Egypt: Coup d’etat – Act Two

Presented hereunder are two articles covering the political events in Egypt. With apologies to Tariq Ramadan, whose is the first essay, we had to cut short his article for a variety of reasons. Further, it seems he agrees, at some places, with the analysis of Dr. Davidson whose article follows. Our own views have been previously expressed through our editorial of the Jan-Feb. 2012 issue. And, whatever is said or discreetly not said, Western countries have been exposing themselves faster than analysts would be allowed time to analyze

For two years now I have often been asked why I have not visited Egypt, where I had been forbidden entry for 18 years. Just as often, I repeated that on the basis of the information I was able to obtain—confirmed by Swiss and European officials—the Egyptian army remained firmly in control and had never left the political arena.

I never shared the widespread “revolutionary” enthusiasm. Nor did I believe that events in Egypt, any more than in Tunisia, were the result of a sudden historical upheaval. The peoples of these two countries suffered from dictatorship, from economic and social crisis; they rose up in the name of dignity, social justice and freedom. Their awakening, their “intellectual revolution,” and their courage must be saluted. But to accept or justify a simple-minded, linear explanation of the political, geo-strategic and economic issues would have been totally unconscionable. Nearly three years ago, in a book and then in a series of articles, I alerted my readers to a body of troubling evidences, and to the underlying geopolitical and economic considerations that were often missing from mainstream political and media analyses, and that insisted on submitting the euphoria that accompanied the “Arab spring” to critical analysis.

The Egyptian army has not returned to politics for the simple reason that it has never left. The fall of Hosni Mubarak was a military coup d’etat that allowed a new generation of officers to enter the political scene in a new way, from behind the curtain of a civilian government. In an article published on June 29 2012, I noted an Army high-command declaration that the presidential election was temporary, for a six-month to one-year period (its title made the premonition explicit: “An election for nothing?”). The American administration had monitored the entire process: its objective ally in Egypt over the past fifty years has been the army, not the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The latest revelations (see the International Herald Tribune, July 5, and Le Monde, July 6) confirm what was already clear: the decision to overthrow President Mohamed Morsi had been made well before June 30. A conversation between President Morsi and General al-Sisi indicated that the head of the country’s military had planned the overthrow and imprisonment of the president weeks before the popular upheaval that would justify the military coup “in the name of the people’s will.” A clever strategy! Orchestrate demonstrations involving millions of people in order to make believe that the army truly cares about the people! Coup d’etat, second act.

How then to analyze the immediate reaction of the American administration, which avoided using the term “coup d’etat” (which, if accepted, would mean it could not provide financial support to the new regime)? A curious position for a government that, in its ‘surprise’, uses exactly the right words to exert full political, economic and legal leverage over the coup makers. European governments will follow suit, of course: the army has responded “democratically” to the call of the people. It’s all too good to be true! Magically, chronic blackouts, gasoline and natural gas shortages came to an abrupt end after the fall of the president. It was as though people had been deprived of the basic necessities in order to drive them into the streets. Amnesty International observed the strange attitude of the armed forces, which did not intervene in certain demonstrations (even though it was closely monitoring them), allowing the violence to spiral out of control, as though by design. The armed forces then accompanied its intervention with a saturation public relations campaign, providing the international media with photographs taken from its helicopters, depicting the Egyptian population as it cheered and celebrated their military saviors, as confirmed in Le Monde.

Nothing, then, has really changed: the “Arab spring” and the Egyptian “revolution” continue under the guiding hand of General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi. Trained by the United States Army, the general has kept close contact with his American counterparts. The New International Herald Tribune (July 6-7) informs us that General al-Sisi is well known to the Americans, as well as to the government of Israel, with which he “and his office”, we are told, continued to “communicate and to coordinate” even while Mohamed Morsi occupied the presidential palace. Al-Sisi had earlier served in the Military Intelligence Services in the North Sinai, acting as go-between for the American and Israeli authorities. It would hardly be an understatement to say that Israel, like the United States, could only look favorably upon developments in Egypt.

