Egyptians soldier on as Cairo wakes to a post-coup world

Some Egyptians protest, some just hope for a better life. TiTaN Jad

When I took a walk past Cairo University this morning, the tanks were still there, while the Islamist camp were continuing their sit-in, though with strongly reduced numbers. At around 5.30pm the night before, the armed forces had closed in on the campus and at the Raba’a al-Adawiyya mosque in Nasr City, the two main sites of the pro-Morsi camp. Clashes erupted throughout the night, leaving 10 dead, according to news agencies, but thankfully the escalation of violence that everyone expected has not materialised (yet).

As these developments took place, millions of opponents of Mohammed Morsi cheered and partied throughout the night. Their demands had been fulfilled. “Irhal” – “Get Out!” was their battle cry. Morsi has failed on every front in during his short-lived presidency, not only because of the food, water, electricity and gas shortages across the country, but because of the complete mismanagement of the country he was supposed to lead. His race to the bottom started in November 22, 2012, with the Constitutional Declaration.

Since then, Morsi systematically imprisoned opposition figures; his flacks repeatedly tried to put a ban on any sort of freedom of speech, such as in the Bassam Yousef case; he and his clan of Muslim Brothers pushed a constitution through the Shura Council that made the president immune from any sort of criticism. He exerted repeated efforts to undermine the judiciary system. He even included Hamas, a Palestinian national organisation, into the Egyptian governmental system. And he tried to undermine the state by replacing national and provincial leaders with Muslim Brotherhood apparatchiks. In doing so, he didn’t act independently, but as an executor of the orders coming out of the Guidance Office, (maktab al-irsahd), where the real power brokers run the affairs of the state.

The clearest indication of the president’s failure was his speech two days ago, which once again showed the Brotherhood’s limited understanding of democracy, which is restricted to the mechanics of democracy (voting, elections, ballot boxes) while showing precious little appreciation for the values that make up the essence of a democracy – values such as the rule of law, citizenship, equality and human rights. The same faint comprehension also prevails at the base. When I talked to Morsi supporters today at Cairo University, asking them what democracy means to them, the only thing they could say was: shara’iyya (legitimacy). Morsi and the Brothers believe that winning an election gives them a carte blanche to run the state as if it was their feudality.

Morsi’s speech revealed another point that is crucial to understanding the psychology of the Brotherhood leadership and their crass miscalculation about the June 30 demonstrations: the complete disconnection with the people, especially the poor. While Morsi had uttered the word “legitimacy” about 40 times during his speech, the poor were not mentioned one single time. What else can you expect of a pyramidal, top-down run organisation whose leaders have been imprisoned and exiled most part of their lives, and whose core values are strict obedience to a leadership, most of whom are aged over 80 years old?

The ensuing shock vis-à-vis the huge numbers who took to the streets over the last few days led the army to start implementing a plan that has been in the making for quite some time. This was not a coup d’état. Rather, this was a concentrated grassroots effort, a campaign called Tamarrod (“rebel”) that had been going on for the past eight months, and to which many members of the Egyptian political and civil society scene subscribed, including prominent opposition figures, al-Azhar, the Coptic Pope, the police, the national guard – and the people of Egypt. The campaign called for peaceful protests and, for the first time since the first revolution of 2011, had a message and clearly defined goals: the deposition of Morsi, a six-month transitional government while a new constitution would be written, followed by parliamentary elections.

After having pushed for a national reconciliation dialogue, which the president refused, the military took up the demands of the people. Shortly before the ultimatum expired, a travel ban was issued against the president and the top leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. Nearly 300 members of the Freedom and Justice Party and the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested, and Morsi, the Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie, Kharita al-Shater and 30 other top Brotherhood leaders are either in prison or under house arrest. A statement was read by the minister of defence and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, declaring the army had taken control, that they would found a technocratic government, and that the head of the High Constitutional Court, Adly Mohamed Mansour, would take over the business of running the state until a new constitution was written that would make early presidential elections possible. For the military, everything went according to plan, which was ready-made, and they executed it swiftly and professionally.

What happened is phenomenal and unprecedented in Egyptian history. And while millions of Egyptians cheered and partied until in the early morning on June 30, and then again yesterday, following the sacking of Morsi, there is a flip side to the coin.

