Egypt’s Blessed Coup
By: Sarah El Sirgany
Published Monday, June 25, 2012
Egypt is locked in a prolonged transition overseen by stubborn generals willing to hold the country, its economy and its population hostage in a bid to cement their already strong hold on power. A media machine, aided by certain political movements, is trying to reduce the battle for democracy to a power struggle between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Such reduction is prompted by the MB’s plummeting popularity and the distrust that the group has earned from a string of broken promises. It takes us back to February 2011, when former vice president and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman futilely tried to portray the uprising in Egypt as merely a MB protest lacking the diversity and representation of the entire Egyptian population.
Fast forward 16 months of shifting alliances and the struggle between the state and the Islamists is very much there, but it’s not the whole picture. The military is dealing aspirations of democracy one blow after the other, all under the guise of fighting off “the scary, greedy” Islamists. This contrived self-righteous stance enjoys the blessings of a sector in society that has nothing but contempt for the Islamists. It feeds into decades of marginalization and vilification of Islamists orchestrated by the former regime, whose oppressive practices only fed extremism. And some politicians, whether in cohorts with the military or genuinely frustrated with the MB’s egotistic politics, are nodding in agreement instead of calling what has been happening over the past two weeks what it really is: a coup.
It is a coup that has been in the works ever since the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took over power in February 2011, bringing the ruling military back to the forefront in the face of a popular uprising. A month later they called for a referendum on constitutional amendments only to ignore the results and write their own constitutional decree. Since then they’ve been writing the law as they please, deciding when to uphold it and when to trample all over it.
Over the course of the deadly transition that saw protesters killed and the economy plummet, the Islamists have been on the winning side. The Brotherhood’s victories in the parliamentary elections (and more recently the presidential elections), aided by the surprise rise of the ultraconservative Salafis, saw them join the ranks of power, at least in rhetoric. The vilification of protesters facing continuous deadly crackdowns was left to the Islamists. They willingly complied.
Simultaneously, in an apolitical camp that dreads a repeat of an Iran or a Saudi scenario, the possibility of crowning the Islamists winners at the end of the transition was scary. The shenanigans of Islamist MPs, including remarks about bringing down the age of marriage for girls and against teaching English in schools (both by Salafi MPs), were enough to outrage and scare would-be voters.
It was a toothless parliament, but it also failed to produce any ground-breaking legislation. Over five months, many lost faith in parliament. The revolutionaries, who were abandoned and vilified by the Islamists, lost faith in it from day one, when they marched to the parliament building with their demands, only to face Brotherhood supporters blocking their way.
National sentiment was ripe and ready and it was then that the SCAF sealed its soft, months-long coup. The Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that the election law was flawed, rendering the election of a third of the 498 MPs unconstitutional. SCAF went ahead and dissolved the entire Islamist-led parliament. A couple of days after the decision, seeing that the Brotherhood candidate was making progress in the presidential elections, SCAF issued an addendum to its constitutional decree rendering any elected president useless. A week prior, the Ministry of Justice had given military and intelligence officers the right to arrest at will after the parliament didn’t renew the state of emergency that gave the security apparatus unlimited powers.
Realistically, the generals just upped their game with no aim but to solidify their status and crush democratic aspirations. For many willing to believe otherwise, it’s the military standing up against the Islamists.
The fact that the addendum only adds to the generals’ power is ignored by a broad sector of society who are liberal with their blessings. The military never has and never will be interested in protecting freedoms or minorities. It killed Copts in a demonstration in October. It subjected female protesters to rape under the name of “virginity tests.” It fueled xenophobia, sedition and fear-mongering and deliberately destroyed the economy in a bid to destabilize the country so we could all run scared into the generals’ arms asking for protection.
Anyone willing to forget this out of hate for the Islamists is delusional about what the future, socially and politically, will look like under continued and unchallenged military rule.
Alongside these scared citizens are politicians willing to participate in this coup or watch it happily from the stands. The former, who brazenly promote the oxymoron of the military defending the civil nature of the state, should not be taken seriously in any talks of democracy. The latter, who accuse the Brotherhood of having aspirations as equally oppressive as the military’s, argue for a balance through a continued struggle between the two powers that would allow non-Islamist groups to organize themselves over the years. But there’s a thin line between tactical and imprudent. This group of activists and politicians risk losing the only organized front whose interests clash with the military’s: the Brotherhood.
The activists’ stance feeds into SCAF’s narrative that its latest actions are solely against the Islamists. It helps the generals pass the same clauses it failed to slyly insert in national agreements aimed at cementing equality and citizenship.
They willingly ignore what only few would discreetly admit: that with the lack of an organized non-Islamist, pro-democracy bloc, they currently need the Brotherhood more than the Islamists need them. Nothing rivals the MB network that survived for 80 years under the ranks of the opposition facing brutal regimes.
While this in itself is a huge disadvantage if the Brotherhood eventually controls all authorities – which could only happen after years of wrestling control of the state out of the generals’ hands – it’s the only bloc that could lead such a power struggle, on the ground and politically, even for purely altruistic reasons.
It’s wise not to go to the frontlines to take a bullet for the Brotherhood if they are not willing to take it. It’s also wise to refuse to be sacrificed at the altar for gains that the Brotherhood would enjoy on their own (at the moment at least). It’s wise to try to get concessions from the Brotherhood even though there’s no strong bloc to represent the secular and non-Islamist activists on the negotiating table.
Negotiations diminish the probability of excluding all such powers from the equation, and could force the politically conservative group to up its confrontational strategy instead of striking deals with the military. It will be difficult to reach a settlement with SCAF that only benefits the two while MB supporters have been set on confrontation mode. Yet, it would be easier without other political activists in the picture pushing for specific and revolutionary changes.
However, it’s anything but wise to abandon the fight; to leave the ranks of even the backline; to equate a military in control since 1952 with the Islamists to justify crushing the latter; and to aide a coup with a deceitful pretext of protecting democracy, because activists can’t fight the military on their own without the Islamists, as dubious and conceited as they had previously proven to be.
Blessing a military coup will be Egypt’s original sin.
Sarah El Sirgany is a Cairo-based journalist. She’s an editor with Egypt Monocle. You can follow her on twitter at @ssirgany.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.