Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Egypt, Wake Up!

by Steven A. Cook
August 12, 2013

Supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi listen to a speech during a protest in Cairo (Suhaib Salem/Courtesy Reuters).


Egypt, Wake Up!

In recent weeks I have written a bit about how developments in Egypt are reminiscent of the 1950s.  Over the last five weeks, the historical parallels have been, at times, uncanny to the Free Officers’ crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood beginning in October 1954.  I stand by that work, but now I am beginning to believe that in at least one respect, the summer of 2013 is a lot like the summer of 2011.  Those who have been following Egypt will remember two years ago when activists staged a the three week-long Tahrir sit-in and there were seemingly endless “Fridays of ….” including:

  • Friday of Purging the Remnants of the Mubarak Regime from Egypt
  • Friday of Renewing the Revolution and in Memory of the Martyrs
  • Second Friday of Anger
  • Friday of Retribution (aka “Ministry of Interior Purification Friday” or “Honoring the Martyrs’ Rights Friday”)
  • Friday of Determination
  • Friday of Last Warning
  • Friday of Decision
  • Friday of Unity
  • Friday for the Love of Egypt
  • Friday of Correcting the Path
  • Friday to Reclaim the Revolution

During that summer there were also the demands to bring Hosni Mubarak to trial and the attendant protests once he was in the dock as well as an ongoing sacralization of the uprising and its many different leaders, which made it beyond the pale to offer any kind of critical analysis of those eighteen days or its aftermath.

This was of course all revolutionary navel-gazing that distracted the civil/secular/alleged liberal groups from doing the kind of political organizing that was necessary when parliamentary elections rolled around in late November and early December of 2011.  These same groups do not seem to have learned much from that moment, setting themselves up to underperform once again.

It’s been a busy summer in Egypt:  military intervention, a Muslim Brotherhood sit-in (for five weeks and counting) at Rabaa al Adawiya Mosque that the government is vowing to break up, the July 26 March against violence and terrorism, actual violence and terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula, revisions to the disputed December 2012 constitution, and tumult within the Zamalek football (soccer) club along with a host of economic problems that have not gone away since the military pushed Mohammed Morsi from power.  That’s enough for a few years, but it’s all happened—with the exception of the Sinai problem, which has been ongoing—since July 3. The Egyptians with whom I have spoken recently are tired.  They have been riding the exhilarating peaks and depressing troughs of the uprising for thirty months.  In the words of one friend, “We need a break.  Just for one month.”

Put down the Twitter.  Turn off the talk shows.  Get back from the North Coast.  Put a hold on blogging.  Get to work organizing. In case anyone has not noticed, the clock is ticking.  It’s mid-August.  Before anyone blinks it will be Eid al Adha in mid-October and then the political season will begin. The military has begun a political process in which there will be elections sometime between January and April of next year

Defense Minister Abdelfattah al Sisi is not likely to accede to last minute appeals from civil/secular/alleged liberal groups for more time.  Under his predecessor, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces delayed elections because the new political organizations—and the Obama administration—pleaded to give them more time to build, in the parlance that democracy promoters love, “capacity.”   Virtually everyone feared that the Muslim Brotherhood and the defunct National Democratic Party, apparently rising from the dead, would use their superior organizational skills to win/buy votes and thereby dominate the People’s Assembly.  The only thing the extra time did was create an environment in which the very same people who had petitioned the military for more time denounced the officers for wanting to hold onto power indefinitely, culminating in calls for the Field Marshal’s death in late November 2011.  When the elections took place, the feloul were shut out, but the Brothers and the Salafis of al Nour did very well together garnering 65 percent of the 498 seats, and the civil/secular/so-called liberal groups securing 15 percent.  Not bad, but it was clear they did not have a broad appeal.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s egregious mistake and the military’s intervention have for better or worse given the groups that did not do well during the 2011-12 parliamentary elections a new opportunity at the ballot box.  There is no evidence that they are doing anything about this new lease on life provided courtesy of the Egyptian armed forces.  It’s entirely unclear if anyone on the non-religious end of the political spectrum is doing any political work or merely relying on the fact that the Brothers so botched their time in office that they will be a non-factor in politics for some time.  Maybe.  Their supporters seem highly motivated.  Even if the Brotherhood says now that it will not legitimate the political process resulting from a coup, or the military makes good on its promise to clear the area around the Rabaa al Adawiya mosque, who knows what will happen in six or nine months.

