17. Egypt’s revolutions: popular will, the army and the Brotherhood

The Egyptian army have enjoyed popular support and opposition of the years, but now is faced with both (left taken on July 7, 2013 and right taken on August 14, 2013). (Sources: Zeinab Mohamed and Globovisión)

The Egyptian army have enjoyed popular support and opposition of the years, but now faces both. The left picture is taken on July 7, 2013, while the right was taken on August 14, 2013. (Sources: Zeinab Mohamed and Globovisión)

Begin July, the Egyptian people celebrated the disposal of another “dictator”, Mohammed Morsi. His opponents regarded his disposal by the Egyptian army as another successful popular revolution, while his supporters decried the disposal of ‘their president’ as another military coup. Looking back at the previous two Egyptian revolutions (in 1952 and 2011) one thing becomes clear, namely that these three revolutions can all be called both popular and military.

The first revolution in 1952 was preceded by years of political paralysis, tales of corruption at the royal court, while the Egyptian population lived in poverty and the British empire still controlled parts of Egypt (i.e. the Suez channel). This situation led to calls for a strong man to set these wrongs right. A group of rebellious officers from humble backgrounds, who called themselves the Free Officers, answered to this call by staging a revolution on 23 July 1952. In the aftermath of this military coup they dethroned the king of Egypt, King Farouk, turning Egypt into a popular republic. The Free Officers installed one of their own, General Naguib Mahfouz, as Egypt’s first president, the first of a line of presidents with military backgrounds. Consolidating the position of the army as the new ruling class, they abolished the Egyptian aristocracy and replaced all political parties with one national party, the Liberation Rally. They also initiated several popular programs, like land reform and an industrialization program.

The military coup of the Free Officers was welcomed by the Egyptians as a fresh energetic change from the tired old politics of Egypt. It was also welcomed by the Muslim Brotherhood, given their bond with the Free Officers. After the Second World War members of the Free Officers provided training and weapons to the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood to carry out attacks against the British troops in the Suez channel and to fight with the Arab armies in Palestine against the nascent state of Israel.

As result of their past cooperation, the Muslim Brotherhood was exempted from the 1953 decree, which dissolved all political parties. However, the relation between the Muslim Brothers and the Free Officers became soon strained as they felt excluded from the new regime, which chose an overtly secular course and refused to include members of the Muslim Brotherhood in their new government. The Muslim Brotherhood began to stage protests against the Free Officers, but the signal for the crackdown on the Brotherhood came after a failed assassination attempt by a Muslim Brother on president Gamal Abdelnasser (the leader of the Free Officers) in 1954. Some claim this assassination attempt was a set-up to discredit the Muslim Brotherhood, but it would not have been the first time that the Brotherhood carried out a political assassination. The armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood assassinated the prime minister of Egypt in 1948, an act for which its founder Hassan al-Banna was probably killed as a reprisal soon thereafter.

After the failed assassination, the Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed and harshly persecuted during the following decades by Nasser. They were branded the al-Ikhwan al-Mussallahun (or “the Armed Brotherhood”, a pun on their name al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun) and locked up en masse in Egypt’s prisons. However, under Nasser’s pious successor, Anwar al-Sadat (also a Free Officer), the Brotherhood was allowed unofficially to resume its activities to counterbalance the growing influence of communist groups in Egypt. By this time, the Muslim Brotherhood had renounced the use of violence as a political tool.

After the murder of al-Sadat in 1981 by radical Muslims, the air force general Hosni Mubarak became the new president of Egypt. Although Nasser was and still is regarded as a popular Egyptian hero, Mubarak depended more on the Egyptian security state than popular support to stay in power. He tolerated the Muslim Brotherhood more or less, allowing its members to carry out their social and charitable work and to participate as ‘independents’ in the parliamentarian elections (but clearly recognizable by their common slogan: ‘Islam is the solution’) because the Muslim Brotherhood was still officially an illegal organization. The growing popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood as an alternative to the New Democratic Party (the political vehicle of Mubarak) became apparent in the 2005 elections, when it won 88 seats (about 20%) in the People’s Assembly. But this success was not allowed to continue as the following election in 2010 was marked by mass arrests of Muslim Brothers and the subsequent boycott of the elections by the group. As a result, the newly elected parliament did not have one representative from the Muslim Brotherhood.

