Egypt: Revolution, Counter-Revolution, or Chaos?

By July 28, 2013 No Comments


What will tomorrow bring for Egypt? On 3 July 2013, Egyptians overthrew their elected government when the military backed a massive street demonstration in Cairo. President Mohammed Morsi was arrested and replaced on an interim basis by Judge Adly Mansour. [1]

A week later, the Egyptian military outlined plans for a rapid return to civilian rule, secured $8 billion in badly needed funding, and is now seeking the arrest of the remaining leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. [2] Given the Brotherhood’s call for armed insurrection and civil war, and clashes that have left dozens of dead, will the crackdown be enough to restore a measure of stability or will it guarantee an end to it?

On the face of things, it would seem that 3 July was a blow for democracy as the first elected government in Egypt had been deposed and that this had undone the fruits of the “Arab Spring” and the revolution in Cairo in February 2011. The counter-argument might run that the Muslim Brotherhood would not form a truly democratic government and that the autocratic ways of President Morsi and Brotherhood supporters constituted a threat to true democracy.

Either argument can be easily dismissed, but both might be fundamentally irrelevant.

In a world dominated by social media, the internet, and instant transmission of news – accompanied by video and photographs – almost everyone with a modern cellphone can be a news-source. We can follow dramatic events minute-by-minute. Unfortunately, we seldom pause long enough to do more than the most rudimentary and immediate analysis.

Egypt is struggling over whether it is to be a Muslim country or an Islamic nation and the distinction between the two is far too complex to be easily satisfied, and the debate – as seen in Afghanistan, Algeria, and elsewhere – can be a very deadly one.

The events of July 2013 were not a second revolution as some broadcasters suggest. Rather they are an additional stage of the same revolution begun in 2011, and the fundamental causes of that initial unrest have yet to be fully addressed. The Egyptian revolution is still ongoing and may be far from finished. Moreover, revolutions can go straight to the heart of weak or flawed institutions in a society and can bring it mercilessly crashing down. In the case of Egypt, this could bring on a catastrophe with the potential to cost millions of lives.

Anybody with an elementary knowledge of history can recall where revolutions are capable of going without cracking a book open. For example:

  • The Xinhai Revolution of 1911 China seemingly lasted for four months. It did bring down the Manchu Dynasty. Yet the celebration of the birth of the Republic of China was premature – the baby was neither healthy nor strong. Sun Yat-Sen had nothing but violent unrest from factions and warlords, and two years after his death in 1925, we saw the beginning of a savage civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists that took 24 years and unknown millions of lives to resolve.
  • While the French celebrate Bastille Day as the start of their revolution in 1789, they did not have a stable government until the Directory took power in 1795. Even this arrangement was toppled in 1799 when Napoleon headed off a return to Jacobin extremism with a coup that led to his own position as First Consul, his last stop on the road to becoming emperor several years later.
  • The American Revolution might have begun in 1775, but they did not have a normal government until the Constitution was drafted in 1787, four years after the Revolutionary War ended.
  • The Russian Revolution of 1917 kicked off in February 1917 and the Bolsheviks seized power in November of that same year, but it really took until 1922 before Russia was stable… for a given value of stability where the solution to famine, insurrection, and unrest was all-encompassing police terror backed by the Gulag system.

One could go on but the point is that revolutions are seldom simple, or without risk, and there is no guarantee that stability will soon return. Egypt, however, is in as fragile a political situation as Russia and China were, with the added concern that the country is largely incapable of feeding itself and has a fragile economic and physical infrastructure. A fundamental breakdown of order might yield devastating results.

Egypt 101

Egypt has 5,000 years of recorded history and a rich archaeological record that predates that. However, almost all of its people – in the past and the present — live in a long narrow swath of cultivated land running through the Sahara Desert along the Nile valley and in the Nile delta.

Population density has always been an issue. Between 1996 and 2013, the mean population density has shifted from 59.5 to 81.3 people per square kilometre, mostly concentrated along the Nile. [3] The overall population is 84.3 million, over half of whom are under the age of 25. Youth unemployment is a severe problem. Cairo, with over 9 million residents, is also infamously overcrowded and congested. Overcrowding and high unemployment can make for exciting politics particularly among young men.

