By Hugh Roberts, London Review of Books, Vol. 35, #17, Sept 12, 2013
- The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life, by Roger Owen; Harvard, 248 pp, £18.95, May 2012, ISBN 978 0 674 06583 3
- Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria, by Joshua Stacher; Stanford, 221 pp, £22.50, April 2012, ISBN 978 0 8047 8063 6
- Raging against the Machine: Political Opposition under Authoritarianism in Egypt, by Holger Albrecht; Syracuse, 248 pp, £25.00, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 8156 3320 4
- Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt, by Hazem Kandil; Verso, 303 pp, £16.99, November 2012, ISBN 978 1 84467 961 4
Western opinion has had difficulty working out what to think, or at any rate what to say, about Egypt. It now seems that the pedlars of hallucinations have been cowed and it is no longer fashionable to describe the events of 3 July in Cairo as a ‘second revolution’. But to describe them as a counter-revolution, while indisputably more accurate, presupposes that there was a revolution in the first place. The bulk of Western media commentary seems still to be wedded to this notion. That what the media called ‘the Arab spring’ was a succession of revolutions became orthodoxy very quickly. Egypt was indispensable to the idea of an ‘Arab spring’ and so it had to have had a revolution too.
In part this was wishful thinking. The daring young Egyptians who organised the remarkable demonstrations in Tahrir Square and elsewhere from 25 January 2011 onwards were certainly revolutionary in spirit and when their demand that Mubarak should go was granted they couldn’t help thinking that what they had achieved was a revolution. They were of course encouraged in this by the enthusiastic reporting of the Western media, disoriented as they have been since the rise of the ‘journalism of attachment’ during the Balkan wars. But it was also the result of the influence of accomplished fact. The events in Tunisia were certainly a revolution. The role of the Tunisian army was a very modest one, essentially that of refusing, in its moment of truth, to slaughter the demonstrators to save Ben Ali. The role of the Egyptian army in February 2011, however, was not modest; it only seemed to be. Where the Tunisian army showed itself to be a genuinely apolitical servant of the state, the Egyptian army struck an attitude of neutrality and even sympathy for the demonstrators that masked its commanders’ real outlook. That was good enough for reporters who couldn’t tell the difference between appearances and realities. In outward form, both countries had had revolutions, and practically identical ones at that. So the ‘Arab spring’ was up and running and the question was simply: ‘Who’s next?’
To think about the recent appalling turn of events in Egypt in terms of an original ‘revolution’, with 25 January 2011 as the start of Year One, is to amputate the drama of the last two and half years from its historical roots, the story of what the Egyptian state became during the later stages of Hosni Mubarak’s protracted presidency. This is not a simple affair. It is the story of what the Mubarak presidency signified for the Egyptian state, for its various components, especially the army, and for its form of government, but also of what it signified for the various types of opposition his rule provoked or allowed. All this combined in the gathering crisis of the state itself, a crisis that was building long before the revolution in Tunisia got underway.
Mubarak ruled Egypt for more than thirty years, longer than Nasser (18 years) and Sadat (11 years) put together, and he made clear his intention to remain in office until he died, while simultaneously giving the impression that he intended his son Gamal to succeed him. His reign was thus an instance of both the wider phenomena that Roger Owen discusses in exemplary depth: the rise of ‘presidents for life’ in the Arab world and these leaders’ tendency – or at least the temptation – to try to secure the presidency for their families by instituting a dynastic succession. Mubarak concentrated power in the presidency to an arguably unprecedented degree, building on what Sadat had done but taking it much further.
In his detailed survey of the Arab ‘republics’, Owen distinguishes between two main categories, states ‘where the central government was relatively strong’ (Tunisia, Syria, Egypt and Algeria) and those where it was weak (Sudan, Libya and Yemen). He thus treats Egypt and Syria as substantially similar. Focusing on the Egypt-Syria comparison, Joshua Stacher offers a different view, arguing that the two regimes were dissimilar in several critical ways: the Egyptian power structure was highly centralised while the Syrian was and is comparatively decentralised, with Bashar al-Assad wielding nothing like the commanding authority over his regime that Mubarak had. Owen’s perspective could be said to allow for such variation; in both cases – as also in Tunisia and Algeria – central government has clearly been far stronger in relation to society than in Libya, Sudan or Yemen, and Owen himself illustrates how, within each of his categories, there are various permutations. But because the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have primarily been focused on and seen elsewhere in terms of the toppling of autocrats, and neither Syria nor Algeria’s autocrats have so far been toppled, the particular configurations have mattered a great deal. Stacher persuasively argues that the oligarchical rather than autocratic configuration in Syria has meant both that the regime has found it difficult to agree on a reformist course and that its various elements were bound to stick with Bashar against all comers, and so Western expectations that it would unravel under pressure were misplaced. How then does the other part of his thesis, that Egypt’s power structure has been extremely centralised, help explain the course of events there?
Long before the uprisings of late 2010 and early 2011, it seemed to me that the extreme accumulation of power that characterised the Mubarak regime, at any rate during the last third of his reign, which I observed while living in Cairo from 2001, had at least one definite implication for the future: it couldn’t possibly be sustained after Mubarak’s departure, whether or not his son succeeded him. After he went there was bound to be a redistribution of power within the state away from the presidency, and the question would be how this redistribution was handled and to whose benefit.
The matter of the succession was a central issue in Egyptian political debate from at least 2002, catalysed by the suspicion that a dynastic succession was planned and made problematic by some outspoken intellectuals’ indignant rejection of the possibility of tawrith al-sulta – inheritance of power. That the succession was a major issue underlying the events of January and February 2011 is self-evident. But the sensational entry onto the political stage of young liberal and leftist activists and, above all, of hundreds of thousands if not several millions of ordinary Egyptians who found the courage to stand up and shout aloud their pent-up anger at years of despotic rule and their dream of freedom and justice profoundly complicated the question of who would benefit from the redistribution of power.
The cheerleaders for what was transacted on 3 July have presented it as the renewal of January and February 2011. The revolution, hijacked and perverted by the Muslim Brothers, their Freedom and Justice Party and Mohamed Morsi, had been retrieved by the people and the army – one hand! – and put back on track. A feature of this story is that it elides what happened in Egypt in the months following Mubarak’s fall. The honeymoon between the revolutionaries and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces didn’t last long. Again and again, Tahrir Square and other public spaces were reoccupied by demonstrations expressing impatience with the Scaf’s management of l’après-Mubarak, and in the autumn of 2011 disappointment gave way to more radical sentiments.
