Egypt’s Counter Revolution

Adam Shatz

So this is how it ends: with the army killing more than 600 protesters, and injuring thousands of others, in the name of restoring order and defeating 'terrorism'. The victims are Muslim Brothers and other supporters of the deposed president Mohammed Morsi, but the ultimate target of the massacres of 14 August is civilian rule. Cairo, the capital of revolutionary hope two years ago, is now its burial ground.

To each setback they have undergone since the overthrow of Mubarak, Egypt's revolutionary forces have responded with the reassuring mantra: 'revolution is a process.' But so is counter-revolution, which seems to have prevailed for the foreseeable future. It won not only because the army and the feloul (remnants of the old regime) had superior resources at their disposal, but because they had a unified sense of their aims, something the leaderless revolutionaries conspicuously lacked. The revolution has been a 'process' in the manner of a 1960s happening, a meeting of different, often bickering forces that shared the stage only to go their own way after Mubarak's overthrow. While accusing one another of betraying the revolution, both liberals and Islamists, at various intervals, tried to cut deals with the army, as if it might be a neutral force, as if the people and the army really were 'one hand', as people had once chanted in Tahrir Square. Neither had the ruthlessness, or the taste for blood, of Khomeini, who began to decapitate the Shah's army as soon as he seized power. While the old regime reassembled its forces, Egypt's revolutionaries mistook their belief in the revolution for the existence of a revolution. By the time Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seized power on 3 July, the revolution existed mainly in their imagination.

The triumph of the counter-revolution has been obvious for a while, but most of Egypt's revolutionaries preferred to deny it, and some actively colluded in the process, telling themselves that they were allying themselves with the army only in order to defend the revolution. Al-Sisi was only too happy to flatter them in this self-perception, as he prepared to make his move. He, too, styles himself a defender of the revolution. According to the army's narrative, al-Sisi and his colleagues saved Egypt two years ago not only from Mubarak but from his son Gamal, whom he was grooming as his successor and who, it so happens, championed a programme of neoliberal 'reform' that might have threatened the army's economic interests. Now, once again, it is saving Egypt, this time from the Muslim Brotherhood and its foreign supporters, from Hamas to the former American ambassador, Anne Patterson, an object of especially passionate loathing in old regime circles. Among the many illusions to have crumbled since the overthrow of Mubarak is the notion that the military has no interest in direct rule, preferring to exert its influence from behind a civilian façade. Now there is talk of al-Sisi, a wildly popular figure in the anti-Morsi camp, ascending to the presidency (Adly Mansour is obviously a placeholder); most of the newly appointed provincial governors are generals closely allied with the old regime.

The story the army tells about the revolution plays well with a lot of Egyptians, perhaps a majority. The army remains a revered institution, in spite of its vast network of privileges, and even though it is essentially paid to stay out of the Arab-Israeli conflict. And al-Sisi speaks a language with considerable popular appeal, a language of narrow, chauvinistic, Egypt-first nationalism. Egyptian politics has long been poisoned by unusually high levels of xenophobia. Al-Sisi is tapping into a deep well of paranoia, fomented throughout the Mubarak era, when he accuses Morsi of having plotted with Hamas. Thanks to al-Sisi, Egypt's 84 million people have been protected from the 'terrorists' in Gaza.

Al-Sisi's rhetoric may be crude, but it is not desperate, and neither was the repression of 14 August. The attack on Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square and other protest camps was carried out in the confidence that many would approve of it, or at least look the other way. After more than two years of political turbulence, economic immiseration and heightened insecurity, few people were eager for another round of confrontation, and the Brothers hadn't convinced anyone beyond their hard core of supporters that Morsi's presidency was a cause worth fighting for. Al-Sisi and the army – praised by John Kerry for 'restoring democracy' when they ousted Morsi – launched their assault also knowing they would face few serious penalties from their foreign sponsors.

The Obama administration cancelled a joint military exercise and postponed the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets, but the military aid won't be cut off. (Even if it were, the Saudis have promised to replace it, as they did when the Americans cut off aid to Pakistan in 1998 after its nuclear test.) Al-Sisi knows the Americans' hands are tied in Egypt. Preserving the peace treaty with Israel and bringing order to the Sinai, an increasingly unruly zone of jihadism and drug smuggling, are the United States' two overriding priorities. And an administration that can't prevent its closest ally from building a thousand more homes for Jewish settlers in advance of peace talks can hardly prevent Egypt's generals from clearing Rabaa al-Adawiya Square. In the absence of tougher measures, the only effect of Obama's stern words is to enable the putschists to spar with their patrons in Washington, a confidence trick the Egyptian military has played on its people for years. Mansour said Obama's remarks 'would strengthen the violent armed groups and encourage them in their methods inimical to stability and the democratic transition'.

