Egypt: Dialectics between revolution and counterrevolution

Esam Al-Amin's picture
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Monday 22 June 2015 11:41 UTC
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Recreating the moment of unity displayed in Tahrir Square is the first step towards ending Sisi’s neo-Mubarakist regime

Husam al-Sanei, Tayseer Abu Sneima and Ahmed Al Jaa’bari were three Palestinians from Gaza killed or assassinated by Israel between 2008 and 2012. The first was killed during Israel’s war on Gaza in late 2008, while the second was assassinated in 2009 after being accused of taking part in the abduction of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was held by Hamas for over five years until Israel agreed to release more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in October 2011. The third was a senior commander in the military wing of Hamas and his assassination in 2012 ignited the war between the two archenemies in November of that year. Another Palestinian by the name of Hasan Salamah was sentenced in 1996 by Israel to 48 life sentences and has been imprisoned ever since, mostly in solitary confinement.

What these four Palestinians share in common is that they were sentenced to death this week by an Egyptian court on the charge that they helped free hundreds of people, including ousted President Mohammad Morsi, in a prison break outside Cairo on 29 January, 2011, in the midst of Egypt’s popular uprising.

But the death sentences of these and 70 other Palestinians were just the sideshow to the main story, in which the same court sentenced 122 people to death, including Morsi, most of the senior leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the most senior cleric in the Sunni world, academics, activists, and even a young female student for being part of Morsi’s presidential team.

This and other trials have been widely condemned around the world. Amnesty International has called the trial a “charade” and “grossly unfair”. Consequently Egypt’s politicised judiciary has become the laughing stock of the world as it manifestly serves as the convenient tool of repression against the regime’s opponents ever since the July 2013 coup that ousted Morsi and thwarted Egypt’s path towards democracy. It is unlikely that Egypt’s judiciary did not know these facts. The judges just do not care as they try to re-impose the state of fear that engulfed Egyptian society before it was decimated with the toppling of former President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.

It was none other than General Sami Anan - who was the army chief of staff at the time - who refuted the essence of the fabricated charges when he said that he was unaware of any border breach by Hamas or Hezbollah operatives during these tumultuous days as claimed by government prosecutors in the political trial.

The gross human rights violations by the regime of coup leader Gen Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, have been well documented, including the killing of more than a thousand people injuring over 27,000, the systematic use of rape, torture, kidnapping, and forced disappearances as instruments to subjugate the Egyptian people (similar to the los desaparecidos that took place against dissidents during the rule of the junta in Argentina in the late 1970s and early 1980s), and the imprisonment of over 41,000 of its opponents.

Yet despite the harsh sentences and brutal measures employed over the past two years, the military-backed government and its counterrevolutionary supporters have not been able to hold firm control of the streets or enforce stability. The army has been battling militant groups in Sinai and losing soldiers every week. The security forces have aimlessly been lashing out and cracking down on all opposition groups and activists to the point of exhaustion.

Economically, Egypt is on the verge of collapse despite the infusion of over $50 bn in the past two years, primarily by the coup sponsors, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The country’s infrastructure is deteriorating, unemployment exploding, currency collapsing, inflation rising and the misery index is among the highest in the world. The tourism industry is devastated and the country is virtually bankrupt as its foreign currency reserve dwindle to $20 bn, with a total of only $6 bn not owned by foreign governments, including $3 bn in non-convertible gold assets. Sisi’s government was recently forced to borrow $1.5 bn at the very high interest rate of 6.25 percent, even though the interest rate charged to banks has fluctuated for years between zero and 0.25 percent as set by the Federal Reserve. Every day the country has to borrow internally nearly £1 bn (130 mn Egyptian pounds) just to cover its budget deficit, despite the drastic reduction of most subsidies. The internal debt has surpassed 2 tn pounds or $262 bn (96 percent of its GDP), while the external debt has reached $40 bn.

So why is Sisi intent on following this path of self-destruction? To answer this question one has to understand the make-up of the current political landscape in the country.

Four political factions

The recent history of modern Egypt that started with the 1952 bloodless coup was marked by the rise of a state controlled by the army. The first four presidents were military officers (Naguib, Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak.) Between the mid-1950s and 1970, Nasser dominated the scene and embarked on a neo-socialist discourse in order to redraw the political power structure in the country. Old political parties were banned and political life choked, as new political elites were born within an authoritarian state dominated by military officers.

