Robert Fisk, in the London Independent on Sunday 29th December, writes about the decision of the Egyptian Junta to formally declare the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) a terrorist organisation. He speculates that this may be a step towards hanging its leadership, which is currently being held incommunicado in secure military prisons. Ultimately Fisk says the Junta will fail to eradicate a movement that has been around for 85 years, but his reasoning, by reflecting a ‘meme’ that seems to be infecting reports on the MB across the Western press, appears illogical. He writes: “They will fail, of course, not least because… the Brotherhood is politically corrupt and will consort with any military regime to return to legitimacy. Morsi himself negotiated with Mubarak when the latter’s thugs were shooting down demonstrators in Tahrir Square. Sisi was appointed defence minister by Morsi”.
This ‘meme’ – that the MB are simply ‘power grabbers’ – was originally generated by the CIA-advised Egyptian Military Intelligence PSYOPS unit, under Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. This is now under the leadership of the Sisi’s brother-in-law, while the man himself is busy being groomed for the presidency. This ‘meme’ provides a description of the MB which cleverly short-circuits the fact that the MB founded a political party in 2011– the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) – which was open to all comers, non-Brotherhood members, Muslims and Christians alike, which won 213 seats out of 508 in the November 2011-January 2012 Egyptian Parliamentary elections, and one of whose members, Mohamed Morsi went on to win 51.7% of the electorate in heavily contested, well-attended, truly free and fair presidential election, for the first time in Egypt’s history. The ‘meme’ ran wild through the Egyptian media owned by the oligarchs of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP), as Morsi, now president, tried to collect back-taxes from those very same oligarchs, for the purpose of funding Egypt’s development, and is now travelling through much of the Western press, we presume as a testament purely to Galileo’s discovery of momentum.
This is the only conclusion that can possibly be arrived at, given that since the 3rd July coup, MB leaders have been held in prisons in their thousands, many in dire conditions in solitary confinement, and that this treatment, which has occasionally led to hunger strikes on their part, does not seem to have led them to want to consort with anyone, least of all with this military régime. When President Morsi was offered a reprieve for himself and all his colleagues 5 days after the coup by Army Chief-of-Staff Sobhi Sedky if only he would resign, he refused. When Sedky organised the massacre of MB supporters praying outside the Republican Guard Building where Morsi was being held at the time pour encourager les autres, this clearly had no effect on Morsi or his colleagues, in or out of prison.
When Catherine Ashton, NATO representative – sorry our mistake, EU foreign policy chief – visited Morsi on the 29th July to offer him power for 3 months, after which he would be forced to resign, Morsi still refused. After a litany of savage attacks by the security and police complex and the military on both MB supporters and the Egyptian public at large, and when Morsi finally emerged at his trial, despite all attempts by the Junta to sanitise the public appearance, as Esam el-Amin wrote in Putting Egypt’s Coup on Trial, CounterPunch November 8-10, 2013, “… on TV the people saw a glimpse of their president as a determined, defiant, and confident leader willing to give up his life to preserve their hard-earned freedoms”. In other words, the Egyptian people caught a glimpse of their Mandela, and the effect was so unnerving on the Junta that Morsi has once again been bundled off into the unknown, while any future trials are unlikely to be broadcast at all, even if, as last time, state media could still supply tens of technicians, under the supervision of Egyptian Military Intelligence, to Photoshop the TV output.
Brendan O’Neill in the London Telegraph on Thursday 19th December, gets the picture when he writes: “Who was the greatest champion of democracy in 2013? Unbelievably, the Muslim Brotherhood”. But ‘unbelievably’ is what O’Neill means because otherwise the MB “is no defender of true, meaningful democracy, far less individual and minority rights. In fact it’s a frequently intolerant outfit, harrying and sometimes persecuting those who don’t buy into its Islamist agenda”. He makes the acute statement that the main reason for the accolade he is awarding is a result of ‘the stunning failure of Westerners who claim to love democracy’ to condemn the coup. But herein lies the problem, for no Islamic Sunni popular movement has ever had a chance to actually prove itself in government, without it being crushed. So how do we actually know all this stuff about the MB? When the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut – FIS) won 231 out of the 430 seats in the Algerian parliament in free and fair elections, they were crushed before getting five minutes in government, on the basis that they were going to build – and this is the Algerian military talking mind you – a totalitarian state. Apart from the fact that the Algerian military were talking nonsense, if they had the guns, couldn’t they just wait and use them later when matters had cleared up a bit, instead of starting an 11-year civil war?
