The advent of the Arab Spring sent a democratic surge through the Middle East, inducing hopeful protests and fearful repressions in equal measure; a chronicle of approximate successes, such as Egypt, and abject failures, as in Syria. Ever since this populist flood, it has been the prerogative of pundits to speculate as to whether the consequent waters of electoral politics are of a fresh liberal nature, or possess a salty religio-fundamentalist aftertaste. Into this metaphor, and the region, have crept the self-interested shoals of foreign powers – China and Russia have staked out critical positions, the former quietly penetrating the Middle East’s precious economic currents, whilst the latter exerts itself in more obvious maneuvers. Meanwhile the allegedly endangered Leviathan of American interventionism lies dormant in the deep, preoccupied with internal affairs, excepting a small coterie of interested Senators (eg: John McCain, Lindsey Graham) who rumble President Obama into incremental actions.
With respect to disposition, the recent flare-up in Iraq is a kind of ideological bellwether. For those who posit that the Arab Spring was ultimately a reaction to the “coalition of the willing” invading then nationbuilding in Iraq and Afghanistan (articulated via the dual themes of violence inducing radicalization, and the coalition’s policies cultivating democratization), the narrative is one of Iraqi insurgents crossing the border into Syria. Whereas for those who conclude that the Arab Spring is primarily a series of organic popular movements rejecting dictatorship and rooted in hostility to the actions of specific dictators, the tale is one of disaffected and disillusioned protesters-cum-streetfighters spilling across the map from Syria into Iraq.
Perhaps the very fact that one can credibly argue that the traffic is going either way between the two countries is evidence that in-fact the Middle East is becoming more porous overall. Syria has become a fraught, but traversible, alleyway connecting and further connecting Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, and Israel. Given Syria’s inability to sustain comprehensive border security (or eject those who enter), the aforementioned four nations are now all de facto neighbors, albeit with an admittedly significant no-man’s land between them. Whether this will evolve into a basis for disagreement, or partnerships, remains to be seen. However, the regional trend is dubious – Iraq’s impotence vis-a-vis air defense has permitted Iran to fly supplies to Bashar Al Assad’s regime at will, and has led to Iraq pre-emptively warning Israel not to likewise ignore the sovereignty of Iraqi airspace if Israel were to launch a strike against Iran.
In the face of all this, the Arab Spring has become a matter of endurance; which peoples can ensure their progress towards democracy persists? Egypt, in some ways the flagship of the Arab Spring, is emblematic of both its limitations and its promise. The scale and intensity of anti-Mubarak demonstrations was so substantial that the Egyptian military were presented with a stark choice – violently suppress the popular protests, or renounce Mubarak’s dictatorship. In Dijibouti, Sudan, Bahrain, and other locations, the security forces unhesitatingly chose to be an exclusive instrument of their oppressive governments. Whereas the Egyptian army, a powerful political and economic faction in addition to being a martial institution, was only willing to suppress up to a point – a limit beyond which they would have had to trespass if Mubarak’s regime was to be preserved.
Following Mubarak’s resignation the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) reigned from February 2011 until June 2012, during a transition to democracy. This episode was marked by the purported maintenance of a 40%+ approval rating by SCAF, and by individuated acts of repression, such as the army driving vehicles into a crowd peacefully demonstrating against sectarian attacks upon Coptic Christian churches (State media reports paradoxically called upon the Egyptian people to defend the army from the demonstrators).
Surprisingly, the outcome of 2012’s parliamentary and presidential election seasons was a victory for Mohammed Morsi and his Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Founded by (but nominally independent of) Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the FJP styles itself as a passionately Islamic political party which sincerely embraces inclusive democracy. Arabists, Orientalists and commentators rushed to deliver their verdict on whether the FJP was primarily committed to so-called “Islamism” or liberalesque democracy, with some even positing the birth of a new “liberal Islamist” hybridized movement. Or to put it another way, on the one hand FJP Chairman Saad al-Katatny was reported as pronouncing, “The Muslim Brotherhood established the [FJP] to represent the Brotherhood’s political project, which, in the end, will be a wise government that will institute Islamic Shari’a law.”, whilst on the other hand, the FJP’s parliamentary manifesto states, “Hence this program is founded on four fundamental principles, which represent the great purposes of Sharia (Islamic law), namely: Freedom … Justice … Development … Leadership”.
President Morsi’s baseline respect for democracy was debatable, but circumstances beyond his control did seem to herd his year-long Presidency toward tyranny. The problem for Morsi was an institutional one: how do you govern a nation with a contentiously suspended parliament, a divided Cabinet, and without the support of the civil service or military? Given the clamoring aspirations of the Egyptian population, who expected more than inaction from their leader (and in actuality harbored dreams of a dynamic economic recovery), he tried to imbue the Egyptian Presidency with additional powers. This move was unwelcome in Western quarters, and cast a deep shadow of dread across the constituencies of the domestic opposition.
So deep in-fact that many assumed the guns of the military establishment would provide necessary illumination. After President Morsi issued a declaration in November 2012 affirming, “The president is authorized to take any measures he sees fit in order to preserve and safeguard the revolution, national unity or national security.”, tens of thousands of anti-Morsi protesters coalesced in-front of the Presidential Palace. Fifteen days later Morsi rescinded this decree, however, the interim was marked by violent clashes between rival protesters such that Egyptian society began to polarize. Increasingly, the military was openly a tool of oppositionists, and the police of the ruling FJP. This disorder culminated in the military circulating an ultimatum on July 1st 2013: Morsi had 48 hours to resign or reach an agreement with the opposition. He refused the first part, and was unable to secure the second. Therefore on July 3rd General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi instigated a successful coup d’etat.
