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.


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.


The Struggle for Egypt’s Soul

CounterPunch, October 15, 2012

When the official announcement of Mohamed Morsi’s election as Egypt’s president was made following a tantalizing period of uncertainty, I had raised some questions about the country’s constitutional future. I had also suggested that a multilayered battle between the military and civilians, Islamists and secularists, and conservatives and liberals was likely (Palestine Chronicle, July 3, 2012). An example of such conflict has been witnessed at Tahrir Square in recent days. Clashes between liberals and Muslim Brotherhood supporters show simmering discontent in a polarized society as Morsi walks a political tightrope.

In his first hundred days in office, President Morsi has exercised caution, but also made some bold moves in a bid to keep many sides happy. On October 8, he announced a “blanket pardon” for all political prisoners arrested since the beginning of the uprising which overthrew Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and finally led to free elections in which Morsi won the presidency. The announcement said that all those serving prison sentences or still awaiting trial on charges to do with supporting the revolution would be released and charges against them would be dropped. The decree excludes those convicted of murder, but pointedly includes military officers arrested for taking part in demonstrations against Mubarak’s dictatorship.

Pressure had been growing on Mubarak’s successors to announce an amnesty and Morsi could hardly have ignored it after his election as the candidate of the Freedom and Justice Party formed by the Muslim Brotherhood in the wake of the anti-Mubarak uprising. That he was careful to address wider sections of society, including the military, was hardly surprising. The move was aimed at helping the new administration in several ways. For forty years under Hosni Mubarak’s and his predecessor Anwar Sadat’s rule, mostly with American support, Egypt’s military-dominated ruling elite had alienated the opposition and much of Egyptian society. The new administration must demonstrate different priorities.

On closer scrutiny, however, his “blanket pardon” was described by some commentators as insufficient. The presidential decree’s first article said that the pardon was “for all felony convictions and misdemeanor convictions or attempted crimes committed to support the revolution and the fulfillment of this goal.” Amnesty International has now said that “all Egyptians tried in front of military courts need retrials, including those whose offenses did not relate to the revolution.”

Morsi’s political base is the Muslim Brotherhood, a major force in Egyptian society for decades. But his narrow victory in the 2012 election against Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister of the Mubarak era and regarded as the military’s favorite, was made possible with support from moderate and secular voters. Morsi cannot shake off the Muslim Brotherhood label, perhaps he does not need to, but he was careful enough to declare that he was going to represent all Egyptians.

The task of a president in post-Mubarak Egypt is extraordinarily delicate. He has to establish civilian control over the military, which has dominated the country’s power structure for decades. Yet he has to work with the generals. He must not alienate other sections of the population as he remains a Muslim Brotherhood figure above all. He must respond to raised expectations following the old regime’s demise and his election. At the same time, he should ensure continuity and avoid a dramatic break from the past, for Egypt lives in a volatile environment.

President Morsi’s move against the military top brass, particularly ordering the retirement of Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi from his posts as commander of the armed forces and defense minister in August, seemed to have been executed with remarkable ease. But recent clashes at Tahrir Square highlight the continuing tensions between secularists and minorities on one hand, and Muslim Brotherhood supporters on the other. It is too soon to say that the task of reshaping the military into a force compliant to the democratically-elected government is complete. For the middle ranking and junior officers are bound to take longer to change. Meanwhile, the president needs their help to maintain order.

If Morsi’s move to change the military’s top leadership was executed with ease, his attempt to remove the state prosecutor general, Abdel Meguid Mahmud, has run into difficulties. The president announced Mahmud’s removal and appointment as Egypt’s envoy to the Vatican after a court acquitted more than twenty senior Mubarak era officials of organizing an attack on protestors during the uprising. Mahmud’s office was held responsible for presenting “weak evidence” against the accused. But the presidential order resulted in an outcry from the judges, who complained that Morsi had exceeded his powers in dismissing the state prosecutor general. In a setback to the president’s authority, the prosecutor general said that he was going to stay in his job. And the president was forced to back down.

Another controversy is brewing over the draft constitution released for discussion. This time, Human Rights Watch has called on the Egyptian Constituent Assembly to “amend articles in the draft constitution that undermine human rights in post-Mubarak Egypt,” The draft, it said, provides for some basic political and economic rights but falls far short of international law on women’s and children’s rights, freedom of religion and expression, and torture and trafficking.

The fall of Hosni Mubarak was an historic victory for the people, but the outcome of the struggle for the soul of the Egyptian nation is far from certain.