Rebels beware of the bears that hug your generals

The young people of Egypt led the January 25 revolution, and the army inherited it first, then the army jointly with the Muslim Brothers. And now under the rubric of Tamarod (Rebel), they have spearheaded again the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, which they could only — or opted to — do through the army and with the blessing of religious political forces and symbols that did not get along with the Muslim Brothers. The Brotherhood squandered the fortunes it had achieved at the ballot box, and helped itself in its ouster from power. The army did not pay a like price because there is no countervailing power to make it pay; it remains a wild card.

Will the Rebels, broadly speaking — leftists, Nasserists, and idealistic youth and non-youth — be able to produce a better translation of their feat than in the previous two drafts? Will they transform the numbers they mobilized into an inclusive political system that seeks to achieve social justice and the dignity of the mass of the Egyptian people, goals the Rebels proclaim as their own?  Or will they be stung from the same scorpion hole a third time, to paraphrase an Arabic proverb?

For many non-Egyptians, the trust — summarized in the popular slogan, “The army and the people are one hand” — that Egyptians seem to place in the army as a captain of political change is not readily comprehensible.

Citizens everywhere are taught to admire their armies as protectors of national security against external enemies, except that in countries with representative democracy the army is supposed to be apolitical, under the command of a civilian government sanctioned by periodic elections.  This explains the skeptical reception by many liberal commentators in the Western media, who have no truck with the Islamists, of what they consider a military coup engineered against an elected president.

Semantics aside, many analysts think the Egyptian Armed Forces as an institution is not eager to assume direct political power or go the Syrian route; it aims, however, at protecting two sets of interest: National security and its own vast economic network and accumulated privileges.  For that it was ready to sacrifice its ailing and unpopular leader, Hosni Mubarak, whose legitimacy was founded on his leadership of the air force during the 1973 October war that eventually wrested the Sinai Peninsula from Israeli occupation. The military was — or appeared to be — willing also to make a deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, which it looked at as the most organized political group, and cooperated with it in dispatching its two top septuagenarian generals into honorable retirement. In return, the army maintained its special status (appointing its leadership and keeping its budget out of public scrutiny) in the 2012 Constitution authored by the Islamists.

One does not have to go outside Egypt for what may sound like a jaundiced view of the army. Last August, just a day before Morsi declared the retirement of the two top generals, Hani Shukrallah, a prominent Egyptian leftist journalist wrote a scathing piece in the flagship English Ahramonline — a state-run news site — about the interests and mindset of the army, in which he said: 

“…the ruling clique at the very summit of the Egyptian state — civil, military, ‘deep state’ and business elite — is a very tightly knit network constituted of familial relations (they invariably married their kids off to one another) close friendships (adjacent north coast villas, and summer party guest lists), and above all a most intricate web of business interests, which extended well beyond the nation’s borders.”

The military, according to Shukrallah, saw the call for the overthrow of the Mubarak regime as a threat to this network and to its advantages.  Further, Shukrallah said, the military had a deep-rooted mindset that “simply cannot imagine a non-authoritarian state, at least in this country.”

Has the army’s links to the former ruling elite been severed during the past year? Has its mindset metamorphosed? Has the constituency of Mubarak’s regime become feloul (remnants), as they were earlier called by the Rebels only to have the sobriquet disappear in the heat of the campaign to unseat Morsi? The answers to these questions are crucial for envisioning the future course of the third translation of the January 25 revolution.

It has been said during the “Arab Spring” that the interest and focus of the revolutionaries is domestic, not regional or international. Be that as it may, the regional and outside forces have sought to shape these domestic affairs to their own liking, as epitomized by the Libyan and Syrian experiences.  In Yemen also, the Arab Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, intervened to make then-President Ali Saleh resign, fearful that the winds of the Yemeni uprisings would blow in their direction.  These same countries, with the approval of Western powers, have stalled the uprising in Bahrain, fearful that that small state would come under the sway of Shia (the second main branch of Islam) and ally itself with their rival Iran.

Interestingly, the support for the toppling of Morsi in the Western media has come from the conservatives and even right wingers, like Fox News — often Islamophobes, who do not think in any case the Arabs are capable of building democratic societies. In the Arab world, the first to rush in with billions of dollars were the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, joined shortly afterward by Kuwait, replacing and surpassing Qatar’s assistance. Unfortunately, the “Arab Spring” has not until this moment produced a regime that governs by the ideals of the Rebels.

