Por Bostjan Videmsek
In the last weeks, the Egyptian Army – a state within the state – pulled off a carefully planned and meticulously organised coup d’état. Fear and rage have once again swept through the streets of Cairo.
All over Egypt, the final, unbearably sad act of the so-called Arab spring is taking place. The same people who, two years ago, stood firm at the Tahrir square and risked their lives to defy Mubarak’s tanks are now openly collaborating with the people who stole their revolution. In fact, they did more than steal it. Egypt’s military gerontocrats, almost all of them close friends or associates of the fallen despot Hosni Mubarak, needed a mere eighteen months to dismantle the revolution and completely strip it of its innocence. Now they have done it for the second time, and they have been rewarded with a resounding applause. Even worse: the protesters in the streets, who have never been more numerous, have recently been joined by the much hated Egyptian police, traditionally one of Mubarak’s deadliest weapon of mass destruction. It is hard to envision a more ironic development. Fearing the mounting islamisation of their society as well as the country’s headlong plunge into economic ruin, the protesters let themselves be used by the very same people they used to struggle against… Meaning the very same monsters who murdered 846 of their comrades during the revolution’s first surge – the very same people who pushed the country into the Islamists’ hands in the first place.
One year ago, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) temporarily transferred its power to the Muslim Brotherhood and its presidential candidate Mohammed Morsi, a man with all the charisma of a Soviet council building. By putting a lot of effort into its ‘shadow welfare state’ project, the Muslim Brotherhood has been preparing for this transfer for the past eighty years. Together with the Salafist movement (Al Nour party), the Islamists first secured a decisive victory in the ensuing parliamentary election. Then Morsi defeated the army’s candidate Ahmad Shafik in the presidential race. But the Islamists only seized the actual reins of power once the military elite greenlighted the whole deal. On every level, the country the generals finally handed over was in a disastrous condition. In the months following the revolution, the generals dealt harshly with the revolution’s ringleaders. Mubarak-style, they threw thousands of them to jail. They also struck a succession of heavy blows to the major NGOs. Local and international. By the very swiftness of the post-revolutionary election, they denied the young protesters the time to organise politically. They pulled the police from the streets and made sure Egypt became a truly dangerous land. Crime rates were quickly going through the roof. In effect, the democratic election only strengthened the system’s all-pervasive corruption, and the revolution was soon officially a fiasco. In the initial stages, the Islamists, helped by their powerful backers from Riad, Dubai and Doha, made good use of the general vacuum and the socio-economic ruination. But when the army finally relinquished the throne, the Islamists failed to translate their rather solid local communal record onto the national level. Large parts of their own structure became corrupted by the neo-liberal influences whose main aim was to carve up and devour what still remained of the Egyptian economy. The end result was that the proverbially community-minded Islamists started working against some of their own key social and ideological dogmas. In this sordid equation, they were the dupes – unwittingly doing the army’s dirty work, ushering in the IMF’s riders of the apocalypse. Because of this, the subventions for flour, gas and electricity are about to be cut – subventions that are essential for the survival of tens of millions of Egyptians. If Egypt didn’t blow up now, it would have done so in a few months at the latest. By then, the cost of living will be two or even three times greater than it is now. In a country with extremely rapid population growth, poorly organised agricultural production and limited water resources, this is tantamount to a declaration of war.
The recent coup, which the Egyptian diplomats were quick to describe to me as “an intervention to protect national security”, is certain to further shake up the country’s already precarious situation. The Muslim Brotherhood may be on the defensive, but it remains Egypt’s by and large strongest socio-political movement. It is hard to envision the army quashing it in any decisive fashion. If anything, the recent developments are bound to have the opposite effect. Contrary to the expectations of the protesters who orgiastically celebrated Morsi’s dethronement, the coup is certain to only worsen the already dangerous division of the Egyptian society.
When one also takes into account the civil war in Syria, where as many as 100 000 people have been killed, the blatant carving up of Libya, and the total eradication of Palestine from both the future and the past of the Middle East, one realises that the Arab Spring has just been dealt a lethal blow. In Cairo, those who fought so bravely for their freedom are now flocking to embrace their tormentors.
