Sunday, 21 July 2013 21:45

A Revolution in Jeopardy (1)

In the run-up to the “June 30th Rebellion” I was already reading everything I could get my eyes on. Then in the aftermath of the military coup that toppled President Morsi on July 3rd, I read even more voraciously. By then, our son and his group of students had been in a poor Christian neighborhood of Cairo for a week and their service project of six weeks looked seriously compromised. In fact, after three weeks they were whisked out at four in the morning in five private cars by the Coptic Orthodox bishop to be sent back to the US. As parents, we were relieved!

So what did I learn from all this reading? For one thing, I noticed both among pundits and scholars that there was an immediate polarization between those who applauded the army’s intervention because it had shored up the popular will (e.g., Khaled Fahmy  and Sarah Carr) and those who decried the army’s “coup” which had ostensibly destroyed the legitimate workings of the democratic process (e.g., Esposito and Voll, Noah Feldman, Fawaz Gerges). This is a return to the repressive “deep state” that the revolution had aimed to sweep aside two years before, they argued.

My title seems to indicate that I side with the second group. Actually, as the days passed, I came to see a wider, more complex reality at work. In fact, it’ll take me another blog to finish my thought on this. Now I’ll start with the protagonists in this unfolding drama and then move on to an analysis on two levels – the longstanding and uneasy political dance between the secular elites, the army and the Islamists, and next time the sociological implications of the emergence of the young revolutionaries.


Players on the Egyptian political chessboard

In this and the next section I’ll lean mostly on the perceptive analysis of UCLA’s Khaled Abou El Fadl not a trained political scientist but a human rights lawyer and a specialist in Islamic law. El Fadl’s concern in his essay, “The Collapse of Legitimacy,” is to highlight the blind and self-serving role the “secular intelligentsia” has played since the 1952 October Revolution (which in a couple of years brought Gamal Abd al-Nasser to power) up to today’s military coup. So here are some of the players in this high-stakes game of chess:

1. The secular-leaning elite, who like their forefathers in the nineteenth century were educated in Western schools and steeped in Western intellectual, civic and political values. They have no faith in the masses; in fact, they are convinced that they only hold the keys to civilization and progress.

2. The “guardians of the state”:

a) First, the army, because ever since the 1952 “revolution” they brought into being by force of arms, all the presidents were from their ranks (Abd al-Nasser, Sadate and Mubarak).

b) Next, the judiciary, mostly represented by its Constitutional Court, whose leader, Adly Mansour, was immediately named by the army as the interim president.

c) Finally, the police, which falls under the Ministry of Interior. Morsi had named Mohammed Ibrahim as Minister of Interior, probably hoping that a leftover of the Mubarak regime would offer him some loyalty in return for the favor. That obviously backfired, as Ibrahim has now been named “transitional Minister of Interior.” Tellingly, even the Republican Guard, sworn to protect the president, didn’t lift a finger to keep him from house arrest but rather killed scores of Morsi protesters by shooting in the crowd.

3. The mostly young, well-educated revolutionaries behind the tamarrod (“rebellion”) movement are the third party to this unfolding drama. More on them in Part 2.

4. The new media, most secular-leaning TV stations, financed by some of Egypt's tycoons; they've bolstered the anti-Morsi sentiment. But the Salafis have received generous donations from Saudi Arabia and they have at least two influential channels. That said, the Muslim Brotherhood has benefitted from Qatari largesse in this area as well. On all these fronts you are witnessing the impact of money made by a few at the top in a capitalist, neoliberal type of economy -- which was certainly favored by the Mubarak regime but also Morsi's. Since top military brass owns close to 40% of the pie, don't look for any changes on the new horizon.

4. The masses – by which I mean the rural and urban poor for whom Islam is central to their daily lives and the core of their identity. Cairo sociologist Saad al-Din Ibrahim likes to call them the “lumpen proletariat.” They voted overwhelmingly for islamist candidates, whether the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafis. One would have to add to their number, however, the urban middle classes who handsomely benefitted from President Sadate’s sudden turn to neoliberal capitalism in the mid-1970s and who to a large extent supported the Muslim Brotherhood.

