Sisi’s Turn

Hazem Kandil

There is no getting around it. What Egypt has become three years after its once inspiring revolt is a police state more vigorous than anything we have seen since Nasser. As in the dark years of the 1960s, the enemy is everywhere, and any effort to expose and eradicate him is given popular assent. Since Egypt’s national security, its very existence as a sovereign state, is said to be at stake, those who refuse to toe the line must be ostracised, and those who persist punished as traitors. The talk of human rights that sustained the original uprising is dismissed as a distraction, the preoccupation of self-righteous amateurs, while seasoned servants of the old regime are rehabilitated. Most disheartening of all, the sycophants who rushed for cover three years ago are re-emerging to offer their services to the new masters. Egypt’s briefly empowered citizens have come to see that their intervention almost paved the way for religious fascism, and now that disaster has been averted, they prefer to keep their hands off the political controls. Mubarak warned that the alternatives to his rule were Islamism or chaos. Both were tried and neither was liked. People wanted bread, dignity and freedom, so they shunned the daydreamers of 2011 and pinned their hopes on a new Nasser on the Nile. If only Abdel Fattah al-Sisi could be installed as president, all their problems would be over. Crowning a field marshal has become the battle the citizenry is determined to win.

How did it come to this? As the Brothers tell it, their embattled president spearheaded a revolutionary assault which provoked a counter-revolution. This is pure fiction. It is certainly true that the Brothers have been outmanoeuvred by an alliance of old regime loyalists and secular activists. But it was the Brothers’ complacency that alienated their revolutionary allies and, more important, the people. The 2011 uprising left the security apparatus intact, and the military regained the autonomy they had lost under Mubarak. But the question of who would hold political office was open to negotiation, and the generals didn’t mind trying out the power-hungry Islamists. They were more organised than the activists who sparked the revolt, and less embittered than the remnants of the old regime. They didn’t pose a threat to military privileges and deferred amiably to the security forces who set out to crush the revolt. And they had no intention of dismantling the infrastructure of dictatorship and submitting themselves to the volatile moods of a democratic process; they just wanted to take Mubarak’s place at the top. Morsi was no more Egypt’s Allende than Sisi was its Pinochet.

On 1 February 2011, while the protesters were still entrenched in Tahrir Square, Morsi and the future head of the Brothers’ Freedom and Justice Party, Saad al-Katatni, entered into secret negotiations with the intelligence chief Omar Suleiman for a larger share of power in return for stopping the revolt. Once Mubarak was ousted, the Islamists adopted the military-security programme: elections first, constitution and reform later. Those who argued that new democracies need to establish some basic guidelines before rushing to the ballot box were dismissed. The idea that the security agencies should be overhauled before any election took place was seen as nothing more than a delaying tactic. Throughout the transitional period, the Brothers blamed the protesters for the violence directed at them by the state – they were staging illegal protests, after all – and repeatedly alleged that the activists were pawns of foreign intelligence services. In parliament, they took every opportunity to praise Egypt’s gallant law enforcers and blocked every attempt to hold them accountable. As soon as Morsi was sworn in, he congratulated the police for reforming themselves, audaciously referring to them as esteemed partners in the 2011 uprising. Even more significant was the Brothers’ decision to drop a report detailing police crimes – among them the shooting of demonstrators – even though its contents had been leaked to several newspapers (including Al-Shorouk and the Guardian) and Morsi’s handpicked prosecutor had promised arrests. Needless to say, security abuses surged during Morsi’s short tenure, and official coercion was reinforced by the Brothers’ own militias.

The Brothers believed that sacrificing revolutionaries was morally and practically justified: they felt entitled to exclusive rule after decades of toil. They had spent their best years behind bars: why should they now share power with a bunch of political adolescents? And how could the guardians of Islam ally themselves with irreverent secularists? As for the security apparatus, even if it could be dismantled, why would they want that when it was such an asset to an organisation obsessed with foiling secular conspiracies and policing public piety? It isn’t hard to understand the cynicism that greeted the Brothers last June when they accused the protesters of selling out the revolution and allowing the police state to ‘return’.

The Egyptian military had hoped to relieve itself of the burden of everyday governance in order to focus on more pressing concerns: rebuilding its capacity as a combat force; diversifying its sources of hardware beyond the US; demilitarising Sinai; and finding ways to project its power in the region. They expected the Islamists to pacify the street. But the Brothers proved to be the worst sort of negotiator: unprincipled and incompetent. None of the three contenders in Egypt’s post-revolt political sphere was strong enough to rule alone: the old regime was resented; the Islamists were inexperienced; and the activists were clueless. Alliances were needed to break the deadlock. And because the Brothers controlled the executive and the legislature, the ball was in their court. For months, people put their lives on hold, wondering when and how the stalemate would come to an end. But the Brothers were unwilling to compromise. Their plan was to win over the agents of coercion, as Mubarak had, but they failed to see that their intransigence would drive their political opponents into a tactical alliance against them, and that such an alliance would force the military to revise its stance.

General Commander Sisi offered to broker an agreement, but the Brothers flexed their muscles, deploying armed supporters to clear the anti-Islamist sit-in around the presidential palace in December 2012, killing and torturing dozens in the process (of all the court cases faced by Morsi and his aides, this is the one that poses the biggest danger to them). As tensions in the country grew, a body which took the name Tamarod (‘Rebellion’) called on the people to take to the streets on 30 June last year to force early elections. The campaign won the support of all non-Islamist powers, old regime and revolutionary alike. There was an attempt to exclude the former from the movement, but the revolutionaries couldn’t build a solid enough front on their own, and finally decided that their best option was to throw in their lot with their past tormentors. Trading their revolutionary aspirations for a modest reform agenda seemed better than allowing an Islamist regime to remain in charge.

Yet the Brothers’ adversaries would not have been able to field enough foot soldiers to ensure the army’s co-operation had the masses abstained. Last summer’s popular outburst was historically unprecedented. Millions took to the streets, not once, but three times in the space of a month: to rebel against Morsi on 30 June, to celebrate his overthrow on 3 July, and to express their defiance of Islamist violence on 26 July. It’s probably true that some of the protesters were paid by the old regime, and that others were persuaded to get involved by the anti-Islamist media. But six decades of political bribes and state propaganda never brought out a fraction of that number: Mubarak couldn’t get more than a hundred thousand supporters onto the streets either at the height of his power or in the moment of his final desperation; and demonstrations on behalf of the old regime during the 18 months between Mubarak’s downfall and Morsi’s election barely mustered a few thousand. The reality is that the Islamists alone provoked this unsurpassed popular eruption: the Brothers’ dismal performance in government is what ultimately convinced even the most passive of citizens – the so-called ‘sofa party’ – to leave the comfort of their homes.

Perhaps the Brothers underestimated the electorate. People would still vote for us, they boasted, even if we nominated a dead dog. It wasn’t exactly flattering. Stubborn and scornful of the people as Mubarak was, he was wise enough to grasp that he had to make concessions to gain popular support. In each of the three speeches he delivered during the revolt of 2011, he gave significant ground. First he dismissed the cabinet, then the leadership of the ruling party; he dissolved the infamous Policy Committee and formed a committee to purge the constitution of unpopular clauses; and then he pledged that neither he nor his son would run in the presidential elections, which were only nine months away. Morsi, in contrast, wouldn’t even reshuffle his cabinet or reinforce his legitimacy with a popular referendum. Warned of looming rebellion, he described his opponents as a handful of old regime scoundrels, and delivered an incredible two and a half hour speech ridiculing his enemies by name and laughing repeatedly at his own jokes. After being shown helicopter-recorded footage of the millions demonstrating against him, he maintained that this ‘Photoshop revolution’ actually involved no more than a few thousand people. In a second record-breaking speech (as it turned out, his last), he shook his fist repeatedly, and insisted he was Egypt’s legitimate leader 98 times in 45 minutes. What his audience saw was not the arrogance of power but the vanity of a fool.

This was a historic uncoupling of Islam and Islamism in the Muslim popular psyche. There were two reasons for it, one secular, the other religious. As citizens, people were appalled by the Brothers’ incompetence in government; and as Muslims, they were outraged by the use of their religion to explain away this incompetence. The Brothers had flaunted Islam to excuse their authoritarianism. The people no longer saw them as god-fearing underdogs striving for power so that they could implement Islam, but as another set of corrupt politicians using Islam to justify themselves. They also detected a darker, more sinister side to the Morsi presidency. The religious zeal his election inspired wasn’t taken seriously at first. People were amused to learn that their elected president was seen as the long-awaited liberator of Jerusalem, destined for a leading role in Armageddon. They scoffed at the idea that Morsi was a reincarnation from the time of the Prophet, and that anyone carrying his picture to their grave would be ensured a safe passage through purgatory. But they also noted the frequent denunciation of the government’s critics as enemies of Islam; the creation of armed groups to monitor public morality; the declaration of a jihad against Shiites; the release of thousands of militants by presidential amnesty (to be available to terrorise opponents when needed); and the subsequent declaration of an Islamist mini-emirate at the heart of Sinai.

