By Esam Al-Amin, published on Counterpunch, weekend Edition August 16-18, 2013
In June 1967, it took Israeli forces only six hours to rout the Egyptian military and devastate its air force, inflicting the most humiliating defeat on the Arab world in the last half century. In the 1973 October war, the Egyptian army killed 2600 Israeli soldiers in 20 days of combat. Nearly forty years later, the
Egyptian military turned its guns on its own citizens to much devastation: on August 14, it took the combined forces of Egypt’s army and police twelve hours to disperse tense of thousands of unarmed peaceful protesters in two sit-in camps in the eastern and western suburbs of Cairo. It was a determined effort by the July 3 coup leaders to not only defeat their political opponents, but also to strike a decisive blow to democracy and the rule of law in Egypt and across the Arab world.
Since June 28, Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) have been camped out at these two sites, initially as a show of support to President Mohammad Morsi as he was being challenged by the opposition. But since he was deposed on July 3, the protesters have been demanding his return, the restoration of the suspended constitution, and the reinstatement of the dissolved parliament. For 48 days, the sit-ins and demonstrations across Egypt attracted millions of Morsi supporters as well as pro-democracy groups, who protested the coup’s nullification of their presidential and parliamentary votes and their ratification of the referendum on the new constitution.
An obstinate military enabled by liberal and secular forces and Western powers
Throughout the six-week standoff, the country’s military rulers, led by coup leader Gen. Abdelfattah Sisi, insisted on the MB’s complete recognition of the status quo and their submission to the political roadmap as determined by him on July 3. On several occasions, Sisi declared that he would not budge an inch on a future course that was certain to impede the country’s path towards democracy and constitutional legitimacy by ignoring the will of the electorate expressed at the ballot box more than five times in eighteen months. While Egyptians elected Morsi as president with a clear majority in June 2012 in free and fair elections, they also affirmed that vote nearly two to one when they ratified the new constitution six months later. Article 226 of the constitution stated that the term of the current president (Morsi) would “end four years after his elections” or in June 2016.
In fact, one month after the coup, the Egyptian public opinion has sharply turned against it. On August 6, the respectable Egyptian Center for Media Studies and Public Opinion published a poll showing that 69 percent of the Egyptian public rejects the military coup, while 25 percent supports it, with 6 percent refusing to give their opinion. Of those who reject it, only 19 percent identify themselves with the MB, 39 percent with other Islamist parties, while 35 percent are unaffiliated but feel that their votes were invalidated by the coup. Of those who support it, 55 percent in the poll consider themselves former Mubarak regime loyalists, while 17 percent identify themselves as Coptic Christians opposed to Islamists’ rule. Moreover, 91 percent of those who refused to give an answer belong to the pro-Saudi Salafist Al-Noor Party, which initially supported the coup before it pulled back and withdrew from Sisi’s roadmap.
As I explained in a previous article, shortly after the coup, the military and their largely liberal and secular enablers set the stage for excluding the Islamist groups, particularly the MB and its political-affiliate, the Freedom and Justice Party, by arresting or issuing arrest warrants for their leaders, freezing their accounts, seizing their assets, banning their media outlets, and orchestrating an elaborate demonization campaign against them. This discourse was reminiscent of the Mubarak-era tactics employed against the group for decades by the notorious state security apparatus, which was reconstituted shortly after the coup.
By the last week of July, the military’s offer to the MB was simply to accept the coup and all its consequences in return for joining a managed political process. The MB summarily rejected the offer, which would have denied them all their gains and restricted them to winning no more than twenty percent of parliamentary seats, while excluding them from all executive positions.
Initially, most Western powers overlooked the conditions surrounding the military coup and simply consented to its consequences. But as the pro-Morsi demonstrations persisted and expanded for days and weeks, it became evident that the political state of affairs could not be ignored. The stakes were too high, not only for Egypt’s stability but also for the entire region. Therefore, political negotiations between the antagonist parties led by the U.S. and the E.U. began in earnest. While the MB and their supporters wanted to negotiate on the basis of the constitution and democratic legitimacy, the military and its allies wanted the MB to accept a political solution based on the coup and the new reality.
For over a week, EU envoy Bernardino Leon and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns tried to negotiate a settlement. Initially, the interlocutors insisted that the MB join the new political process in return for the release of their leaders. Eventually, the negotiators agreed to incorporate elements of an initiative announced by over fifty Egyptian intellectuals, academics, and public figures.
The plan allowed for a constitutional mechanism that would have reinstated President Morsi for a very short period of time, after which he would appoint a consensus prime minister and a technocrat cabinet. He would then submit his resignation. The new cabinet would then supervise the parliamentary elections within sixty days. The Western mediators further extracted an agreement from the MB to accept this political outcome and obtained a huge concession from the MB: keeping the same prime minister appointed by the coup. According to Envoy Leon, there was “a political plan that was on the table, that had been accepted by the other side (the MB),” but was eventually rejected by the military.
As negotiations were underway, the media campaign led by Mubarak loyalists, corrupt oligarchs, and “the deep state” reached fever pitch levels. Jehan Soliman, a presenter on state television, and is by no means a MB supporter, was outraged at the demonization campaign led by state officials, prompting her to eventually expose the campaign to the public. Moreover, the main liberal and secular forces urged the military not to negotiate or reach an accommodation with the MB but to crack down hard on the protesters instead. Meanwhile, according to interior minister Gen. Mohammad Ibrahim, while the negotiations were underway the security forces were setting plans in motion to attack the protesters, clear the campsites, and arrest the leaders. It was evident that the coup leaders were determined to bring the MB and their Islamist allies to their knees, either politically or by force.
In order to justify the eventual brutal crackdown on the peaceful protesters, the army and the police demanded an order from the compliant general prosecutor to use as legal cover. Even though peaceful protests are constitutionally-protected, the prosecutor readily issued the order under a phony pretense, namely that the protesters were armed (false), or had become a nuisance to the residents (rejected overwhelmingly by the locals). In contrast, no orders were ever issued to clear dozens of secular groups from Tahrir Square during much of the last year, though their protests shut down government agencies for days, and in some cases, weeks.
Neo-fascism in action: Coldblooded murders, boldfaced lies and ugly deception
There are moments in a nation’s history that become etched in stone. Such was the Palestinian Nakba, the atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the September 11 attacks. The horrors unfolded on August 14 will go down in Egypt’s history as such a momentous event. Hundreds of thousands of people had been camped out for 48 days at the Nahda Square near Cairo University in the western side of the capital, and around Rabaa Al-Adawiyya Mosque on the eastern side. The congregants had just finished celebrating the end of the holy month of Ramadan a few days earlier. They were determined to peacefully assert their will, as well as to stand firmly to defend the constitution and the democratic process expressed at the ballot box. They rejected the coup and loathed the return of the security state. They sought to restore democracy and President Morsi, who has been illegally detained and isolated for weeks.
Just as they finished their morning prayers, the people stood in both squares listening to spiritual invocations while reaffirming their commitment to stay the course peacefully. But at 6:30 AM on that fateful day, army tanks, armored vehicles, and bulldozers descended on the protesters from different directions. They were followed by the army’s special forces, the police, and thugs dressed in civilian clothes and protected by their state security handlers. The scene was eerily similar to the early days of the January 2011 uprising that overthrew Mubarak. Snipers were on rooftops, especially those of military buildings, including the Military Intelligence headquarters.
According to the official account given by Gen. Ibrahim in a press conference, the police first started by warning people to disperse through loud speakers. He said the police then offered the protesters safe passage to leave, with a promise that they would not be arrested. Shortly thereafter, the police sprayed the protesters with water cannons. When the protesters refused, the police then used tear gas, at which point, he claimed, protesters used automatic weapons against the police. Gen. Ibrahim charged that the MB had snipers on rooftops and were targeting the police, resulting in the killing of 43 police officers. However, no evidence of their deaths such as names, pictures, or footages was ever produced. Only then, the Minister claimed, did the police use live ammunition, resulting in the killing of 149 people across Egypt. He also stated that the protesters were not peaceful and that caches of weapons were seized, including nine automatic guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Needless to say, none of this woven tale is remotely true.
According to many international dispatches including a report by CNN, the protesters were peaceful and unarmed. A Guardian report stated, “The protesters were peaceful, and included many women and children.” The pro-coup Egyptian television media, embedded with the army, broadcast several caches of arms to show that the protesters were not peaceful, only to be exposed that such arms were brought by the police to be “discovered.”
Contrary to Gen. Ibrahim’s claims, the police never used loud speakers or water cannons. They immediately started shooting the unarmed protesters with live bullets. European human rights observer Ahmad Mufreh, offered his vivid testimony on live television, asserting that the police started shooting at people with the intent to kill. In fact, the police never meant to provide safe passage; those who chose to leave through it were brutally beaten and immediately arrested.