The 1967 defeat at the hands of Israel shook this new reality, leading eventually to Sadat’s controlled opening that gave rise to plutocracy, a new class of political and economic elites dominated by unrestrained capitalism, corrupt businessmen, and retired military officers and their cronies. When Mubarak took over after Sadat’s assassination in 1981, he allowed the army to build its own economic empire and business enterprises in order to finance the lavish lifestyles of its senior officers, ultimately becoming a direct competitor and threat to many businesses and conglomerates dominated by the country’s new economic elites.

Meanwhile, Mubarak consolidated his power with the latter group especially when his son Gamal started in the late 1990s taking direct control of the state apparatus as he began to prepare himself to become Egypt’s next president. But these two factions, the military and the fulool (remnants of Mubarak’s regime as they came to be known after the 2011 uprising), were firmly under the grip of Mubarak during his reign, as he knew how to manoeuvre between them. 

Meanwhile, street politics since the 1970s had gradually come under the influence of grassroots movements dominated by Islamist social movements led by the Muslim Brotherhood. But their expanding charitable networks and social work were tolerated by the authorities because it supplemented the lack of services the government could not provide to the poor and lower middle class. By the turn of the century, there was a tacit understanding between these three factions. Each was aware of the other two, yet content with its sphere of power and influence: the military with its high social status and economic privileges, the plutocrats with their rising influence and control of state institutions, economy, and carefully managed political life, and the Islamists with their expansion and domination of the social networks, the mosques and the streets.

With the advent of the satellite television networks and social media a new youth generation emerged that was fed up with the corrupt leaders and unsatisfied with the agenda and cautious pragmatism of Islamist groups. These activists started organising in groups such as the April 6 movement and took initiatives challenging the government over its economic and social policies. Other independent opposition groups also organised themselves under the umbrella of the Kefaya (Enough) movement.

With each challenge the group became bolder as many traditional opposition parties were either supporting them from behind the scenes or cheering them from the sidelines, including many from the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, many youth members from the Muslim Brotherhood quietly joined these activities and some even started their own independent groups and became more vocal and daring. It was the collective efforts of these groups that ultimately sparked the 25 January, 2011 popular uprising and toppled Mubarak. Even though the Muslim Brotherhood played a crucial and decisive role during the momentous days that led to Mubarak’s overthrow, its official entry into the revolutionary path against the government was 28 January, three days after the protests began in Tahrir Square.

Four factions with four dates: 24 Jan, 3 July, 29 June and 12 Feb

The unity of the revolutionary factions brilliantly displayed during the electrifying days of January and February 2011 gave way to recriminations and tension as soon as Egypt’s military took over from Mubarak. Two opposing positions about the way forward emerged, one favoured by the Islamist bloc and the other by the revolutionary youth groups. The youth groups called for a revolutionary path that centred on writing a new constitution that would restructure the social contract between the state and its citizens. The Islamists favored a reformist agenda and endorsed an electoral path under the control of the military that they knew they were destined to win. The former group accused the latter of cynically betraying the revolutionary goals and forming a tacit alliance with the military. During most of the transitional period under the direct rule of the military council, the revolutionary youth movements clashed with the state, while the MB called for calm as it won five electoral victories including the majority of seats in parliament as well as the presidency.

By the time Morsi became president in July 2012, the political manoeuvring playbook became clear. Two out of the four factions would momentarily ally themselves and defeat a third, while the fourth would watch from the sidelines. In early 2011, the Islamists and the youth groups were allied against the fulool, while the military watched from the sidelines, since it considered it in its interest to halt the ascendency of Mubarak’s son, who did not come from its ranks. Soon after, the interests of the Islamists and the military were aligned as the former wanted to gain legitimacy through electoral wins while the latter wanted to maintain the status quo until it hatched a strategy to reverse the revolutionary momentum.

When the interests of these two forces were aligned, the demands of the revolutionary youth were ignored and their ranks devastated as thousands were subjected to military trials while Islamists looked the other way. During this period, the fulool were watching from the sidelines, still licking their wounds from the fall of their chief benefactor. By the time the Islamists came to power in the summer of 2012, the fulool had regained their footing, emboldened by the 12 million votes Mubarak’s last prime minister, Gen Ahmad Shafik, garnered in his losing presidential bid against Morsi.

Justifiably or not, by the end of 2012, the revolutionary youth groups felt betrayed by the Brotherhood and accused it of consolidating power to advance its political and social agenda. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood president bitterly complained that the revolutionary partners were abandoning him and allowing themselves to be manipulated by the counterrevolutionary groups. As the military, which was by then led by General Sisi, and the state’s security apparatus observed closely from the sidelines, the positions were hardened and the mistrust grew between the former revolutionary partners. Because of inexperience, political naivete, or miscalculation, the Brotherhood did not offer sufficient compromises to its former allies, thinking that without the support of the army (which the Brotherhood erroneously believed was supporting it) the other groups could not impose their will.

Once the dust settled in the aftermath of the coup, it was well established that Morsi was never allowed to govern, and that the revolutionary groups were easily manipulated by the deep state, while the fulool provided all the logistical and media support needed to topple the rule of the Brotherhood. But this time it was all three factions allied against one with devastating consequences. The country has been deeply polarised as the levels of hatred, mistrust and anger reached unprecedented levels. All were easily played by the military that again presented itself in the person of Sisi as the country’s saviour from instability and civil war. But despite the euphoria that came with the removal of the first democratically elected president, the revolutionary groups soon learned that the military does not share their lofty goals. In their zeal to end Morsi’s reign they betrayed their own long-established principle of rejecting military rule. In a matter of months, all the major revolutionary youth leaders were either in prison, exiled, silenced or on the run.

Sisi became president in May 2014 in sham elections where he received over 96 percent of the vote. A year into his term, he has produced no major accomplishments and the tactical alliances have frayed as each faction was not only alienated from its ideological foe, but has also become wary of its own natural ideological ally. The fulool remain nervous because most major investment projects have been subsumed within the army’s mighty economic machine. Since it relies on practically free labor, pays no taxes, uses subsidised energy and a skilled engineering workforce, and owns precious real estate, the military is nearly impossible to compete against economically.

In less than one year, Sisi has seemingly made it his chief ambition to fulfill the saying that “Egypt is not a state that has an army, but an army that has a state”. Moreover, Sisi continued to demand hefty concessions and large contributions from wealthy businessmen without offering much in return. Politically, Sisi never fully trusted Mubarak’s former cronies and has not built his own political constituency. As a result, he keeps postponing the parliamentary elections fearing that the fulool would dominate it and restrain his autocratic rule.

For their part, the fulool found a new figurehead in Shafik, the losing candidate in the 2012 presidential race. After the election, he fled to the UAE for fear of being arrested on corruption charges. Even after the politicised judiciary acquitted or overturned all the convictions of Mubarak, his sons, and his cronies, including Shafik, he remained in exile knowing that Sisi was keen on not allowing him to play any political role, even though he established a party and vowed to lead it to parliamentary victory.

This tension recently came to the fore as Shafik gave an interview in which he questioned Sisi’s legitimacy and vowed to challenge the 2012 elections results. In the interview Shafik allegedly said, “I know more than the intelligence services do. It’s better if everyone keeps his mouth shut so that I do too. No one can dare tell me not to run for parliament.” In turn, Sisi prevented the interview from airing in Egypt even after it was heavily promoted. Sisi furthermore declared during his recent trip to Germany, in a clear rebuff to Shafik, that there was no doubt that Morsi was the actual winner in the 2012 race but that the people had turned against him. Subsequently, Sisi sent his intelligence chief to appeal to the UAE rulers to restrain Shafik. Many political observers now believe that forces within the state allied with Shafik were most likely the source of the frequent audio leaks that exposed Sisi’s corrupt and incompetent rule during the past two years.

Meanwhile, the revolutionary ranks have also suffered from rancour and finger pointing. The revolutionary youth groups accuse the Muslim Brotherhood of turning its back on the revolution once it attained political power. The Brotherhood accuses these groups of facilitating the coup and justifying the restoration of military rule and return of the police state. It further contends that even if it committed mistakes while in government, the alliance with the counterrevolutionaries could never be justified. It points to the fact that since the coup it has categorically refused to compromise with military rule and has consequently suffered the most at the hands of the coup, with thousands of its leaders, members and supporters killed, injured or in exile, while its assets have been confiscated, and institutions and charities banned.

