Despite the continuing impasse in Egypt, the country as it was under ousted President Mohammed Morsi needs a fair assessment, particularly because of three misconceptions that have dominated the minds of the Turkish public. Indeed, groups sympathetic to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and pro-Gezi groups have both instrumentalized such arguments to attack each other.
1. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB or Ikhwan) was innocent vs. the Brotherhood failed to undertake democratic processes and Morsi failed to embrace all Egyptians as a president.
2. The Egyptian deep state emerged vs. the military reasserted its authority on July 3
3. The Ikhwanization of Egypt
Let's start with the first point. The AKP government has staunchly defended the Muslim Brotherhood, arguing that the group was innocent, democratic and that the Egyptian deep state did not allow Morsi to implement reforms. Thousands of Turkish people protested against the massacre in Rabaa Square and we saw Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan weeping live on TV for Asma, the daughter of an Ikhwan leader, Mohamed El-Beltagy, who was killed by the Egyptian military. On the other hand, many pro-Gezi groups hesitated to condemn the coup d'etat orchestrated by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and the subsequent massacre, claiming that the Brotherhood failed to implement democratic processes, excluded others during its rule and victimized the Coptic Christians.
Well, all these arguments hold some truth, in one way or another, but all are flawed.
The Muslim Brotherhood was not innocent in terms of its exclusive governance and failure to adopt many democratic processes, though there were some. Morsi's infamous constitutional decree granted him special powers that perhaps even former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak did not have. Although Morsi was compelled to cancel his decree, this incident became a tipping point in the conflict between Morsi and the divided opposition forces. Nevertheless, Ikhwan and Morsi attempted many times to include various political and religious groups in the transition process by either asking representatives to serve on committees or offering them positions in government. According to Egyptian Popular Current movement leader Hamdeen Sabbahi himself, Morsi offered him the vice presidency after coming to power. Thus, this picture proves that political developments were complicated. Morsi alienated some important figures and failed to form alliances with key political leaders and groups.
Add to that, the Muslim Brotherhood's electoral victories in every office in the country, although the elections were contested at times. Harvard Associate Professor Masoud Tarek's study of elections in Egypt suggests that Ikhwan was good enough to win elections but as a result of their wins, the non-Islamists “lost faith in democracy.” This point is also pertinent to the Turkish context, since the AKP has won all of the elections since 2002 and Erdoğan has been a staunch advocate of electoral democracy. The continued electoral victories of both the AKP and the MB have been puzzling since neither went beyond electoral democracy, although the AKP government has transformed Turkey in the last 10 years. Why do Islamist parties believe in democracy and win elections but not create enough space for inclusive governance?
Some of the pro-Gezi groups also cite the notion that Morsi failed to serve as the president of all Egyptians and that he attempted to Islamize the country. They suggest that Morsi deserved to be overthrown by SCAF. According to this logic, sectarian attacks on Copts, increasing debates on Sharia and the wide use of Islamic symbols suggest that Morsi wanted Sharia in Egypt. Yet, history teaches us that Islam has increasingly been a reference point for almost any political actor in Egypt. Recall Mubarak's constitutional amendments regulating personal status laws and hisba (those who enforce religious adherence). As Egyptian anthropologist Hussein Ali Agrama observed, Mubarak's Egyptian state allowed more Islamization in the public order but reserved the power to use and regulate to itself. Thus, it is baseless to argue that Morsi attempted to further Islamize Egypt and remove secularism from the country.
The second claim made by the AKP government and their supporters is that the Egyptian deep state organized the coup d'etat. Some secular columnists and opinion leaders, on the other hand, claim that SCAF reasserted its power on July 3. These assertions are curious because the Brotherhood did not initiate a security sector reform to send the military to its barracks and ensure civilian control over military nor did the military ever accept such a position. Morsi might have judged that Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Fettah al-Sisi would be a better partner when he appointed him than former Defense Minister Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, but obviously SCAF always remained the most powerful decision-maker in Egypt, not only in politics but also on economic matters.
As for the AKP's deep state claims, one needs not look any further than Egyptian state officials to find the truth. Speaking at an event immediately after Morsi's ouster on July 3, Mona Makram Ebeid, renowned Copt, former member of Egyptian Parliament and also member of the Shura Council until a few months ago, clearly stated that in February 2013 SCAF wanted some important public figures to form a committee to write down the popular demands of the people. This group contacted the Tamarrod movement in April and tried to synchronize their activities. From this perspective, it seems that there was no deep state but rather an obvious coup d'etat developing in broad daylight. Therefore, one can neither argue that the deep state orchestrated the July 3 coup d'etat nor suggest that SCAF reasserted its power in politics.
Finally, some people in Turkey argue that Egypt was Ikhwanized following the January 25 revolution. Yet this argument is flawed because, although limited, some Muslim Brotherhood members were able to work for the Egyptian state and the Brotherhood did not replace former government workers with MB members. It is true that Morsi attempted to purge some judges, but the judiciary as an institution created a political crisis out of these purges to challenge Morsi. Indeed, it was Morsi's lack of a strategy to purge key officials and police officers who were associated with Mubarak's violent regime that created a fury against him. Recall the popular movements' demands for justice in Egypt and how the January 25 revolution started after the Egyptian police brutally killed Mohamed Khalid Saed in Alexandria.
Overall, we seriously need to think about how the Egyptian coup d'état and the subsequent massacre in Rabaa were discussed by the Turkish public. Instrumentalization of Egyptian politics for domestic concerns may perhaps have allowed the government to mobilize its supporters, but this also created a paradox, given the oppression and violence used during and after the Gezi protests. Last but not least, shouldn't we truly try to understand Egyptian politics rather than defaulting to competing polarization narratives? How can we do that in a country where there are only two or three experts, if any, on Egyptian politics?
This article was first published on Today’s Zaman on 10/9/13