I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time in the last week trying to figure out just what has happened and is happening in Egypt. The events since June 30th have been fascinating and incredible; the 4 days of protests to push out former President Mohamed Morsi are claimed to have been the largest in human history- at least 10 million people took to the streets (maybe over 14 million) in a country of 84 million. By contrast Britain’s biggest ever demonstration was in 2003 against the Iraq War, garnering around 1 million people. The uprising was even greater than that which ousted long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The events have so many dimensions, and examining differing elements in the mix- Western media coverage, the role of the US, the power struggle in Egypt, the causes of the uprisings- provides a microcosm of everything that makes international politics so interesting.
Informal spokesmen for the military had said in recent months that they would intervene in civilian politics if the ‘majority’ willed it- and a petition started by the ‘Tamarod’, or ‘Rebel’ movement claimed to have gathered around 23 million signatures on a petition calling for Morsi to step down. Morsi’s approval rating was down to around 28%. The huge pressure on Morsi and his Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, culminated in the Egyptian Armed Forces deploying troops and tanks to the streets of Cairo and arresting Morsi and several other Muslim Brotherhood leaders, even those which dealt with non-political elements of the organisation like the Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie. This decision was taken after consultation with leaders of several opposition organisations (like the Salafist Al Nour party and the National Democratic Front) and representatives of Egypt’s differing social groups (like the Coptic Christian’s Pope) and an interim civilian government was appointed, led by Adly Mansour, recently appointed head of the Supreme Constitutional Court. However no one should have any doubt that the real power currently lies with Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, or General Sisi as he is generally known, the Supreme Commander of the army, and of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, which ruled the country during the transition from Mubarak to Morsi.
The military’s actions were met mainly with jubilation of the streets of Cairo; the scenes broadcast live on Al Jazeera from the mass crowds in Tahrir Square were incredible. There was some dissent: according to Ahram Online members of the ‘6 April Youth Movement , the Revolutionary Socialists, the Egyptian Popular Current and the Strong Egypt Party issued a statement last week in which they declared their refusal of both Muslim Brotherhood rule and military rule’. But the military still commands huge public approval- one poll puts it at 94%, the highest of any institution in Egypt. As The Economist pointed out, ‘one might have expected Egyptians to be especially wary of military intervention. The period of army rule between the fall of Mr Mubarak and Mr Morsi’s election was marked by hamfisted management, maladroit politics and vicious human-rights abuses. Before that, Egypt had suffered six decades of increasingly corrupt, army-dominated government behind a façade of civilian presidents, all of whom had previously been army officers’. ‘Virginity tests’ on female detainees, thousands of civilians tried in military courts, their closeness to the US and hugely entrenched role in civilian politics and the economy should, it seemed, have rung some alarm bells. The reaction around the world has generally been negative- the African Union has suspended Egypt’s membership, Tunisia has slammed the Army’s action, as has the governments of Turkey and Germany, to name a few. It’s not difficult to see why a country like Turkey would be highly suspicious of military intervention in civilian affairs, given its long record of military coups. But many liberal commentators in the West have also joined the chorus of condemnation of this ‘military coup’- Rupert Cornwell writing in The Independent probably sumed up the feelings best when he contrasted the ousting of Nixon in the 70’s to the way Morsi was overthrown. Most good Western liberals believe that the best way to remove someone you don’t like from power is through the ballot box or a constitutional process, as Nixon was; the Egyptian people should have waited patiently another 3 years or so until the next presidential elections came around, rather than engaging in messy direct action to remove an official. However if you are one of the 25% of Egyptians living in poverty, or a member of the liberal middle class seeing a slow stripping of your hard-won freedoms by the Muslim Brotherhood, then you don’t have 3 years to spare, and there are no constitutional mechanism for removing a president before their term has finished in Egypt. The stakes are so much higher than they are in elections in the West, and so millions felt it was necessary to remove Morsi now, not in the future. Besides, most of the liberal commentators flocking to defend ‘democracy’ now had nothing to say during the decades of Western-backed dictatorship in Egypt, so their sincerity is in serious doubt.
The Brotherhood itself echoed the Western commentators by claiming that Morsi was the ‘legitimate’ government of Egypt, thereby painting the uprising’s demands as ‘illegitimate’. However this assumes that once a leader is chosen by the people they are bound to that choice until the term is up; as political scientist David Beetham has argued, the protests constituted an act of delegitimisation in themselves. The withdrawal of consent and demand for Morsi’s removal was in itself removing the legitimacy of the government. Furthermore, there are questions to be raised about how ‘democratically’ Morsi was elected. The West usually focuses solely on whether elections are formally ‘free and fair’- that is the absence of voting fraud or physical coercion. However a richer conception of the democratic process requires a relatively level playing field upon which candidates can compete. In 2012 the Brotherhood and the Mubarak-camp candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, had prior organisational capacity and vastly superior funding to all other candidates and parties. And not only that, but the Brotherhood was well known for going in to rural areas and providing social services to effectively bribe the poor to vote for them. In an interview with the BBC’s Shaima Khalil, the spokesman for the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, Mohamad Zidan, responded to these accusations as follows: ‘that’s fine then… this is democracy. Let the others provide more services… then they will win the race. Let them do it, it’s a race’. This is a stunning admission from a senior FJP figure that the Brotherhood has a strategy of providing social services in return, effectively, for votes. Other parties and candidates lack the ability and money to do this (they don’t have wealthy backers in the Gulf) and so find themselves at a disadvantage.
