Egyptians are “literally split in half” on President Mohammed Morsi’s 2013 downfall, former Obama Administration adviser Dahlia Mogahed stated recently in citing polling data at Georgetown University. Yet the pro-Muslim Brotherhood (MB) bias of the January 29, 2014, conference at which Mogahed spoke did little justice to the “deep division” facing Egypt, notwithstanding her calls for “pluralism” to overcome the country’s “huge polarization.”
Mogahed addressed the day-long conference “Egypt & the Struggle for Democracy” presented by Georgetown’s Prince Awaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU). Originally scheduled for December 5, 2013, the conference made headlines even before opening. Ramy Jan, one of the rare Egyptian Christians opposing Morsi’s removal, lost his ACMCU conference invitation after his past involvement in Egypt’s neo-Nazi party became known.
Conference participants universally mourned a “new born democracy …assassinated” in Egypt before completing a necessary “trial and error” process, as described by activist Nahla Nasser of Egyptians Abroad for Democracy (EAD). A late conference addition, Nasser described visiting Rabia al-Adawiya Square before its bloody clearing by Egyptian forces on August 14, 2013. Nasser found the pro-MB demonstrators there to be the “most respectful people I have ever met in my entire life.”
Making the questionable assertion that revolutionary change is “often from bad to good,” Middle East scholars like Maryam Jamshidi praised a post-Hosni Mubarak “burgeoning of the public square.” Dalia Fahmy saw emerging during this time “political pluralism within political Islam.” The MB-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) “ultimately played by the rules of the game,” Maha Azzam said, only to have the Egyptian military stop the “emergence of moderate Islamist parties.”
Under Morsi, “democracy mattered to” Egypt’s common people for the first time, assessed law professor Mohammed Fadel. Egyptians “lived a very good year” under Morsi because of a “sense of belonging” after democracy replaced dictatorship, concurred Abdel Mawgoud al-Dardery. “We were sure that our votes meant a lot,” the former Egyptian FJP parliamentarian said. Egyptians should “respect the process and not change the rules of the game” in contrast to the military overthrow of Morsi, the self-proclaimed supporter of sharia argued.
By comparison, the Georgetown panelists only saw no justification for the military’s intervention against Morsi. Egyptian security institutions’ “vested interests” in matters such as state-owned businesses were the explanation for Morsi’s deposing given by Wael Haddara, a former Morsi adviser. The Egyptian military expressed an attitude of Egypt “returned to its proper owners,” the former MB youth leader Mohamed Abbas stated via translation by ACMCU faculty member Jonathan Brown.
“Hysterical coverage” in the media was a significant cause of Morsi’s downfall, according to the Egyptian media scholar Mohamad Elmasry. “Many journalists perceive themselves to be activists” in Egypt, Elmasry criticized. That “Morsi was fundamentally incompetent” and was “Brotherhoodizing the state” in the name of a “mini-caliphate” were common media themes during Morsi’s presidency described as “myth” by Elmasry. Although Egypt’s “state-run press” is “historically a mouthpiece of the government,” under Morsi this press was “not the typical mouthpiece.” While 81% of Al Ahram articles in 2008 were favorable to Mubarak, they were mostly neutral to Morsi when in power, according to Elmasry’s coding.
Morsi’s overthrow, meanwhile, resulted in returning “military rule with a vengeance,” according to Azzam. While “power was defuse” under Morsi, according to Jamshidi, now it was “concentrated” again under the new post-Morsi constitution approved in a January 14-15, 2014, referendum. This constitution strengthened “already powerful” state institutions and a “custodial status” to the military in particular, complained Fahmy. After an expected presidential elections sweep, General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the officer who brought down Morsi, will influence parliamentary elections and create a “rubber stamp” legislature helpless against the constitution’s executive predominance.
An “anti-Ikwhan [MB] fever” incited by a repressive military meant that “there is now no real civil society” in Egypt, stated former MB member Islam Lotfy Shalaby via Brown’s translation. The military had closed numerous MB social service institutions serving thousands such as 80% of the schools in Egypt and the country’s largest hospital founded in 1924. Seized MB assets amounted to ten billion Egyptian pounds (about $1.3 billion).