When the popular revolution against president Mubarak broke out in January 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood took a cautious approach and joined the protests only end January, although younger Muslim Brothers joined the protests at an earlier moment against the advice of the Brotherhood. However, the Brotherhood did not stick long to its calls to dispose Mubarak, but it quickly agreed to hold talks with the vice president and old spy chief Omar Suleiman about more modest reforms.

However, these talks did not stop the popular protests. Moreover, the Egyptian army and its head, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, made clear during the protests that they would not attack the protesters, regardless any orders from the president, and that they would even protect the protesters.  This move was remarkable as the top of the Egyptian army had close ties with Mubarak and could have chosen to crush the protests. The reason that the army chose to support the protesters against Mubarak may be out of real sympathy (most of Egypt’s soldiers are drafted from the poorer part of Egypt’s population) or cold calculation (the best way to protect the army’s economic interests). In the end, however, the army stepped on 11 February forcing Mubarak to step down and installing the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), headed by Field Marshal Tantawi, as the new government.

Although the installation of the SCAF was welcomed by the protesters, the protests continued and increased during the SCAF rule. First, the protesters only wanted the persecution of former regime members. But as the army began to crack down on the protesters, dragging civilian protesters before military courts and subjecting females to ‘virgin tests’, the protests turned against the SCAF and began to demand the return of civilian rule. Although the Muslim Brotherhood took part in the early protests, which called for the persecution of former regime members, it did not participate in the protests against the SCAF. Instead its leader, the Supreme Guide Muhammed Badie, asked the protesters to give the SCAF another chance to lead Egypt peacefully through its transition period. The Brotherhood probably chose the side of the SCAF in order to not blow its chance to come out of the shadows and establish itself as a legal political force. If this meant cosying up to the powers that be (i.e. SCAF), so be it.

The Brotherhood founded its first official political party, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), in February 2011 and its members participated the same year and the next in the elections for the People’s Assembly, Shura Council and presidency. These elections were very successful for the Brotherhood as they won a majority in both houses, plus the leader of the FJP, Mohammed Morsi, won the presidential elections in June 2011, becoming Egypt’s first civil president. However, the SCAF had grown concerned over the growing political power of the Muslim Brotherhood and before it had to transfer its power to Egypt’s newly elected president, it issued a decree that limited the powers of the president. The Muslim Brotherhood saw this as part of a campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood by members of the ‘old regime’. They saw also the decisions of the Supreme Court to dissolve the People’s Assembly and to let former members of the regime run for the presidential elections regardless a law forbidding this as part of this campaign. As a result, the Muslim Brotherhood began to call for protests against the SCAF and the Supreme Court.

When the SCAF officially stepped back and handed the presidency to Morsi on 30 June 2011, it kept the new president in check by installing several of its members in crucial positions. The leader of the SCAF, Field Marshal Tantawi, became Minister of Defence and SCAF member Sami Anan became chief of staff. But president Morsi succeeded in liberating himself from their control begin August 2012, when he dismissed them over a bloody attack by terrorists on an army checkpoint in the Sinai. Tantawi was replaced as Minister of Defence by intelligence chief Abdelfatah al-Sissi. This surprise move did not mean that Morsi had liberated himself from the grip of the Egyptian army, but signalled probably only a new understanding between the two. This is underlined by the fact that Tantawi and Anan became special advisors to the president and other SCAF members were appointed at the same time to new positions in Morsi’s government, like Mohammed al-Assar as Deputy Minister of Defence.

But dark clouds doomed at the horizon for the Muslim Brotherhood. More and more Egyptians grew concerned over the dominant role of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt’s government and their attempts to push through their own program without regard for other groups with the Egyptian population. Especially with the Constituent Assembly (responsible for drafting the new Egyptian constitution) this led to much controversy and the Muslim Brothers were accused of hijacking the drafting of the new constitution and several Christian and secular parties walked out. Moreover, the judiciary pondered whether the Constituent Assembly was legally chosen. Trying to pre-empt another dissolution of a body controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi granted himself in November 2012 unlimited powers and declared that the Constituent Assembly could not be dissolved by any court. Morsi clearly saw himself not subject to any ruling of the Supreme Court. When he was elected president, he had tried to assemble the then already dissolved People’s Assembly. And when the Supreme Court ruled that also the Shura Council was not legally elected, he declared that the Shura Council should continue to make legislation (a power temporally given to the Council) until a new People’s Assembly was elected.

This authoritarian style let to protests on 30 June 2013 to “celebrate” Morsi’s election as president and to call for his removal. The army quickly chose the side of the protesters and issued an ultimatum that the president should meet the protests demands. Morsi flatly refused to do so, which let to the military coup by his Minister of Defence al-Sissi. Al-Sissi defended later the coup as a necessity as Morsi’s authoritarian style would have let the country to destruction. But the coup revealed that Egypt is starkly divided between Morsi-supporters and -opponents. Refusing to accept its ouster from power, the Muslim Brotherhood organised large protests against the coup, which continue to today and have led to much bloodshed and destruction.

Although it is unclear how this last revolution will end, there are several similarities and differences between the three Egyptian revolutions. Unlike the 2011 and 2013 revolutions, the 1952 was not preceded by popular protests. On the other hand, in all three cases the army effectuated the revolutions and received popular support for this. It has learned, however, that staying too long in power on the foreground quickly drains this popular support. Unlike the previous two revolutions, a council with religious and civilian leaders was quickly installed after the ouster of Morsi. However, al-Sissi retained his position on the foreground as Minister of Defence and Deputy Prime Minister and is widely praised (or despised) as the strong man behind the deposition of Morsi. The conclusion is that the Egyptian army has been kingmaker in Egyptian politics since the 1952 revolution, when Egyptian army officers turned the Egyptian kingdom into a popular republic.

The position of the Muslim Brotherhood differed with each revolution. They supported the 1952 revolution, given their common history with the Free Officers and because they hoped to be part of the new regime. But, on the other hand, they also supported Mubarak and, later, the SCAF against ongoing protests. However, the group quickly turned each time on their ‘allies’ if its claim to power was threatened. This happened when it was excluded from the Free Officer government in 1952 and when the SCAF limited the presidential powers in 2012. While they gained much popular support under Mubarak by their social and charitable work, a large part of the Egyptian population has now turned against them as result of their authoritarian style of government. But unlike the previously deposed leaders (king Farouk and president Mubarak), president Morsi still enjoys strong support by parts of the Egyptian population.

The sad fact is that the Egyptian population (or a part of it) welcomed each revolution as a change from the old corrupt politics, only too realize that the new regime is no better than the last one. They welcomed the unlimited rule of president Nasser, but hated that of president Mubarak. They declared upon his ouster that the army and the people were one, only to find themselves at odds a year later.  They gave the Muslim Brotherhood a majority in the parliamentarian elections and democratically elected a Muslim Brother as president, only to call for his forced removal a year later.

The relation between the Egyptian people, army and Muslim Brotherhood remains a complex and fickle one. This makes it hard to read the future of Egypt. Given the ongoing pro- and anti-Morsi protests in Egypt, there are three possible scenarios for Egypt: 1. Egypt returns to a political paralysis like before 1952 with different political groups vying for power; 2. Egypt returns a situation like the 50’s and 60’s when there was stability but when the Muslim Brotherhood was severely persecuted; or 3. Egypt returns to the 90’s when the army and armed Islamist groups were fighting each other for the control of the country. One way or another, it will take a while before Egyptian politics have calmed down again.

Main sources and further reading

– Egyptian daily Egypt Independent – egyptindependent.com

– US think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace – egyptelections.carnegieendowment.org

– Gordon, J., Nasser’s blessed movement, Cairo 1996

–  Lia, B., The Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt : the rise of an Islamic mass movement, 1928-1942, 1998

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