But Morsi was – sort of – in power for a year, so actually we perhaps have something to analyse. Recognising the fact that ‘power-grabbing’ is essentially, within limits, the business of politics; can we say that the MB have been ‘power grabbers’ purely and simply, in the sense outlined by O’Neill, namely that there is there a hard-and-fast agenda to be imposed – coûte que coûte – that is insensitive to whatever political environment the MB finds itself in? And will it all or won’t it end up like Algeria?
There’s No Smoke Without Fire: So Let’s Enquire
After the 25th January revolution, the MB and the ‘liberal’ parties clashed. The ‘liberal’ parties consisted of patrician organisations like el-Wafd, left-wing youth organisations like April 6th, and ‘We are All Khalid Said’, hard-core Marxist-Stalinists acculturated in the ‘deep state’, and variety of hang-over parties from G. W. Bush’s ‘Freedom Agenda’ period, as well as the personality of el-Barade‘i hailing from the UN-osphere. Clearly, the MB had the advantage of unity and experience. A committee was formed on 26th February by SCAF under Mubarak critic Tareq al-Bishri to amend the 1971 Egyptian Constitution to loosen candidacy requirements in forthcoming elections, and limit presidential terms (the bane of Egyptian politics), together with limiting the power to impose emergency law (the other bane of Egyptian politics). Unlike the MB, the liberal parties refused this roadmap, and wanted more time to form their own parties. They claimed that the MB, many of whose members had been in prison under the previous régime, were simply interested in grabbing power, and given that some of them had past prison terms, they were benefitting from the looser candidacy requirements, which involved an amnesty.
The MB’s strategy was one of gradualism. They had won 87 out of 454 seats in Mubarak’s November/December 2005 parliamentary elections, which they had contested knowing cynically that they would be rigged. The seats were won by members of the Brotherhood standing as independents, although the MB itself, as an organisation, was banned. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) won the majority of seats in those elections, which were marred more by the fact that voter turnout was 25%, than by the fact that they were rigged. If in 2011, in new elections, the MB could reform itself as a legally represented organisation, wouldn’t that be a logical step forward? Tareq al-Bishri had made a proposal for a new constitution which the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) were happy with, which did not exactly reflect the root and branch spirit of the revolution, but which would lead to elections which, this time, would be free and fair, based on a constitution which was trying to reform the worst aspects of past Egyptian political life. Was that in of itself not an advance on the 2005 Mubarak elections?
Rather than facing the facts of Egypt’s Byzantine political system, the motley crowd of liberal parties looked inward at their own electoral weakness and refused to play. The MB had campaigned in 2005 as individuals, whereas the liberal parties had never campaigned. But one would ask them: how else could you build your political parties, other than by campaigning and demanding elections as quickly as possible? But they wouldn’t have it. They asked SCAF to act as a ‘guardian’ of the political system, whilst they would do whatever they thought they should do to prepare themselves for their future in politics. It was then in early 2011 that the revolution was lost, and that the 3rd July 2013 coup became the grindingly depressingly inevitable outcome of it all. The reason: SCAF had enormous economic power, beyond anybody’s wildest imagination, but it didn’t have political (or for that matter military) power. In 2011, SCAF was politically on a level-playing field with the MB and the liberal parties. Asking it to suddenly become the ‘guardian’ of the political system, rather than striking the electoral iron while it was hot, was asking for trouble. Perhaps the MB’s gradualism had a rationale after all? If so there would be no unprincipled ‘power-grabbing’ here, merely political wisdom.