The British Army spent decades in Egypt between the 1880s and the 1940s, and one of the slang terms that came back was buckshee (which also made it into the Canadian military lexicon). This is a corruption of the term baksheesh, originally a Persian term that spread through much of the Islamic world. The term’s original sense implied a small gift or tip for services. [4] However, it largely implies an operating principle of the Egyptian economy – as almost all but the most sheltered of tourists who have visited the country can attest. Still, the cheerful avarice of taxi-drivers and tour guides is matched right up to the highest levels of commerce and industry.

Economic corruption was a fundamental weakness of the Egyptian economy for decades and remains a major problem. [5] The corruption was compounded with extremely convoluted and complex business regulations, and a separate – and slightly more efficient – military based economy. While there is widespread recognition of the need for urgent economic reform, the inertia that resists reform is formidable.

To compound matters, Egypt’s economy was already a poor performer before the 2011 Revolution and the continuing flight of capital after Mubarak’s fall has pulled billions of dollars out of Egypt.[6] The country’s vast numbers of poor could well be ready to riot again if food prices rise once more to the point where they were at in February 2011. Much of the country’s slender financial resources have been earmarked over the last two years to subsidize food prices and a global hike in prices would ignite unrest all over again.

According to USDA statistics (usually the best standard for assessing food production globally), Egypt relies on imported food despite the saliency of agriculture. In 2002, Egypt produced 6.13 million tons of wheat and imported 6.944; by 2011 production had grown to 8.4 million tons and imports had risen to 11.65 million tons. In other words, despite a decade of intense effort to expand production in the face of a rapidly growing population, domestic production had slipped from an ability to meet 47% of demand to only being able to meet 41%. A similar situation exists for maize and other staples. Egypt’s ability to feed itself is under severe strain.

Egypt’s port capacity is also under severe strain. [7] Their cargo capacity is very nearly at maximum use with 68% of all cargo coming through Alexandria, El Dekheila, Damietta, and Port Said. These four vital points are closely clustered all at the mouth of the Nile. In a civil conflict, a party that controls the ports will have the ability to rapidly induce hunger in other parts of the country. But then again, Egypt itself is a long linear country stretched out along the banks of the Nile River. Its internal transportation infrastructure will always be acutely vulnerable to disruption.

The fundamental weaknesses of Egypt persist because even the Muslim Brotherhood did not get around to really undermining the military and the civil service — the real rulers of Egypt since King Farouk was toppled in 1952. Before he became president, Nasser was the Army colonel who led the 1952 coup. Sadat had been a junior to Nasser but had also been an Army officer during the coup. Mubarak’s titles include Air Chief Marshal – head of the Egyptian Air Force.

While the current leader of the Egyptian military, Abdul Fatah Al-Sisi has not appointed himself president, as the leader of a successful coup, the new interim president will pay close heed to him.

Al-Sisi represents some of the complexities of Egyptian political life. A young infantry officer (he was commissioned in 1977), Al-Sisi had risen to become the junior member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of Egypt when he was selected by Morsi to replace the head of the Armed Forces in August 2012. His reputation is that he is ‘religious’ but not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and his selection may have been a compromise by Morsi. Al-Sisi was also popular with the Saudis and tolerated by the US, and his appointment might have been a nod to Egypt’s two most critical sources of external funding and support. [8]

As for Al-Sisi, his background and behaviour suggests a stronger commitment to the more secular model of Egypt than to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic one.

Densely populated and in a precarious economic situation with a highly inefficient economy and civil service, Egypt could have certainly benefited from a sweeping revolution… but the revolutionary faction that gained power were part of the problem and not the solution.

Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood

“Allah is our objective; the Quran is our law, the Prophet is our leader; Jihad is our way; and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations.”  [9]

— motto of the Muslim Brotherhood

In the debate over the nature of Arab and Muslim societies, one of the key players has been the Muslim Brotherhood. It has no ambivalence about the issue since its founding; its commitment to the creation of Islamic institutions has been unwavering.

