from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Some Clarity on Egypt

January 6, 2014

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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It may be me, but I am a little surprised that much of the commentary I have read about Egypt recently is shocked—just shocked—about the current turn of events.  I was blessedly offline for about nine days before and after Christmas so it is entirely possible that I am missing something or my vacation dulled my analytic skills, but what is happening in Egypt—the violence, the ban on the Muslim Brotherhood, the Jacobin-like discourse—is perfectly consistent with the July 3 coup d’état, Major-General Abdel Fatah el Sisi’s July 24 speech, and the August 14 crackdown on Rabaa al Adawiyya Square.  It was easy enough to understand that the consequences of July would produce January or so I thought.  Thinking back over the last six months, a combination of wishful thinking, brutal realism, and the rush to comment on every twist and turn in Egypt’s ongoing drama has produced, with some notable exceptions, analytic muddle.

The wishful thinking can be traced back to the fraught days of late June and early July.  This was a moment of crisis that was in many ways existential for a citizenry that had become deeply polarized (As an aside, had I used “polarized” at the time, various and sundry activists would have pilloried me). Consequently, people could be forgiven for seeing only what they wanted to see or alternatively, for recognizing what was about to happen and hoping against hope they fix things ex post facto.  That “what was about to happen” was, of course, the military’s intervention, also known as a coup.  In every sense of the term, what the military did on July 3 was a coup.  Yes, it is true that Mohammed Morsi was not much of a democrat and it is also true that he and the Shura Council were scheming to make it difficult for other parties (who were they? I don’t remember) to contest elections, and it is also true that there were serious, though never confirmed, allegations about Morsi’s victory in the June 2012 presidential election, and it is also true that Morsi’s year in office was disastrous. None of this diminishes the fact that the military stepped in and terminated the tenure of a president and government it was duty-bound to serve and in the process set a terrible precedent that Egyptians can seek redress outside political institutions if they are unhappy with their circumstances.

Yet, according to someone named Khaled Shaalan, writing for MadaMasr at the time, the view that events surrounding June 30/July 3 constituted a coup d’état reflects something deeply wrong with “knowledge production about the Arab world.” In a 900 word diatribe replete with the kind of post-colonial discourse reserved for some graduate students determined to establish their authenticity while studying at elite Western institutions, Shaalan claims that the coup was only called a “coup” because of:

The failure of Western media and pundits to both recognize and project the nuances of the current conflict in Egypt through their negligence of people’s agency in shaping the political outcomes is both pathetic and shameful. It is pathetic because it indicates the degree to which Western intellectual circles—especially those profiteering from Western policymaking bodies—remain willfully entrapped in an outdated and out-of-touch Orientalist worldview of the region.

What he is trying to say, which is obscured by tiresome circumlocution, is that because there were allegedly 30 million people in the streets demonstrating against Morsi, the military’s intervention was not a coup because the officers were responding to the people’s will.  Shaalan, along with every pro-military Egyptian tweep on July 3, apparently never read a book on civil-military relations because all coups d’état have civilian support.  Either officers seek civilian support or civilians enlist the military to undertake a coup. I wonder what Shaalan thinks now. Given his July 3 missive, I suppose that he is surprised at the current turn of events in Egypt, though I suspect it is tempered by the fact that Western Orientalists must somehow be at fault, even if some of us warned of the dangers associated with signing up with the generals.

Shaalan’s naïve and wishful thinking about July 3 is just the most egregious example of literally piles of commentary from Egyptians who desperately want a better future.  There is, of course, another version of the military-apologia genre whose authors understood precisely that the coup was inherently anti-democratic, but did not care because the Brotherhood was just as bad for democracy, but perhaps more importantly, was not likely to serve American interests.  That’s a legitimate position to take—far more so than the “it’s not a coup” claim—but the implicit analytic judgment underlying the argument is that Major-General el Sisi and his colleagues could keep things well at hand.  The attitude was, “Well, the military is not great, but we would rather have the guys in uniform than the beards. At least they share our interests.”  It was a return to the authoritarian stability argument with a disingenuous nod to a much hoped for democratic future.  I have no brief for the Muslim Brotherhood, but it was pretty clear that the coup and the subsequent crackdown would produce violence. The fact that the Egyptian elite along with Western commentators 1) seem shocked that Egypt is experiencing what can now only be described as a low-level insurgency, and 2) believe that the Brothers are solely to blame for this development suggests that there is something other than analysis going on here.  For the Egyptians this is arguably forgivable.  They have to live in Egypt, but the overwhelming cynicism in believing that a return to Mubarakism was possible is not.

The other aspect of the recent commentary on Egypt that has done more to obscure than illuminate what is happening there is the very fact that there is so much of it.  I do not know how many “the new Egyptian constitution is really bad” pieces there were, but too many to count. All these articles, blog posts, and special reports were fairly accurate in that they  said basically the same thing—i.e., the new Egyptian constitution is really bad.  If you were looking for a novel fact or some interesting line of analysis that might give insight into Egypt’s trajectory beyond the fact that the new constitution is really bad, then you were disappointed.

Yet precisely because Egypt commentary has become such a free-for-all—even such noted Middle East experts as Eugene Robinson, Dana Milbank, and George Will have gotten in on the great upheaval on the Nile—the effort to offer a new perspective if only because analysts want to distinguish themselves from the crowd has its pitfalls.  There was a boomlet relatively recently in the idea that generals were calibrating their crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in order to weaken them and make them more amenable to talks.  I traced the origin of this idea back to, I believe, Khalil al Anani, from the Middle East Institute. Anyone who has ever read my work understands that I appreciate a good counterintuitive argument and I am sympathetic to the innate desire among scholars to have their work noticed, but there is no reason for al Anani’s assertion other than perhaps he heard it through the active and imaginative Cairo rumor mill.  The officers have hardly distinguished themselves as political geniuses capable of this type of manipulation and the Brothers have demonstrated far more interest in resistance than negotiation because opposing the coup is a superior political strategy.  As it turns out, the military-backed government declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization and has moved to seize its assets.  What, honestly, is there to talk about?

I don’t intend to be harsh or uncharitable, but the analytic community and policymakers are at risk of losing the analytic thread when it comes to Egypt.  Let’s be clear: There was a coup d’état in Egypt, the response to that inherently anti-democratic act has been violence, and in order to establish political control in an increasingly unstable and contested political environment, Egyptian leaders have resorted to authoritarian measures all in the name of a revolution that was for democracy.  So the next time something or someone blows up in Egypt or the next time a student is killed on a university campus, or when blood flows in street demonstrations, no one should be shocked or surprised.  The struggle continues….

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