Lecture: Egypt in turmoil

This is a shortened version of a lecture I delivered on Monday, September 9, at the Student Association for International Relations (Studentenvereniging Internationale Betrekkingen) in Groningen. For more information, kindly visit their website.

First of all, I would like to thank SIB for inviting me to give this lecture on recent events in Egypt.

Let me start this lecture by sharing two anecdotes to give you an idea of the current situation. A few days before the mass demonstrations of 30 June, I walked into a small supermarket close to Tahrir square, Cairo. The owner of the shop greeted me and jokingly asked: “Are you a member of the Muslim Brotherhood?”, referring to my beard. I said: “Of course not, I’m not Egyptian.” Then, the guy suddenly turned serious, and advised me to shave my beard before the big demonstrations of next Sunday. Because, “god willing, we will slaughter all those beards.”

Last week, the minister of the Interior, Mohamed Ibrahim, survived an attempt on his life. A bomb went off as his motorcade passed in Nasr City, the area where the minister lives and also the scene of the biggest pro-Morsi demonstrations a until couple of weeks ago at the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque.

What I’ll try to do in this lecture, is to explain how we got from the first anecdote, to the second. I will also provide some background. SIB has asked me to talk about the recent events, namely the ousting of president Morsi, in the context of Army-Muslim Brotherhood relations. I will give a short history of these two players in Egyptian politics, the army and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Afterwards, I’ll discuss in detail the way Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood came to power after the January 25 revolution. I’ll try to explain the context in which this took place, as well as the challenges that Morsi had to deal with during his short presidency.

Subsequently, I’ll talk about the popular protests against Muslim Brotherhood rule, Morsi’s ousting by the military and finally the current situation.

A short history of the Army

The Egyptian army is one of the most powerful players, if not the most powerful player, in Egyptian politics. Led by the Free Officers, the army staged a coup d’etat against King Farouq in 1952, resulting in the king’s ousting and the establishment of the Arab Republic of Egypt.

Ever since 1952, Egypt has been ruled by generals or retired generals. Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of the Free Officers, deposed Mohamed Naguib and took power in 1954. After Nasser died in 1970, Anwar Sadat took over. Sadat was assassinated by a member of an extremist offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood during a military parade, and his vice-president Hosni Mubarak became president.

The Egyptian army controls a large percentage of the economy, and directly or indirectly owns up to 40% of Egypt’s businesses. This is of course one of the reasons why the army is so powerful. The army has the ability to influence the Egyptian economy, as it controls numerous factories, bakeries, natural gas and gasoline companies, et cetera.

Another source of power for the Egyptian military is its popularity. Despite the fact that the army has proven to be very incompetent in fighting and winning wars, it is still very popular among many Egyptians. Just imagine, almost everyone knows someone, a conscript or an officer, doing service in the army.

Maybe because of this popularity, the army has largely escaped public anger over the issue of foreign funding. Egyptians aren’t really fond of organizations that they suspect of being funded by the West. However, the biggest recipient of foreign funding is the military, which receives 1.3 bln dollar annually from the United States. I don’t think this is a fact that the army is very proud of, and it won’t publicly acknowledge this of course.

Let’s now have a look at the Muslim Brotherhood. I’ll come back to the army and its relationship with the Brotherhood later.

The Muslim Brotherhood

Founded in 1928 by a school teacher, Hassan al Banna. Quickly grew to become a country-wide conservative Islamic movement, aiming to ‘Islamize’ Egyptian life.

The Muslim Brotherhood was involved in the resistance against Israel in 1948. The organization also opposed the Egyptian monarchy. The Muslim Brotherhood was disbanded by the prime minister in 1948, out of fear for its popularity and because of rumors that the organization was plotting a coup against the king.

Less than three weeks later, the prime minister was assassinated by a student member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Although Hassan al-Banna condemned the assassination, he was himself murdered in February 1949.

The Muslim Brotherhood supported the 1952 revolution, but they felt Nasser and the Free Officers betrayed them afterwards, and tried assassinating Nasser in 1954. This led to a crackdown on Islamists.

During the presidencies of Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood was largely forced to work underground. On a few occasions, members of the organization were allowed to run in elections as independents. In the parliamentary elections of 2005, these ‘independents’ won 20% of the seats, but in the 2010 elections most of the Muslim Brotherhood candidates were banned from participating. So the army-Muslim Brotherhood relation has always been problematic.

The 25 January revolution

That fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is a conservative organization explains the way it dealt with the 25th of January revolution. The first few days, it prohibited its members from participating in demonstrations. While mainly youth from the April 6 Youth Movement and other groups took to the streets on the 25th, the Muslim Brotherhood stayed home. When it became clear that this time it was serious, the Muslim Brotherhood joined the protesters in their call for Mubarak to step down.

After Mubarak stepped down, the army took over and ruled Egypt through the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. While the youth movements and other opposition groups continued their protests against what they viewed as the same old regime with new faces, the Muslim Brotherhood cooperated with SCAF to pass a constitutional declaration opening the road to elections.

