Arab Spring in Egypt: Thirty Months On

November 3, 2013

By Shiv Sethi

In Jan-Feb 2011, over a million people converged on Tahrir square in Cairo and public squares across Egypt for 18 days to demand the ouster of Mubarak’s regime. This mass movement was heralded as something new and unique. Some called it the magic of people’s power while others called it direct democracy. Such was the sheer scale of the movement and steadfastness of its adherents in the face of brutal repression, it came to be celebrated across political spectra around the world. It came to be designated ’Arab Spring’ as Egypt was the second country after Tunisia where such mass protests had caused the fall of a single-party right-wing authoritarian regime.

Mubarak had ruled Egypt using special emergency powers for over 30 years, in collaboration with an entrenched bureaucracy, judiciary, and police structure, all empowered by the Egyptian military and its vast intelligence network which acted to sense and crush any dissent. So the fall of Mubarak was widely seen as a harbinger of democratic changes sweeping across West Asia and North Africa.

In July 2013, protesters again gathered on Tahrir square to demand the resignation of the government that replaced Mubarak’s regime. This time the response of the world was more muted. For one this government had been elected by a formal election process. On both occasions, the military replaced the incumbent governments.

The period from Jan 2011 to the present contains important lessons not just for Egypt but for the potential of political change across the world.

1. Arab Spring: Birth of ’direct democracy’

In the euphoria of Arab Spring in Egypt, many of its shortcomings as a successful political movement were often overlooked. It cannot be denied that people across a wide class spectrum had deep resentment against the Mubarak regime. The protests in 2011 had been preceded by similar protests on a smaller scale for many years, in particular the massive factory strikes and ’bread riots’ in 2008. In 2011, the repression unleashed by the regime, which claimed over 800 lives across Egypt, fueled rather than quelled this rage. But this broad, spontaneous, inter-class, and inter-religion alliance could not articulate any demands effectively, except for the fall of Mubarak’s regime. This movement failed to develop either a nested political leadership or a detailed political program. So the first casualty of the movement were its more radical elements: working classes including factory workers whose major strikes in 2008 had been one of the inspiration of the 2011 movement in the first place. Working classes were the only section of the movement that put forward political proposals for long-term economic changes, e.g regaining food sovereignty of Egypt or the nationalisation of the cotton industry. However, these demands were barely acknowledged let apart negotiated within the broader movement.

So even though the movement forced Mubarak to resign (he was later arrested) and managed to discredit many of the Mubarak-era policies, it failed to touch the entrenched structure of governance in Egypt. The protesters could never force the ruling elite to directly negotiate with them over a long term economic and political program. To compensate for this obvious drawback, they were forced to return to Tahrir square for any meaningful demand, e.g. resignation of the military council that replaced Mubarak, throughout 2011. In the face of deteriorating economic conditions, these protests continued to be a threat to the ruling alliance but gave them enough space to make their next move.

Even though Arab spring in Tunisia and Egypt came to be eulogized as something truly novel, similar short-term mass protests against repres- sive regimes (e.g. military regimes and later neoliberal governments in Latin America) or single party regimes (e.g. ’colour revolutions’ in ex-Soviet re- publics in Eastern Europe and central Asia) had been seen for the past 30 years. Even though there were notable differences between these movements, e.g. the role played by Western powers, they shared some common features of mass protests emanating from widespread social resentment.

Many of such movements were successful in ousting the government. However, the performance of incoming governments has been mixed at best and most of them failed in meeting the broad aspirations of the people. In almost all cases in Eastern Europe and central Asia, the incoming regimes unleashed a pro-Western economic agenda in the name of ushering in democracy; these changes destroyed the remnants of social security of the Soviet era and plunged a majority into deep poverty and economic vulnerability. In Turkey, the entrenched structure of Western economic domination and right-wing military beholden to Western powers has been challenged by the elected prime minister Erdogan since 2003, but the new government continues to carry forward the very same neoliberal economic agenda. The dynamics of many Latin American countries offer a contrast to this pattern. In Bolivia, the protesters forced the president to the escape from the presidential palace in 2003; in this case, this process ushered in the government of Evo Morales, the first ever indigenous president, which carried out comprehensive political and economic reforms. Or it is one thing to cause a government to fall by mass protests, it is quite another to bring in a government that serves the interests of a majority. Egypt’s experience in the past two years is no different in this regard.

2. Muslim Brotherhood: 80 year wait comes to an end

Mubarak’s prolonged authoritarian rule had destroyed any base of political protest through representative democracy. The only parties capable of challenging the ruling elite were parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and other Islamic parties e.g. Salafists. These parties connected to a wide section of the society through their vast charitable, educational, and social networks, and by providing health services through hospitals and clinics. Their political outlook was often articulated not through political rallies (which could be banned under Mubarak) but through sermons in mosques (which were far harder to ban in a predominantly Islamic society).

The Muslim Brotherhood had always played an ambiguous role in Egyptian political landscape. They sided with Gamal Nasser and other military officers in the overthrow of the government backed by imperial powers in the 1950s but turned against them soon afterwards and were banned as a political party in 1960s. At that time they were widely seen as a West-backed party funded to undermine the nascent Arab nationalism represented by Nasser’s Egypt and other countries that had recently won their freedom from Western imperial powers. There was evidence to support this view as the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Syria in 1970s, which was brutally suppressed by Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad, found support from even Arab world’s arch- enemy Israel [1].

