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"Feilool" Was Always a Misnomer

January 24, 2014 at 6:27 am

Towards the end of July, General al-Sisi delivered a new 48-hour ultimatum for the Brotherhood to end their protests against the military coup. Even as he demanded that the Brothers end their demonstrations, he called upon their opposition to demonstrate nationwide in order to give the army a “mandate” to confront Morsi’s supporters, whom he referred to as “terrorists.”

This call to action was later parroted by Egypt’s “interim president” (a high-ranking member of the Mubarak regime, handpicked by Gen. al-Sisi) and the tamarod “rebels.” Of course, this supposed license is ironic given that one of the common criticisms of President Morsi is that he overstepped his popular mandate-despite the overwhelming victory of his party in parliamentary elections, and its subsequent win in the presidential race. Apparently, while democratic elections do not empower their victors with a strong mandate, protests can give the SCAF legitimacy to do anything-first to commit a coup against Egypt’s first democratically-elected president less than a year into his term, and now it seems to restore the Mubarak-era police state.

Empowered by the opposition rallies (although apparently not disempowered by those of Morsi’s supporters), scores of peaceful protestors were killed in the streets, with Human Rights Watch reporting that the majority of victims were shot in the chest, neck, or head-indicating that the security forces were shooting to kill. Later, these forces stormed and dismantled pro-Morsi protest camps. The interim government would go on to announce that the despised Mubarak-era “religion police” were to be re-activated, even as “President” al-Mansur gave the army renewed legal grounding to arrest civilians. It is likely that these will be just the first of many “necessary” authoritarian measures in Egypt’s new “War on Terror,” a campaign which will increasingly jump from propaganda into reality as a result of the SCAF’s actions:

Throughout the protest movement which preceded the military coup against Husni Mubarak, and in subsequent parliamentary and presidential elections, the Islamists were peaceful and law-abiding participants in the democratic process-and they would prove to be its primary beneficiaries. However, the actions by the SCAF throughout, culminating in the removal of President Morsi and the subsequent persecution of the Brotherhood-these sent the message to many Islamists that the democratic and legal process is a dead end: the deep-state and its international supporters have no respect for the popular will, and the institution is too corrupt to be reformed; by any means necessary it must be uprooted in its entirety and replaced-by something other than Western models of governance.

The army claimed that the coup was necessary to prevent Egypt from descending into chaos-predictably, their intervention brought about the very outcome it was supposed to prevent; it is likely the army will continue to serve as a destabilizing force in Egyptian politics for the foreseeable future. And while the military’s actions have been widely depicted as a forced response to extraordinary circumstances, this is actually the third major attempt by the SCAF to “legitimately” seize total control over the state since they deposed Mubarak. Accordingly, the notion that the military is acting in the interests of democracy is absurd, and the belief they will transition real authority to a civilian government seems naïve at best:

1st Attempt: The Lead-up to the Elections

Nearly a year after the coup against Mubarak, there was little evidence of any transition towards a democratically-elected civilian government. Instead, there was widespread oppression and virtually no reform-ultimately this prompted renewed civil unrest, which the army responded to in a brutal fashion, injuring thousands, arresting thousands more, and subjecting female prisoners to “virginity tests” (a practice the current head of the SCAF, Gen. al-Sisi, defended). Ultimately bowing to domestic and international pressure, the army agreed to move forward with parliamentary elections and set a date for a presidential race.

At the time, there was widespread (if inexplicable) confidence among observers within Egypt and abroad that while the Brotherhood and other Islamist parties would likely comprise a substantial political minority, liberals and secularists would dominate the political theater in forthcoming elections. Instead, Islamist parties garnered nearly ¾ of the votes. This outcome sent shockwaves throughout the “deep state.”

As it became obvious that the Islamists were going to win by wide margins in the parliamentary elections, the SCAF defined Egypt’s fledgling democracy as a “presidential state not a parliamentary one,” conferring a host of legal authorities to any forthcoming president while undermining those of the newly-elected parliament. Gen. al-Sisi subsequently “advised” the Islamist parties to be satisfied with their parliamentary gains and to refrain from running candidates in the presidential elections. Even as this warning went out, Mubarak’s former PM Ahmed Shafiq announced his candidacy for the office of president. Days later the SCAF released the “al-Selmi communique” which ensured:

  1. 1. Any forthcoming civilian government would not have tactical control over the military (unlike in the American system, for instance, where Congress and the President set the agenda, which the Army is bound to execute)
  2. 2. The elected government would have no oversight/control over the military budget
  3. 3. The SCAF would forever serve as the “Protector of Legitimacy” in Egypt’s democracy, with the right to remove any elected government at any time
  4. 4. The SCAF would have veto power for the forthcoming constitution and any subsequent laws passed by the civilian government

With Gamal Mubark under arrest (recognized within the deep state as probably the biggest threat to the military’s hegemony), and with the Brotherhood ostensibly agreeing not to run for the office, the military set out to prevent Western-backed liberals from seizing the presidency, either. Towards this end, they purged Egypt of foreign (primarily American) NGOs which had long provided activists with training, funds, and logistical support; this effectively neutered the liberal opposition. The feilool (who remained wealthy and influential despite the “revolution”) seemed certain to win: it was primarily a question as to whether Ahmed Shafiq or Amr Musa would represent them. Shortly after the NGO purge, seeing the regime poised to legitimize its reinstatement through the polls, the Brotherhood reneged on its vow to abstain from the election and nominated Khairat al-Shater as their candidate. The state quickly barred al-Shater from running, thrusting the Brotherhood’s pre-approved secondary candidate, Muhammad Morsi, into the fray.

As Morsi was largely unknown outside of the Brotherhood, had few technocratic credentials, and was not particularly charismatic-and given that the field included thirteen candidates, many of whom were much more prolific, there was widespread doubt that Morsi would even survive the first round of elections. Instead, he won the first round, facing a runoff against Ahmed Shafiq.

Having to confront the prospect of an Islamist-dominated parliament and a Brotherhood president (which could have collectively acted as an authentic bulwark against the SCAF’s authority), two days before the second round of voting commenced, the high-court disbanded the parliament, granting the military full legislative authorities until new elections were held (which, the court declared, could not happen until after a new constitution was passed). Then, with Morsi leading decisively in the final polls, the SCAF put forward a decree which severely limited the powers of any incoming elected president-a prescient move, as the Brotherhood’s candidate was ultimately declared the victor in the contest. Thereafter, Ahmed Shafiq relocated to the UAE where he immediately set to work building a network of allies to overthrow the newly-elected president.

2nd Attempt: Failed Coup, Successful Propaganda

President Morsi’s first order of business was to ensure the transfer of authority from the military to a civilian government. Towards that end, he attempted to reinstate the elected parliament shortly after taking office; this move was immediately blocked by Egypt’s high court, leaving the democratic transition in a catch-22:

With the parliament disbanded, and given the constraints of previous decrees by the SCAF and the courts, Egypt’s “civilian government” consisted of little more than Morsi himself. Absent a constitution, his role and powers were vague, rendering him little more than a figurehead. Prior to Morsi’s election, the body charged with drafting a new constitution was disbanded by the courts. The parliament came together to form a second committee but was, itself, dissolved shortly thereafter. Weeks into Morsi’s term, this second constituent assembly was also facing dissolution by the courts. It was unclear how things would proceed from there: the parliament was supposed to appoint an assembly to draft a constitution, but a new parliament could not be elected until after said constitution was passed. It is likely that the formation of a new constitution would therefore have fallen to the SCAF, which had assumed legislative powers in the interim. This would have been tantamount to a judiciary coup.

Compounding this dilemma was constant obstructionism by the Egyptian “deep state” (to include the state media) which, from day-one, largely refused to recognize an outsider, especially from the Muslim Brotherhood, as a legitimate president. This resistance, paired with the vagueness of his role within the state, rendered Morsi incapable of meaningfully addressing the severe and myriad problems Egypt was faced with when he took office (even if he had the technocratic know-how to resolve these issues, which he didn’t). In an attempt to break out of this impasse, the president exploited the constitutional ambiguity of his office in order to retire Gen. Tantawi and a number of other antagonistic Mubarak holdovers. This provoked a number of the feilool to openly call for a “second revolution” to depose Morsi, who was only two months into his term. Among the people, these pleas fell largely on deaf ears as the president was extremely popular at the time, and Tantawi et al. were widely despised.

While Morsi’s measures did help tamp down (open) hostility by the “deep state,” it did not move Egypt closer to legitimate civilian authority. And without the support and ideas of a parliament, etc. the president continued to find himself unable to gain traction on many of the country’s pressing issues. Then word came down that the high-court was preparing to declare the second constitutional committee invalid while affirming the SCAF’s controversial constitutional decrees. At best, this would have prolonged Egypt’s transitional limbo indefinitely (at worst, it would render any forthcoming civilian government more-or-less superfluous).

