On the evening of 3 July 2013, millions of Egyptians celebrated the end of Muslim Brotherhood rule. Much of the Western media was stunned by the events that culminated in the dismissal of former president Mohamed Morsi after a year in power. Immediately following Morsi’s removal, Western political, intellectual, and media circles expressed anger at the developments despite the unprecedented scale of the grassroots uprising that made it possible and the consensus of national political forces about the dangers of the mother of all Islamist organisations remaining in power in Egypt.
Eight years later and the balances of power in Egypt and the region have shifted. This does not, however, preclude the need to examine the facts from that period through a lens that encompasses more than the criteria of formal democracy, not least because, under Morsi, there were signs of a repeat of Iran’s Islamic revolution and the imposition of a theocratic order in Egypt.
The 30 June 2013 Revolution was a watershed moment par excellence, regardless of the opinions of those who had banked on Islamists dominating the region. In Egypt’s case it is not difficult to envision what would have happened in the absence of the revolution. Yet though the disastrous effects of the rise to power of an organisation that views democracy as no more than a means to gain control so that it can then manoeuvre to perpetuate that control indefinitely were staring everyone in the face, the 30 June Revolution is still treated with suspicion by some Western research centres. All too often this bias is informed by the relationship between foreign think tanks and intelligence agencies on the one hand, and Islamist groups on the other. The relationship dates back to the 1950s, when Islamists were used as a tool against Arab nationalism and the Arab left, and as a weapon in the Cold War against the Soviet Union and the communist camp.
The grassroots revolution in Egypt put paid to the notion advanced within some academic circles that it is possible to coexist with undemocratic groups that mix religious demagoguery with politics in order to attain and hold onto power. Arab and Muslim societies, so the fallacious argument goes, have a “specific nature” that has to be taken into account when promoting democratisation in countries that have suffered more than their fair share of corruption and nepotism. The Islamists presented themselves as a magic solution, pointing to the great role that religion plays in the lives of Arab and Muslim societies, and positing themselves as experts on Islam.
So, what would have happened had the 30 June Revolution failed?
The answer put forward by a number of Western research centres is that one cannot judge Muslim Brotherhood rule from its single year in office. The group, they say, needed time to correct its undemocratic practices. As if there isn’t an entire body of Islamist literature and doctrine offering justifications to monopolise power and end the rotation of authority. According to some of this literature bequeathed by the emirs of violence, including the assassins of president Anwar Al-Sadat — in 2012 Morsi released them from prison and then invited them to attend the commemoration of Sadat’s signature achievement, victory in the 6 October War — jihadist groups had long been waiting for the opportunity to lock horns with other factions they felt less ideologically qualified to lead an Islamic nation.
Consensual solutions within a democratic framework have proven unsustainable in societies that tried to introduce a formula for coexistence between Islamists and democratic liberal trends. Nevertheless, Western advocates of genuine representative democracy in their own countries somehow find it acceptable to defend the right of anti-democratic groups that mix religious demagoguery with politics to be included in democratic processes that they are certain to subvert once they reach power.
Certainly, it is no secret what Islamist rule would hold in store for religious minorities, women, and personal freedoms. Yet, by some curious logic, Western critics of the 30 June Revolution accuse the people who defended plurality, freedom of belief, the rights of minorities, women’s rights and personal rights, of being anti-democratic, and whitewash the Islamists, whose doctrines and writings overtly advocate reducing religious minorities to second class citizens and curtailing women’s rights, as defenders of democratic transformation.
Before defending the right of a reductionist, exclusively religious-oriented party to participate in a pluralistic democratic process, one should consider what is required to safeguard that process. One requirement is a strong civil state equipped with checks and balances capable of preventing a single trend or group from monopolising the political process, or threatening to propel the nation into civil war. And make no mistake, it was civil war that was looming in the run-up to 30 June 2013.
Thankfully, a critical mass of the Egyptian people chose to save the civil state and preserve the cohesion of their society. These were the driving principles of the movement that ushered the Muslim Brotherhood out of power, something certain camps in the West still fail to grasp. These camps prefer to believe that the Egyptian people have no agency and instead attribute the overthrow of the elected president to plots and machinations of the deep state. They ignore the fact that Morsi was simply a façade for the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation to which he owed his prior allegiance and which has always behaved like a state within a state.
The 12 months of Muslim Brotherhood rule present an alarming picture: total economic collapse, bureaucratic incompetence of a scale unseen in Egypt’s modern history, stealthy yet relentless steps on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership to consolidate all powers in the executive, to the detriment of the army and police, the judiciary, the intelligence agencies, and even the diplomatic corps. The Brotherhood’s goal was self-empowerment, and its chosen method was to purge sovereign agencies of all but Muslim Brotherhood loyalists. While the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau was busy drawing up lists of officials to replace with their own, another wing was negotiating pacts with other extremist groups, cajoling them to recognise the Muslim Brotherhood, the mother Islamist organisation, as their legitimate representative, and to ideologically reconcile. In return, they were promised privileges and political advantages tailored to the battles they had been waging beneath the banner of jihad for more than 40 years.
