Fall 2013, Vol. 15, No. 1

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Springtime For Egypt's Military
by Ronald C. Kiener


In late June and early July, while America’s attention was fixed on the murder trial of George Zimmerman in Florida, a far more momentous life-and-death story was playing out in the streets of Cairo. But because the cable news channels had gone all-in on Zimmerman, the best they could do was a running scroll or a picture-in-picture box of Tahrir Square awash with protestors. So what if Egypt changed hands a second time in as many years?

The biggest media loser in the Zimmer-mania was the incoming new kid on the block, al-Jazeera America (AJAM), still more than a month away from going live in 40 million American homes. Due to launch on August 20, AJAM just missed what would surely have been a debut ratings bonanza.

Established in 1952 by a group of nationalist soldiers known as the Free Officers, the “Arab Republic of Egypt,” as it is officially known, supplanted the British-backed monarchy of King Farouq I. For 60 years and through three presidents, the Egyptian military was master of the state. Would the Arab Spring really bring an end to Egypt’s 60-year “deep” regime? 

At first it seemed that the answer was yes. After the removal of President Hosni Mubarak—who had ruled the country for 30 years and intended to hand over the presidency to his unpopular son—referenda were held, the constitution was changed, and free elections for parliament and president took place.

But it was not what it seemed to be. Waiting just off-camera, monitoring it all, were the self-described “Guardians of Egypt”—the Egyptian military.

Revolutions often give rise to counter-revolutions, and in July of 2013 a populist tamarud (“rebellion”) emerged against modern Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Mursi, who had been elected 13 months earlier. The military, the only force capable of effecting the 2011 revolution, became yet again the moving force of the Ramadan Rebellion of 2013.

The Islamic religious calendar is not tied to seasonal regularity, and this year the penitential month of Ramadan took place in the heat of the summer—introduced by the tamarud/military coup d’état and serving as the incubation period for the anti-tamarud forces’ failed pushback when the holiday was over.

Ramadan requires a daytime liquid and solid fast, and in the public square the non-Muslim minority best not defy the solemn nature of the month’s meaning for 90 percent of the Egyptian populace. A summer Ramadan in Egypt, as in most Muslim-majority countries, normally occasions a significant fall-off in daytime work-hours and a noticeable drop in domestic GDP. 

The tamarud, which started as a petition movement calling for Mursi’s removal, eventually took its message of irhal (“be gone!”) to the streets of Cairo and Alexandria. In Cairo, the tamarud assembled in iconic Tahrir (Liberty) Square. These were the images that were broadcast throughout the world (except for the United States) and became the backdrop for the military coup. 

With the installation of a new caretaker president, prime minister, and technocrat cabinet, the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimin) had to come to terms with its bitter, crushing defeat. After six decades of persecution and imprisonment, the political elite of the Ikhwan had dived head-first into democracy and won fair and square their first time out. Now they were out on the street, or imprisoned. Same as it ever was.

It would not be in Tahrir that the pro-Mursi throngs would assemble in the week leading to Ramadan. Two other Cairene public squares became the spawning ground for the inevitable Brotherhood response. One of them, Nahda, was near Cairo University. The larger was Rabaa al-Adawiya (an adjacent mosque by the same name honors a beloved 8th-century female mystic) in Nasr City, and it became the center of resistance to the military coup.

With the advent of Ramadan, the protestors—mostly followers of the “path of God”—soon set up a Ramadan-themed 24/7 encampment, a kind of Occupy Cairo mini-city. Sympathizers called it a sit-in—but among the residents were men with automatic weapons. For one long, hot, sacred month there was a kind of collective pause, punctuated by violent confrontations between pro- and anti-Mursi demonstrators. Each side claimed the other provoked the violence.

Appeals to the international community were answered with toothless diplomatic communiques and pronouncements. Throughout the month, Western governments urged a de-escalation of the looming confrontation, and the U.S. Congress pointlessly debated with the White House as to whether what had just transpired was a military coup.

As Ramadan ended, the Americans flew in. A senior U.S. diplomat (playing good cop) and two Republican lions of the Senate, John McCain and Lindsay Graham (playing bad cops), held the requisite talks and McCain tweeted a picture of himself in discussion with General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who had engineered Mursi’s removal. But nothing came of it. There was no de-escalation.

On the eve of the concluding feast day of Ramadan (Id al-Fitr), the generals announced they would not tolerate the “terrorist” mini-cities to continue once the holy month was over. Three days after Id al-Fitr, on what is now called Black Wednesday, the fledgling counter-revolution was brutally put down. A murderous crackdown cleared Nahda in a morning and Rabaa al-Adawiya in a day, leaving hundreds dead and thousands injured.

In a wave of sectarian revenge, pro-Mursi mobs proceeded to burn a number of Coptic churches to the ground. The resulting carnage produced a small crack in the puppet government, as former Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed El Baradei resigned only a month after he had been appointed vice president.

