July 27, 2013 will go down in the annals of history as an infamous day not dissimilar to June 4, 1989, when the Chinese government used disproportionate force in Tiananmen Square, snuffing out a peaceful protest with violence.
There is one major difference though. The overkill tactics used against tens of thousands of ousted president Mohamed Morsi supporters staging an open sit-in protest in Nasr City is not over. Since early July, they have been camping outside a mosque and a barracks in that area to demand Morsi’s reinstatement.
Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim and General Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s vow to end the sit-in has targeted an emboldened and measurable segment of Egypt’s political and civil societies that have thus far refused to blink.
The army has twice miscalculated – and may even have duped its political partners: The first miscalculation was calling for their endorsement to forcibly oust Morsi. The second was creating a public “mandate” for soldiers to fight so-called terrorism (in other words, “local militias”).
After the latest massacre, many people around the world will be inevitably and understandably asking questions not only about the immorality and illegality of what has happened, but also about whether the serious killings of more than a hundred protesters qualifies as “state terrorism”.
Soldier or politician?
So is Sisi a soldier or a politician? At this point, it doesn’t really matter anymore. Military skill aside, his credibility and judgement in either field is now in doubt after yesterday’s massacre.
Less than a month ago, General Sisi, was a professional soldier wearing his badges with deserved pride. Since his tamarrod -backed coup, he is – at least in the eyes of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups’ supporters – someone whose hands are now tainted with blood and his career is, as a result, tattered by the crude use of brute force against civilians.
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Those who had any doubt about Egypt’s putsch should not wait for more deaths to either give “democracy a second chance” or establish beyond reasonable doubt that what had actually happened on July 3 was a coup. Regardless though, coup or no coup, what happened in Nasr City was a massacre.
Sooner or later, Sisi and friends will fail. In fact, they have failed from day one, and ElBaradei – once a hero who spoke out courageously for a democratic constitution and institution-building – can no longer look the other way. The Democratic Alliance and he are guilty by association. Rule via use of force against civilians only hastens the unravelling of the post-Morsi order.
No amount of media spin by Egypt’s military-controlled TV and radio will cover up the killings. Sooner or later journalists with integrity, both Egyptian and foreign, will sift myth from reality about yesterday’s killings.
Egypt’s top general seems to think like a relic from Mubarak’s closet. One wonders where he has been in the past two years: Egyptians of all walks of life have transcended the threshold of fear. There is no winding back the clock to the republics of fear – as Makiya aptly called Saddam’s security-state. Time and time again, people continue to show willingness to die for strong and passionate belief in dignity and freedom – secularists, Islamists, youth, and liberals, etc.
When millions were vocalising ” degage ” and ” irhal ” (“leave” or “get out”), they were in fact collectively exorcising the demons that lived within them, holding them captives to the brutal machineries of Arab askar (army) and security services – mukhabarat . They were shouting irhal not only to oust the mortals who expected a culture of obedience, but also against their most inner fear of the security state. In the Arab squares, waves of humans staged public rituals cleansing souls from the one feeling that reduced citizens into denizens, humans into sub-humans and compatriots into morbid enemies snitching on one another out of fear – and rarely out of loyalty.
In Egypt, every massacre – and they are multiplying in numbers and gravity – hardens and emboldens the fearless side in whose eyes legitimacy still rests with Morsi. Actually, Sisi seems to be pitied, not feared. In less than one month – to reiterate a previous point – he has turned himself into a recklessly trigger-happy general.
In so doing, he may also be undermining Egypt’s security – the one thing that seems to be the drive behind his actions as the words “terrorism” and “terrorists”, in reference to Islamists, return to the public domain with regular frequency.
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The second miscalculation is that Sisi has executed a coup on behalf of a one-sided cause and segment, adding to polarisation and mutual distrust and hatred pitting Islamist against secularist.
From day one, Egypt’s top general seemed to slip deep down into the slippery slope of infilat (loss of control in political and security terms). In blunt language, Sisi’s actions so far point to someone who has lost the plot. Everything he does or does not do will from now on, and more often than not, produce consequences not of his choosing. He is however legally responsible for the results of how much force he sanctions, when and where, and what effect. The results are his but not the consequences: the rage, the indignation, the condemnation, the harm to his army’s and his own standing!
It is doubtful whether there is a containment mode or an exit policy: one cannot simply erase crimes against civilians or dismiss them as “necessary” -Tony Blair’s wording in reference to the coup. Not in today’s world, and not after January 25, 2011.
One could sense that the end is nigh when the top soldier goes to the public asking for a march against terrorism! He did not manage more than thousands in Tahrir Square answering his call. And although he wanted a march endorsing his call, he unleashed his troops on the (pro-Morsi) march that reminds him daily of his coup.
Did the peaceful protesters in Nasr City epitomise the “terrorists” which Sisi had in mind when he asked Egyptians to empower him to fight? How democratic!
Egypt: Revolutionaries without a revolution?
Egypt once again, under hybrid army-civilian rule, finds itself in a rather tight knot. There are democrats but no democracy, and there are revolutionaries, of all colours, but the revolution may have been compromised.
Indeed, under Morsi , Egypt’s economy has dwindled. Both unemployment and inflation worsened. To add insult to injury, relations with the IMF took a downward turn. The petrol and electricity shortage looked grim. The Brotherhood were not sufficiently inclusive, added to polarisation, more or less looked down on secularists, and insisted, during a transitional period calling for confidence, consensus-building and power-sharing, on permanent solutions coloured by their preference for a society informed by their version of Islamism. Transitional and distributive justice were overlooked and neither Morsi nor the Brotherhood were smart enough to realise the state they thought they led was actually too deep to change overnight into a legal edifice. This is part of their failure.
It is, however, a moral failing to think the army is the solution. Just as the Brotherhood could not on their own be the solution.
The coup sets a terrible precedent. It reinvents the wheel of democratisation. Everyone is now propagating the “political heresy” that democracy is not elections. That does not mean that coups that eject democratically elected governments are a democratic norm. Some Tunisian politicians – sore losers – have been demanding to backslide to the “legitimacy of the street”, not of institutions and orderly processes. I am for the continuity of a revolutionary ethos in tandem with democratisation, not replacing it, in order to enhance democracy learning, capacity-building, and consolidation that supplements formal processes.
Sisi, ElBaradei and others have now indicated across the Arab world that elections Islamists win are not acceptable. If not given the path of democratic integration and rehabilitation, as a legally protected right, they will not be stopped from going underground or striking back a la al-Qaeda against all symbols of officialdom.
Damage control today is beyond announcing a timetable for elections and giving democracy a “second chance” – as hoped by at least one US official. There is a legal and moral bottleneck that Sisi will not easily surpass: a crime that cannot go uninvestigated or unpunished. For now this is more of a worry than simply persuading dissenters and anti-coup voices and forces to join Sisi’s bandwagon. Ignoring it will be a recipe for disaster in Egypt. Recovering public trust is no longer only about restoring the democratisation process.
Even if Sisi’s military intervention presented a red herring in terms of “legality” or legitimacy, yeterday’s killings do not. There is nothing “legal” in killing fellow Egyptians for the simple crime of marching in Egypt after January 25, 2011.
Their deaths will weigh heavy on him, and ultimately, that burden may seal the deal on his fate.
Larbi Sadiki is a specialist in Arab democratisation, revolution and transitions, and has been an academic at Australian National University, Exeter University, Westminster University and Qatar University. He is the author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).