That fourth group is terribly important – Egypt as a whole, including its ten-percent Christian minority, is very religious. Islam, for the foreseeable future, will have to figure in some shape or fashion in the political landscape. This is the point made by John Esposito and John Voll, both senior islamicists at Georgetown University. For that reason they both decry the army’s July 3rd forceful takeover and warn all who supported it about their shortsightedness:


“It is wishful thinking on the part of the old Mubarak regime holdovers and the disorganized secular elite in Egypt to think that their counter-revolution will change the general popular Egyptian identification with Islam. The goal should not be to oust those Islamists who are working within the system, it should be to find bridges of accommodation in which the secularists and those identified with the old military regime people will make as many compromises as they demanded from President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Unless this is done, the risk is the creation of a cycle, more military repression and bloodshed and a return to military backed authoritarian rule in Egypt.”


Ignoring the people’s “identification with Islam” guarantees that the revolution hasn’t yet found its balance. [For a great discussion between a top Brotherhood leader, a secular-leaning political scientist, and an Egyptian-British sholar on islamist movements, see this debate on al-Jazeera]. All these players will have to somehow figure out a way to come to the table together and discuss these issues face to face. That is the only sustainable solution. Either way, the road looks very steep up ahead.


These players and the external pressures on them

It was in fact the young, mostly secularist revolutionaries, who spearheaded the June 30 Rebellion. At the same time, the army had been looking for an excuse to overthrow Morsi for some time (The Daily Beast). Washington was also nudging it in that direction (both Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey had repeatedly been on the phone with their Egyptian counterparts for the last week, according to Garikai Chengu; Abou El Fadl writes, “the military stated negotiating with Washington, D.C. to remove Morsi from power”). The US military and the Egyptian one have been working closely since the 1979 Camp David Accords. Unfortunately, some of the leverage Washington counts on in return for their cash gets diluted through lucrative deals with US arms dealers.

And then too, since the 2011 Revolution the State Department’s “democracy assistance” initiative has been channeling funds to a variety of anti-Morsi politicians and activists. Al-Jazeera obtained documents from UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program to show that some of this money had gone to some rather unsavory characters. Nonetheless, acting like a typical colonial power, the United States, while simultaneously upholding the legitimacy of the Morsi government on the international scene (angering many of the secular elites), also earmarked clandestine aid for the opposition. Egypt’s location makes it very strategic, especially for the US and Israel – its military will receive $1.3 billion in 2014, if Obama gets his way. The Suez Canal too is a key passageway for oil tankers.

Moreover, US interests in the affair nicely dovetailed with those of the Arabian Gulf countries (especially Saudi Arabia, see The American Conservative on this – but definitely not pro-Brotherhood Qatar!).

These facts are all interesting, to be sure, but despite outside pressures from several quarters, as I said, Egyptians will have to come to terms with their own future. And for this, knowing the past is always a useful starting point.


Some useful historical perspective

Here’s Abou El Fadl’s basic thesis:


“The military coup, even if it came in response to widespread grievances, is a fatal blow to the Egyptian Revolution. It is a fatal blow because it reaffirmed the politics of the old guardians in Egypt. It confirmed the traditional polarized, mutually exclusivist and equally supremacist politics that has prevailed, not only in Egypt, but throughout the Middle East since the colonial era. Unfortunately, the military coup and the return of the repressive security forces in Egypt came as a natural conclusion to the elasticity of the claims of legitimacy made by so many parties after the revolution.”


He then adds, “But more than anything else, it is the Egyptian secular intelligentsia and the revolutionaries themselves that forced the revolution to commit suicide.” Why is that? The root of this age-old conflict to the death about legitimacy is found in the attitude of the secular elites, argues El Fadl. Since the 1950s Arab dictators from Gamal Abd al-Nasser to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Syria’s Hafez al-Assad (and his son Bashar) have dismissed (arrested, tortured and killed as well!) members of any and all islamists movements, accusing them of being agents of foreign powers.