All this was accompanied by an unprecedented spike in sectarian tensions. It was clear from the outset that the nature of the state the Muslim Brotherhood envisioned was far removed from the modern civil state. Their state had no room for Christians, except within mediaeval bounds. Their discriminatory attitudes and dogma were already evident on many issues before they came to power, especially with regard to women’s rights and religious minorities. In the opposition in parliament under Mubarak, they set their sights on dismantling the civil state. When they reached power, they expanded their ambition to dismantling the nation state itself, to be replaced with a replica of their own secretive organisation, the better to impose their own brand of religious extremism. As their plans advanced, Egypt’s security agencies began to fear a slide into civil war.
There was a long-standing feud between the Brotherhood and strong and effective institutions of state, and the group had its crosshairs set on the Egyptian army above all. One way to weaken it was to embroil it in proxy wars abroad. An early indication of this tactic occurred in October 2012 during the military parade on the anniversary of the 1973 War. The Muslim Brotherhood used the occasion to declare jihad against the Syrian regime, giving a green light to its members, and members of allied groups, to fight in Syria’s civil war. It opened an early chapter in the story of mercenaries in Syria. As many familiar with the thinking in Western political and intelligence circles at the time know, using Egyptian troops in the region’s proxy wars was a down payment on the anticipated alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and Western governments.
These were just some of the factors that drove tens of millions of ordinary Egyptians to take action against Muslim Brotherhood rule. In response, as investigations have shown, the organisation rallied its affiliated groups to counter the massive outcry for its removal from power. But the organisation’s mobilisation at home, and its appeal to foreign powers, could not help Morsi save his position, or return him to it after his removal. Nor could other ploys, such as the melodrama staged in Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square in eastern Cairo. Regional and international media affiliated with the group helped with the production: they cut and edited footage in such a way as to create the impression that Egyptians supported the Muslim Brotherhood sit-in. The same media shrugged off the huge surge in attacks against churches, Christian property and persons throughout the country, dismissing it as part and parcel of the violent tug-of-war between two sides. Regardless of whether Western media calls the events of 30 June a revolution or a coup, what counts is that the will of the vast majority of the Egyptian people prevailed, yielding first the interim government and, in 2014, the election of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.
Eight years after these momentous events and the government has reversed the severe deterioration under Muslim Brotherhood rule. The country is now on a path diametrically opposed to that envisioned by the Islamists. The comprehensive development drive that President Al-Sisi initiated has won the praise and admiration of international agencies. In addition to the largest-ever infrastructure development projects Egypt has ever seen, the government has launched multiple programmes to raise standards of living and quality of life in rural Egypt. Adopting a holistic concept of human development, the government has also passed legislation to promote the empowerment of women and guarantee the constitutional principle of equal rights for all citizens. The guiding principle here is social justice, not just in terms of political rights, but also in terms of economic and social rights, including access to proper healthcare and education. The government understands that to ignore social welfare and safety networks is to leave important sectors of society vulnerable to the predations of extremist groups. This consideration has also informed the government’s drive to reform educational curricula and deepen the culture of tolerance and acceptance of others.
There is a saying that foreign policy proceeds from the home front. This certainly applies to Egypt: in recent years the success of its domestic policies has increasingly been reflected on the foreign policy front. Egypt has scored major successes in the war against terrorism, winning many over to its comprehensive view on how to confront violent extremist groups while preserving the unity and integrity of the nation state, the importance of which President Al-Sisi has repeatedly underscored since taking office. As stability returned to Egypt, Cairo began to resuscitate its regional role and influence. The gauge of success here is to be found in Egypt’s deterrent diplomacy, designed to curb the schemes of regional powers to capitalise on the wave of upheavals and conflict in the Arab world in order to encroach onto Arab states and make a grab for their land and resources. The red line that Al-Sisi drew in Libya is a case in point. That policy marked the turning point that made it possible to bring a halt to hostilities and usher in a new interim phase. Currently, Egypt is playing a crucial role, in collaboration with international partners, in helping the Libyans prepare the groundwork for general elections. The Palestinian cause is another area in which Egypt has demonstrated its crucial influence. Egypt brokered the recent truce in Gaza, and is currently sponsoring talks in Cairo to promote a lasting ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians.
The security breakdown and instability that characterised the Muslim Brotherhood’s year of rule inspired a massive upgrade of Egypt’s military forces and a comprehensive vision for Egypt’s national security. The modernisation of all branches of the Egyptian Armed Forces, which has included the creation of a southern fleet to safeguard maritime borders, is one of the main reasons for the success of Egypt’s deterrent diplomacy and growing influence. But President Al-Sisi’s vision is more far-reaching. This is why, despite waves of terrorist attacks, he set in motion sweeping national development campaigns that addressed the needs of the poor, disadvantaged and vulnerable, giving concrete substance to the principle of equal citizenship without discrimination.
What if… The answer to the question posed at the outset is easy. On the one hand, there is the accumulation of concrete achievements that have compelled some, if not all, Western media to reassess their views on what made millions of Egyptians to take to the streets on 30 June 2013. On the other, we have the economic decay, the social disintegration, the extreme polarisation, the exclusionist and discriminatory tendencies of the Islamists, the lack of prudence, the export of jihadist mercenaries, a panoply of phenomena that threatened to drag Egypt and Egyptian identity into dangerous territory. The consequences would have been disastrous, not just for us but for the region.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly