`Do you hear the people sing, singing a song of angry men, it is the music of a people who will not be slaves again’. Les Mis…
The Suez Canal – still one of the world’s greatest strategic choke points
by Rob Prince and Ibrahim Kazerooni
__________________ 32 million Egyptians in the streets can’t all be wrong… This time the Egyptian people did not wait 41 years to bring down what could be called the Sadat-Mubarek government. With a little help from their friends in the military, they did it in less than a year. Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government is history. As in 2011 when their mass demonstrations forced out Hosni Mubarek, once again, in extraordinary numbers, the Egyptian people took to the streets of Cairo and virtually every other Egyptian city to protest the policies of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Mohamed Morsi. Two years ago, impressive enough at the time for sure, it was over a million people who converged on Cairo’s Tahir Square forcing Mubarek, a long time key American partner in the Middle East, from power. Two years later – a mere week ago – this time, an almost unbelievable 32 million – let’s write that out long-hand –32,000,000 Egyptians took to the streets demanding Morsi’s resignation and a change in government. To believe that Morsi could continue in his presidency after such a resounding public rejection borders on the delusional. It was over. The people had spoken and far more decisively than those 12 million who had voted for Morsi in Egypt’s national election. Other than the faithful of the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatari money, Morsi had completely lost his legitimacy in the eyes of the nation. While one should not take election results lightly – or coups for that matter – elections are not always the only measure of democracy or of a people’s political will and coups are not always the work of fascists like Pinochet and the Belkheir-Nezzar Algerian mafia.
True enough Morsi had won the presidency in an election more or less fair and square, but in the end, he and his Muslim Brother colleagues were their own worst enemy. He lost the Egyptian nation’s trust almost as quickly had he had temporarily won it a year ago. The Egyptian Coup: It’s not Pinochet’s Chile nor Nezzar’s Algeria Those whom today try to compare the Egyptian coup to Pinochet’s 1973 coup in Chile, or the consolidation of the military-security mafia in Algeria in 1992, do not understand the dynamics of Egyptian society.
The comparisons are shallow and other than the fact that, admittedly, what happened in Egypt was a coup, it was a coup that enjoyed great, if not massive popular support. Weighing which way the wind was blowing – and those winds were blowing at hurricane force from the left – the Egyptian military acceded to the popular will and engineered the coup. For a fleeting moment, the interests of all of Egypt and its opportunist military establishment coincided. Morsi didn’t have a chance.
In this case, the current focus by some on the coup’s illegitimacy downplays an important fact: Morsi’s rule and that of the Muslim Brotherhood was nothing short of a political train wreck. It was characterized by a complete lack of political or economic vision of how to bring Egypt out of the structural crisis the country inherited from the Sadat-Mubarak legacy. There being no economic vision, Morsi and co. let Egypt drift even more into the IMF-neo-liberal clutches than had Mubarak. There was no vision other than opening the country even more to foreign penetration to address the economic and social crisis which had brought down Mubarak in the first place.
The Morsi Era: An Economic and Political Train Wreck…and all in one year Nor was there any political vision other than power hording. Politically Morsi’s rule – like that of Ghannouchi’s Ennahdha Party in Tunisia – was completely cynical; simply a crude power play, to consolidate as much political and economic power as quickly as possible in the hands of the Moslem Brotherhood. Morsi’s rule was marked by massive human rights abuses, including widespread arrests, widespread torture and assassination of political opponents, the unleashing and encouragement of Salafist-Wahhabist religious bigotry that included an openly misogynous campaign against women and the cruel and openly racist targeting of the country’s Egyptian shrinking Coptic (Egyptian Christian) community.
Attacks on the Egyptian labor movement and its progressive youth – the two key elements in Mubarak’s overthrow were rampant as well. At the same time, the condition of the Egyptian economy, of the economic and social situation of the overwhelming majority of the Egyptian people continued to dramatically deteriorate. Combined with the regime’s repression, the deepening of the economic crisis very quickly led to a deterioration of Morsi’s political base. Other than the Brotherhood faithful in fact, for several months now Morsi has had no base.
No small part of Morsi’s political shortsightedness was to think he could take on the Egyptian military itself and somehow tame it. As in Algeria, Turkey, Pakistan and Iran, the Egyptian military has its own vested interests beyond security concerns and a power base that includes considerable influence and outright control of Egypt’s economic resources. In his hurry to hoard and concentrate as much economic and political power in the hands of the Brotherhood as possible, Morsi was bound to run into conflict with the military and this sooner rather than later. Furthermore, if the Egyptian military is closely allied to the US, it is not without certain tensions. For example, the Egyptian military has strong historic ties with Assad’s Syrian military. Morsi’s support for the Syrian rebels, so many of whom have ties to militant Islamic fundamentalist groups, the Egyptian military was less than pleased, if not humiliated.
