consolidated its dominant position and sidelined the more open elements such as Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh.

It is not the Brothers’ religious activism or their desire to apply sharia that has repelled Egyptians (the Salafist Al-Nour Party has criticised them for their meagre record in this area): it is their incompetence and inaptitude for reform. The Brothers are a conservative organisation and have respected the established order. They have been unable to make the alliances that would have allowed a transformation of the armed forces, police and judiciary, most of which have remained faithful to the Mubarak regime.

The Brothers’ attitude to the social movement and trades unions recalls the former regime. The US magazine Merip notes: “In parliament, the Brothers eviscerated legislation that would have introduced more progressive taxation. They spurned a draft labour law that would have guaranteed the right to form independent unions through free workplace elections. Instead, they proposed to ‘regulate’ strikes and sided with employers in the wildcat work stoppages that persisted after Mubarak’s ejection … the International Labor Organisation blacklisted Egypt for failing to live up to the labour conventions to which it is a signatory. …The Morsi government ignored a court order to revoke several selloffs of public-sector firms at shamefully low prices and conducted with little or no competitive bidding [under the Mubarak regime]” (6).

Isolated, Morsi dug himself into a deeper hole in November 2012, with a constitutional declaration that gave him full executive and legislative authority. Unable to implement it, he mobilised his militias, tried to put his own people into key positions, and was accused of having “Brotherised” the state (far-fetched given that most of Egypt’s institutions were not under his control). But it would be foolish to imagine that the uprising was the result of the errors of the Muslim Brothers alone.

A relentless media machine

The Brotherhood has faced a destabilisation campaign by the former regime, with the dissolution of the elected parliament, the police refusing to maintain public order and protect its premises (significantly the interior minister was reinstated in office after 30 June), and the courts acquitting former Mubarak officials. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) placed the Brotherhood on its Predators of Press Freedom list in May (it had never done so with the Mubarak regime), but the blog The Arabist claimed that “one of the features of political life in the past year has been a relentless media machine demonising and delegitimising the Morsi administration far beyond its self-inflicted damage. Anyone watching CBC, ONTV, Al-Qahira wal-Nas and other satellite stations, or reading hysterical newspapers like Al-Destour, Al-Watan or Al-Tahrir (and increasingly Al-Masri Al-Youm) has been fed a steady diet of anti-Morsi propaganda.”

The opposition bloc National Salvation Front (FSN) took part in this campaign and did not hesitate to ally itself with the former regime. As Esam al-Amin observed, “In the ideological battle that ensued between the former revolutionary partners, the fuloul [‘remnants’ of the Mubarak regime] were able to reinvent themselves and become major players on the side of the secular groups against the [Muslim Brotherhood] and the Islamists. Recently, [Mohamed] El Baradei welcomed all elements of Mubarak’s banned National Democratic Party to join his party and the opposition, while Sabbahi [a Nasserist who came third in the presidential election] declared that the battle with the fuloul is now secondary as the primary conflict today is with the MB and its Islamist allies” (7). Sabbahi’s turnaround seems to have come from his fascination with the army and with Nasser: at the parliamentary election, his party had allied itself with the Brotherhood.

Mahmoud Badr, one of the founders of the Tamarod movement, boasted that the army’s commander in chief had bowed to his admonishments at their first meeting: “I tell you, sir, you may be the general commander of the Egyptian army but the Egyptian people are your supreme commander, and they are immediately ordering you to side with their will and call an early presidential election” (8). The reality behind the simplistic image of unorganised young people overthrowing an “Islamist dictator” is less glorious. One Tamarod activist withdrew when she saw that some of the new faces were fuloul, nostalgic for Mubarak, or justifying the work of the state security service.

There are many indications that the army (with guarantees provided by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), the state security service and the fuloul had been supporting the Tamarod movement for some time. Billionaire Naguib Sawiris, who has links to the former regime, financed Tamarod “without its knowledge”, while Tahani al-Gebali, former vice-president of the Supreme Constitutional Court, helped the movement to create a strategy for getting the army to intervene (9). After the fall of the Mubarak regime, of which she had been a pillar, Gebali had declared that the well educated should have a greater number of votes at elections (10). After Morsi’s fall, shortages (especially of petrol) magically ended and the police came back onto the streets, though there is doubt as to whether they will protect women: on 3 July, the day on which Morsi was forced out, there were 100 rapes and sexual assaults in Tahrir Square. General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the regime’s new strong man, advocated the virginity tests that the army imposed on some female demonstrators in 2011.

