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The Muslim Brotherhood and the army

January 27, 2014 at 2:19 pm

For the wide-eyed reporter looking for a dramatic opener to a piece on Egypt, the pro-Morsi sit-in at Rabea al-Adaweya can look like a war-zone. There are barbed-wire barricades and army APCs. Days ago, 51 people were gunned down in the street here. With a supposedly impartial inquiry underway, the bullet holes, along with the stone circles functioning as street memorials for the dead, are the only hard evidence of what happened. It might stay that way.

After noon prayers on Friday, a group of 20-year-olds are lying in the shade, talking and joking in a kind of makeshift fox-hole next to the frontline on Thainar Street. Through the gaps in the corrugated iron fencing the APCs are keeping themselves busy, moving two foot to the left, another to the right. Sitting on top, soldiers look through their rifle-sights, mentally picking their first shot – like they were told to in training.

How war-like. And yet the continued sit-ins, protests and marches against the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi come during a time of year that normally sees two historic celebrations of the Egyptian army.

The tenth day of Ramadan (this year, July 19, or Friday) marked the anniversary of the Egyptian army’s so-called victory against the Israeli army during the 1973 October/Yom Kippur War. July 23 is Revolution Day, the anniversary of the Free Officers Movement’s successful overthrow of King Farouk and the British imperialism he fronted – one of the main sources of the army’s self-designated “patriotic” (and patriarchal) role in Egyptian society.

But after another army-led coup overthrew Egypt’s first freely elected president, and a wave of political arrests and vicious clampdowns that saw 51 pro-Morsi protesters gunned down outside the presidential guard’s headquarters in Nasr City, celebrations at Rabea al-Adaweya have been rather more muted this year.

“This day marks 40 years since we fought the Zionists and won,” senior Muslim Brotherhood leader Salah Sultan said on Friday. As we spoke in the makeshift media centre, well-wishers and Ikhwan supporters came to shake Sultan’s hand, thank him, and wish him the best.

“But now the army has turned against its own people, it is trying to control everything inside Egypt,” he claimed, pointing to the fact the October War ultimately put Egypt back in control of the Sinai, an irony of time and place not lost on Sultan. On the 40thanniversary of Ramadan 10 Egypt’s grip on the peninsula appears to be slipping.

A mother approached Sultan with her little girl, who bashfully kissed his hand. He smiled and turned back to me, this time speaking in English. “We have one message to the army today: save our country from the Israelis.”

After the July 3 coup, the July 8 Republican Guard House massacre and, for those willing to remember it, the 2011-2012 period of SCAF rule, the army looks more like an iron-fisted oppressor than the well-meaning patriarch it likes to paint itself as.

Amongst Morsi supporters, the idea of an army looking for total control in Egypt doesn’t need further illustration, but June 23 – Revolution Day – might well give that anyway. It is 61 years since the Free Officers Movement succeeded. The regime that followed, taken up by Gamel Abdel Nasser, would devastate the Brotherhood. The 1952 revolution sparked a series of uprisings across the Arab world; anti-imperialist, leftist and largely led by armies.

There are similarities and differences. “The army coup, which the leftists, among others, support, was not a coup by middle rank socially conscious anti-imperialist army officers…to overthrow imperial and local capitalist control of the country and the dictator that runs it.” For anyone following events in Egypt, there’s something bordering on the banal about this part of Joseph Massad’s assessment of the July 3 coup. Of course Morsi’s overthrow wasn’t anti-imperialist or socially conscious. It was carried out by a force armed with an annual pay package from the U.S. designed to maintain loyalty and Israel’s interests in the region. Of course it wasn’t an overthrow of capitalism. It has brought the feloul, and the economic orthodoxy we’re constantly told they’re so “qualified” to manage, firmly back into government.

“You can’t say the Free Officers Movement was progressive, but you also can’t say it was reactionary either,” Sherif Younis, history professor at Helwan University, said. “They introduced reforms that satisfied those angry with the ancien regime. They gave the workers benefits. But at the same time they completely controlled them.”

In Hezam al-Beblawy’s new cabinet, eleven of the 34 ministers are Mubarak-era officials, while independent trade unionist Kamal Abu Eita and pro-workers’ rights official Ahmed al-Boraei head the labour and social solidarity ministries respectively. But now, Younis added, “the army depends on popular support and anticipation.”

“[July 3] was not a coup taken at night while people were sleeping, it happened while people were already in the streets – and [the army] needed this legitimacy,” Younis admitted, but the success of the new regime will depend on “one-handed rule” over the Islamists.

But could they actually threaten the post-coup regime? “Confronting the Islamists now is much more difficult. They are bigger, stronger and have experience in government. Yes, there is a danger. But it won’t be about [the] restoration [of Morsy]…unless they are able to create divisions within the army.”

While rumours, often propagated by Muslim Brotherhood officials, say the military isn’t as one, pro-army state media talks about the threat of “domestic terrorism” in the Sinai. The phrase is meant to add to the idea of an enemy within, political Islam, and its growing horde of allies – Syrians, Palestinians, Hamas, Hezbollah, beards. This is usually tied to the Sinai in some way.