The Development of Military Under Mubarak
There were four important features to the military under Mubarak:
(1) Ever since 15th of April 1989, when Mubarak removed 1973 War- hero, Charlie Wilson’s war-co-conspirator, and large-scale international arms dealer, Abdul-Halim Abu-Ghazala, as head of the armed forces, and replaced him with the ‘poodle’ Mohamed Tantawi, Mubarak and his NDP crony-capitalist élite had the political power. It was with great joy that SCAF acquiesced on 11th April 2011 to the Egyptian street’s demand to close down the NDP, and ban former NDP members standing for political office in the future. Although no-one in the military backed revolutionary demands for the humiliation of Mubarak and his sons in court, they were nevertheless delighted that the revolution had put pay to Mubarak’s plan for his son Gamal to succeed him, which succession would have perpetuated the political power of the NDP.
(2) Ever since ‘al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya’, a breakaway Islamic militant group bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, Omar Suleiman had started to manage Cairo’s end of Bill Clinton’s ‘rendition’ (kidnap and torture) programme. When Mubarak himself became subject to an attempt on his life by yet another breakaway Islamic militant group called ‘Egyptian Islamic Jihad’, in Addis Ababa at the June 1995 conference of the Organisation of African Unity, he tripled the budget and size of the security-police complex [viz.: Yezid Sayigh, Above the State: The Officers’ Republic in Egypt, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 2012, p. 7,download PDF]. This was seized on as an opportunity by Douglas Feith, Bush’s Undersecretary of Defence for Policy, after 9/11 when he judged that the US may have had enormous military capabilities, but that it had limited intelligence. The security-police complex became the basis of the strategic US-Egyptian alliance rather than the bloated and inefficient military, whose reputation with the US after the 1991 Gulf War fell sharply. Omar Suleiman, rather than Mohamed Tantawi became the point man. In fact, the US, who weren’t particularly enamoured of Mubarak’s succession plans used the events of the revolution to force Mubarak on 29th January 2011to finally appoint a Vice-President, in the person of none other than Omar Suleiman. The intention was for Suleiman to succeed as President, but SCAF sided with the revolutionaries in making him resign with Mubarak on February 11th. Announcing on April 9th 2012 his contention of the upcoming Presidential elections, Suleiman reappeared, but then he just as quickly disappeared and died of a mysterious illness.
(3) In 1991, in the wake of Operation Desert Storm, Mubarak launched a major privatization of public sector economic enterprises following a massive write-off of Egyptian external debt and renegotiation of Egypt’s 1987 agreement with the International Monetary Fund. The result of the sales of state assets in this period, was not very different to the 1990s Russian experience where a few oligarchs seized the economy, except that in the Egyptian case the advantageous position of former officers embedded in the civilian administration, meant that the military soon gained considerable influence in the Egyptian private sector, as well as maintaining its stranglehold on those crucial state assets that would never be sold off, such as the Suez Canal, and the petroleum and mining sectors. Privatisation seemed to have been carried out with the purpose of providing senior officers with post-retirement career tracks and financial security, and the armed forces as a whole with major income streams. This was therefore not a situation any longer where the military formed a ‘state within a state’, but one of almost complete economic control which Yezid Sayigh, in his report on the ‘Officer’s Republic’, calls ‘distorted capitalist development’ [viz.: Yezid Sayigh, Above the State: The Officers’ Republic in Egypt, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 2012, p. 7].
