Street politics and manipulation in Egypt

Street politics is an inherently unstable and risky affair. Bypassing normal rules of political engagement, it can bring great dividends and or it can be an arena for sinister manipulation. Fortunately nothing has emerged from the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings of 2011 to suggest there was any of the kind of foul play involved in the street protests of 1953 in Iran against elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh, now widely regarded as part of a CIA-orchestrated coup.

All the key international players with interests in Egypt since the time of Nasser – the United States, Israel and the Gulf (mainly Saudi Arabia) – were behind Mubarak and appeared genuinely shocked that the street had succeeded in mobilizing against him, despite the brutality of his detested security apparatus (which numbered over 30 different agencies). Mubarak’s inability to pave the way for a transition process other than the unpopular grooming of his son Gamal as successor was a clear source of anxiety for the U.S. government, as the WikiLeaks documents showed, because of the fear that it would not pass lightly with Egyptians – i.e. producing instability. So if there was American meddling, Obama was either a major dissembler or he had intelligence operatives acting without his knowledge. Mubarak regime figures also advance the idea that Washington was playing a double game, with its democracy promotion schemes for NGOs, and even that Hamas had people on the ground coordinating with the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar (whose TV station Al Jazeera was a major cheerleader for the revolt).

None of this seems likely. The narrative that it was a genuine popular movement has not been successfully challenged and I doubt it will be.

With June 30, 2013, the planned day of protest against Islamist president Mohammed Mursi, the forces ranged against the ruler were significantly different, suggesting wider scope for manipulation. Firstly, they included key elements in the state itself: the army, the security services, and media and business interests linked to the old regime. Secondly, two Gulf states had a major stake in seeing the Brotherhood dethroned.

On the first, the National Salvation Front (NSF), which had proved useless as an effective opposition force, openly sided with former National Democratic Party and other former regime figures in the weeks ahead of the June 30 ‘Tamarrod’ protest. The attacks on Muslim Brotherhood offices in recent weeks and months appeared to be coordinated and reflected a wider policy of baiting the group and elements of the ‘deep state’ refusing to cooperate with its rule. Brotherhood figures are saying they sensed from June 23 that the military was planning something against them, citing Western ambassadors no less, and in hindsight they consider that Sisi had been playing them and their hapless president all along. If Islamist media spewed hate speech night and day, the ‘liberal’ media was no better, with an incessant anti-Brotherhood discourse since the day Mursi took office, centred on the idea of ‘akhwanat al-dawla‘, or Brotherhoodization of the state, and Egypt beholden to the Brotherhood’s backers in Qatar.

Externally, Dubai’s police chief Dhahi Khalfan announced yesterday that he would no longer tweet since his mission was accomplished after the military forced Mursi out – he dedicated the last year to sending thousands of anti-Brotherhood messages on Twitter. Other key UAE tweeters consistently denigrated the Brotherhood, while the UAE prosecuted dozens of Emirati citizens on suspicion of membership of a local Brotherhood chapter accused of plotting to overthrow the system. The UAE was the one of the first countries to welcome Mursi’s ouster in a gleeful official statement and Ahmed Shafiq, the failed ancien regime candidate in the election Mursi won last year, boasted in private that he was managing events from his base in Abu Dhabi. That may well have been hyperbole, but one tweeter reported early on June 30 from a “source” that Egypt’s military was estimating three million people were already on the streets – an indication of some kind of cross-region collaboration going on. Shafiq also predicted confidently in one media report that the Brotherhood’s reign would end by the time the week was out.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s king was the first to welcome the new order after Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV gave full coverage to the protests of the past week. Defence Minister and supreme council of armed forces (SCAF) head Abdulfattah al-Sisi, who managed Mursi’s ouster, is close to Saudi Arabia where he served as military attache and the military’s choice for interim president, Adly Mansour, was a legal consultant to the Saudi Ministry of Trade from 1983 to 1990 – indeed, Israeli Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter described him as “Mubarak’s man in Saudi Arabia”. Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist and government official in the entourage of Prince Turki al-Faisal, shifted from anti-Shi’ite tweets in recent weeks, to tweets praising the official Wahhabi clerics of Saudi Arabia, to Brotherhood-sympathetic tweets during the past week, this last being his default position with Western media where he presents himself as a liberal Islamist close to the Brotherhood. As a Saudi opposition figure said, given Khashoggi’s role as a front for Al Saud survival policy, his sudden shift to pro-Brotherhood messaging was suggestive of Saudi mischievousness and close Saudi involvement in the Egyptian events (though at what stage and at what level, if any, we cannot know). It should be noted that Turki al-Faisal ran an operation out of the Saudi embassy in Egypt that quietly promoted Salafism as a counterweight to the Brotherhood after Mubarak fell.

Mursi’s fall is for Saudi Arabia a message for its own Brotherhood contingent, a mix of religious scholars such as Awad al-Garni and Islamist activists, that they won’t succeed in repeating the Egyptian experiment in democratic politics in the kingdom. As Saudi political activist Hamza al-Hassan tweeted: “The breaking of the Brotherhood has given comfort to Al Saud – there won’t be a revolution against them now, the Islamists inside the country won’t be able to repeat the Egypt experience.” The wider aim of Al Saud is to make sure no democratic shift in the immediate vicinity is successful. The Mursi presidency was a double threat because it was Islamist rule brought about via the ballot box, challenging not only Al Saud’s absolute power but its Islamic claims to legitimacy.

Yet, despite all that, if the rule that SCAF allowed a Brotherhood president to assume after last year’s elections was a trap, the fact is the Brotherhood let it play out perfectly against them through political ineptitude, arrogance and stubbornness (qualities shared by their opponents). And if the military and security apparatus had been laying the ground for a rip-roaring June 30 in the preceding weeks, the Egyptian people shocked everyone by their willingness to take to the streets in more millions than probably imagined to demand change.

The one thread that stretches from Jan 25, 2011 to this day is a core movement of activists who refuse to accept domestic injustice and foreign kowtowing. They didn’t give the military a free pass in 2011 and 2012 and there’s no reason to believe they will give it one now, and if the NSF and other figures who SCAF used to dress up this week’s military coup begin to look like pawns in the coming months, then the street will start to move against them too. The revolution removed one ruler who was subservient to Saudi Arabia, so there’s no reason to believe the street would for long accept something similar after the removal of another who was backed by Qatar. And, as Samir Amin has pointed out, Mursi’s victory in the 2012 presidential vote was suspiciously slim in the first place – the army appeared to come to an agreement with its US funder that a Brotherhood government would be allowed to take shape.

Already the military may be overplaying its hand with arrests of Brotherhood leaders and talk of possible charges against Mursi for deaths during the street fights of his tenure. That will only impress upon future presidents the need for challenging ‘deep state’ forces, in particular the Ministry of the Interior. Deaths on Mursi’s watch happened because he failed to tackle reform of the vicious police state apparatus; so it follows that their future crimes can just as easily be pinned on future leaders too. No party should delude themselves into thinking they can control this process.

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