One sad truth about politics in Egypt today — and there are many — is the extraordinary abundance of hypocrisy.
From revolutionaries to Salafis, the political opportunism, short-sightedness and, at times, utter absence of political principle has thoroughly damaged not only the prospect for revolution in Egypt, but any semblance of political progress.
Before 2011, anti-government protests regularly concentrated on the brutality of the Ministry of Interior. The police and state security regularly arrested, tortured and murdered Egyptians with impunity. Their reign of terror was rightfully condemned by an array of activists, ranging from secular liberals to leftists to Islamists.
Indeed, the protests on January 25, 2011 commenced as a demonstration against that brutality on Police Day. In the ensuing 18 days the police murdered approximately 1,000 Egyptians, wounding and maiming many others while detaining and torturing countless more.
There was a near unanimous demand for accountability, but over three years later, very few have been convicted of the murder of protesters during the 2011 uprising.
Shortly before the parliamentary elections in the fall of 2011, clashes broke out on Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Many more were killed and wounded. This time, however, with the prospect of electoral victory, the Islamist leaders defended police brutality and called the protesters “thugs,” even while individual Islamists committed to the revolution participated in those demonstrations.
For many, this was the ultimate act of treason by the Muslim Brotherhood, and marked the beginning of an intimate collaboration between the Islamist organization and the security apparatus in undermining a successful revolution.
The Brotherhood continued to belittle police and military brutality while the activists cried foul, condemning the group’s decision to collaborate with the security apparatus to secure privileges and power.
The following summer, faced with the untenable choice between Mubarak’s former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq and the Brotherhood’s candidate Mohamed Morsi in the first post-Mubarak presidential elections. Some activists chose to boycott the election altogether, while others threw their support behind Morsi, hoping he would deliver on his promise of a coalition government inclusive of all political movements, and to block the regime from retaking the presidency.
In the name of defending faux secularism, a handful chose to vote for Shafiq, believing the Brotherhood posed a greater threat to Egypt in the long term.
Needless to say, the Morsi presidency failed to deliver on the consensual government he had promised, and there was no serious effort to reform the security apparatus whose brutality had sparked the uprising. Instead, the Brotherhood sought to co-opt the security apparatus and military by extending budget increases and privileges to them both in policy and in their new draft Constitution.
Activists and non-Islamist parties cried foul.
One of the chief grievances with the new Constitution was that it protected military trials for civilians. Before January 2011, non-Islamist activists worked with the Muslim Brotherhood in condemning the injustice of military trials of civilians, and few other groups had suffered at the hands of these trials more than the Islamists.
Now, however, with a naive confidence in their newfound power, Islamists seemed to believe they had started to secure control of the repressive security apparatus of the state, and and that by delivering privileges to that apparatus they could successfully co-opt it and secure its loyalty.
Protests ensued and the Constitution passed with a simple majority and extremely low turnout. The constitution became a sticking point between non-Islamists and the ruling Brotherhood-Salafi alliance.
Soon the Tamarod (Rebel) movement emerged. Tamarod effectively called for Morsi’s recall, insisting he had failed to fulfill his promises as president and was unfit to rule.
Officially, Tamarod demanded early elections, but as June 30, 2013 approached — the date they set for nationwide protests against Morsi — it became clear they were prepared to support military intervention to achieve their goals. Eventually, they explicitly demanded this intervention.
Many took to the streets who opposed military intervention in politics; however, the majority seemed to be comfortable with the coup that was conducted on July 3, 2013. Once again, a political movement chose to “use” the security apparatus to deliver the state and privileges.
In fact, in both instances the security apparatus has successfully used both groups to strengthen its position at the expense of any revolutionary change in Egypt.
The new government proceeded to ban opposition television channels and round up Islamist activists that opposed the coup as well as their sympathizers. Massacres ensued and, just as the Islamists had dismissed the victims of the state’s brutality in Mohamed Mahmoud as “thugs,” the new non-Islamist leadership dismissed the victims of even greater levels of brutality as “terrorists.” Anyone critical of the crackdown was labeled as a terrorist sympathizer.
Then, on August 14, hundreds of pro-Morsi protesters were killed in broad daylight at two sit-in camps in Cairo, with many more wounded. The government, filled with ministers from parties who had condemned police brutality in the past, was silent. Indeed, it had approved the massacre.