On the eve of the June uprising, Islamists set up camp outside the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo and stayed there for forty nights. People would drop by to have a look and to hear what was being said. What they witnessed stiffened their will to rebel. They saw al-Qaida banners at every corner; heard that the al-Qaida leader, the Egyptian medic Ayman al-Zawahri, was making terrorist threats on the Brothers’ behalf; and listened to speeches rallying militants from around the globe, encouraging them to blow themselves up in public squares. Opponents were collectively excommunicated, and threatened with eternal damnation; David’s battle with Goliath was invoked as were the Prophet’s victories over infidels and hypocrites. Any number of grandiose claims were made: that the Archangel Gabriel prayed among the Brothers; that the country’s transitional president was a closet Jew, that the Pope was behind the plot to remove the Brothers. Young children marched in white shrouds to express their readiness for martyrdom. Visions were relayed night after night from the stage. A young virgin, the Brothers’ chief propagandist recounted, dreamed that Sisi was drowning in blood while also screaming that Morsi would return only if his followers expended more blood.

This is why most Egyptians accepted the interim government’s designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation in December 2013. Everyone knows that the actual perpetrators of violence are the Brothers’ unruly allies: al-Qaida-style groups such as Ansar beit al-Maqdis and Al-Jama’a al-Islamiya. But by turning a political clash into a fully-fledged religious war between Islam and its enemies, the Brothers created a context for terror. In the eyes of their compatriots, they were ultimately responsible for every car bomb, suicide attack and assassination, as well as the ceaseless attacks on churches and museums.

As the Brothers committed political suicide, the security apparatus took advantage. The horrific bloodletting during the clearing of the Islamist sit-ins on 14 August last year was only the beginning. It was followed by the clampdown on the Brothers and, before long, the revolutionary activists paid the price for their Faustian bargain. Stories about their unscrupulous attitude after the revolt were revealed – or fabricated – and used as an excuse to lock them up. Revolutionary artists (including such international celebrities as the novelist Alaa al-Aswany and the comedian Bassem Youssef) were now regarded with growing suspicion, while the most despised propagandists of the Mubarak era were praised. It became clear that the Brothers and the would-be revolutionaries were to foot the bill for Mubarak’s crimes as well as their own. The country became locked in a vicious circle: the more the Islamists resisted, with fits of disruption and violence, the greater the popular support for repression, and the more confident the security forces felt about extending their crackdown to secular activists, human rights groups and foreign journalists.

Meanwhile Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the man who holds Egypt’s fortunes hostage, remains elusive. In a referendum called by his interim government, a new constitution was approved on 14 January this year by 98 per cent of those who voted on a turnout of 38 per cent of registered voters; in 2012, Morsi’s constitution was approved by 64 per cent on a 33 per cent turnout. Most believe Sisi was right to oust the Brothers. He had choices. He could have shored up Morsi, who had never challenged military privileges, and desperately courted the general’s political protection. And if he had, the Islamists would have been in his debt for ever. Sisi is known to be a religious man, and his wife wears the veil, so no one suspects him of Atatürkism. In the end, he and his officers must have realised that supporting the Brothers would entail massive repression, as the Brothers’ failures were bound to drive millions onto the streets, with or without the encouragement of the old regime. The country risked sliding into civil war. To repress the people on behalf of the Brothers would be to identify with Islamist despotism, as in Iran. Intervention on the side of ‘the people’ seemed the most efficient way to minimise the threat to national security. Better to be accused of plotting a coup than be seen as impotent or in league with fascists.

Sisi had the support of the entire armed forces, not just a politicised junta, and was soon able to prove it even though the Brothers moved quickly to win over the lower ranks after Morsi was deposed and claimed to have many new recruits. Rumours circulated about foreign governments making generous offers to any senior officer willing to dislodge Sisi. In these circumstances, it might have been thought prudent to keep the army tucked up safely in distant garrisons. Instead, Sisi decided to deploy officers and soldiers to protect the demonstrations he personally called for on 26 July. Evidently, he wasn’t worried that some of his men might not come back: that they would join forces with the Islamists or march back to the Defence Ministry to arrest him. In the event, not a single soldier defected. At the end of January, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) agreed to release Sisi so that he could run for the presidency.

Yet Sisi has never disclosed his plan for the country’s future – assuming he has one. He projects himself as a new Nasser, but his idol had vast resources thanks to the land he confiscated from the rich, the foreign companies he nationalised, and the Soviet Union. Nothing like this is available to Sisi. Since the late 1970s, Egypt’s economy has come under the control of private businessmen able to liquidate their investments and move their funds offshore at the first sign of trouble. And the pockets of Egypt’s supporters in the Gulf are not as deep as those of Communist Russia during the Cold War. Partnership with Egypt’s capitalists in a US-style military-industrial complex might prove useful to the armed forces, but it won’t bring social justice any closer. What will happen when those who currently believe that Sisi’s presidency is the answer to their problems – to unemployment, poverty, inadequate healthcare, under-funded education, shantytowns and all the rest – come to realise that the country’s structural problems are beyond his capacity to solve? And how will Sisi react if his popularity begins to crumble? It is possible that a draconian epoch is just beginning.