In Orwellian Egypt, a state of denial rules

AL JAZEERA, August 6, 2013

Behind the bloody conflict in Egypt is a state of denial among competing actors of each other’s place in society. 

A society in which important actors live in denial of each other’s interests and legitimacy is a society threatened by the abyss. There is ample evidence of this destructive phenomenon through the history of the Middle East, as elsewhere.

One of the biggest casualties of the phenomenon of Arab awakening was Egypt’s ruler Hosni Mubarak, whose fall in February 2011 looked like a pivotal event strong enough to accelerate democratic change across the region. Two years on, the prospects are bleak. After the recent military coup, Egypt is in the midst of a civil conflict which is bloodier and more repressive. The continuing violence and schism are more depressing than the final weeks and months of the Mubarak regime.

Authoritarian rule, rebellion and repression have shaped mindsets throughout Egypt’s social hierarchy. The collapse of Mubarak’s autocratic rule had sparked new hopes of an open and enlightened era, free of corruption and mismanagement. But those with power to control and coerce have a strong instinct to reassert themselves when they see their grip weakening. An essential feature of that instinct is to dismiss the legitimate existence and interests of others. It is by denying the legitimacy of the others that powerful actors claim their own legitimacy.

When General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced the removal of a freely elected president and suspension of the constitution, the army chief’s assertion was unmistakable, and his choice of words strange in the light of recent events. The army acted, according to General al-Sisi, because Morsi “had failed to meet the demands of the Egyptian people.” This despite the fact that Mohamed Morsi had won the presidential election a year before; and a constitution had been approved. There had been complaints that the document was too Islamist and vested too much power in the presidency, but it was supported by almost a two-thirds majority of Egyptian who voted.

The constitution, no doubt, was controversial and divisive, pushed through in a rush against a vocal opposition – a minority as the referendum result showed. However, a military coup was definitely not a remedy. For when mistakes are made in a democracy, the perpetrators must be punished through the ballot box, and decisions should be altered likewise.

A military coup which deposes an elected leader and repression mean the very anti-thesis of democracy and the rule of law founded on popular consent. Both holders and contenders of power are responsible for the crisis in Egypt.

ElBaradei and expedient alliances with the army

Morsi lived in denial of forces pitted against him, to his peril. The regime entrenched now in Cairo is dismissive of Morsi, his party, his supporters and independent Egyptians who disapprove of the military coup. Crowds of protestors are treated harshly. Orders of the new regime that opposition crowds must disperse face defiance despite heavy-handed tactics. Protesters are accused of threatening security. Media outlets have been forced to close. General al-Sisi has all but declared his own “war on terror” and the interior ministry has announced the resurrection of the Mubarak-era state security services.

The army has been empowered to arrest citizens, thus assuming the role of internal policing. General al-Sisi may formally be defence minister and army chief under a civilian president and a civilian prime minister. In truth, it is he who rules Egypt with an iron fist. The rest is a façade, giving cover to the new draconian order.

Erstwhile champions of democracy, identified with Egypt’s liberal and secular forces, find themselves on the spot, not least Mohamed ElBaradei, occupying the post of vice president following the Morsi government’s overthrow. Few would have thought that ElBaradei, ex-chief of the UN’s Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and, to many, a symbol of the conscience of Egyptians involved in a painful struggle for democratic freedoms, would be sitting at the pinnacle of power, installed at the military’s pleasure. But the bizarre has happened.

The future of civilian politicians making accommodations with military dictators is seldom promising. In Egypt, the masses have despised officials of past dictatorial regimes. The schism in the wake of the recent coup is evidence of something similar. It has happened elsewhere, perhaps most notably in Pakistan under General Ziaul Haq, who was killed when his plane was bombed in 1988, and more recently General Pervez Musharraf, who is in detention and facing multiple charges.

The armed forces have ruled Egypt for six decades and still look invincible. It is nonetheless difficult to predict the future when a country is so polarised. Suggestions that Egyptian society is split between the pro- and anti-Morsi camps, or between supporters of Morsi and the military, are too simplistic. The conflict is far more complex and multi-layered. Many opponents of the deposed president are protesting now that the military is back in power.

Orwellian Egypt

Paradoxes are many in Egypt. President Morsi won the election and the Muslim Brotherhood gained legitimacy under the law, but then persisted with constitutional manoeuvres which, to many, looked like creeping power grab. Morsi concluded, unwisely, that the Egyptian military establishment had been tamed after some top military officers were removed.

The Brotherhood in government failed to realise that the army was down but by no means out. The articulate minority of liberals and secularists was not going to be silent. Egypt had just stepped out of a totalitarian era, but still was prone to slipping back in. An important Arab country such as Egypt in a region of great strategic interest for foreign powers was unlikely to be left to its people to make choices. For there is evidence that the military coup happened under America’s close watch.

