EGYPT: From Revolution to War on Terror: Reflections on Post-3 July Egypt
By Ziad Abu-Rish
There is no doubt that the toppling of President Mohamed Morsi on 3 July 2013 was a watershed event in Egyptian history. On the one hand, it demonstrated the continued possibility of mass collective action seeking political change through contentious rather than formal political channels. On the other hand, wittingly or not, it allowed the country’s armed forces to restructure the nature of its own longstanding domination of Egyptian politics and economics, both formal and informal. There is also the reality of a dramatic surge in polarization of Egyptian society, and a concomitant escalation in both state violence and that of non-state groups.
Since 3 July, debates in Egypt and beyond have proliferated about whether what transpired was a revolution, a revolutionary reverberation, a coup, or a popularly-backed coup. While some manifestations of these debates have taken on a clearly ideological character, they are not all void of meaningful purpose. There are genuine attempts to make sense of rapidly developing events in a dramatically polarized political field. These unfolding circumstances overlap and intersect with a number of other political rivalries—local, regional, and international. The stakes of this debate are high. After 3 July, activists and scholars that may very well have agreed on so much prior to that date (even on Syria) have differed markedly on Egypt. While this divergent foray is likely to continue, of greatest concern to me are certain principles that have guided over a decade of research, analysis, and activism. Deepening this concern is the fact that many writers, opinion shapers, and political leaders are today championing the policies of the military regime despite at one point having helped articulate this rich corpus.
Beyond Representation of the Masses
There certainly are some basic facts about the Muslim Brotherhood that cannot be ignored. On the one hand, as one of the most organized groups in the country, it managed to outperform its competitors in both the parliamentary and presidential elections. On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood exploited the opportunities that the eighteen-day uprising that toppled Mubarak offered, struck a deal with the military and remnants of the old regime at the expense of revolutionary activists, and lost what little legitimacy it had through its disastrous record of one-year rule. It is also crucial to move beyond the sanctity of the ballot box that so many championed in the lead up to and the immediate aftermath of 30 June 2013. Calling for the fall of an elected president prior to the end of the current term is not in and of itself inherently problematic. Finally, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood are currently accused of morally and politically deplorable acts, such as harassing, detaining, torturing, and killing civilians in the aftermath of the 30 June mobilizations.
However, none of the debates surrounding the lead-up to and aftermath of 30 June, nor the facts about the Muslim Brotherhood’s practices since 25 January 2011, justify an abandonment of political principles and longstanding approaches to authoritarianism, political Islam, violence, and security. Such an assertion about not abandoning principles might seem self-evident, perhaps even redundant. Nevertheless, it is necessary to reaffirm in the current polarized public debates (in Egypt, in the region, and beyond).
The “War on Terror”
In the aftermath of the attacks of 11 September 2001, very few critical/progressive scholars and activists denied the existence of “real terrorism.” Yet such scholars and activists expended significant energies effectively critiquing the discourses and practices of the “War on Terror” that the US foreign policy establishment inaugurated. This “war on terror” was subsequently expanded to include almost every domestic agency in the United States (for examples, click here and here). This war on terror had multiple international dimensions: the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan (and Iraq); the establishment of the Guantanamo Bay and other detention facilities; and drone warfare in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. But it also had other international dimensions that many governments, including those of Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, were complicit in—even if differentially so. Progressive scholars and activists from these countries and others scrutinized and condemned the ways in which the US and other governments used the banner of the “war on terror” to justify a wide range of repressive practices. This is in addition to the fact that this so-called war never fundamentally addressed the reasons said “terrorist groups” resorted to violence in the first place. Such practices not only “targeted terrorists,” but also sought to buttress the status quo and silence dissent against it—whether that status quo was US global military dominance, Israeli settler-colonialism, entrenched Arab authoritarianism, or globalized neoliberal economic policies.
A “war on terror” is no less a discourse and exercise of power when declared and conducted by the Egyptian military, the Syrian regime, or the Saudi king. It is no less a discourse and practice of power when waged against the Muslim Brotherhood, which is not some fringe political organization but one that has deep social roots and is part of the Egyptian national, political, and social fabric. One does not have to condone or ignore the Muslim Brotherhood’s abuses and wrongdoings (both before and after 3 July 2013) to condemn the current Egyptian “war on terror.” The discourse of the military regime and its sponsored government in Egypt is one of “order, security, and the future.” How is it that the army, police, and intelligence services are now being entrusted to put into effect discourses and practices that have long been critiqued as inherently implicated in power, violence, and subjugation? Are these not the very same culprits of the murder of Khaled Said, the massacre at Maspero, the brutality of Mohamed Mahmoud Street battles, and countless other instances of allegedly “establishing order and stability?” Are these not the very same institutions that were most shielded from reform and accountability after 11 February 2011? The failure of advocates of the current Egyptian “war on terror” to take seriously these questions leads—whether intentionally or not—to the unprincipled idea that critiques of power, violence, and subjugation are only legitimate when projected against the United States, Israel, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Whether one agrees with the Muslim Brotherhood or not, whether one supports the ouster of Morsi or not, there is no denying that those opposed to the policies of the military since 3 July 2013 have a right to protest, march, and stage sit-ins. They have a right to voice their opposition in various forms of media communication and through mobilizing the human and financial resources at their disposal. Certainly, the post-3 July discourse of the Muslim Brotherhood has been seen as inciting violence, some of it sectarian in nature. There have also been violent exchanges between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and their opponents. Even more so, the organization’s sit-ins are suspected of being armed, and there is evidence that torture has been conducted within the boundaries of their sit-ins. Overall, the security threats experienced by many Egyptians are real, particularly victims of sectarian attacks. That the escalation of violence and other “security” measures undertaken by Egyptian authorities with no transparency could mitigate these threats in any meaningful way is rather unconvincing. It is also remarkable that the Egyptian government never felt the need to make a public case for why the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins presented an imminent threat and what precautions it would undertake to protect the lives of peaceful protesters. Addressing the security threats that Egyptians face today and all related allegations demands a transparent legal process—not a carte blanche to the military and police.
Accepting that some of Muslim Brotherhood are armed or engaged in wrongdoing, observers must also accept that not all of their members or supporters are armed insurgents or otherwise violent. There is a difference between going after armed individuals as well as others suspected of wrongdoing, and taking action against a whole social movement and its peaceful supporters. On a general level, the notion of repressing the entire Muslim Brotherhood organization and its supporters—by using repressive tactics and deadly force, as well as restricting their field of peaceful political participation—will bring real security is both unconvincing and irreprehensible. What makes the US-Israeli policies of civilian casualties, other collateral damage, and operational necessities immoral is a disregard for civilian life and basic rights shrouded in national security rhetoric. It is neither the identity of those governments nor those of their victims that makes the situation immoral. It is the practice of murder and repression. On a more specific level, the use of allegations that protests have been infiltrated by armed individuals as a pretext for attacking protests and clearing them by force have a long history. The past two and a half years have demonstrated that the credibility of the government, the armed forces, and the ministry of interior on these issues are suspect. This is particularly so since these institutions have witnessed no reform and are still as politicized as ever.
Islamists Organizations are Politically and Socially Grounded, Not Heavenly Obsessed
Ever since the late 1980s, activists and scholars have advocated taking seriously the existence and reach of Islamist organizations. This was overwhelmingly the case not as fringe political elements, but as mass-based organizations with deep socioeconomic roots in society and a parallel representation of a significant subsection of the local population. Equally important, this literature has demonstrated how Islamist discourses and practices operate within the same categories of thought as those of nationalism. Put differently, the principles, organizations, and tactics of most Islamist movements are circumscribed within the political frameworks of the nation-state.
Research on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was central to these approaches. It has demonstrated how, through a variety of contexts and in the face multiple challenges, the Muslim Brotherhood’s raison d’etre has been its political survival rather than some heavenly reward in the afterlife. This is even the case during times when the organization’s leadership or factions within decided to adopt a violent strategy. This is not to deny any violence of the group. Rather it is to suggest that the deployment of “suicidal” narratives about the Muslim Brotherhood, both as an organization and its individual members and supporters, should be reconsidered. One might more productively take seriously the body of critical scholarship to ask what has contributed to the Muslim Brotherhood’s post-3 July course of action, irrespective of how deplorable one might find them to be.