The Muslim Brotherhood has been the opposition to all Egyptian governments since it was founded in 1928. Nasser purged the group and executed the Brotherhood’s main ideological influence, Sayyid Qutb, in 1966. Terrorist organizations created as Brotherhood fronts killed Anwar Sadat in 1981 and nearly got Mubarak later. The Brotherhood is patient, conspiratorial, and deeply rooted. [10]

The Brotherhood can be found throughout the Islamic world and is already deeply entrenched in Western Europe and North America, where they are assiduous about infiltrating existing institutions. [11]

The Muslim Brotherhood holds the Quran and the body of Sharia law derived from it to be supreme source of all aspects of family, social and political life. No other legal code or ideal can equal it – which puts Western notions of democracy in a secondary place. For example, the Brotherhood is fundamentally opposed to the idea that a woman’s vote can have the same value, as a man’s, or that a non-Muslim’s franchise and legal rights can be equal to those of a Muslim.

While the Muslim Brotherhood might (and frequently does) declare their commitment to democratic values, this commitment must be understood as being secondary to their core values. In short, as many a Fascist or Marxist demonstrated in the twentieth century, a declaration of support for the idea of “one man, one vote” would be a temporary tactic to allow the acquisition of power as opportunity allows. A more accurate idea of their participation in a democratic system might be construed as being “one man, one vote – once”.

The Muslim Brotherhood was slow to emerge into the open in the 2011 aftermath of the protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak, but they realized they were the most influential and best organized of the myriad new parties that became involved in the three sets of elections of 2011 and 2012 (the 2011 Parliamentary, 2012 Shura Council and 2012 Presidential elections). While the Party failed to win a majority of the votes in the Parliamentary and Shura elections, they scored higher returns than any other party did.

Like the Nazis in Germany in 1932-33, the Muslim Brotherhood could not quite secure enough votes to win power in the election. However, they had the biggest bloc of voter support in 2011 and 2012. The second largest voting bloc was the Salafists, who were ideologically akin to the Brotherhood in their own commitment to Sharia law. Hitler’s Nazis got 33% of the popular vote in the November 1932 elections and this was enough to make him the leader of a coalition in January and — democratically — become the Chancellor of Germany. Morsi’s appeal to the Salafists resulted in a successful Egyptian coalition of undemocratically minded Islamists. Again, like the Nazis of Germany in the early 1930s, the Brotherhood has the best organization, the most ruthless ideology, and all manner of other assets. They are deeply entrenched in universities and away from the inner core of the major cities. However, to achieve power they had to form a bloc with other parties and formed a common cause with the Salafists – who are also committed to an Islamic vision of Egypt.

Mohammed Morsi was the Muslim Brotherhood candidate for president – albeit the Brotherhood adopted the name of “the Freedom and Justice Party” for its political front. On 24 June 2012, he was elected as president with 51.73% of the vote.

The conduct of Morsi’s presidency contained a whole series of mixed messages. He had token positions for Coptic Christians and other minorities in his government – even while Brothers and Salafists were busy tormenting the Copts throughout much of the country. He kept running into opposition from the civil service and military, but still sacked a number of senior military and security officers… but promoted Al-Sisi to head of the Armed Forces.

Morsi also gave many signals about a desire to ensure a stronger place for Sharia law in the new Constitution, and for a strengthened position for the presidency with reduced judicial oversight. His messages to the international community were equally mixed, but an anxious Egyptian press continued to monitor Morsi’s involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists – finding ample evidence of his continued adherence to Muslim Brotherhood doctrines. Indeed, several senior staffers at Al Jazeera – the Arab news network – recently resigned given the partisan pro-Morsi slant taken by their editors. [12]

Dimensions of the July 3rd Revolution

The protests that greeted the anniversary of Morsi’s presidency represented a broad cross-section of those elements that had also long opposed political and economic conditions in Egypt. The lead organization “Kefaya” is the unofficial name for the Egyptian Movement for Change – a domestic opposition group formed in 2004. In June 2013, they formed a new coalition called Tamarod (‘rebellion’) and organized national demonstrations for 30 June against Morsi.

Intellectuals who feared the Muslim Brotherhood, Copts, secularized Liberals, military leaders, and others soon joined in. The Muslim Brotherhood staged counter-protests and violence flared. Nevertheless, they do not seem to have been quite as ruthless as their potential indicated. Moreover, despite some dire threats to Coptic Christians to stay out of the protests, the Brotherhood was soon on the defensive when demonstrators sacked its national headquarters in Cairo on 1 July. [13] Gunfire at an anti-Morsi protest killed eight people that same day, but a pro-Morsi demonstration on 2 July was shot up with 16 deaths and several hundred injuries.

