This week brought the news that 528 members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood would be executed by the “interim government” in Egypt, and Abdel Fattah as-Sisi finally said publicly what everyone has long known: he will run for the presidency in July. Despite the speculation that Sisi’s officially resigning from the position of Defence Minister and the army will lessen his support among the military, which is the force that is really in power in Cairo, it seems unlikely.
The beginning of these developments is, of course, the coup d’état that Sisi led last July against Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Brotherhood and Egypt’s first ever elected president. Having liquidated democratic, civilian rule, Sisi and his allies in the feloul (remnants), who had seized back power, undertook a merciless crackdown on the Brotherhood’s supporters who protested about the coup, killing more than 1,000 in a little over a month. Meanwhile, a nascent Salafi-jihadist insurgency in the Sinai intensified.
Sisi and his allies have maintained that the coup was necessary because a totalitarian organisation was using democratic means to impose a tyranny far worse than Hosni Mubarak’s. There is little to quarrel with in this description of the Brotherhood: it is a cult that systematically purges all but the most blindly devoted zealots. But what of this second part? What of Sisi’s claim to be holding the line for secularism and even—after an interim of military rule—democracy?
Many prominent Middle East analysts were convinced of Sisi’s contention. Daniel Pipes wrote that all anti-Islamists “must support the Sisi crackdown,” albeit with some reservations about individual tactics. (This is not a complete surprise: Pipes wrote in the aftermath of the crushing of the March 1991 Intifada that “Iraqi citizens might be worse off had Saddam fallen,” and last spring Pipes called on the West to support Bashar al-Assad against the rebellion.) John Bolton wrote that the Brotherhood’s attempt to “establish a harsh theocracy … was manifestly unacceptable,” and thus the military had “little choice” but to bring off a coup. American officials, on the few occasions they have spoken on the subject, take the same view. Secretary of State John Kerry said in August 2013 that the military was “in effect … restoring democracy“. This week a State Department spokesman said Egypt was “moving toward democracy“.
This urgency that apparently compelled the coup is a fantasy. Those like Tony Blair, who has completely disgraced himself in this episode, who argue that the Egyptian military faced a choice of “intervention or chaos” have it exactly wrong. The coup did not come in answer to the chaos; the chaos came so the answer could be a coup. The Tamarod (Rebellion) movement, the students and Leftists, organised before-hand with the military to put enough people on the streets to give a pretext for the coup. The police, against whom the 2011 revolution erupted in no small part because of their brutality and corruption, abandoned their posts and let chaos reign. But now these secularists who hated the police and army, recognising them for the instruments of repression they were, would chant: “the people and the army and the police are one hand.”
It was not just the police Morsi did not have control of either: as can be seen from the speed with which his government unravelled, the army was a law unto itself. The judiciary is a defiant holdout of the ancien regime, the media in Egypt is in the hands of the feloul, as is the economy (quite a lot of it with the military directly). Morsi was not on the brink of running away with the country; he barely had any control of it. And it is simply absurd—whatever Morsi’s failings and they are legion—to suggest that his year in office is any match for the six decades of misrule by the barons and the men of the barracks, which had wrecked Egypt and driven her to a position where she could barely feed herself. Given this, it beggars belief that anybody ever believed that the army was the answer to Egypt’s troubles. Those who pointed to the troubles of Morsi’s reign also missed the point: this was the harvest of dictatorship, not the result of democracy. The habits of authoritarianism—for both the rulers and the ruled—were what was in view with Morsi.
Things were going very badly already by last October: other than the death toll there was a massive wider repression of civil society—the exact people who had thrown in with the putschists to thwart the Islamists. A student was imprisoned for “spreading atheism” and the “liberals” who functioned as front men for the military regime were falling away. The Brotherhood was banned and Morsi was accused of a hysterical raft of charges. By later in the year it was much worse: a rigged constitution was put forward that preserved the privileges of the military and peaceful protests were violently shut down; the original leaders of the protest movement against Mubarak were rounded up and all meetings “of a public nature” were outlawed. This was entirely predictable, and indeed was predicted.
It was even worse than that. All available evidence suggests that even the final argument of those who acknowledge the brutality of Sisi’s regime—that at least he is secular—is likely not true. Sisi was appointed by Morsi because he was believed to be ideologically compatible and any aspiring dictator in Egypt would be foolish to bet on the “liberals,” who themselves acknowledge being not more than five percent of the population. In Sisi is a man who more closely resembles Zia-ul-Haq than Gamal Abdel Nasser; someone who mixes militarism and Islamism rather than nationalism, though for now a very ugly species of hyper-nationalism is being used to keep reason out of Egyptian politics.
