Egypt’s Second Liberation

Soon after the overthrow of the despot in Tunis and a few weeks before the end of Hosni Mubarak, Iraq’s greatest living poet – and one of the Arab world’s greatest – Saadi Youssef could hardly contain his euphoria when he wrote these lines:

“Splendid Egypt, our mother, has come to the square
Splendid Egypt has unfurled to the wind her head scarf
And turned around as a banner fragrant with jasmine and gun powder
Splendid Egypt, our mother, has come to the square
And you,
My lifetime comrade
Are there
As I had known you
With your steps ablaze in the Liberation Square
How splendid the struggle is!
How inglorious restfulness is!”

As social media and twitter analysts and their counterparts in the liberal and Western camps scramble to define whether the recent events in Cairo, where Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi was overthrown by the military on July 3, qualify as a classic military coup or people’s revolution, the Egyptian people have indeed once again proven the glory of restlessness by ousting another authoritarian leader in the space of two years, following the overthrow of Mubarak in 2011.

There are of course many features which mark out the remarkable uprising – the largest protests in Egyptian history – which led to Morsi’s comeuppance as a people’s revolution rather than an old-fashioned military coup. For one, the events of July 3 were not a unilateral action by the Egyptian military, unlike the overthrow of old King Farouk by Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers back in 1952. In this case, the army responded to almost 32 million people massed out in Tahrir Square since June 30 demanding the ouster of an authoritarian leader who had lost his mandate and consequently his legitimacy to rule. Then, prior to Morsi’s overthrow, the army continued to try to make a deal with Morsi to see if the latter would relent from the disastrous path he had put the country on, and force him to compromise and backtrack from his authoritarian ways, before finally sending him 24-hour ultimatum. When Morsi didn’t honour it, the army did what had to be done before installing the head of the Supreme Court as the Interim President, followed quickly by a civilian prime minister and one of the country’s most prominent liberal politicians and a former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Nobel Laureate Mohamed El-Baradei as his deputy.

A roadmap towards the redrafting of the constitution, followed by elections was then quickly given. Military coups are seldom marked by such magnanimity. Whereas, in 1952 the Free Officers unilaterally deposed the Khedive dynasty and took absolute power without any call for elections. It was only after they took power, that the people came organized and mobilized into the streets to voice their demands. Also, the events of 2013 bear a striking resemblance to 2011, when the million-strong crowds thronged the major cities to demand the ouster of Mubarak, following which the army confronted the latter and took power for itself. Yet, for the Egyptians the events of 1952, 2011 and 2013 all constitute key revolutionary moments to realize the promise of the Arab Spring.

If truth be told, like Mubarak in his thirty-year old dictatorship, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in their one-year of government following their election win, hadn’t done a lot to particularly endear themselves to the Egyptian masses, apart from their old support base. More was expected from Egypt’s oldest and best-organized political party, especially following decades of repression and censorship by the Nasserists and the secular dictatorships which followed them. However, there was and is much in the MB’s past history, politics and ideology to suggest that they might not make a successful transition from an opposition party to a ruling regime. They were routinely used by the British in the colonial period to organize bombing campaigns against communists and secular-nationalists demanding independence for Egypt.

When Egypt shook off the monarchy through a popular revolution and despite their leader Mohamed Qutb being offered the Education Ministry, they tried to assassinate Nasser. Throughout the dictatorships succeeding Nasser, they and their allies organized violent and destructive massacres against ordinary Egyptians and tourists and had an on again, off again relationship with the Mubarak regime: they were not only given the education and communications portfolios to Islamize the country and spawn a whole generation of angry Egyptians, but were jailed and let out frequently depending upon the temper of the day in Washington towards democracy in Egypt, serving as a convenient foil for Mubarak and his coterie to perpetuate their rule.