In any event, the military was soon safeguarding the anti-Morsi protests and called for his resignation. When the deadline was reached on 3 July, the coup went into effect.

Morsi was the first elected President of Egypt, and was toppled by a military coup. However, one could be reminded that Adolph Hitler came to power through largely constitutional means in 1932; or that any number of other dictators throughout the twentieth century often entered power through legal constitutional means. The acquisition of power is a very different issue from the retention of power.

Was Morsi working to ensure to undermine Egypt’s fragile democracy and clear the way for a democratic façade while implementing a Muslim Brotherhood agenda? Enough Egyptians think that he was, and made their opposition clear.

Democratic government does not depend merely upon elections alone, but also on the measures that balance, curb and check power between institutions and elements in society. Morsi might have been elected, but Egypt was far from becoming a democratic society, and their first democratic leader might have prevented them from ever achieving it. The protest and the coup might – just maybe – turn out to be a victory for democracy in the end.

Yet the risk of internal warfare remains high. In the week since the coup, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists have declared themselves fundamentally opposed to it and there have been several violent armed clashes. The military is currently rounding up Muslim Brotherhood leaders, but there are whole neighbourhoods in Cairo and communities elsewhere in Egypt that could easily revert to being ‘No-Go’ areas under Brotherhood control without much effort.

The situation in Egypt remains immensely fragile for additional reasons. The events of 2011-2013 do not constitute separate revolutions so much as they might best be considered a single revolutionary era. The circumstances that initially generated the revolution largely remain and could force more unrest easily enough.

The ‘Great Recession’ triggered by the global financial events of 2008 is far from over, as those who watch financial news around the world can readily attest. Egypt needs to undertake major economic reform in a time when all economies are fragile. Capital for investment remains scarce, Egypt’s own financial reserves have been weakened, trade remains weak, and unemployment remains high. The events of the last two years have also robbed Egypt of much of its income from tourism. The recent infusion of $8 billion from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates might buy some time.

The military and the civil service remain in place, and their inefficiencies and habits of corruption are what sapped much of Egypt’s economic strength in the first place. Major reforms are necessary and whatever government appears as a successor to Morsi is not likely to challenge the institutions on which its survival must rely.

Food prices continue to fluctuate and remain high, but – good news for once – global prices appear to be trending downwards at the moment. [14] The February 2011 peak in the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s price indexes has not been reached since then, and food stability directly correlates to political stability – as revolution after revolution over the last several centuries can readily attest.

However, the people celebrating in Cairo on 3 and 4 July represented the urban elites, religious minorities, secular liberals and the Egyptian establishment. The Muslim Brotherhood and their Salafist allies are plentiful out in the suburbs, smaller cities, and the countryside.

One can again be reminded of the role of Blackshirts in Italy, Brownshirts in Nazi Germany, Chavezistas in Venezuela, and so many others who had their own views of whom they might see as sissified, big-talking, city-dwelling fancy-pants and their foreign ideas. If push does come to shove, one can guess –based on so many bitter lessons in history – as to who might prevail when one side shows up with Twitter accounts and cellphones and the other arrives with axe-handles and pockets full of rocks. If the conflict escalates to truck bombs or gun battles, the same dynamic might hold.

In the military, the officers might be part of Egypt’s long-standing ruling caste; their men are a different matter. Who knows what weapons’ lockers and ammunition storage depots became mysteriously unguarded in the last week. Will desertion and mutiny become possible in some units? Some police units are strongly opposed to the Brotherhood, but others may be thoroughly infiltrated.

The Muslim Brotherhood was ultimately behind the creation of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1960s, Hamas in the 1980s (when Arafat was not Islamic enough for their tastes anymore), al-Qaeda, and a host of other groups. Terrorism is one of the tools in their tool chest. Muslim Brotherhood terrorists plotted against Nasser, killed Sadat, and made several attempts on the life of Mubarak. One can expect a strong revival of terrorism in Egypt in the immediate future, even if a larger form of civil war is avoided.

It would be wonderful if all were well in Egypt, but the people are a long way from getting clear of their current crisis. Economic collapse, famine, civil war, or major bouts of terrorism are all still possible. We should hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst and govern our own responses accordingly.