Even when the army was rounding up many activists, putting them in jail and prosecuting them before military courts, the Muslim Brotherhood remained quiet. When the army committed the Maspiro massacre in October, in which over 20 Coptic christians were killed, and when the army and police killed over 40 protesters in November, the Brotherhood still said that parliamentary and presidential elections under SCAF were the way forward.

People were presented with maybe the worst possible choice. Ahmed Shafiq was the last prime minister under Mubarak, and a retired air force officer. For many Egyptians, voting for Shafiq felt like betraying the revolution. So people who supported the revolution were more or less forced to vote for Morsi.

However, in 2012, Morsi won the presidential elections by a small margin, in part because many non-Muslim Brotherhood people voted for him to keep the other candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, out.

Morsi’s presidency

We have to acknowledge the fact that Egypt was more or less in ruins when Morsi became president. The economy was in a very bad state, security absent in many places, people had no trust in government institutions, et cetera.

Morsi faced many challenges, and expectations were unrealistically high. It was clear from the beginning that a few years would not be enough to fix Egypt’s economy, get the tourists back and improve the daily lives of poor Egyptians.

Morsi obviously didn’t succeed in fixing these problems. But I think it’s actually worse than this. He only didn’t succeed, he didn’t even try. Instead of reforming the police, he tried to use the state security and riot police to quash opponents. And when the police refused to disperse protesters in front of the presidential palace in December, 2012, Morsi sent his supporters to attack these peaceful demonstrators.

Instead of fulfilling his campaign promise of inclusiveness, he fired or marginalized advisors who didn’t agree with his policies. The Muslim Brotherhood refused to compromise on the subject of the new constitution, instead pushing for a very dividing document.

The way the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies among the Salafi parties approached the draft process for the first post-revolution constitution disappointed a lot of people. Even the ones who voted for Morsi in the second round of the presidential elections felt like the first civilian president in the history of Egypt was just another dictator looking to maximize his power. When Morsi issued his infamous constitutional declaration, making himself and his presidential decrees immune against judicial oversight, people took to the streets in anger.

The protests continued for a couple of weeks, resulting in a lot of violence, especially outside of Cairo. Still, the army and the security forces supported Morsi. After some time, the protests died down, without any tangible results for the opposition.

However, the first cracks in the army-Muslim Brotherhood alliance became visible during these weeks of protest.  The army, now headed by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was appointed by Morsi in August, 2012, called for reconciliation and an end to the violence. Al-Sisi wanted to organize meetings between the opposition and the government to find a way out of the crisis.


Out of disappointment in the Egyptian opposition, mainly the National Salvation Front headed by ElBaradei, a group of youth activists started their own campaign against Muslim Brotherhood rule. The campaign is called Tamarod, or Rebellion, and entailed the collection of signatures against Mohamed Morsi, calling for early presidential elections. As soon as Tamarod became well-known and picked up speed, the ‘mainstream’ opposition endorsed the campaign, trying to jump on the bandwagon of anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiment.

I think it’s important to note that these youth were not the same people who started the revolution in 2011. Although a lot of activists supported the Tamarod campaign, others questioned its understanding of democracy. They also pointed out that the campaign lacked a decent follow-up strategy in case Morsi would step down.

On June 30, Morsi’s first anniversary as president, thousands of people took to the streets. It was a very celebratory atmosphere in most places in Cairo, as people seemed surprised that so many turned out in protest against the Muslim Brotherhood. The inevitable numbers game was played by both sides, as Morsi’s supporters also came together to show their support for the Muslim Brotherhood and their elected president. It’s hard to say how many people each demonstration had, but in my experience at least, the number of protesters against Morsi was larger than the number of protesters during the 18-day revolution in 2011.

A few days before June 30, Morsi had delivered a speech broadcast on StateTV. It was expected that he would compromise on a few less important issues, but he wouldn’t even go that far to prevent this political crisis from becoming unsolvable.

On Monday, July 1st, al-Sisi, the army general, issued a statement urging Morsi and his political opponents to reach an agreement. Al-Sisi basically gave Morsi 48 hours to solve this crisis, otherwise he would come up with a roadmap that would clearly not include the Muslim Brotherhood or Morsi.

On July 2nd, Morsi delivered another speech, stressing his democratic legitimacy as president, that he would defend until death. Again, it was clear that the Muslim Brotherhood would try to hold on to power, without compromise. I wonder whether anything else than “I resign” would have been enough to make people return to their normal daily lives. In the run-up to June 30, I heard many people say that Morsi would finally leave on the 30th, and that hopefully the army would save Egypt from disaster and civil war. So expectations were a bit high.

Finally, on the 3rd of July, at about nine in the evening, al-Sisi issued a statement outlining a roadmap for transition. I watched the speech just a few hundred meters away from Tahrir square, in the street where I used to live. I could only hear the first couple of sentences, after that it was clear that Morsi was no longer president and celebrations had started.

