Rope-a-dope: The strategy of Egypt’s puppet masters

The political mechanics of the mass protests on June 30, have been largely misrepresented by sections of the media.

"SCAF’s rope-a-dope strategy, if that is what it was, may come at a terrible price in lives lost during the inevitable strife that will follow the disenfranchisement of the Islamists," writes Walter Armbrust [Reuters]
"SCAF’s rope-a-dope strategy, if that is what it was, may come at a terrible price in lives lost during the inevitable strife that will follow the disenfranchisement of the Islamists," writes Walter Armbrust [Reuters]

On the night of July 2, 2013, just after President Mohammed Morsi defiantly rejected the ultimatum given to him by the armed forces, a funny comment on his speech appeared on “The official Facebook Page of Dr. Taufiq ‘Ukasha.” The post was labelled “Morsi’s speech: …” followed by a block of Chinese letters with shar‘iyya (legitimacy) sprinkled through it. The speech had indeed been so jaw-droppingly surreal that it may as well have been delivered to the Egyptian people in Chinese. 

President Morsi, his eyes shifting nervously at the beginning, later awkwardly and disastrously riffing on his written text, invoked his electoral legitimacy something like 57 times in a 46 minute address. There was little other point to it than to assert electoral legitimacy. The concessions he offered to the opposition were far too late and strictly cosmetic: parliamentary elections that nobody other than the Muslim Brotherhood trusted the Morsi administration to administer; a vague promise to consider constitutional amendments that would have to be approved by the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Shura Council. Most importantly, Morsi refused to consider stepping down due to popular demand that was now, everyone assumed, backed by the armed forces. There was nothing funny about the consequences of the speech. It was an embarrassing performance—a cringe-worthy act of political suicide, palatable only to his shrinking Islamist base. But Morsi’s speech and his ensuing removal from office by the military also opened the door to a much greater intensification of violence between the President’s Muslim Brotherhood base and a diverse non-Islamist opposition that, after the unprecedented mass demonstrations on June 30, had no doubts about its numerical strength. Street fighting had already been raging for a week in the Delta and parts of Upper Egypt by the time Morsi made his speech. His refusal to consider even a conciliatory tone let alone acceding to demands for his resignation made still greater levels of violence inevitable throughout the country.

For me one thing particularly stands out from this moment of humour in an otherwise tense and dangerous night. It is the source of the Morsi-speaking-Chinese Facebook post: the “Official Page of Dr. Taufiq ‘Ukasha.” This group may or may not have actual links to Taufiq ‘Ukasha (one can never tell with Facebook). ‘Ukasha certainly has no doctorate of any kind. But the content of the posts on this page leaves no doubt about their orientation: toward the old regime and the security state, specifically the police, the army, and the judiciary.  

‘Ukasha was a minor functionary of Mubarak’s dissolved National Democratic Party, and an ‘ilami — a “media professional,” though “media personality” might be a more useful gloss in this case. A few years before the 2011 Revolution he became host of a talk show called “Egypt Today,” broadcast on his own satellite television station, al-Fara‘ayn (the Pharaohs in Egyptian colloquial Arabic). Before the Revolution he was a very small fish in a pond of talk show celebrities greatly expanded by the proliferation of satellite channels. Talk shows themselves had become an increasingly effective and popular means of circumventing the Mubarak regime’s ban on establishing independent news channels.

Political Puppetry

After the fall of the Mubarak regime ‘Ukasha became nominally the voice of the filul (the derogatory term applied to ex-regime “remnants”), but more precisely, the voice of the security state. Islamists loathe him and constantly hurl accusations of incitement to violence against him. They are not wrong. By any standards ‘Ukasha’s endless rambling monologues were an outrageous pastiche of lies, bigotry, provocation, and propaganda, often presented in a devious bouquet of “documentary” evidence thought by many to have been supplied to him by the Egyptian military intelligence service.  ‘Ukasha attacked all perceived opponents of the security state (the April 6 and Kefeya movements, the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, foreign-funded NGOs), but particularly the Muslim Brotherhood as the senior partner in an undifferentiated coalition of political Islamic organisations. Aside from unstinting praise for the security state, in ‘Ukasha’s parallel universe Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, was a crypto-Jew. 

Current Supreme Guide Muhammad Badi‘, his lieutenant Khayrat al-Shatir, and their deputy Muhammad Morsi were escaped criminals freed by a Hamas-led operation early in the January 25 Revolution (there is actually a case based on these accusations winding its way through the court system). The contemporary Muslim Brotherhood is the vanguard of a Zionist-Masonic-American conspiracy that aims to establish the headquarters of a world government in the shadow of the pyramids where the Mena House Hotel currently sits.

‘Ukasha is a little Hitler—a comparison that he might well embrace. What did he have to do with the events leading to the June 30 rebellion that toppled Morsi? Maybe very little, or possibly quite a lot. When his star began to rise, military rule was being sharply challenged by mostly non-Islamist youth who were central to sparking the Mubarak regime’s downfall. At first ‘Ukasha was ridiculed by those he attacked, yet even his most derisive critics allowed that he had gained a following among rural and lower middle-class men. ‘Ukasha’s verbal style and transparently folksy mannerisms obviously targeted such a social profile. By the time of Morsi’s election ‘Ukasha’s prominence was obviously far wider; he had become acknowledged as a key organiser of the old regime’s electoral campaign. He had become as much, if not more, of a household name than any of the talk show celebrities who had once eclipsed him to the point of oblivion.

Motivations of the millions who demonstrated against continued Muslim Brotherhood rule had to be diverse, just as they had been in the rebellion against Mubarak. Some were undoubtedly driven by anxieties at the economic state of the country, or by the more general argument that the Muslim Brotherhood was simply incompetent in government. Others were driven by fear that ikhwanat al-daula (Ikhwanisation of the state) would lead to a dark winter of Islamist domination that would be as difficult to transcend as the Mubarak era had been. Many Christians felt that their very right to citizenship was at stake, and therefore they had nothing to lose from joining the demonstrations. Some marched in protest at the Muslim Brotherhood’s failure to make even superficial changes to the security forces controlled by the Ministry of Interior; others because they could see no future for freedom of expression in a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated state. It is impossible to know how much influence ‘Ukasha had on any of these constituencies in the greatest one-day political mobilisation in Egyptian history. I was not in Egypt at the time. But correspondents tell me that in the exuberant aftermath of Morsi’s fall ‘Ukasha was being described as a star by many who were still present in Tahrir Square.

Media misrepresentations

A larger point is that the rhetorical dynamic in the immediate aftermath of the Morsi regime’s fall has been misguided. The Western press was full of sombre meditations on the fall of an “electorally legitimate” regime and the apparent failure of a “democratic experiment.” In opposition to this, some of the most articulate voices among the many millions who marched on June 30 were angry at having their successful campaign against Muslim Brotherhood rule labelled as a “coup” rather than an on-going struggle for true democracy. But the coup vs. will of the people debate goes nowhere. It is better to put these terms to the side and acknowledge that among the diversity of interests that motivated people to enter the streets on June 30 there was significant input not just from the old regime, but also from the security state. This is not to say that Morsi’s opponents actually were nothing but filul, as his supporters often claimed. But alongside well-justified objections by Morsi’s opponents to the American media’s failure to understand what was happening in Egypt, a narrative crystalised of plucky youth challenging the Morsi regime by circulating a petition. It is important to move beyond this attractive image before it turns into another over-romanticised and ultimately distracting “Facebook Revolution” legend. The story of tamarrud as a brave act of resistance is by no means wrong, but neither is it sufficient to explain the current situation.

It is impossible to accurately gauge the extent of ‘Ukasha’s role in the security state’s semi-clandestine campaign to bolster the tamarrud movement. But it can be observed that, aside from tamarrud, ‘Ukasha’s prominence runs almost from the beginning of the Revolution to just before the demonstration on June 30, when he was taken off the air allegedly because he had criticised al-Sisi for being too soft on the Muslim Brotherhood, but not for the outrageous provocations he hurled nightly at Islamists. Then he mysteriously disappeared, supposedly smuggled to safety by sympathetic police officers sent to arrest him. Whether or not ‘Ukasha’s inflammatory program gets reinstated after the fall of the Morsi regime will tell us much about the sincerity of the interim government in its professed motive of trying to suppress only television programs that incite violence. The most outrageous Islamist stations—the Muslim Brotherhood’s Misr25, and the Salafi stations al-Nas and al-Hafiz—were swiftly shut down. If they stay shut down and al-Fara‘ayn is reinstated, we may have additional reason to suspect that the interim government’s rhetoric about trying to bring Islamists back into the political process is only a veneer over a more repressive strategy that fuels divisiveness rather than curing it.  

To some degree SCAF’s efforts to manage the post-Mubarak era have the look of a rope-a-dope strategy. The phrase comes from Muhammad Ali’s 1974 “rumble in the jungle” against George Foreman in Zaire. Ali showed up to the fight looking flabby, but he had actually trained hard. In the fight he leaned back against the ropes surrounding the ring and let his protective stance plus the elasticity of the ropes absorb Foreman’s furious punches. After a few rounds Foreman exhausted himself, and Ali then knocked him out. SCAF is Ali; the Muslim Brotherhood being Foreman, lured into an exhausting over-reach for power, ultimately exhausting their endurance. If there was such a strategy, ‘Ukasha played a part in it. Weeks before al-Sisi was announced as Tantawi’s replacement ‘Ukasha had been issuing dark warnings on his program of ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, “the Muslim Brotherhood’s man on the inside” of the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces. Beware al-Sisi he said, over and over. “He would grow a beard and put his wife in niqab if the army allowed it.”  And then low and behold: Morsi was elected, and true to ‘Ukasha’s dire warnings, his first apparently bold move was to “sack” Tantawi and replace him with “the Muslim Brotherhood’s man on the inside.” A number of reports in the international press suggested that months before his appointment as chief of SCAF al-Sisi had actually been introduced to American officials as Tantawi’s eventual replacement, hence one gets a sense that he had been vetted by the US. Later in Morsi’s year of rule ‘Ukasha seems to have reconciled himself to al-Sisi’s better qualities. In the weeks before the tamarrud demonstration ‘Ukasha was thundering that al-Sisi was Egypt’s only hope for salvation from the abyss of political Islam, and organising a sizeable sit-in at the Ministry of Defense demanding Morsi’s removal, initiated on the same day that the Muslim Brotherhood’s followers started their demonstration in front of the Rabi‘a al-‘Adawiyya Mosque.

The dangers that lie ahead 

SCAF’s rope-a-dope strategy, if that is what it was, may come at a terrible price in lives lost during the inevitable strife that will follow the disenfranchisement of the Islamists, and whether or not it was a coup, disenfranchisement is the proper term for what Morsi’s followers are experiencing. This is not to absolve the Muslim Brotherhood from responsibility for the debacle, or to dispute that there were many strong arguments for rebelling now against Muslim Brotherhood rule rather than remaining silent until rebellion becomes impossible. If I were Egyptian I would have been in the crowds protesting against Morsi on June 30, and I wish the same spirit of resisting an unjust government were more common in my own country. But the price for removing Morsi from office is steep. From what I have seen of the opinion and commentary emerging in the wake of Morsi’s fall, scepticism of SCAF’s motives is strong, and such scepticism is bound to be one way of mitigating the damage. But there has also been a great deal of praise for the army’s “selfless” role, and for the security forces. The stage is set for new confrontations within the non-Islamist bloc.

The present situation reminds me of June 24, 2012, the day Morsi’s victory was announced. I was in Cairo then, and my family and I went to a café to hear the announcement. Nearby was a group of Ahli Ultras, the fan support group for al-Ahli, one of Egypt’s most prominent football teams. Ultras of course became famous for their fighting zeal on behalf of the Revolution against Mubarak. The announcement took forever, to the point that people were becoming almost bored as the chairman of the Supreme Presidential Election Commission trudged through a recitation on the decisions on each of the candidates’ many challenges to election procedures. Suddenly, with no change in tone, he announced the winner of the election. The Ultras exploded in cheers, leaving no doubt about who the revolutionary candidate was: “not Shafiq” (aka Mohamed Morsi). After the cheering subsided the Ultras joined hands and began chanting yasqut yasqut hukm al-murshid (down with the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide), thereby letting it be known that the candidate whose victory they had just celebrated would be on probation until he proved he could actually rule as the Revolution’s candidate.  Morsi failed miserably. The Revolution continues.  

Dr. Walter Armbrust is Hourani Fellow and University Lecturer in Modern Middle East Studies at Oxford University. He is the author of Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

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