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Trapped inside the fear bubble of the Egyptian military

Human rights activists show caution in criticising the Egyptian military, fearful of the uncertain political climate.

Last Modified: 12 Aug 2013 11:25
Mark LeVine

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.
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"The far more important debate concerns whether in the wake of Morsi's removal it is pragmatic or even morally and politically legitimate to condemn both the military and the Brotherhood and Morsi," writes Mark LeVine [EPA]

"Can you imagine how much the Brotherhood screwed things up that only a year after chanting in Tahrir against the military and police the same people were dancing with them?"

So explained one of Cairo's most seasoned human rights activists, wondering in amazement at how the Ikhwan blew their chances to cement their hold over Egyptian political life for years to come.

However the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins at Raba'a al-Adawiyya and al-Nahda end, it is undeniable that this disaster is one that the Brotherhood has largely brought upon itself. Whether attempting to govern by alienating most every constituency outside the military, or establishing sit-ins in crowded residential zones with little room for escape should government forces attack, the Brotherhood's leadership has shown a remarkable level of strategic myopia during the last two years that could well cost the movement dearly in blood and social standing for years to come.

Extreme schadenfreude 

Indeed, whether or not one considers the events of the last month a continuation of the revolution, a coup or even a "people's coup" ( inqilab ash-sha'bi , as one Egyptian TV presenter creatively described it), it's impossible to miss the incredible level of anger that has developed against (former) President Morsi, the Freedom and Justice Party, and the Brotherhood more broadly during the last year. Hossam Baghat, head of the Egyptian Initiative on Personal Rights, best captured the spirit of this sentiment when he tweeted on July 4: "Sad it had to happen this way, concerned for the future, but very happy to see brotherhood defeated, humiliated after all they did to us."

If a well-known human rights campaigner can express publicly this level of schadenfreude, it speaks volumes to how the Brotherhood alienated pretty much every sector of society during its short time in power. As one of Egypt's leading scholars of the country's Islamist movements explained it over a late night tea near Tahrir only hours before Eid al-Fitr began, "They turned every one into an enemy. The amazing thing is that they thought they could alienate everyone and still win."

Things didn't have to turn out this way. Instead of making patently impossible promises to solve a huge chunk of the country's long-interminable problems in his first 100 days, the President could have gone before the Egyptian public and declared honestly the nature of the forces he faced and the need to continue the revolution through comprehensive reforms that would take on the deep state and economic elite.

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Of course, he would have faced enormous opposition from those forces had he done so. And to have any chance at even modest success, he would have had to put aside divisive social issues and increasing grabs for power in favour of building a powerful coalition with liberal and revolutionary parties to institute systematic economic and political reforms. Such a move would likely have failed; but the reality was that whoever first took the reins of government in the post-Mubarak era was likely doomed to failure. So entrenched remains the country's still dominant power elites that it will likely take years and many failed attempts at reform before the balance of power shifts towards a truly revolutionary change in Egypt's political economy.

What was most important in such a political environment was to set a standard for honest governance, open politics, and addressing the massive structural problems Egypt faces that could be a benchmark for subsequent governments.

But instead of working to advance the revolution it was late to join, from the moment Mubarak was removed from power the Brotherhood and its soon-to-be-established Freedom and Justice Party strengthened a relationship with the military and deep state that it had been building for years. Ironically, this strategy facilitated both its assumption of, and ultimately removal from, power precisely because with the military as its patron (however half-hearted), it could follow its most authoritarian, patriarchal and chauvinistic instincts rather than laying the foundation for an inclusive and progressive political culture in the long term.

The Brotherhood isn't alone to blame in this process. As Sally Toma, one of the central figures of the January 25 (2011) uprising and co-founder of the newly established Manifesto Masr (Egypt) project, explains, "We became extras to our own revolution that the Muslim Brotherhood and army negotiated. We allowed it to happen, that was our mistake."

The human rights test

Morsi and his supporters naturally dispute this description of his brief tenure, pointing to a number of examples of his working to bring Egyptians together, deal honestly and soundly with the country's numerous problems, and increase the government's respect and protection of basic human rights as evidence of a good-faith attempt to change the country's political culture which deserved more time to unfold.

Yet to the extent there were attempts to address these issues either rhetorically or through official policies, these moves were overwhelmed by a stream of actions that belied attempts at greater transparency, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. As twenty human rights organisations declared on June 27, one year into its rule the Morsi government was responsible for "manifold abuses and the systematic undermining of the rule of law."