Each faction ventures to return Egypt to a certain date in the past. The fulool hope to return Egypt to 24 January, 2011 and to restore their political and economic dominance. Their strength includes support from a significant segment of the deep state, much of Mubarak’s corrupt yet experienced political machinery, as well as many business oligarchs and tycoons with their media empires that played a crucial role in alienating the public from Morsi and the Brotherhood, but is now willing to gradually criticise Sisi. This group apparently has had the tacit support of the UAE, which was recently beseeched by Sisi to silence Shafik. Within days, Shafik stepped down as head of his newly established party, called the Egyptian Patriotic Movement, but vowed to remain vocal.

The military, led by Sisi and a close circle around him, hail 3 July 2013, the day Morsi was ousted and detained, and the start of their ascendency to power, as the beginning of a new dawn in Egypt. Sisi loves to remind people that he had to remove Morsi in order to prevent a civil war, even though there is no evidence that the former president ordered any crackdown on the opposition. Talk of Morsi’s authoritarian rule pales when compared with those who succeeded him. Adly Mansour, who was installed as an interim president by Sisi, had in fact held the executive, legislative and judicial powers all at once, since he was simultaneously the acting president, the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, and ruled by decree when Sisi suspended the constitution. 

The strength of this group is of course the backing of the army that still enjoys a large degree of reverence and respect from a significant number of Egyptians, as well as the fear of instability by many if the army were to lose its grip on the country. But so far Sisi has failed to articulate any grand vision for the country or unite its deeply polarised citizens. To consolidate his rule he has relied heavily on the tactics of the police state and the exhaustion of the Egyptian people after four years of uncertainty and instability.  It is doubtful that he can bring Egypt back from the abyss, or succeed in tackling Egypt’s political unrest, economic challenges and social polarisation.

The MB has seen the fastest rise and fall of any political group in the region’s modern history. To its credit it refused to grant legitimacy to the coup or compromise its principled position of rejecting military rule and has insisted on bringing to justice those who committed atrocities against the Egyptian people. Yet it advocates returning Egyptians to 29 June, 2013 by insisting on the return of Morsi as the legitimately elected president, the restoration of the polarising 2012 constitution, and the elected institutions of parliament dismissed by Sisi. Its immediate goal is to reverse the effects of the coup and delegitimise the effects of the 30 June demonstrations.

To the disappointment of its critics from within the revolutionary ranks, it still refuses to acknowledge the deeply polarised politics it practiced against its former revolutionary partners, which paved the way to the 30 June events and the current crisis. Furthermore, its critics contend that its rhetoric of a revolutionary path would directly contradict the constitutional path its supporters are pursuing by insisting on the demand of Morsi’s return to power and the 2012 constitution. A constitutional path, they argue, does not allow for revolutionary purge of the politicised judiciary, corrupt prosecutors and compromised media outlets. It also shields the military and confers on its senior officers undeserved protections and privileges.

The degree of brutality against the Brotherhood by the Sisi government has surpassed all its past experiences with government repressions since the 1940s. It has shaken its members to the core but the strength of the organisation has been demonstrated as it is largely kept intact despite the unprecedented levels of suffering and abuse. After a period of defiance that ended publicly with several massacres in July and August 2013, many members of Muslim Brotherhood who were able to escape the security apparatus and leave the country launched into a vigorous internal debate.

By April 2014, the reevaluation was settled in favor of a new leadership that, according to the most senior Muslim Brotherhood official outside Egypt, comprises 65-70 percent from the youth generation under 45. The internal dynamics within the group recently became public when one of the old guard leaders issued a statement that rejected violence and dismissed the new leadership. Within hours the new leadership rejected his assertions and renewed its call for an uncompromising revolutionary path that would continue until the fall of Sisi and his repressive regime. The internal youth leadership within Egypt soon followed with another call that endorsed the unbending approach.

Meanwhile, the revolutionary youth groups have been arguing from the very beginning for the return of a purely revolutionary path reminiscent of the heady days of the 2011 revolution. They argue that their revolution has been aborted and must be resumed as if it were 12 February, 2011.  The biggest mistake, they argue, was that the revolutionaries went home and accepted the rule of the military council. Some of the most prominent among these groups include the April 6 movement, whose leaders such as Ahmed Maher and Mohammad Adel, and activist Ahmed Doma have been imprisoned by Sisi. The Revolutionary Socialists have also been targeted and other leaders such as Alaa Abdel Fattah have received a five-year sentence for defying military rule.