The Muslim Brotherhood found more political space under the governments of Sadat and Mubarak, even though they continued to be banned as a political party and were periodically oppressed for their putative militancy, which they had formally renounced in 1970. Many of the main leader of the MB who rose to prominence after 2011 had served prison terms.

Under Sadat and Mubarak, the economic and political vision laid out by Nasser-era elite was sharply reversed. This vision included land redistribution to peasantry, nationalisation of resources (Egypt’s decision to nationalise the Suez Canal induced Israel, UK, and France to attack Egypt in 1956), perusal of a pan-Arab political agenda, breaking the hold of Western imperial powers on the region (e.g Egypt sided with left-nationalist forces in Yemen in 1960s), etc. Under Sadat the process of re-integration of Egypt in the Western sphere of influence started in late 1960s and culminated in the Camp David accord with Israel. This process accelerated with Mubarak. As would be expected, this fueled discontent amongst a wide section of Egypt’s society. In this political milieu, the MB played the important role of gauging and re-channeling the political discontent of many sections, especially those drawn from the working classes, with whom it naturally connected. This important role won the MB a level of legitimacy among the post-Nasser political elite of Egypt. Even though MB remained banned as a political outfit their candidates were allowed to run in the parliamentary elections; they garnered over 20% of the seats in 2005 elections. The Egyptian ruling elite further deepened this process by allowing the MB businesses to not only survive but flourish, thereby helping create an elite within the MB that could be counted upon in the time of crisis.

But it would be mistake to assume that the MB had turned into open collaborators of the Mubarak regime. They remained political rivals and it was clearly evidenced by the repression the MB periodically faced under the military regimes of both Sadat and Mubarak. It was at least partly because of the inability of the leadership of the MB to distance itself from the outlook of its rank and file. The MB grass-root is stridently anti-Israel and anti-US and saw the Mubarak regime as a US stooge that worked in the favour of Israel against the interest of Egyptians and Palestinians. Egyptian military is the second largest recipient of the US aid (after Israel). It is well known that the main aim of this aid is to prevent Egypt from supporting the liberation of Palestinian from Israel’s incredibly oppressive occupation. It openly collaborated with Israel in the blockade of Gaza, which was not lifted even in 2008 when Israeli bombing of Gaza killed nearly 1400 people. Both the rivalry and the collaboration between these two forces was in evidence after the MB started its political journey to power after the 2011 Tahrir square movement.

After the fall of Mubarak, a military commission, Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), took over the power but it was well aware of its political fragility and was forced to undertake many changes involving power sharing. The parliamentary elections held in Dec 2011-Jan 2012 were swept by Islamic parties. The MB emerged as the largest party and the Islamic block (Salafists) came second. These two alliances received over 65% of the all the votes cast (17 million out of 26 million). They also won the majority in the upper house (Shura council) in another election in Jan-Feb 2012.

Even as the Islamic alliance celebrated their long-awaited political victory, this victory rang alarm bells both at home and abroad. One of the most frustrated groups were sections of the broad and loosely organized alliance that led the Tahrir square movement. They knew that neither the MB nor the many organized sections of working classes joined the movement until after the first cycle of organization and regime repression. When these groups finally joined they certainly tilted the balance but the fact remained that the MB were the main beneficiary of a movement they only probably joined to take the opportunity to rise to power. Those imbued with the spirit of Tahrir square had continued to protest throughout 2011 even as the MB leadership had asked its cadre to prepare for elections. They were to be back on the Tahrir square again, this time to protest against the MB.

The Mubarak-era elite anticipated further erosion of their powers. Such a majority in parliament could mean a new constitution and a much weaker role for the Mubarak-era military, judiciary and the bureaucracy. The US, Egypt military’s main sponsor, shared this anxiety and could see that the rise of the MB could be directly inimical to Israel’s interests. Hamas, Israel’s main adversary in Gaza, owed its political philosophy to the MB and naturally expected the muslin brothers to act in its favour.

Even as early as Jan-Feb 2012, one can see the constellation of political agencies that felt threatened by the rise of the MB. While the US, Israel, and Mubarak-era’s entrenched structure of power and governance were allies, the Tahrir square protesters still looked askance at all of them. That was to change soon.

The first major blow on MB’s aspirations to become the dominant political power in Egypt fell in June 2012, a few days before the final round of presidential elections. On a technical legal point, the constitutional court of Egypt dissolved the MB-dominated parliament and the SCAF announced several decrees assuming sweeping powers. While this did not stop MB’s candidate Morsi to win the presidential elections by a narrow margin over the military-backed candidate, the executive powers of the president-elect were severely curtailed. This set the stage for nearly a year of power wrangling.

Even though there were protests on Tahrir square to oppose military’s unilateral usurpation of powers, the protesters were clearly more aligned to the political agenda of the MB and would remain on the square until Morsi was declared the winner in the presidential elections. Even as the MB supporters had found Tahrir Square a suitable place to press for their demands against an increasing intransigent military, many sections who led the original protest were becoming apathetic to this managed political change in which their role remained negligible. The candidates backed by them had lost in more than one elections. (The closest they came to having a political voice was when one of the presidential candidate backed by them, Hamdeen Sabahi, narrowly lost in the first round of presidential vote, partly because of the infighting between different groups leading to a split in vote fraction.) Also the fall in the number of votes cast in both the first and the second round of the presidential election as compared to the parliamentary elections (from 52% to 43% of valid voters) was an indication of this growing apathy across even a wider section of the society. The deepening of this trend was further revealed in the constitution referendum in Dec 2012 in which barely 32% of valid voters cast their vote. For a comparison from the region of a electoral process of similar impact, the voter turnout in Gaza was 78% in 2006 to elect the legislative assembly. Clearly, even though the elections in Egypt were considered a landmark in ushering in democratic changes, they failed to get a commensurate response from the voters.

