The astonishing fall from power Egypt’s first ever civilian ruler marks the end of the Egyptian revolution – for now at least – and the reassertion of military dominance, according to Faisal Bodi.
Watching the defiant figure of Mohammed Morsi as he arrived to stand trial in a makeshift Cairo military court last week, it was hard not to notice the extraordinary disconnect between the principled recalcitrance of the ousted Egyptian president and the new political reality that has settled over the country.
For all his repeated claims to legitimacy, Morsi’s appearance in the caged dock presented a cruel reminder that in the four months since he and his colleagues were unceremoniously removed from power and thrown into jail, the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood have fast become yesterday’s men in Egyptian politics.
As they languished behind bars, went into hiding or fled abroad, Egypt’s new rulers have been busy creating new realities on the ground. Apart from banning the Brotherhood’s activities and freezing its assets, the military has appointed a puppet interim government, restored the draconian state of emergency in force during the entire 30 years of the Mubarak era, revived the dreaded State Security Investigations Service – a byword for police oppression that was shut down after the 2011 popular uprising – and generally restored its position at the helm of national politics. In fact the military’s self-reassertion has been so decisive that it renders incredulous any claim it might make about wanting to usher in genuine civilian democratic rule.
The coup represents the culmination of military efforts to undo the achievements of the 2011 uprising. Smarting from that chastening defeat and the subsequent failure to bring Ahmed Shafiq, their preferred candidate in the following year’s presidential election, to power the generals set about plotting a swift return. In a series of off the record interviews with senior military officials in the aftermath of the coup last July, the Associated Press revealed how beginning with the crisis set off by the Port Said football violence the military exploited the country’s bitter political divisions to undermine Morsi’s government and prepare for a comeback.
When a football match in February 2012 between Port Said’s Al-Masry and the rival Al-Ahly from Cairo turned violent leading to dozens of mainly away supporters being killed police were accused of standing by and letting it happen. The implication was that the security forces had deliberately failed to intervene in order to avenge the military’s overthrow by letting the home fans cut down the visiting supporters from Cairo (Cairo’s residents were collectively blamed for bringing down Mubarak).
In January 2013 a court handed down 21 death sentences against the perpetrators, leading to riots, more deaths and the imposition of a curfew in Port Said by the indignant President Morsi. The city’s residents, who have never been sympathetic to the Brotherhood and who chose Shafiq in the presidential run-off, thumbed their noses at Morsi, defying the curfew and attacking symbols of government authority. All the while, the army, which was out in the streets, stood by in direct opposition to Morsi’s orders to crack down on the mobs.
The military’s assumed stand as saviour against government injustice would turn out to be a dress rehearsal for the coup proper. In fact as early as April it had drawn up contingency plans to regain power if street protests against the new government spiralled out of control.
At the same time it spotted an opportunity in the shape of the opposition Tamarrod movement which was rallying the masses against Morsi’s autocratic style of rule and worsening economic conditions. Through third parties who connected the movement with its financiers, the generals encouraged and supported Tamarrod in its aim of forcing the Brotherhood from power. By the first anniversary of Morsi’s election the movement claimed to have gathered 22 million signatures for a petition asking the president to step down.
Exactly how many people signed up is anyone’s guess as the figure has never been independently verified. But by now that didn’t matter. Nor did the claims of Tagarrod, a rival movement backing Morsi, that it had amassed 11 million signatures. The sheer scale of the anti-Morsi protests had handed the military the pretext it needed to act ‘in the interests of the revolution and the people’.
Right from the onset of the uprising the Egyptian masses had largely accepted the military’s self-appointed role as guardians of the revolution. Indeed the slogan “the people and the army are one hand” had become a popular refrain all around Tahrir Square. The Brotherhood was no exception. Whether through necessity or naivety, its leaders accepted the military’s ostensible willingness to retreat from matters of state and oversee a transition to civilian rule. Few armies have willingly ceded power and Egypt’s armed forces, fattened and strengthened by three decades of American largesse, were not about to break with tradition.
The armed forces’ attempts to subvert the revolution were in evidence from its very beginning. Morsi was still only a presidential candidate when the country’s Supreme Court, part of a judiciary packed with pro-Mubarak loyalists, ordered the dissolution of the People’s Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, claiming that parliamentary elections in which the Brotherhood had secured 38% of the vote, had violated the constitution. In a separate ruling the same court also deemed unconstitutional a law passed by Parliament that barred senior officials from the Mubarak regime from standing for political office. The decision paved the way for Ahmed Shafiq to contest the presidential elections.
Once in office, instead of tackling the country’s deep-rooted problems Morsi and his Freedom and Justice Party found their energies consumed by a rearguard battle against the continuing dominance of the army. But his efforts at castrating the generals were all too little too late. When he fired Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the leader of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces which had run Egypt during the 17-month interregnum following Mubarak’s removal, Morsi replaced him with the equally anti-democratic Abdul Fattah el-Sisi. Similarly when he attempted to counter the dissolution of the People’s Assembly by forming a shura or consultative council to legislate he was accused of packing it with Brotherhood members. The same accusations of “Islamisation” surfaced when Morsi replaced the constitution, albeit with the support of a referendum. And when he attempted to reform the judiciary by allegedly planning to retire 3000 Mubarak-era judges critics accused him of trying to monopolise power.
