Egypt's framing wars of June 30th

The truly revolutionary forces, the youth, the student movements, the un-coopted left and the unions, have yet to crystallize and present a credible, practical & feasible vision to the Egyptian people. 

Adel Abdel Ghafar
7 August 2013

Egypt continues to grapple with the effects of the 30th of June popular uprising and the ensuing military intervention that occurred on July 3rd, which was hailed as a ‘new revolution’ by some, and as a ‘coup’ by others. Both sides to this very date continue to build narratives and counter narratives to suit their own interpretation of the events. The country remains strongly polarized, and increasingly the population is forced to take a stand for, or against this intervention, with minimal space for anyone to stand on a middle ground. Both sides' narratives are built around words such as ‘legitimacy’, ‘popular will’, ‘people’s uprising’. For social movement enthusiasts, one cannot help but notice the glaring ‘framing’ and ‘counter-framing’ processes that are unfolding in Egypt right now.

Background: social movement theory and framing processes

Classical Social Movement Theory (SMT) is among the dominant social movement analysis paradigms that have been widely used to investigate social movements. SMT has three broad tenets: Resource Mobilization Theory, Political Opportunity Structure and Framing. Our main concern with regards to the events of 30th-June is 'Framing', considered the third tenet of classical SMT. Framing refers to the process of interpreting issues within a specific context that is able to resonate with a wider group and induce them to mobilize. Issues are ‘framed’ within the symbols and history of a specific culture or event, aiming to create and foster a feeling of solidarity amongst a group to attempt to galvanize them behind a cause. The idea came about when:

“Scholars reacting to the structuralism of these earlier studies have drawn on social-psychological and cultural perspectives, adding a fourth component to the studies of social movements: how social actors frame their claims, their opponents and their identities. They have argued cogently that framing is not simply an expression of a preexisting group claims but an active, creative and constitutive process.” [1]

This 'constitutive framing process' is by no means static: it continues to evolve as a group further crystallizes its argument. The use of the verb ‘framing’ denotes:

“An active, processual phenomenon that implies agency and contention at the level of reality construction. It is active in the sense that something is being done, and processual in the sense of a dynamic, evolving process. It entails agency in the sense that what is evolving is the work of social movement organizations or movement activists. And it is contentious in the sense that it involves the generation of interpretive frames that not only differ from existing ones, but that may also challenge them.” [2]

One can clearly discern this process taking place on both sides, by the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, as they attempt to frame their grievances within discourses that would resonate with Egyptians, and also the international community.

The military's frame: 'popular will'

In its attempt to construct its own narrative, the overall master frame used by the military is al irada’ah al shaabiya (popular will). Here the frame has a spectacular visual element, the message is clear: millions and millions seen on TV rise up against a president, by which the military has ‘no choice’ but to intervene on the ‘side’ of the people, having listened and heeded the call of the popular will. The military had provided an anti-Morsi director with an army helicopter to shoot the dramatic footage seen in Egypt and around the world, dubbed by the imaginative Egyptian media as 'the largest protest in human history'.

The ‘popular will frame’ was masterfully presented by General Sisi himself in his address to the nation on July 3 in which he effectively fired Morsi. Sisi opened his speech with:

“The armed forces couldn't plug its ears or close its eyes to the movement and demands of the masses calling for them to play a national role”


“The armed forces sensed — given their sharp vision — that the people sought their support, not power or rule but for general services and necessary protection of the demands of the revolution. This is the message that the armed forces received from all over urban Egypt, its cities, and its villages; it (the military) recognized the invitation, understood its intentions, appreciated its necessity and got closer to the national scene hoping, willing and abiding by all limits of duty, responsibility and honesty.

With regards to Morsi:

‘’There was hope of achieving national reconciliation, developing a future plan and providing causes of confidence, assurances and stability to the people in order to achieve their ambitions and hopes. But the president's speech last night and before the end of the 48-hour ultimatum didn't meet or agree with the demands of the people.”

We hear the word ‘masses’ and ‘people’ throughout the speech. Recognizing that potency of the MB's own ‘legitimacy’ master-frame, the production of the scene of Sisi’s message was a very carefully stage-managed ‘framing’ process of its own. In the front row and to his left and right, sat the Chief of Staff, and other generals representing the army, navy and air force to signify that the Egyptian Military is united. Further to his left, the head of Al Azhar and the Coptic Church, as if to bestow official religious legitimacy on the military's intervention. Also in attendance, a representative of the youth movement Tammarod, signifying the military listening to the popular will of the movement and the youth of the country. In the back row, writer and women's rights advocate Sakinah Fouad, the sole woman in attendance, to show the military had also 'consulted' women (or rather, A woman). To his far right, el Baradei was in the front row. Even though Tantawi and SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) would not accept Baradei as part of government during the initial phase of the transition, nonetheless Sisi, knowing Baradei’s popularity among a segment of the middle class and the ruling elite, as well as overseas, incorporated him into the talks. Finally, in attendance was a leading member of the Islamist Al Nour party, this was very important as not to present the military's intervention as anti-Islamist, but rather as a broad consensus of various segments of the Egyptian people. Now the final visual framing tableau masterpiece was ready, then it presented by the military in its historical address to the Egyptian people.


At play within the overall ‘popular will’ frame, is the mini framing of the MB as terrorists. In an increasingly nasty media war, talk show hosts, brandishing ‘no to terrorism’ banners, have described the MB protestors as terrorists and extremists. It doesn't matter that these are Egyptian citizens with a legitimate concern who consider Morsi their president, despite all his faults. By framing the other as a ‘terrorist’ and extremist, this dehumanizes them, and legitimizes any state-sponsored violence directed at the protestors as a fight against terrorism. This frame is of coarse helped by the ongoing Jihadi insurgency unfolding in the Sinai Peninsula. Sisi’s speech at the military academy was a step further in this regard, where he called on Egyptians to protest on July 27 and give him a tafweed, effectively a carte blanche to ‘fight terrorism’.  

