Egypt: the big trick

In power, the Muslim Brotherhood’s repressive tactics led to low intensity, long term civil unrest. This enhanced the image of the military as a force for moderation and secularism in Egyptian politics, bypassing, of course, the Maspero massacre where Copts were run over by military vehicles. 

Maged Mandour
16 August 2013

Popular support for the Egyptian military is at a historic high. Posters of General Abdel-Fatah El-Sisi are being raised in protests of support across the country. When the military asked for a popular mandate to fight what it called “terrorism”, millions of Egyptians poured into the streets, without knowing what measures are to be employed and against whom, a manifestation of a deep trust of the army.

For observers who have been following the events of the Egyptian Revolution, this trust seems almost schizophrenic, considering the amount of animosity prevalent among Egyptians against the military during the first transitional period. This antagonism developed due to the heavy-handed repressive tactics used by the military against protestors, resulting in a number of massacres and the imprisonment of thousands. One cannot help but wonder how durable is this popular support? Or is the current period a fleeting alliance between the urban middle classes and the military to suppress what is perceived as the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood?

To understand the current tragedy, a brief historical overview of the role of the military in Egyptian politics is in order. Ever since the coup of 1952, the Egyptian military has been the most powerful political force in the country. However, due to a number of crises it has had to adapt and change its level and form of involvement in the political scene. The period from 1952 until 1970 can be characterized as a period of direct military rule, where most senior posts in the government and the public sector were occupied by military personnel. This overt control by the military was accepted by the majority of Egyptians, with the notable exception of the Muslim Brotherhood, due to the egalitarian nature of the Nasser regime. Nasser allied himself with the lower and middle classes, providing them with extensive social benefits, while attacking old centers of wealth. Arab Socialism and Nationalism were the order of the day. This policy created a legacy that the military can rely on to this day.

The defeat of 1967 created a hegemonic crisis for the Nasser regime. The social contract of social benefits in exchange for political obedience began to crumble. The regime was under attack from both the left and the right. New radicals, like the Palestinian George Habbash, accused the Nasser regime of being a petty bourgeoisie regime that had failed the masses. On the right, Ahmed Kishk blamed the defeat on a deviation from the true path of Islam. For the first time during the rule of Nasser there were protests calling for greater freedoms. This crisis prompted a switch in the form of military rule, where the military gave up overt political control and opted for covert rule through a surrogate.

This process was presided over by Sadat, Nasser’s successor. Sadat formally liberalized the political system, eventually creating the National Democratic Party (NDP), which would act as a junior partner to the military. The NDP became the official ruling party, minimizing the official role of the military in government. The regime was civilianized. This form of military rule can be classified as in-direct military rule, which lasted until the January 25 uprising that forced a military intervention and a return to direct rule.  The membership of the NDP consisted of crony capitalist who relied on the appropriation of public funds and government subsidies for wealth accumulation; this class was the natural ally of the military.

The military became an independent economic center that heavily penetrated the state. The economic activity of the military was sanctioned by law 32, 1979, where the military was allowed to engage in economic activity, the profits of which are not to be taxed and their operations were not to be under any form of public supervision. This ushered in an era of extensive economic activity, ranging from major infrastructure projects to food production. The size of the military’s economic activity is difficult to assess, with some experts arguing that it might constitute as much as 40% of the Egyptian GDP.

Based on this one can argue that the military has a strategy of indirect rule, and that it only intervenes directly when it perceives that the integrity of the regime is at stake. In other words, it acts as a final guarantor of the stability of the regime.  This allowed the military to mystify the existing power relations within the Egyptian political order, so that all the popular discontent was directed against the junior civilian partner in the ruling coalition, namely the NDP. Accordingly, when the 2011 protest erupted, popular discontent was directed against Mubarak and his cronies, but not against the true heart of the regime, the Egyptian military.

This mystification slowly faded away as the military began to use heavy-handed repressive tactics, as well as political maneuvering in cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood to undermine the revolutionary movement. This direct confrontation began to raise the level of consciousness among the Egyptian middle class of the true nature of the regime and the nature of the Egyptian military. For the first time the chant “Down with military rule” was heard in cities across the country. This development of consciousness was perceived as the existential threat by the Egyptian military: something needed to be done to remedy the situation.      

Now what we see is that this process of revolutionary consciousness development seems to have been reversed. How did this occur? This process started to occur with President Morsi taking power. In his first few months in office the top leaders of the military perceived as responsible for the repression during the transitional period were either removed or transferred, most notably Tantawi, the head of the military, Anan, the chief of staff, and Hamdi Baden, the head of the military police. This move created the illusion that the military has subordinated itself to a civilian leadership, thus effectively removing itself from the political spotlight. It returned to the shadows. After the removal of Morsi, Ahmed Mekki his minister of justice stated in an interview with Al-Masry El Youm that this military re-shuffle was not affected by Morsi, but done by the military itself. This marked the beginning of an extensive white-washing campaign where the military attempted to show its apolitical nature and thus mystify power relations once again.

