A people’s history of the Egyptian revolution (8)

Hani Shukrallah , Friday 20 Sep 2013

30 June was a massive revolutionary uprising by millions of Egyptians. Was it also a military coup? Sure, but so was each wave of the Egyptian revolution – the alternative is Syria

8. The tanks at the tip of revolt 

We need first to clearly set out the most fundamental feature of the 30 June uprising; to see the forest, before we can begin to examine the trees, shrubs and weeds. This in a word is: revolution. Millions of Egyptians once again rose in rebellion against their rulers, and for the first time in modern history brought down an Islamist regime through a popular uprising.

This is history making, and I’m speaking world, rather than merely Egyptian history. Take it or leave it, but on 30 June the death knell of so-called “Islamic revival” – going back to the late 70s of the last century – was sounded.

Having devoted much of my writing over the years to critiquing the “Islamic revival” paradigm (Westernised elites versus immutably Islamic populations/ Arab-Muslim exceptionalism/ Muslims’ allegedly immutable Islamic identity), I expect to revisit this topic in the future, but for the moment let’s leave it in history’s hands.

At all events, win or lose, Islamism – for the first time since its “revival” – is under attack not by state agents but by the people – millions of people in Egypt, in Tunisia and even in the heart of its most perfect model – Western-cherished Turkey itself (even if kept at arm’s length, EU-fashion).

I have no intention here of playing the numbers game, which has been rendered absurd by sheer exaggeration – on all sides. However many millions went out on Egyptian streets on 30 June and 3 July, there is little doubt that these were the largest numbers of protesters the country – and possibly the world – had ever seen. And they were no longer confined to the big cities.

From its start, the Egyptian revolution had been almost wholly urban. The Tamarod (Rebel) campaign, the abject failure of Muslim Brotherhood rule and the widening cracks in the power structure combined to resolve – at least in part and possibly momentarily – one of the fundamental contradictions at the heart of the Egyptian revolution. For the first time since 25 January, the revolutionary upsurge would involve large sections of rural Egypt, south as well as north.

The breadth, depth and intensity of the Egyptian people’s rejection of Muslim Brotherhood rule did not require millions on the streets (however many) for us to see it. Anyone who hadn’t just stepped off a plane or confined his/her stay in the country to wine and cheese soirees with English speaking academics could have done so.

And it wasn’t merely the ineptitude of Brotherhood rule, the gas shortages and economic hardship. Self-conscious “intellectuals”, secretly basking in their cultural superiority even as they pay homage to subaltern resistance, tend to see the poor as creatures of basic needs and wants, motivated solely or principally by their next meal-ticket.

It doesn’t work this way. People don’t rise up in rebellion because they’re starving, but because they’re aware – however partial and clouded such awareness may be. On year in power proved more than sufficient for a rebellious Egyptian people, who had thrown off the shackles of fear, submission and servitude to see the hideous Mubarak state behind the Muslim Brotherhood’s bearded mask. They rose up in rebellion.

You might like to check my: “Something in the soul” (3 July 2013) http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/4/0/75509/Opinion/Something-in-the-soul.aspx And: Egypt’s second revolution: Questions of legitimacy (4 July 2013) http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/4/0/75712/Opinion/Egypt%E2%80%99s-second-revolution-Questions-of-legitimacy.aspx

Popular uprising says the most fundamental fact about the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt on 30 June, but what of its stickier aspects, its “strange bed-fellows”?

Tahrir Square
File photo: Protesters opposing Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi gather during a demonstration at Tahrir Square in Cairo June 30, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

The revolution or military coup debate is both tired and childish, revealing as it does an almost deliberate blindness to the real course of the Egyptian revolution since January 2011.

And let’s put it bluntly: if it’s military coup you’re looking for, then there’ve been military coups at every major wave of the Egyptian revolution, against Mubarak in February 2011 and against Tantawi, Enan and the bulk of their Supreme Council in August 2012, as in that of June/July of 2013.

To put it even more bluntly, the ultimate instrument for the actual removal from power of these three consecutive regimes has been the military – not NATO bombers, an Egyptian Free Army, or worker and peasant battalions at the barricades.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, and invariably comes at a hefty price, but denial doesn’t make it sweater or any less real.

In strategic terms, the Egyptian revolution always came up against the task of neutralizing the army, if not necessarily winning it over. We might hate to admit it, deny it or gloss over it (strategic thinking hasn’t been a particular forte of our revolutionaries, sad to say), but rejecting it would imply that the actual practice of the Egyptian revolution (civil disobedience and largely peaceful protest) has been misguided from the start: “Aux armes, citoyens” and good luck to you (though you might give a thought to the advance in weapons technology since 1789).