The Muslim Brotherhood's counter-frame: legitimacy

If one had to compact the MB’s counter-framing processes into one all-encompassing master frame, it would be al shari’ya (legitimacy). Ex President Morsi kicked off the process himself in his last speech to the nation, mentioning the word not less than 56 times in a two hour speech (prompting a counter for the word legitimacy , as well as cartoon spoofs). The MB’s argument solidly rests on the case that Morsi was popularly elected. It does not take into consideration his razor thin margin (51%) and his broken promises to revolutionary forces in the infamous Fairmont meeting. It also doesn't take into consideration his extra judicial presidential decrees that attempted to shield his decisions from constitutional oversight, as well of course as his dismal record in his actual performance as a president. None of that counts for much, except for the main ‘framing’ process that the MB is pushing for: legitimacy.

Legitimacy is a powerful frame. However it assumes that Egypt is like Sweden, a perfect democracy that was ‘hijacked’ by a military coup. However in reality, Egypt is no Sweden. The ‘legitimacy frame' contains several glaring defects; it denies the agency of the Egyptian people, of which a large segment was opposed to Morsi. Egypt continues to be in a situation of revolutionary ferment, and the mobilization of the 30th of June is yet another revolutionary wave, which the entrenched elites and the military were able to co-opt (for now) thereby allying themselves with a large segment of the population, to stop a challenger from replacing the ruling elite with a more 'pious' one.

It is interesting to note that beyond the core supporter base of the MB, the legitimacy frame found a more receptive ear outside of Egypt, rather than inside. Even though Islamist channels were closed after the events, nonetheless Al Jazeera’s coverage, as well as the MB’s formidable social media machine, manned by the indomitable Gehad el Haddad, are able to push for the ‘legitimacy’ frame overseas. Within the context of international relations, some countries sympathetic to the MB have accepted the legitimacy frame, most notably Turkey and Iran, and have shunned the new administration, while others, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council (including a reluctant Qatar) have rejected it, and rushed to embrace the new regime. The US administration continues in its Goebelsian efforts to avoid using the world ‘coup’ in Egypt. Senator John McCain, in his recent visit to Egypt, was the first US official to describe what happened in Egypt as a 'coup', which could have legal ramifications for US aid to Egypt.

Within the MB’s larger legitimacy frame, there are many 'mini' frames at play. While in effect the MB’s fight is primarily with the military, the MB is painstakingly attempting to frame its enemy as being General Sisi and the Egyptian high command, not the whole military. This is evident in all the ‘Anti-Coup’ rallies, posters and chants. The MB’s Supreme Bureau Guide Badee’s speech at Raba’a Adawiya is a prime example of this, where he declared that the MB’s fight is against Sisi and the generals, not the military, declaring that ‘the armed forces are our brothers and sisters’. The MB seems to be pushing for an internal schism from within the military that would be susceptible to the legitimacy frame, forcing it to act. One of the main failures of the Morsi administration was his inability to bring to heel the state’s coercive apparatuses, mainly the military and the police. In its somewhat doomed effort to bring back Morsi, the MB is keen to separate off the ‘usurping’ generals from the normal soldier who is doing his duty.

What's missing?: a credible revolutionary frame

As the country became more and more polarized, people were forced to take sides with the military or the MB. This has presented real difficulties to Egypt’s true revolutionary forces, who two years after 'January 25' are yet unable to present a third way forward, a third option besides having to choose between military or religious fascism. During the January 25, 2011 Egyptian uprising, the leading chant was e’eish , horriya , a’adala’h Ijtima’iya! (Bread, freedom, social justice!). This simple yet ingenious chant clearly stated in a few simple words the revolution’s economic, political and social demands. Nonetheless, the revolutionary forces have failed to translate the slogan into a credible alternative.

Not only that, but the ‘revolutionary’ frame itself has been abducted by both the MB and the military. The MB is presenting itself as the continuation of the revolution (conveniently neglecting its earlier stance on 'January 25' in which it initially called for its members not to join the protests, and even met with Mubarak administration officials earlier in the 2011 uprising to negotiate with them). This is clear from many MB public statements that the revolution is being ‘hijacked’, and is also evident in all the chants at MB rallies, most of them appropriated from 'January 25', such as thawra thawra hata al nasr (revolution revolution until victory!). The military on the other hand has presented the 30th of June as a continuation of 'January 25', and that all their actions - as Sisi put it in his speech - are being taken to ‘protect’ the revolution, not its interests or the interests of the entrenched elites. This revolutionary frame used by the military as the ‘guardian of the Revolution’, conveniently omits the cases of killings that occurred in Mohammad Mahmoud St, Maspero and the countless acts of torture, arbitrary arrests and virginity tests and so on that occurred under SCAF.

The truly revolutionary forces: the youth, the student movements, the un-coopted left and the unions, have yet to crystallize and present a credible, practical & implementable vision to the Egyptian people. Until that happens, the choice remains between the MB and the military, and the framing wars will rage on. Being against both the military and the MB is a hard stance to maintain in Egypt these days, but it is the ultimate revolutionary and moral frame.

[1] Douglas Mcadam, Sidny Tarrow & Charles Tilly ‘ Dynamics of Contention’ (Cambridge: CUP 2004), 16.

[2] Robert Benford & David Snow, ‘Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and assessment’ , Annual Review of Sociology, 2000, p. 612. 

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