(4) Under Tantawi, Abu-Ghazala’s corporate management of the army as a self-sufficient organic whole, changed into a narrow élitism. Promotion from the ranks was restricted, and nepotism became rife amongst the officer class, who were allowed to form their own private companies and bid for subcontracts. Those who did not have their own companies by the time they retired, would be pensioned-off to state-owned enterprises and ministries, or to military-owned businesses operating internationally. The military class, as opposed to those in any other sector of government came to represent Egypt’s new upwardly mobile ‘middle class’. Their aspirations were reflected in their move to expensive gated communities, and to frequenting member-only military country clubs, into which women in the ultra-conservative niqab or men in peasants’ gallabiyyah would be denied entry [viz.: Yezid Sayigh, Above the State: The Officers’ Republic in Egypt, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 2012, p. 20]. The Islamic idiom among civilians in general is in fact derided as the mark of an inferior race, and as Ramzy Baroud explains about the poor in Egypt in On Egypt’s Class-Struggle, Counterpunch August 22, 2013: “… [they] are not hated, they are loathed”. It has to also be emphasised that this military in Hugo Boss uniforms mixes socially with a large cross-section of the politicised ‘liberals’ in Egypt, with some exceptions amongst the youth. Neither mix at all with the poor constituencies of the MB.
The Power Grab by the Military and the Gradualism of the MB
It is in the context of these facts, more than in respect of the memory of the 1954 and 1965 massacres of Muslim Brothers by Nasser, that the MB fashioned its misunderstood gradualist and accomodationist approach. There was no fear factor. The military had simply changed. Many of the generals were wealthier than Saudi Arabian princes, with whom they were now also partners in major projects both in Egypt and in the Middle-East region. Politics was going to be about convincing them that it was in their interest to share their wealth with the country at large. But giving SCAF the time and the opportunity to become the ‘guardian’ of the nation would pander to their unbridled superiority complex, risking their political and social inexperience, and lead to the disastrous consequences we have seen.
It’s not as if the MB didn’t often consider the embrace of the revolutionary spirit in its fullest sense in early 2011, throw caution to the winds, and pull down the state and the entire economy with it, around the knees of the Egyptian people. Yahya Hamid reports that this thought often occurred to some of the handful of ministers around and loyal to Morsi, and his insights on the subject are extremely useful. Hamid is one of the leaders of the National Alliance in Support of Legitimacy which co-ordinates demonstrations in Egypt, and was previously Minister of Investment in Morsi’s government. Having been one of the few of Morsi’s close advisers not to be forcibly disappeared, he stayed out of the limelight only to appear in the UK and talk with Ahmed Mansour of al-Jazeera TV on the 11th December and the 18th December in a two-part interview. Yahya Hamid was the last person to leave the President’s side on that fateful afternoon on the 3rd July 2013 when the coup occurred, and it was he who recorded the video of President Morsi’s last message to the people of Egypt on his mobile.
Hamid focuses in his interviews on the difficulties of trying to manage the Egyptian economy in the face of a recalcitrant military. He discusses the facts of his own ministry which supervised 168 investment companies held by 9 holding companies, 70-80% staffed by military personnel who enjoyed salaries and perks in the millions. Of the total revenues of these holding companies of 68 billion Egyptian Pounds a year, only 1 billion Egyptian Pounds ever reached the Egyptian Treasury. He also compares the total budget of the Egyptian government of 690 billion Egyptian Pounds with the revenues of what are called ‘special economic bodies’ managed largely by military personnel such as the ports, the Suez Canal, and the Petroleum Ministry, which come to 900 billion Egyptian Pounds, from which the state budget benefits to the tune of a mere 2 billion Egyptian Pounds, aside from the contribution of the Petroleum Ministry. When it comes to the Petroleum Ministry however, the contribution is negative rather than positive. Here the state receives 37 billion Egyptian Pounds, but it then pays out costs of 190 billion Egyptian Pounds to this Ministry out of its meagre budget of 690 billion Egyptian Pounds. The mining and quarry sector earns well over 10 billion Egyptian Pounds a year, whereas the Egyptian state doesn’t see any more than 1 billion Egyptian Pounds of that, and even that is not centrally allocated, being paid in fact into slush funds at the level of the various governorates.