The army had effectively manipulated the country’s deep political divisions to turn the new government into a lightning rod for popular discontent. To be fair the new administration’s job was never going to be easy. Six decades of military rule had transformed Egyptian economic and political life into a bog of corruption and patronage. The bureaucracy was dominated by army apparatchiks and underlings who owed their livelihoods to military control. Getting them to do anything for a government they mistrusted and ideologically despised was a non starter. Replacing them was even less of an option. For example, when Morsi set about summoning business leaders from the Suez Canal Zone to appear before Parliament and explain why their positions always seemed to be handed to military men, he only angered the military further.
The army’s reach over Egyptian society is pervasive and runs deep. By some estimates it controls as much as 40 percent of the economy, with interests in everything from real estate, tourism, healthcare and education. The Ministry of Military Production manages at least 14 companies producing merchandise varying from tank shells and ammunition to fertilisers, sports equipment, cement, pasta and cars. According to classified documents published by WikiLeaks the ministry has revenues from the private sector of about 2bn Egyptian pounds ($286m) a year and employs 40,000 civilians. With many more civilians indirectly benefitting from its projects and a total of 450,000 men under arms, it is one of the nation’s biggest employers, followed not too far behind by the equally bloated and self-interested police force.
Morsi was taking on Egypt’s most formidable forces. But his government also found itself ranged against powerful external interests. Since 1979 Egypt has been the recipient of an annual $1.5billion in US military aid for agreeing to break Arab unity and establish peace with Israel. The deal made the Egyptian military the cornerstone of Washington’s Middle Eastern strategy to defuse and divide regional opposition to the Zionist state.
Anxious not to end up on the losing side, throughout the 2011 uprising US officials took care not to oppose popular sentiment without openly backing the revolution either. However after the Brotherhood’s electoral triumphs, their stand changed. Documents obtained by the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley, show that the US channelled anti-Morsi funding through a State Department programme to promote democracy in the Middle East. This programme vigorously supported activists and politicians who have fomented unrest in Egypt with the aim of undermining the democratically elected Morsi government.
The research was highlighted in a feature by Aljazeera shortly after the July military coup. In the article Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a prominent Egyptian intellectual cum politician opposed to Morsi, is quoted as saying: “We were told by the Americans that if we see big street protests that sustain themselves for a week, they will reconsider all current US policies towards the Muslim Brotherhood regime.” Ibrahim’s Ibn Khaldoun Center in Cairo is one of the largest recipients of US democracy promotion money. According to Aljazeera his comments followed statements by other Egyptian politicians claiming they had been encouraged by US officials to whip up public sentiment against Morsi.
Also ranged against the new government were the conservative monarchies of the Gulf led by Saudi Arabia, another linchpin of US Middle Eastern policy. Fearing the spread of an Islamist-led Arab Spring to their own shores, they took measures to halt its advance. Riyadh and Kuwait found natural allies in Egypt’s religious but hitherto politically quiescent Salafists. The rise to prominence of the Salafists in post-Mubarak Egypt has been nothing but spectacular. Lavished with petrodollars the biggest Salafi party, Al-Nour, came from nowhere to win 28% of the vote in the 2011 parliamentary elections.
At first a wary ally of the Brotherhood in the new government Al-Nour turned its back on its fellow Islamists when the military decided their time was up. Its about-face in supporting the coup undercut a massive swathe of likely support for the Freedom and Justice Party. Like some other oppositions groups, it has since distanced itself from the interim government to avoid the accusation that it has blood on its hands for the security forces’ massacre of anti-coup demonstrators last August.
However, Al-Nour had succeeded in helping to achieve its patron’s objectives. With the ancien regime back, Riyadh is now focussed on consolidating its grip on power and strengthening its own bargaining levers. Within a week of the coup it had announced a a $12 billion aid package – $5 billion from the kingdom, $3 billion from the United Arab Emirates and $4 billion from Kuwait – that dwarfs direct military and economic grants from the United States and the European Union combined.
To date most of the analyses of the coup have focused on the failings of Morsi’s government. And rightly so. Quite how Morsi managed to turn a 78% approval rating into 28% in the space of a year certainly points to serious internal shortcomings.
However these explanations overlook one fundamental fact: by accepting the army’s self-appointed role as guardian of the revolution, the Egyptian people had sowed the seeds of its own subversion right from the start. It was naïve and foolish to expect that a military that has dominated Egyptian life for decades would willingly relinquish power and privilege. By failing as a collective body to remove the army from political and economic life and by failing to insist on it as a fundamental objective of the uprising before taking hold of the reins of government, the Egyptian people left themselves open to continuing military domination. Once Morsi was in office the military could employ classic divide and rule tactics to divert blame for all the country’s ills on his party and government, regardless of the fact that it was undermining that government at every opportunity. The fate that befell Morsi and the Brotherhood awaits all those who continue to play by the rules drawn up by the military in a system designed to perpetuate its own dominance. The Egyptian revolution still has a long way to go.