It was a revealing statement, because there is no stability, there is no democratic transition, and – so far – the Muslim Brothers haven't succumbed to the temptation of violence. But surely one possible effect of the military's campaign – as Mohammed ElBaradei warned when he resigned as vice president – will be to encourage Morsi's supporters, and other, more radical Islamists, to take up arms. (ElBaradei learned, it seems, that he couldn't keep his hands clean if he continued to sit at the generals' table.) The mob attacks on Christians on 15 August are an early indication of who, besides state officials, might be targeted if Egypt's Islamists turn to violence. As Issandr El Amrani has suggested, al-Sisi may be spoiling for a fight: Islamist violence could well play into his hands. If Egypt's patrons in the West and in Saudi Arabia are capable of no more than toothless chastisement when peaceful protesters are killed, they aren't likely to protest when the army kills armed insurgents – particularly if the insurgents are murdering liberals and Christians. We have seen the results of such a strategy in Algeria during the 1990s, and more recently in Syria. The road ahead in Egypt looks very dark indeed.


  • 16 August 2013 at 9:42pm
    Bruce Robbins says:
    One small quibble about a great piece: "if" the Islamists turn to violence? If? Haven't they already turned to violence in the church burning, etc? It's not an excuse for the military--not at all--but let's at least be clear that we're not waiting for something that the Islamists MIGHT do. Some of them are already doing it.

  • 16 August 2013 at 11:05pm
    Lawrence says:
    A month ago, all the pseudo-"leftist" "revolutionaries," (let's just call them the Pseuds) including Hazem Kandil writing for the LRB, praised the new "revolution." The end of Islamism! Now, a month later, they cry foul. First it was, "This is not a coup." Now, it's "Military coup! Bloody murder." Boo hoo! Why won't Kandil write an article? I want to be inspired that all is well! One of the few important points in Shatz's piece is that many, if not most, Egyptians, hate the Brothers and want to see them crushed. One hears this sentiment all over Egypt, especially in Cairo and Alexandria. "They deserve to be hanged! We'll kill them all!" This is what one hears from cabbies. So, what can "white" liberals living in the West do? Support "legitimacy"? Democracy means nothing in these circumstances. Neither does "legitimacy." Brute force rules. This is the Hobbesian myopia of the Middle East. It's not pretty, but it is what it is. After living in the Arab world for a certain period, I have been shorn of my "liberal" illusions. But I applaud the Pseuds, the foreign educated Egyptian elites who barely know Arabic and their Western colleagues. On a serious note, the problem is that there is no sense of the "national interest" in these countries. Whoever gets power becomes a dictator. The Brothers and the "liberals" have the same primitive mentality. They are equally irresponsible, especially when it comes to protecting the lives of their constituents. In any parliamentary democracy, the prime minister would resign if he faced protests akin to those of Jun. 30. But not Morsi and the Brothers! God is on their side! Read what they write in Arabic, and then perhaps you'll think twice before exonerating the Brotherhood. To paraphrase the New Age mantra, "change begins from within." So far, responsible political forces are a tiny minority in Egypt. But for the sake of the frustrated and angry Egyptian masses, stability, in any form, is best at the moment. An Arabic proverb states: Better a hundred years of tyranny to a day of chaos. This is the sentiment one hears in the streets of Cairo. Salon revolutionaries better find another cause celebre. This was never a revolution. It was a coup from day one, from Feb. 11. And the army always had everything in its pocket. The only mistake the Brothers made was overestimating their position in the whole charade. "We wish Mubarak were back. He was good." This is what one hears in Cairo today. And it's not just the falul who say this. Ordinary people speak fondly of Mubarak. But who can blame them? It may not be pretty, it may not sound nice to LRB readers, but I am sorry to report that it is the truth. Instead of cooing the cliches of their self-satisfied pseudo-liberal sentimentalism, they might feel shame for how the English fucked this country and the rest of the Middle East. Who in Egypt can be normal when one considers the last century of Egyptian history? What would you be like if you spent your whole life in this cul-de-sac dear reader, while you prance about Bloomsbury or sip your martini in Tel Aviv? The only pity is that there isn't more absurdist literature being written in Arabic. This epic tragedy demands real tragedists, not the sentimental pseudo-intellectual "experts" who frame Western discourse on the Middle East, whatever their political affiliation.

    • 17 August 2013 at 11:20am
      nadeem says: @ Lawrence
      about liberals and "democracy", etc I think Lawrence you ignored a fundamental fact: 19th century Europe had violent upheaval, brutal force, etc Similar thing in Latin and South America. So, it is not about a different nature of the Middle Eastern; it is about power struggle and a historical epoch. Some perspectives please.