In the end, leaving aside the 250,000 privates in the army who only earn something like 150 Egyptian pounds each per month, there are something like 50,000 officers who seem to absorb well over 250 billion Egyptian pounds (that is, from the numbers that were known to Morsi’s government), which is a figure in excess of the state budget deficit of 240 billion. Given that officially, military expenditure in 2012 was 25 billion Egyptian pounds, this gives us a picture of extraordinary personal incomes for the military, extraordinary especially since the incomes are clearly skewed towards the top leadership. And this is not, according to Hamid, a feature only of the Egyptian state budget: it also applies to the $ 1.8 billion in annual US military aid of which, in the full knowledge of the US government, a large proportion is paid out in cash bonuses to this same leadership.
We know that reform of all these features of the economy had to proceed in the context of a continuing destabilisation of the Morsi government by the security-police complex and the military. Esam el-Amin wrote about Morsi inGrand Scam: Spinning Egypt’s Military Coup on Counterpunch July 19-21, 2013: “… many public officials who professed loyalty to the hapless president were actually undermining his rule all along, while the opposition accused him of packing the government with MB loyalists”. The part of the Interior and Electricity Ministers appointed by SCAF in causing instability for the Morsi government was clear. This was done either through the creation of so-called ‘black block’ militias (of policemen and hired thugs) to ransack property and businesses, or though organised power cuts, or disruptions in the gasoline supply chain. While this was going on, Morsi, and his prime minister Hisham Qandil, had to cope with constant objections from SCAF when attempting to reform any of the economic ministries which they controlled, whether it be the Ministry of Finance, International Co-operation, Supply, Investment, Mines and Quarries, or Petroleum, or of course the ‘special bodies’, especially the Suez Canal. Not only did the finances of these ministries remain as ‘black boxes’, using Hamid’s words, but major industrial projects agreed to by Morsi with Qatar, South Korea and Japan in the Suez Canal Zone were simply scuttled by SCAF’s delaying tactics in cabinet. The same went for water desalination project in Western Egypt, or agricultural projects in Sinai. Not only did the military feel it owned all the economic ministries, but it felt it also owned entire provinces of Egypt, including the Suez Canal.
Nevertheless under Morsi, the efforts of the handful of ministers around him who were appointed by him led in one year of government to a 12% growth in tourism, a 3.7% growth in industrial and agricultural exports, and a drop in imports of 9% due to import substitution, resulting in particular from a growth in local wheat production. There were 800 business start ups per month in that period, up 25% from the previous year, and a 100% increase in inward investment. One of the most interesting reforms Morsi made was in the petroleum sector, where gas exploration rights were granted to Gazprom to end BP’s monopoly in Egypt, which under Mubarak made no money at all for the state treasury. With tax revenues up 30% in the year, half of which was due to Morsi’s efforts in claiming unpaid taxes from NDP oligarchs, the health budget was increased by 5 billion Egyptian Pounds and the education budget by 14 billion Egyptian Pounds. Hamid makes the point that except for Qatar, none of the countries in the Gulf, Europe or America that had always helped Mubarak, offered Morsi financial help of any kind, although the US did send some $190m (officially due under USAID programmes).
But as more and more civilians were brought in to manage the various ministries, Hamid says that he began to feel the writing on the wall. The MB came to be blamed for ‘packing’ the government with their own people. Morsi’s efforts were being decried as monstrous and a major economic failure, not only by the private media owned by either NDP oligarchs or investors close to SCAF, but by the Egyptian state media itself, a powerful element of the ‘deep state’ peppered with former generals of one kind or another, totalling 46,000 employees. But none of the above comes close to giving us an idea of the overall influence of SCAF, as the fact that the military controls the Administrative Monitoring Authority (AMA). After the media, the army, the police, and the judiciary, the AMA counts as the fifth leg of the Egyptian ‘deep state’, representing, according to Yezid Sayigh, the ‘most important instance of military penetration of the civilian bureaucracy’ [viz.: Yezid Sayigh, Above the State: The Officers’ Republic in Egypt, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 2012, p. 12]. It was established in 1958 to investigate administrative and financial violations, across the state apparatus, except for the armed forces, which essentially staff it, along with the police. There are other auditing bodies with qualified lawyers and accountants, but the AMA overrules them, and it traditionally served Mubarak ‘to intimidate and punish opponents, and keeping regime supporters in line’.
