EGYPT – THE GENERALS ARE BACK!

Canberra, 1 February 2014

An al-Qaeda inspired group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, or Partisans of Jerusalem, has claimed responsibility for the assassination of General Mohamed Saed, an aide of the Egyptian Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim. This group has carried a number of deadly attacks in Egypt since the military overthrew the Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last July. The group states that they will continue to carryout revenge attacks for the military crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. In turn, the military-backed interim regime has declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation on Christmas Day in December 2013. This is just the latest manifestation of the troubles and tribulations of Egypt.

The third anniversary of the much touted Arab Spring clearly shows that, at least in Egypt, the promise of the revolution has withered and died. The initial period immediately following the revolution did see a gradual development of an incipient democratic movement. However, the highhandedness of the Morsi Government, the first-ever democratically elected government in Egypt’s history, and the even more autocratic actions of the Egyptian military subsequently, have completely smothered any remaining vestige of democracy in the Arab world’s most populous country. In the initial phase of the Arab Spring revolution in 2011 a parallel to the events in Egypt was being enacted in Tunisia. However, three years down the track, the situations are almost diametrically opposite to each other. In Tunisia, an elected assembly has produced what can only be termed politically the most liberal constitution in the whole of the Arab world, a document that sets the seal on Tunisia’s transition to a true democracy. By contrast, a few hundred kilometres to the east, in a Referendum held amidst boycotts and violence, Egypt has ratified a constitution that validates a coup that ousted the country’s elected President, Mohamed Morsi.

What went so drastically wrong in Egypt? To begin with, President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood that won the post-Mubarak elections in Egypt were in a hurry to establish their hold over the country, drafting a constitution in short order that even many of the revolutionaries rejected. Further, this constitution clearly pointed towards an Islamic state, thus completely alienating the secular half of the population. The fear of an emerging theocratic state was real and a part of the population appealed to the military to set things right. This appeal could have stemmed from a popular and historic perception of the Egyptian Army being considered the only national institution capable of dealing with issues of governance and enforcing the law. The head of the military, General (promoted Field Marshal a few days ago) Abdel Fattah al-Sisi obliged, duly ordering the arrest and imprisonment of President Mohamed Morsi. The revolution was killed in its infancy.

Egypt’s Legacy of Military Rule

The Egyptian Army (read military) has deep roots in the nation’s culture, economy and governance. After removing the ruling monarchy of the Muhammad Ali dynasty in a 1952 coup, the coup leader Major General Mohammad Naguib, refused a promotion to ‘lieutenant general’ as a demonstration of his humility and to deny any charges of being power-hungry. This gesture has so far been the only one of humility that the long line of military rulers of Egypt have displayed in its independent history. In 1954, the ‘humble’ general was removed by a group of more ambitious officers led by the charismatic Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser. There followed a brief period when Egyptians were divided in their opinion—one faction wanting the army to go back to the barracks and the institution of parliamentary democracy; and the other wanting a strong ruler who could ensure food on the table for the common man and the stability of the nation. The quest for food won the day and the first casualties were basic freedoms and of course the dream of parliamentary constitutionalism. While some land reform was delivered, the military leadership also established what can only be called a ‘military republic’, where the armed forces were above the law and enforced the law as they interpreted it.

From 1952 to 2011, the rule of the Generals continued, being questioned only when the anti-Government protests rolled out into the streets of Cairo on 25 January 2011. The protests, heralded the arrival of the Arab Spring in Egypt and the President, Hosni Mubarak, was forced to resign on 11 February, less than three weeks into the protest. This hasty capitulation happened essentially because the armed forces saw the writing on the wall and very clearly withdrew their support to the President. However, the military had a different agenda of their own. First, in the absence of a legitimate government to rule the Sate, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) took over the reins of the government. The Scaf is an unconstitutional body, conservative in its outlook, and can be considered a military junta. They ruled the nation between February 2011 and June 2012 when Mohammad Morsi was elected as the first democratic president of the nation.

A democracy must, at the very minimum, be able to exercise civilian oversight and control over the military and the police forces, be accountable to the people for decisions that are made, and be fiscally transparent in the management of the economy. The Scaf, on assuming control of the nation demanded that it have a veto in the highest level political decision-making body; its budget and economic empire be beyond scrutiny of the parliament; and that its members be given legal immunity from prosecution on charges of corruption and repression. All three demands went completely against the principles of democratic rule. However, these three demands were factored into a constitutional addendum that facilitated the implementation of the Scaf decision to dissolve the first post-revolution parliament.

Other than the political role that the military played in Egypt, it also ran an extensive military-economic empire. This enterprise had always benefited from tax exemptions, preferential exchange rates, and land ownership rights without having to pay the treasury. The military also runs hospitals, builds roads, and manages resorts and its own factories. It employs thousands of people and has over half a million soldiers in uniform at any given time, which means that almost every family has a military connection. The fear within the military hierarchy was that a civilian government would seek to move against this ‘civilian’ asset of theirs. The military also have other concerns. For one, they have a healthy respect for the power of street protests, especially after they witnessed the solidarity of the people during the first Tahrir Square protest in January 2011. They found it prudent to remove President Mubarak rather than support him, and subsequently they moved the date of the elections forward to June 2012 from the scheduled June 2013 to placate the protesters. The Scaf understands that it is walking a tightrope that does not cater for even the slightest margin for error in its decisions.