    • 22 August 2013 at 3:19pm
      jmamoulakis says: @ nadeem
      The conclusion does not necessarilly follow from Schatz' statement, but even if it did, it would not be so obviously absurd.
      he new expansion of the Israeli settlements, eggregious in itself, obviously undermines this latest attempt to negotiate a settlement to the conflict that inflames all others in the Middle East and in much of the rest of the world. If the the number of deaths caused thereby were the only measure of the failure of a policy, the failure of the U.S. to prevent its ally from acting to underminne the renewal of negotiations with the Palestinians may well be worse than its failure to prevent the the suppression of the islamists by the Egyptian army, for will result in the prolongation of a murderous conflict with a long history and, apparently, an endless future.

  • 17 August 2013 at 2:03am
    sda66 says:
    Schatz thinks that Jews building houses is much much worse than Arabs killing their own civilians.
    "An administration that can’t prevent its closest ally from building a thousand more homes for Jewish settlers in advance of peace talks can hardly prevent Egypt’s generals from clearing Rabaa al-Adawiya Square "

    The absurd premise here is that Israeli housing construction in the West Bank is far worse than murdering hundreds of protestors.
    I'm not sure where such poisonous thinking comes from, but it's sneering orientalism of the worst sort.

  • 17 August 2013 at 3:50am
    glenntwo says:
    I was wondering about that line too, Bruce. But is there evidence that the attacks on Copts were based on a Brotherhood policy or order from above? Not that that makes anything OK, but there's a difference between that and the Brotherhood becoming an organized insurgency. I think that's what Shatz meant by saying they had not "succumbed to the temptation of violence."

  • 17 August 2013 at 6:14am
    musicmaster says:
    I am amazed at this kind of articles. They propagate the false belief that democracy was still alive under Morsi. Wasn't Al-Shater discarding the anti-Morsi protests as "mostly Christians" - in the process calling for violence against Christians? Didn't Morsi send his thugs to deal with protests against his regime? Weren't Shiites killed thanks to call by Morsi. Wasn't their impunity for Brotherhood inspired religious violence? Not to mention the many small acts of arrogance and power hunger that didn't reach the international press.

    • 17 August 2013 at 11:16am
      nadeem says: @ musicmaster
      also the attack on the workers actions

  • 17 August 2013 at 11:15am
    nadeem says:
    I think there is a fundamental flaw in the analysis above. Why has 3rd of become the start of the counter-revolution? What about having a deeper critical analysis: the counter-revolution started much earlier, it started when the SCAF took control and when the others including the Brotherhood joined and accepted the elections framework and when the Western regimes supported that process? I think this has become a taboo question to ask.

  • 17 August 2013 at 7:17pm
    stanly says:
    When did the counterrevolution begin? On 3 July 2013? On 14 August? Or does it go back to the days when the Muslim Brotherhood was in power and when they mistook the Post-Mubarak mandate to Islamize Egypt? The Egyptian revolution was a classic example of leaderless revolutions. There was no vanguard of revolution in Egypt. There was no organized machinery for the revolutionaries to sustain the true spirit and the life of the revolution. Those who said Leninism was also dead should better rethink. Once Mubarak was gone and the Egyptian polity was thrown open, Muslim Brotherhood, the reluctant revolutionaries, were the only organized lot. And expectedly, they reaped political gains. For the Brothers, it was historic opportunity. They looked at the Arab Spring as a historic opening for them to enter a new phase. But a sectarian ideology remains a sectarian ideology. Once in power, the Brothers lost all their famed patience that enabled them survive through decades of oppression in different parts of the world, and immediately embarked on a new course of changing Egypt's destiny, apparently antagonizing a large chunk of the population, who were already suspicious of the Brothers' religious designs for the country. This chasm only widened with the increasing assertiveness of the Brothers and authoritarian tendencies of President Morsi, leading to the June 30 movement. The Brothers cannot be absolved of the present crisis, though they are the victims now. But a coup is a coup, even if it's a "recolution" is the most important message of the Egyptian crisis. An army will always remain an army and letting it occupy to solve the political problems would only deepen those problems. Look at what happened after the army's intervention? It claimed its intervention became necessary to restore order. Whose order is being restored now, after killing off around 1,000 people? But that's what the army knows. Sadly, that's what the anti-Brotherhood revolutionaries failed to realize.

  • 19 August 2013 at 12:47pm
    Tobias Pester says:
    (1/2) So the Egyptian military's strategy is: allow oppositional elected government at first, manipulate it,— philosophermonkey (@philomonk) August 8, 2013

    (2/2) so it fails and thus discredit political opponent and institution of civil government among ppl altogether #Egypt #MuslimBrotherhood— philosophermonkey (@philomonk) August 8, 2013

    Yes, I too think discrediting civilian government was their strategy, especially with reports of police forces, for instance, mysteriously having been absent during Morsi's presidency, creating a strained public safety situation, when they returned to the streets in usual numbers after the coup. That looked like an effort to manipulate the civilian government's public safety record to me. You know, allow civilian government, make it fail, have people turn to only other alternative that presents itself--the military.

    You can see how al-Sisi is being built up as a public figure now and come the election he will run for president. And you might end up having just another Mubarak.

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