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The Generals Are Back

January 27, 2014 at 2:33 pm

In Robert Ludlum’s The Aquitaine Progression, the story begins with protagonist Joel Converse meeting a man he has not seen in 20 years, dying violently at his feet whispering his final words “The generals…they are back”.

These dying words seem to be a fitting tagline to the tumultuous events that have dominated the most populous Arab nation over the last couple of days. Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president was unceremoniously removed in a military coup and detained by the all powerful Egyptian military. Arrest warrants were issued for leaders of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). All media outlets supportive of the MB were shut down and journalists covering pro-Morsi rallies were detained.

Post Revolution Egypt

It would be a grave misnomer to use the term post-revolution in case of Egypt. Apart from the exit of Hosni Mubarak in early 2011, the numerous minions he raised to positions of power and influence over the last 30 years in the feared interior ministry, the security and armed forces, the judiciary, his partners in crime in the media and big businesses all remain securely dug in. The power structure, systems of control and business lobbies all remained virtually intact amid the euphoria following Mubarak’s overthrow. This was overtly evident in two instances, the first being when a court ruling enabled Mubarak’s handpicked Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik to contest the presidential elections to the dismay and protests of the general public and secondly, when the police refused to protect the Brotherhood’s offices in Cairo and elsewhere when anti-Morsi demonstrators began to burn and loot the party’s headquarters. To add insult to injury, Morsi’s minister of interior Mohammed Ibrahim announced in advance of the protests that the police would not provide protection to the Brotherhood’s offices. One could just imagine the spate of reactions in India, if Molotov cocktails were hurled at the Prime Minister’s office or if the offices of the All India Congress Committee on Race Course Road were attacked, burnt and looted.

Winning the presidential elections by a narrow margin of 2 percent, Mohamed Morsi inherited Egypt’s floundering economic growth which had fallen to 1.8 percent in 2011, an inflation rate of 11 percent, an official unemployment rate of 12 percent, deficits to the order of $6.1 billion and a loss of $20 billion in foreign exchange reserves. Perhaps more importantly, the Egyptian economy had major structural weaknesses, such as deteriorating public finances, a distorted financial system that was not small business friendly, large and widening income and wealth inequalities, and a rigid labor market that constrained the private sector in creating jobs. Morsi’s predicament as President is best summed up in the words of the eminent legal expert Dr Richard Falk, “In responding to Morsi, the appropriate outer limit of reasonable complaint are allegations of incompetence, inexperience, combined with a series of mistakes made under the most difficult of circumstances, including inheriting a bureaucracy that was still beholden to the Mubarak style of politics and committed to its abundant private sector allies.”

It would be harsh from an economic standpoint to claim that Morsi’s financial policies were a disaster. On the positive front, the Nahda (Renaissance) Project, a 20-year social and economic blueprint was designed to be an alternative to Mubarak’s capitalist system and serve as a guide for economic policy. Massive development projects were initiated in cooperation with China in the Suez region which was supposed to create 700,000 jobs. A $2 billion loan was discussed with Russia including collaboration for a nuclear power plant construction. During his visit to Brazil last month, the first ever to a South American nation by an Egyptian head of state, he encouraged Brazilian investment in Egypt and also future free trade agreement with Latin America’s Mercosur trade bloc and also floated the idea of Egypt joining BRICS. The Egypt-Iran Cooperation Council (EICC) was established which kicked off by a project to restructure Egypt’s railway network. During his three-day visit to India, seven key pacts were signed with an ambitious pitch for increased Indian investment in Egypt’s Suez Canal project.

On the social front, the Islamic Bonds Law (Sukook) was passed by the Parliament as an innovative method to draw investment and create jobs. 17 million Egyptian pounds were allotted for the care of street children and similar incentives for housewives and single mothers. Minister of Supply Bassem Ouda was lauded for personally handling the bread crisis in Cairo and for working in the streets for sorting out complaints. Several such grassroot level civil participatory campaigns were launched. But President Morsi also made mistakes and very few of these actions actually materialized. There was no short term or temporary measures to plug economic concerns and lack of experience and economic expertise compounded many projects. The complete collapse of the economy was only averted by financial support secured from Egypt’s friends in the Middle East. Morsi was unable to allay the fears of an ‘Islamization’ of the tourism sector and importantly failed to win the confidence of the Coptic Christians. The call for a military intervention in Syria was hasty and untimely, the Ethiopian dam project was mishandled, the controversial November decree which was later annulled granting Morsi sweeping powers, and the most controversial being the appointment of a hardliner to the governorship of Luxor.