A vivid illustration of the Scaf’s true outlook was provided by the crushing of a demonstration by Copts at the Maspero building, the state broadcasting centre, on the Nile Corniche on 9 October 2011. Throughout the Mubarak era the Copts had become accustomed to being treated as second-class Egyptians, almost entirely excluded from what passed for political life. The legal but hopelessly small opposition parties, notably the New Wafd and el-Ghad, provided some scope for a few Copts to engage in a simulacrum of politics, but Mubarak’s National Democratic Party scarcely ever fielded Copt candidates – the handful of Copts in Parliament were almost always there by presidential appointment; only three of the 444 members of the People’s Assembly elected in 2000 were Copts. Instead, the government dealt with them as a politically undifferentiated religious community whose ‘party’ was the Coptic Church and whose political leader and representative was the Coptic pope. But Copts took part in the demonstrations against Mubarak in Tahrir Square and were welcomed by the other demonstrators. The cry went up ‘Muslims, Copts, one hand!’ and suddenly the transcending of the religious divide in the accession of all to an equal citizenship that at last meant something seemed to be part of the revolutionary promise. And that is why what happened at Maspero [Oct 2011] was so terrible. A group of Copts determined to take part in public life as free citizens had organised a demonstration to protest against the demolition of a church in Aswan by Salafis acting with the complicity of the regional governor. Before all of the entirely peaceful marchers had arrived at the Maspero building, they were attacked by army units firing live ammunition. Twenty-eight demonstrators were killed, at least two deliberately run over by army vehicles, and 212 others, my daughter’s uncle among them, injured. The message was brutally clear: whatever the supposed ‘revolution’ had meant, the emancipation of the Copts was not part of it as far as the Scaf was concerned.
The sending of such messages went on and on. Between 19 and 24 November 2011, 45 demonstrators demanding an end to military rule and the formation of a civilian government were killed in and around Mohamed Mahmoud Street. On 16 December a three-week-old sit-in near the Cabinet Office was violently dispersed and 17 demonstrators were killed. Women who made clear their determination to take part in political life were also repeatedly victimised. In March 2011, within weeks of Mubarak’s fall, the army was targeting female demonstrators and subjecting them to the appalling humiliation and intimidation of virginity tests carried out by male army doctors in the presence of other (male) soldiers. One of these women, Samira Ibrahim, had the courage to file a legal action against the government in order to make a public issue of this practice. But women demonstrators continued to be targeted, as was dramatically illustrated by images of six or seven military policemen savagely beating a young woman and stripping her upper body to her underwear. On 20 December 2011, thousands of Egyptian women demonstrated against these abuses. Seven days later, the army appeared to give ground when an administrative court pronounced virginity testing illegal. But the head of the judicial military authority promptly declared that this ruling couldn’t be implemented because the court had no jurisdiction over what went on in military prisons.
On 31 December 2011, another large rally was held in Tahrir Square. The Scaf seemed to have realised it needed to take a step back, because there were no military or other police in evidence and the atmosphere was relaxed; people brought their children with them, as I did. It was a massive New Year’s Eve party rather than a demonstration, but it had a political message all the same. A succession of speakers addressed the crowd, and Ramy Essam, whose song ‘Irhal!’ (‘Clear off!’) had put Tahrir’s message to Mubarak to music, came on stage with his guitar. But instead of ‘Yasqut, yasqut, Hosni Mubarak’ (‘Down, down with Hosni Mubarak’), he and the crowd now sang ‘Yasqut, yasqut, hukm al-‘askar’: ‘Down, down with military rule.’ And they seemed to mean it.
So how did Egypt travel from Tahrir Square on 31 December 2011 to Tahrir Square on 30 June 2013?
The air has been thick with partisan argument since 3 July. Debate has swirled around the actual events of the last two months and the thirty months that led up to them. For outsiders to take sides and add to the heat and dust serves no useful purpose. It’s worth instead trying to examine two of the mysteries at the heart of this drama: the behaviour of the Tamarrod protest movement, which spearheaded the demonstrations of June this year in the name of ‘the revolution’, and the behaviour of the Muslim Brothers’ Freedom and Justice Party. Both have been widely misunderstood.
Tamarrod, which means ‘disobedience, insubordination, revolt, rebellion’ (and ‘mutiny’), is the name of the group that organised first a nationwide petition against President Morsi and then the demonstrations of 30 June. It’s a new group, founded this April. The petition stated that its signatories called on the president to resign. The organisers announced their ambition to collect 15 million signatures and claim to have obtained 22 million, a figure I have never seen verified. But let us allow that they did obtain millions of signatures. To organise, let alone sign, such a petition is not an anti-democratic act: citizens have a right to call on an elected office-holder to resign, just as he or she may choose to stay in office until defeated at the polls. The petition said nothing about the army, let alone calling on it to act in the matter. The same was true of the mobilisation for the 30 June demonstrations. Several well-known groups that had played key roles in the demonstrations against Mubarak, notably the 6 April Youth Movement, the Revolutionary Socialists and the ‘We are all Khaled Saeed’ movement (formed to protest at the murder of a young man by the Alexandria police in 2010), did not hesitate to take part. They had reasons to dislike Morsi and his FJP and to want him out of office. But what happened at the demonstration itself was another matter, for many of those present did indeed call on the army to intervene. When the army deposed Morsi three days later, many of the demonstrators reacted as those on 11 February 2011 had reacted, triumphant that their point had been gained and inclined to see the army as the instrument of the people’s will. As one Tamarrod activist, quoted by the Observer on 6 July, exulted:
Sisi and the army took their cue from the people. They had many previous chances to do what they did but they didn’t take them. But once millions of people went out and started chanting for the army to step in, they took their orders from us. The army did not take over power. They were merely a partner in the democratic change we were seeking.