As to the fact that the military took over; the unfortunate fact of Egyptian politics is that the Egyptian Armed Forces are still the real power brokers behind the scenes, and they were the vehicle that the protesters chose to use to remove the Brotherhood from power. What matters now is how the army uses their new found power, and how the protests monitor and keep checks on the army’s power until a new civilian government can fully take over. The early signs are worrying- what appears to be a relatively unprovoked massacre of 51 Morsi supporters in Cairo by the army has got events off to a terrible start. Evidence has emerged suggesting that many were shot as they were kneeling in prayer, including some children. It would take some stunning prejudice against the Brotherhood to think that the protesters could have been violent enough to warrant turning the area into a free-fire zone, injuring over 440 people. The Guardian reported that ‘the killings are being reported by state media as a legitimate action by the Egyptian Armed Forces in defence of the revolution’; words which can’t fail to remind everyone of the waves of terror that were unleashed ‘in defence of the revolution’ in post-revolutionary France, Russia and China. However, as Sheri Berman wrote in Foreign Affairs the other month, these problems often stem from the legacy of dictatorship- decades of oppression and divide and rule tactics means that deeply entrenched fault lines in society start to emerge, and the ‘deep state’ and old institutions remain more than a residue of influence upon the political behaviour. It’s not generally the revolution that causes the issues, but rather removing the hand of oppression freezing society allows the deeply infested poison of dictatorship to be drawn out, often with messy results. That said, the army is itself part of the old ‘deep state’, and so handing them the reins of power willingly is a risky strategy at best.
An interesting quirk of these events is that the urban revolutionaries have found themselves unwittingly allied with the United States government in one facet of the debate. Egyptian Streets declared that ‘THIS IS NOT A COUP D'ETAT’, arguing instead that the army was merely implementing the revolutionary wishes of the people. The US too, is reluctant to call it a coup, though for entirely different reasons. As chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman wrote, ‘as soon as the United States declares that the Egyptian government has been overthrown by a coup, it is legally bound to cut off aid to Egypt’, something it doesn’t want to do given its close relationship with the Egyptian military. In Western commentary, one of the few voices cheering on the coup came from the conservative Wall Street Journal, which came out with this gem: ‘Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile's Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy’. Wishing the Pinochet treatment on Egyptians is a throwback to the old Cold War days, when US papers would openly praise neo-Nazi and genocidal dictators in their columns (example: Time described the takeover of General Suharto in Indonesia in the 60’s, who took power in a bloodbath of over 500,000 people, as the West’s ‘best news in Asia’). It is slightly disconcerting that the Egyptian revolution finds friends in such quarters. There are also other slightly dubious aspects about certain parts of the opposition, which I will write about in another post.
A question needs to be asked about how everyone in the West failed to predict this (again). In fact, a close look back at pre-June 30th reporting shows some tentative signs of things to come. Mohamed ElBaradei, the respected figure-head of the opposition, former UN weapons inspector, and Nobel Peace laureate, was writing in Foreign Policy a month ago about how ‘people are now saying something that we never thought was possible before: that they want the Army to come back to stabilize the situation… Egypt is teetering on the brink’ (‘Case Study: Egypt’, Foreign Policy, 201). The afore mentioned Shaima Khalil of the BBC, who recorded an excellent 5-part documentary series for the BBC World Service covering all major aspects of Egyptian politics, found many protesters gearing up for a huge change in the country. Cairo has experienced protests nearly weekly since Morsi’s takeover, and she found demonstrators holding banners saying things like ‘the people want a military coup right now’. In the programme, a professor from the American university in Cairo said that ‘if we continue with this chaos, either on the economic or the political side, I expect that we are maybe going to see something of the magnitude of the revolution in the coming year or two’. The Tamarod movement was in fact already claiming that this was going to be a second revolution prior to the June 30th protests- so close observers of the country may have had a rough idea of things to come. However no one can really be blamed for missing it- political events, especially those as messy as revolutions, are nearly impossible to predict, because there are so many variables involved; ‘theorising’ in political science does us little good here. More worryingly, Khalil also reported that she heard two chilling words being uttered with disconcerting frequency in recent months: ‘Civil War’.
The next post will examine causes of the revolution and where the future of Egypt lies.