When Morsi became president in July 2012, Egypt faced a severe economic crisis, partly because of the conditions created by Tahrir square movement and the resultant political instability: foreign reserves had been reduced to less than 13 billion dollars from 35 billion dollar before the movement owing to capital outflows; government budget deficit had increased by over 50% and stood at over 11 % of the GDP (less than 5% is generally considered sustainable; the IMF recommends less than 3%) due to falling revenues; current account deficit was widening and increased by over 50% because of falling tourism revenue and foreign direct investment [2]. In other words, the MB inherited an economy facing a possible collapse on a short time scale. Egypt was forced to negotiate a 5-billion dollar IMF loan to ward off an imminent balance of payment crisis [3]. The IMF loans come with usual conditionalities: removal of subsidies, privatization of state enterprises, opening of financial markets, etc.

In Egypt the targets were bread and fuel subsidies even though it was abundantly clear to all parties involved that the removal of these subsidies in a faltering economy was sure to cause further political unrest [3]. In late 2012, the EU also made its 6-billion dollar loan to Egypt contingent on meeting the IMF conditionalities [3]. Such conditionalities are known to be highly damaging to economies, from sub- Saharan Africa to Mexico, to S Korea, to Greece and Portugal. They are often justified on the grounds of ’improving investor confidence’ but they are overt and orchestrated political acts to subvert a country’s economy and subsequently shape it according to the wishes of Western imperial powers. As is true of all political maneuvering, it lacks consistency of application. It is known that the IMF conditionalities considerably weaken for the US allies, e.g. Poland, Columbia, or Uganda but applied with devastating effect on others, e.g. Zimbabwe [4]. Continual insistence on such conditions by the IMF and the breakdown of talks meant that Egypt was no longer seen as a strong ally of the US. Indeed, around the same time, the US president Obama made a specific statement that Egypt was neither an ally nor an enemy of the US. Finally, neither IMF nor EU loans could be obtained. It was a 3-billion-dollar loan from Qatar, one of the main backer of the MB’s government, which eased the situation for a short while.

In other words, the MB faced hostility from its military and encrusted power structure, from the US, certainly from Israel, and from an unrequited popular revolt which was losing its bearings. And this was at a time when the MB was trying its best to project itself as worthy of the ’international community’: they openly endorsed the economic policies of the Mubarak era, e.g. further privatization of economy, opening the economy for foreign investors, etc.; MB’s government agreed to send army to Sinai region to fight ’Islamic extremists’ who were more a threat to Israel; it did not try to legislate a single pro-working class law and continued cracking down on factory workers’ strikes just as in the Mubarak era. Given that somewhere the political rise of the MB was owed to massive factory workers’ strikes in 2008, the MB refused to return the favour. This also meant that working classes were completely
justified in continuing to protest against the MB regime. However, the class interests of many protagonists of the 2011 uprising—liberal groups, many left-oriented parties and youth groups—did not necessarily align with the interests of the working classes, and therefore they were more apt to make alliances that could be inimical to the broad section of working classes.
The open power struggle between the Mubarak-era elite and the MB government was slowly reaching a head. In August 2012, the MB government ’sacked’ the two senior-most military officers, a week after an attack in the Sinai region by putative Islamic extremists that killed 16 policemen [5]. But when the army were sent to the region to tackle growing insurgency, it was widely seen to be an act of collaboration. In other words, the relations between the military and the MB government were showing both a secular deterioration and increasing instability.

By November 2012 these relations were probably irrevocably damaged when Morsi assumed emergency powers to force a referendum on writing the new constitution. Again the military seemed unable to prevent this referendum from taking place. The referendum was won by the MB by over 2/3 majority even though the fraction of voters fell further to 32 percent. This was MB’s last major victory. They had cleverly used both the popular support of their political constituency and the nascent political structures to counter Mubarak-era elite. Facing defeat in manipulating public opinion, the military and the other elite turned to the very force that had catapulted the MB to power: the raw, undirected energy of liberal sections of a section of middle classes, their proclivity and ability to organize around a few slogans, and the power of social media. Add to it the financial might of the Mubarak- era elite and the other media owned by them, and this could be a winning combination. If Democracy was the catch word when Mubarak was deposed, this time it was going to be Secularism and Gender Rights. The matters came to a definite head when the first draft of constitution, written by a committee dominated by Islamists, was seen as the possible future constitution of Egypt.

3. The military strikes back: The ’left-right’ alliance

There were major protests across Egypt on the eve of and following the constitutional referendum in Dec 2012. It was widely projected in several sections of Egyptian media and by liberal and liberal-left groups to be a takeover of Egypt by regressive Islamic forces led by the MB. They accused Morsi’s government of being an Islamic theocracy and openly started calling for its ouster. Some even started using the expression ’Islamic fascism’; such expressions usually emanate from the extreme right wing of Western capitals. In a prescient analysis, political commentator Petras called it a ’left-right’ alliance. He noted [6]:

The Left and democratic-secular movements and leaders have formed an opportunistic, de-facto alliance with the Mubarak elite: a marriage of ’the police club’ with its former victims, ’the clubbed democrats’ of the recent past. The progressives overlook the danger of the judges’ creeping coup, in their blind effort to undermine the Muslim Brotherhood and the Morsi regime: It’s one thing to oppose Morsi’s reactionary agenda and the anti-popular votes of a reactionary legislature; it’s something totally different to promote the ouster of a democratically- elected legislature by hold-over judges pushing for the return of despotism. Undermining the democratic process will not only adversely affect President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood but also the democratic opposition. The prime beneficiaries will be the rightwing forces encrusted in the State.

That this left-right alliance took the form of crass propaganda campaign was evidenced from the fact that contradictory arguments were used to attack MB. For instance, a section of the left believed that the MB and the military were collaborators and therefore the MB deserved to be ousted while some liberal groups saw the military as the guardians of secular tradition of Egypt and preferred them to the MB’s Islamic government. Yet these sections were willing to share a political platform to oust the MB’s government.
The same pattern was observed in critiquing the economic performance of the MB government. While one section accused the government of kowtowing to IMF and international financiers (this accusation was a part of the petition launched by the movement Tamarod (meaning Rebellion), which was used to oust the MB government in July 2013). On the other hand, some groups accused the government for stalling talks with IMF, thereby forcing an economic crisis on the country. As noted above, the MB government could not finalize either the IMF or the EU loan. However, the economy during the one year rule of the MB did improve in one crucial aspect: trade deficit shrank by nearly 50% largely owing to increased tourism revenue and a partial reversal of foreign investment [7].
The liberal and liberal-left protesters held that the new constitution backed by the MB compromised secular nature of Egypt by sidelining religious minorities such as Coptic Christians by explicit adoption of Muslim Sharia laws. The constitution was also held to be regressive in not providing equal rights to women.

Quite apart from the fact that constitutions provide guidelines that are routinely changed, and the Mubarak-era elite certainly had the power to stall any measures laid down in the MB-backed constitution, the germane question could still be: was the MB trying to usher in Islamic theocracy through constitutional changes?

The only relevant comparison in this regard is between the draft constitution proposed by the MB and the existing constitution adopted under the Sadat government in 1971 [8]. Such a comparison shows surprisingly little difference on the main contested points. Both constitutions recognize the primacy of Sharia law as ’the main source of legislation’ and Islam as the religion of the state. On the issue of minorities, the new proposed constitution states: “The principles of the legislations for Christian and Jewish Egyptians are the main source of legislation that organises their civil status and religious affairs”. Unlike the old constitution, the new document in fact recognizes the ’civil status and religious affairs’ of the minorities. The new constitution also guarantees the right to worship, with minor differences as compared the older constitution. On the issue of women rights, the new constitution is held to have ’Islamic bias’ by its critiques. This seems like a gross exaggeration. For instance, Article 30 states: ”citizens are equal before the law and equal in rights and obligations without discrimination”. Also many commitments of the state towards women are far more explicitly recognized in the new constitution: “The state shall provide motherhood and childhood services for free… The state shall provide protection and care for the divorced and widowed woman”.

In fact a stronger case on these grounds can be made against the army and the Mubarak-era elite. It was the army that killed 30 Coptic christian protesters in Nov 2011 when they came out to protest against their persecu- tion by some Islamic elements. In the Mubarak era, Coptic Christians were highly underrepresented in political institutions—only three in a parliament of 444 in 2000, even though over 10% of Egyptians are Coptic Christians [9]. And it was also the army that as a part of crackdown against women protesters in 2011 subjected them to deliberately humiliating ’virginity tests’ [9].

While it should be conceded that many of the statements in documents such as countries’ constitution are open to multiple interpretations, it is very difficult to argue that constitution proposed by the MB was either more regressive or substantially different from the previous one on the issue of secularism or women’s rights.

The real conflict was not undermining civil rights of citizens but rather a continuation of open power struggle between the MB and the Mubarak- era elite. Even though the constitution protected secretive defences budgets, the control of defence ministry by armed forces, and their controlling stakes in national security issues [10], the new constitution tried to curtail military’s blanket powers to try civilians in military courts [11]. And there was one crucial aspect in which MB was trying to erode the political power of Mubarak-era elite: its constitution explicitly asked for banning the political activity of the leaders of National Democratic Party (NDP) for a period of 10 years; NDP was the main party of the rubber-stamp parliament of Mubarak and had been dissolved in April 2011. Even though NDP is banned, its political machinery was employed to support the military-backed candidate in
2012 presidential elections.

Tamarod movement was launched in April 2013 with a single point agenda: the fall of Morsi’s regime. In this important respect, it was very similar to the 2011 movement: it had a single agenda and it was negative [9]. At this point it is worthwhile to discuss similarity and differences between 2011 and 2013 protests. Unlike 2011, the 2013 protests were well orchestrated and planned. Even though both movements had been supported by foreign aid agencies, the movement in 2013 was more openly funded by Egyptian business elite (e.g. the Egyptian billionaire and long-time Mubarak ally, Naguib Sawiris, donated $28 million to Tamarod), major media outlets in Egypt, and international groups [12]. Unlike 2011, there was no violent crackdown against the protesters.

But the class make up of the leadership of the two movements was very similar: middle class activists adept at mobilizing through social media, with some links to NGOs. Both these movements drew inspiration from earlier movements like Kifaya (’Enough’). Other groups such as the Civil liberty organization, “We are all Khaled Saeed”, formed in 2010 to protest against the killing of an activist, played an important role in both the movements. In addition, more politically-oriented movement ’6 April’ grew in prominence during these protests (this movement was named after the date of major strikes in 2008). Many liberal parties (such as National Salvation Party led by ElBaradei) and left parties such as Revolutionary Socialists also provided direct backing and support to the Tamarod movement [12].

