Egypt: Interpreting the Coup
The newly elected president of Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsy, began his national address by thanking God and the families of the revolution's martyrs for granting him such a victory, and immediately proceeded to deeply thank the armed forces. He saluted the Egyptian military and added, “Only God knows how much love I have in my heart [for it].”
There is a consensus in Egypt now that we live under military rule. Most observers believe the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) executed a military coup over the last two weeks through legal measures, and describe it as a ‘soft’ coup that hardly relied on tanks and guns.
In February 2011 [see timeline], while the slogan of “The army and the people are one hand” was coined and disseminated, the SCAF established full control over the essential institutions of the state. The main pillars of a successful coup were all there: control over media, the bureaucracy, the security apparatus and the legal system.
However, the Egyptian coup seems hard to interpret. The intricate election of Morsy as a civilian president who does not belong to the coup plotters came as a surprise to many. As opposed to old-fashioned coups of the Cold War era, when the leaders of coups installed themselves as autocrats for life, the Egyptian coup allowed a civilian contestant to triumph over a fellow military candidate from the presidential race and assume power.
There is an interpretation for the above mystery. The Egyptian coup is not unique and is part of a new generation of world coup d’etats. In this latest style of coups, the military expresses sincere love for democracy and ballot boxes.
A recent study titled “Coups and Democracy” draws distinctions between old and new coups. During the 20th century, old-fashioned military coups were stigmatized as anti-democratic. Whether these coups were backed by the Soviet Union or the United States, they usually installed their armed leaders as presidents – or dictators, rather – until they died or other coups removed them. From 1990 to today, a new generation of coups has emerged in the global scene, and recent putschists tend to stick to democracy, especially if they depend on substantial military aid from the U.S. and need to please their patrons with some spectacle of free elections. New coups bring civilian presidents to power, but the armed forces reserve for themselves the upper hand in state affairs.
A coup d’etat usually takes place in a country that suffers from an economic crisis, has oppositional groups that are fragmented and not homogenous, and has a weak civil society in comparison to a strong military institution. In a unipolar global system in which the U.S. is the only hegemonic power and benevolent patron of third-world regimes, adhering to the American rhetoric on democracy – or the Bush Doctrine of the 2000s – is essential to the survival of any coup. Federal law in the U.S. prohibits granting any financial assistance “to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.” Thus, to hold elections and follow the path of ballot boxes becomes the only way through which coup leaders can secure the flow of U.S. foreign aid.
The Egyptian case is a conspicuous example of the new generation of world coups. Last year, the armed putschists capitalized on the mass protests to finally get rid of Hosni Mubarak's son Gamal, whose succession scheme threatened their economic empire and political interests. After overthrowing Mubarak, the SCAF immediately adopted a democratic discourse and held elections to meet the expectations of the U.S., which grants the Egyptian army $1.3-billion (U.S.) in annual aid.
Elected Son of the Coup
Morsy is an elected son of the coup. He is the civilian president that the military council allowed to rise to power, but only after issuing a supplement to the Constitutional Declaration that deprives him of any substantial authority over the armed forces. Morsy will inherit a highly militarized state where retired army generals and colonels occupy almost every high-ranking position in the bureaucracy and the public sector. This is in addition to the fact that the military runs massive economic enterprises.
Despite the fact that the militarization of the state is a huge hurdle to any civilian president who aspires for real reform, it is significant that Morsy began his first speech by expressing his deep love for the military institution. Morsy showed no intentions during his campaign to demilitarize the state.
The U.S. had a big role to play in pressuring the military to honor Morsy's win. A report published by Al-Watan daily newspaper said U.S. officials met with SCAF members to press the latter to announce the valid results of the election and accept Morsy's victory. Before that, and over the course of many months or even years, the U.S. had numerous talks with Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Cairo and Washington, where the Brothers always emphasized their choice of market economy policies as well as their adherence to international agreements.
Even though Egypt has elected its first civilian president since its independence, it remains a bittersweet victory. This is not only because there is a public mistrust of the Muslim Brotherhood, but, more importantly, because Morsy's presidency is characteristic of a new generation of military coups. The SCAF celebrates free elections only to be allowed to tighten its grip on power while securing its indispensable American funding. •
Zeinab Abul-Magd is a historian. She teaches at the American University in Cairo. This article first published by Egypt Independent.
The Electoral Victory of Political Islam in Egypt
The electoral victory of the Muslim Brotherhood and of the Salafists in Egypt (January 2012) is hardly surprising. The decline brought about by the current globalization of capitalism has produced an extraordinary increase in the so-called ‘informal’ activities that provide the livelihoods of more than half of the Egyptian population (statistics give a figure of 60 per cent).
And the Muslim Brotherhood is very well placed to take advantage of this decline and perpetuate its reproduction. Their simplistic ideology confers legitimacy on a miserable market/bazaar economy that is completely antithetical to the requirements of any development worthy of the name. The fabulous financial means provided to the Muslim Brotherhood (by the Gulf states) allows them to translate this ideology into efficient action: financial aid to the informal economy, charitable services (medical dispensaries etc.).
In this way the Brotherhood establishes itself at the heart of society and induces its dependency. It has never been the intention of the Gulf countries to support the development of Arab countries, for example through industrial investment. They support a form of ‘lumpen-development’ – to use the term originally coined by AndrÃ© Gunder Frank – that imprisons the societies concerned in a spiral of pauperization and exclusion, which in turn reinforces the stranglehold of reactionary political Islam on society.
Middle East Troika: Gulf states, Washington, and Israel
This would not have succeeded so easily if it had not been in perfect accord with the objectives of the Gulf states, Washington, and Israel. The three close allies share the same concern: to foil the recovery of Egypt. A strong, upright Egypt would mean the end of the triple hegemony of the Gulf (submission to the discourse of Islamization of society), the United States (a vassalized and pauperized Egypt remains under its direct influence), and Israel (a powerless Egypt does not intervene in Palestine).
The rallying of regimes to neoliberalism and to submission to Washington was sudden and total in Egypt under Anwar Sadat, and more gradual and moderate in Algeria and Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood – which is part of the power system – should not be considered merely as an ‘Islamic party,’ but first and foremost as an ultra reactionary party that is, moreover, Islamist. Reactionary not only concerning what are known as ‘social issues’ (the veil, sharia, anti-Coptic discrimination), but also, and to the same degree, reactionary in the fundamental areas of economic and social life: the Brotherhood is against strikes, workers' demands, independent workers' unions, the movement of resistance against the expropriation of farmers, etc.
The planned failure of the ‘Egyptian revolution’ would thus guarantee the continuation of the system that has been in place since Sadat, founded on the alliance of the army high command and political Islam.
The planned failure of the ‘Egyptian revolution’ would thus guarantee the continuation of the system that has been in place since Sadat, founded on the alliance of the army high command and political Islam. Admittedly, on the strength of its electoral victory the Brotherhood is now able to demand more power than it has thus far been granted by the military. However, revising the distribution of the benefits of this alliance in favor of the Brotherhood may prove difficult.
The first round of the presidential election on 24 May was organized in such a way as to achieve the objective pursued by the system in power and by Washington: to reinforce the alliance of the two pillars of the system – the army high command and the Muslim Brotherhood – and settle their disagreement (which of the two will be in the forefront). The two candidates ‘acceptable’ in this sense were the only ones to receive adequate means to run their campaigns. Morsi (MB: 24%) and Ahmed Shafik (Army: 23%). The movement's real candidate – Hamdeen Sabahi – who did not receive the means normally granted to candidates, allegedly only got 21 per cent of the vote (the figure is questionable).
At the end of protracted negotiations it was agreed that Morsi was the ‘winner’ of the second round. The assembly, like the president, was elected thanks to a massive distribution of parcels (of meat, oil, and sugar) to those who voted for the Islamists. And yet, the ‘foreign observers’ failed to observe a situation that is openly ridiculed in Egypt. The assembly's dissolution was delayed by the army, which wanted to give the Brotherhood time to bring discredit upon itself by refusing to address social issues (employment, salaries, schools, and health!).
The system in place, ‘presided’ over by Morsi, is the best guarantee that lumpen-development and the destruction of the institutions of the state, which are the objectives pursued by Washington, will continue. We will see how the revolutionary movement, which is still firmly committed to the fight for democracy, social progress, and national independence, will carry on after this electoral charade. •