Egypt: What is between the Army and the Muslim Brotherhood

25 Oct

“Peace in the Middle East has never been so fragile”, so international reporters have been finishing their articles for the last five decades. In the past two years, Western and Russian media coverage of the events in the Middle East has resorted to generalisations, frightening their audiences with ‘imminent Islamisation’ and an ‘Arab winter’. Mostly they adopt the stance of an elder brother, who criticises his younger brother for lacking pragmatism. This is just a romanticised notion of the ‘Arab spring’, which has never been directly used in the region itself. It was first used by the American magazine Foreign Policy. While most Egyptians, Tunisians and Yemenis have emphasised that changes to the system need time, the Islamists took the helm, as they were the only organised opposition. So it is not a question of religious fanaticism becoming stronger.

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When the Egyptian military, to whom the population were sympathetic, removed the first democratically elected president Mohammed Mursi from power, and over the next month killed thousands of people while suppressing demonstrations in support of the imprisoned leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the world was confused. The global media, conditioned to simplify matters (‘Democracy against dictatorship’, ‘Islamists against liberals,’ ‘Muslims against Christians’), talk about ‘an army against a leader who was elected by the people.’

To understand what is happening in Egypt is not so difficult; instead of merely over-simplifying and synthesising, we need to correlate these events with similar political processes in our own countries – especially those where reality is not just black and white either.

Ukrainians are outraged when the foreign press, both Western and Russian, write about the split of the country into white/blue and orange, or East and West, about ‘the irreconcilable opposition of supporters of Europe or Russia.’ However, we readily use the word ‘split’ when talking about liberals and Islamists in Egypt. We speak easily of ‘separatism’ in other countries, while being astonished at groundless talk of ‘the division of Crimea’. We explain that the language issue is not the number one problem, but is in fact one of the cards which politicians play. So we should understand that in the Arab world, the best way to drag the voters’ attention away from economic problems is religion. Ukrainians are offended when the foreign media draw conclusions about the racism of the whole population based on a few video frames of far-right football fans; in the same way, the Islamists in Egypt do not represent the entire population. Ukrainians who did not vote for the incumbent president argue that his electoral victory does not mean he has the support of the majority; and so in the case of Egypt, the Brotherhood were supported by just one-eighth of the population. We really do not want the West to declare  the end of the Ukrainian democracy, since not all Ukrainian society wants to be led by a ‘strong hand’, where there is still (albeit just barely) a civil society, an independent media, an educated youth. Thus the fact that active young people, a small number of independent media, and maybe even the relative development of civil society –  gives the reason to speak about the potential development of democracy in the Middle East – provokes denial.

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Taking off the black and white glasses

Cairo. The main roads are blocked by military equipment. Midnight. The curfew has already begun long since, and the city is forbidden to move. 50 metres from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, teenagers are playing football. In a makeshift street café nearby, among police dressed in civilian clothes, sit those who call themselves revolutionaries: human rights advocates, lawyers, social activists, artists involved in politics. Elsewhere they would be called ‘civil society’. It is said that at this location (Mohammed Mahmud street), during clashes with the police and the Muslim Brotherhood over the last two years, a lot of activists were killed.

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The protests in Egypt should not be romanticised. Both the military, the Islamists, and the bandits in civilian clothes used force against the protesters, and tortured detainees. The Egyptians are aware of that risk whenever they come out onto the streets. At the forefront are those who are willing to protect people from the police, or from the police’s inaction. The protesters’ level of self-organisation is high. Last year in November, the Muslim Brotherhood resorted to violence against the demonstrators, who did not want a new constitution that gave additional powers to President Mursi. For this reason the residents in the capital’s centre decided not to allow the Islamists onto Tahrir Square, which had become a symbol of the revolution.