What, after the fact, is surprising, is the simple-mindedness, the lack of experience and the nature of the mistakes made by Mohamed Morsi, by his allies, and by the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization. For the last three years, I have been sharply critical of the thinking, action and strategies of the “Liberty and Justice” party, as well as of the MB leadership (over the last twenty-five years, my analyses and commentary have been and remain sharply critical). The trap seemed glaringly obvious; my writings on the subject (book, and articles written between March and December 2012) pointed to grave shortcomings. President Morsi cannot be fairly criticized for not doing all he could to establish relations with the opposition, either by inviting it to join the government or to take part in a broad national dialogue. But his approaches were rejected out of hand, with the opposition bitterly opposing his every initiative. The fact remains, however, that his management of the business of state, his failure to listen to the voice of the people and even to some of his trusted advisors, his exclusivist relationship with the highest echelons of the MB leadership, his hasty and ill-considered decisions (some of which he later acknowledged as errors) must be unsparingly criticized. But on a more fundamental level, his greatest fault has been the utter absence of a political vision and the lack of clearly established political and economic priorities, his failure to struggle against corruption and poverty, and his egregious mismanagement of social and educational affairs. The demands of the International Monetary Fund (and its deliberate procrastination) placed the state in an untenable position: the Morsi government believed that the international institution would support it. It is only today, now that President Morsi has fallen, that the IMF appears prepared to remove what were previously insurmountable obstacles. This, coming a mere three days after the overthrow of a democratically elected government.

The naivety of the president, of his government and of the Muslim Brotherhood has been stunning. After sixty years of opposition and military repression (with the direct and indirect benediction of the US Administration and the West), how could they possibly have imagined that their former adversaries would support their rise to power, invoking democracy all the while? Did they learn nothing from their own history, from Algeria in 1992, and, more recently, from Palestine? I have been and remain critical, both of the (superficial) content of their program and the ambiguous strategy of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood (compromise with the armed forces and the United States, surrender on the economy and the Palestinian cause, etc.) but their lack of political awareness has been quite simply stupefying. To hear President Morsi tell General al-Sisi, a mere ten days before his overthrow, that he might well demote him (after all, he had appointed him) and that the Americans would “never permit a coup d’etat” was as mind-boggling as it was surrealistic.

Some observers were startled to see the salafis, in particular the an-Nour party, join forces with the military alongside the “democratic” faction opposed to President Morsi… The idea was to undermine the religious credibility of the Muslim Brotherhood, and to force it into extreme positions… It’s all about keeping up appearances…

In our day, it is not unusual for writer who does not accept the official consensus to be dismissed as a “conspiracy theorist,” for his analysis to be rejected before studying the facts upon which it is based. Are we to conclude that in our globalizing age, with its networks of national security policies and structures and its new means of communication, political scheming, malicious stratagems, manipulation of information and of peoples are a thing of the past? “Conspiracy theorist” is a new insult devised for those who think the wrong thoughts, who don’t fit in; paranoids, people who ascribe occult powers to certain states (the United States, the European countries, Israel, the Arab and African dictatorships, etc.) that they really do not possess. We must forget what we learned about the conspiracies that have left their mark on the history of Latin America and Africa (from the assassination of Salvador Allende to the elimination of Thomas Sankara); we must overlook the lies that led to the invasion of Iraq and to the massacres in Gaza (both presented as legitimate defense) ; we must … close our eyes to the benefit for Israel of regional instability and of the most recent coup d’etat in Egypt. We must remain naïve and credulous if we are not to notice that the United States and Europe on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other, have agreed to disagree on Syria, and that the 170 Syrians who die each day count for nothing against the strategic and economic interests of the Great Powers.

Our obligation is to stick to the facts, to avoid oversimplification. The polar opposite of an over-simplified reading of events is not “conspiracy theorizing” but that of intelligence informed by history, by hard facts and by a detailed analysis of conflicting interests. The interpretation presented here may well be wrong or inexact, but substantial and verifiable evidence has repeatedly confirmed it. From those who have criticized or challenged our analysis, we look forward to a fact-based counter-analysis far from denigrations and facile slogans. When people refuse to call a military coup d’etat by its real name, and when most media avert their eyes, the hour for critical conscience has struck.


Egypt’s All-or-Nothing Politics

By Dr. Lawrence Davidson*

The Heritage of Westernization

The cultural situation in much of the Middle East resembles a volcanic landscape. On the surface there is a layer of Westernization. Within the confines of this layer dwell that portion of the population that has, in terms of lifestyle, come to favor Western ways. This is not an unexpected phenomenon. After all, imperial European powers controlled much of North Africa from the early nineteenth century onward as well as most of the rest of the region after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century. Members of the region’s upper classes, both economic and military, long interacted with and often mimicked European colonials.

Though there have always been differences in the details (for instance, some are more democratically minded than others), the resulting Westernized layer has always been largely secular. Those among them who may be of a religious bent are moderates and have no problem with a separation of state and religion. Though it varies with the country, those belonging to this layer make up perhaps 25% of the population.

Beneath this surface layer is the majority population – a deep pool of magma – which is much more religious and much more tied to Islamic traditions and values. This does not mean the majority is always united in outlook. Some strongly desire an Islamic state while others do not see this as a necessary goal. There are other sources of division as well. Nonetheless, as in the case of volcanoes, the magma exerts fluctuating political and social pressure on the surface layer. To indefinitely keep it from erupting forth is probably an impossible task.

In Egypt, since the mid-1950s, the task of keeping the magma from erupting was accomplished by a series of military regimes. The officer corps of the Egyptian military tends to be secular and thus belongs to society’s surface layer. The same can be said for those who run the Egyptian police.

In both cases they see the religious elements of their society as ideologically backward and competitors for power. Thus, upon attaining control, such military regimes, be they those of the famous Gamal Abdel Nasser or the infamous Hosni Mubarak, worried about the revolutionary potential of the more traditional majority. They sought to control it by either co-opting or suppressing any potential leadership cadres coming out of this population. For instance, they control most of the mosque imams by making them employees of (and thus financially dependent upon) the state. Also, they would regularly arrest and imprison the leadership elements they could not buy off. This was often the fate of those who led the Society of Muslim Brothers. 

The Magma’s Moment

This pattern seemed to have been broken by the events that brought down the military regime of Hosni Mubarak. The mass demonstrations of 2011 initially convinced the military elite that Mubarak needed to be replaced and then, with the continuance of popular demonstrations, that acquiescence in a process of democratization would be necessary as long as the military maintained its organizational and economic privileges. During this revolutionary period other groups within the Westernized surface layer proved more naive.

The various elements of the youth movement that initiated the anti-Mubarak demonstrations convinced themselves that their bravery and sacrifice gave them the right to define the political outcome of the revolution, i.e., a liberal democracy. Yet, while the youth movements represented hundreds of thousands, they were not the majority. What they did not foresee was that the revolution they felt to be their own would open a way for the magma, the traditional majority, to flow to the surface and, under the aegis of a democratic process, achieve power.

The result was the victory of Islamist Mohammed Morsi, who became the first democratically elected president of Egypt. He accomplished this historic feat in June of 2012 when he won 51.7% of the vote in a free and fair election. What followed, depending upon which element of society one belonged to, was elation, shock, or fear and, for some, there was a stubborn refusal to accept the results. This led to a series of political mistakes all around that undermined Egypt’s democratic experiment.

Mistakes of the Winners

The elation felt by Mohammed Morsi and his supporters, particularly the vast number of Egyptians formally or informally associated with the Society of Muslim Brothers, was easy to anticipate. For decades the Islamists of Egypt had been persecuted. Their leaders had been jailed for long periods, sometimes tortured, sometimes executed. When Morsi won the presidential election, millions of Egyptian Muslims – traditionalists, fundamentalists, and just the ordinary pious people – must have felt that this was their God-given moment.

This elation was probably behind the newly elected leadership’s precipitous writing of a constitution that reflected the religious inclinations of the majority. Morsi and his supporters assumed that their election win was a mandate to carry through their own vision for Egypt, that is, an Islamic-oriented state. They moved too far, too fast, and did not offer sufficient protections for either religious or secular minorities. In doing so they caused the losers of the election to panic at the prospect of Islamist rule.

Thus, there was quick and vehement resistance to the new government, initially coming from the Egyptian courts. The array of secular forces that had lost the election appealed to the courts to put aside just about everything the new government did. And the Egyptian courts, still populated with Mubarak-era appointees, proved quite willing to reverse the democratic process.

President Morsi then overreacted to this resistance. He declared himself beyond the authority of the Egyptian courts, and for a short time, he attempted to assume dictatorial powers. He soon backed away from this position and, as antigovernment demonstrations organized by Tamaroud, a group associated with the Egypt’s secular youth movements, grew ever larger, he showed a belated willingness to compromise. Morsi accepted the need to negotiate a government of national unity and accelerated elections for a new parliament. However, it was too late.

Increasingly, Morsi was in a no-win situation. For instance, Tamaroud repeatedly blamed Morsi and his government for the country’s rising level of crime. However, Morsi had not been able to gain control over the country’s police establishment, which, like the courts, remained in the hands of Mubarak-era functionaries. He was blamed for the poor state of the Egyptian economy. Morsi was in office for about a year and never had effective control of an economy that has been derelict for decades. He was even accused of increasing the influence of the United States in Egypt. These accusations made little sense and were probably propaganda moves made in an effort to destroy the new government altogether. The secular minority seemed to be taking a position that the traditionalist/ religious majority would not be allowed to rule, even within the context of democratic structures.

Mistakes of the Losers

The primary mistake of those who lost the election in June 2012 was to abandon the democratic process. What was needed were guarantees from the new government that there would be a regular election cycle, that those elections would be as free and fair as the one Morsi’s opponents had just lost, and that whatever constitution was produced under Morsi’s government would be amendable through a reasonable process. These were achievable goals, particularly once Morsi understood the opposition he faced.

However, the opponents of the elected government proved averse to compromise. They often boycotted negotiations with the government. Instead they opted for scrapping the entire election. In doing so, those who made up organizations like Tamaroud and Mohammed ElBaradei’s National Salvation Front, appeared to be saying that their own (primarily secular) vision of Egypt was the only legitimate vision. Unfortunately, this outlook eventually led them into a de facto alliance with the military to bring down Egypt’s first democratically elected government.

Who Now Rules?   

Those who opposed Morsi may soon rue the day they refused to negotiate with him. Why so?  Listen to the explanation given by Jonathan Steele in the Guardian:

“Much has rightly been made of the threat to Egyptian democracy that comes from the so-called deep state: the still entrenched bureaucracy made up of officials of Mubarak’s National Democratic party, elitist entrepreneurs who were his cronies, and an army hierarchy that exploited state assets. . . . Some accused Morsi of joining the ranks of this authoritarian elite. But the real charge was that he did too little to challenge them or their foot soldiers, a corrupt and brutal police force.” 

Thus, if those who celebrated Mohammed Morsi’s removal believe that the Egyptian military and its “deep state” accomplices share their democratic vision for a better Egypt they are doomed to disappointment. These elements care nothing for the political and civil rights of the Egyptian people. Within hours of the military coup troops were shooting pro-Morsi demonstrators and closing down news outlets.

It is not the social conservatism of Egypt’s majority that is, again using Steele’s words, “the biggest and most immediate danger to the country and the political rights that all Egyptians won with the overthrow of Mubarak.” But rather, as Steele warns, it is the military, the police, and other entrenched reactionary forces which are the greatest threat.

Having created the conditions for the military to reenter the political arena, the secular parties may now find it beyond their power to push them out a second time. So what are the probable consequences? It looks as if Egyptians face two overlapping possibilities: renewed military dictatorship and/or civil war. They are not the only possibilities, just the most likely.



* Dr. Davidson has done extensive research and published in the areas of American perceptions of the Middle East, and Islamic Fundamentalism. His two latest publications are Islamic Fundamentalism (Greenwood Press, 1998) and America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood (University Press of Florida, 2001). He has published thirteen articles on various aspects of American perceptions of the Middle East. Dr. Davidson holds a BA from Rutgers, an MA from Georgetown University and a Ph.D. in history from the University of Alberta.

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