The Failure of the Democratisation Process

Following the election of Mohammad Morsi as president in June 2012, the military looked set to accept a modicum of civilian oversight. The newly elected President moved swiftly, revoking in August the constitutional addendum that permitted Scaf to remove an elected parliament and limited his own powers, and also retiring the Generals responsible for the controversial amendment. Although these measures were instituted, the constitution that the Muslim Brotherhood rushed through with the approval of about 63 per cent of Egyptian voters did not put the civil-military relationship on an even, democratic, keel. The National Defence Council continued to be dominated by the military and they had a veto on all national security and foreign policy issues.

Public opinion started to rise against President Morsi around November 2012, when he issued, unilaterally it seems, a decree granting himself sweeping and far-reaching powers. The opposition rose to a crescendo when the newly elected Government passed what is generally considered to be an Islamist Constitution. This Constitution was not based on broad consultation and nor did it have social or political consensus among a majority of Egyptians. Essentially, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood committed a fundamental, and fatal mistake—they believed that the victory at the polls, albeit with 51 per cent of the vote, gave them the right to place themselves above the law, legislate as they pleased, and perhaps most offensive of all the actions, impose a Constitution that was tailored to the needs of the Brotherhood on the nation. The resultant hue and cry gave the military the excuse they needed to overthrow the elected Government. President Morsi was deposed by the military in June 2013 after millions of protesters took to the streets and replaced by an interim Government.

Morsi’s removal initiated numerous protests by his supporters, which were met by the military by a crackdown that is reported to have caused more than 1000 deaths. Pro-Morsi sit-ins were forcefully disbanded by the law-enforcement agencies backed by the military. In the months that followed the installation of the military-backed Government, repression of public opinion has been steadily increasing and violence against political opposition has become a regular occurrence. The military claims that they initiated the removal of the elected Government on the demand of the people and to provide stability and security to the general populace. However, they have opted to employ a heavy hand to ensure this demand. That democratic rights have been trampled in the quest for security does not seem to have registered with the public and the armed forces are more than happy to let it lie. There are two alarming facts that is becoming increasingly apparent. First, the repression of fundamental freedoms, taken for granted in democracies, are being curtailed by measures that are steadily increasing in their harshness. Second, these actions, initially aimed at the Muslim Brotherhood, is now also being aimed at young revolutionaries and intellectuals. It is apparent that the attempt is to stifle any dissenting voice that points out the drift towards a greatly authoritarian state.

There is also a war of words and legal action brewing between the interim Government (read military) and the press, especially foreign owned ones. In the latest attack on the press, the Egyptian authorities have decided to charge 20 al-Jazeera journalists with fabricating news and tarnishing Egypt’s reputation abroad. This has been seen as a serious escalation of the state campaign against the press. However, supporters of the Government claim that international news outlets are biased in their reporting and accuse them of working to endorse the ousted Brotherhood. Al-Jazeera, based in Qatar, has been singled out for fierce criticism since Qatar is considered to be sympathetic to the Brotherhood. While international human rights activists condemn the actions against the journalists, within Egypt there is anger in a large section of the population against foreign media since they believe that the country is on the right road to democracy and link the Brotherhood to acts of terrorism.

The Muslim Brotherhood – A Bleak Future?

The interim Government has banned the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation and arrested its known leaders. If they believed that they had contained the movement, at least for the time being, they were mistaken. An organisation that has lived in the shadows for the past 85 years cannot, and will not, let itself become defunct in the span of a few months because of pressure from the state brought on through its security mechanisms. The Brotherhood is definitely cowed, but not defeated, and will continue to try and demonstrate their continued relevance and popularity by bringing people out into the streets to protest the trial of ex-President Morsi. At the time when Morsi was deposed, the interim Government welcomed a dialogue with the more moderate factions within the Brotherhood and it was even conceivable that they would be allowed back into the Government.

The circumstances have changed drastically now and the Brotherhood faces a bleak future as a political party and could even be extinct if the measures being put in place become effective. The Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Brotherhood, will not now be able to operate as a political party, which effectively dissolves it. This would satisfy a large number of Egyptians who view the Brotherhood as a fascist terrorist organisation. It will also force it back underground, where it has been for years. However, such a result may not be a good outcome, since historically it has been easier to deal with the Brotherhood when it is above ground rather than when it is unseen and cultivating links with other, even more radical groups. Currently the organisation is in the doldrums with the senior leadership and thousands of members in prison, its finances frozen, its funding disrupted, and its media outlets shut. In effect the organisation has been eviscerated.