The Muslim Brotherhood certainly has its own vision of how Egypt should be internally organized with respect to a particular interpretation of Islam, of sectarian relations, and much more. Many Egyptians (first) and non-Egyptians (second) might very well find this vision politically or morally unacceptable. Nevertheless, such a vision is premised on the Egyptian nation-state as a form of political sociability. This is not to deny the variety of internal conflicts and external alliances the organization engenders. One can critique a political party based on its choices of external allies. However, to exclude said party from the political process and declare them “foreign” based on some undefined (yet apparently singular) understanding of what “Egyptian national interests” are is absurd. Beyond the fact that such claims constitute one of the most blatant forms of takhwin, they also problematically assert that in order to participate in the political process Egyptians need to “prove” their Egyptian-ness, or need some (again) undefined nationalist credentials.
Institutionalized Coercive Apparatuses Are Not Revolutionary Forces
Comparing the division among leftists on the Syrian uprisings with that among leftists on Egypt post-3 July, Bassam Haddad noted:
One should not lose sight of the primary domestic protagonist despite the emergence of smaller ones. In Syria, for example, it was the regime and its combination of repressive and neoliberal policies that precipitated what has become a civil war, even if the confrontation produced its own monsters like Jabhat al-Nusra and pro-Gulf/US rebels. In Egypt, the equivalent domestic culprits of unrest are the instruments of political and economic exploitation, namely the armed forces and the establishment—political remnants of the Mubarak regime and economic moguls. Yes, the Muslim Brotherhood poses a significant challenge to achieving the goals of January 25 Revolution on multiple levels. However, as we have seen, they are ultimately a surmountable one, primarily because they are good at undermining themselves. The other side, in contrast, has the coercive state apparatus, capital, and strong global backing (so long as they push for certain policies) at their disposal.
Indeed, it is the Egyptian Armed Forces that have politically and economically dominated the country since the 1952 coup that brought to power the Free Officers. This dominance might have been transformed in various ways during the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser and through the transitions to Sadat, Mubarak, Tantawi, Morsi, and now al-Sisi. Nevertheless, the military has remained the primary and biggest collective/institutional actor. It was the coercive apparatus of the Egyptian state (the military, police, and intelligence services) that propped up any and all political, economic, and social orders since 1952. It was these apparatuses that have undergone the least reform since 25 January 2011 and thus remain the most preserved elements of the Mubarak regime. These are the elements that killed unarmed protesters during anti-Mubarak protests, anti-SCAF protests, and during the early stages of anti-Morsi protests. It was the police and army that have not been held to account for the most heinous crimes of killing those protesters (and many more civilians before them), for arbitrarily arresting dissidents, for torturing prisoners, and for conducting so-called “virginity tests.”
There are those that would concede the problematic nature of the coercive apparatuses of Egypt in such a way so as to dismiss the current confrontation between those institutions and the Muslim Brotherhood as two regressive forces fighting each other. Such ambivalence effectively characterizes the ongoing battles as having no revolutionary stakes. However, such ambivalence comes at a high cost. As Wael Eskandar wrote:
With the increase in social conflict, particularly along sectarian lines, security services will once again regain their traditional role as an arbiter of these conflicts, as well as their license to employ abusive, repressive tactics. This sustained sense of insecurity will only steer Egypt away from real justice. With the empowerment of the security sector, there will be no reason or motivation to push for revolutionary demands for real reforms inside the policing establishment. It is also likely that the escalation in violence and the pro-security rhetoric that the state has been touting will make it difficult for political dissidents, who are equally opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, to employ street action.
Again, given its record for the past two and a half years, the Muslim Brotherhood has lost any standing to speak on behalf of the goals of the January 25 Revolution, goals that it undermined through its recurrent focus on narrow opportunism. Nevertheless, even while setting asides normative commitments, the price of ambivalence in the current moment is high because it gives the upper hand to the same forces that have been actively working to push against the promise of “bread, freedom, and social justice.” It is these forces that want to limit the scope of transformative change in Egypt, and—if necessary—eliminate any memory of 25 January altogether.