On 4 July, the day after the army overthrew Mohamed Morsi and suspended the constitution, I got an email from a friend in Cairo. A photograph of the 30 June demonstrations in Tahrir Square was emblazoned with the words: ‘This is not a coup’. He didn’t say what else it might be, but soon enough others did. A second revolution, a ‘people’s coup’, a ‘re-colution’: terms coined to describe how the events felt to them, or perhaps to bridge the discomfiting gap between experience and reality. It’s not the first time a coup in Egypt has been called something else: Nasser and the Free Officers who overthrew King Farouk in 1952 also called their coup a revolution. What’s different today is that the most ferocious critics of coup-talk are people like my friend, veterans of the 2011 uprising against Mubarak.
Their insistence is understandable: having brought down another hated president, they’re proud of what they’ve achieved and resent the suggestion that they’ve been manipulated – especially when it comes from Westerners. The youth movement Tamarrod collected 22 million signatures for a petition urging Morsi to resign, and organised the biggest demonstrations in Egypt’s history. You can argue that Morsi’s removal set an alarming precedent, but not that it was unpopular. You can’t even cast it as an elite secular conspiracy against the pious Islamic masses: General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, commander of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, is a devout Muslim (his wife wears a niqab) and has the support of the Salafi al-Nour party. The Salafis are to the right of the Muslim Brotherhood, but they didn’t appreciate the Brothers’ authoritarian style, and they knew an opportunity when they saw one. Within days of Morsi’s removal they flexed their muscles by blocking Mohamed ElBaradei’s appointment as interim prime minister; ElBaradei, who used to say he would never collaborate with the Scaf, accepted the vice presidency as a consolation prize. For now, an obscure jurist called Adli Mansour is acting president, and the economist Hazem el-Beblawi is prime minister. But why bother to remember the names? The ‘re-colution’ will eat its children, just as the revolution did.
Morsi’s supporters portray him as an Islamist Allende, but he squandered a historic opportunity. He had tremendous international support from the US, Western Europe, Turkey and Qatar; and most Egyptians were willing to give him a chance. He entered office vowing to share power, only to hoard it. He antagonised Copts, said nothing when a mob carried out an anti-Shia pogrom, and stoked sectarian animosities by aligning himself with jihadists in Syria. For all his promises to relieve the suffering in Gaza, he seemed more interested in reining in Hamas than in opening the Rafah crossing. (A commentator in Haaretz warns that Israel, now relishing Morsi’s overthrow, may come to miss him.) He couldn’t abide criticism, and appeared to have no more scruples than Mubarak about torture or attacks on the press. Worst of all, he did nothing to improve an economy in free-fall or to reform the security services, while styling himself as a world-historic Islamic leader, an Egyptian Erdoğan. (He ignored the fact that Erdoğan owed his popularity to an economic boom, and that even Erdoğan lost much of his support by overstepping his limits in Taksim Square.) Morsi became that most vulnerable of politicians, a vain mediocrity, an incompetent autocrat. He saw conspiracies everywhere except the real conspiracy forming under his nose.
Coup or not, the army’s intervention was hardly a surprise. That it was being planned was an open secret in Cairo a month before General al-Sisi announced Morsi’s removal. A friend of mine with good contacts in the security establishment, whom I’ll call Samer, heard of the plans in great detail in mid-June. He insists that the 30 June demonstrations were part of an army strategy, and that the security services had given Tamarrod ‘advice, information and possibly weapons’. Activists in Tamarrod, he says, were given to understand that if the 30 June demonstrations were big enough, the army would intervene. What shocked Samer was that while ‘everyone knew,’ Morsi still acted as if he had the upper hand. In his last two meetings with al-Sisi in late June, Morsi reportedly attempted to assert his power as the supreme civilian authority. At the second meeting, an argument apparently broke out when Morsi told al-Sisi that he was being replaced by the more pliant Lieutenant General Ahmed Wasfy, commander of the second field army in the Sinai. Shortly after, the army reported that a civilian man and his six-year-old daughter had been killed in a car in the Sinai: the man was suspected of trying to mount an attack on Wasfy. The army retracted its statement, but since the coup Wasfy has not been seen at meetings of the Scaf, and some observers believe he’s in custody.
Samer said that the army would never have intervened if Tamarrod hadn’t provided it with cover: ‘Everything depended on the success of the mobilisation. Al-Sisi wanted above all to say to international public opinion that they’d tried everything.’ That, of course, is partly true: Morsi refused to step aside, or to form a more inclusive government, until his unceremonious end. And the protests of 30 June did feel like the intoxicating return of the 2011 uprising. You didn’t have to be in Tahrir Square to get swept up in the idea that Egyptians were reclaiming their revolution. But there are important differences. The 2011 uprising brought together left-liberals and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Today, Egyptians live in different, mutually hostile worlds, eye each other with violent distrust, and speak a language that sounds a lot like war. Islamists describe their secular opponents as kuffar (‘unbelievers’) and attack Coptic Christians for their allegedly sinister role in the protests that brought down Morsi, while liberals sing the praises of their new saviour, the black beret wearing General al-Sisi, as he presides over the arrests of Muslim Brothers – ‘precautionary measures to avoid violence’, as ElBaradei delicately put it to the New York Times. The television host Bassem Youssef accused the Brothers of provoking the Republican Guard massacre of their supporters in Rabia al-Adawiya Square on 8 July, and tweeted: ‘instead of writing numerous tweets here’s one to sum it all up MB are the new form of Nazis got it?’ Liberals have welcomed the army’s crackdown with undisguised glee.
Their glee is shared by an improbable international coalition of coup supporters, ranging from Tony Blair and David Brooks (who says Egyptians lack even ‘the most basic mental ingredients’ for democracy) to Bashar al-Assad of Syria, the Israeli security establishment and, above all, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which immediately offered $12 billion in assistance. It’s an axis of nostalgia for the old regime, and for the Arab state system that began to collapse during the Arab Spring. 2011 was a very bad year for the Saudis, who lost their friend Mubarak; 2013, so far, has been a very good one. Not only did they stick it to the Brothers, whom they view as a threat; they humiliated the upstarts in Qatar, the sponsors of al-Jazeera and the Syrian rebels. Not surprisingly, the Brothers have cast Morsi’s downfall as an American-backed coup. It’s a bit rich, as even they must realise: Ambassador Anne Patterson was so friendly to the Brothers that some liberals saw Morsi as an American stooge. Now Obama calls merely for the return of ‘an’ – not ‘the’ – elected government; either way, he faces wrath from some corner of Egypt. The only relationship that really matters to the US, in any case, is its relationship with the army. The army keeps the peace with Israel (at a price of $1.3 billion per year), and it seems to have options: on 7 July, Putin offered to supply Egypt with military assistance if for some reason – say, congressional squeamishness about the coup – US military aid were suspended. Meanwhile, as Ben Hubbard and David Kirkpatrick recently reported in the New York Times, life in Cairo has mysteriously improved. The police have returned to the streets, fuel shortages have subsided and the queues for petrol have vanished. For the pro-Morsi camp, these ‘sudden improvements’ are damning evidence of a conspiracy; for the anti-Morsi camp, of divine intervention.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.