Hazem Kandil writes: 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. [Continue reading...]
The New York Times reports: The military overthrow of a freely elected Islamist fulfilled the predictions of jihadist ideologies that power could never be won through democracy, and they have pounced on the opportunity to proclaim their vindication.
International terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, began calling for Muslims inside and outside of Egypt to take up arms against the government. Now a growing number of experienced Egyptian jihadists are heeding that call, often under the banner of Sinai-based militant groups such as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, according to United States and Egyptian officials involved in counterterrorism. At least two Egyptians who returned from fighting in Syria have already killed themselves as suicide bombers, according to biographies released by the group.
Egyptian military officials say they have also captured Palestinians, Syrians and other foreigners among the terrorists in Sinai. But an American counterterrorism official said Washington believed Ansar Beit al-Maqdis “is largely Egyptian, including some who fought in other conflict zones before returning home,” along with “a relatively small contingent of battle-hardened foreigners.”
The jihadist homecoming appears to have provided the resources and expertise behind a quickening series of attacks that have far exceeded the abilities previously displayed in Egypt. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has shown it can build and remotely detonate large bombs in strategic locations, gather intelligence about the precise timing of movements by their targets, record their own attacks and manage the complicated maintenance of an advanced portable surface-to-air missile — all suggesting combat experience.
“The number of attacks has gone up certainly over the past six weeks,” John O. Brennan, the director of the C.I.A., told a House hearing this week. “And some senior-level Egyptian officials have been killed at the hands of these terrorists.”
Egyptian military officials say they are determined to defeat this new wave of terrorists just as they defeated the insurgency that flared in the 1990s.
Back then, militants who insisted on armed struggle — including Ayman al-Zawahri, the Egyptian-born Al Qaeda leader — eventually gave up on the utility of armed struggle at home, refocusing on attacking Egypt’s Western sponsors.
But the ouster of Mr. Morsi appears to have changed that calculus.
“Zawahri and others have been saying from the beginning that they believed the military would come back, that the military and the West are not going to allow an Islamist government to stay in power,” said Aaron Zelin, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who tracks jihadist messages.
The Brotherhood, which has publicly denounced violence for decades, once helped combat militancy by channeling Islamist opposition into the political process. But the new government has now outlawed the Brotherhood. [Continue reading...]
The Guardian reports: Tony Blair has given staunch backing to Egypt’s government following a meeting on Wednesday with its army leader, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.
In a television interview on Thursday morning, Britain’s former prime minister said Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood had stolen Egypt’s revolution, and the army who deposed him last July had put the country back on the path to democracy.
“This is what I say to my colleagues in the west,” said Blair, visiting Egypt as a representative of the UN, the US, the EU and Russia in their attempts to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. “The fact is, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to take the country away from its basic values of hope and progress. The army have intervened, at the will of the people, but in order to take the country to the next stage of its development, which should be democratic. We should be supporting the new government in doing that.” [Continue reading...]
The New York Times reports: Egyptian prosecutors said on Wednesday that they were charging 20 journalists working for the Al Jazeera television network with conspiring with a terrorist group and broadcasting false images of “a civil war that raises alarms about the state’s collapse.”
The charges are the latest turn in a widening clampdown on public dissent by the military-backed government that ousted President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood six months ago. The government has outlawed the Brotherhood, declared it a terrorist organization, jailed its leaders and killed more than a thousand of its supporters in the streets. Foreign Ministry and state information service officials say that they cannot be certain whether merely publishing an interview with a Brotherhood representative may now be a crime. [Continue reading...]
Roger Cohen writes: In Davos, Secretary of State John Kerry talked for a long time about Iran. He talked for a long time about Syria. He talked for a very long time about Israel-Palestine. And he had nothing to say about Egypt.
This was a glaring omission. Egypt, home to about a quarter of all Arabs and the fulcrum of the Arab Spring, is in a disastrous state. Tahrir Square, emblem of youthful hope and anti-dictatorial change three years ago, is home now to Egyptians baying for a military hero with the trappings of a new Pharaoh to trample on the “terrorists” of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Yet, in a speech devoted to rebutting what he called “this disengagement myth” — the notion that a war-weary United States is retreating from the Middle East — Kerry was silent on a nation that is a United States ally, the recipient of about $1.3 billion a year in military aid (some suspended), and the symbol today of the trashing of American hopes for a more inclusive, tolerant and democratic order in the Middle East.