In order to prevent this outcome, President Morsi temporarily assumed broad legal authority which he used exclusively to reinstate the parliament, and to allow the second constituent assembly to put their constitution to a referendum-both acts in defiance of the high court. Finally, he used his powers to sack the Mubarak-era prosecutor who had granted regime officials blanket immunity (and who had refused to heed Morsi’s previous calls to resign); the president then called for new trials to hold Murbarak-era leaders accountable for their crimes-this had been a central demand of protestors since the beginning of the uprising. Once the referendum succeeded, Morsi complied therewith, ceding all authority beyond his constitutional mandate back to the legislature and the courts. Nearly two years following the coup against Mubarak a civilian government was finally installed-however, Morsi’s apparent victory would be short lived (as would be the constitution and civilian government voters put into place).

Although Morsi retained his broad authority for little over two weeks, this action (when paired with his confrontational tone) played into the narrative the feilool’ had been advancing since the beginning of his term: rather than being a tireless champion of democracy who accomplished virtually nothing in his tenure other than establishing a civilian government (as he never exercised much control over the “deep state”), Morsi was depicted as a tyrant hell-bent on transforming Egypt into the capital of a new caliphate. It should be noted that by any empirical measure, most Egyptians support a strong role for religion in the state; moreover, the opposition would be hard-pressed to point to any major government transformations which actually occurred under Morsi’s tenure-nevertheless, this portrayal formed the basis for an alliance between the liberals and the feilool to depose the president by any means necessary.

An Orwellian propaganda campaign followed: the constitution was portrayed as being authored by the Brotherhood to the exclusion of everyone else-despite the fact that the Freedom & Justice and al-Nour Islamist parties combined comprised less than a quarter of the second assembly (which ultimately drafted the constitution). The Muslim Brotherhood, a movement which was born in Egypt and comprised the primary (and at times, sole) opposition to the military autocracy, from its inception through the present, was painted as an exogenous Qatari tool for regional domination. Attempts by the president to surround himself with allies as a bulwark against the hostile forces which encircled him throughout his presidency were portrayed as nepotistic measures in the Brotherhood’s grand scheme for total control; accordingly, the Brothers were portrayed as monopolizing authority, despite the fact that the new “civilian government” consisted primarily of the President himself and a handful of advisors, none of whom exerted significant influence over the state’s institutions.

Accordingly, Morsi was unable to meaningfully address Egypt’s other crises-the economic situation deteriorated, spurred on by constant destabilization by liberal activists and nihilistic measures by the “deep state,” which were specifically designed to discredit the President (as evidenced by the fact that these problems mysteriously evaporated almost immediately after he was deposed). As the exclusive representative of the civilian government, it was easy for state and liberal media to place the blame for Egypt’s dire situation exclusively on Morsi. Among this coalition, there were increasing calls for the SCAF to step in and depose him. The stage was set for the “feilool” to make a triumphant return.

It is extremely ironic that Morsi’s temporary decree served as the galvanizing force for the opposition: almost immediately after his appointment following Morsi’s ouster, the interim “president” seized far greater powers for himself, for an indefinite period (already he has wielded them longer than his predecessor). And while Morsi used his authority exclusively to empower a democratically-elected civilian government, al-Mansur used his powers to suspend the constitution, to disband the parliament, to grant the military sweeping authority to curb civil liberties, and to lay the legal foundation for a new dictatorship. And it is Morsi that is decried as a tyrant, while al-Mansur is hailed as a champion of democracy.

3rd Attempt: Success…but for Whom?

In the weeks leading up to June 30th there were increasing meetings between the feilool, the SCAF, and liberal elites (such as Muhammad al-Baradei). There was widespread agreement that Morsi would be deposed-the primary question was how. As in 2011, the elites realized that if they could organize a large-enough mass movement against the president, the SCAF would have the apparent legitimacy to depose him; the army signed on to the plan in advance of the protests (if the recent reports are correct, they were paid $1 billion by Saudi Arabia to commit to the coup and subsequently purge the Brotherhood).

