An Archaeology of the Crisis in Egypt

The Reckoning

In spite of the military’s immediate crackdown against the protestors and the threat of future massacres, opponents of the coup persisted in their protests for more than a month—protected by the holy month of Ramadan from a full-scale assault by Egyptian security forces. However, shortly after the close of  Eid al-Fitr, the military ordered the attack that had been looming in the interim, an attack that Egypt’s liberal elites had long been demanding. Police stormed the protest camps, killing hundreds, injuring thousands, and arresting untold numbers as they cleared out the demonstrators. The Army then reinstated the Mubarak-era “Emergency Law” which curbs dissent and civil rights, and established a curfew across all major cities. These measures are held to be temporary,  but unlike when Mursi evoked these provisions and actually allowed them to expire following the constitutional referendum, it is likely that al-Sisi (like Mubarak) will renew these measures indefinitely—unlike Mursi, the primary aim of the SCAF is not to empower a civilian government.

In the wake of these developments, Muhammad al-Baradai resigned from his post as Vice President. As there is no evidence that al-Baradai ever exercised significant influence over the interim government, given the sweeping legal powers of Adli Mansur and the broader de facto influence of the SCAF, the significance of this resignation lies primarily in eliminating the junta’s thin veneer of  civilian governance. However, while the U.S. was quick to express “regret” about the violence, calling it  a “serious blow” to reconciliation, Sec. Kerry remained astonishingly equivocal about its perpetrators, “urging restraint” by all parties and urging “both sides” to renew diplomatic efforts at resolving the crisis—indicating the White House’s intentions to “stay the course” vis a vis its policies in Egypt. This was later affirmed by the President’s eventual response, which more directly condemned the actions of the SCAF, while continuing to assert that Egypt was “transitioning towards democracy,” and refusing to make any substantive changes to U.S. policies in Egypt.


Looking Forward

Mursi’s biggest shortcoming was that he was unable to reform (or even co-opt) the deep state in a meaningful way. The recent coup makes it far less likely that future elected officials will have the courage to even try, assuming they are ever granted meaningful authority over the state’s institutions. There is no doubt where the real power lies in Egypt: with the SCAF. And if the Brotherhood  is successfully driven underground in the coming weeks (their spiritual leader, Mohamad Badie, has just been arrested; there  have been rumblings within the government of once-again making it illegal to even be a member of the Brotherhood), it seems unclear which other agent would be capable of counterbalancing the regime, going forward.

For all the media buzz about their supposed influence, the tamarod seem to be playing the same role in 2013 as they played in 2011: the role of the useful fool. In the uprising against Mubarak, these activists were manipulated by the U.S. and the SCAF,  in 2013 by the fulul and the deep state.  In both cases, their mass mobilizations did not cause the change, they simply provided Egypt’s elites with convenient pretexts to carry out actions they had committed to long before the protests broke out.  And then, as now, once they served this purpose the elites tossed them aside, having never taken them seriously to begin with.

The State Department is in no position to come to the tamarod’s aid in pressuring the SCAF either. In a deal likely brokered by Shafiq during his exile in UAE, the Gulf states have pledged $12 billion in aid to Egypt, $5 billion of which has already been released.  With this money, Egypt could afford to lose America’s $1.5 billion in annual aid. In fact, Egypt is even positioned to reject the IMF’s $4.8 billion loan (along with their austerity demands and other reforms)—there are growing calls among the people for the government to reject altogether this Western assistance for the sake of Egypt’s national sovereignty (although perhaps these dissidents have not fully considered what increased reliance upon Saudi Arabia might mean for their country down the line).

The U.S., on the other hand, is desperate to retain their use of Egypt’s bases, airspace, and the Suez canal; American Mideast policy relies on a stable relationship between Egypt and Israel, which the funding was intended to ensure; and facing sequestration,  U.S. companies are clamoring to fulfill their defense contracts with the SCAF. Far from being in a coercive position over Egypt, the White House has not even been able to call the “transition” what it definitively is: a military coup. Nor have they had the fortitude to condemn repeated massacres the security forces have committed against peaceful civilians protesting the coup until this most recent episode. Instead, Sec. Kerry has gone out of his way to parrot the generals, affirming the SCAF is  merely, “restoring democracy” in Egypt–a claim which, in light of the previous considerations, seemed difficult to justify. These capitulations continued even as Gen. al-Sisi went on Western media boldly denouncing the U.S., contributing to a growing and intensifying anti-American sentiment in Egypt and the broader region. Accordingly, the large focus on how American legislators should respond to the crisis in Egypt seems largely ill-placed: the United States does not have many cards left to play, and the SCAF is well-aware of this fact. Even if America decided to aggressively sever ties with the Egyptian government, it would do little to change the state’s internal trajectory (although it may be significant for maintaining America’s credibility in the broader region).

Rather than the Brotherhood, tamarod or the U.S., the biggest wildcard may be Gen. al-Sisi himself. The SCAF decrees, paired with the recent constitutional amendments, seem to lay the legal groundwork for the general or one of his allies to become a new dictator. However, there are indications that, rather than reinstating the Nasserist regime, he may be aiming to instantiate a distinctly Islamist military autocracy (albeit one aligned with the salafists rather than the Brotherhood). As most Egyptians are devout, conservative Muslims who want a strong role for religion in the state, such a move may be widely welcomed among the people. A cult of personality is already rising up around him as a result of the coup, likely to be buoyed by the Saudi-funded “Marshall Plan” which was recently announced. Of course, if this is his intention, the committed Nasserist and liberal elites within the army and the deep state are unlikely to stand idly by and allow it—rendering reports on impassioned and long-standing divisions within the Egyptian security apparatus particularly intriguing. Analysts would be well-advised to keep their eyes trained on this space—at this point, the only real threats to the regime will likely come from within.


Published in part 8/4/2013 by SISMEC and Your Middle East
Originally published in full 8/20/2013 by Middle East Monitor
Syndicated 8/21/2013 by SISMEC.

2 thoughts on “An Archaeology of the Crisis in Egypt

Leave a Reply