According to the army, the Tamarod movement and political parties like ElBaradei’s National Salvation Front, this was not a coup, but a popular revolution supported by the army. Of course, the Muslim Brotherhood has a different perspective. They say it’s an attack on the legitimacy of a democratically elected president.

I think you all know how the army and police forces ended the pro-Morsi sit-in on August 14. As Human Rights Watch put it, the security forces used excessive lethal force against mostly unarmed civilians. Hundreds were killed, thousands injured. Muslim Brotherhood supporters responded by attacking tens of churches and other christian institutions, as well as burning houses and shops owned by christians.

Right now, a curfew is still in place in Cairo and other parts of Egypt. The military is very visible in the streets, and violence between security forces and groups of civilians is happening almost every day.

The short anecdote I started this lecture with illustrates how it’s possible that many people, I think a fair majority even, supports the violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. There are a number of reasons: the first is that people were very disappointed in Morsi’s presidency, as he failed to fulfill his campaign promises. Second, the way Morsi was elected shows that a large part of Egyptian society was always against the Muslim Brotherhood. The former regimes of Mubarak and even Nasser and Sadat before him, have always attacked the Muslim Brotherhood and described it as a terrorist organization.

The Egyptian media, and unfortunately not only state media but also private, so-called liberal, media, have adopted the “war on terror” discours in their coverage of the current crackdown. The most dangerous thing is that many Egyptians are fine with it. Something that has become very clear to me when I lived in Egypt before the coup, is that many Egyptians hate the Muslim Brotherhood and its members. One time when I exited the metro, a elderly headscarved woman came up to a man with a large beard and started insulting him, and his Muslim Brotherhood. Like the crackdown on Islamists in the fifties and nineties, every man with a beard, and every woman wearing a niqab, is a suspect. Not only Islamists or members of the Muslim Brotherhood are targeted. Leftists and human rights activists as well as lawyers are vulnerable as they critizice the current government’s treatment of Islamists and lament the lack of progress.

As the failed attempt to assassinate the minister of interior shows, there are some jihadist extremist elements in Egypt. Police stations and military checkpoints have been targets of such groups over the past few weeks. The current situation resembles the period of violence of the nineties, when tourist attractions were often targets. I am afraid that the current situation of bombings, assassination attempts and attacks on churches will remain for at least some time. It’s very hard to see how free and fair elections can take place in such an insecure and polarized environment.


Are Egypt’s revolutionary youth losing touch?

Last Friday, a huge protest was organised in Tahrir square. In the days leading to the Friday protest, several secular and Islamist organisations decided to agree upon a few main targets that the demonstration should focus on (prosecution of security officers, release of demonstrators, etc.), in order to prevent clashes between protesters. But what was supposed to be a day of unity turned into a day of division, when salafi demonstrators decided not to comply and started to raise slogans like “The people demand the implementation of the sharia!”

According to some protesters, they rejected the agreement because they were provoked by secularists: “Secularists are all over the media, trying to marginalize us because they think we’re ignorant,” said Islam Farris, a 23-year-old pharmacist. “For the first time in history, all Islamic movements are united here because the secularists are provoking us.”

After a few hours, secular and liberal organisations pulled out of the square and held a press conference to explain their decision. “There was an agreement signed by all political groups including most of the Islamic groups to hold a national-unity Friday,” Mostafa Shawky of the Revolution Youth Coalition explained, “upholding the demands of the revolution, and sending a message to the Military Council that Egypt’s political forces cannot be divided. However, only controversial points and demands disagreed on have been raised in the square today.”

Another member of the Revolution Youth Coalition, Khaled Abdelhamid, said: “Sticking to our principle of always maintaining peacefulness, we have decided to withdraw from this Friday’s demonstrations while continuing our sit-in which upholds the revolution’s demands.” But shop owners in the area said they were fed up with the sit-in: “If they [the protesters] don’t open the square, all the residents and shop owners in the Talaat Harb area will go and break this sit-in up with our own hands,” a shop owners said.

Last Monday, on the first day of the holy month Ramadan, the army and security forces opened the square and destroyed the tent city, assisted by shop owners from the area. According to the LA Times, “The solidarity around the revolution that is splintering amid deep differences between protesters and millions of struggling Egyptians exasperated by the unrest and its economic consequences. The split reveals how young activists plotting rebellion in cyberspace are disconnected from the anxieties of millworkers and laborers.” “Enough is enough,” says Moussa. “These protests must stop. It’s sabotage.”

It becomes clear that the demonstrators should develop a new strategy to achieve their goals. Without grassroots support, demonstrations will not be tolerated by a large percentage of the people. This revolution will only be succcesful if the revolutionaries are in touch with the people. Some activists suggested that, in order to win support from the people, political groups should refrain from demonstrating during Ramadan. Give the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) time to implement the demanded reforms. After some time, more people will start to realize that keeping pressure on the ruling Supreme Council is important, because otherwise nothing will change.