Morsi’s departure has not led to greater media pluralism. Some television stations have been banned, journalists have been arrested and foreign media have been criticised as they were by the official press under Mubarak. That the interim government has maintained a ministry of information is not a good sign. The state media are ignoring the demonstrations organised by the Brotherhood — though they have attracted hundreds of thousands of people — and almost all journalists fall in with the nationalist-chauvinistic tone of official declarations. (There is pressure not only on the Brotherhood but on all who criticise the official line.) But the comedian Bassem Youssef, although a declared opponent of the Brotherhood, has written in  a courageous article that he is aghast at the dehumanisation of a large section of Egyptian society (11).

What excessive force?

A textbook example is the coverage of the repression of a sit-in organised by the Brotherhood on 8 July outside the headquarters of the Republican Guard, during which at least 50 people were killed. Army spokesman Colonel Ahmed Mohammed Ali told the Associated Press: “What excessive force? It would have been excessive if we [had] killed 300.” The English-language website Madamasr has posted damning witness statements, especially one by a cameraman working for an opposition television station, which showed images of soldiers shooting at the crowd, for no reason. His video was quickly removed from the site, “so that we could hear the army’s perspective and get the full story”. An article in Al-Shourouk, quoting local residents who said the soldiers had fired first, was also rapidly withdrawn (12).

All the powers of the state are in the hands of Adly Mahmud Mansour, a member of the Supreme Constitutional Court. He had been head of it for just 48 hours when he was made interim president. Mansour, who has links to the former regime and to Saudi Arabia, where he worked for over a decade, has published a roadmap — a constitutional declaration that gives him full executive and legislative powers and calls for elections in six months’ time (13). Some unpopular articles of the former constitution have been deleted, including those relating to the consultative role of the Islamic Al-Azhar University in the formulation of legislation and to limits on trade union pluralism, but the army is still free from any civilian control. The new constitution is a step backwards in terms of religion. “The principal source of legislation” is still “the principles of sharia”, but those principles must now conform to “the doctrines of the people of the Sunna and Jam’aa” (Sunnism). This document embarrassed the FSN, which initially condemned it before withdrawing its comments. Tamarod is pursuing a campaign that calls for a ban on the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist parties — though they represent at least a third of the population.

The new government, dominated by neoliberals and figures from the former regime, has confirmed General al-Sisi in the key role of vice-premier, and he remains defence minister. The only good news is the appointment of the leader of an independent trade union as labour minister.

Observers used to wonder if, once elected, the Muslim Brothers would ever willingly relinquish power. Today they ask whether Egypt will ever see pluralist elections again, now that its first democratically elected president has been overthrown. While some of the interim leadership, including Mohamed El Baradei, maintain the Brotherhood must be included, they are silent on the unchecked and illegal repression of Brotherhood activists by the state security service and the army; the media call these activists “terrorists” and they are treated as such.

There is now to be an inquiry into how Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders managed to escape from Wadi al-Natroun prison during the 2011 uprising. For months the press, fed by the mukhabarat (intelligence services), has been publishing “revelations” about this, even claiming that the Brothers were helped to escape by Hamas, Hizbullah and Al-Qaida. This has fuelled a violent anti-Palestinian campaign (14). How long will it be before people are put on trial for having demanded Mubarak’s resignation in 2011?

Perhaps the aim is to provoke the Brotherhood into resorting to violence, so as to allow a reinstatement of the state of emergency in the name of the war on terror. Or the excuse may be the instability of the Sinai region, which predates Morsi. What is at stake is the inclusion of all forces in the political game, including the Islamists and the Brotherhood, who will have to learn from their failures and abandon their secretive culture. By shutting them out, the army and its allies are pushing them on to a radical path that could cost Egypt dear.

Alain Gresh is vice president of Le Monde diplomatique.

This article appears in the July edition of the excellent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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