A people’s history of the Egyptian revolution (2)

Hani Shukrallah , Wednesday 4 Sep 2013

In the second instalment of this essay: a look at 'the best of all possible worlds' that was not to be

“The memory of oppressed people is one thing that cannot be taken away, and for such people, with such memories, revolt is always an inch below the surface.”

Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States

2. What’s the big deal?

We now know (thanks basically to revelations by dissident MB cadres) that a deal had been more or less struck in early February 2011 – by the military, the late Intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman (a long time favourite of both the Americans and the Israelis, his name had been popping up regularly as an alternative successor to Mubarak Père), and the Brotherhood leadership – apparently with considerable American help.

At its heart, that deal was based on what had become the conventional wisdom of “Greater Middle East” watchers everywhere: the Turkish model, or some synthesis of Turkey and Pakistan: a power sharing accommodation between a secular, semi-secular or just a little bit secular military – closely tied to the US – and “moderate” Islamists, ruling together in some sort of electoral “democracy”.

No convoluted conspiracies in any of it – a necessary caution in view of the deluge of nonsense currently pouring out of the Egyptian media, most recently given hilarious expression by the Upper Egyptian police arresting and locking up (temporarily as it came out) a stork (yes, the bird, not a code name) on suspicion of spying activities.

In fact, it all seemed to make perfect sense. For the best part of Mubarak’s 30 years in office, and certainly since the fateful 9/11, policy makers in Egypt and the Arab world as in Washington, London and Paris, had come to the firm conclusion that the Arab police states – stagnant, disintegrating and half-senile as they might be – were the only bulwark against Islamist takeover backed by ostensibly and intrinsically Islamic populations.

If you were sitting in Washington, or for that matter, at Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman’s office in Cairo, what would you choose once your long cherished and tenaciously bolstered police states came apart? Nice reasonable Islamists willing to play ball (with whom you already had open lines of communications), or the “crazies” of Al-Qaeda and Jihad – Mohamed Badei and Mohamed Morsi or Ayman El-Zawheri and Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi?

The sticking point was what to do about Mubarak. A question of “legitimacy”, you might say. Initially, the idea was to keep Mubarak nominally in office (sunning at his villa in the south Sinai resort of Sharm El-Sheikh) until the end of his term (then some six months away), have then Vice-President Suleiman assume presidential powers in the interim, legalise the Brotherhood and ensure them access to the legislature and the government. This, in return for Brotherhood assurances regarding what matters most to American/European Middle East policy makers, no less than the Egyptian military command: upholding the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty and guaranteeing Israeli security; assurances as well regarding power sharing with the military and sundry other sections of the old state bureaucracy, institutions and Oligarchs.

The Brotherhood leadership was more than willing to oblige, and were happy to pack up their supporters and send them home. It did not work. The millions on the streets (including many MB youth) would not go home, but rather escalated their protests, now joined by a great wave of industrial action. The rest is history.

The reason I’ve gone into some detail into what by now appears as a minor (and conveniently forgotten) glitch on Egypt’s revolutionary screen is that it reveals one of the basic laws of motion of post-revolution Egypt. The people, unprepared for determining the course of political reconstruction, were nevertheless more than able to act as the ultimate spoilers.

Night of the generals
Night of the generals

I never subscribed to the view that the military had the intention of directly ruling the country, even if in the interim they seemed to have developed a decided taste for it (they seemed to particularly relish TV exposure). Yet this was more in the nature of enjoy it while you can, fully knowing that the pleasure would be transient.

 It was to be the best of all possible worlds. The Muslim Brotherhood controlling the legislature and the government, allowing some presence for non-Islamist parties and individuals (mostly drawn from old NDP dignitaries, coming in as “independents”, or in the guise of new parties). MB control would be balanced out further by the presidency, which was to be left to military/intelligence preference (whether the president-to-be hailed from their ranks or was backed by them) and meanwhile, the military would maintain and even bolster its privileged status in the new political system, keeping intact as well as much as possible of the Mubarak authoritarian state structure (the only conceivable state then in military minds, thus their latter-day assertions that the revolutionaries were out to undermine the very existence of the state).

Let’s review the evidence: Mubarak’s last cabinet under Maj. Gen. Ahmed Shafiq was to be kept in place for the duration of “the transition”;

-       the SCAF, headed by Field Marshal Tantwai, held the full authoritarian powers of Mubarak;

-       Mubarak himself was made exempt from prosecution and comfortably retired at his no doubt sumptuous Sharm villa (curtsey of former intelligence operative, bosom buddy and one of the country’s top business tycoons, Hussein Salem);

-       a constitutional declaration charting the transition “road map” was meticulously designed to effectively disenfranchise the revolutionaries while guaranteeing the Muslim Brotherhood and, it was then believed, the NDP dignitaries (oligarchs of various shapes and sizes, with intimate connections to the security apparatus) joint control over the drawing of the new constitution;

-       This, by virtue of their combined control of the forthcoming parliament, which was initially scheduled for election within three months of the Constitutional Declaration, ensuring further that the only organized political forces in the country were the Brotherhood and the NDP network.

The Muslim Brotherhood were happy to fulfil their side of the bargain, swearing themselves blue in the face that they would uphold the Camp David Accords and the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, would not run a candidate for president and would compete only for a third of parliamentary seats.

Nearly unanimous predictions at the time regarding the then forthcoming parliamentary elections gave the Brotherhood their third, the NDP network (overseeing a huge patronage network built over decades) another third, and a final third to a mixture of old and new parties and independents.

It was picture perfect, a synthesis of Turkey and Pakistan with which the powerful – domestically, regionally and internationally – would be happy to work; the people would get their presumably long-held and deeply-desired Islamist (of sorts) government, go home to slumber away for another thirty years, or longer.

Alas, it was not to be!


Next: Continuing revolution, the great spoiler

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