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Egypt’s recent constitutional referendum and the forthcoming announcement that Field Marshall Abdul Fattah El Sisi will respond to “the nation” and run for president represent the culmination of a quantitative strategy designed to justify Egypt’s July 3 military coup and the subsequent campaign to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood from political and social life.
In order to justify an overthrow of Egypt’s first-ever democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, who had only reached the end of the first year of his first term in office, the military and other forces backing the coup needed a strong rationalization. After painting Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood as incompetent rulers trying to hijack Egypt, state and non-state actors – including Egyptian politicians, Egyptian media, and pro-June 30 analysts – opted for an additional quantitative rationalization, arguing that the military was simply responding to the call of “the nation,” the overwhelming majority of “the people.”
This sort of explanation reads much better than admitting to a naked power grab, sacrificing in the process Egypt’s first free and fair elections, which had already decided who would govern Egypt in the short term.
Thus, on July 3, a discourse emerged describing the Egyptian military’s heroic response to “the nation,” or “the people,” both of which are accurate translations for the Arabic term “al-sha’ab.” This “the nation,” or, “the people” discourse was pervasive from June 30 – July 3, and has remained dominant in Egyptian politics and media, and among pro-June 30 analysts. The narrative argues that the overwhelming majority of Egyptians – “the nation” – rose up to topple a faction representing a tiny minority, something which, according to the narrative, represented the epitome of democracy, since, after all, a vote would have rendered the same ‘will-of-the-people’ result.
The narrative was encapsulated nicely by CBC anchor Dina Abdelrahman, who said on her August 14 broadcast: “There are not two groups [in Egypt]. There is the Egyptian nation (on one side) and there is a group of Muslim Brothers (on the other side),” suggesting that the Brotherhood and their supporters represented a tiny fraction of Egyptians.
As evidence for the quantitative argument, exaggerated estimates of the June 30 protest numbers were promulgated. The most popular estimate – 33 million protesters – was also the most absurd and scientifically baseless. The protests, we were told, were the largest in the history of humankind, larger even than the 2011 protests that led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, and were supported by nearly all Egyptians.
In the weeks that followed July 3, the post-coup cabinet and an obsequious, sympathetic media industry tried desperately to show that ongoing anti-coup protests were tiny and not representative of Egyptians. Television networks were prevented from covering the protests, which were described regularly as merely occupying “street corners.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, supporters of the extra-democratic movement to remove Morsi from office bought into and helped propagate this quantitative rationalization. Pro-June 30 academics like Sarah Eltantawi, Nagla Rizk, and Sherifa Zuhur, and analysts such as Dina Khayat and Alaa Al-Aswany, argued, at length, that the Egyptian people had risen up and proclaimed their rejection of the Muslim Brotherhood, and, more generally, political Islam.
In a pair of July blog posts, Eltantawi wrote that over the first few days of her trip to Cairo, she could not find a single Brotherhood supporter in the street, in spite of her best attempts to do so. In an interview, Rizk said that June 30 represented a “full-fledged uprising of the Egyptian people.” Zuhur posited that the June 30 protests were “the largest in history” and claimed, matter-of-factly, that the Tamarod movement “gathered more than 22 million signatures [for Morsi’s ouster] by June 29.” Khayat claimed in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the Brotherhood has less than 1% support in Egypt. In a New York Times article, Al-Aswany argued that, on July 3, the Egyptian army “sided with the will of the Egyptian people.” Pro-June 30 academics and analysts, then, joined with the Egyptian regime and media to paint a picture of a more-or-less unanimously popular revolt against a detested and tiny minority group.
I engaged in too many social media debates to count, and, in every one of them, the pro-coup academic on the other side of the argument refused to engage with empirical realities. I referenced the polls that showed Egypt was a split society and that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood had very strong popular support, particularly outside of Cairo; the obvious reality that the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters were part of “the nation”; the five recent elections that the Muslim Brotherhood had won; the literature on crowd-sizing that shows it was not possible for there to have been anywhere near 33 million (or 14 million) anti-Morsi protesters in the streets on June 30; and the problems associated with using phrases like “the nation” to reference a political faction.
Along with many others, I pointed out that Egypt’s 2012 constitution allowed for free political competition and that anti-Brotherhood political parties – of which there were more than a dozen – could have simply organized themselves for the Fall 2013 parliamentary elections, taken parliament, had the final say on Egypt’s prime minister, revised the constitution, and, if necessary, removed Morsi through the 2012 constitution’s impeachment mechanism. This would have been preferable to a military coup bent on denying Islamists – hitherto undefeated at the polls – political participation. Most of the time, these arguments were not seriously considered, and analysts insisted on the validity of their quantitative argument.
I appealed to Talal Asad’s characterization that people in civilized societies deal with their differences by voting in order to avoid bloodshed, and that democracy is essentially an acknowledgement that our differences are so profound as to require periodic voting.
As the quantitative rationalization began to lose steam in mid-late July amid large anti-coup protests across Egypt, El Sisi, the man who removed Morsi from office, urged Egyptians to hit the streets again to show support for the government, and, ultimately, demonstrate that they were larger and more powerful than the anti-coup movement. Filmmaker Khaled Yousef professionally directed the filming of those protests. On the evening of July 26, Egyptian television witnessed a spectacle unlike any other: large protests in Tahrir Square and in front of the Presidential Palace were recorded from helicopters, edited, and captured an impressive pre-planned laser light show. CBC network anchor Khairy Ramadan described the June 30 protests as including “many more than [the] 30 million” that had gone out on June 26.
Exaggerated protest numbers and talk of “the nation” could be read as miscalculations or shoddy analysis. It seems probable, however, that something more is at play in this discourse, which is noticeably exclusionary and seems to correspond well with the Egyptian coup-regime’s campaign to annihilate the Muslim Brotherhood.
Many pro-June 30 analysts seem to suffer from a deep-seated elitism joined with anti-Islamist prejudice, which cannot but create a type of hysterical politics that explicitly favours one group of Egyptians over another. For pro-June 30 academics, journalists, and analysts, using terms like “the nation” to reference anti-Morsi protesters is not problematic because, for these commentators, those protesters are the nation.
In this view, the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters are not truly Egyptian. Eltantawi wrote in July that she questions the Muslim Brotherhood’s respect for the Egyptian border and Egyptian national identity. The Brotherhood’s alleged disloyalty to Egypt has been a major theme in the Egyptian media, where the group has been framed as a foreign occupier. Prominent television journalist Lamees El-Hadidy proclaimed on July 3 that “Egypt is coming back to us,” and told her viewers that no group – “neither the French, nor the English, nor the Israelis…nor the Muslim Brotherhood” – could “rape” the people of Egypt.
In his July 26 broadcast, Khairy Ramadan said that the Brotherhood doesn’t “understand the meaning of nation” and called the group “foreign agents” and “unpatriotic.” Recognizing the elitism extant in pro-June 30 scholarly and media discourse is essential to understanding why so many have supported the Egyptian government-driven rhetoric of “treason” and “cleansing” that has followed the events of July 3. To be fair, some pro-June 30 analysts have, in recent months, spoken out against military dictatorship and state-sponsored repression.
This deep polarization of Egyptian society is further confirmed by the results of January’s constitutional referendum. Despite using all means of persuasion at its disposal, almost tripling the number of polling stations, and allowing citizens to vote in any district irrespective of their residency, final turnout numbers were modest. Assuming there was no manipulation of polling numbers, only 38.6% of Egyptians showed up to vote. Yet the referendum had been cast as a vote for the military (and El Sisi) and against the Brotherhood. Survey data suggest that only about 20% of Egypt’s young people voted.
So maybe those analysts who have promoted the quantitative argument so far are in for a shock. Some may finally be coming to grips with the reality that Egypt is a deeply polarized society, and that respecting basic democratic norms – rather than subverting them – is in the nation’s best interests.