The element of wishful thinking, if not sheer delusion, in this is a pointer to Tamarrod’s real nature. But so is the statement of fact it contains. Why did the demand raised by Tamarrod’s petition, that Morsi step down and early presidential elections be held, mutate into the demand that the army ‘step in’? Clearly Tamarrod itself was happy with this development. Could it be that it was the Tamarrod activists themselves who, having got millions of Egyptians to sign a petition in support of one clear demand, then managed, during the demonstration itself, to convert this demand into something else? The organisers of demonstrations are usually the source of the slogans chanted by the participants and most demonstrators will happily chant the slogans they hear others chanting.
The target of 15 million signatories for the petition was clearly chosen because it exceeded the number of Egyptians – 13.23 million – who voted for Morsi in the presidential election of June 2012. It was subsequently claimed that at least 14 million marched against him on 30 June. This figure was soon overtaken by others: 17 million, 22 million. The veteran Egyptian feminist Nawal el-Saadawi even claimed that 34 million had been there, a majority of the total electorate. These figures were fairy tales, the tallest of tall stories. But the Egyptians who bombarded the world’s media with such whoppers can’t seriously be faulted for trying it on: the West made itself the gallery; they played to it. For them the stakes were immense and c’est de bonne guerre. The question we should confront is how and why our media was taken in by this nonsense and then parroted it back to us.
The numbers question was investigated by Jack Brown, an American writer who has lived in Cairo for several years and who on 11 July published a detailed article in Maghreb émergent, an indispensable source of serious coverage of North African developments, republished in English on the website International Boulevard. Brown worked out from the actual area of Tahrir Square and the streets leading to it that on the most generous estimate the demonstration can’t have exceeded 265,000 people. If we assume for the sake of argument that the other big demonstration in Cairo, in Heliopolis, added a further 211,000, that gives at most 476,000. So where did the other 12.8 million needed to exceed Morsi’s election tally come from? Cairo is home to nearly a quarter of Egypt’s total population. Vague Western media references to ‘hundreds of thousands’ marching in other cities may authorise us to push up the overall tally, but we’re still looking at maybe a million, or at the very most two million across the country as a whole, less than the 2.85 million Morsi polled in Cairo and Giza. The phantasmagorical figures quoted to the Western media may, as Brown observes, have exploited a confusion between attendance at the demonstrations and Tamarrod’s claim for the number of petition signatories. But however many millions really signed the petition, none of them signed a petition calling for the army to depose the president.
As the violence of the army’s assault on Morsi’s supporters grew and grew, some of the participants on 30 June had second thoughts. Ahmed Maher, the leader of the 6 April Youth Movement, supported the anti-Morsi campaign but later dissociated himself from the army’s actions. The Revolutionary Socialists also eventually dissociated themselves. But the Tamarrod leaders did not. They saw no significant difference between citizens calling on a president to resign and the minister of defence ordering him to be removed manu militari and they were not only delighted with the outcome but claimed the credit for it. The Tamarrod activist quoted by the Observer was called Mohamed Khamis. On 16 August, two days after the massacres at Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque and Nahda Square, in which at least 628 protesters died, the Guardian quoted him: ‘“We agree with what happened at Rabaa and at Nahda,” said Mohamed Khamis, a spokesman for the Tamarrod (Rebellion) campaign, which mobilised public opinion against the democratically elected but deeply unpopular Morsi. “We don’t like what the Brotherhood did.”’
The activists who set up Tamarrod were veterans of an earlier protest movement, dating from 2004 and 2005, whose official name was the Egyptian Movement for Change but which rapidly became known by its main slogan, ‘Kifaya!’ (‘Enough!’). Kifaya was not an organised presence in the demonstrations of January and February 2011: it had petered out in 2006 and been superseded by more recently formed groupings. But as I followed the drama in 2011, it became clear to me that the young revolutionaries, with the exception of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Socialists, were Kifaya’s spiritual children and were bound to lose the initiative the moment their single, purely negative demand was conceded. I was a sceptic about the ‘revolution’ from that moment onwards.
A good account of Kifaya can be found in Holger Albrecht’s timely study of the opposition movements that existed under Mubarak. Contrary to the caricatures that became de rigueur once the balloon went up, Albrecht insists that Mubarak’s was ‘a liberalised authoritarian regime that provides [sic] limited – because entirely controlled from above – though surprisingly substantial degrees of pluralism’. This is more or less the way I saw it while living there. The press in particular was generally lively, with room for a wide spectrum of opinion, including plenty of criticism of the government. But there were definite ‘red lines’ and, as Albrecht explains, what was interesting about Kifaya is that it crossed two of them: the ban on unauthorised demonstrations under the Emergency Law and the ban on explicit criticism of the president and his family. Moreover, it did so with relative impunity: most of its demonstrations, while small (two or three hundred strong) and always massively outnumbered by riot police, weren’t suppressed or broken up but, strangely, tolerated, except when activists tried to demonstrate outside Cairo. Kifaya was essentially an agitation conducted by a dissident wing of the Egyptian elite against Mubarak’s ‘monopoly of power’ and the prospect of his son succeeding him. Although, under the very sober-sounding name of the Egyptian Movement for Change, it attracted a range of reformist viewpoints and published a lengthy shopping list of democratic-sounding aims and demands, the agitation it actually conducted was entirely negative in character.
In investigating Kifaya in 2005 I found that it was dominated by secularist Arab nationalists and Nasserists. Its steering committee included two liberals and the moderate Islamist Abu ’l-Ala Madi, the founder of the Wasat (Centre) Party, as well as two communists. But its co-ordinator and most prominent figure was George Ishaq, a Copt and veteran Arab nationalist, and its other main spokesman was Abdel Halim Qandil, the editor in chief of the Nasserist paper al-Arabi. Both men were impressive in their way: Ishaq, whom I interviewed, struck me as combative and engagingly forthright, and Qandil had shown admirable powers of resistance in enduring particularly thuggish harassment by the regime. In April 2005 I visited the offices of al-Arabi and interviewed its other editor, Abdallah Senawi. In addition to telling me that ‘Kifaya is the natural offspring of al-Arabi and its slogans were first put forward by al-Arabi; most Kifaya activists are Nasserists’ – claims that may have been exaggerated but certainly weren’t unfounded – he frankly outlined the Nasserists’ true vision, which was to look to the army to resolve the ‘Mubarak question’, citing the recent military coup against President Ould Taya of Mauritania as a possible model.
In a report I wrote for the International Crisis Group in 2005, I argued that its exclusively negative message – the lack of a single positive demand or proposal – was a major reason for Kifaya’s failure to gain a wider audience. I came to the conclusion that, as Nasserists or at least Arab nationalists, their real objection to Mubarak was not his authoritarianism but his abandonment, like that of Sadat before him, of the pan-Arab vision that Nasser had proclaimed, and that they were not capable of organising a genuine democratic agitation. But it’s possible that I got cause and effect at least partly back to front and that the refusal to canvas a positive demand that might mobilise ordinary Egyptians reflected a concern to keep the challenge to the Mubaraks within the closed world of the Egyptian elite, calling outsiders to witness the limits to the Mubaraks’ dominion but not wanting to involve the public in the settling of scores that they dreamed about.
The demonstration on 25 January 2011 and the historic drama it inaugurated were made possible by the shockwave of the Tunisian revolution and the emergence since 2008 of a new generation of young middle-class activists enthused by the series of workers’ strikes that began on 6 April that year (the raison d’être of Ahmed Maher’s 6 April Youth Movement) and outraged by the thuggishness that the regime increasingly exhibited, culminating in the murder of Khaled Saeed in June 2010, which prompted Wael Ghoneim to launch his ‘We are all Khaled Saeed’ page on Facebook. But while these developments supplied what had been so evidently absent in 2004 and 2005, a substantial reservoir of politicised energies that made mass demonstrations feasible at last, the degree of politicisation was limited. The young activists knew and could agree on what they didn’t want, but that was all. Kifaya’s negative agenda was what oriented them, whether they were conscious of its pedigree or not, and it was in these circumstances that the Nasserists’ dream of the army resolving the Mubarak question came true.
We shouldn’t reduce 11 February 2011 to a coup. It wasn’t a revolution, but it wasn’t just a coup either. It was a popular rising that lost the initiative because it had no positive agenda or demand. ‘Bread, freedom, social justice’ aren’t political demands, just aspirations and slogans. A social movement might have made these slogans into demands by pressuring the government to take specific steps. But a movement that wants these desiderata provided by government and, at the same time, wants the government to clear off has a coherence problem. The only demand that mattered politically was ‘Mubarak, irhal!’ The army commanders captured the initiative by co-opting that demand to make it work for them. Almost certainly they did so because it had been their own undeclared objective for some time.
What happened on 11 February 2011 was a renewal of the Free Officers’ state. Mubarak’s fall didn’t in itself amount to a revolution because the fundamental framework of the state established by the Free Officers following their coup in 1952 was still in place, as the emergence of the Scaf as the dominant political actor should have made clear to everyone. In this respect, the outcome in Egypt fell far short of that in Tunisia. The Tunisians didn’t merely force the departure of Ben Ali, they went on immediately to abolish the ruling party, the Rassemblement constitutionnel démocratique (RCD). The RCD was the evolution of the nationalist party that, founded and led by Habib Bourguiba, had charted the course to independence. It was a genuine ruling party, the source of power and the principal instrument by which the state exercised its hegemony over society. It has had no counterpart in any other North African country. The abolition of the RCD signified the end of what French analysts called the ‘parti-état’. It meant that Tunisian society was heading into terra incognita, constitutionally and politically. But when the Egyptian demonstrators destroyed the headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, they weren’t attacking the source of political power in the state, merely the regime’s façade. The army had been the source of political power since 1952. It had been marginalised by Mubarak and so took little part in the day to day business of government, but it hadn’t been displaced by an alternative source of power. And so the events of January and February 2011 that brought it back to centre stage were not a revolution.
The Nasserist tradition of hailing coups as revolutions was inaugurated in July 1952. Critics of the events of 3 July who have refused to endorse the ‘second revolution’ thesis have in some cases described what happened as a counter-revolution, a view with which I sympathise. Given that in June 2012 there was a real electoral contest in which people’s votes really counted, making it seem that a democratic line of development had begun, one can certainly regard 3 July as having destroyed that and therefore as being counter-revolutionary. But there is at least a germ of coherence in the claim made by General Sisi and by Tamarrod that 3 July 2013 restored the fundamental logic of 11 February 2011. We can see this once we accept, however reluctantly, that this logic was the reassertion and reclamation by the army of its historical political primacy and not a real revolution, let alone the revolutionary advent of democracy. But what, more than any other consideration, qualified the logic of the way the army surfed the wave of Tahrir Square to resolve the Mubarak question was the fact that the Muslim Brothers had been in Tahrir Square too and had earned their share of the opening that ensued.
In 1969, the then Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brothers, Hassan al-Hodeibi, while in prison published Du’ah, la Qudah (Missionaries, Not Judges), a text which dissociated the Brothers from the radical doctrines of Sayyid Qutb, in particular his condemnation of the Free Officers’ state as not only kufr (infidel) but jahili (barbarous) and a proper object of jihad. Thereafter, the Brothers developed a reformist outlook and a gradualist strategy: they accepted the Islamic credentials of the existing state while seeking to enhance its Islamic character and that of society as a whole. Although still formally banned, they were allowed to occupy a substantial amount of social space by both Sadat’s regime (the Brothers were briefly suppressed for opposing the Camp David agreement) and Mubarak’s. They were able to build a large network of Islamic charitable, educational and cultural associations, as well as hospitals and clinics, giving them a social presence that none of the legal parties could rival. They were also able to participate in political life: Brothers were allowed to stand for election as independents or even occasionally on the list of a legal party such as the New Wafd. Some of them got elected, the number fluctuating depending on whether Mubarak was in liberalising or deliberalising mode. Throughout this period, the Brothers adhered to their non-violent strategy and behaved with prudence as well as stoicism, taking in their stride the intermittent clampdowns, when dozens and sometimes hundreds of Brothers would suddenly be arrested and imprisoned for months. A key if tacit element of the Brothers’ gradualist approach was the determination to avoid a repetition of what happened in 1954, when Nasser hanged six of their leaders and crushed their organisation. As a member of the Brothers’ Guidance Bureau told me in 2004, ‘we will never allow ourselves to be drawn into a confrontation with the army.’ So why has that happened now?
The reason so much emphasis has been placed on Morsi’s mistakes and failings is that the preamble to Tamarrod’s petition blamed everything on him so as to justify the call for his resignation. This obscures the real reasons for the debacle that ensued. The great mistake that led to the confrontation the Brothers had sworn to avoid was their decision to contest the presidential election. They had originally announced that they wouldn’t take part and their subsequent volte-face was naturally criticised by their rivals and adversaries. They also initially suggested that they would seek to win only a third – and to that end contest only half – of the People’s Assembly seats when the legislative elections took place, and then went back on this undertaking too, contesting two-thirds of them. They might have got away with changing their mind on the second point if they hadn’t also changed it on the first.
Can it be that they had entirely failed to understand the implications of Mubarak’s fall, that power was ineluctably being redistributed away from the presidency, that the first beneficiary of this was the army high command and that the presidency was no longer so great a prize as to justify the costs and risks of contesting it? That may be part of the explanation, but only a small one. The main factor in their decision was that they were faced with the danger of serious defections and of being outflanked by Islamist rivals at the same time.
The Muslim Brothers had made clear as early as March 2011 that they wouldn’t run a candidate for the presidency. That April they launched the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). The next month, one of the Brothers’ most prominent members, Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh, broke ranks by announcing that he would run for president as an independent, for which he was expelled in mid-June. Aboul Fotouh was on the liberal and progressive wing of the Brothers, well known for his commitment to democratic principles, his opposition to sectarian attitudes towards Christians and his support for women’s participation in public life. He had a substantial reputation outside the Brothers and a strong following among the Brothers’ younger members. He took some of them with him when he left. The prospect of his running for president was alarming for the Brothers’ leaders, threatening to cause major problems of discipline. And things were made much worse by the emergence of the Salafis as electoral competitors.
Originally a modernist, very political, anti-imperialist, pan-Islamic and non-sectarian movement when founded in the 1880s by the Persian Shiite agitator Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and his Egyptian Sunni deputy, Mohammed Abduh, the Salafiyya took a very conservative turn after the First World War and since the 1970s has become synonymous with the Wahhabi tradition of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It now stands for precisely the opposite of al-Afghani and Abduh’s vision. The Salafis are the true fundamentalists in Sunni Islam, believing in the literal inerrancy of scripture. They are preoccupied with the opposition between halal (licit) and haram (forbidden), that is, the dos and don’ts of correct Islamic conduct, and have generally been supportive of all Sunni regimes, offering a moralistic discourse on corruption but not a political challenge to governments. They are aggressively intolerant of Shiism and also of Christians and Jews, whom they call kuffar (infidels): very different from the traditional Ottoman view (to which the Brothers adhere) of respecting them as Ahl al-Kitab (People of the Book). Salafis have been hostile to political Islamists in general and the Muslim Brothers in particular, in part because they have opposed the very notion of political parties, since they divide the community of believers. The Salafi trend in Egypt has been growing for some years, as Arabian fashions have been brought back by Egyptian migrants returning from the Gulf, and as a reflection of the massive flow of Saudi and Emirati money into the country. But for the Salafis to launch their own political parties and enter the electoral arena was virtually unprecedented and the Brothers’ leaders were bound to see it as a major threat to their own electoral prospects. This probably explains their decision to contest more constituencies than originally envisaged in the legislative elections held between November 2011 and January 2012. Not to do so would have been to leave the field open to their conservative rivals.
The elections’ outcome must have seemed to vindicate this decision: the Salafi Hizb al-Nour (Party of the Light) and its allies did astonishingly well, taking second place with 27.8 per cent of the vote and 123 seats compared with the FJP-led alliance’s 37.5 per cent and 235 seats, and would almost certainly have done even better if the Brothers had stuck to their original promise. The implications were ominous, however, presenting the Brothers with an impossible dilemma. While their leaders were broadly in the Islamic-modernist tradition, although on the conservative rather than the progressive wing, much of the rank and file membership would see little difference between them and the Salafis. This meant that the pressure from the Salafis on the Islamist flank would make it exceptionally difficult for the Brothers to seek alliances in parliament with non-Islamist parties without putting their own internal unity under strain; and seeking instead to work with Hizb al-Nour would of course alienate the secular parties. As we now know, the Brothers proved unable to cope with this problem: they gave priority to maintaining their own cohesion at the expense of its relations with non-Islamists.
In the meantime, the movement faced a more immediate and perhaps even more excruciating problem: how to persist with its decision not to contest the presidential election when a still popular renegade from its most progressive wing, Aboul Fotouh, was going to run, and when the Salafis might put up a candidate as well. In the event, al-Nour didn’t run a candidate and the main Salafi from another group was ruled ineligible. But the Brothers couldn’t have known that in advance. What could they tell their members? Vote for a renegade whom conservative Brothers didn’t like? Vote for the Islamist you prefer, when this could split the Brothers down the middle if a Salafi entered the lists against Aboul Fotouh? Not vote at all, leaving the field open to all their rivals? They decided that the least bad option was to field their own candidate, a decision they made public in late March 2012 when they announced that their man would be the Supreme Guide’s deputy, Khairat al-Shater. Their U-turn, naturally, was attacked far and wide as just one more illustration of the Brothers’ hypocrisy and duplicity. In retrospect it was a terrible error – but a forced error. What remains to be explained is why the Brothers didn’t take any action when it became clear that they were walking into a trap.
On 14 April 2012, al-Shater was disqualified from standing on the grounds that he had been imprisoned under the Mubarak regime (further proof, if proof were needed, that that no revolution had occurred). Al-Shater was the Brothers’ leading political brain and about as plausible a candidate as they could field. Denied this option, they fell back on the chairman of the FJP, the lacklustre and distinctly implausible Mohamed Morsi. In putting up their ‘spare wheel’, as he was immediately termed, the Brothers missed an opportunity to solve their dilemma in another way: indignantly to condemn the disqualification of their candidate and campaign for a boycott of the election as rigged, so putting the Scaf and the judges it was manipulating on the defensive and delegitimising in advance whoever won. Instead they soldiered on, limping. Two weeks later, al-Nour endorsed Aboul Fotouh’s candidacy and the second part of the fix was in place. For the backward-looking and openly sectarian Salafis to endorse him may well have seemed to Aboul Fotouh the kiss of death, and who’s to say it wasn’t intended to be? For the Brothers, on the other hand, it may have seemed to raise rather than lower the stakes: whether Aboul Fotouh was embarrassed by Salafi support or not, it probably improved his chances of getting most of the Islamist vote and thereby considerably aggravated the Brothers’ internal problem. If progressive and conservative Islamists were now united behind Aboul Fotouh, it would be harder than ever for the Brothers’ leaders to forbid their members to vote for him.
They were given one more, very slight chance to extricate themselves from the quicksand. Voting in the first round of the presidential election took place on 23 and 24 May and put Morsi ahead of the old regime’s candidate, Ahmed Shafiq. The run-off between them was scheduled for 16-17 June. On 13 June, the Scaf announced a decree authorising soldiers to arrest civilians and stipulating that civilians could be tried in military courts. This was a remarkable thing to do in the middle of a democratic presidential election but it was just the first, teasing move in a three-part manoeuvre. It was also the Brothers’ last chance to pull out of the election, but the pretext it offered, while on the perfect issue (defending civilian rights against militarist bullying), was too slender, so they passed it up. The next day, 14 June, two days before the run-off vote, the Supreme Constitutional Court announced that the legislative elections held six months earlier that had given the FJP primacy in the People’s Assembly were invalid. The Scaf followed up with an administrative decree dissolving the Assembly. The pretext for this decision was that there had been procedural irregularities in a number of constituencies. The FJP acknowledged this but argued that the election results should be invalidated only in the constituencies concerned and that the proper solution was to hold by-elections in these places. This reasonable argument was rejected. At a stroke, the prospect that Morsi, if elected, could rely on the support of his party in parliament was conjured away. I arrived in Cairo on 18 June and met a friend for dinner the following evening. As I sat down his first words were: ‘Welcome to our coup.’ But the coup that removed the most democratically elected parliament in Egyptian history was barely noticed in the Western media.
Whatever your attitude to Islamism or the Muslim Brothers, just imagine for a moment the impossible, agonising position in which this turn of events put Morsi’s party. To soldier on was to condemn its candidate, if he won, to enter the presidency without any political support within the institutions of the state, since with the legislature dissolved he would be facing entirely on his own the army, the police, the various intelligence services, the vast unreformed bureaucracy and the unreformed and manifestly hostile judiciary. But to pull out now would surely be to incur the undying reproaches of everyone else. Since his opponent was Shafiq, Mubarak’s man, Morsi was the last remaining option for all those who had been part of or identified with Tahrir Square in 2011. Millions of Egyptians – not least the members of the Brothers and the FJP – would feel betrayed if Morsi let Shafiq win by default. Who among them would begin to understand that it was the right thing to do? How could they ever forgive the FJP and the Brothers? And so Morsi and the FJP rolled with the killer punch and gamely stayed in the ring, perhaps secretly hoping that the Scaf would make Shafiq the winner and almost certainly knowing, the moment they were awarded the poisoned chalice, that the fight was irretrievably lost and all they could do was prolong it in a gruelling last round that would end, calamitously, one year later. And just to complete the business, on 17 June, the second day of voting in the run-off, the Scaf issued a ‘constitutional declaration’ that arrogated key presidential powers, including the power of appointment of army commanders, to the Scaf itself, while giving other key powers of the president to be to the Scaf or the judiciary.
In seeking at all costs to avoid a confrontation with the army, the Brothers helped to create the conditions for that very confrontation. In trying above all else to negotiate an understanding with the Scaf, they allowed a wedge to be driven between them and the ‘revolutionaries’, as when they refused to support the Mohamed Mahmoud Street protests against the Scaf in November 2011 because the legislative elections were due to start a week later. In this way, the Brothers made a gift of the young revolutionaries’ volatile enthusiasms to the growing alliance of their own implacable enemies. At the root of the Brothers’ inability to chart a safe course between Scylla and Charybdis was the continuing crisis within the organisation itself of which Aboul Fotouh’s behaviour had been a sign and which dated back to the last years of Mubarak.
In charting with care the rise of Arab presidents for life, Roger Owen has pioneered a new strand in the academic debate on authoritarianism in the Middle East and North Africa. But his book relaunches that debate rather than closing it. He rightly emphasises the concept of the permanent ‘security state’, the role of the army, of the other security services, the way leaders in the post-revolutionary era managed to adapt to ‘the global waves of economic and political liberalisations’, the correspondingly significant role of crony capitalists and so on. But there are at least two elements that need to be taken into account.
The first is the radical absence of republican political thought in the societies of the region. The Arab republics were mainly republics in the negative sense of not being monarchies. Beyond that, a kind of substitutionism – of paternalist rulers for the self-determining people – reigned for a while (Nasser, Bourguiba, Boumediène, Gaddafi, Assad), and then, after a degree of privatisation of the state under their post-revolutionary or counter-revolutionary successors (Sadat, Chadli, Ben Ali), the presidential autocracies came more and more to resemble the certified monarchies of the region. But when Egyptian intellectuals complained of tawrith al-sulta (the Mubaraks’ apparent project of constituting themselves into a dynasty) it wasn’t obvious that they were defending any republican principle: they were, rather, reasserting the fact that since 1952 the state had not been a monarchy. Government had long ceased to be res publica, if it had ever been one.
The late Anouar Abdel-Malek, whose death last year spared him knowledge of the disaster which has overtaken his country, produced two books that could hardly be more relevant to this debate. Egypt: Military Society (originally published in French in 1962) will help anyone understand the rejuvenated Free Officers’ state that is now flexing its muscles. La Pensée politique arabe contemporaine (1970), which he edited, bears witness to this lacuna: among the essays by more than fifty Arab authors on the issues of the time – Islamism, national liberation, identity, Arab unity, socialism, Palestine – there is not one on the republican idea. And this absence reflects one of the main reasons for the phenomenon Owen describes.
It’s also important to note that the phenomenon of presidents for life is not limited to heads of state. In Cairo in the mid-2000s it was a matter for ironic comment that the leaders of the most prominent legal parties were all mini-Mubaraks, ageing autocrats like the ra’is himself, pocket pharaohs for their pocket pseudo-parties. They included No’man Gomaa, in his early seventies by then, whose self-centred leadership of the New Wafd drove Ayman Nour (the future founder of el-Ghad) out of the party and who was finally ejected himself only after a gun battle at the party headquarters; Rifaat al-Saïd, the 73-year-old leader of Tagammu, who was notorious for ignoring his colleagues’ opinions; Dia al-Din Dawoud, the even older leader (at 79) of the Nasserist Party, whose autocratic manner drove his most talented young recruit, Hamdeen Sabahi, to leave and found a new party of his own, al-Karama (Dignity). But this is not just an Egyptian thing. The Kurdish Democratic Party in Iraq has been led by the Barzanis for generations, just as the Druze in Lebanon have been led by the Jumblatts. And what the Algerian press fondly refers to as the country’s oldest democratic party, the Socialist Forces Front, has been led since its foundation in 1963 by Hocine Aït Ahmed, a president for life whose tenure (at fifty years) exceeds even Gaddafi’s.
Another instance is provided by the Muslim Brothers themselves. Every Supreme Guide, from al-Banna onwards, has held office for life, except one. The exception is Mohamed Mahdi Akef, who took office in 2004 but was forced into retirement as a result of an internal power struggle in 2009. Albrecht gives a concise account of this but does not fully explain it. But I believe future histories of this period will see this matter as crucial to an understanding of the behaviour of the Brothers since February 2011 and their eventual shipwreck.
When Akef took office in January 2004 the Brothers were virtually accepted participants in Egyptian public life. Seventeen Brothers had been elected as independents to the People’s Assembly in 2000 and, while still liable to be reminded of their illegal status by occasional waves of arrests, their views were regularly reported in the press and leading Brothers were frequently invited to speak on non-Islamist public platforms. By this time, their political agenda had taken a markedly democratic direction: above all the demand for the end of the Emergency Law, followed by free and fair elections, freedom of speech and assembly and so forth. On 3 March 2004, two months after taking office, Akef added a major new policy when he announced that the Brothers were proposing a radical constitutional change to make the state a parliamentary republic. This proposal directly addressed the problem of the authoritarian form of government instead of personalising it by focusing on the Mubaraks and could have allowed for a Gamal succession by institutionalising the redistribution of power towards the legislative branch, a precondition in any case of action to curb corruption and arbitrary rule. But while one or two of the legal parties eventually adopted the policy, the proposal prompted no serious public debate and was soon eclipsed by Kifaya’s agitation about ‘the Mubarak question’. It continued to guide the Brothers’ political activity, however. In the legislative elections of November and December 2005, they contested a third of the seats and won no fewer than 88, an unprecedented triumph which made them much the strongest opposition party, with a fifth of the Assembly seats. They began to use them to good effect, putting the NDP majority under pressure of a kind they had never experienced before.
The regime’s reaction wasn’t long in coming. ‘We’re going after the Brothers,’ a member of Gamal Mubarak’s entourage in the NDP leadership told a colleague of mine, and over the next three years the regime not only rewrote most of the election rules to make it impossible for the Brothers to capitalise on their success but also launched far and away the heaviest campaign of repression against them, imprisoning hundreds if not thousands and inflicting severe damage on the organisation. The eventual result was that the pendulum swung towards the conservatives. The forward and outward-looking and very political strategy followed by Akef and incarnated in such figures as Aboul Fotouh and Issam el-Erian had cost the Brothers dear; the traditionalists, those largely content to sustain the Brothers’ religious and social activities, rebelled against it. In January 2010 Akef stood down and was succeeded not by his deputy, another progressive, Mohammed Habib, but by a relatively obscure member of the Guidance Bureau from the conservative wing, Mohamed Badie. Passed over, Habib left the organisation, to be followed by Aboul Fotouh in 2011. From then on it was the conservative and inward-looking wing of the Brothers that made policy. Less politically skilled and self-confident, clumsy and rigid in debate because less at ease with other points of view, inclined to be suspicious and invite suspicion in return and very much disposed to seek a deal of some kind with the regime as the precondition of everything else, the new leadership was to prove incapable of handling the endless challenges of the post-Mubarak era.
Egypt is not Algeria. This truism and its corollary, ‘we are not going to make the Algerians’ mistake,’ were frequent themes in the discourse of the Mubarak regime and its media, used above all to justify the refusal to legalise the Brothers. The Algerians, who had largely copied (with certain important differences) the political template of the Free Officers’ regime up until 1989, suddenly deviated from it when they let their Islamists off the leash by legalising the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). The FIS’s sensational election victories in June 1990 and December 1991, the crisis of the state in 1991-92 and the descent into nightmarish violence that ensued were all condemned in Cairo as folly and cited as evidence of the wisdom of the regime’s handling of Egypt’s Islamists. But what happened in November-December 2005 in fact anticipated what was to come six years later, a mini ‘Algeria moment’. The reason the Brothers won 88 seats (71 more than in 2000) was that they had been tacitly encouraged by the regime to campaign as if they were entirely legal, and they did so with alacrity. While registered as independents, their candidates openly ran as Brothers. Candidates’ photographs posted on walls and lamp posts in every street carried the legend ‘Al-Ikhwān al-Muslimūn’ (‘The Muslim Brothers’) and ‘Al-Islam, huwa al-hall’ (‘Islam is the solution’); the Brothers were even allowed to hold mass meetings and marches in the constituencies they were contesting and the press reported their campaigns just like those of the other parties. The reason the regime allowed all this was to get the Americans off its back. Under pressure from Washington to validate its claim that the destruction of Iraq had launched a region-wide process of democratisation, Cairo had made token gestures, but by late 2005 it had had enough. It was time to bring home to the White House and Foggy Bottom that opening up the political field would serve only to empower the Islamists and destabilise the state. The Algerians had similar if more complicated reasons for legalising and manipulating the FIS, and the results of the first round of the 1991 elections were instrumentalised in the same way in the regime’s endless dialogue with Paris. But the Egyptian regime, or rather Gamal Mubarak’s team in the NDP leadership, miscalculated. They thought the Brothers would win thirty or forty seats at most and panicked when they did far better than that, which is why they had to atone by ordering a massive crackdown, as Washington looked the other way.
There are many other points of contact between the Egyptian and Algerian experiences. In Algeria since 1962, as in Egypt since 1952, the military has been the source of power, rather than the party, which has been no more than a state apparatus, subject to close control by the president and the intelligence services – an empty shell, as Boumediène once admitted. But the Algerians discreetly deviated from the Egyptian model early on in one important respect that we can only now fully appreciate, thanks to Hazem Kandil’s important book.
