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Understanding Egypt Today
By conducting a military coup on July 3, 2013 the Egyptian military acted to diffuse the near-insurrectionary outpouring of millions during June 30 Tamarod (Rebel) protests demanding an end to the discredited Muslim Brotherhood government of president Muhammad Morsi.
It is now five months since the generals “kidnapped” the revolution, as Fatma Ramadan, Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) executive board member describes it, and confusion, disorientation and even demoralization is the dividend.
The mass movement to achieve real democratic reforms has definitely been sidetracked by military-annointed, plodding government bureaucrats, many from the Mubarak-era, continuously emphasizing work, discipline and order – for others, not themselves.
Polls indicate most Egyptians still cannot identify the names of these shadowy civilian apparatchiks, including neither the president nor the prime minister.
So, clearly, in the aftermath of the July coup, it is the military once again firmly in power for the second time in as many years. For Egyptians, this is déjà vu all over again. Only the second reincarnation of military rule is far different and far worse this time around, with repression extending far beyond the now-banned and much-besieged Muslim Brotherhood.
A Nov. 26, 2013 Ahram Online report describes a new law (a clumsy English translation by a pro-labor NGO) just issued on Nov. 24 that includes “requiring protest organizers to notify authorities three days in advance of a protest’s aims and demands and imposing heavy jail terms and fines on individuals who break the law.”
Human Rights Watch agrees that it will “restrict peaceful political demonstrations in violation of international standards.”
Similar reports indicate the law also forbids sit-ins, road blocking or “negatively affecting the life of other citizens,” including “obstructing their interests,” an obvious reference to preventing strikes and other workplace protests of which 2400 were recorded in the first quarter of 2013 according to history Prof. Joel Beinin, Director of Middle East Studies at Stanford University.
Furthermore, consistent with “legalizing” repression, military trials for civilians has been reinstituted.
Yet, except for the Muslim Brotherhood, few Egyptians voice criticism of the current government. This is what is so different, so perplexingly different, from the military takeover in 2011 after Mubarak was deposed when protestors took to the streets after only a one-month honeymoon for the generals.
What is Different Today from Yesterday?
So, while repressive policies of the military have not changed much from 2011, the enormous popular support for their rule this time around is as different as night and day. No doubt, Ms. Ramadan’s insightful view that the revolution has been “kidnapped” represents a very small minority opinion.
Even the most optimistic revolutionaries concede this is true. A very informative OpenDemocracy Oct. 24, 2013 interview with Sameh Naguib, a leading member of the militant Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt says as much.
This period, Naguib acknowledged, “is more difficult than any of us can ever remember, and one of the most difficult aspects is the fact that the majority of left wing and liberal intellectuals are completely in support of Egypt’s military leadership…. I am talking about writers and novelists…intellectuals, major poets, well-known figures with a long history of democratic struggle and standing up for people’s rights.”
The problem reveals itself most vividly when the head of the military, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, declares to rounds of applause echoing throughout the country that he is seriously considering a run for president.
This is a hard pill to swallow but it is true. The Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (SCAF) enjoys overwhelming popular support for its brutal suppression of the vastly unpopular Muslim Brotherhood even as it also continues to repress labor strikes, imprison pro-democracy activists and impose draconian restrictions on the right to protest and assemble.
Repackaging Military Rule for the Majority
The biggest single element explaining popular support for current military rule, different from 2011, is the perceived threat of “terrorism” from the Muslim Brotherhood. This is a constant drumbeat of the government-controlled media and it has proven to be very effective.
Most Egyptians genuinely believe the threats are real and there is a constant government campaign to reinforce this impression. It began almost immediately.
Less than three weeks after replacing Morsi, General al-Sisi stood in full uniform on national television and summoned Egyptians to protest against violence and terrorism.
“We will not stand by silently watching the destruction of the country and the people or the torching of the nation and terrorizing of its citizens,” he said. Television commercials and billboard ads with the slogan “Egypt Against Terrorism” appear everywhere.