It is now widely-known that the protests against Husni Mubarak (and indeed, throughout the region) were largely organized and driven by Western-trained and funded activists. It turns out that many of these same figures would go on to found the tamarod movement-albeit this time financed by the feilool and the “deep state” (rendering “tamarod” an unintentionally ironic label). In partnership with liberal elites, the “rebels” began laying the foundations for a mass mobilization against the president-beginning with a petition for Morsi’s resignation which reportedly garnered 22 million signatures. At the time, few questioned that obtaining this many signatures (amounting to 1 out of every 4 Egyptians) in such a short time seems logistically implausible-and of course, no one ever audited this petition to ensure that there were actually 22 million signatures, that the signatories were actually Egyptian citizens, nor that the signatures were authentic (both of these should have been significant worries, considering that many of the signatures were supposedly obtained online). Despite these glaring inconsistencies, the petition was uncritically heralded by international media as a popular mandate to remove the president-a claim later echoed by the State Department.

Sensing a moment of opportunity, the (Saudi-funded) salafists also signed onto the movement. Given that Egypt is overwhelmingly Muslim, conservative, and devout- and as most Egyptians support a strong role for religion in the state-the salafists stand to benefit the most in any subsequent elections (provided they are free and fair), should the Brotherhood be disposed of (they ranked 2nd behind the Brotherhood in the previous parliamentary elections).

This coalition proved extremely effective: on June 30th, people turned out en masse to express their frustration with Egypt’s stagnation, which was laid at the feet of President Morsi. While they were certainly large, the size of these demonstrations would later be exaggerated by state media, liberal media, and then ultimately by the international media; while the opposition’s claim that tens of millions had mobilized against the president was easily falsifiable, attempts to undermine the narrative were too little, too late: the moment of crisis had been manufactured-it was now left to the SCAF to do its part.

Gen. al-Sisi demanded that “all parties” reach a compromise within 48 hours or the army would be “forced” to step in with its own roadmap. Of course, this “last chance” was a farce (intended to make the army appear reluctant to take control); the decree itself ensured that no such dialogue would ever occur: why would the liberals or feilool negotiate with Morsi, whom they despised, then they could simply protest for a couple more days and be rid of him altogether? And hold out they did. Days later, in accordance with his word, Gen. al-Sisi deposed the president, appointing al-Mansur as his interim replacement (al-Mansur, in turn, appointed scores of his fellow feilool to key posts, and charged them with drafting a new constitution). He would later appoint generals from the military and police as governors for 19 out of Egypt’s 27 provinces.

This act was swiftly followed by the forced closing of Brotherhood-friendly media outlets, to include al-Jazeera. The party’s senior leadership was rounded up and incarcerated-most of them continue to be detained without charge (a provision which became conveniently legal under al-Mansur’s interim charter). Violence followed against the rank-and-file Egyptians who refused to accept the SCAF’s decision. Morsi, having been illegitimately detained in the twilight of the Mubarak-era found himself incarcerated once more: his crime? Being liberated from Mubarak’s prison during the 2011 “revolution.” Contrary to portrayals in international media, these actions were not popular among most Egyptians. In fact, by one of the final scientific polls which was taken around the time of the coup, only 26% of Egyptians favored Morsi’s removal, with 69% opposed.

The Reckoning

In spite of the military’s immediate crackdown against the protestors and the threat of future massacres, opponents of the coup persisted in their protests for more than a month-protected by the holy month of Ramadan from a full-scale assault by Egyptian security forces. However, shortly after the close of Eid al-Fitr, the military ordered the attack that had been looming in the interim, an attack that Egypt’s liberal elites had long been demanding. Police stormed the protest camps, killing hundreds, injuring thousands, and arresting untold numbers as they cleared out the demonstrators. The Army then reinstated the Mubarak-era “Emergency Law” which curbs dissent and civil rights, and established a curfew across all major cities. These measures are held to be “temporary,” but unlike when Morsi evoked these provisions and actually allowed them to expire following the constitutional referendum, it is likely that al-Sisi (like Mubarak) will renew these measures indefinitely-unlike Morsi, the primary aim of the SCAF is not to empower a civilian government.

In the wake of these developments, Muhammad al-Baradai resigned from his post as Vice President. As there is no evidence that al-Baradai ever exercised significant influence over the interim government, given the sweeping legal powers of Adly Mansour and the broader de facto influence of the SCAF, the significance of this resignation lies primarily in eliminating the junta’s thin veneer of civilian governance. However, while the U.S. was quick to express “regret” about the violence, calling it a “serious blow” to reconciliation, Sec. Kerry remained astonishingly equivocal about its perpetrators, “urging restraint” by all parties and urging “both sides” to renew diplomatic efforts at resolving the crisis-indicating the White House’s intentions to “stay the course” vis a vis its policies in Egypt. This was later affirmed by the President’s eventual response, which more directly condemned the actions of the SCAF, while continuing to assert that Egypt was “transitioning towards democracy,” and refusing to make any substantive changes to U.S. policies in Egypt.