Kandil effectively rewrites the inner history of the Free Officers’ state and his book deserves to spark sustained debate. It provides an exceptionally detailed account of the endless power struggle in both Nasser’s and Sadat’s regimes and offers startling new accounts of the major crises that occurred in each of them. Disputing conventional histories that portray Nasser from 1954 onwards as wholly dominating the state, Kandil argues that, when he took over the government, Nasser effectively lost control of the army. Having delegated command to Abdel-Hakim Amer, he found his supposed long-time friend acting increasingly against him, turning the army into his fiefdom by promoting friends and cronies, however incompetent, and thereby replicating eventually the army’s corrupt and demoralised condition under King Farouq, which is what had prompted the Free Officers’ conspiracy in the first place. The increasingly antagonistic relationship between the two men gave rise to a kind of trench warfare conducted by the intelligence services they respectively controlled, and eventually played a major part in Nasser’s three great failures: the short-lived union with Syria in 1958-61, the abortive intervention in the Yemen and, above all, the catastrophic defeat by Israel in June 1967. It was in part to get Amer out of his hair that Nasser agreed to the union with Syria in the first place, appointing Amer as Cairo’s proconsul in Damascus, a move that helped doom the union but failed to solve Nasser’s problem, since he couldn’t stop Amer resuming command of the army on his return. Amer’s reluctance to promote competent officers who might have helped equip the army for serious fighting, Kandil suggests, was a major factor in the Yemen fiasco. Above all, we learn that it was not Nasser but Amer who was responsible for the fatal game of brinkmanship – the deployment of troops into the Sinai, the closing of the Straits of Tiran – that gave Israel its pretext and opportunity to crush Egypt in the Six-Day War, while Nasser struggled in vain to head off the consequences of Amer’s folly.
Whatever such revelations – which other historians may challenge – mean for specialists working on Israel, Jordan, Syria and US policy, they also shed light on Algeria. On taking power in 1965, Boumediène made sure to keep the defence portfolio and, following Nasser’s success in at last ridding himself of Amer in August 1967, he succeeded in provoking his turbulent chief of staff, Tahar Zbiri, into mounting an abortive coup, the crushing of which consolidated Boumediène’s control. More evidence that the Algerians kept on watching and learning from Egypt is provided by Kandil’s fascinating account of the Sadat era. Perhaps its most controversial element is his suggestion that part of the army leadership was behind Sadat’s assassination in October 1981. Kandil is unable to nail this claim all the way down but makes a good case in view of the fact that the assassins were junior army officers and that the military commander of Tanzim al-Jihad, the group that pulled it off, was a defector from military intelligence who was spared execution and finally released from prison in March 2011. Is it just a coincidence that shortly before Sadat was killed, President Chadli replaced the head of Algerian military intelligence with a regular army officer and then transferred the service from its home in the defence ministry to the presidency? It may be: coincidences happen. But the Chadli regime had already taken a big leaf out of Sadat’s book, closely imitating his purge of Nasserists and the left in the early 1970s in its own purge of Boumediènists and leftists beginning in 1980.
That the Egyptian army commanders had reason to resent Sadat is clear from Kandil’s account of the 1973 October war, when the generals were beside themselves at Sadat’s failure to press the advantage they had gained by crossing the Suez Canal. His refusal to seize the main passes in Sinai enabled the Israelis to turn the tables. This resentment was aggravated by the terms to which Sadat agreed at Camp David, another tortuous episode Kandil explores in depth. In effect, Amer lost Sinai and Sadat made no serious attempt to regain it; together they created Egypt’s Sinai problem, which Mubarak was content to manage rather than resolve and which is now exploding.
It is in this episode, in the way Sadat prostrated himself and his country before the Americans, that we can discern both the origins of the army’s eventual refusal to rescue Mubarak, Sadat’s faithful successor, and the origins of the convergence Owen describes between Arab ‘republics’ and monarchies. While the syndrome of presidents for life was not pioneered by Egypt – it was Bourguiba who started it and who also pioneered the infitah that was to become central to Sadat’s economic policy – it was Sadat who pioneered the distinctively monarchical presidency, modelling himself on the shah of Iran and aping his flamboyance. As Kandil describes it, Sadat’s strategy for retaining power was essentially to make himself dependent on and indispensable to Washington, in his eyes the only foreign power that mattered, reducing Egypt to a client state – or even a servant state – while making the US the external guarantor of his rule.
Algeria under Chadli went some way along a similar path, except that it spread the risk between Washington and Paris and always kept some room for manoeuvre. On taking over, Mubarak moderated Sadat’s strategy, while maintaining its fundamental elements, dropping the irritating flamboyance and regal manner, at least at first, and renegotiating some aspects of the relationship with the US. Mubarak continued Sadat’s determined effort to control and sideline army commanders, prudently following the course Sadat had set while reducing the zig-zags. As a result, it might be said that Mubarak, succeeding where Sadat came to grief, managed to secure for the presidency a degree of autonomy from the military that amounted to the virtual negation of the Free Officers’ state.
The return with a vengeance of the Egyptian army to the centre of government doesn’t, as some have suggested, mean the advent of Mubarakism without Mubarak, since the extreme autonomy of the presidency is no more – this will be true even if Sisi takes the job. Moreover, an important element of Mubarak’s prolonged balancing act was his tacit reliance on the Muslim Brothers to provide needed services and to keep order in those parts of society the state could or would no longer bother itself with. That compact is now broken. Whether there will be a substantive as opposed to purely rhetorical reversion to Nasserism in domestic policy remains to be seen – but it’s unlikely. Reliance on Saudi money and Israeli co-operation would seem to rule it out in foreign affairs, unless the full recovery of Egyptian sovereignty in the Sinai becomes a genuine objective of the army. So the startling influence of the Tamarrod movement over the political reflexes of the young ‘revolutionaries’ may prove short-lived. If definitive disillusion sets in, they may at last begin to realise how profoundly they have ended up repeating the tragic error of the Algerian secularists and the Algerian left after 1989 in their failure to develop a positive vision that they could confidently oppose to the Islamists’ one, a vision of the way to achieve freedom, justice and dignity.