The main weapon in Tamarod’s arsenal was a petition that called for the ouster of Morsi’s regime and fresh elections; the petition did not mention the Egyptian military. This petition was worthy of the 2011 movement: it was vague in the extreme and contained sentences like ’a poor person has no place in Egypt’ [13]. It also specifically accused the MB of ’begging’ from the IMF and other international agencies, even though negotiations with the IMF had more or less collapsed. Tamarod’s stature appeared to grow with its periodic announcements of the growing number of signatories on the petition. By the end of June this number was declared to be close to 22 million [14] (Morsi got around 13.5 million votes in the presidential election). They called their entire support base to come out in support of their petition on June 30 and threatened to remain on prominent public spaces in Egypt, including Tahrir square and the area in front of the presidential palace, until the government resigned. There were claims that over 25 million people came out in streets to support their call [14].

It goes without saying that these were wildly exaggerated figures. But remarkably no one seemed to question it. It was a definite proof of the direct elite backing and its scale that Tamarod enjoyed within the Egyptian society; indeed some of the early sources of these numbers were the military and military-controlled interior ministry of Egypt. No one has yet verified the claim that over 22 million signed the Tamarod petition, but the other claim has been checked and found to be fraudulent. Using the aerial video clips provided by the army, the total number of people protesting in Cairo were estimated to be between 250000 to a maximum of 400000 [14]. No such information was available about other places, but given that Cairo contains roughly 25% of Egypt’s population, this number could be multiplied by 4 to obtain between 1–1.5 million protesters across Egypt. This was not a small number but faded in comparison with the support base of Morsi. It is also compatible with the fact that barely 6 months ago the MB had won a referendum with over 10 million votes while the entire opposition could muster only 3 million votes. On July 3, the army struck, apparently in response to a massive public demand, and dismissed the MB government; many of the prominent MB leaders including the president were also arrested.

The most notable feature of the ouster of the MB government was the ease with it was removed. Not a single shot was fired; no one from the judiciary said a word about it being illegal, even though the head of constitutional court had extolled the virtues of democracy while announcing the victory of Morsi barely a year ago; no bureaucrat resigned over such a blatant violation of the edicts of the state; and the police watched silently as protesters ran- sacked the MB headquarters. Suddenly the entire support base of the MB in the state machinery seemed to melt away.

This should have told the protesters they were barking up the wrong tree all along. They accused the MB government of assuming dictatorial powers. And it was indicated when the MB government sacked two most senior military officers in Aug 2012 and then assumed emergency powers by decree in Nov 2012 to force a referendum on the constitution. However, the MB seemed completely helpless on July 3 and its putative dictatorial control over Egypt was nowhere in evidence.

This revealed the managed nature of the political change when the MB’s government assumed power. In this change the entrenched power structure of the Mubarak era reluctantly ceded some powers to the government. What followed was a power tussle which seemed to take the form of collaboration at times and open confrontation at others. But the power balance did not substantially change. When the military deposed the MB’s government on July 3 it was merely re-asserting that power imbalance. Tamarod movement gave it the opportune moment and the excuse to wrest back power.

But the suddenness of military action and its continuing extremely violent crackdown against the MB supporters that followed probably also had roots elsewhere—in the geopolitics of the region and the outlook of Western imperial powers.

4. US, Israel, Egyptian military, and liberal revolutionaries

The decisiveness of military action surprised many including the MB and the supporters of the military. Even the Tamarod movement had only sought a snap election after the fall of the MB’s government. But the military unleashed something which was quite unexpected.

Thousands of MB supporters, who occupied squares across the country to protest against the removal of the MB government, were murdered in cold blood, in the full glare of local and international media. (Even the military government put the number of people killed since July 3 at close to 1500, with over 1000 killed on August 14 when the violent crackdown started in earnest.) All the main leaders of the MB were arrested and incarcerated at undisclosed locations; completely ludicrous charges were levelled against them, e.g. Morsi was charged of inciting violence in a jail break in 2011. Main media outlets run by the MB were closed down. Suddenly, all supporters of the MB came to be called ’terrorists’. The state TV ran coverage of the events with ’Egypt Fighting Terrorism’ written in the corner in English, draped in the colour of Egypt’s flag. All the MB backed provincial governors were sacked and replaced by military generals. The constitution and Shura council were suspended for an indefinite period. More recently, the MB was banned as a social organization.

As expected, the military faced some backlash from within its own sup- port base. Some Salafist groups that had supported the fall of the MB’s government protested against the violent crackdown and withdrew their sup- port. ElBaradei, appointed to the position of vice President after the July 3 takeover, resigned after the massacre on August 14. A court admitted a case against him for ’breaching national trust’; he fled to Austria. Revolutionary Socialists realized, somewhat belatedly, that the army intended to crush all resistance to its rule and not just the MB supporters [15]. One of their im- portant members was detained by the military while trying to represent a trade union. In anticipation of some backlash from the university students’ community, the army granted special powers to the police to arrest students on the college premises, a repressive state power revoked in October 2010 [16].

However, the main constituency of the Tamarod movement and its liberal political supporters continue to sing the military line. One of Tamarod leaders opined: “Terrorism will be defeated in Egypt regardless of what the international terrorist organization wants.” [16] If this was not Orwellian enough, Mubarak was recently released by a court.

While this one-sided atrocity is being portrayed as sectarian conflict in the mainstream media across the world, it is really an attempt to undermine the importance of other conflicts in Egypt. In particular, the sharp class divide which was one of the main driving forces behind the 2011 movement. It was highlighted recently when the army attacked a strike of 2100 Suez steel workers and accused them of being infiltrated by ’Islamic elements’.

In a textbook fascist threat, the military leader al-Sisi recently addressed workers and asked them to ’double production and desist from any strikes’ to ’avoid bloodshed and casualties’ and to prevent ’tearing the country down’ [16].

It might seem the Arab spring has come a full circle. But even that would be an optimistic assessment because Mubarak regime was hated across a wide section and constantly faced pressure that eventually led to its downfall in 2011. The present military is professing to work with a wider public mandate and has collaborators within the same sections that led the 2011 movement. Therefore it is stronger than the Mubarak regime. Given the high skill the regime showed in manipulating public opinion in 2013, it is highly unlikely it would be ousted by a Tahrir square kind of movement.

But there is a significant aspect in which Egyptian military might have weakened itself in its ability to govern Egypt: by its violent crackdown, it has alienated its most important Islamic partner in Egypt and probably other Islamic groups as well for a long time to come. By doing so the military has risked plunging Egypt into a civil war. This runs completely counter to military’s outlook in the aftermath of Mubarak’s fall. Military had deliberately kept itself low key and had tried its best to pass on the government to ’elected representatives’—to continue portraying its role as an arbitrator, law enforcer, and power broker.
But was the conduct of the military in the recent past solely driven by domestic considerations? Egypt’s military has overarching presence in the Egyptian economy, and according to various estimate runs between 15 to 40% of the civilian economy [17]. However, it has built this power and is able to sustain it because of external support. It is not only a strong ally of the US, it also got direct financial support from Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Kuwait after July 3, all close allies of the US. Egyptian military is the second largest recipient of the US military aid after Israel. Since 1980, after the camp David accord was signed, Egypt has received over 66 billion dollars in military aid. This aid was over 70% of the declared military budget in 1980 and is still over 30% of the budget [18]. Even this captures a part of the picture because such aid has catalysed further commercial deals, e.g. Egypt collaborated with the US in developing a new tank in the recent past.

Egyptian army has also carried out joint exercises with the US military and is considered a major non-NATO ally (MNNA) by the US. Most of its senior officers, including the current ruler al-Sisi, were trained in the US. Insofar is military a determining factor in Egyptian politics, and it most certainly is, Egypt is a classical client state of the US, as much as Columbia or Pakistan.

Is it conceivable that the Egyptian army would take a step that is likely to plunge Egypt into a civil war without seeking the consent of its most important ally? The US response to the military takeover on July 3 was as would be expected from a strong ally: violence was condemned without identifying the party principally responsible for perpetrating the violence. The US stopped short of calling it a coup (US response was exactly the same when there was a coup in Honduras in 2009, whose military has similarly strong ties with the US). As noted above, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Kuwait pledged loans worth over 11 billion dollars to Egypt within days of July 3. Saudi Arabia even issued a statement backing the Egyptian military.

Even clearer indications came from Israel, the strongest ally of the US in the region. Israel had supported Mubarak regime until the last day. Israel openly welcomed the coup on July 3, supports Egypt’s ’fight against terror- ism’, and even specifically requested the US not to contemplate cancelling aid to Egypt for the sake of maintaining stability in the region. Egyptian military’s assault in the Sinai region has intensified in the recent months and it increasingly resembles a joint operation between the two armies; there were reports of Israeli drone strikes in the Sinai region. (It should be borne in mind that Egyptian army cannot even operate in the Sinai region with- out the express permission of Israel; this part of the Camp David agreement continues to haunt Egyptian politics.) Israel’s response is hardly surprising as Israel is the only country that has seen its interests directly challenged by not only the rise of the MB in Egypt but by the political instability caused by the Arab Spring itself. In the past two years, pipelines carrying Egyptian gas to Israel have been attacked, the entire arrangement of Egypt providing gas to Israel at subsidized rates was questioned and scrapped (a few days after Morsi’s election but a week before he took office) [19], Israeli embassy in Cairo was ransacked in 2011, and the rise of ’extremist Islam’ in Sinai region directly questions not only the humiliating camp David accord, it threatens Israel.

Tamarod and other liberal and liberal-left supporters of the military have created a smokescreen to divert attention from this obvious collaboration be- tween the Egyptian military and Israel, with full backing of the US. For in- stance, Tamarod has recently launched a campaign named ’regaining Egypt’s sovereignty’. It calls for refusal to accept the US aid, annulment of Camp David accord with Israel, but also to tackle ’Islamic insurgency’ in the Sinai region with greater rigour! Some liberal politicians have equated the ongoing repression against the MB with fighting global imperialism; in their view ’political Islam’ represented by the MB emanates from US policies to under- mine secular regimes in Islamic countries [20]. It is a clear demonstration of how half truths across space and time are patched together to support a deep-seated belief while the most obvious facts are overlooked.

5. While some things change, others remain the same

There are important lessons to be learnt from the dynamics of political land- scape of Egypt. And not all the lessons are new. All the available evidence suggests that the MB elite intended to run a liberal/liberal-right government—beholden to Western capitalism and its global and local power structures—but with an Islamic face. This could be modelled along the lines of Turkish government since 2003; Turkey strongly supported the MB and is one of the few Western allies that condemned the coup. The MB elite probably believed that this arrangement would be acceptable to the army and the Western imperial powers.