As for Western liberals and leftists who continue to bewail the military stigma tainting our revolution (conveniently if paradoxically, in this particular third wave and not the previous two), they might have a look at Syria. Translate the number of victims of the ongoing Syrian carnage as percentage of the population into Egyptian terms, and you get nearly 3.5 million Egyptians killed. If that’s what it takes to keep your consciences clear, friends; it is a price we would rather avoid, thank you. We might add as well that it is a price the Syrian revolution would have much rather not been forced to pay, even if the Jihadists seem to have a particular relish for it.

With this in mind, we might get back to military coups and conspiracies in Egypt post-25 Jan 2011. That the first wave of the Egyptian revolution involved “a military coup” at the tip is not a subject for debate; it’s fact. Conspiracy? Sure, since it’s highly doubtful that Mubarak was privy to SCAF discussions of his possible ouster. The Americans almost certainly, but not the old man himself who, like the late Shah of Iran and many other tyrants the world over, must have felt betrayed by his own men and erstwhile allies. Morsi would drink from the same cup two and a half years later.

Yet the second ouster – of SCAF itself – a little over a year ago (12 August 2012) bears closer inspection. Morsi has been credited widely with a brilliant coup, if not a military one, in unseating the Muslim Brotherhood’s now humbled, battered and demoralized partners in Mubarak’s inheritance. Brilliance, to say the least, has hardly been a feature of the Brotherhood’s performance in and out of power, yet the real point here is that crediting Morsi and his group with unseating SCAF reveals either complete ignorance of the institutional makeup and real dynamics of the Egyptian state, or plain hypocrisy. Morsi did not overthrow SCAF, the military did.

The story is now well known: Field Marshal Tantawi and Chief of Staff Enan called in to the Presidential Palace for a meeting with Morsi, are made to cool their heels in one salon, while in another, Abdel-Fatah El-Sissi, the youngest member of SCAF, is being sworn in as Armed Forces chief and defence minister. It goes without saying that El-Sissi wouldn’t have dared make that particular visit to the Presidential Palace behind his commanders’ backs without already having ensured the full support of the most important field commanders of the armed forces. Had it been otherwise, “the coup” against the Brotherhood would’ve come much earlier.

The fact that the officers corps (from general to lieutenant) overwhelmingly welcomed, even celebrated, the humiliating removal of their high command is equally well known to a great many Egyptians, many of whom have friends or relations in the army.

And it was not because the army had been Islamised or Brotherhoodised in the interim, though Western observers had a field day pontificating on El-Sissi’s possible Islamist sympathies, presumably evident by virtue of his wife’s veil and his regular observation of Muslim prayers.

It so happens, the Egyptian military had been scrupulously immunised against political allegiances of any sort, and in particular against political Islamism in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, which the Mubarak regime no less than his military saw as their most serious challenge. Officers showing even the least sign of sympathy to Islamism would be weeded out with great alacrity, while the Brotherhood’s top leadership was made fully aware that any attempt to infiltrate the military would be considered the ultimate deal breaker in the “banned but tolerated” formula under which the state and the Brotherhood played their cat and mouse games from the time of president Anwar Sadat onwards. Simply, it would be back to the concentration camps, with which the Brotherhood had become quite familiar under Nasser.

The reason the second tier of the military command structure opted to utilise Morsi’s presidential legitimacy to rid itself of its high command – to wide ranging support from the officers’ ranks – was fundamentally military in nature. It was to protect the military institution itself, and the nearly sacrosanct and privileged position it had held for decades within the Egyptian state. The aged, tyrannical and bungling leadership of the SCAF had in the course of its year and a half rule brought the military to the most terrible moment in its history.

Hated, despised and ridiculed as never before, the writing was literally on the wall – take a walk in any large Egyptian city, and you’ll find remaining examples of the profusion of anti-military graffiti of the time.

Needless to say, it was neither Morsi nor the Brotherhood, nor indeed the Islamist trend as a whole that brought the military to this unenviable position. Till the very end, Muslim Brotherhood leaders and officials persisted in singing the military’s praises and condemning any and all resistance to SCAF’s authoritarian rule, even as they acted to use that resistance to shift the balance of forces within the post-revolution ruling alliance in their favour.

Again, it was the people’s continuing revolutionary upsurge that led to the unseating of SCAF, and – as an unintended consequence – caused the reordering of power relations within the power structure of the country, with the Brotherhood now enjoying nearly uncontested supremacy.

Next: Mapping the fault-lines

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