By noon, the army and the police had breached the defenses of the Nahda Square and brutally cleared its protesters. However, it was not until 6 PM that they were able to assert full control over the Rabaa Al-Adawiyya mosque. The security officers then took down protesters’ signs and banners and burned down their tents, even though many corpses were still inside. Dr. Ahmad Muhammad, a surgeon operating at Rabaa’s field hospital, told Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr that he and other doctors were ordered to immediately leave or they would be shot, forcing him to abandon the patient he had been operating on and leaving him to die.
Another witness, Sameh Al-Barghy, an MB opponent and a graduate of American University in Cairo, told Al-Jazeera that although he had not been at the protest and was opposed to it in principle, he had gone to help shortly after he heard about the security crackdown. As his voice cracked, he said that he had witnessed a horrific massacre, when a group of protesters hiding in a building under construction was chased down by the security forces. He said that the police had entered the building and shot at point blank those who were hiding in the first two floors, before arresting the rest. Another witness said that he had seen two bystanders being shot in front of his eyes by the police without any provocation.
Another doctor at the field hospital at Rabaa mosque said on Al-Jazeera that he counted more than 2,600 bodies including 65 children. Asmaa El-Beltagy, the seventeen-year old daughter of MB leader Mohammad El-Beltagy was among the casualties. Later in the evening, MB spokesperson Ahmad Aref proclaimed that over three thousand people had been killed on that day across Egypt, and that as many as ten thousand were injured, many seriously. The brutality and viciousness of the military crackdown is plain to see in the images captured in the links above and disseminated around the world. At least half a dozen journalists were also killed, including Sky News cameraman Mick Deane, and Gulf News reporter Habiba Abdelaziz. According to multiple witnesses, once in control, the security forces burned down the field hospital, the media center, and tents where the protesters’ corpses were laid to hide the military’s crimes.
To add insult to injury, the government has refused to hand over the bodies of the killed until their families sign a document that stated that the cause of death was “natural.” In many cases the coroner left the cause of death blank. Many families refused to comply with such immoral request leaving many corpses unclaimed and in danger of decomposition. As human rights and civil liberties organizations around the world such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch strongly condemned the massacre in Egypt, the Arab Organization for Human Rights, dominated by secular and liberal elites strangely enough blamed the MB for the bloodbath.
What next? Back to Revolution 101
It is inconceivable that Gen. Sisi, Gen. Ibrahim, their civilian enablers, Western backers, and the perpetrators of these war crimes and crimes against humanity did not know or anticipate the degree of the carnage. Upon embarking on the coup, its leaders were determined to strike a fatal blow to the Islamists, particularly the MB. Each had its own motives. The secular liberals recognized that they could not win in free and fair elections against the Islamists in future elections after their successive defeats at the ballot box during the past two years. Thus, excluding or weakening the Islamists would allow the liberal and nationalist parties the space needed to occupy the political landscape for the foreseeable future.
Mubarak loyalists and elements of the deep state were eager to exact revenge against the MB, their staunch historical foes for the past three decades, for ousting them from power in the 2011 uprising. They were not only able to marginalize and subdue their opponents, but also made a successful comeback in their own right. Ironically, within 30 months, the counterrevolutionaries have now become the face of the revolution. They hope that June 30, the day of their comeback, will now replace January 25, the day of their ouster.
The army considers itself the defender of the nation and its institutions and wants to retain its economic and social privileges. It does not want to subject itself to any meaningful civilian oversight. The precedent set by the January 2011 uprising, they reasoned, might one day weaken the military or even compel it to give up its privileged status in society, as their counterparts in Turkey eventually had to do. The generals waited for the right moment to strike and end the public’s dalliance with democracy in order to delay, if not altogether end, the coming of that dreadful day when they become accountable to the people.
Many youth groups were disillusioned and frustrated with all parties. They were able to throw out the face of Mubarak’s repressive and corrupt regime. But given their disappointment and impatience with the slow progress, they thought they could just as easily get rid of what they perceived as the arrogance or incompetence of the MB. In the process, they naively not only handed back control to the military, but also made the dream of establishing a genuine democratic system based on the rule of law ever more distant. The army appointed a 77-year-old puppet prime minister, and a cabinet largely composed of Mubarak loyalists. Out of 25 governors, the military appointed 19 generals including many Mubarak-era officials. To the military, taming and controlling the population was its top priority. So much for the promise of empowering the youth.
