Intermingled with images of bodies covered in funeral shrouds and kept on blocks of melting ice in Cairo’s mosques and of grieving families surrounding their dead on television screens and front pages of newspapers are other images of Egyptians thanking the military for one of the bloodiest massacres in recent history. This grotesque juxtaposition of images marks the violent denouement of the promising democratic sprouts of the Arab Spring.
The triumph of the counter-revolution also illustrates how the very narrative is tinged with elements that preclude a peaceful, democratic, and equitable resolution to the crisis. By pitching the conflict as between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military that ousted the first democratically elected president with the support of millions of Egyptians, the narrative erases crucial nuances. Opponents of the coup not only include the Muslim Brotherhood but also the secular sections who opposed the overthrow of a democratically elected government. In a poll reported by the Middle East Monitor, a week after the coup only 26 percent supported the coup while 63 percent were against it. If President Mohamed Morsi’s majoritarian rule alienated liberals, support for the military came from very large sections of the Hosni Mubarak regime that had been ousted by the Cairo chapter of the Arab Spring in February 2011.
This is what counter-revolution looks like
The blood-drenched counter-revolution triumphed - no one can now pretend that a democratic restoration is on the agenda, not even US Secretary of State John Kerry who said less than two weeks before the Egyptian military massacred its own citizens in Cairo that they were “restoring democracy” by ousting Morsi - as Adam Shatz noted, because the military and remnants of the old regime not only had better resources at their command but also a singular goal that the democratic mass movement lacked. What is more, most of Egypt’s allies - except notably for Turkey and Qatar - were clearly more comfortable with the military that promised “stability” than with the Muslim Brotherhood that had won the country’s first elections.
Much has been written about President Morsi’s overreach for power despite having secured only 51.7% of the vote in a run-off against a factotum of the old regime, Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister to serve under Hosni Mubarak. After his Muslim Brotherhood engineered a walkout of the opposition from the Constituent Assembly, it rammed through a constitution in a referendum that was boycotted by most Egyptians. It received only 63 percent of the vote from the 30 percent of the eligible electorate—meaning the support of only 20 percent of the population.
Since the judiciary - a holdover from the Mubarak era - had invalidated the election of the lower house of parliament, President Morsi declared by fiat that the ceremonial upper house, the Shura Council - only 7 percent of which had been elected - was the parliament and had them pass a law that lowered the retirement age of judges from 75 years to 60 years. This would have put 25 percent of the judges out to pasture and enabled the Muslim Brotherhood to control all three branches of government as President Morsi has also nominated many members of the Shura Council.
Yet, the western commentators who denounced this naked grab for power conveniently forget that in the United States, George W. Bush, not only stole an election but then went on to invade Iraq and destabilize the whole region without any popular mandate. Be that as it may, it is now clear that Morsi’s biggest failure was not to neutralize the country’s coercive apparatus—unlike Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini who set about to decapitate the Shah’s army as soon as he attained power.
Large demonstrations in Cairo against Morsi and in support of his ouster also were misleading. Cairo and Alexandria were never Muslim Brotherhood strongholds, and in fact in the first round of the presidential elections neither of the top two candidates—Morsi and Shafik—won the most votes in these cities.
Though human rights activists had hoped that as Morsi had himself been targeted by the police during his long years in opposition, he would rein in the police, he openly praised the police for its role in the 2011 revolution—a revolution in which uniformed and plain clothes officers had killed over 800 people, just as they are killing Morsi supporters now. The military has also been unrepentant about its role under the old regime: as late as June 2012, the military strong man, General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi justified the “virginity tests” the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces inflicted, among other humiliations, on women demonstrators during the Cairo chapter of the Arab Spring.
Ironically, the liberals and the secularists also looked to the military to rein in the Morsi government’s excesses and indeed to overthrow the elected government. Without the confidence that a violent attack on the protesters in the Rabaa Al-Adaqwaiya Squate and other locations in Cairo would enjoy a wide degree of popular support, the military would not have rejected out of hand the compromise that the EU envoy, Bernandino Leon, and the US deputy secretary of state, Willian Burns had crafted and which had been accepted by the Brotherhood. Under that plan, the Brotherhood would sharply reduce the number of protesters and limit the protest camps to two and the military would release the speaker of the parliament as a gesture of good will.
But General al-Sisi calculated that there would be little to pay if he were to eliminate the Brotherhood as a legitimate political force and restore authoritarian rule. Indeed, the liberals installed in the interim government initially even blamed the massacre on the protesters killing each other! Nor did the liberals protest at the interior minister, General Mohamed Ibrahim, a holdover from Morsi’s cabinet claiming that the anti-Morsi crowds in Tahrir Square gave him the mandate to resurrect the old regime’s hated secret police, the Amn al-Dawla or State Security force that had been disbanded in March 2011.