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 In Egypt, the military, the Islamists, and the bandits in civilian clothes used force against the protesters

Since the moment of the coup on 3 July, the revolutionaries have tried to keep their distance from the struggle between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. It can be explained in this way: in the first weeks the population supported the army, and then, as they recovered from the shock, they reacted more critically to the authorities. “This is not our fight. We cannot resist two strong opponents at once. The Muslim Brotherhood are being generously funded from abroad. As for the army – it’s not just people in uniform, but a gigantic structure that rests primarily on its property: it has land and owns companies, as well as for example a network of stores that maintains a monopoly and fixes the prices of certain commodities. The military thought they could weaken the Muslim Brotherhood: the leaders of the movement are in jail, two thousand Islamists have been detained over the last two months. The state of emergency allows anyone to be arrested without charge. We are aware that the government can use that tactic against any political opponent, but we prefer to wait before we act. When it’s necessary, then we will remind General al-Sisi, who is de facto running the state, that we are still here.”

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They do not represent our Islam’

Egypt is on the verge of civil war’, run the frightening headlines in the world media. Now it is clear that this is an exaggeration. In this country of eighty million people, the Muslim Brotherhood has one million members and three million supporters (making up about an eighth of the total population). But this is not a conflict between religious people and liberals, or Muslims with Christians. It is rather a rejection of political Islam as implemented by the Brotherhood. This is what the politicians and activists, as well as those Cairenes who are not involved in public life at all, are really talking about.

The Muslim Brotherhood wanted to seize power. They are acting in their own interests. The constitution as Mursi modified it did not provide for impeachment. We have collected 22 million signatures to recall the first elected president of Egypt. We are satisfied by the actions of the military, which has fulfilled the wishes of millions of Egyptians,” said Karim al-Saka, as if waiting for approval; he is one of the members of the Tamarod (uprising) movement, which prepared the ground for the revolution. Unlike the so-called ‘street activists,’ my companion is close to the political establishment. He worked for a long time with Mohammed al-Baradei, the former head of the IAEA, who resigned as deputy prime minister after the bloody dispersal of the protests.

At the hands of the police, which Mursi runs, many people were killed; they tortured people, they trampled on the rights of Christians and women,” says Mohammed Fadil, a human rights activist and lawyer for the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights. “The Muslim Brotherhood spent the whole year just getting their people into all the right positions, they were corrupt and incompetent. Moreover, they do not represent our Islam,” insist some men near a mosque in Sayyed Zeinab district.

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The experience of the Muslim Brotherhood running the state showed that a game without rules leads to defeat

The lack of sympathy for the Brotherhood does not mean that Egyptian society has become less religious. The Army were supported by the more conservative Salafists; the Muslim Brothers fell out with the imams of the most influential mosques. The organisation has also suffered worse repression, but its image as martyrs, which it had cultivated since the 1920s, has been substantially discredited. 

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Mahmud’s family has belonged to the Brotherhood for decades. I was supposed to meet him after the Friday demonstration (which was actually quite small), in a café in an area of the city of no special importance. He was angered by the fact that the organisation’s supporters had been proclaimed terrorists from one day to the next, and now the had to flee. The local residents, where the Brothers used to feel like masters until they came to power, wanted to hand him in to the police. For no reason.

The Pharaoh complex

How can we explain that the population voted for the Muslim Brotherhood, then suddenly changed their views and now support the military?” For weeks I put the same question to everyone I met in Egypt. One explanation prevailed: for millennia Egyptians have cultivated the Pharaoh complex. Most people here traditionally support and respect authority. So we need not pay too much attention to the farmer who named his donkey after General al-Sisi.

We may ask, What kind of revolution is this, if their faith in a good ruler is so strong? And this is the answer: The people were the first to see that the pharaohs are not eternal and not omnipotent. Both ex-Presidents Mubarak and Mursi and their entourages have appeared or will appear before the courts. The lack of protests at Mubarak’s transfer to house arrest is not evidence of any nostalgia for the dictator, but rather of a distrust of the court, explains the prominent lawyer Hesham Abdel Alim, who defends those who want to blame the former president for everything. “No one was surprised that Mubarak was released, because the court did not take the evidence into account. In particular, the former leader was charged that during the demonstrations, the police used force against the civilians. All the documents are at the disposal of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and its composition has not changed. To expect the MIA to testify against itself is absurd. In the same way Mursi will be convicted on other charges, and the murder of political opponents will be forgotten.”