Looking Forward

Morsi’s biggest, albeit inevitable, failure was that he was unable to reform (or even co-opt) the “deep state” in a meaningful way. The recent coup makes it far less likely that future elected officials will have the courage to even try, assuming they are ever granted meaningful authority over the state. There is no doubt where the real power lies in Egypt: with the SCAF. And if the Brotherhood is successfully driven underground in the coming weeks, it seems unclear which other agent would be capable of counterbalancing the regime, going forward.

For all the media buzz about their supposed influence, the tamarod “rebels ” seem to be playing the same role in 2013 as they played in 2011: the role of the useful fool. In the uprising against Mubarak, these activists were manipulated by the U.S. and the SCAF, in 2013 by the feilool and the “deep state.” In both cases, their mass mobilizations did not cause the change, they simply provided Egypt’s elites with convenient pretexts to carry out actions they had committed to long before the protests broke out. And then, as now, once they served this purpose the elites tossed them aside, having never taken them seriously to begin with.

The State Department is in no position to come to tamarod’s aid in pressuring the SCAF either. In a deal likely brokered by Shafiq during his exile in UAE, the Gulf states have pledged $12 billion in aid to Egypt, $5 billion of which has already been released. With this money, Egypt could afford to lose America’s $1.5 billion in annual aid. In fact, Egypt is even positioned to reject the IMF’s $4.8 billion loan (along with their austerity demands and other reforms)-there are growing calls among the people for the government to reject altogether this Western aid for the sake of Egypt’s national sovereignty (although perhaps these dissidents have not fully considered what increased reliance upon Saudi Arabia might mean for their country down the line).

The U.S., on the other hand, is desperate to retain their use of Egypt’s bases, airspace, and the Suez canal; American Mideast policy relies on a stable relationship between Egypt and Israel, which the funding was intended to ensure; and facing sequestration, U.S. companies are clamoring to fulfill their defense contracts with the SCAF. Far from being in a coercive position over Egypt, the White House has not even been able to call the “transition” what it definitively is: a military coup. Nor have they had the fortitude to condemn repeated massacres the security forces have committed against peaceful civilians protesting the coup until this most recent episode. Instead, Sec. Kerry has gone out of his way to parrot the generals, affirming the SCAF is merely, “restoring democracy” in Egypt–a claim which, in light of the previous considerations, seemed difficult to justify. These capitulations continued even as Gen. al-Sisi went on Western media boldly denouncing the U.S., contributing to a growing and intensifying anti-American sentiment in Egypt and the broader region. Accordingly, the large focus on how American legislators should respond to the crisis in Egypt seems largely ill-placed: the United States does not have many cards left to play, and the SCAF is well-aware of this fact. Even if America decided to aggressively sever ties with the Egyptian government, it would do little to change the state’s internal trajectory (although it may be significant for maintaining America’s credibility in the broader region).

Rather than the Brotherhood, tamarod or the U.S., the biggest wildcard may be Gen. al-Sisi himself. The SCAF decrees, paired with the recent constitutional amendments, seem to lay the legal groundwork for the general or one of his allies to become a new dictator. However, there are indications that, rather than reinstating the Nasserist regime, he may be aiming to instantiate a distinctly Islamist military autocracy. As most Egyptians are devout, conservative Muslims who want a strong role for religion in the state, such a move may be widely welcomed among the people. A cult of personality is already rising up around him as a result of the coup, likely to be buoyed by the Saudi-funded “Marshall Plan” which was recently announced. Of course, if this is his intention, the committed Nasserist and liberal elites within the army and the “deep state” are unlikely to stand idly by and allow it-rendering reports on impassioned and long-standing divisions within the Egyptian security apparatus particularly intriguing. Analysts would be well-advised to keep their eyes trained on this space-at this point, the only real threats to the regime will likely come from within.

Musa al-Gharbi is a research fellow with the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC); he has a MA in philosophy from the University of Arizona. You can follow him on Twitter @Musa_alGharbi

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.