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I don't know a single human rights campaigner or activist who didn't believe the human rights situation under Morsi deteriorated. Bahey al-Din Hassan, Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies explained with sadness, "We have spent twenty years defending the Brotherhood and Islamists when no one else would. But as soon as they had power, they turned their back on human rights. The question is, have they finally learned that human rights are important and have to be extended to everyone at all times?"

If one had to describe the general mood of the country's human rights community a year into Morsi's term (in fact, already by December 2012, when I last met with them) it would be a combination of exhaustion and despair. And that was before June 30 forced them into an even higher gear of overdrive.

I also cannot think of a single revolutionary figure - by which I mean a figure that actually played a role in the revolution and not merely after February 11, 2011 - who didn't think Morsi's removal wasn't both necessary and welcome. However one wants to critique the manner of Morsi's removal and whether it can be considered meaningful or democratic or revolutionary, the fact that almost the entirety of Egypt's liberal and progressive political and activist figures, as well as tens of millions of citizens, turned so viscerally against him reveals a profound betrayal of public trust by a movement long famed for its abundance of precisely this commodity.

Can you fight two enemies at one time?

While most of the local and Western media remain concerned with whether what happened was a coup (nqilab ) or a continuation of the revolution (thawra - never mind that historically the two terms have been conflated and confused in Arabic), the far more important debate on the ground now concerns whether in the wake of Morsi's removal it is pragmatic or even morally and politically legitimate to condemn both the military and the Brotherhood and Morsi.

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Here there is no specific logic to who adopts which position. I've sat with anarchists on different days who've held diametrically opposed position, liberals like April 6 Movement co-founder Ahmed Maher who admit their willingness to speak out against the military ("If we assume it’s not a coup, and I tell people it’s not a coup, when they screw us again like they did in 2011, what would I tell people?" he tweeted to a fellow activist) has cost their membership dearly, revolutionary rappers like Arabian Knightz expressing strong support for the June 30 "revolutionary" while good friend Ramy Essam, continue the now lonely call for the "downfall of the military rule" with increasing stridency.

Even some human rights activists have told me that "now is not the time to take on the military," although the majority believes it has an obligation to condemn all abuses and violence, no matter the perpetrator.

The Tamarrod movement's wholehearted support of the military-led transition is not surprising, as several of its leaders are known for Nasserist sympathies that naturally ally them to the military. For most activists, however, the argument is at heart strategic rather than ideological or moral. There is a sharp divide of opinion about whether anything can be achieved by taking on the military when it is in the midst of an "existential struggle" against the Brotherhood (as several activists described it) and enjoys, at least for the moment, extremely broad public support.

One the one hand, activists opposed to criticising the military believe that the public will simply not accept such criticisms now, and thus doing so is not only a waste of time but will cost revolutionaries support later on.

More important in my view is the belief expressed by almost half a dozen activists in the course of a week of conversations that the revolutionary movement was never going to be able to defeat both the Brotherhood and the military in a struggle for Egypt's future. And so to have the army hand such an epic defeat to the Brotherhood is a gift whose value is hard to overestimate - which is precisely why so many Leftists are loathe to turn it down.

"Let them fight each other," is a common refrain one hears among activists of various stripes, with the assumption that once the military finishes the Brotherhood off but has failed to achieve any of its promised changes, the revolutionaries will be in a much stronger position to continue the revolution than they would have otherwise been.

There is a strong logic to this view. But it is, first, a calculation that could well be wrong - the military could well emerge much stronger from its defeat of the Brotherhood, and through its control of the economic levers improves the lives of ordinary Egyptians enough to delay the much anticipated day of reckoning by years.

As important, however, is the moral dimension of such a calculus. Just as leftists have rightly argued that the Morsi/Brotherhood rule was characterised by increasing incitement against Christians and repression and violence against activists, the military's return to open power has been accompanied by an unprecedented level of incitement against the Brotherhood that is meeting with willing ears, so much so that Egyptians are expressing increasingly little reserve about the massacres perpetrated by the military against members.

For human rights and progressive political activists this is a disaster in the making, not just on its own terms but because it is inevitable that the same political logic and rationality used to demonise the Brotherhood will most certainly be used against other opponents of the new/old regime (as it's already being used against Palestinians and Syrians). Indeed, activists like Alaa Abdel Fattah, Ahmed Maher, Ramy Essam and many human rights activists have all told me that they face increasing marginalisation from the government-controlled and aligned media, as well as slander, and threats of attacks and even rape.

Many expect direct state repression to return against them in the near future. Will the masses of Egyptians express any more anger against their ostracisation (or worse) than they have at the Brotherhood's? It's a question to which few expect a positive answer.

Willful amnesia

The competing narratives of various sides in the present conflict are all apparent when you enter the Raba'a al-Adawiyya sit-in, a parallel reality to the hegemonic discourse surrounding the removal of Morsi and the events leading up to it. Or rather, it's to enter a surreal space, a highly contrived a mix of contradictory impulses in which slogans such as "viva revolucion," "ath-thawra mutamirra" (the revolution continues), "silmiyya" (peaceful), children playing on specially brought-in swing sets, comedic video take-downs of as-Sissi, and photos of martyrs from the massacres of the last month all clash with the violence perpetrated by the Brotherhood against alleged opposition activists, mistreatment of neighborhood residents who've grown weary of the sit-in, and a history of incitement against Copts, Shi'a, and now anyone who refuses to accept the ongoing legitimacy of the now ex-President.

This is coupled what El Nedim Centre for the Rehabilitation of Torture Victims director Aida Seif ad-Dawla describes as the "willful amnesia" exhibited by Brotherhood members towards the realities of the many failures and violence associated with Morsi's time in power. Of course, Seif ad-Dawla points out, this amnesia is suffered no less by supporters of Morsi's removal, who have thrown aside the harsh history of violence and oppression by the military state and its various security and police services to embrace a renewed transition process led by the very forces who were arresting and even shooting anti-Morsi protesters only months ago.

The problem, as she and other human rights activists argue, is that there can be little hope for substantive political, social and economic change in Egypt until such memories, and their continuation into the present, are fully confronted, processed, and transcended by Egyptians as a political community write large as well as at the level of the individual citizen. Of course, few countries have succeeded in achieving such a level of political maturity, whether advanced democracies like the United States or still authoritarian societies like Egypt.

New spaces, new manifestos

In this context, initiatives such as the widely reported upon "3rd Square" movement and the newly established " Manifesto Masr" (Egypt) are among the slowly but steadily growing instances of groups attempting to encourage such a process by holding both the Brotherhood and the military to the same standard. While the 3rd Square has won at least unofficial support from more radical groups, like the Revolutionary Socialists, the movement is held with strong suspicion by many activists because of the presence of the Ahrar movement associated with the Salafi politician and former presidential candidate Hazem Abu-Ismail, whose politics are not known for their tolerance towards difference and more liberal views on most issues.

Rivals rally in Egypt on Eid holiday

Manifesto Masr emerges out of the same group of creative activists behind the successful "Kazeboon" (Liars) campaign, whose videos did much to show up the inconsistencies and lies of the SCAF and then Morsi regimes. This new iteration seeks to place itself in slightly different position. At a lovely Iftar last week along the banks of Zamalek, just across from Tahrir at the Qasr an-Nil bridge, about 60 activists from various liberal and progressive trends listened to Sally Toma and activist blogger Wael Eskandar do a "soft launch" of the project.

After the meal they explained how their new initiative will not merely remind Egyptians of the radical nature of the revolution's original claims to "bread, freedom and social justice," but offer all political trends advice on how to specify these broad demands in ways that can attract Egyptians who are presently enamored with al-Sissi back to revolutionary action. In a context where, despite the seemingly renewed power of the military and deep state, the Egyptian system is becoming increasingly factionalised or "sectificied" [Ar.] a la Lebanon's fractious political system, a savvy and well run series of campaigns that seeks to re-infiltrate the radical message of the January 25 revolution into mainstream media could well play an important role in ensuring that the radical impulse of the 2011 revolution helps guide its present, extremely ambivalent phase.

"We are many but we feel alone," Sally Toma told me before we parted as she considered the number of people who, while presently silent, still believe that the day of reckoning between the people and the military/deep state will arrive sooner or later. As the military and Egyptian power elite's true colours inevitably return to view, the now lonely voices advocating for the revolution's original and inevitable trajectory of radical and systematic change will likely find themselves in increasingly good company.

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on 'rock and resistance and the struggle for soul' in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.

Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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