Once again the domestic media was drawn into the fray, and al-Jazeera Arabic stayed true to its editorial reading of the crisis, shamefully using its satellite feed to incite the rapidly failing revolt. On August 17, for example, al-Jazeera broadcast a Brethren spokesman who claimed al-Sisi was a Jew engaged in a Zionist conspiracy taken straight from the pages of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. During the siege of Rabaa al-Adawiya, the network simply handed a microphone to a screaming Brother who called upon Egyptians to rise up in revolt.

After Mursi’s overthrow, al-Jazeera’s Cairo bureau was raided, its bureau chief taken in for questioning, and its broadcast temporarily suspended. Foreign journalists claimed they were being forcefully targeted by security officers; four were killed in the crackdown, including a veteran SkyNews cameraman. Meanwhile, Nilesat, the state telecommunications provider, took off the air Islamist and political satellite channels that covered the events, such as Misr 25, Al-Nas TV, Al-Rahma TV, and Al-Khaleegiya TV.

By the end of the first day, August 14, the military had re-imposed emergency rule, suspending all constitutional rights of the citizenry. In subsequent days, hundreds more died, and within a week the Ikhwan’s “supreme guide,” Mohamed Badie, and most of his lieutenants were under arrest.

In all three cases of Egyptian regime change—the 1952 revolution against Farouq, the 2011 revolution against Mubarak, and the 2013 rebellion against Mursi—it was the Egyptian army that acted as final arbiter, determining the outcome. The army is comprised of a half million impoverished conscripts and is led by an elite officer corps that enjoys all the benefits of suckling at the teat of the country’s military-industrial complex. Overseeing the army is the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

A generation of rigid Soviet-trained generals is giving way to new American-educated leaders. (Al-Sisi, to all appearances an observant Muslim, is the first commander of SCAF to have spent a year studying in the U.S., at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.) In both its leadership and its equipment, the Egyptian army is transitioning from Cold War-era Soviet dominance to American-developed strategic thinking and cutting-edge Silicon Valley technology.

But while the army under SCAF has proven to be the lead actor, Egyptian politics is comprised of many lesser players. Seething beneath the deep regime is a varied cast of Islamists and secularists, business elites and peasants, educated city dwellers and illiterate villagers, Muslims and Copts. These camps do not translate into easily digested political binaries.

The contentious political drama has been roiling since the early 19th century, when the Albanian commander Muhammad Ali came to power and propelled the nation state of Egypt on a trajectory of secular modernization. A century later, Egypt birthed modern Arab politics. In the aftermath of World War I, the country’s internal political discourse was vibrant and relatively unfettered—dominated by the secular Wafd party, which led the transition to a constitutional monarchy in 1923. To be sure, the goings-on were taking place under the watchful eye of the British colonial overlords, who ruled the country from 1882.

Whether as a hereditary dynastic or (as the British insisted) a constitutional monarchy, the Egyptian state had to contend with a deep-seated religious establishment. In every instance, the state sought to coopt and contain local religious judges and their courts, and such national institutions as al-Azhar University in Cairo, the country’s premier religious academy.

Egypt did not seek the exclusion of religion, as Ataturk did in Turkey. Rather, slowly and steadily it legalized a patchwork of official and ad hoc understandings that placed most religious institutions under the watchful eye of the state. The socio-political Muslim Brotherhood movement emerged in the late 1930s to champion the interests of the religiously minded, but to no avail. Egypt was on a seemingly long march towards secularization and modernity.

But when the Wafd became discredited through its participation in the puppet monarchy of Farouq and the Free Officers brought down the royal house, the new military leaders were left to deal with the sticky wicket of Islam. Indeed, during the Revolution of 1952 they and the Ikhwan worked hand-in-hand. That marriage of convenience unraveled in short order, however. A failed assassination attempt by an Ikhwan activist against Nasser, the eventual leader of the revolution, led in 1954 to a violent crackdown against the Brotherhood and the imprisonment of all its leaders. (That crackdown provided the template for the summer of 2013.)

What was left of the Ikhwan was driven underground, arising periodically—when bread prices were hiked, or when Egypt struck a deal with enemy Israel—to challenge Nasser and his successors Anwar al-Sadat and Mubarak, but never with success. In the meantime, the military leaders continued fortifying their statist dictates, subjecting Islamic institutions to an ever tighter chokehold.

A similar kind of statism emerged in the neighboring Jewish state of Israel. Religious institutions were formalized and granted limited authority, but subjugated under the control of the government. In both Egypt and Israel, the patchwork arrangement was born of Ottoman policy and later British colonial rule confronting a citizenry that constructed its identity at least in part along confessional lines. In neither case were the secularists and the theocrats content with the arrangement, but the statist program satisfied the overwhelmingly secular sentiments of Nasser’s officers and Israel’s political elite. 

Would the revival of political Islam in the 1970s—spurred by the ignominious defeat of five Arab armies at the hands of Israel, the OPEC oil embargo, and the relentless siren call of globalizing modernism—lead to a revisiting of the statist arrangements for Egypt? There could be no doubt that in the late 70s and early 80s, Islamists throughout the Muslim world were poised to raise a challenge to the existing order: Ayatollahs in Iran, Ikhwan-inculcated officers in Syria, Shi’ite militants in Lebanon.

But whereas others succeeded, Egypt produced more of the same. When a religiously motivated assassin shot Sadat to death in 1981, the Egyptian military state rallied and survived, cracking down yet again on the obdurate Islamists.

In Egypt, decades of largely quietist Brotherhood opposition to the military state paid off in January of 2011, and the Ikhwan joined forces with liberal secularists and the even more Islamically stringent Salafis who had initiated the Tahrir Square protests to demand the removal of the corrupt and venal Mubarak. After SCAF removed Mubarak, the Brothers were presented with a fateful decision: engage the political process (controlled every step of the way by SCAF) and participate in the promised democratic elections, or piously stand aside.

Given the long history of Egyptian politics, this was no trivial decision. Would forming a political party play into the hands of the military, and would the Ikhwan find itself once more the weaker partner in a SCAF-led monstrosity, only to be decapitated yet again? Or would the new constitutional process, culminating in popular elections, provide a path to full legitimacy?

The Ikhwan’s core goal has always been to inculcate Egyptian society with Islam by means of charitable good works and promoting the good and shunning the evil. At first, it promised to refrain from formal political engagement, but internal debate between activists and quietists, and the enticing promise of legitimacy, encouraged the formation of a political Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).

After a few false starts, and with great success in legislative elections in 2011, the FJP presented Mohamed Mursi, a U.S.-trained PhD in material science and member of the Ikhwan Guidance Office, as its 2012 candidate for president. The Brothers had taken the bait.

In a tight presidential election—the results were held for days pending SCAF review—Mursi, who garnered 25 percent in first-round voting, found himself winner in June 2012 (just a few days after the new Islamist-dominated parliament had been disbanded by the Supreme Constitutional Court) in a two-way runoff with a Mubarak-era holdover, garnering 51.7 percent of the vote.

The new president worked quickly to assert new powers that he thought came with the office. In short order, he reinstated parliament and obtained the resignation of the commander of SCAF, appointing in his stead the supposedly more sympathetic al-Sisi to be defense minister and SCAF head. At the time it looked like an Islamist-led civilian government had taken the reins of power away from the military, much as the Islamist AKP party had done in Turkey ten years earlier.

But Mursi proved incapable of wresting control from the SCAF. He acted exactly like the neophyte he was, quickly becoming unpopular with the coalition of citizens that had narrowly elected him and crossing the army. He was utterly unequal to the job, and was done in by his own clumsiness.

At first Mursi acted as if his narrow victory translated into a result in which he held all the political cards. Hundreds of Mubarak-era officials were sacked and replaced by Ikhwan functionaries who had no idea how to effectively operate the levers of the gargantuan Egyptian bureaucracy. The country was running out of foreign currency for the purchase of basic foodstuffs and gasoline.

Mursi also attacked and muffled the domestic media that criticized his majoritarian rule—most famously when television satirist Youssef Bassem, dubbed the “Jon Stewart of Egypt,” was charged with insulting him. More seriously, as the reliable Committee to Protect Journalists made clear in an August report titled “On the Divide: Press Freedom at Risk in Egypt,” dozens of editors at state-run newspapers were sacked and replaced by Ikhwan appointees.

As noted Cairene blogger @TheBigPharaoh put it, “[Mursi’s] rule was not democratic and his focus was on serving the interests of his dogmatic organization and not the revolution.” It was all from the old playbook of Mursi’s predecessors. 

For its part, the Egyptian military was utterly frustrated with the president’s embrace of the Palestinian Hamas in Gaza, and was humiliated in the Sinai by Ikhwan-affiliated guerilla attacks against its outposts. In November 2012, Mursi suspended the constitution and made his office the final arbiter of all matters concerning governance.

The final straw came early last summer when Mursi’s open embrace of the revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which went directly against SCAF’s regional strategic calculations. Whatever the tamarud activists were up to, it was the rift with the military that ultimately brought about the coup.

In January 2011, the army—originally called out to defend Mubarak—was met by protestors who chanted, “the army and the people are one hand,” and eventually carried out the popular will against one of their own. In an ironic twist, the army in August 2013 was hailed by a majority of Egyptians as heroes yet again, even as it turned against the president it had created.

Now, in the wake of the extreme measures it used to beat down the Ikhwan, it remains to be seen if the populace will continue to hold the military in such esteem. So far, there have been no defections amongst the troops, and the generals and their technocrat civilian politicians enjoy grudging support. Even the potentially infuriating release of Mubarak from prison detention has not shaken the popularity of the ruling regime.

The one-year Ikhwanate is over. A broken, fractured, and desperately poor country, whose crisis of legitimacy played out against the backdrop of a religiously charged season, is what’s left behind.

Will the decades-long SCAF policy of statist accommodation, cooptation, and suppression of Islam continue to prevail?

For those who argue that political Islam was the driving undercurrent of the Arab Spring and that it was rendered acceptable by democratic vote in this vanguard Arab state, the Ramadan tamarud of 2013 served as a cold shower. For those who argue that the old tried-and-true forces of secularization have won the day, the Ikhwan’s justifiable rage and uncanny ability to survive even the most draconian suppression cannot be ignored.

See related article: Hashtag Egypt


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