Egypt: Between Dictatorship and Islamism

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 4 July 2018

Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai (image source)

Five years on from the military coup d’etat in Egypt that brought to power Abdel Fattah el Sisi, the problems of the country—political, economic, demographic, security—remain as intractable as ever. Indeed, in many cases, the problems are worse than before. Among the problems that are noticeably worse now than in 2013 is security, specifically the Islamic State (Daesh) insurgency in the Sinai.

The self-immolation of a street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, in Tunisia on 17 December 2010 triggered a wave of protests against the government’s corruption and misrule that ended in mid-January 2011 with the fall of long-time dictator Zine al Abidine Ben Ali. This caused a stir in a region plagued with autocratic rulers, but it was two weeks later, in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, that the movement against tyranny “found a stage worthy of its ambitions”, as the late Fouad Ajami put it.

Hosni Mubarak, the colourless officer who had been in power in Egypt for thirty years, was pushed out on 11 February, and from there the “Arab spring” gathered pace. Days later, the Libyan population rebelled and the violent crackdown by Muammar Qaddafi triggered a NATO intervention that ended in his overthrow and death.

Protests that had already begun in Yemen turned increasingly violent. In June 2011, Yemen’s Janus-faced dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh was nearly killed. Saleh resigned in November 2011 and finally exited in February 2012, giving way to a political reform protest that was interrupted by an Iranian-backed coup in 2014 and the subsequent Saudi-led intervention to try to restore the political protest. In Syria, a peaceful uprising erupted in March 2011 that militarised over time and has now been transformed out of all recognition.


The immediate post-Mubarak period in Egypt had disappointed the enthusiasm of the protesters. A military junta, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), had taken hold of the country and seemed in no hurry to cede power. Under pressure, an election was held in June 2012, the first in Egypt since 1950 during the liberal experiment that followed the First World War. The victor was Muhammad Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood government alarmed the felool (the remnants of the old regime); the national minorities, the Coptic Christians above all; and other states in the region and beyond. There was continued violence against Copts, accelerating their departure to America and elsewhere; and the torture in Egyptian prisons continued, too. Neither of these problems were new and neither was directly attributable to the government: sectarian mob violence is an endemic problem and the police are a law unto themselves. Anti-Brotherhood protesters were abused, though they succeeded in forcing Morsi to rescind a decree that would have granted sweeping powers.

Morsi’s downfall on 3 July 2013 remains the subject of some controversy. One view, as expressed by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is that “the army…intervened at the will of the people”. The Egyptian military claimed between fourteen and thirty million people were on the streets demanding Morsi’s ouster. These numbers are absurd on their face and the reality might be as low as two million. The problem with this narrative is not just quantitative.

First, it is now clear that so far from intervening in reaction to popular sentiment as expressed in street demonstrations, the Egyptian military helped orchestrate the street demonstrations to provide a pretext to intervene. The Tamarod (Rebellion) movement that led the protests against Morsi was bankrolled by the Egyptian military (and some Gulf states) and acted at their behest, something some members have come to regret as the post-coup crackdown widened to include those who made it possible.

Second, the supposed urgency for the coup—the notion that Morsi was just about to run away with the country—is false.

“The Brotherhood couldn’t have become dictators even if they had wanted to: the military, interior ministry, the judiciary, and much of the rest of the bureaucracy—the so-called deep state—were firmly against the Brotherhood and held many of the real levers of power,” says Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who noted that “the Brotherhood couldn’t even keep its own headquarters safe.”

The unofficial social control mechanisms—the merchant class and the media—were also largely beyond Morsi’s control. Eric Trager, a scholar with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in his book, Arab Fall: How the Muslim Brotherhood Won and Lost Egypt in 891 Days, put it this way: by the summer of 2013 and “arguably before that, [Morsi] was a president in name only—held the title but in fact controlled nothing.”

If the intention was to discredit the Brotherhood and their sympathisers more broadly, allowing Egyptians to repudiate them at the polls would have been far more effective.

Read the rest at TRT World

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