The Crackdown Against the Islamists
Tuesday, July 9, afternoon. During the memorial service in front of Rabba al Adawia mosque in the Heliopolis quarter, the North-African summer sun is at its cruellest. Several tens of thousands of supporters of the toppled president Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have gathered here to say goodbye to the 51 comrades who had been murdered by Egyptian soldiers and armed civilians the previous day at dawn.
Mothers, sisters and wives of the protesters who had been shot for demanding the release of the dethroned president Morsi are letting out their grief. Their wails are piercing the afternoon’s swelter. A few of the women have already collapsed. An old woman fainted, and volunteers in fluorescent vests promptly carried her off towards the numerous ambulance vehicles parked nearby. The walls are covered with Islamist slogans. The protesters – just like the ones at Tahrir square – are waving Egyptian flags and showing written English sentences to the very few foreign correspondents who have showed up. »25th of January was a revolution. 30th of June was a coup!« says one of these missives to the world. Or: »General Sisi, we’re not afraid of death!« And: »The power of people against the mighty army!«
Men of all ages are kneeling and praying. In front of the mosque, there isn’t enough room for everyone who came to pay their last respects to their shahids, the martyrs.
“We refuse to call for vengeance! We refuse to call for even more violence! We must not respond to the army’s provocation! It is hard to control our rage, but we have no other choice. We have been humiliated, we have been robbed of the rights we have won through democratic election. Now they are waiting for us to make a mistake so they can wipe us out for good. What happened yesterday is the best possible proof of that. I was standing in front of the entrance to the republican guard officers club. The demonstration was entirely peaceful. There weren’t that many of us. At the time of the first morning prayer I heard the shots. Then all hell broke loose. I don’t remember it all too well. I ran and fell, I took cover, I saw at least ten corpses. Not all shots have been fired by the same side, but I am positive that most of the deaths have been caused by the soldiers. We were unarmed. There was nothing we could do to resist. Yet we were also prepared for such an atrocity. The army and the old Mubarak regime, which have now seized power again through this coup, have always treated us like garbage. Like we were unfit to live,” said Ahmad, 34, a teacher at the high school of the Nasr City district in Cairo. I talked to him under a tent made from truck tarpaulin, where some of the mourners occasionally retreated to recover from the sun. Ahmad politely declined to share his last name, since the authorities would quite likely throw him in jail. He certainly wouldn’t be the first to meet such a fate. The army, along with squads of sub-contractors in civilian clothes (policemen, intelligence officers, loyalists), has been performing a severe crackdown.
“I am officially not a member of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) or the Muslim Brotherhood. I’ve never been into politics, but I have always been against the Mubarak regime. I know a lot of people who have been imprisoned simply for being outspoken Muslims. And this in a country which is one of the most religious in the world! In the last election, I voted for Morsi. Ahmad Shafik, who ran against him, was clearly devoted to Mubarak. The army’s candidate. To avoid him being president, I would have voted for anybody! Today, the people who then didn’t dare to run for office are the loudest. Especially Mohamed ElBaradei. Now there’s a man I really don’t trust! Look what they’ve done to us! I’ve spent a good deal of the winter of 2011 at the Tahrir square. I believed in this revolution. I fought for it. Now what? They have decided to divide us and pit us against each other. They clearly want war. Why? What good is that to anyone?” The words kept pouring from the high-school teacher. One of his friends, a teacher as well, lay there before us wrapped in a sheet of blood-soaked cloth. The day before, after the shooting had stopped, it was Ahmed himself who had lifted him up from a bloody puddle.
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In front of the mosque, the imam, using a megaphone, is reading out the names of the people slain in the Monday massacre. Many of the deceased hadn’t been buried within twenty-four hours of their last breath as their faith demands. In the name of ‘security’, the army stripped them not only of their lives, but also of their rights for a decent funeral. All of the above reminded me of the tragic scenes from some other Arab countries – all of them countries at war.
The Sky Above Tahrir
On Sunday night, July 7, the entire Cairo came to the streets. Morsi’s supporters were protesting in the Nasr City and Heliopolis districts. The ‘revolutionaries’, who are doubtlessly in the majority, have claimed the centre of the Egyptian capital, where, in the last two years and a half, two despots have been toppled – two men who got infected with the God syndrome. The only difference between them seems to be that, in the case of Mohammed Morsi, the incubation period was much much shorter. His delusions came to flower in record-breakingly short time.
Above the Tahrir square, the emotional nexus of both the first and the second revolution, the military planes actually drew out a giant heart. What a tangle of cynicism, saccharine irony and the theatre of the absurd! In their wake, low-flying fighter planes left exhaust-formed images of the Egyptian flag. Helicopters were also hovering above the square, and the crowd of several hundred thousand people was all too eager to cheer at the military pilots’ acrobatics. A tourist might have been forgiven for supposing he had found himself at a top-level aviation rally. The only thing that might have confused him would be the images of Barack Obama with a long Islamist beard and the all-pervasive slogan of “America supports the terrorists“. Pretty ironic, seeing how Washington allocates 1.3 billion dollars per year to support the Egyptian army.
The crowd at the Tahrir square, the theme park of the Egyptian revolution, looked dazed in this preposterous celebration. It has been going on for four days in a row. So many of them had come to gather here: the middle class, the students, the pensioners, the women. So many women. Two nights earlier, the crowd has been attacked by armed Islamists. The entire incident was shockingly ferocious. The Islamists, using automatic rifles, were firing at the unarmed protesters from a bridge. Filled with mortal dread, the people were running in all directions. But the army, the self-proclaimed guardian of the revolution, merely watched impassively, and the police again disappeared who knew where.
The Dismantling of the State
The people I talked to at Tahrir kept repeating to me that they had no choice. They had to protect themselves against the rising tide of Islamism, they said. The president they removed from office had set out to dismantle the secular state. His aim was to rewrite history and banish all women from it. He tried to replace the rough physics of statehood with the cheapest of religious metaphysics. The economy simply fell apart. The Egyptian pound sunk to the bottom. Gas, electricity, flour and water were beginning to run out. The food prices skyrocketed. The modus operandi of the Muslim Brotherhood, which could be summed with a single word, inshallah, only deepened the poverty and brought the country to the brink of a horrendous armed conflict.
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»This is a military intervention on behalf of the people after collecting 22 million signatures asking for early presidential elections the incompetent president rejected. It also comes after the president supported terrorist groups threatening opponents with extermination. The people needed protection against terrorism and fears of a civil war or national disintegration. So it is not a military coup in the traditional way. This is not what western media understand and think only by the western political dictionary and don’t know the intricacy and background of the situation. The Egyptian military intervention is temporary. It’s here to face terrorist threats and re- steer the transition through a civilian council until Egypt crosses the transitional period successfully,« I was told by dr. Said Sadek, professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo.
Sadek is one of the most vocal supporters of the revolution that started two years and a half ago. He was profoundly gladdened by the fall of Mohammed Morsi. He says he knew that the reign of the Islamists could not last long. According to the professor, it was but a phase in a long revolutionary period of a state with very little democratic experience or tradition. In other words, it was just a part of a much longer historical process.
»This is the second wave of the Egyptian revolution. The people during the last two years got more empowered. They want the objectives of the revolution: bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity realized. The first revolution started in urban areas. The second wave witnessed participation and eruption in rural and urban areas . The objectives are the same. The first revolution targeted Mubarak regime and his police state. The second wave is targeting the Muslim brotherhood and their supporters.Political Islam became a big business within the institutions, academia, media and politics. It had been dealt a severe blow that would make it weak for some time unless it changes and modernizes its ideas. The guidance bureau of the Muslim brotherhood was no different in archaic ideas than the political bureau of the Soviet communist party. Ikhwan will not win presidential elections but may get a lower percentage in parliamentary elections due to their voting machine in the countryside where their social base is located. The Muslim brothers are now out of balance and feel lost so they act in a suicidal way. They are clashing with the people not the army. Their fictitious ideas about grand caliphate and Islamic state are being shaken. That’s why they act like angry infants running, screaming and hitting everywhere. They had no solution to any chronic problems. Just empty slogans. Islam is the solution is no solution at all. Islam is the solution was an electoral slogan used to mobilize the illiterate and poor. Almost 40% of the population. Islamism would remain but now in a less influential form. People now have less illusions about them and their ideas,« professor Sadek believes.
According to him, the events of the past few weeks – together with a year’s worth of the Islamists’ incompetent and fundamentalist rule – have greatly weakened the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence. So much so, that the Sadek doesn’t see them recovering in the near future – regardless of their rich gulf-based friends.
»What is expected now is street politics. And, for a brief period, political violence. The Muslim brotherhood has an economic empire and links with the CIA. So this gives them incentive to fight for a while and protection / insulation from total destruction. Their future will be in opposition, not in the government. What is important is creating a new orderly inclusive political process to start right now. Transitions are never orderly. People learn by direct experience. Egyptians are now more politicized than under Mubarak and also under Morsi. The next president of Egypt should take that into account,« dr. Sadek went on. He assured me that he was well aware of the threats and perils Egypt is currently facing.
»Civil war or widescale political violence is of course possible – taking into consideration the vast interests of the Muslim brotherhood and their economic empire. To calm things down, unfortunately, requires restarting the political transition process in a more inclusive and transparent way. Morsi failed to unite the country and divided the people in a way never seen before in Egypt. The country was on the verge of a civil war and the people demanded a saviour against terrorist groups,« Sadek believes optimistically. He is convinced that now – unlike 2011 – the army does not covet more political power: according to him, it does not really need it, since the situation is such that the protesters had no other recourse but to ask the army for help. »The alliance is tactical. The revolutionaries will not oppose that.The country needs technocrats not army generals for managing the economy.«
»Any kind of violence is unacceptable!«
But there are also those who are less enthusiastic and more concerned about the country’s both short- and long-term future. One of them is the Belgium-based Egyptian activist, blogger and commentator Khaled Diab, who feels that any kind of violence is unacceptable. According to him, the army has dealt far too harshly with Morsi’s supporters. This approach, he believes, should be condemned by all the relevant political and revolutionary groups.
»Some have seen in the army’s disproportionate actions and excessive use of force confirmation of the gross miscalculation and hypocrisy of Egypt’s opposition and revolutionary forces by backing the forcible removal of Egypt’s ‘legitimate’ and ‘democratically elected’ leader. But I see the army’s actions and the clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators not as the product of political legitimacy undermined but as a symptom of illegitimacy compounded until the entire house of cards came tumbling down. Morsi lost any claims to legitimacy that he may once had. But the problem run much, much deeper than that. Egypt’s botched political transition towards democracy excluded or sidelined most of the revolutionary youth movements due to restrictive and prohibitive conditions for party formation, which favoured the established and highly organised, sucha as the Brotherhood,« claims Diab.
Brother and the Salafists created Orwellian constitution. Diab says, that it officially “declares all Egyptian “equal”, but some Egyptians, middle-aged, conservative Muslim men, to be precise, were far, far more equal than others. More chillingly, it empowered the state to ‘safeguard and protect morality and public decency’ and to ‘maintain a refined level of upbringing’,« adds Khaled, who (in his blog) wrote that Mohammed Morsi confused himself for Superman in November 2012, when he changed the Egyptian constitution and gave himself unlimited power.
»And then, there is the murky, anti-democratic rule of the military. SCAF had never withdrawn from the political arena; it just retreated tactically behind the façade of a subservient political system largely of its own making,« Khaled Diab critises the general, who run the country since 1952. With some really brief pit-stops … The rule of old men in uniforms is guilty for not bringing up the new political elite.»Six decades of dictatorship left Egypt without a clear pool of competent leadership material. But with their boundless reserves of creativity, Egypt’s young revolutionaries, who sometimes seem to be rebelling also against the very concept of leadership – turned a weakness into a powerful political weapon which decapitated the Egyptian regime three times in two and a half years. The current situation provides the golden opportunity to reinvent Egypt’s political system and to create a unique model of Egyptian democracy that is tailored to this reality in which there is no leadership, institutions are weak and there is an overriding public desire for direct democratic participation,« thinks Khaled.
Still shocked by the ferocity of the violence in these past few days, he added that what looks like a dog and barks like a dog still remains a wolf. A wolf in uniform who has the rather unique opportunity to feast on sheep who are flocking into his jaws by themselves.