However, the MB could not build reliable alliances to sustain such a system. Given its economic outlook, it could not have expanded its support base to broader working classes in Egypt. Many sections of middle classes looked suspiciously at the social policies driven by Islamic conservative out- look of the MB. The MB leadership could not even rely upon its own support base which is far more radical than the leadership; it was in evidence in 2011 when the youth wing of the MB took part in many protests against the fiat of the leadership. Even if the leadership could convince the army, the US, and Israel of its continuing ’good conduct’, these powers could never trust the empowered grassroots of the MB. The main international supporters of the MB, Qatar and Turkey, are even stronger allies of the US.

Instead of looking at Turkey, the MB could have looked at Latin America. In Latin America many regimes challenged the long-term entrenched power structures and rose to power on popular slogans of economic equality and social justice after 1990s. They all faced the same choice the MB faced— whether to use structures of the state to ward off the erstwhile ruling elite or use their popular mandate to build alliances with working classes. Two regimes that fell in the recent years—Honduras and Paraguay—to military and ’constitutional’ coups were center-right regimes which were voted to challenge the entrenched system of power, but they failed to build viable local alliances with working classes. Those that survived are the ones that did—Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Venezuela clearly stands out even in this set: its president Hugo Chavez was deposed by the military in 2002 but, facing massive popular protests, was forced to re-instate him in 48 hours.

One notable feature of both the 2011 and 2013 movements was the use of social media such as facebook and twitter for long-term organization and short-term mobilization. Indeed, influential and iconic movement “We are all Khaled Saeed” was run entirely using facebook. Other movements such as ’April 6’ and ’Kifaya’ also extensively used social media. This gives us further insights into the class make up of these movements: 44% of Egypt’s population has access to internet (including access through cellphones); Egypt has 5.6 million facebook users (7% of the population) and the average number of active twitter users in Egypt (averaging over Jan-March 2011, the crucial phase of the Tahrir movement) was 131000 [21]. One obvious corollary of these numbers is that vast sections of the working classes or even the majority of political base of the MB were not directly involved in the process.
As noted above, many of the activists and groups involved in the 2011 movement had received training and financial support from the US-based NGOs such as National Endowment of Democracy (NED) and Freedom House; this fact has both been celebrated as the US contribution to democracy promotion [22] and bemoaned as indirect US interference in sovereign countries [23]. Even the Mubarak regime was wary of US-based NGOs. Many of them were denied licenses in Egypt (e.g. NED and IRI). There was crack- down against them in Feb 2012 when the military junta ordered the trial of 43 NGO workers (including 16 US citizens); they were found guilty and sentenced in June 2013 (most in absentia because they had been released and allowed to leave Egypt under the US pressure). Or Mubarak-era elite, military junta that took over in Feb 2011, and Morsi regime all seemed hostile to these NGOs. Even though this fault-line did not play a decisive role in Egypt, there has been a sharp rise in the politics of democracy promotion through Western liberal NGOs [23]. In this outlook, all the existing political configu- rations of Egyptian politics are ancien regimes. These ideas appeal directly to upwardly mobile middle classes, who are also beneficiaries of the modern- ization of Egypt under the umbrella of Western economic model. For this section, these NGOs represent the growth of their self-awareness as a class, and as a possible conduit to assert their claim to elusive political structures of the state. In many ways, the movement in 2011 was a manifestation of this assertion—an effort to use economic entitlement to stake political claim. If they failed in 2011 as arch antagonists of the military they re-emerged to stake their claim again in 2013 as collaborators of the military.

Is the continuing military crackdown against the MB supporters another episode in Egypt’s not-so-turbulent history [24]? The suppression of Islamic militant groups in mid 1990s had claimed over 2000 lives. However, there are reasons to believe it might be different this time. First, the scale is completely different. As their electoral victories demonstrated, the MB has a substantial support base. Driving the MB underground by unleashing brutal repression on its cadre and leadership is certain to have long term repercussions of a different magnitude. It is already partly reflected in the mammoth effort of the military to keep the popular opposition at bay: access to all the major squares in Cairo has been blocked by the military; night time curfew is in place in Cairo and many other parts of Egypt since August 14; military government has declared emergency across the country for an indefinite period; all the media outlets connected to the MB and other Islamic groups deemed opposed to the military have been closed down; no trains have run in or out of Cairo since August 14; Egyptian military and police, backed by armoured vehicles and helicopters, have recently ’reclaimed’ the town of Delga in Central Egypt and some suburbs of Cairo from Islamists. Such measures have hurt the working classes and small businesses and the economy might have lost between 200 and 350 million dollars since the middle of August [25]. While such extreme measures might have stalled a full- scale insurgency to develop, they cannot remain in place for an indefinite period. One possible outcome of the present standoff could be a repeat of the Algerian civil in 1991, which was triggered when the Algerian military, backed by France and the US, aborted the electoral process when an Islamic political coalition was poised to win the election. The subsequent crackdown culminated into cycles of insurgency and counter-insurgency which claimed over 200000 lives during the next 10 years [26].

Where do the working classes in Egypt find themselves after July 3? The working classes played an important role in toppling the Mubarak regime and used the political space created after the demise of the regime to organize and expand the scope of independent unions (e.g. the Egyptian Federation of In- dependent Trade Unions (EFITU), the Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress (EDLC) and the Permanent Congress of Alexandria Workers (PCAW)).