While the Ikhwans were at the helm in Cairo, the Salafist Hizb an-Nur was in total disarray, the Salafi-jihadists in the Sinai were being fought against by the fundamentalists in government, and HAMAS was all over the place, partially disowned by an Egyptian Brotherhood mindful of a national animus that had tired of the Palestinians, and a constant running sore for the Brotherhood government that had to signal their support of their fellow Ikhwans while keeping them at arm’s length and dealing with Israel. Now the Brotherhood and the other Islamists can again pose as purists and sink their differences: in opposition they do not have to make any compromises and for the short-term they all have the same goal. The coup legitimised Sayyid Qutb and Ayman az-Zawahiri, who said Islam could never come to power by the ballot; the only way was through bullets. The Salafi-jihadist insurgency, which reached the outskirts of Cairo last month, is the logical outcome of that conclusion, and while an Algeria-style meltdown does seem to have been averted, there is no guarantee that that is a lasting fact.
In approaching this from the standpoint of an anti-Islamist there is a paradox. Those who argue for a ban totalitarian parties—Islamist, Communist, Nazi—have a coherent position. But what is to be done when the supporters of these parties are not just an enormous minority—say, forty percent—but actual majorities? What legitimacy has an election that excludes that much of the electorate? Very little: a healthy polity is one where these forces can run openly and are soundly defeated. Such a case is also a very convenient exculpation of the dictatorships. Sadat had used the Islamists to defeat the Left and Mubarak ensured that his only rivals were Islamists—ruthlessly repressing the liberals—so Western observers were made to choose between him and the Islamists. The argument leads to favouring dictatorship forever since the despots will never allow a decent, secular, liberal force to emerge as their challenger; the only way to grow such a force is to begin with the removal of these tyrannies.
The Brotherhood’s election offered a possible way forward: it would not only make the Islamists accountable for their slogan that “Islam is the solution”; it would make the population accountable. The conspiracy theories that flourish in a closed society where power really is exerted by a shadowy cabal would give way and the populace would have to take responsibility for its ills. The process would force people to reckon with the fact that you cannot run a society from a holy book. Iran has tried the rule of the clergy and it has secularised the population, which is why even many Islamists now favour democracy—as a way to preserve the faith. This is the paradox for anti-Islamists: they must favour the participation of theocratic forces in democratic politics; it is the only means of defeating al-Qaeda-type radicalism.
The Egyptian coup has aborted that possibility. It is difficult to see anything that will stop Sisi taking the presidency in July. When that happens Egypt will not only be back to where she started: she will be worse off. The Islamists have been radicalised, put in a predicament where they cannot make their case peacefully, and this has swelled an insurgency in the Sinai that might yet come to the cities. Meanwhile, the virulence of the nationalism that has emerged in Egypt and its populist character does actually have a name: “fascism“. That word might have been overused but it is sincerely merited for the ideology this junta is using to keep itself in power. And when this storm calms and Sisi sets about consolidating his regime, it will not even be one that marginalises the Islamists. Those “liberals” who gave their warrant to this putsch will be—indeed are already—sorriest of all.
Update (April 22, 2014): One of the five Tamarod leaders, Moheb Doss, came forward a week ago and told BuzzFeed: “What [the army] did, they did in our names because we let them. The leaders of Tamarod … took orders from others. … How did we go from such a small thing, five guys … to the movement which brought tens of millions to the street to get rid of the Brotherhood? The answer is we didn’t. I understand now it wasn’t us, we were being used as the face of what something bigger than us wanted.” In short, the “Rebellion” Movement was an instrument of the Egyptian para-State, the intelligence and military barons who had not given up on power. Note too that on July 12, 2013, in the Daily Beast, Doss was quoted saying that the Egyptian military and its allies in the judiciary had communicated to Tamarod its intentions both via the media and in “individual communications between Tamarod people and state institutions.” When the Muslim Brotherhood speaks of a “conspiracy,” just for once they are actually correct.
Update (May 11, 2015): The Daily Beast reported on a series of taped conversations from just before the coup, with its lead conspirators, including Deputy Defense Minister Mamdouh Shaheen and Gen. Abbas Kamel, Sisi’s chief of staff, which were leaked beginning in November 2014. Sisi has made a lot of the fact the tapes were released by media channels in Turkey closely connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, but their authenticity is not in doubt and they demonstrate quite conclusively that there was nothing spontaneous about the Tamarod protests; the military cabal and their Gulf patrons paid for those crowds to give themselves a pretext for the coup.
[T]he Egyptian military helped to bankroll the mass unrest it used to justify ousting Morsi.
Kamel is heard in June 2013—the month leading up to the coup—authorizing withdrawal of a large sum of money for the army’s use from the bank account of Tamarod, the supposedly independent grassroots group that was organizing protests against president Morsi.
The government of the United Arab Emirates had provided the money, indicating further high-level collusion. “Sir,” Kamel tells an aide to el-Sisi, who was then chief of the Egyptian military, “we will need 200 [thousand Egyptian pounds] tomorrow from Tamarod’s account, you know, the part from the UAE, which they transferred.”