The Egyptian Military and the Obama Administration: Reacting to events, not defining them
In so many ways, Morsi and the Brothers dug their own political graves and did it with breathtaking speed. It takes some doing to undermine the confidence of a whole country in less than a year. While the Egyptian military (more on that below) and the United States are not innocent players in this drama, the notion now being put forth from certain quarters (Tarik Ramadan – grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood for example) that what happened in Egypt is primarily the result of collusion between the Egyptian military and the Obama Administration misses the point. Yes, of course the U.S. and Egyptian military (and add the Turkish, Israeli, Saudi, Algerian, British, French, Italian ones) have been, are and will be colluding – they know no other way – but the main actors in this drama are the people of Egypt and none other. It is they – and not Barack Obama or Abdul Fattah al Sisi – that have forced the issue. The people have spoken, al Sisi and Obama have had no choice but to go along with dumping Morsi and do so quickly, before the situation exploded from below.
No doubt, the Egyptian military, a cynical player, found it convenient for the moment to side with `the people’, understanding that it would be far worse to repress 32 million protesters than to remove Morsi from power and face down the Brotherhoods. Theirs was a pragmatic move and while they enjoy support from those opposed to Morsi, the Egyptian people are wise to their ways and remember the contradictory role they played during these past two years (and before). The alliance can be no more than temporary.
As for the Obama Administration, they were more spectators than participants in the Egyptian events since the advent of the Arab Spring. It is a mistake to take their ( State, Defense) analysts as fools. The more sophisticated observers in the State and Defense Departments understood months ago that Morsi’s support base was shrinking and that his days were numbered. Obama saw this coming much more so than in 2011.
Washington’s dilemma was what to do? Continue to support Morsi so that Washington finds itself, once again in bed with yet another unpopular, undemocratic Middle Eastern government? Or, like in 2011, let the protest movement run its course and see if, afterwards, they could manage the consequences in tandem with the Egyptian military and the very much alive Egyptian comprador class.
All Washington Cares About: Neo-liberal economic policies, strategic interests (meaning oil and natural gas) and Israel
Frankly Washington, stripped of its now tiresome rhetoric about human rights and democracy, doesn’t give a hoot if the domestic politics of Egypt are secular, Islamic, or Rastafarian for that matter, as long as the next Egyptian government stays in line with three U.S. `vital needs’:
– first and foremost, that the country remain open to neo-liberal economic (corporate and financial) penetration and not limit that penetration to the Egyptian economy and market;
– secondly, that the Egyptian government cooperate with the main strategic lines of US regional policies – ie – access to the region’s petro-chemical and natural gas wealth, privatization of as much of that wealth as possible, reducing the role of the states of that region in the management of those resources;
– and thirdly, that all opposition to Israel’s policies – still the U.S.’s most important strategic ally in the ME, – remain on the level of rhetoric. The U.S. strategic relationship with Israel must not be threatened. Obama doesn’t particular care about the rhetorical contest between Israel and the Arabs, as long as the highly coordinated strategic cooperation among them, that has gone on for decades, continues.
As there is no indication that the incipient Egyptian government will challenge US prerogatives on any of these three elements of the American `holy trinity’, Washington cannot only live with the Egyptian coup, it will, I predict, support it, the logical thing to do (if unethical and immoral) from a strategic point of view. But then the U.S. has invested $1.5 billion in Egypt and its military since the 1979 Camp David Accords. It has proven to be one of the bedrocks of U.S. Middle East policy and there is too much invested in it to turn back now.
Yet for as dramatic as are these results, what the Egyptian people have forced their military and the U.S. to agree to – deposing Morsi – let us be frank: the new government shows no more vision to address Egypt’s socio-economic crisis than did Morsi’s, nor any willingness to challenge the above mentioned U.S. prerogatives. Neo-liberalism 1 was Mubarak era of `limited’ (very limited) secular democracy; Neo-liberalism 2 is Morsi’s `Islamic democracy’ (not particularly Islamic, nor democratic). Now Egypt enters Neo-liberalism 3 al Sisi’s `Military democracy’ (more military than democratic), The form might change from one political transition to another, but not the essence; Once again, a new mask is being put on an old face, old wine in a new bottle, the same old song, etc. Regimes change, neo-liberalism survives.
Once again Washington and Cairo are supporting only those changes necessary to maintain the status quo. But how many more tricks are left in Washington’s bag of tricks? The Egyptian comprador class and military, and the United States are running out of options. Their neo-liberal wine is turning to vinegar. Maybe next time the Egyptian people will take the next logical step in the Arab Spring and bring down the whole rotten system to replace it with something new and vibrant.
Until the system changes, and not just the faces of those in power, there will be more national uprisings and coups. The Egyptian people rose up; Washington and Cairo reshuffled the deck again hoping that gesture would dampen hopes, neutralize what can only be described as an on-going revolutionary process. All the same the Egyptian people, the magnificent Egyptian people, are leading the way for all the peoples of the Middle East and beyond to another way, a better world. And neither the Egyptian military nor Washington will be able to stand in their way. The Arab Spring is not dead, it has not turned into `the Arab Winter’. It’s only just begun! La Lutta Continua…
Note: In Part Two we will explore the regional consequences of the Egyptian changes, most specifically on Qatari-Saudi Relations and the impact that the Egyptian Uprising and Coup has had on Muslim Brotherhood regional plans… stay tuned
Ibrahim Kazerooni received a joint phd in Religion and Internatinoal Studies from the Iliff School of Theology and the Korbel School of International Studies of the University of Denver
Rob Prince is a lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies.