In Orwellian Egypt, a state of denial rules

Behind the bloody conflict in Egypt is a state of denial among competing actors of each other’s place in society.

US Secretary of State John Kerry recently described the military coup in Egypt as "restoring democracy" [AP]

A society in which important actors live in denial of each other’s interests and legitimacy is a society threatened by the abyss. There is ample evidence of this destructive phenomenon through the history of the Middle East, as elsewhere.

One of the biggest casualties of the phenomenon of Arab awakening was Egypt’s ruler Hosni Mubarak, whose fall in February 2011 looked like a pivotal event strong enough to accelerate democratic change across the region. Two years on, the prospects are bleak. After the recent military coup, Egypt is in the midst of a civil conflict which is bloodier and more repressive. The continuing violence and schism are more depressing than the final weeks and months of the Mubarak regime.

Authoritarian rule, rebellion and repression have shaped mindsets throughout Egypt’s social hierarchy. The collapse of Mubarak’s autocratic rule had sparked new hopes of an open and enlightened era, free of corruption and mismanagement. But those with power to control and coerce have a strong instinct to reassert themselves when they see their grip weakening. An essential feature of that instinct is to dismiss the legitimate existence and interests of others . It is by denying the legitimacy of the others that powerful actors’ claim their own legitimacy.

Egyptian anti-coup protesters continue sit-in

When General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced the removal of a freely elected president and suspension of the constitution, the army chief’s assertion was unmistakable, and his choice of words strange in the light of recent events. The army acted, according to General al-Sisi, because Morsi “had failed to meet the demands of the Egyptian people”. This despite the fact that Mohamed Morsi had won the presidential election a year before; and a constitution had been approved. There had been complaints that the document was too Islamist and vested too much power in the presidency, but it was supported by almost a two-thirds majority of Egyptians who voted.  

The constitution, no doubt, was controversial and divisive, pushed through in a rush against a vocal opposition – a minority as the referendum result showed. However, a military coup was definitely not a remedy. For when mistakes are made in a democracy, the perpetrators must be punished through the ballot box, and decisions should be altered likewise.

A military coup which deposes an elected leader and repression mean the very antithesis of democracy and the rule of law founded on popular consent. Both holders and contenders of power are responsible for the crisis in Egypt.

ElBaradei and expedient alliances with the army

Morsi lived in denial of forces pitted against him, to his peril. The regime entrenched now in Cairo is dismissive of Morsi, his party, his supporters and independent Egyptians who disapprove of the military coup. Crowds of protesters are treated harshly. Orders of the new regime that opposition crowds must disperse face defiance despite heavy-handed tactics. Protesters are accused of threatening security. Media outlets have been forced to close. General al-Sisi has all but declared his own “war on terror” and the interior ministry has announced the resurrection of the Mubarak-era state security services.

The army has been empowered to arrest citizens, thus assuming the role of internal policing. General al-Sisi may formally be defence minister and army chief under a civilian president and a civilian prime minister. In truth, it is he who rules Egypt with an iron fist. The rest is a facade, giving cover to the new draconian order.  

Erstwhile champions of democracy, identified with Egypt’s liberal and secular forces, find themselves on the spot, not least Mohamed ElBaradei, occupying the post of vice president following the Morsi government’s overthrow. Few would have thought that ElBaradei, ex-chief of the UN’s Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and, to many, a symbol of the conscience of Egyptians involved in a painful struggle for democratic freedoms, would be sitting at the pinnacle of power, installed at the military’s pleasure. But the bizarre has happened.

Egypt’s political shades of grey

The future of civilian politicians making accommodations with military dictators is seldom promising. In Egypt, the masses have despised officials of past dictatorial regimes. The schism in the wake of the recent coup is evidence of something similar. It has happened elsewhere, perhaps most notably in Pakistan under General Ziaul Haq, who was killed when his plane was bombed in 1988, and more recently General Pervez Musharraf, who is in detention and facing multiple charges.

The armed forces have ruled Egypt for six decades and still look invincible. It is nonetheless difficult to predict the future when a country is so polarised. Suggestions that Egyptian society is split between the pro- and anti-Morsi camps, or between supporters of Morsi and the military, are too simplistic. The conflict is far more complex and multi-layered. Many opponents of the deposed president are protesting now that the military is back in power.

Orwellian Egypt

Paradoxes are many in Egypt. President Morsi won the election and the Muslim Brotherhood gained legitimacy under the law, but then persisted with constitutional manoeuvres which, to many, looked like a creeping power grab. Morsi concluded, unwisely, that the Egyptian military establishment had been tamed after some top military officers were removed.

The Brotherhood in government failed to realise that the army was down but by no means out. The articulate minority of liberals and secularists was not going to be silent. Egypt had just stepped out of a totalitarian era, but still was prone to slipping back in. An important Arab country such as Egypt in a region of great strategic interest for foreign powers was unlikely to be left to its people to make choices. For there is evidence that the military coup happened under America’s close watch.

The Obama administration was in discomfort at Egypt’s elections, and can barely contain its relief mixed with delight at the overthrow of Morsi by the military. Ensuring that Egypt remained under US influence, by keeping the army on its side, was far more important than democracy. The primacy of Egypt’s usefulness over what was morally right or wrong was all important. So the notion of a “democratic” coup was born, and hailed by the American Secretary of State John Kerry, who claimed that the soldiers were “restoring democracy” when they overthrew Morsi. Kerry’s statement was an exercise in absurdity.

One is reminded of George Orwell, author of the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, who said, “It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it. Consequently, the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy.” Orwell’s words have a strange resemblance with Egypt in 2013.

Deepak Tripathi, fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, is a British historian of the Middle East, the Cold War and America in the world.

Follow him on Twitter: @Deepak_Tripathi