Though the nineteenth century did see an Islamic reform movement that tried to reconcile modern notions of freedom and human dignity (like the great Muhammad Abduh in Egypt), these elites were “thoroughly grounded in post-renaissance European thought” and “knew precious little about the pre-colonial Islamic epistemic tradition. Indeed, this intelligentsia saw their own native tradition largely through Western eyes.” This prejudice hardened even more with the advent of the socialist Pan-Arab agenda adopted by the intelligentsia from the mid-1950s on. For them, religion was clearly an obstacle to “progress.”

The secular Arab state tolerated religion, but only as fenced-in within certain parameters. Observe in the following quote from El Fadl how the state take-over of al-Azhar University in Cairo (the most prestigious seat of Islamic learning worldwide) in the 1960s had repercussions in the events of July 2013:


“The secular state created officially sanctioned podiums for religion and, in effect, created an official state religion that rubber-stamped and legitimated state politics. At the same time, this state-sponsored religion lost its legitimacy on the ground as the clergy of Azhar became salaried employees of the state. With the domestication of the native Azhari clergy, critical Islamic thought drifted into stale apologetics that placated and satisfied only the most uninspired and unchallenging intellects. This helps explain the powerful symbolism invoked when El-Sissi placed the Shaykh of al-Azhar and the Pope of the Coptic Church on either side of him when he announced his coup.”


The 1967 Arab defeat at the hand of Israel was the watershed moment for the masses, however. Preachers in nearly every mosque begin telling them that this humiliation came directly from the hand of God who was now punishing them for abandoning his ways (or his “shari’a”). This marked the beginning of a populist islamist opposition movement that only gained greater momentum with the 1979 Iranian Revolution, despite its Shi’i origin. [I was living in Algeria at the time, and I saw the mosques which had been nearly empty save a few old men fill up over night with young people].

But even as the people became more religious and the call for the state to shed its secular agenda more strident, the rulers simply multiplied their repressive measures in a bid to hold on to power. They did so, however, by claiming for themselves the ideals of the Western-led international order: democracy, pluralism, and human rights. The fact that a faction of islamists had become violent, especially in the 1990s, was a boon to their cause. Western nations were only too glad to call Mubarak an ally in the “War on Terror.”

Now for the 2011 Revolution: “The Egyptian revolution was sparked by an idealistic group of youth who had lost faith in all the institutions of power. This youth was defiant, innocent, idealistic, and uncorrupted. But it was successful because the destitute masses had suffered enough.” So the secular elites were now forced to practice what they had preached all along, and without the power of the repressive state (mostly the army) to back them up. As El Fadl puts it,


“For the first time, they could not simply dismiss the Islamists with contempt and arrogance, and they would have to figure out a native language – a language that does not simply transplant Western concepts, ideas and historical movements, but would actually empower these ideas with meaning to the Egyptian people. Would the secular intelligentsia be capable of working through the will of the people without guardian state institutions such as the army, police, or judiciary to package this will and present it in a palatable fashion?”


You can read all the details of Abou El Fadl’s essay for yourself. Let me add just two more points he makes near the end:

1. He thinks the Saudis were deliberately sabotaging Morsi by turning off their oil spigot and causing power outages and gasoline shortages. They certainly had the power to do so.

2. The June 30 Rebellion was a gift to the secular intelligentsia, who were already calling on the old guardians of the state (military and judiciary) to step in. As he puts it, “Reminiscent of the role they have consistently played since the colonial era, they called upon old guardians to save the country from the follies of its natives.”

Well, you can see where his argument is going – the revolutionaries were naïve enough to rely on the army. Indeed, they unwittingly brought back the old regime and the revolution is no more. Or is it?

I will continue in my next blog by analyzing the revolutionary movement from a sociological perspective.