The fact that some revolutionary groups and democracy activists, who claim to be liberal, have made common cause with remnants of the old regime and the military undermines their claims to be democratic.  It also makes them—if they are not careful—potential pawns in a game that anti-revolutionary forces are playing aimed at restoring some semblance of the old order.  This effort is likely not as organized as some media reports might suggest, but no one can deny that that there are groups embedded within the state who want nothing more than to roll back the uprising. This is all the more reason to get out on the hustings to convince Egyptians that they have something new and appealing to offer.  If they do not, Egypt’s democrats will soon discover that their allies of the moment will not look all that different from their adversaries of the past.



Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by Raja M. Ali Saleem

    Egyptian liberals are probably thinking that they can gain power by using military, which will later on be brought under civilian control. Alas, it has never happened.

    There are some who claim General Sisi is a liberal and others who assert that he is closet Islamist. Unfortunately, whether he says his prayers or his wife wears hijab is of no consequence. Generals have only one agenda and that is protection of their personal and institutional privileges. They have used liberals (against Arab monarchies in 1950s and 1960s) and Islamists (Pakistan 1977-78, Indonesia 1965) to consolidate themselves and then thrown the crutches away. I hope Egyptians remember both Nasser and Saadat used Brotherhood initially.

    The issue with liberals is that there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians. Nobody wants to do the hard work of organizing but everybody wants to be accepted as the savior. I hope this does not happen but liberal vote will again be divided in the next elections.

  • Posted by nuswinus

    Why don’t you just come out and say it rather than beat around the bush with euphemisms that won’t be grasped by all your readers. When you said to get back from the North Coast, you made it clear what the “liberals” really are. The so-called liberals are not united by an ideology or an approach, they are united by the fact that they are the rich, the rich who can afford vacation homes on the North Coast, i.e. the top 10% rich of the country.

    This is not a battle of ideologies, because no one here has an ideology, it’s about the rich taking revenge on the poor for actually dreaming and hoping for a better future and trying to keep them under their feet as it always has been. This is about business interests being protected at the expense of the average citizen. Robert Fisk said it best a few weeks ago.

    The rich liberals can keep it up for a while but the natives will grow increasingly restless. There’s only so many nights one can go hungry without something eventually snapping.

  • Posted by Balasticman

    This is a sobering critique of Egypt’s liberal-cum-fascist political movement. The conclusion that these movements will not perform well versus the Islamists in the next election, however, may be off the mark, as it presumes the powers that be will in fact allow the Islamists to participate — or at least to openly participate — in the next elections. This is not to say that the non-Islamists will be any more popular or capable, but running only against themselves they presumably will manage to obtain some level of default control, presuming again that the powers that be will allow any elected body to actually control anything.

  • Posted by mikeflynn

    liberals, of any country, do not have a deep enough value system to out run islam. generals have the muscle. besides, its what israel wants.

  • Posted by Expatriate

    An Arab proverb says that one ought not be bitten twice from the same burrow! Egyptians took to the streets by the millions on June 30th, 2013 to restore the 2011 revolution and undo all the wrong steps taken since then.

    If they do not ratify a representative constitution first, or if they put their trust in uncandid leaders who will tell them what they want to hear but not deliver, then they have allowed themselves to be bitten twice from the same burrow.

    I think they learned the lesson of what makes a sound democratic transition the hard way.

  • Posted by shahira Mehrez

    I wish people calling for a “reconciliation” in Egypt realize that the pro-secular population is faced with Qaada trained militias armed with automatic weapons…. please look at pictures of the fortifications of the now evacuated strongholds of Rabaa and realize the military character of these camps. Also look now at the “peaceful” MB march over Mayo bridge, in Cairo, showing individuals with machine guns and snipers over buildings, who suddenly and without further provocation started shooting to kill; please reflect at the type of premeditation it implies…

    How can we reach a “reconciliation” with leaders who admitted they are monitoring terrorist attacks in Sinai, and who threatened to “set fire to the country” if the interim government does not comply to their demands…. Are we now not witnessing the development of their scenario?

    I would like to know who from the international Community has accepted to negotiate with terrorists, let alone reconcile with them?

  • Posted by shahira Mehrez

    Please get the films of the TV stations “Mehwar” or “OTV” documenting how unprovoked MB partisans and snipers started to shoot randomly over Mayo bridge…. I hope you would make them accessible to your audiences as part of your impartial coverage of today’s events in Egypt

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