Eradication of the Brotherhood, which obviously would suit the military-owned interim Government, is perhaps not a viable option to pursue. Its pan-Arab ideology and belief in transforming the society to their peculiar interpretation of Islam—a combination of ideology, religion and race connections—is almost impossible to erase. Since it is a religiously motivated organisation, the Brotherhood will always have members keen to avenge perceived or actual grievances regarding how they have been treated. Although for years the Brotherhood had avoided violence and concentrated on increasing their political clout, in the past few weeks the media has been full of images of heavily armed Brotherhood members shooting at people in Cairo and other major cities. The reason for such a volte face could be that in the absence of senior leadership guidance, extremist elements have usurped the movement. Since the organisation has always been pyramidal, it is possible that it is beginning to unravel because of the lack of centralised control.

If the military-backed interim Government, or the next elected President, fails to deliver on the demands of the original revolution, it is highly likely that the more volatile members of the Brotherhood would join jihadist groups and resort to the kind of terrorism that Egypt has witnessed for the past thirty years or so—attacks on state institutions and political assassinations. In the meantime, the Brotherhood has been portrayed as a terrorist group by the Government and become the favourite whipping boy for the security forces. The Brotherhood has been transformed into the ideal tool to justify the extreme actions initiated by the security forces—application of force in a domestic environment requires an equally credible opposition to justify it!

The Future State

Today Egypt is a divided society, polarised between supporters of the military and the interim Government; the supporters of the Brotherhood; and those that believe that the repression effected to bring in stability has gone too far. The constitutional referendum that was held last week gave an overwhelmingly favourable response to the new constitution. However, almost immediately the Government changed the order in which elections would be held. Instead of electing a parliament first, followed by the election of the President, it will now be done in reverse—the President will oversee the parliamentary elections. The vote in favour of the new constitution was mainly aimed at re-establishing stability and restoring law and order so that the common people could start to pick up the pieces of their lives and build up the economy once again after three years of hiatus. Some supporters of the military hold extreme views that the vote could considered a nod to Field Marshal Sisi to assume the position of the President of the Arab republic of Egypt.

This is exactly the shore towards which the tide seems to be flowing. Egypt is in transition. FM Sisi has already thrown his red banded peaked cap into the ring to contest for the presidential elections, and it is almost sure that he will win. How the scenario will play out thereafter is not certain, but most definitely the future of Egypt’s fledgling democracy is in danger. In the two years that the Field Marshal has been in public life, first as Defence Minister and then as the de-facto ruler, he has demonstrated an instinctive cunningness of the born politician, and has developed a combination of power and popularity that rivals the position that was once held by Colonel Nasser six decades ago. However, political popularity is a capitol that is easily dissipated without even the accrual of any interest. The would-be President has his job cut out for him.

Unlike in the 1950s, Egypt today has a population that is unruly and not averse to resorting to street protests to remove the President (when, not if, Sisi gets elected within a few months, he will be the fourth President in in three years!); a population that understands the power of mass mobilisation to bring about political, and more importantly, constitutional change (the third constitution in three years has just been endorsed); a population that has shed its instinctive apathy and shows clear signs of impatience at the lack of visible results; a population that revels in its fickleness regarding support to those in power; a population with an elite that hopes for the full restoration of its erstwhile privileges; and a population consisting of at least hundreds of thousands of Morsi supporters who reject the new constitution, any election that would be held, and the government that would come to power. The challenges that face the new President are colossal and endemic.

The country is fragmented both socially and politically and it is plagued by extreme economic challenges. It is certain that at least for the moment that Sisi is viewed, both by himself as well as his supporters, as the saviour of the nation. However, when democratic institutions and norms are flouted, as is happening in Egypt, the choices before the nation narrow down to either having an absolute dictatorship or the nation descending to civil war and anarchy. Is Egypt going in this direction? Does it then risk becoming a failed State? Even in the case of dictatorships there is a subtle difference between a strong ruler and one that is extreme. The line between the two is very vague and not discernible immediately on it being crossed. By the time the ruler is perceived as having become brutal, it is always too late for democracy to reverse the trend without bloodshed.

Three years after the ‘25th January Revolution’, as the protest that ousted President Mubarak is referred to in Egypt, the nation has come full circle, back into the arms of another Field Marshal! Can this be termed a democratic transition? The thought stretches the imagination.

At a bare minimum, a true democracy needs to be able to target and eliminate abuse of all kind; end exclusion on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity and colour; have security forces that are responsive and responsible to civil control without having impunity from the law of the land; and provide assured security to its citizens both from internal upheavals and external aggression. Will Egypt, after the proposed elections, move in this direction? No one can predict the future, but then human beings thrive on hope. Therefore one can only hope that it will. Egypt, the ancient land of the pharaohs, is now dependent for its future prosperity on the wisdom and sagacity of one man.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2014]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

One Response to “EGYPT – THE GENERALS ARE BACK!”

  1. Sankar Chatterjee Reply February 1, 2014 at 09:42

    A timely analytical analysis.

    Sankar Chatterjee

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