The Obama administration was in discomfort at Egypt’s elections, and can barely contain its relief mixed with delight at the overthrow of Morsi by the military. Ensuring that Egypt remained under US influence, by keeping the army on its side, was far more important than democracy. The primacy of Egypt’s usefulness over what was morally right or wrong was all important. So the notion of a “democratic” coup was born, and hailed by the American Secretary of State John Kerry, who claimed that the soldiers were “restoring democracy” when they overthrew Morsi. Kerry’s statement was an exercise in absurdity.

One is reminded of George Orwell, author of the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, who said, “It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it. Consequently, the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy.” Orwell’s words have a strange resemblance with Egypt in 2013.

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A “democratic” coup

AL JAZEERA, July 23, 2013

The military overthrow of President Morsi is not a coup for democracy, but an old remedy that has long failed. 

The military overthrow of Egypt’s freely-elected president Mohamed Morsi represents the beginning of a new, more turbulent phase in the country. The coup in early July was decisive in the immediate run, ending a brief democratic experiment with a Muslim Brotherhood politician in power.

Beyond the immediate outcome, however, the military takeover has thrown Egypt’s future into uncertainty, and caused further ruptures in civil society. While the Brotherhood insists on Morsi’s reinstatement, surely an unlikely prospect, the anti-Morsi coalition of liberals, secularists and Mubarak-era elites is determined to move on.

The newly installed interim president Adly Masour has appointed a 35-member cabinet led by an economist, Hazem el-Beblawi. General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led the coup, is the first deputy prime minister and defence minister. Prominent anti-Morsi figure and ex-International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Mohamed ElBaradei is one of three acting vice presidents in the new administration, which has also dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated upper house of the Egyptian parliament.

The new administration is made up of technocrats and unelected people, establishing the armed forces as the real power. More than promises to hold elections, the military’s future course of action is vague at best.

The coup would have been inconceivable without millions of anti-Morsi Egyptians pouring out into the streets of Cairo and other cities. The protests offered the generals a justification to intervene on “behalf of the people.” To many, Morsi was his own worst enemy. In his short presidential tenure since winning the election by a wafer-thin majority a year ago, Morsi had alienated large sections of Egyptian society that had either not voted for him, or had supported him reluctantly.

Egypt’s Christians, about 10 per cent of the 85 million population, felt threatened by President Morsi, who was viewed as too Islamist and who had amassed too much power in the presidency. Liberal and women’s groups were deeply unhappy with the new constitution, which Morsi had pushed through just over six months ago.

His administration was unable to tackle the worsening economy, betraying the hopes of many Egyptians. For them, the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak was far from over. So, amid renewed demonstrations against Egypt’s elected head of state, the military removed President Morsi on “behalf of the people.”

However, there are problems with this narrative. The truth is that the Egyptian people are bitterly divided into the Morsi camp and the opposition, which in itself is fragmented. That Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood still enjoy substantial support among the poorest sections, especially in the countryside, is not in doubt. There are large demonstrations by Brotherhood supporters almost every day, and a military crackdown is going on against Brotherhood leaders and activists.

In one of the bloodiest incidents, more than 50 Morsi supporters were killed when soldiers shot at a crowd, said to be praying outside the headquarters of the Republican Guards. The swearing-in of the new cabinet took place amid continuing clashes in which lives were being lost. Morsi and other senior figures of the Brotherhood are either in custody or at large. He is under investigation for “spying, inciting violence and ruining the economy.” The leaders’ assets have been frozen.

These events do not bode well for Egypt and the wider Middle East. The military is back in power, and the most significant political movement, with grassroots support, is the target of repression. Leading opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood are collaborating with the military.

This experiment has failed decade after decade in Egypt, and the record of military coups leading to a smooth transition to real democracy is poor. The same educated liberal-secular middle classes that were in opposition to Morsi’s rule will soon be opposing the military regime. It is only a matter of time.

The two greatest risks for Egypt and the region are further radicalization and volatility.

There are credible reports that the military overthrow of President Morsi happened under the Obama administration’s close watch. On 6 July, the New York Times published an expose on the final hours of Morsi’s presidency, written by David D. Kirkpatrick and Mayy El Sheikh.

According to their account, the United States, through an Arab foreign minister acting as emissary, made a ‘final offer’ which would avoid a military coup: the appointment of a new prime minister and cabinet that would take over all legislative powers and replace Morsi’s chosen provincial governors.

For Morsi, it was a coup in all but name, and he refused. A telephone call between President Morsi’s top adviser, Essam el-Haddad, and President Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, followed. Rice informed him that a military takeover was about to begin, and a Morsi aide told another associate, “Mother just told that we will stop playing in an hour.” The State Department in Washington offered no comment on America’s role.

Washington’s response in the aftermath, and the announcement that the United States would go ahead with the supply of F16 aircraft to the Egyptian military, suggest that Washington’s priority is to see “controlled change” in Egypt. As clashes continued on the streets of Cairo, America’s deputy secretary of state William Burns met Egypt’s new leaders in the capital, telling them of President Obama’s firm commitment to help Egypt succeed in this “second chance” for democracy.

President Obama’s preferred scenario is to ensure that any political change in Egypt is under the supervision of the army, with a lesser role at best for the Muslim Brotherhood in governance in future. In its fundamentals, Washington’s latest remedy is no different from the past, since President Anwar Sadat broke with the Soviet Union in the 1970s, and joined the U.S. alliance.

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Controlled Change

The News, July 19, 2013

Recent events in Egypt mark a new phase in the country’s turbulent politics. President Mohamed Morsi’s overthrow by the armed forces in early July was decisive in the immediate run, ending a brief democratic experiment with a Muslim Brotherhood politician in power. Beyond the immediate outcome, the military takeover has thrown Egypt’s future into uncertainty and caused further splits in society. While the Brotherhood insists on Morsi’s reinstatement, an unlikely prospect, the anti-Morsi coalition of liberals, secularists and Mubarak-era elites is determined to move on. More than promises to hold elections, the military’s future course of action is vague at best.

The coup would have been inconceivable without millions of anti-Morsi Egyptians pouring out into the streets of Cairo and other cities. The protests offered the generals a justification to intervene on “behalf of the people.” To many, Morsi was his own worst enemy. In his short presidential tenure since winning the election by a wafer-thin majority a year ago, Morsi had alienated large sections of Egyptian society that had either not voted for him, or had supported him reluctantly.

Egypt’s Christian minority, about 10 percent of the 85 million population, felt threatened by the new constitution pushed through by President Morsi, who was viewed as too Islamist and who had amassed too much power in the presidency. Liberal and women’s groups were deeply unhappy. The Morsi administration was unable to tackle the worsening economy, betraying the hopes of many Egyptians. For them, the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak was far from over. So, amid renewed demonstrations against Egypt’s elected head of state, the military removed President Morsi on “behalf of the people.”

There are problems with this narrative, however. The truth is that the Egyptian people are bitterly divided into the Morsi camp and the opposition, which in itself is fragmented. That Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood still enjoy substantial support among the poorest sections, especially in the countryside, is not in doubt. In the wake of the military coup, large demonstrations in support of the deposed president cannot be disregarded. And then the military crackdown against the Brotherhood leadership.

In one of the bloodiest incidents in Egypt’s recent history, more than 50 Morsi supporters were killed when soldiers shot at a crowd, said to be praying outside the headquarters of the Republican Guards. Bloodshed continues on a daily basis. Morsi and other senior figures of the Brotherhood are either in custody or at large. He is under investigation for “spying, inciting violence and ruining the economy.” The leaders’ assets have been frozen.

These events do not bode well for Egypt and the wider Middle East. The military is back in power, and the most significant political movement, with grassroots support, is the target of repression. Leading opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood are collaborating with the military. This draconian political experiment has failed decade after decade in Egypt, and the record of military coups leading to a smooth transition to real democracy is poor. The same educated liberal-secular middle classes that were in opposition to Morsi’s rule will soon be opposing the military regime. It is only a matter of time.

The two greatest risks for Egypt and the region are further radicalization and volatility. There are credible reports that the military overthrow of President Morsi happened under the Obama administration’s close watch. On July 6, the New York Times published an account of the final hours of Morsi’s presidency, written by David D. Kirkpatrick and Mayy El Sheikh. According to their account, the United States, through an Arab foreign minister acting as emissary, made a final offer which would avoid a military coup: the appointment of a new prime minister and cabinet that would take over all legislative powers and replace Morsi’s chosen provincial governors.

For Morsi, it was a coup in all but name, and he refused. A telephone call between President Morsi’s top adviser, Essam el-Haddad, and President Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, followed. Rice informed him that a military takeover was to begin. The State Department had no comment on America’s role.

Washington’s response in the aftermath, and the announcement that the United States would go ahead with the supply of F16 aircraft to the military, suggest that Washington’s priority is to see “controlled change” in Egypt. In President Obama’s preferred scenario, any change will be under the supervision of the army, with a lesser role at best for the Muslim Brotherhood in governance in future. Washington’s latest remedy, in its fundamentals, is no different from the past, since President Anwar Sadat broke with the Soviet Union in the 1970s, and subsequently joined the U.S. alliance.

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