Many now point to Morsi’s stance on the region – he reportedly told Sisi he refused to let “Muslims shed the blood of other Muslims” when ordering a halt to a planned November offensive – as playing a significant role in turning military opinion against the president.

According to an Associated Press report this week, based on interviews with military, defence and intelligence officials, mutual distrust and a series of “profound policy differences” drove army leaders and the Morsi presidency apart. It gives weight to the growing picture that the “grass-roots” Tamarod campaign, reportedly funded by feloul businessmen and advised by ex-military middlemen, was more than a happy accident. It became the opportunistic culmination of months of planning, the ultimate goal of which – arguably – was the overthrow of Morsi.

Some claim the situation in the Sinai could come to haunt the new government, as jihadis – with porous links to the Muslim Brotherhood – take up arms against a regime they see as illegitimate and intolerant of what was the Arab world’s best-fit Islamist government.

“Is supporting Morsi considered incitement now?” asked Atef Abed Rasheed, host of Fee el-Mezan on Egypt’s Salafi Al-Hafez channel.

Abed Rasheed, who faced a lawsuit after his show featured two preachers (one slandered a popular actress, another called for a fatwa to murder opposition leaders), denies claims against pro-Morsi media. Mohamed ElBaradei, now vice prime minister for international affairs, told a New York Times interviewer channels were inciting Morsi supporters and housing weapons ready for future violence.

“He lied both times,” Abed Rasheed said. “They didn’t find weapons. We didn’t incite anyone. We were only pro-Morsi.”

“Closing [pro-Morsi] channels is part of the coup.”

Ahmad Abul Gawad was a news editor at the now-closed Misr 25 channel. He said he was beaten, arrested and held without charge for hours after security forces broken into the channel’s Cairo offices, after army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s announcement that Morsi was out.

“Not minutes…seconds after the Sisi speech our screens went black. The last thing I saw was Sisi finishing his statement. [Then] special forces came in and threatened us with their weapons, putting their guns in our faces. They beat us. It was not human.”

Ahmad said he and 20 other colleagues were taken to Giza security directorate on the Alexandria desert road where they were held overnight. They weren’t allowed to use the toilet or drink water. “Because there was no specific charge, they didn’t know what to do with us.”

Ahmad helped found a new group, Journalists Against the Coup, demanding Morsi’s reinstatement as president. And yet regardless of whether the president’s supporters are in the right, whether they are on the side of democracy or legitimacy, it is difficult to see them succeeding.

On Friday, Maher Abul Ezz, a Shura Council candidate in Egypt’s 2010 and 2011 elections, said: “We are full of confidence we are going to win.” And yet nobody tells you how.

Brotherhood spokesman Ahmed Aref sounded like a January 25ther when I asked him. “The movement of the street is the precursor to political movement. Each second is time on the coup.”

The only way the Morsi camp can feasibly win is through an attritional wave of protests so persistent that some in the army begin to question their own leadership. A sustained campaign of disobedience against Egypt’s interim government and military keepers would surely mean more violence. And the ultimate success of that campaign (ie reinstating Morsi as president) would surely depend on violence.

Aref said the Brotherhood “are looking for peaceful methods” but admitted when the issue of Egypt is raised, things can get out of hand.

Yes, but will you use violence? “Of course it might happen but it will be the police and feloul that create it,” he claimed.

Every time I have pushed a Brotherhood official for an answer at pro-Morsi rallies, I have got only wry and evasive smiles, denials and shut-downs. Would the organizers at Rabea al-Adaweya consider violence in the future?

“We have options,” Aref smiled. “In politics you have to think about more than one scenario, but we also have our principles.”

Nobody is golden in Egypt now, so to pretend otherwise makes you look deluded or disingenuous. Why lie? Sometimes Egypt’s new reality is grim enough.

After Ahmad Abul Gawad was arrested, he said, a soldier told them that they are acting on the orders of SSI.

“Why did the security forces treat us in this way? Some soldiers told us they receive orders from SSI, they act on orders from intelligence.” Ahmad also said he has friends and colleagues at opposition channels, like Al-Nahar and CBC, admit they have orders from the military not to report on the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in.

Eyewitness reports from those arrested after the Republican Guard Shooting say they were tortured and beaten by intelligence officers. Over 1,000 Morsi supporters have been arrested since July 3, over half of them later released.

“Frankly, the SSI are back. Soldiers told us the SSI leaders are back, but in a worse way.”

Worse how? I asked. “For revenge.”

On June 30 Western media talked about Cairo like it was one big battlefield. Millions occupied Tahrir while on the other side of a divided city, a growing Islamist rally set up camp. The battle for public opinion has seemingly already been won. A Basareen poll on Monday said 71 per cent of Egyptians did not sympathise with pro-Morsi protesters, while nine per cent were undecided.

But Rabea al-Adaweya is not going away.

While analysts speculate about Cairo becoming another Middle Eastern war-zone, another Syria or Beirut, the coup is moving along. Liberals defend repression and the army’s rough justice. Eyewitnesses’ testimonies claim the police state apparatus January 25 originally fought against is coming back. The rejection of Morsi’s overthrow in the Sinai and Upper Egypt threatens to intensify already routine street violence.

Nobody knows what will happen in Egypt. But that makes it more important to call out what you see – for now, the rest is academic.

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