The silence was telling. The Obama administration has been all over the place on Egypt, sticking briefly with Hosni Mubarak, then siding with his ouster, then working hard to establish productive relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and its democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, then backing the military coup that removed Morsi six months ago (without calling it a coup) and finally arguing, in the words of Kerry last August, that the military headed by Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi was “restoring democracy.” [Continue reading...]
Nathan Brown writes: On June 5, 2013, Amr Hamzawy, an academic and former liberal parliamentarian, tweeted a quick criticism of the verdict of an Egyptian court. Earlier this month, he discovered that he was being investigated for a criminal offense and was barred from leaving the country. The grave crime in question? Insulting the judiciary. If Hamzawy was guilty, then Egypt’s unemployment crisis might soon be solved: half the nation of Egypt can be gainfully employed imprisoning the other half, consisting of all those who have at one point in their life grumbled about a judge or a court verdict they read about.
A couple weeks earlier, Emad Shahin, a less politically prominent (and far less politically involved) academic, known among his colleagues and students for his self-effacing and gentle manner, found himself facing more serious charges of various forms of espionage and sedition. The State Security Prosecution was accusing him of helping to lead a conspiracy so vast and dangerous that it supposedly included the president at the time, Mohammed Morsi.
Both professors have been personal friends of mine for many years. But they have no secrets; they make their political judgments clear in their public statements and writing. I watched Hamzawy ascend politically in the wake of the 2011 revolution, refusing to lose his curly mop of hair, sideburns, or corduroy suits. His sole concession to political life seemed to be to make some (but not all) of his trademark complicated sentences a bit shorter. Shahin, truth be told, has twice run afoul of security forces. Once he discovered the hard way the hitherto unknown fact that Egypt actually has traffic laws by driving a bit too swiftly down a desert road. The police took away his license for a short period. I found out when he told me he could not bring himself to drop me off at the airport since it would involve breaking the law a second time, something he could not do. His second problem seemed to come whenever he entered the campus of the American University in Cairo where he has been teaching since returning to Egypt from Notre Dame and Harvard. Shahin confided that he has been regularly asked for identification since the security guards cannot believe someone so humble in gait and demeanor could possibly be on the faculty.
Both Hamzawy and Shahin are academics, but they have also been critical of the emerging political order in Egypt. Neither is a much of a firebrand. While different in their politics—Hamzawy closer to the liberal end of the spectrum; Shahin more respectful of political Islam—they also stand out for their ability to talk across Egypt’s great divide. Indeed, beneath all their erudition and complicated syntax, both seem ultimately simply nerdier versions of Rodney King: their message to their fellow citizens can be summed up as “People, I want to say–can we all get along?” [Continue reading...]
Andrew Hammond considers the implications of Defence Minister General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi becoming Egypt’s next president: For Sisi, it’s not even necessary to run for president. He can easily manipulate and oversee from his position as defence minister, not least with the military’s new powers of non-oversight enshrined in the constitution. To take on the job of president would be to open himself to the gradual erosion of his cult status among fans. It would also run the risk of tainting the reputation of the military institution itself, especially if his presidency came to be seen as a failure (a point that former editor of Al-Ahram newspaper Mohammed Hassanein Heikal has said worries Sisi). For this reason, there is some speculation that Brotherhood leaders would be relieved if Sisi took the plunge. With the military “other” leading the country, they would be able to avoid a serious review of their mistakes, and the group would then remain a powerful anti-modern force, some factions of which, as one former member put it, could succumb to the politics of resistance and obsession with injustice. Public opinion may also slowly turn in their favour.
Sisi may also be blinded to certain factors of his popularity. He has not put forward a vision to Egyptians of how the country can develop economically or politically. His message has simply been an uber-nationalist “No” to Islamist rule as un-Egyptian and a nostalgic call to order. His rhetorical style, with its home-baked weekend soothers – “I am telling you, don’t worry about Egypt”, “the lion doesn’t eat its cubs” – has gone under the radar of serious analysis because Egypt’s fascistic state propaganda machine has packaged it as sublime and above reproach (while notably reducing coverage of his public pronouncements, adding to the aura of saviour-from-beyond). Yet his tone is reminiscent of a mosque imam at Friday prayers.
