Egypt's military back with a vengeance

Opinion by Joseph A. Camilleri 

The release from prison of former president Hosni Mubarak is the clearest sign yet that the military and police state is well and truly back in Egypt.

Egyptian flag, credit Nicolas Raymond, www.freestock.caThe implications are tragic for the country and dismal for the Middle East and the rest of the world. 

Army rhetoric aside, the coup of July 3rd has amply demonstrated the power of Egypt’s ‘deep state’, unrepentant, unreformed and dominated by the military, the intelligence services, the judiciary, deeply entrenched economic interests, and the docile state media apparatus.  

The struggle for power between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood is hardly new. Ever since the mid-1950s they have been locked in bitter combat. 

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt 

The Brotherhood was banned by Gamal Abdul Nasser in 1954 – a ban which was maintained until the popular uprising which led to President Mubarak’s fall in February 2011. During this period the brotherhood was subjected to frequent crackdowns, arbitrary detention and torture.

Once legalised, the Brotherhood formally entered politics with the creation of the Freedom and Justice Party. In the parliamentary elections that followed (November 2011-January 2012), it won control of the People’s Assembly, and its candidate, Mohamed Morsi won the presidential election in June 2012 with 52% of the national vote.

Regrettably President Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood, and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, did not use their impressive electoral victories at all wisely. Rather than adopt an inclusive strategy, they sought to use control of both parliament and the presidency to pursue factional interests and entrench a political ethos that many Egyptians found unpalatable. 

Determined to remove restraints on his authority imposed by a hostile judiciary, president Morsi 'temporarily' granted himself the power to legislate without judicial oversight. Importantly, he failed to reach out in any meaningful way either to Coptic Christians or to secularists.

Just as foolishly the Brotherhood denounced a UN initiative to end violence against women as a tool likely to ‘undermine Islamic ethics and destroy the family’. Most damaging of all was the Brotherhood’s failure to enunciate a coherent economic strategy, which could only fuel longstanding social and economic grievances.

Yet, when all is said and done, one fact remains: the Brotherhood did not destroy democracy or deny the opposition the right to dissent. In the space of six weeks the military have managed to do just this with indiscriminate killing, arbitrary arrests, the violent dispersal of protesters, and tight control over media.

A military strategy 

A clear strategy is emerging: decapitate the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership, and keep open the option of banning it once again. Though General Sisi has uttered the odd conciliatory word, there is no mistaking the iron fist in a velvet glove.

What makes the bloodletting of the last few weeks especially tragic is that it was in part made possible by the political foolishness of those inside Egypt who thought that the military could be relied upon to advance the cause of democracy. 

The large anti-Morsi protests that swept across Egypt’s main cities prior to the July coup were a valuable and legitimate expression of public dissent. But such discontent can yield desirable change only through democratic processes, not the barrel of a gun. 

This was a carefully orchestrated military coup. The obstructionism of significant elements of the security forces, the judiciary and even the civil service – all beneficiaries of the Mubarak era – was designed to weaken the Morsi presidency and fan the flames of popular discontent. 

Many of those who have supported the military in the expectation that it will uphold the goals of the revolution are now beginning to realise the error of their ways. The resignation of acting Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, and the revised position of al-Nour and the progressives in the April 6 movement are but a taste of things to come.

The role of the US and Europe 

Just as tragic, however, has been the short-sightedness of those outside Egypt, namely, the United States and Europe. 

Before the coup Egypt needed untied financial aid of the kind and scale needed to secure public services and the development of much needed infrastructure. Such aid was not forthcoming. 

In the meantime, the military was biding its time, waiting for the right moment to strike. The nationwide anti-Morsi protests and the clear signals from Washington that it would not block its path convinced the Egyptian military that this was the moment to act.

Since the coup, European and American leaders have been calling on all sides to practise restraint and engage in democratic dialogue. But such calls are futile, if one side gets economic and military aid and the other is merely the recipient of empty rhetoric. The reviews of future aid now going on in Washington and European capitals are most unlikely to see a significant contraction of military and economic support for the military over the longer term.

Why is the United States so reticent to declare the coup “a coup”? Why is it so reluctant to stop the annual flow of aid to the Egyptian armed forces (estimated at $1.5 billion)? Why does the West not call for a return to democracy, the immediate end of military rule, arbitrary arrests and detentions, the restoration of civil liberties and an electoral process in which Islamist parties and their leaders can fully participate?

The answer can only be that governments in the United States and Europe generally see an advantage in maintaining close links with the Egyptian military. Such links are seen as vital to preserving the Camp David agreement between Egypt and Israel, protecting Western economic interests in the region, and strengthening the Saudi-led Sunni bloc that opposes Islamism on the one hand and Iran on the other.

Egypt’s coup is dismal for the Middle East 

Sadly the coup will not solve but compound Egypt’s problems.  General Sisi is no saviour. Neither the military nor the other elites on which they dispense largesse have the will or know-how to carry out a programme of far-reaching social and economic reform. 

With increasing disillusionment we can expect further protests, increased polarisation, and possible bloodshed. Diverse movements in the Muslim world will be led to believe that the key to change lies not in democracy but the use of force. 

And, in the midst of the Egyptian chaos, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the upheaval in Syria, and the unresolved Iran-US dispute will once again fail to receive the focused attention they so desperately require.

Professor Joseph Camilleri is an Emeritus Professor at La Trobe University. He is the founder and a former Director of the Centre for Dialogue (2006-2012). 

Image credit: Nicolas Raymond

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