What motivated General Sisi is of central importance, because that will determine the initial direction of post-coup military policy. Formerly the Minister of Defense and Military Production in Prime Minister Qandil’s Cabinet (Qandil was a technocrat appointed by Morsi in 2012, and deposed by Sisi in 2013), General Sisi began his career as a mechanized infantry commander before eventually becoming director of Military Intelligence and Reconnaissance. A key member of SCAF, since August 2012 he has been Egypt’s Commander-in-Chief, in addition to holding the aforementioned Ministerial portfolio. A highly accomplished military bureaucrat, with educational links to the United Kingdom and United States, and having spent time as a military attache in Saudi Arabia, just what is it that makes General Sisi tick?
There are three plausible possibilities. The first is that he believes himself to be acting in the interests of Egypt, the second is that he believes himself to be acting in the interests of Egypt’s military community, and the third is that he believes himself to be acting in the interests of General Sisi. To summarize, the candidate motivations are: love of country, love of comrades, love of self. Counterintuitively, they are listed in descending order of bloodiness – if General Sisi wishes to found an autocracy or junta, then he can relax into a methodology of spending months and years gradually consolidating his rule, piece by piece. Whereas, if he is a Sulla, intending to make a couple of vital alterations then soon after reinstate the primacy of the ballot-box, he may feel the need to hastily break the FJP and its supporters as though they were so much dead wood (either because he views them as a threat to Egypt, or to neutralize the prospect of any future retaliation on their part against him if they resurge).
One of the difficulties with deconstructing Sisi is that it’s unclear which parts of him are authentic. Is he the same man who in 2010 was asked by Field Marshal Tantawi, “what do you think we should do [if there is a popular revolution against Mubarak]?”, and who responded, “We will support the people’s uprising and will not fire on a single citizen.”? Or is he the General who permitted the July 8th attack upon praying protestors in Cairo, resulting in 51 dead and 435 injured?
The brute facts on the ground consist of escalating clashes between those who disagree on Morsi, and between Morsi-philes and State apparatus. Whilst there are varying levels of unrest across Egypt, news emanating from Cairo tends to be the most chilling – for example, the worst incident thus far occurred on July 27th, with 66 Muslim Brotherhood activists shot dead at a Mosque sit-in, and a further 61 rendered effectively braindead (by security forces). On July 28th two more died, and twenty-eight were injured, as confrontations beset the routes of funeral processions.
Adly Mansour is a curious figure, appointed by President Morsi as Chief Justice of Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court in May 2013, and as interim President of Egypt by General Sisi in July 2013, he appears to be a compromise twice over. A stalwart of the Constitutional Court, having served on it since the Mubarak era, he may now be Egypt’s answer to the philosopher king: the presidential judge. More curious still was Mansour’s decree on Sunday 28th, following the turmoil, which vested interim Prime Minister Beblawi with the authority to grant the military the right to arrest civilians at his (and by extension their) discretion. Whether this was done to prevent yet more deaths, with the expectation that a culture of systematic detention could be a substitute for more lethal practices, or was simply designed to shore up interim government power, is uncertain.
Prime Minister Beblawi himself is relatively straightforward, a technocratic politician with economic experience. When the military has asked him to administrate, he has done so. Nonetheless, there is scope for mild optimism, as he did have the integrity to attempt resignation in protest after the army attacked those peacefully demonstrating against sectarian attacks on Coptic Christian churches (as previously detailed). Despite adopting a fundamentally obedient attitude, he may now be in a position to do something meaningful if there are security force excesses. To what extent will he implement President Mansour’s decree?
A better question is, to what extent will the Egyptian people let him? In the 2012 Presidential election’s decisive second-round Egyptians were forced to choose between Mohammed Morsi, an “Islamist”, and Ahmed Shafik, who has strong ties to Mubarak’s dictatorship. By 51.73% to 48.27% they chose Mohammed Morsi. Now, Egyptians are being asked to decide which project they prefer; do Egyptians want a democracy with a substantively military face, or a democracy with a substantively Islamic face? No matter how accountable the government is, and given enough time and pressure it could become very accountable indeed, these are the short-term trajectories before the Egyptian public.
Of course, it would only be the worst of scenarios, such as a civil war, which could prompt the total obliteration of military or Muslim Brotherhood influence. Given the international links of Egypt’s military, and the widespread perception that it’s needed to protect Egypt’s borders with respect to the encroachment of potential North African regional catastrophes, and as insurance against a breakdown in relations with Israel, and in light of the extent to which the Muslim Brotherhood is embedded in Egyptian society, the issue is really one of preferred containment.
It is small comfort that when the Arab Spring finally subsides, there will be ample opportunity to cast a critical eye across the rows of bodies which were drowned by its force. When that day comes, the Egyptian people will be able to objectively appraise the lifeboat they chose, and the lifeboat they forsook, and will no doubt spend subsequent decades agonizing over which would have carried the greatest number to safe harbor.