Once Sisi dons civilian clothes and has to deal with the daily realities of policy and a restive public, people may well come to tire of him rather quickly. If, as is widely expected, he takes these risks, it will be due to a variety of things: vanity, an honest belief that he has a duty to the country, pressure from inside and abroad (Abu Dhabi, Riyadh), and promises of continued funding from the Gulf to ensure four years that can be deemed a success. It would also be naïve to think that, despite the anti-American sentiment that the media has whipped up, Washington won’t be appraised of his decision in advance, possibly even for its approval. [Continue reading...]
Marc Lynch writes: Citizens of an Arab country recently went to the polls to vote in a highly-touted referendum designed to turn the page on a violent and authoritarian past. The relatively progressive new constitution — which promised multiparty democracy, expanded freedoms, and even provided for unprecedented term limits on the president — was approved overwhelmingly, with 89 percent of people voting in favor and turnout hitting 57 percent. The architects of the initiative hoped that it would restore some legitimacy to a regime that had badly lost internal and foreign approval.
Of course, the Syrian constitutional referendum of February 2012 did no such thing. And who thought that it would? In the context of a bloody civil war and the enduring oppression of a brutal authoritarian single party regime, everyone — even, probably, the most vocal pro-Assad loyalists — understood that the words on paper meant nothing.
It’s unlikely that many people thought of Syria’s farcical vote as they followed the news of Egyptians heading to the polls this week to vote on a new military-backed constitution. The official results showed that a whopping 98.1 percent of voters backed Egypt’s new charter — considerably more than in Syria’s referendum. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt is not Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, but the lessons from Damascus should not be lost on those seeking to parse the meaning of this referendum.
Syria’s swiftly forgotten bit of political theater helps to highlight what really matters about any constitutional referendum: Does the new document actually establish consensual and legitimate rules of the political game? That’s why Egypt’s political prisoners suffering for their political affiliation, peaceful protests, or journalism are a more crucial window into the real significance of the referendum than turnout or approval percentages. [Continue reading...]
Rami G Khouri writes: In the past three years since the overthrow of the Hosni Mubarak’s government, on my regular visits to Cairo I have watched with fascination, pride and hope the birth of Arab citizens and the sudden emergence of a public political sphere – an open, pluralistic space where people from different ideological and cultural perspectives could freely compete for political power and legitimate, democratic control of the government. I have witnessed very different things in Cairo this week, during and after the referendum on the new Egyptian constitution that was drawn up in recent months by the interim government that was installed by armed forces commander Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, and that also has led a tough campaign to outlaw the Muslim Brotherhood.
The constitution was approved by an astounding, and totally expected, 98 percent of voters, for most of those who opposed it boycotted the process altogether, either from conviction or intimidation. The vast majority of international and local observers found almost nothing seriously wrong with the mechanics of the voting, so the 98 percent approval accurately reflects the sentiments of those who voted. Yet many observers criticized the wider political environment that did not permit a serious debate about the merits or the constitution or the unilateral political process that created it.
The frenzied mass support for Gen. Sisi and against the Muslim Brotherhood is genuine, and reflects a peculiar combination of Arab events and sentiments that are only found today in Egypt. This is why I suspect that what we witness these days in Egypt cannot be analyzed by using political criteria, but rather requires the tools of the anthropologist. There is no real political or ideology involved here. There is mainly biology driving events these days, primarily the anthropological need of tens of millions of Egyptians to get on with their lives and – as they see it – prevent the collapse of this society that has functioned without interruption for over 5,000 years. The citizen and public political sphere that were being born in the past three years have momentarily receded from modern history, for they have been overshadowed by the herd and its need for self-preservation, the biological cell’s need for water and protein, and Egyptian society’s need for order. [Continue reading...]
Sarah Carr writes: A referendum on the constitution is rarely about the document itself, but more than any previous plebiscite this vote is about sticking two fingers up at the Brotherhood and expressing varying levels of confidence/adoration in the army and more specifically the person of Commander-in-Chief Abdel Fatah el Sisi.
Voters repeatedly linked a “yes” to the constitution with a “yes to Sisi” yesterday. His picture was everywhere, and in some quarters he is regarded as the second coming. One man actually said this, that Sisi was “sent” to protect Egypt. I remembered 2011, and the Islamists and their rhetoric, a “yes” vote is a vote for Islam. It’s still all about interchangeable deities in the end.
One interesting aspect of all this is that Mubarak was noticeably absent from the military effigies (Nasser, Sadat, Sisi) plastered everywhere, but his spirit permeated everything. He bequeathed the current situation to Egypt, after all, the us vs. them mindset, the suspicion of political or cultural otherness, that idea that Egypt, and Egyptian identity, must be a fortress against interlopers and the ease with which the threat of such interlopers, real or imagined, can steer the country’s course.
This referendum is part of that legacy. It is another brick in the wall of the security state and its relentless homogeneity. In January 2011, there was a small crack put in that wall and we were given a glimpse of a new possibility, of new faces, and new political forces. But through a tragic and increasingly inevitable combination of their own inexperience, blind trust and the public’s unwillingness to back an unknown entity, they were eventually shut out of the public space and we were reduced to the same old tired binary of Islamists and the old state — just like Mubarak promised us.
Now the old state has won, to great applause, and there is absolutely no room for difference, all in the name of stability and progress. [Continue reading...]
Reuters reports: After crushing the Muslim Brotherhood at home, Egypt’s military rulers plan to undermine the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which runs the neighboring Gaza Strip, senior Egyptian security officials told Reuters.
The aim, which the officials say could take years to pull off, includes working with Hamas’s political rivals Fatah and supporting popular anti-Hamas activities in Gaza, four security and diplomatic officials said.
Since it seized power in Egypt last summer, Egypt’s military has squeezed Gaza’s economy by destroying most of the 1,200 tunnels used to smuggle food, cars and weapons to the coastal enclave, which is under an Israeli blockade.
Now Cairo is becoming even more ambitious in its drive to eradicate what it says are militant organizations that threaten its national security.
Intelligence operatives, with help from Hamas’s political rivals and activists, plan to undermine the credibility of Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in 2007 after a brief civil war against the Fatah movement led by Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
According to the Egyptian officials, Hamas will face growing resistance by activists who will launch protests similar to those in Egypt that have led to the downfall of two presidents since the Arab Spring in 2011. Cairo plans to support such protests in an effort to cripple Hamas.
“Gaza is next,” said one senior security official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “We cannot get liberated from the terrorism of the Brotherhood in Egypt without ending it in Gaza, which lies on our borders.” [Continue reading...]
Al Jazeera reports: Prosecutors have questioned officials in one of Egypt’s largest telecommunications companies over an online advertisement featuring a puppet, which a controversial blogger has accused of delivering a coded message linked to the Muslim Brotherhood group, the company said.
The accusations made on Wednesday against Vodafone Egypt’s ad starring well-known puppet Abla Fahita comes days after the military-back interim government designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation.
The government accused the Brotherhood of orchestrating a series of attacks by Sinai militants, but has provided little evidence to prove the connection. The Brotherhood denies the accusations.
Ahmed “Spider,” a self-style youth activist and a strong supporter of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, said a coded message about an upcoming attack is included in the details of the puppet ad.
Al Jazeera reports: After much pulling and tugging between Egypt’s military-backed government and the Muslim Brotherhood, the state has adopted a highly controversial “anti-terrorism” law that effectively freezes any legal activity from the country’s largest opposition group.
The law, which criminalises any kind of participation linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, intensifies Egypt’s political polarisation. The legislation comes ahead of a nationwide referendum on the country’s constitution set for January 5.
The bill was passed after a bomb blast killed 16 people on December 24 in the Nile Delta city of Al Mansoura. Although the law does not include Ansar Bayt al-Makdis, the an al-Qaeda-linked group who claimed responsibility for the attack, legislation does target the Muslim Brotherhood who condemned the assault and whose supporters have been staging daily peaceful protests since the army-led overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi on July 3.
Despite previous government pledges not to shun any faction from the political scene, the law bolts the lock on the return of a party that has won every vote since the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.
Human Rights Watch has said the law banning the Brotherhood is “politically driven”.
Anti-coup protesters, mostly sympathisers of the Muslim Brotherhood, remain determined to stay on the streets, even if it means risking arrest. [Continue reading...]