The military government also identified the potential power of these movements and appointed al-Bur’i as the minister of Manpower, who attempted to legislate a law which would have empowered independent unions and break the monopoly of Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), known to be a close collaborator of the Mubarak regime. This legislation was defeated by both the military and the MB government. Like the previous regimes, the MB also acted to co-opt the working class movements by offering some of its senior leaders important positions but refused to recognize, let alone plan to alleviate, the deep structural damage done to the Egyptian economy by over two decades of neoliberal policies [27]. Many sections of working classes continued their protests against the new government and, with some justification, saw the MB government and the military as collaborators when it came to economic policies. The number of collective workers’ actions has sharply increased since 2011—from 1400 in 2011 to over 2400 in 2013 [28].

So it is not surprising that many newly formed independent trade unions responded to the call of Tamrod and bid for the fall of the MB’s government. For their role in toppling the Morsi government, they were rewarded by the military by inducting Abu Eita, the founding president of EFITU, as the minister of Manpower.

Have working classes been empowered in the past thirty months or have they been cheated three times? Even if they have made some gains during this period, it cannot be denied that none of their demands have even been partially met [29]. The co-option of a section of their leadership and the ongoing violent repression of the putative MB supporters hardly provide a suitable setting for them to consolidate their small gains. Perhaps the best lesson to emerge from this predicament is the old Marxian dictum: To win a political struggle, the working classes must lead it.

[The author thanks Ravi and Santosh for their comments. Ravi’s very detailed reading of the article helped to improve it considerably.]


[1] Patrick Seale, Assad: the struggle for the middle east, University of California Press

of-.aspx and account-deficit-widens-as-tourism-fdi-fall-1-.html

[3] to-imf-loan-puts-more-pressure-on-egyptian-economic-recovery
riots-or-bankruptcy-Egypt-faces-stark-economic-choices– billion-grant-dependent-on-Egypt-IMF-loan-Van-.aspx

[4] Even fairly mainstream commentators acknowledge that IMF conditionalities leave behind devastated economies and that IMF often acts as an arm of the US treasury, e.g. Steiglitz in Globalization and its discontents, or the US congressional committee, Meltzer com- mittee After the 2008 financial crash, IMF has become important again and it continues its earlier policies. It is openly supportive of US’s strategic allies, e.g. the three countries offered flexible credit lines without additional conditionalities after the 2008 crash were Poland, Mexico, and Columbia. At the same time Zimbabwe’s economy was driven to a hyperinflationary crash after it undertook comprehensive land reforms.

[5] These two officer were the head of SCAF, Field Marshall Tantawi and Chief of Staff Annan. Even though this was seen as a hostile act by the MB government, SCAF later confirmed that they had been consulted. These two officers were later conferred Egypt’s highest state honour.

[6] alliance/5314891

[7] finance/2013/06/19/Egypt-s-current-account-deficit-narrows-after-trade- tourism-boost.html

[8] see e.g.

[9] roberts.html

[10] This was viewed by a section of the Egyptian left as open collabo- ration between MB and the military: mursi-protesters-are-right

[11] This was a very contentious issue. During 18 months after the fall of Mubarak and before MB’s government took over, military courts tried over 12000 people, more than during the entire Mubarak era, e.g. NewLawKeepsMilitaryTrialsofCivilians.pdf. Many of these putative insurgents of the 2011 movement were handed harsh prison sentences. The inability of MB to reverse these decisions underlined their weak- ness and possible collaboration with the military. Even the constitu- tion they proposed was criticized for not going far enough in reining in the power of the military. In the meanwhile, military courts con- tinue to acquit Mubarak era officials for their role in the killing of protesters. acquits-alleged-killers-of-2011-proteters/1748329.html.



[14] in-egypt/

[15] the-latest-massacre-in-cairo-by-revolutionary-socialists



[18] and-egypt-sure-look-like-allies-at-least-on-military-matters/262411/


[20] For Tamarod recent petition, see: tamarod-egypt-us-israel-514363. Marxist economist Samir Amin openly espouses this view: morsi-important-victory-of.html#more

[21] twitter usage in Egypt: usage-in-the-mena-middle-east/. Internet usage in Egypt: of countries by number of Internet users. facebook access in Egypt: the role of social media in egypt being overstated

[22] r=3&emc=eta1

[23] help-to-topple-mubarak/23282

[24] Compared the rest of the countries in the region Egypt has seen nothing akin to a civil war in a long time. Nor is it known for sectarian, regional, or ethnic strife, which have marred the region since its colonization by West- ern powers. Islamic insurgency in Egypt has mainly been directed against the military, state functionaries, and putative Israeli and US interests.


[26] There might be other similarities between the two cases. For in- stance, the Algerian military also invoked concepts like terrorism and democracy to attack the Islamic groups. They also found the back- ing of liberal groups and civil liberty organizations. And many of these liberal groups became targets of the military at a later stage. see, the-algerian-attack-was-really-about/

[27] For a detailed history of `foreign investor friendly’ policies adopted by Egypt since 1991, see This article also captures the impact of 2011 movement on the ’investor confidence’.

[28] login no cache=4b8fe8d7a0eb0817699751779c5bd1ab

[29] These demands include: reinstating workers sacked during strikes and sit-ins in the past thirty months, a raise in the minimum monthly wages to 1500 Egyptian pounds (the minimum wages were raised to 700 pounds in 2011), protection of right to strike, adoption of Trade Union Freedoms Act, etc. see [28] for more details.

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