In reaction, Mohamed ElBaradei — who had been appointed as vice president for foreign affairs partly to convince the revolutionaries that this was a coalition government, but primarily to convince the world it wasn’t a coup — resigned, having already promised to do so if the sit-in was violently cleared. He was immediately labeled a traitor and condemned as a coward unfit for politics.
Apparently, his critics believed that only people willing to murder their fellow citizens were “courageous” enough for office.
Regardless of the unrevealed details of the government’s involvement in the lead up to the violent dispersal of the sit-ins, there was a general willingness by leading political parties to defer to the ongoing authoritarian rule of the security state.
A protest law similar to the one Morsi had been condemned for proposing was passed by the coup government of “revolutionary” parties. The protest law has been used to suppress both Islamist protesters and the few remaining non-Islamist protesters who remained committed to the revolution’s cause. A number of them now sit in prison because of this law, while others await trial.
Once again, political parties masquerading as revolutionaries are collaborating with the security state to suppress and crush criticism and opposition in the name of stability and progress.
Eventually, a new draft constitution was put forward. Like its predecessor, it was poorly written and failed to clearly delineate the rights and responsibilities of each branch of government, or to develop an effective structure for holding each branch accountable. Without this clarity and proper checks and balances, abuse and constitutional crises remain inevitable.
Further, the document contains an article that protects the practice of military trials for civilians, one of the main grievances against Morsi’s constitution a year earlier. The language in that article is so wide-ranging that one officer claimed simply getting into a fight at a military-owned gas station would result in a military trial for a civilian.
With the military involved in many civilian projects, ranging from gas stations to producing macaroni, there are countless places where civilians engaged in civilian practices are technically interacting with the military, and could find themselves before a military court for pedestrian offenses.
Now the enemies of revolution seek to crown another military general as Egypt’s ruler on the back of extensive brutality, and while building up an absurdist cult of personality with paraphernalia and Sisi-faced chocolates.
Mocking this cult of personality resulted in one of the country’s most popular TV personalities, Bassem Youssef, being taken off the air from a privately owned Egyptian TV channel and being forced to broadcast on a foreign-owned channel.
The self-censorship of the private media, which now coordinates its messaging with the state and its media apparatus, has resulted in an informational black hole in Egypt that further hampers the prospects for revolution. It has brought the efficacy of the press to its lowest point in the past three years, including the year during which Morsi was president.
The theory that civilian political power can be achieved on the backs of the military is neither novel nor in need of further testing. The Brotherhood tried it twice in 1952 and 2011. The results are known. The Baath party in both Iraq and Syria attempted a similar stunt, only to find civilian members of both parties cast aside, or worse, as their parties became a facade for direct military rule.
The Baath parties in both Iraq and Syria were secular, civilian Arab nationalist political parties that sought allies who could accelerate their access to power. The civilian leadership of the Baath parties cultivated relationships with young politicized officers hoping to use their support to seize the state and establish civilian rule with them at the head of the state.
What ended up happening, however, was that the officers increasingly found that they had little need for their civilian supporters and cast them aside, as well as much of their more progressive ideology. Both states ended up with direct military rule, with an official ruling party named after the original civilian party that had engaged the officers years before.
This image is emerging once again in Egypt. With the latest Cabinet reshuffle and the appointment of Ibrahim Mehleb as prime minister, the civilian “progressive” parties that sought to ride the military to power have found themselves cast aside while youth activists sit in prison.
Mehleb was a member of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party and its notorious policy committee. Now he sits atop a government that purports to be “revolutionary” — a word unrivalled in its misuse in Egypt.
Gross naiveté and the mistaken assumption that hardcore realpolitik maneuvering is the only pragmatic approach to politics has produced an endless series of blunders over the past three years.
Behaving according to a set of basic principles isn’t idealist, and politics isn’t simply about achieving a seat in the next parliament or government — it’s about building a political system that is sustainable long after the next election.
Today, it is as if there never was a revolution in Egypt — and so long as political actors continue to behave in their imagined short term interests as opposed to the interests of real institutional democratic change in Egypt, revolution will not be realized.