Turmoil in Egypton 2 August 2013
The Egyptian uprisings in 2011 did not take place as some media interpretations have claimed because of people’s access to social media, although it certainly helped with social mobilisation and intelligence about police tactics and the whereabouts of security forces. Neither did they take place because of murder by police of Khalid Said in Alexandria in June 2010, although many thousands did join the ‘we are all Khalid Said’ Facebook site. Instead, the uprisings result from many years of intense industrial and rural struggles. They were foregrounded by more than a decade of political struggles against dictatorship that generated new forms of political action and organisation involving a wide spectrum of conflict and activism – many, young and old, getting directly involved in political struggles for the first time and building on actions that mushroomed from 2000 onwards.
Egypt continues to be in turmoil as the military coup d’état in July 2013 toppled President Morsi. He had won the Presidential election in 2012 with 52% of the vote against 48% for Ahmed Shafiq a feloul (remnant) of the Mubarak dictatorship. Winning that election (where there was considerable concern over its free and fair character) Morsi declared he would rule ‘for all Egyptians’: he did not. The military intervention has dislodged the islamist government, one that the General’s had tried to work with, but most of all the intervention is against the interests that promoted the uprising of January 2011. These were interests as the slogan of the time captured that demanded ‘bread, freedom and social justice’. It was for a redistribution of wealth, a reduction in the opulence of the Mubarak household and the erstwhile ruling National Democratic Party spoils politics where public assets were used for private gain. Morsi’s government did little to change this for although the NDP had long been disbanded remnants remained and they were not necessarily antithetical to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).
Morsi nevertheless claimed that there was a ‘deep state’, where remnants of the old regime made it tough to promote social justice, economic growth and employment creation. Yet most Egyptians saw through this veil of half-truths and deception. There was a widespread view that the MB in exile or in the political wilderness during dictatorship had cared for and about the poor. Now in government the poor had been forgotten and many who had voted for Morsi signed the Tamarrod (rebellion) petition, (declaring amongst other things no confidence in Morsi and calling for early Presidential elections) that led to his downfall following unprecedented popular mobilisation in June 2013 and the coup d’état . Egyptians had grown wary very quickly of the behind the scenes influence of Khairat al-Shater and other leading figures in the MB and had become tired of Morsi’s speedy ‘policy’ statements, like one in May saying Egypt would be wheat self- sufficient in 4 years, something quickly denied by Ministry of Agriculture officials suggesting what he actually meant was this was Egypt’s aspiration.
Popular discontent against Morsi emerged following rash presidential statements that included the November 2012 constitutional decrees that involved sacking the prosecutor general and preventing decisions made by the president from judicial review. Egyptians were also unhappy about the speed with which the new constitution was drafted and the limited composition of the constitutional assembly. A leading reason for sustained opposition to Morsi and the MB was the failure, and lack of obvious will, to dismantle the forces of law and (dis) order, internal security, mukhabarat, and police. Systemic police brutality and the routine use of torture continued as it had under the Mubarak dictatorship.
At every level Morsi’s Presidency and the advice he received from the MB failed to meet expectations and early presidential promises. Of course the new President inherited a weak economy, a foreign debt in excess of $30 billion and an economy too dependent upon rents, from Suez, gas and labour migration and capital outflow. But we can still ask why Morsi and his advisors could not grasp the need for a series of policies that might at least stall some opposition to his presidency that spread quickly throughout Egypt. These measures might have included the immediate dismantling of the Ministry of Interior, cessation of torture and use of military courts and the end to attacks on female protesters that had reached epidemic proportions. They might have ensured a larger increase in the minimum wage, improved conditions for public sector workers, improved management rather than neo-liberal desire to reduce or end fuel and food subsidies; help to secure the livelihoods of rural poor and defending the material interests of those living under illegal Israeli occupation.
One explanation for Morsi’s failure to do any of the above or even a series of more moderate policies to curry legitimacy is the coalition of interests he oversaw and the difficulty he had in extending his authority over it. This coalition included islamist groups like the Brotherhood, al-Wasat and elements of the more radical Salafi’s. They included elements of the ancien regime, remnants from Mubarak who occupied ministerial positions. The post uprising ‘new Egypt’ was therefore not so much new as reconstituted. A new political elite grappled with a mechanism to understand and manage the accumulation and reproduction and expansion of capital, possibilities for, direction and levels of investment, securing of profit margins and control of labour. It might now be argued that the military was intent on hoping the Brotherhood’s early popularity would generate a degree of political, economic and social stability that would return profitability of business enterprises and secure future levels of investment. Yet this was difficult to conjure for personnel who were technically incompetent, worrying constantly about the presence of feloul yet perhaps still dependent upon them, unsure about Egypt’s regional geo-strategic dynamic and unable to promote hegemonic rule nationally without constant recourse to coercion.
The Generals were banking on the view that Egyptians had grown tired of occupations and demonstrations and Morsi was seen as the person who might bring quiet to the street, get workers back to the factories and return Egypt to normalcy. It was not recognised that this was a normalcy that had generated the uprising in the first place. In addition, the persistence of unrest, permanent street protest and the enormous number of strike days probably led the military high command to realise that the MB could not do what they had hoped they would: there was no peace and quiet in Egypt and no secure investment climate. There was an increasing authoritarianism, increased use of police and security force brutality and a new criminalisation of worker protest and curbs on NGO activity that mirrored the years of previous dictatorship.
In government Morsi felt confident he could affirm his role as Commander in Chief of Egypt’s armed forces. However it seems Morsi overstepped his mark in areas that went beyond mismanaging the domestic economy. The military had become worried about his reluctance or inability to quieten aggressive rhetoric by his advisors towards Ethiopia and Syria. Morsi called in fact for a Holy War against Assad only three days after meeting US Secretary State John Kerry. Perhaps Egypt’s Generals became anxious that Morsi was leading Egypt into military action for which there was little appetite and at a time when there was an escalating domestic political and economic crisis.
July’s military coup should not be seen through the prism of ‘binary alternatives’ between the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand and the army on the other. This is a narrative that has traction in western media, even though the military has appointed a civilian President and ex head of the National Salvation Front Mohemad el-Baradei as Vice President. Mohamed Morsi’s regime was already in terminal decline when the military coup took place. The popular uprising on 30 June had generalised support that would have toppled Morsi but the military intervened to prevent permanent revolution, deliver an investment climate for many of the remnants of the old regime and those who refused to play ball with the MB. Thus after the coup one of Egypt’s biggest tycoons and owner of the Orascom empire, Naguib Sawiris noted that international business should invest now as stability was forthcoming and support for the military intervention was quick from the UAE and Kuwait that offered $3 billion and $4 billion respectively to the new government and Saudi offered $5 billion. These figures put US support of Egypt’s military of $1.3 billion a year into perspective. It will now be interesting to see how quickly there is a return to negotiations with the IMF over its stalled loan to Egypt, how quickly the neo-liberal promise of economic growth returns to disguise the continuing impoverishment of Egyptian workers and farmers and how soon the regional support for Israel, US and Saudi Arabia once more shapes Egypt’s subordination to imperialism’s agendas.
Ray Bush is Professor of African Studies and Development Politics at the University of Leeds. His most recent book is edited with Habib Ayeb, Marginality and Exclusion in Egypt, London, Zed Books 2012. This blog is a short version of the introduction to a special collection of essays published by The Review of African Political Economy on the uprisings in North Africa. This collection is available here.