This move simultaneously threw the spotlight on President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. The performance of the Muslim Brotherhood while in power was a powerful tool for enhancing the image of the military. The Muslim Brotherhood took their narrow electoral win as a mandate for absolute rule. They adopted a narrow conception of democracy confined to the election result, a fallacy that can be termed “Electoralism”. They failed to build genuine democratic institutions and they seemed reluctant to upset the status quo. They inherited the Mubarak State and they wanted to run it the same way that Mubarak did, including a tacit alliance with the military.

This was made evident in the new constitution which continued to shield the military from any civilian oversight. As the Brotherhood became more isolated they adopted an increasingly inflammatory sectarian rhetoric that alienated large segments of Egyptian society, including women, minorities and the ever important urban middle class. They also relied on repressive police tactics and when needed, the use of their supporters to disperse protests, a tactic that led to low intensity, long term civil unrest. All of this enhanced the image of the military as a force for moderation and secularism in Egyptian politics, bypassing, of course, the Maspero massacre where Copts were run over by military vehicles. The image of the Brotherhood was also tarnished by their inability to meet the basic needs of the Egyptian people and the proactive statements made by some officials in this regard, including a statement made by the minister of petrol who stated that the gas shortages were not real and that it was really a “psychological problem”.

The failures of the Brotherhood combined with failures of the secular opposition to provide an alternative to supersede the military. The Salvation Front seemed to be incapable of mounting a serious challenge to the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. It seemed isolated, with no real organic connection to the masses. It also failed to offer an alternative vision to the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, and to a certain extent, it agreed with the Brotherhood on essential policy issues like the need for the IMF loan, which would continue the neoliberal economic policies followed by the Mubarak regime, one of the main drivers of the Egyptian Revolution. The impotence of the opposition cemented the notion that the military is the only organized political force that can remove Morsi, even in the minds of the leaders of the opposition. Sabbahi, one of the leading members of the opposition called for a military intervention after the first day of the 30th-June protest. The impotence of the opposition was apparent even to its own leaders.                  

All of those factors led to a major reversal in the development of revolutionary consciousness and the return of what Marxists refer to as ‘false consciousness’. Due to such factors, especially the failure of the opposition to offer an alternative, the intervention of the military seemed to represent an enactment of national will. This increased the popularity of the military even more, as the military reconstructed its image as a “Servant to and saviour of the people”. This was followed with a propaganda campaign to whitewash certain military figures, including a documentary about Omar Suleiman, the previous head of the General Intelligence agency and a close associate of Mubarak.

Will this support last? This popular support might be durable for the short-medium term, but not in the long term. The durability of the support in the short/medium terms can be attributed to a number of factors. First, is the extensive propaganda campaign launched by the military to brand itself as protector of the nation, fears of civil unrest and Islamist radicals created a receptive audience for this message. Second, is the continued demonization of the Brotherhood, which will not only serve as a pretext for the exclusion of the Brotherhood from the political process, but will also serve to create an image for the military as a bulwark against extremism and what has been called “Terrorism”. This trend would secure the role of the military and make any attempt to challenge their supremacy equivalent to supporting “Terrorism”.

This will create a dangerous atmosphere of repression, especially if members of the Brotherhood are radicalized and splinter into smaller violent groups, performing acts of violence. Finally, we have the successful cooption of the intellectuals and leaders of the Revolutionary movement, which has technically decapitated the revolutionary movement for the medium term, hindering the development of revolutionary consciousness and making any resistance sporadic at best. There is an urgent need for a new generation of revolutionary leaders to evolve that has a deeper organic connection with the revolutionary movement, and that is able to offer a different vision from that of the military and the liberal parties.

The violent dispersal of the Pro-Morsi sit-in might act as a catalyst to solidify the popularity of the military. There are strong indications that there is popular support for the forceful dispersal of the sit-in. This stems from the demonization of the Brotherhood, as well as, the deeply sectarian and violent rhetoric coming from the sit-ins. This popular support manifested itself in the general apathy displayed towards the death of a large number of Brotherhood supporters on the hands of members of the security forces and the Republican guards. The forceful dispersal of the sit-in will have a number of effects. First, there is a possibility of radicalization of some members of the Brotherhood, leading to acts of political violence, which would increase popular support for the military as it fights “Terrorism”. The securitization of the political discourse would be complete. Second, the Egyptian political order will be even more polarized with increased violence from both sides, leading to long-term civil strife. This would enhance the image of the military as a bulwark against extremism and Islamic radicalism, the only force that the urban middle class can rely on to confront the Islamist. Finally, a return to repression of the Mubarak era will be more likely, with labels of “terrorism” being used to suppress political dissent from different parts of the political spectrum. This atmosphere of polarization and repression will hinder the development of revolutionary consciousness in the short/medium term.       

In the longer term, one can safely argue that this construct will implode. This is due to the objective clash of class interests between the urban middle and lower middle classes with the crony capitalists and the ruling military caste. This clash seems to be inevitable due to the nature of the role of the military in the economy. The Egyptian ruling classes seem unwilling to make any sacrifices in order to build a fairer, more inclusive political order which would allow them to maintain their hegemony. Instead, they maintain a narrow perception of their class interests and as such are unwilling to lead: they want to dominate. This domination is bound to produce resistance from the lower classes. However, the effectiveness and organization of this resistance is subject to speculation. But there is sufficient evidence to support the premise that Egypt will be the subject of social upheavals for years to come.             

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