Reaction overseas to the coup has been muted as well. Despite the casualty numbers topping a thousand killed and many thousands injured, the Obama administration could not bring itself to call the ouster of President Morsi by the military a ‘coup’ since it would then trigger an end to the $1.3 billion in aid the Egyptian military receives from Washington. As Juan Cole has argued the United States cannot substantially cut its aid to Egypt because much of it is corporate welfare for its domestic companies - US aid is effectively a credit card that Egypt must spend to buy US military and civilian supplies - and part of what passes for ‘US aid to Egypt’ is paradoxically for joint Israeli-Egyptian patrols and thus goes in part to Israel.
Saudi Arabia, in fact, has offered to compensate the military for any cuts in aid from the United States, and the Israelis who have had a long relationship with al-Sisi when he was chief of military intelligence has also been lobbying for him in Washington. In fact, Patrick Smith underlines that it may not be a coincidence that Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu agreed to “peace talks” with the Palestinians only a few days after the Egyptian coup. “The dreaded question here,” Smith asks, “is whether U.S. support for Israel effectively precludes political advance in the Arab world.” Indeed, so confident is the military now that it has arrested the supreme leader of the Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie - something that even Mubarak had not done. Compounding its arrogance, it is also bringing charges of treason against Mohamed el-Baradei for resigning his post as vice president for international affairs in the interim government in protest against the massacres! Emboldened by the coup, the judges appointed by Mubarak have cleared him of all charges.
So confident has the military become that the New York Times reports that the “police scarcely bothered to offer a credible explanation for the deaths of three dozen Morsi supporters in custody over the [last] weekend. After repeatedly shifting stories, they ultimately said the detainees had suffocated from tear gas during a failed escape attempt. But photographs taken at the morgue on Monday showed that at least two had been badly burned from the shoulders up and that others bore evidence of torture."
Identity politics and the declining salience of class analysis
The triumph of the counter-revolution has been met with resignation because it is seen as a choice for stability and a choice between two bad options since the debate has framed it as a conflict between political Islam and a secular military, one that would foster dangerous religious fundamentalism across the region and the other which would guarantee Israel’s annexation of Palestine and the kleptocratic oligarchies of Arabia.
By targeting political Islam as embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood as one axis of the conflict, secular opponents of the Ancien Régime and the Coptic Christian minority are cast in the role of defenders of the military overthrow of the elected government. And it followed as the night the day that the August bloodbath was followed by Muslim Brotherhood members torching Coptic Christian churches, businesses, and homes across the country as well as government offices. Yet, no one seems to have highlighted the military’s spectacular dereliction of duty in not safeguarding the churches and the Christian minorities. Indeed, it is likely that in an act of cynical callousness, the military deliberately left them defenseless to expose the Brotherhood.
On a broader scale, what is striking is that conflicts in the Islamic world are always portrayed as sectarian rivalries (between Sunnis and Shias) or ethnic conflicts (Kurds, Alawites) or between secularists and political Islam. But this is not limited to the Islamic world as identity politics has erased class politics virtually everywhere. In India, conflict is typically portrayed in casteist and religious terms, in Africa in tribal terms.
The rise of neo-liberalism and the parallel demise of socialism has meant that class has virtually been erased as a salient category of analysis. Class is central to capitalism. As Arif Dirlik underlined some two decades ago, even if categories like gender and ethnicity are social constructs, in most cases they correspond to readily identifiable referents. Not so with class which has to be derived from an analysis of the operation of capitalism itself. But class alone is never sufficient given the complex, multi-layered mosaic of social life. Gender, ethnicity, religion, language, sexual orientation are all axes of domination and subordination that are not reducible to class. What we need is a recuperation of secular categories to frame our narratives.
The military has defeated the democratic popular movement that characterized Tahrir Square but it cannot solve the economic morass that engulfs Egypt. The deteriorating political situation has undermined its tourist industry and unemployment now runs at 50 percent. Since Egypt requires at least $20 billion next year to keep the economy going, further austerity measures will be implemented as per the dictates of international financial agencies. Worsening economic conditions will only draw more recruits—martyrs—to the Brotherhood which will deepen the crisis.
It is only by acknowledging the gross inequalities in wealth and power, and seeking to reverse them that the beginnings of a new more equitable and democratic world order can be laid. And this requires secular categories of analysis, not a rehearsal of the tired old categories of religious fundamentalism.