Plus, particularly in the northern Sinai Peninsula, there have been actual pitched battles between allies of the Muslim Brotherhood and the police. In most other areas of the country, however, it is anonymous bomb explosions targeting government buildings with no organization claiming responsibility.
Though most believe that the Muslim Brotherhood is responsible for the attacks, particularly in the Sinai, the organization vehemently denies the allegations.
Mohammed el-Beltagy, a senior Brotherhood politician told viewers in an August interview with Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, the network’s Egypt-focused channel, “Don’t be fooled by these lies and deception that aim to label us with terrorism, violence, [and] killing … at a time when the hands of the coup regime are drowned in blood.”
Yet, at the same time, he did confess on a video circulated widely in Egypt that the “violence” in Sinai would not end until Morsi is reinstated.
So, what is the truth? Has the military and police staged and orchestrated a campaign of terror?
This would not be the first time and it would be extremely naïve not to recognize at least some of the acts of violence as police provocations designed to keep the threat of terrorism alive, thus, further justifying military rule.
In any case, it is important for readers to understand that concerns about terror, real or imagined, at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood and/or its allies is the biggest factor holding back a mass response against military rule that we otherwise would have expected.
Defeat or Disorientation
But before anyone declares the revolution dead, a few things should be considered.
For example, despite onerous and undemocratic restrictions, none of the three independent union federations have been stamped out. They number over two million and still function successfully at local levels demanding improvements in wages and working conditions.
In addition, none of the basic concerns of the impoverished and beleaguered population for democracy, freedom and bread have been satisfied.
Author and distinguished Middle East scholar, Prof. Mark Levine, recently wrote in Al Jazeera that “Egypt needs tens of billions of dollars added to its GDP now….if it is to address its crippling social, economic, and infrastructural problems. Unless the military can pull off an unprecedented economic miracle in the coming months, it should surprise no one if these chants are heard in Tahrir once again, and this time the military and the deep state will not have the Brotherhood to blame.”
These are not the romantic longings of a few revolutionaries. These are the harsh realities faced by the majority of Egyptians who, ultimately, will be challenged to change history once again.
So, while the military has without doubt successfully deceived and demobilized the people for what appears to be a long and sustained period, it just as assuredly has failed to deal a death blow to the people’s movement. Ultimately, a government in the hands of the generals or their proxies will be thoroughly incapable of forestalling new massive mobilizations because they are just as thoroughly incapable of solving the prevailing harsh social and dire economic conditions.
As prominent activist Ahmed Salah observed to me in a conversation a few days ago:
“We could have said the revolution was defeated in Feb. 2011 when the military took over or when the Brotherhood took over in June 2012. No, in fact it is an ongoing revolution. Though it has its ups and downs, of course. We never considered the revolution an overnight change and we, therefore, never plan to ever stop even though the movement is temporarily off balance.”
Salah is co-founder of two premier organizations that played key roles in the original protests against Mubarak, was imprisoned and tortured during those protests and still has a rubber-coated bullet lodged in the side of his head from those exhilarating first days.
He now lives in forced U.S. exile because he faces military charges of treason related to his stance of “Neither Morsi nor the Military.”
Salah’s passion has not been extinguished, nor has his confidence that these same sentiments also stubbornly reside in the hearts of the Egyptian people, undoubtedly, still so justifiably proud of their history-making accomplishments.
People will remember how to “return to Tahrir, he told me with conviction, “once they are awakened again to the reality that their country cannot be fundamentally remade without them.”
Hopefully, the mounting record of deceit and betrayal of the revolution’s goals will eventually convince more to form a working class organization comprised of toilers, youth, women and the impoverished prepared to take power in their own name.
Carl Finamore is Machinist Lodge 1781 delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO. Arriving in Cairo only a few hours after Hosni Mubarak was deposed, he has seen up close the bravery and determination of the Egyptian people. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org