Liberals such as Mohammad ElBaradei convinced themselves that they could ally with the military at the expense of their ideological foes, the Islamists, instead of democratically competing at the ballot box. Soon, ElBaradei awoke to the hard reality that brute force and violence is the military’s preferred tool to settle disputes, not the messy compromises of democracy. The Nobel peace laureate then had to resign in disgrace. His fellow peace laureate Barack Obama did not fare better. He also failed the democracy litmus test by not condemning the coup when it was announced or standing up firmly for democracy and the rule of law. However, the day after the bloodshed, Obama condemned the violence, which he said the interim government and security forces were responsible for. The statement was a step in the right direction, even though it was not strong enough, since it equivocated on its support for the restoration of the constitution and the democratically-elected deposed president.
Foreign powers care very little for Egypt or its people. Time and again, the West has proven that its rhetoric of lofty ideals and values are sacrificed at the altar of short-term interests. Historically, the U.S. has often been more concerned about the security of Israel than serving its own long-term interests. Israel had considered Mubarak a strategic asset for three decades. It was the main reason the U.S. had to prop him up at the expense of supporting and building democratic institutions in the country. If Israel or its supporters in the U.S. favored Sisi and feared the ascendance of the Islamists, the U.S. would most likely then favor the military over the democratic will of the Egyptian people regardless of the consequences, which would actually put the long-term U.S. national security interests in the region in peril.
Both Secretary of State John Kerry and EU Foreign Chief Catherine Ashton had expressed reservations about the intervention by the Egyptian military chief. But when it mattered most, they accepted its aftermath. When the government cracked down using bloody tactics comparable to Libya’s Gadhafi or Syria’s Assad, Western governments were restrained in their criticism. When the pro-coup government declared a state of emergency after the crackdown, instead of rejecting it outright, the West shamefully accepted it hoping that “it would be lifted soon.” To be credible, the call for the UN Security Council by several Western countries must include the referral of Egypt’s coup leaders to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to face charge of crimes against humanity. There is a ample evidence already assembled on the Internet and through live witnesses to prove this heinous crime.
The ruthlessness of the coup and the brutality of the crackdown have solidified in the eyes of the Islamists and many pro-democracy Egyptians the immense challenges they face. The January 25 uprising was not a complete revolution. The revolutionary partners handed it over to the military, which was eventually able to assemble the political building blocks needed to restore the old coalition of the military and the deep state at the expense of the real objectives of the revolution.
Undoubtedly, the military coup has veered Egypt off the democracy track. The most effective way to get back on it is for ordinary Egyptians from all political strands to once again descend to the streets by the millions to challenge the authoritarianism and brutality of the state. Egyptians must reclaim their revolutionary zeal. They must also aspire to regain their unity: Muslims and Christians, men and women, young and old. The defining factor should be a true and genuine commitment to democratic principles and the rule of law. That means an absolute rejection of the military coup and the army’s intervention in politics, as well the purging of all corrupt elements of the deep state. That entails an absolute repudiation of any sectarian conflict. The burning of Coptic churches must not only be condemned, but the churches should be protected by Muslims like any revered mosque. Suffice it to remember that it was Mubarak’s security apparatus and interior minister Habib Al-Adly that were actually responsible for bombing the Church of the Saints in Alexandria one month before the 2011 revolution in order to accuse Islamists and spread suspicion and acrimony. Similarly, the identity and nature of Egyptian society should not be subject to sectarian debate; Egypt has demonstrated for centuries that it can have an Islamic-based culture that is tolerant and harmonious.
As if the pro-coup regime was not already illegitimate, the bloody massacre has completely stripped it from any semblance of legitimacy. An international BDS (Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions) campaign and a global protest movement should immediately be put in place while a massive civil disobedience effort at home is mobilized until the criminal regime is overthrown and its murderous elements are brought to justice. According to international jurist and human rights legal expert, Professor Cherif Bassiouni it is possible for the UN Human Rights Commission to initiate a process to investigate the bloody massacre and to eventually file charges with the ICC.
As Egyptians take to the streets in the coming days, weeks, and months, three factors will singlehandedly or collectively influence the future course of Egypt’s unfinished revolution: the break up and defeat of the security state, the exit of the military from Egypt’s political life and to be subjected to civilian oversight, and a principled and uncompromising stand by the international community against the coup in support of democracy and the rule of law.
Max Weber reasoned that a necessary condition for an entity to be a state is that it retains its claim on the monopoly of violence in the enforcement of its order. But when this monopoly of violence is used against the citizens of a civilized state to thwart their will, it could never be legitimate. That is a state ruled by the law of the jungle.
Esam Al-Amin is the author of The Arab Awakening Unveiled: Understanding Transformations and Revolutions in the Middle East. He can be contacted at [email protected].