When we glance over the various articles and analysis that have been appearing in mainstream media, we find a massive gap of disconnect between the political mismanagement of the FJP and the reactions of vilification, demonisation and violence instigated against them. It would be criminally unfair to judge Mohamed Morsi as a dictator or a right wing fundamentalist without analysing the political processes and the role played by the coalition of opposition parties during the last one year. The chargesheet against President Morsi apart from being unable to resurrect the economy include, ‘brotherhoodisation’ of the government, the centralisation of power, producing an ‘Islamic’ constitution and for creating their own armed militias.

The ‘Brotherhoodisation’ Allegation

The opposition campaign to oust Morsi from power began in August 2012 itself, hardly two months into his presidency. One would certainly agree that two months is hardly a timeframe to judge governance. Over the last two years, the FJP secured convincing majorities six times, to vote for a referendum to chart the political way forward (March 2011), to vote for the lower and upper house of parliament (November 2011-January 2012), to elect a civilian president over two rounds (May-June 2012), and to ratify the new constitution (December 2012). This is other than the numerous elections to professional associations and committees, which although not prevalent in India, is a very common feature in the Arab world. Lost on critics is the natural fact that it is a very global phenomenon that the winning political party appoints ministers and officials from within its ranks; this is how a democratic process works and this option is open to all parties who are able to secure a majority. Despite this, the FJP and Mohamed Morsi repeatedly sought to dispel this Islamist takeover scare by inviting leaders of the opposition to cabinet ranks and other positions of influence.

Only 10 out of a total of 27 governors and 11 out of 35 cabinet members hail from the FJP or the MB. Ayman Nour, who heads the liberal Ghad al-Thawra Party, had been offered the role of Prime Minister on several occasions but denied it for unknown reasons. The April 6 Movement founder Ahmed Maher, was offered the position of presidential advisor, but he declined. On 4 July 2012, just days after inauguration of the presidency, Morsi invited former presidential candidate and vocal MB critic Hamdeen Sabbahi to the position of vice president, but he too declined. Prime Minister Hesham Kandil himself not a member of the MB or any other Islamist party in a recent TV interview stated that he had offered numerous ministerial posts to opposition figures but was ignored. Repeated attempts at political engagement and dialogue were continuously rebuffed. Morsi’s political advisor Bakinam El-Sharqawi has stated that invitations to leaders of the opposition to attend 10 separate meetings met with zero success. From day one of Morsi’s election to the day he was toppled, it was more the opposition than the presidency who rejected power-sharing and compromise.

Furthermore, there was no condemnation from the opposition or the liberals when the Mubarak-era Supreme Constitutional Court nullified most attempts to build the country’s democratic institutions. It was a historic first when the Court ruled as unconstitutional the first freely elected Parliament on technical grounds courtesy the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The court also ruled against new election laws that would have paved the way for new elections. Interestingly, the court has either declared innocent or overturned the convictions of all senior officials of the Mubarak regime including Mubarak and his sons, prompting independent and respected former judge Zakaria Abdul-Aziz who stood against Mubarak for many years, to state that 90 percent of Egypt’s judges are acting to overturn the gains of the revolution. It is these consistent attempts by the Mubarak-era judiciary to undermine the government that led to Morsi’s controversial decree of 22 November that temporarily stripped the judiciary to challenge any of his decisions till the end of 2013, when new elections were to be held. This decree was later annulled due to defiant protests on behalf of the opposition. Surprisingly, both El Baradei and Hamdeen Sabbahi have gone on record stating that they are ready to cooperate with leaders of Hosni Mubarak’s NDP to oust Morsi. This alliance was demonstrated in the constitutional referendum and in later demonstrations and protests including the Tamarrud signature campaign. So the question remains, who betrayed the revolution?

The ‘Islamic’ Constitution Allegation

Virtually the entire political sphere of Egypt, i.e. 22 Egyptian parties, signed off on the components and seat ratio of the constituent assembly in June 2012. This was publicly announced in a press conference by none other than current hardline opposition and al-Wafd Party leader Al-Sayed Al-Badawi. The agreement signed by representatives of all parties including liberals and leftists from the opposition dictated that the Assembly would give 39 out of 100 total Assembly seats to members of parliament, with these seats being divided up according to parliamentary proportions. The remaining 61 seats would be divided amongst scholars of constitutional law, Al-AzharUniversity and Church representatives, and various labor and social groups. The final 100-member Assembly was to include 32 members of the MB, 18 members of the Salafist Al-Nour Party, 18 representatives of the state, and 32 liberal party members. This specific breakdown was designed to give 50 seats to Islamists and 50 seats to non-Islamists. Since the 18 state representatives also included scholars of Al-Azhar University, this could also be considered coming under the Islamist sphere, considering how one would define the term Islamist, but the point to be kept in mind is that all of this was specified, understood, and agreed to by all 22 parties, despite what the opposition now claims.

Undoubtedly there were legitimate concerns about some of the document’s proposed articles. However, the liberals withdrew before exhausting discussion, and refused to return to the Assembly after repeated official invitations to come back for discussion of contentious articles. Mohamed Mohie El-Din, vice president of the secular Ghad Al-Thawra Party in a debate held on the campus of the American University in Cairo claimed that many of the non-Islamists who withdrew were systematically absent from Assembly sessions throughout the process of drafting the document, that quite often he was the only non-Islamist representative in attendance and during other sessions liberal Assembly members would only show up for 10 minutes before exiting. One of the most ill-conceived arguments against the constitution is the criticism leveled at Article 4, which gives scholars of Al-Azhar oversight on matters pertaining to Islamic law. What the mainstream media and critics overlook is the fact that this specific article was a liberal suggestion. This was at that time suggested as a safeguard against the influence of the MB and the more conservative Salafists. It is important to note that both the MB and most progressive Islamist groups differ drastically with Al-Azhar in their approach to matters relating to Islamic jurisprudence. Despite this religious difference, the MB agreed to Article 4 and to articles about religious freedom specifically requested by the Assembly’s four Church representatives. These suggestions were unaltered and included even after the Church representatives withdrew. Despite hysterical propaganda against the Assembly and the document which included the distribution of fake constitutional drafts, an overwhelming majority (64 percent) of voters approved the document in the referendum. When the opposition staged protests against the approved constitution, in January Morsi announced the formation of a pluralistic committee to revise controversial articles in the constitution. Many key members of Egypt’s liberal opposition rejected this dialogue and Morsi’s proposal to revise the constitution, and have instead insisted on toppling Morsi from power.

Brotherhood Militias and Violence

The Mubarak regime ran a mass propaganda campaign of MB militias and them being ideologues of violence and terrorism at the drop of a hat. This allegation has increased dramatically after the FJP’s electoral victory with newspapers and television programs cementing this image in various talk shows and commentaries. Going through the events of the past year, it is clearly evident that the MB has often been the victim rather than instigator of violence. In all, 30 MB offices have been torched, looted and destroyed. When the MB headquarters were attacked in the 22 March protests, the MB suffered 176 injuries, 26 of them serious and one fatality, while trying to protect their headquarters. This headquarters was later completely looted and burnt a couple of days before Morsi was ousted and on both instances, the police and security obliged to remain as silent spectators. This specter of violence was further instigated by so-called liberal bloggers and television talk show hosts. Liberal blogger-turned-activist Ahmed Douma has cited on several occasions the burning of Brotherhood offices and attacking them as “revolutionary acts”. Former NDP leader and media mogul, Tawfik Okasha in his talk show called for the assassination of the President of Egypt. The MB in return has not called for retribution or street protests, rather charges were filed against both of the above mentioned in a court of law for instigating and inciting violence and for calling for the assassination of a head of state and surprisingly, these charges were labeled as stifling freedom of expression by the opposition! This is in stark contrast to the situation now when ElBaradei himself justified shutting down TV stations covering pro-Morsi rallies.

The most perplexing aspect of the situation has been the sheer indifference shown by the opposition to these sustained acts of violence against the MB and sometimes the more extreme elements among them even suggesting that such acts against them are well deserved. When Mubarak was toppled in 2011, both Islamist and liberal revolutionaries cited the peaceful and non-violent nature of the revolution as its salient hallmark, but now two years after that, it seems that violence against a democratically elected ruling party and an elected president is taken for granted.

The Tamarrud Initiative

The campaign to oust Mori gained momentum when several revolutionary youth groups calling themselves Tamarrud (Rebellion) declared at the end of April, a new movement to depose Morsi and challenge his legitimacy. They announced that they would collect 15 million signatures from registered voters demanding the ouster of Morsi and by the end of June they are reported to have collected 20 million signatures, i.e. much more than the share of Morsi’s electoral gains, thus reflecting the will of the people to remove Morsi. It is both surprising and alarming that the mainstream media swallowed this hook, line and sinker without even questioning the accuracy or the methodology of this declared result. At least 14 private satellite channels started a vast propaganda campaign and mobilisation efforts promoting the day as a second revolution to cleanse the country from the MB rule. Not to be outdone, a counter campaign titled Tajarrud (Impartiality) seeking signatures supporting Morsi was initiated by Asem Abdelmagid, a leading figure in the Gama Islamiya and in the third week of June, he announced that he had collected 20 million signatures. Both these figures are in no way verifiable and especially doubtful when MB critic and poet Ahmad Fuad Negm said publicly that he personally signed Tamarrud’s petition 16 times. Also, if the Tamarrud were so confident of their mass base, they could have waited another six months when parliament elections were due and comfortably proving their majority and use their substantial numerical advantage in parliament to amend the constitution and impeach the incumbent President. This would have been much more democratic and legitimate than calling on the military to topple Morsi and imprison him.

Also, unsubstantiated figures of 33 million demonstrators were picked by Al-Ahram newspaper and other Egyptian media citing BBC and CNN, but the reality is that both these channels have not given out any such counts. Even the comparatively modest figure of 14 million protestors was provided by the military and not any independent media source. The fact that hundreds of thousands or maybe even a few million, which in itself are huge sizable numbers for any demonstration, took part in anti-Morsi protests is a given fact but numbers were being exaggerated by the military to justify their coup and detention of Morsi.

What Next?

Post Morsi’s ouster, we are already witnessing a comedy of errors. First an official statement is made by the interim President’s office declaring ElBaradei, who received 2 percent votes in the last elections, as the Prime Minister and then hours later that decision is rescinded and the supposedly secular-left coalition succumbs to conservative Salafist pressure. If we take into the account the seat share of this secular coalition, the Salafists of the Al-Nour Party are the dominant bloc. It was this very Al-Nour Party who demanded that the Islamic call to prayer be called in the midst of parliament which was sharply objected to by the FJP speaker, and the same Salafists wanted a ban on the sale of alcohol, to ban the presence of swimsuit-wearing tourists on Egyptian beaches and preached that it was forbidden for women to take part in public protests. The foreign Salafist interest is also reflected in the fact that the first nations to warmly welcome the coup were Saudi Arabia and UAE, both countries where the MB is banned. More troubling is the interim government’s attitude towards Gaza. Within 24 hours of the coup, the Egyptian military had begun systemically demolishing tunnels and later in the evening completely shutdown the Rafah border. So it would be hardly surprising when Tzachi Hanegbi, member of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and part of parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee, stated, “Yesterday’s events strengthen the feeling that perhaps we have passed the bad period and perhaps now there will be a chance to have diplomatic ties with whoever will govern Egypt in the near future.” Israel’s former ambassador to Egypt, Yitzhak Levanon, also stressed the positive role of the army in toppling Morsi. The Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot reported that just hours after Morsi’s dismissal, an “official Israeli representative secretly arrived in Cairo to meet with Egyptian security and intelligence officials,” without giving any further details.

As days pass by, the opposition is running out of options. Firstly, carrying on this contradictory coalition is in itself a Himalayan task, then they will have to come up with a really smart strategy to outwit the MB in the proposed elections. The opposition is well aware that the MB still has the strength and the grassroot support to still be the largest political party in Egypt. Attempts to beat this dominance would include disfranchisement of a large number of voters from MB strongholds and processes are already underway to try Morsi and senior MB leaders with charges ranging from insulting the judiciary to instigating violence and murder and even dusting out old accusations of an alleged jail break. Thus, by bringing criminal charges against Morsi and the MB leadership, the opposition and the military are hoping to bar them from future elections.

As the current leaders speak about freedom of expression, liberty and justice on one hand while on the other hand detain Morsi and his compatriots, shut down pro-Morsi channels and the military warns the MB against mobilising protests, one cannot help but recall the famous declaration of the Pig from Orwell’s Animal Farm, “Today we are all equal but I am more equal.”

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