The slogans also did not inspire. Apart from the ‘Islam is the solution’ refrain, the MB did not have a coherent political, social and economic program to alleviate the problems of ordinary Egyptians, for which the Arab Spring uprisings broke out across the Arab world in the first place. The title of one of Egyptian’s bestselling novels in the immediate pre-Mubarak period was I Want to Get Married! When I last went to Egypt in 2006, I saw how the model whereby in every street of Cairo, the MB had managed to set up a makeshift clinic and madrassa, doling out free food and medicine to the poor could have helped as an opiate for the masses against a state that had simply withdrawn its hands from providing the same to the poor after becoming a client of the World Bank and the IMF. Obviously, having three former communists in its Central Committee also helped them achieve some grassroots respectability.

When millions erupted against Mubarak in late 2010, the MB did not immediately join the protests because they expected the protests to be crushed by Mubarak’s security establishment; and they didn’t want to damage their excellent relations with the dictator. However, it was only after some of the younger Brothers cajoled the seniors did the MB become part of the protests. Following admissions by the then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the US had been in touch with the MB for a decade, the latter also assured a lot of jangled nerves in the West about their intention to follow the Turkish model – a model of utter compliance to Washington ala NATO-Islamism, privatizing and Islamizing everything and crushing the mass movement.

Ironically the model is now no more a success in Turkey as it is in Cairo. In June, protests broke out (and are still ongoing) against the Erdogan government following a decision to privatize a public park for conversion into a historic military barracks. These protests, which were met with Erdogan’s customary arrogance and use of brutal force against the protesters, have put paid to his attempts to become a 21st-century sultan of Turkey by aiming to become its president. It should also have been a good occasion for Morsi to file his divorce from the Turkish model. But it wasn’t to be.

Here is what I wrote elsewhere earlier, in 2011, before the elections:

“In the wake of the uprising in Cairo, the military took over from Mubarak, both because of the prestige it enjoyed among the masses owing to its revolutionary history and because Washington did not want a more revolutionary alternative in the absence of a pliant client. However, the Egyptian military is no longer the revolutionary outfit it was in the 1950s; Sadat’s pro-Israeli volte-face ensured that it regularly received the bulk of U.S. aid as a valuable ally of Washington. So far, the people have been pressuring the military regime with strikes and protests on a daily basis, despite the postponement of elections.

Whatever be the outcome of the elections in November, the country desperately needs a new constitution that will guarantee basic freedoms of education, health, housing and employment as well as a renegotiation of the humiliating terms of the “peace treaty” with Israel, something that is anathema to Tel Aviv and Washington. In that, the old Nasserist state set up in 1952 could well serve as a model minus the overbearing role of the military which eventually bled the revolution to death…Now, with the successful revolt of the Egyptian people, the country’s ruling elite – primarily the military – can no longer ignore the needs and hopes of a people who are anxious to remake history in their own image, a promise unfulfilled by the revolutionaries of 1952.”

Unfortunately, the MB totally over-rode the mandate it had been given by the people after it came to power, both in terms of domestic and foreign policy. In winning the elections, it was undoubtedly a beneficiary of the sympathies of those secularists who had no sympathy for Morsi’s presidential opponent at the polls, former Prime Minister Ahmad Shafiq, a holdover from the discredited Mubarak regime, despite the fact that the latter had secular credentials. A constitution was indeed rushed through but only after the lower house of parliament was declared unconstitutional by the court, and it was imposed in a most authoritarian manner, without seeking to allay and accommodate the concerns of Egypt’s minorities, the historic Christian Copts and Shia, as well as women. It unnecessarily fanned the seeds of sectarianism against Christians and Shia with its calls for jihad and Islamizing society. It also refused to try members of Mubarak’s notorious security establishment for their brutal killings of Egyptian protesters in 2011, all the while ingratiating themselves with the police and the military.

The country’s economic problems remain unsolved, in fact a continuity from the old dispensation, since the MB had no hesitation in applying for a loan from the IMF, and maintaining the neoliberal programs that have wrecked Egypt. Meanwhile the regime’s collaboration with Israel in the policing of Gaza continued as it choked the sewers with litter and garbage so that Gazans could not escape into Egypt; the humiliating Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty (which forbids the movement of Egyptian soldiers inside their own territory without permission from Israel) was untouched. The regime in Cairo also continued its vassal status under Washington by becoming a pawn in its counter-revolutionary strategy in Syria by openly calling for supporting jihadis there against the secular government. Perhaps so grateful was Washington that as a reward they decided to send a particular Ms Anne Patterson, former proconsul in Islamabad as one to Cairo. Patterson was still busy cozying up to the MB by frequenting the office of one of its main leaders Khairat El-Shater a few days before Morsi was overthrown and even as crowds began to accumulate in Tahrir Square.

The military strongman in power, General al-Sisi is not known for secular credentials and neither as someone particularly loyal to Morsi, despite the fact that it was the latter who handpicked him last year in the hope that perhaps piety might be a good substitute for ability in the matter. It continues to show that the army has its own interests in Egypt, like everywhere else, but what also needs to be understood is that the Egyptian army unlike its counterparts in Turkey and Pakistan has a proud revolutionary tradition going back to British colonial times.

The Egyptian army has always been at the centre of major political and social upheavals in Egypt, beginning from the 1882 Urabi Revolt against the British to the 1952 Revolution against King Farouk, down to the 2011 overthrow of Mubarak and now the 2013 overthrow of Morsi. On the other hand, the armies in both Pakistan and Turkey have always sided with Washington against their people’s wishes, guilty of terrible retribution against them. Millions of Egyptians including some of the leading Egyptian intellectuals like Samir Amin, Nawal El-Saadawi, Alaa Al-Aswany and Khaled Fahmy have supported the army’s intervention against Morsi as a legitimate people’s revolution.

So what of the army now that it is once again in power? After handing power to civilians in the second week of July, it was accused of ordering a massacre of 54 MB supporters who were protesting Morsi’s detention in what the former said was an attempt to protect itself against a provocation. As I write this, that record has now been exceeded by its assault on the MB protest camp in Cairo on August 14, leading to the deaths of some 500 people. It needs to be remembered that among the millions of protesters in Tahrir Square calling for Morsi’s resignation were not only people from the left, young people, peasants, trade unions and secularists; there were also many from Morsi’s own camp who had tired of their leader, having seen neither Islam nor a solution to their problems.

As I mentioned above, the Egyptian military has been the recipient of American largesse since making peace with Israel, thus their non-revolutionary character has not changed, Baradei had undoubtedly been brought to strengthen a Plan B for Washington (he resigned in the aftermath of the August 14 assault), should the MB emerge again as the winners of another election to be organized after the Egyptian constitution has been redrafted later in the year. However it is the Egyptian people’s relationship with the ruling elite which has totally changed in the last two years, having become a proud and dignified people via a courageous struggle against both a secular dictator and a religious demagogue. They have been reading Marx’s celebrated warning against the perils of Bonapartism in revolutionary France The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte since the advent of Nasser and will set their glorious restfulness aside should the military renege on its promises to leave power.

As Marx’s prescient pamphlet vindicated by history makes clear, it is not uncommon for military interventions to pave the way either for a continuation of the revolutionary process or another round of counter-revolution. Contrary to the polite factotums of the New York Times and its like, the Egyptians are anything but a patient people, having made a dozen revolutions and rebellions in their history of 130 years. Thus there are continued grounds for hope that the revolutionary process currently under way in Egypt will neither be a tragedy nor a farce for the valiant struggles of its people.

Raza Naeem is an Arabic-speaking Pakistani social scientist, literary critic, translator and political activist (of the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party) He has been trained in Political Economy from the University of Leeds in UK, and in Middle Eastern History and Anthropology from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, USA. He is presently working on a history of pos-Arab Spring Yemen. He can be reached at: