August 14, 2013 was a day whose events and meaning Egyptians will be debating fiercely for decades to come. Following that day’s bloodshed, Egypt is in the middle of its most severe crisis since the fall of ex-president Husni Mubarak in February 2011. The fate of the country — popular sovereignty or no — likely hangs in the balance. We asked several veteran observers, all of them Middle East Report editors or authors, to offer their views of how Egypt got to this point and what the future holds.
The January 25 revolution began the Egyptian version of the epic struggle between self-preserving elites and rising masses. And because it’s Egypt, the prize has always been the state, not simply in the sense of capturing it but of opening it up to democratic control. That means presidents control generals, parliamentarians oversee bureaucrats and people discipline police. The July 3 coup canceled all of the hard-won, if tiny gains made on these fronts, and the US-backed military is now waging a campaign of political and physical extermination to secure its supremacy.
A massive, state-orchestrated revaluation is underway. January 25 is replaced by June 30 (or even July 3) in the revolutionary calendar. Police are recast as paladins of law and order when they were enemies of the people. And military and mukhabarat are rebranded as the rightful owners of the formidable state, brooking parity with no one. The original revolutionary project of a diverse people working to place their tribunes in the state is supplanted by a new-old arrangement, the evergreen rule of the many by the very few.
No one who understands the architecture of power in Egypt can be sanguine about the current moment. The specter of Egyptian democracy has always had many powerful enemies, in Cairo, Riyadh, Tel Aviv and Washington, and they work extraordinarily well together to subvert any serious advances on the state by outsiders. If the accommodationist, conservative counter-elite of the Muslim Brothers failed to secure their perch in the state for more than a year, the chances of any real reform of the Egyptian leviathan seem nil.
And yet, the counter-revolutionary order is tenuous, and not because of the hopeful idea that people who have spectacularly revolted once will revolt again. Sadly, popular collective action is more often than not defeated by elite reconstitution. The counter-revolution has a built-in defect. It suppresses the basic challenge raised by the Egyptian revolution, the task of crafting a state that works for its people. All the force in the world cannot extinguish that battle.
The August 14 massacre of hundreds of protesters by Egyptian security forces marks the onset of a state-sponsored reign of terror. The Egyptian revolution, with all its possibilities, has morphed, like so many before it, into a popularly supported coup. The old institutions of repression, surveillance and manipulation of public opinion are reconsolidating themselves. It is a tragic, catastrophic turn.
One can see foreshadowing in the massacres committed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) during its 16 months in power, before the election of Muhammad Mursi. The killing of 20 protesters, most of them Coptic Christians, outside the Maspero state television building — and the subsequent campaign to blame the victims — are rerunning on a vastly larger scale. The incitement of the populace against “terrorists” revives the language used to demonize Islamists throughout the 1990s as the security forces waged a “counterinsurgency” centered in Egypt’s southern provinces.
Those who think that this terror campaign will be limited to Islamists are deluded. Already, the military is reprising Mubarak-era tactics — arresting labor leaders, intimidating human rights activists and obscuring its actions with systematic misinformation. Bad as the Mursi government was, it was unable to launch such a sophisticated attack on dissent, because it had far less control over the repressive apparatus of the state. That machinery has reemerged with a clear agenda to curtail revolutionary gains.
Meanwhile, ever more fantastical stories are spread about the divisive role of outside powers, particularly the United States, through online, print and satellite media. The US is variously held to have backed Mursi and the conspirators against him. In the midst of the fevered speculation, the equally surreal but obvious truths of US-Egyptian relations are overlooked. The US dithers in cutting military aid to Egypt — no matter how many protesters die — simply because that money is a long-term payoff to Cairo for the Camp David peace accords with Israel. Israel, along with the repressive, family-run regimes in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, continues to lobby the US to support the military government, regardless of its atrocities and anti-democratic agenda. Furthermore, military “aid” is simply money provided to countries so that they can buy fancy hardware from American defense contractors. So profits and questionable alliances trump the broader US interest in more inclusive, less repressive regimes over the long run.
I am struck by the fact that when analysts (including myself) are most overwhelmed by the unfolding events in Egypt, there is a tendency to resort to abstract discussions — the resilience of the old (authoritarianism), the weakness of the forces of change (democratization). In response, I am trying not to lose sight of the fact that the dramatic clash between a resurgent national security state and the Muslim Brothers poses the latter as defenders of democratic process, with the (il)liberal opposition allied with the military trying to scuttle it! If that is not a win for democracy, what is it? It is a new and potentially transformative development.
It is also true that the supporters of the Brothers feel disillusioned with democracy. But, this time around, the Brothers defended both God and democracy — this fact will have long-term consequences that will outlast short-term defeats. That is why the military and the illiberal opposition have redeployed the 1990s discourse of the national, regional and the global war on terrorism in order to represent the protests launched by the Brothers in the same old terms.
The number of dead and wounded over the last 7-10 days is a new high in Egypt’s recent history. What will be the political effects — on the definition of community and the depth of internal divisions? Has the political damage already been done? Or does the failure of people to show up in response to the most recent calls for protest show a return to Egyptian realpolitik, in other words, the need to turn to other forms of resistance?
There is an axiom that states betray their own weakness when they use extreme violence to quash dissent. Egypt’s generals may thus appear desperate, but they are not.
The national security state never dissolved, appearances to the contrary. It simply waited in the wings for the right moment to reassert itself. Today, it is emboldened by popular support, which in turn is boosted by the swagger of the generals’ civilian lackeys in the Egyptian media. The army is baiting the Muslim Brothers and their supporters into using violence of their own. The Islamists have obliged with a rash of sectarian attacks on churches, Christian orphanages and parochial schools, as well as state institutions and personnel. These attacks, of course, only invite more state repression.
Egypt’s generals seem to want an Algeria-style political system framed by elections but housed in the offices of military intelligence. For now, the SCAF thinks it can dismantle the Brothers’ national networks without plunging the country into unstoppable conflict. The generals are primarily concerned to preserve their own authority. They are determined not to allow the Brothers to reconstitute themselves, and that is why they balked at a deal to avoid bloodshed on August 14. Destroying an organized political unit, regardless of its ideology, is always messy. The generals seem willing for Egypt to pay almost any price.
Some speculate that the price might include the loss of US aid, and the generals have predictably huffed that they won’t miss it. They’re blowing smoke. Irrespective of the dollar amount, the aid knits the Egyptian and US officer corps together. The officers come to know each other far longer than the presidents to whom they pledge fealty. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi talk all the time, but al-Sisi knows the buck doesn’t stop with Hagel. He has several informal channels in the Pentagon he can use to circumvent the secretary should the need arise.
Wonks portray US policy as being formed at the White House and the State Department. But the Pentagon has an outsize vote. Needless to say, the Pentagon is a realist, conservative, national-interest machine, with minimal interest in human rights or democracy. Egypt’s generals admire militarism and they desire the most proximity possible to the “most militarized” military in the history of the planet. For these reasons, as well as the usually cited ones, the aid will stay in place, whatever symbolic moves the Obama administration has made.
Back in Egypt, and US aid notwithstanding, the army command may achieve their goals without sparking civil war, but they cannot do it without destroying the economy, which is already in terrible shape. And whichever former officer ends up on the throne will find that Egypt’s state is but a shell of the clanking juggernaut that Mubarak ran into the ground.
In the current crisis, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II has cast his lot unambiguously with the army. Well before the military ushered interim president ‘Adli Mansour into office, the patriarch was already tweeting his blessing of an army takeover. And Tawadros was front and center when Gen. al-Sisi announced the coup to a television audience on July 3.
It is not difficult to understand the reasoning behind Tawadros’ position. Anti-Coptic violence had risen dramatically in the weeks leading up to the coup, not least as a result of virulent anti-Coptic rhetoric from leading Muslim Brothers during and after the constitutional referendum of December 2012. The restoration to Copts of a sense of security was foremost among the patriarch’s concerns as he weighed his response to the Tamarrud campaign.
But my fear is that Tawadros has gambled on a return to the status quo ante — the millet-style system of the Mubarak years — without considering how the military leadership has changed since the days of Gens. Husayn Tantawi and Sami ‘Inan. Having welcomed the demise of Mursi, might the patriarch ultimately find himself burdened with an Islamism born of the military — one allied to the conservative social agenda of a stronger-than-ever salafi movement?
Until the last week, there was no consensus about how to tell the story of the Egyptian revolution. Few would disagree over where to begin the story, but there are many who claim it ended long ago, just as there are many who talk about the revolution as a process that continues through the present. There are those who talk about distinct periods — of transition or reconciliation — separated from one another by wholly different rules and logics. There are those who see events as joined and shaping one another in terms of cause or experience. There are those who tell the story from the point of view of palaces and embassies, and others who tell it from the streets. Everyone claims the story has a meaning: Some say it contains an uplifting message of hope and overcoming, others that it offers a lesson about the folly of trying to change things.
Today, as commentators take their solace (or pleasure) in saying that it is all over and that they knew it would end badly, we should remember: It may be that history is written by the victors, but even so, it is the losers who have more to learn from the experience than those who won.