On the 8th August (2012) when Morsi removed Tantawi as head of the armed forces, this was followed by a purge of 300 generals from the armed forces and 700 generals from the security-police complex. This didn’t change the facts as they have been reported above. When Ahmed Mansour of al-Jazeera asked Hamid in his interview why Morsi didn’t cut even deeper, and allow middle-management, where corruption is known to be much less rife, to take over, Hamid said that there were two problems associated with this: (a) a credibility problem where further redundancies would have required proper proof of corruption of all the individuals concerned, which would in turn have been fought tooth and nail by the AMA and (b) a political problem in that the original root and branch question had to be answered – do we want strife and a total collapse of the state and the economy? Yezid Sayigh in fact writes at the end of his report: “Only after the officers’ republic is completely extricated from the Egyptian state and dismantled, can Egypt’s second republic be born’.
When the military got fed up with the Morsi government interfering with its business, and when it had re-aligned itself with the US as the new base for the Strategic US-Egyptian Alliance, largely by repositioning intelligence through Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s brother-in-law at Egyptian Military Intelligence, bullying the US all the while for not giving it more support, and charging it with supporting the MB against Egypt’s interests, it arrested Morsi.
Hamid explains that Morsi had been expecting and dreading this moment throughout his presidency, trying at every refrain, with every new set of tensions, to calm things down. Towards the end Sisi was pretending with the 30th July Tahrir Square demonstrations that the problem was with the liberal opposition, but when Morsi accepted all the changes to the constitution supposedly required by them and signed a memorandum of agreement with Sisi on the subject, Sisi left without even going to meet with the opposition. He intended all along to arrest Morsi. When Hamid went with Esam el-Haddad (special advisor to the President for external affairs) 48 hours before the coup to visit US Ambassador, Anne Patterson to try and arrange a meeting with all the opposition parties, Patterson answered: ‘Mr Haddad your audience, your only audience, is Sisi’.
What’s in Store for Egypt and the (apart from Hamid) Incarcerated Morsi Government?
The US and the EU have not officially condemned the coup, although individual heads of state in Europe whom Hamid has met on his tour do not seem to be favourably disposed towards the Junta. Meanwhile its members and acolytes are being sued by the FJP in international courts, and the European Council on Foreign Relations is condemning the whole process of the referendum on the new military constitution.
We have warned of a possible Algeria situation developing in Egypt, with untold horrible consequence for the world. Already the Sinai tribes are engaging in a militant struggle through a breakaway Islamic group called Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which took responsibility for the Mansoura police station bombing in Egypt. We are amazed that the Sai‘d (Southern Egypt), the original home of ‘al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya’, has not erupted into militancy. This can only be out of loyalty to Morsi, and his repeated demands to stick to peaceful protest at whatever the cost. They are hoping that the US and the EU see the light and insist on Morsi’s unconditional return.
The Junta is relying on funding from Saudi Arabia, but Saudi Arabia suddenly finds itself without friends. Qatar continues to pledge support for the MB, the Sultanate of Oman scuppered plans for closer security arrangements between the Gulf states, and it together with the Emirates and Kuwait have taken the fast track to repair relations with Iran, since the US volte-face. The Emirates fired the Dubai police chief who was the point man on the Egyptian coup, and Kuwait itself has publicly withdrawn support from the Egyptian Junta. There remains the odd couple of the Saudi-Israeli rump behind the Junta, and now the decision lies with the US, whose whole Middle-East policy lies in unfortunately in shambles. Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon in the New York Times on January 6th are asking the US government not to help in the creation of a new al-Qaeda, while an LA Times editorial says it as it should be said: Stop coddling Egypt’s military.
The US has the power to do so: does it have the political will?
Mohamed Malik can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Omar Kassem can be reached through his website: http://different-traditions.com/