Scenes of jubilation in Cairo. TripleMs

Just one year ago, millions of Egyptians had supported Morsi, many of these same people – the large masses of average men and women, who are not politically active and desire peace and stability – have turned against him in wide swing of the pendulum, à l’égyptienne. While the demands of the opponents are clear, the move by the army weakens the institution of the presidency and could be the beginning of a new era of military-security cohabitation. Of course, the Egyptian people assume that al-Sisi is a man of his word, but in politics one has to assume that he has another agenda and it would be naïve to assume that the military is just a neutral power-broker in the name of the people.

As Hazem Kandil shows in a brilliant new study on Egyptian history, there exist three traditional power centres in Egypt: the army, state security and the presidency. Under president Gamel Abdul Nasser, and following the July 1952 revolution, the military emerged as the strongest political force. When Anwar al-Sadat came to power, the first thing he had to do was to assert himself against his Nassirist rivals on the left, thus shifting alliances away from the army and towards the state security, represented through the ministry of interior. Finally, under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt developed into a fully-fledged police state, with the minister of interior exerting huge influence against their traditional rival, the armed forces. The state has now been toppled twice in three years, first with the fall of Mubarak and now with Morsi’s ousting. At the same time, we have witnessed the emergence of a fourth force in the Egyptian political scene – the millions of protesters who once again took to the street.

Almost two-and-a-half years after the revolution of January 25, 2011, and after a transition that was moving at least partially in a democratic manner (let’s not forget that there were two referenda held, as well a presidential election – all which were accepted by the Egyptian people and there were few claims of electoral fraud), the military, together with other institutions of state and civil society and with the enormous support of millions of Egyptians staged a counter-revolution of which the end is yet unknown. Whatever you might think of the Islamists, within their limited understanding of democracy their argument around constitutional legitimacy (shara’iyya) and the (formal) illegality of what happened yesterday stands on solid grounds.

For the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, their short romance with power is over. We can only hope they will not activate their paramilitary wing and resort to violent tactics over the coming days. According to the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, laid out by its founder Hassan al-Bannah in one of his letters (risala al-Ta’lim), the next stage (after educating the Muslim individual, family and community, then taking over the government) would have been the establishment of an Islamic state ruled by sharia – a prelude to the unification of all Muslim countries into a “caliphate”.

But the brothers have failed miserably. They became infected by the arrogance of power and if they hadn’t been so incompetent in running state affairs, they could have actually made it. Thus, the saga of the Muslim Brotherhood – the story of prions, exile, torture, arrests – continues. It is likely that they will go back underground, pondering their mistakes and working out new plans to take the government back.

It’s clear that they will never give up their ideology. As is typical for strongly ideological parties and movements, ideology is existential. Without it, they are nothing. The theory is right according to the brothers and if reality doesn’t fit the theory, it is because of an error in strategy and tactics, not an error in the theory. This is a crucial point, and it is quite possible that the latent potential for violence erupts.

There is a new force in Egypt - the power of protest. Imjleft

Beyond the army, the state security, the presidency and the brothers, the tragic part in the second act of the Egyptian revolutionary drama is the millions of poor people in this country. They have joined both camps, the opposition as well as the Morsi supporters, hoping for a better future.

Over the course of past year, I have met and talked to hundreds of Egyptians, cab and microbus drivers, shop owners, shoe makers, vegetable sellers, guards, bawaabs and so on. They are all very kind and good-hearted people, and have quite humble expectations of life. “We don’t want to travel or live in luxury, we just want bread, freedom and social justice – we are a very simple people,” Ahmed, a former engineer who was forced to take up a job as a cab driver following the revolution, told me two days ago.

It is important to understand that both sides think of themselves as defending legitimate goals. According to the worldview of the Islamists, the sharia represents the best system of governance, both in this life and the next one. They are deeply religious, sticking to an ethical framework that doesn’t permit them to act in a manner against Islam. It is a system that regulates the behaviour of the individual believer on the level of ethics and morals, where an external force, the state with its monopoly of power, has not been necessary for the biggest part of Muslim history. Islam gives these people meaning and a direction and, most importantly hope. Who can blame them for this?

Ultimately, what we find in the Muslim Brotherhood is a deeply divided organisation, where the mass of followers are systematically deceived and duped. While at the top echelons of power the next move is already in the making, these people will go about their lives, struggling every day in this sticky, noisy, polluted city of Cairo, holding on to their faith. In the absence of any hope for improving their living standards, all they have is the hope to be salvaged in the afterlife, where their hard work and suffering will be rewarded by God Almighty. They are the losers – again – in this chapter of Egyptian history.