The UAE has been the asylum of top officials of the Mubarak era, especially Ahmad Shafiq who, during his brief stint as prime minister in the waning days of Mubark’s presidency, dismissed the young men and women carrying the banners of the revolution as mere high school kids. Saudi Arabia is the guardian of repression, misogyny and obscuratinism — “the heart of darkness” — of the Arab region, the country where I would have first burst forth if I were the Arab Spring.

The United States government refrained from calling the ouster of Morsi a military coup in order to maintain the US$1.3 billion or so in annual aid to the army, as a way to bolster its interests in Egypt and the Middle East. I will leave Israel out of the picture, because the Palestinians lose irrespective of what happens in the region: Witness the defamation campaign against the Palestinians that goes unanswered in Egypt, the opportunistic use of Hamas as a proxy to further discredit the Muslim Brothers, and the closure of the border and destruction of tunnels, the lifelines of the people of Gaza. 

The Gulf governments — in addition to their feuds with the Muslim Brotherhood, whom they see as rivals — must be betting that the networks of the old regime together with the military and security forces will be the real drivers of the Egyptian state. Surely, if we go by the dictum that there is no free lunch, the new Egyptian government will have to reciprocate the American largesse and reactionary Arab munificence. Rebels, beware of the bear that hugs your generals!

The first steps of the military since the ouster of Morsi should be taken as a cautionary tale. The appointees for the top three positions so far all lack a strong political base. Interim President Adly Mansour is the former head of Egypt’s equivalent of the Supreme Court, and a Mubarak-regime appointee. Mohamed ElBaradei, the chief of the fledgling Dostour Party, is vice president for foreign affairs.  In such a position, he has to sell the new order to the outside world and cease to be a critic. Hazem al-Beblawi, the prime minister, is an economist, an independent without a following. He says he will form a government of technocrats, exactly what the former Prime Minister Hesham Qandil had promised. Although highly misleading, the idea of a technocratic cabinet has a long pedigree in Egypt and remains popular today even among the Rebels. Core issues, such as equality, or whether to shift away from neoliberal economics, have technical aspects, yet are at heart political and ideological and need political muscle. Who will make decisions on such issues, and on what grounds?

In another move, the military has violated the human rights of the Islamists, shut down their TV stations, imprisoned the leadership of the Muslim Brothers and others, and has yet to issue an independent report about the killing of more than 50 people and the injuring of hundreds in front of the Republican Guards headquarters. These actions have been condemned by international human rights organizations, but not by the very people and journalists who were vociferous against like violations of rights under the Mubarak and Morsi presidencies. Freedom of expression and assembly cannot be selective.

Subsequently, Mansour has issued a Constitutional Declaration without — oops! — consulting the Rebels, or anybody else other than the generals.  Much of the declaration reads like the constitution that the opponents of the Islamists objected to and was one of the reasons for their revolt. Article 1 upholds Islam in its Sunni version as the official religion of the state and source of laws. It is perhaps meant to appease the ultra-conservative Salafi Nour Party, which supported Morsi’s ouster, or to perhaps avoid a backlash among the Muslim population at large, the great majority of whom are followers of the Sunni doctrine. Other articles give the president the upper hand in the formulation of legislation and policy over the cabinet, and enable the army to exercise emergency powers and court-martial civilians. The Rebels have expressed serious reservations about this potboiler declaration, with some reportedly describing it as laying the foundations of dictatorship. Will there be a second draft, and how will it read?

The Rebels possess energy and creativity and, above all, popular demands. This has enabled them to twice mobilize large segments of Egyptian society and to overthrow regimes that they saw as detrimental to development and democracy in the country. Through mass mobilization they have succeeded already in creating, or at least in planting the seeds for, a new political culture among many Egyptians, a culture that does not accept passivity and silence in the face of tyranny and injustice.  

They still lack organized power with deep roots in social interests and beliefs on a par with those of the Islamists or with the wealth and power of the military and the old regime’s networks. Their ability in this third round to translate their remarkable mobilization campaigns into institutions and policy is replete with imponderables.

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Sharif S Elmusa