Their critics, especially from the Islamist camp, argue that most of these revolutionary groups are big on rhetoric but lack substance, sophistication and widespread support. Furthermore, many of the revolutionary youth that played key roles during the early moments of the revolution but not vigorously pursued by the government have been exiled, given up, or remained silent, including Wael Ghoneim, one of the most prominent youth figures that ignited the 2011 revolution. Furthermore, football ultras have also played a significant role in opposing the repressive measures of the current regime. Their future involvement would be crucial, as they have demonstrated courage, determination and organisation, three ingredients needed for real revolutionary change.

The way forward

History rarely repeats itself but the wise always learn from its lessons. The 2011 Egyptian uprising was a remarkable event that displayed many positive attributes about the Egyptian youth and their future aspirations. But the moment the revolutionary partners broke ranks within days of toppling Mubarak, there was not much chance to advance the march towards genuine change. Their dream was easily hijacked. Those who were advocating gradual change and a reformist agenda have in essence put their trust in, and subjugated their agenda to, the same people who have benefited the most from the corruption and repression of Mubarak’s rule. 

A revolutionary path does not necessarily mean a resort to violence or chaos. It means in essence a complete break from the former government and its compromised institutions and personalities, and building a new state from the ground up. Such undertaking is indeed enormous but the Egyptian state is so deeply entrenched in repression and corruption, anything short of its total dismantlement would simply not result in any meaningful change.

Still, the success of a revolutionary path has a dilemma. It cannot succeed without the Brotherhood because of their discipline and ability to mobilise large segments of society. But it also cannot succeed with them alone. To recreate that moment of unity that was displayed in Tahrir Square and helped to defeated Mubara and broke his security apparatus would be the first step towards ending Sisi’s neo-Mubarakist rule. Yet both sides have to agree on the strategic goals of this renewed partnership and offer real confidence-building measures.

Such a strategy must be centred on a revolutionary path, which all have advocated, in order to achieve three main goals: (a) the end of the Egyptian military involvement in politics, the forced retirement of its most senior officers, and the restructuring of its institutions to focus solely on the defence of the country against external threats, coupled with the complete dismantlement of its economic empire; (b) the dismantlement of the deep state in all its aspects from the police, security apparatus, and the intelligence agencies, to the compromised judiciary, corrupt business conglomerates, and their media empires; and (c) the future state must be formed on the basis of building genuine democratic institutions with guaranteed rights, freedoms and protections of minorities, as well as a pledge from all partners not to impose social agendas, nor promote or seek competitive politics until the deep state is dismantled and democratic institutions are in place and functioning.

Once the main strategy is agreed upon, confidence-building measures must be established. The controversial issue of Morsi’s return to power appears to be the sticking point. On the one hand the MB argues that it is important to stand for legitimacy and respect the people’s will, and to reject the usurper of power and all the consequences of the coup, especially on the economic front. On the other hand, the revolutionary youth assert that they would not be willing to revolt against Sisi to simply restore Morsi, whom a significant number of them had also revolted against in 2013.

Both groups have a point and this impasse must be resolved by the latter group acknowledging that Morsi was legitimately and democratically elected as president by the majority of Egyptian citizens. Moreover, as long as the revolution is in progress and Sisi is in control, all revolutionary groups must concede this fact and acknowledge their respect of the will of the electorate, and thus accept Morsi as the elected, yet kidnapped, president of Egypt. If somehow Morsi were to be restored to power by any other means, he would then resume his presidency. However, if Sisi falls through a revolutionary path, then all parties including the Muslim Brotherhood must acknowledge the new reality of a successful revolution where a new path, structure, and constitution would emerge without any regards to the past.

Revolutions are so rare in history because several factors and conditions have to dynamically coexist simultaneously. The sooner the revolutionary partners resolve their differences and start working on creating these conditions, the sooner Egypt can throw off the yoke of subjugation and restore honour and dignity to its people as well as to the dead and sentenced Palestinians.

Esam Al-Amin is a writer and an expert on the Middle East and US foreign policy. His work appeared on many websites and publications. Many of his articles on the Arab Spring and Middle East politics were translated to many languages including French, Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and Turkish. He the author of The Arab Awakening Unveiled: Understanding Transformations and Revolutions in the Middle East.

This article originally appeared in Counterpunch.com

Photo: Egyptian former president Mohamed Morsi stands behind the bars during his trial in Cairo on June 16, 2015. An Egyptian court on Tuesday sentenced former President Mohamed Morsito death over jailbreak charges. (AA)