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Local investigative reporters add that the court did not consider their investigations into the corrupt deals of the Mubarak family and the transfer of their funds to overseas accounts.

We cannot generalise about or diminish the role of the Egyptian media. During the last few months the national media networks have fired a lot of people. During the year of Mohammed Mursi’s rule, most of the periodicals turned against him. Both the public and private media gladly supported the new regime. They ignored the reports that denounced the generals for the brutal killing of protesters, while Mursi’s supporters were called criminals. The Muslim Brotherhood has not been helped by the outspoken support of Al Jazeera, the most popular Arabic-language TV channel. When the discrepancy between the pictures and the reports became obvious, people stopped trusting them. Just as the Egyptian media were silent about the death of civilians, Arabic Al Jazeera avoided any images showing that there were armed people among the Brothers.

In the Cairo morgue there were many unidentified bodies. At the entrance to the tent city of the Muslim Brotherhood supporters, who had come from the countryside, they took away their documents. The people were not allowed to protest en masse. There were weapons in the square, and snipers were targeting the civilian population,” says the human rights activist Mohammed Fadil.

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The standoff drags on

According to the Egyptian investigative reporter Hisham Allam, Mohammed Mursi signed a secret agreement with Islamists in the Sinai Peninsula, where fifteen hundred militants are based. According to this agreement, the army were supposed to turn a blind eye to the smuggling of weapons and the recruitment of jihadists. After the arrest of the Brotherhood’s leaders, the militants in Sinai felt they were indebted to the Brotherhood. Massive protests by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian cities seem unlikely, while the standoff between the military and the Islamist opposition has moved to the peninsula, and could last for years. This gives the army a reason to continue the state of emergency.

The media, accustomed to velvet revolutions, still see the Arab revolt according to the standard principle – a bad dictator is replaced by a good opposition. If you don’t get the Prime Minister’s chair – you have automatically lost. The uniqueness of the transformation in Egypt lies in this fact: it was not a change from an evil government to a good opposition. The citizens understand that it would be naive to think the military or the Islamists would immediately hand over control. The aim is to change the game, or at least to make everyone play by the rules of whoever runs the country. There is less despair and despondency among the ‘revolutionaries’ than there is among the media who are writing about an ‘Arab winter’.

The experience of the Muslim Brotherhood running the state has shown that a game without rules leads to defeat. “Mursi wanted to protect himself from the people with the army instead of protecting himself from the army with the people. The coup would not have been possible without the support of the population,” Egyptians say today. The leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, who ran against a former military man in the presidential race, appointed as ministers the very leaders of the security forces who arrested him. When he reached the top spot, he decided to enter into a secret agreement with the Islamists, and so discredited the movement. Not long ago, an Egyptian court banned the Muslim Brotherhood, and they operated underground until 2011. All their financial assets and property have now been seized, and the organisation dissolved. It seems that this decision could bring about a new wave of protests. But the prohibition of the Brotherhood did not come as a surprise for the Egyptians. And so even though it is currently leaderless, the Brotherhood will continue to exist, albeit in a state of illegality. Just as the curfew doesn’t stop the revolutionaries drinking coffee 50 metres from the Ministry of Internal Affairs after midnight. 

Finally, once more I ask the local ‘revolutionaries’ – the lawyers, the human rights activists, the young politicians, the activist artists: “If the conflict in Egypt is not so serious, why did so many people die during the protests? Why are there so many images of martyrs of the revolution on the walls of Cairo?” 

Almost without discussion, they answer: “The problem of Egypt is not religion, the army, the government, money or even poverty – but the idea that a human life has no value, no matter who the person was; not to the military, not to the Islamists, not to the activists. It is not just the government that has to understand this, but we ourselves, too.”

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Great thanks to Jim Todd for incredible effort to translate from Ukrainian

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One Response to “Egypt: What is between the Army and the Muslim Brotherhood”

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