MB suppression also occurred in the media, leaving “essentially a singular voice” in Elmasry words that constantly condemned MB as, for example, a terrorist organization. This served “to dehumanize the Brotherhood” and “to justify the massacres,” as manifested in a television show on the Rabia clearing with the Rocky soundtrack. Narratives of MB as terrorist and disloyal to Egypt were “extremely effective” in winning Sisi support according to Jamshidi.
Popular anti-MB sentiment meant that the “line between citizen and state repression has been blurred,” Jamshidi added. “Popularly sanctioned state violence” stemming from “demonization” of certain Egyptians as “literally subhuman” manifested for Mogahed a “moral and spiritual crisis.” Fadel, meanwhile, rather unconvincingly discussed how the political Rabia crackdown was religious persecution of Muslims under Article 7 in the Rome Statute on the International Criminal Court.
Yet even the Georgetown panelists could not hide conflicting evidence. While the anti-Mubarak protests beginning on January 25, 2011, were “very Egyptian,” the anti-Morsi protests beginning on June 30, 2013, were “very sectarian” in Dardery’s estimation. “Egyptians united” characterized January 25 (82% of Egyptians desired Mubarak’s removal in a March 2011 poll noted by Mogahed) as opposed to “Egyptians divided” on June 30, concurred Shahin. Egyptian confidence in their military, though, has stayed high at around 95% of those surveyed throughout two years of various upheavals following Mubarak’s resignation.
A “failure to build consensus” thus appeared to the Carnegie Endowment’s Michelle Dunne as causing the post-Mubarak revolution’s failure. “We knew what we were against, but we did not know what we were for,” concurred Dardery with Dunne in discussing the anti-Mubarak “breadth of social consensus” described by Middle East scholar Nathan Brown. Yet a “basic failure in Egyptian life” noted by Brown is that widely diverse Egyptians are unable “to deal with each other.” While Dardery spoke of an “Islamic belief” that “Muslim and Christians are brothers,” Brown countered that “you have a got a problem in your camp” concerning sectarianism.
By overlooking key facts in Egypt’s complicated politics, the Georgetown conference if anything hindered developing Egyptian consensus across diversity. Sisi’s authoritarianism aside, Amnesty International actually judges the 2014 constitution an “improvement over the 2012 version” passed under Morsi with its various Islamist rights restrictions. Egypt’s “strong contrast with Tunisia” in social cohesion noted by Dunne occurred precisely in part because of Islamist renunciation of sharia in the new Tunisian constitution overwhelming adopted on January 26, 2014.
The Egyptian people might agree as well despite repression muzzling constitution opponents in the 2014 referendum. Voting for the new constitution was 98.1% of the 38.6% of the electorate voting, about 20 million in absolute numbers. This was eight million more than the 63% of roughly a third of the electorate voting for the 2012 constitution under Morsi and six million more than for voted for his presidency that year. Any criticism of Sisi as a “modern day pharaoh,” moreover, ignores the insight of longtime Egypt resident and scholar Raymond Stock that this “land…has known largely that kind of rule for the past five millennia.” As ACMCU’s John Voll noted in introducing the conference, many of its themes such as the compatibility of Islam and democracy remained unchanged from Voll’s 1961 graduate student days.
No conciliation was forthcoming from the panelists to their absent opponents. Support for Sisi’s regime due to Islamist fears by Egyptian democracy organizations “disqualifies them as true and valid organizations” in Nasser’s eyes, for example. The “political and religious despotism” under Morsi leading to a “Sunni theocracy similar to the Iranian model” denounced by various Egyptian human rights organizations on June 27, 2013, apparently did not concern Nasser. Nor did Nasser heed the call of many of these same organizations on August 15, 2013, that MB “accept the political outcome of the June 30 uprising” and “return to peaceful politics” rather than spur the country toward a civil war.” Contrasting with concern for the Rabia dead, meanwhile, ACMCU’s Yvonne Haddad referenced a “quote/unquote massacre of the Copts.”
Dardery wore on his lapel the yellow and black R4BIA symbol in memory of Rabia, the same symbol featured by the twitter profiles of Haddara and Nasser. The symbol’s website celebrates the “great Egyptian scholar and thinker Professor Sayyid Qutb” of MB executed in Egypt in 1966. The website also proclaims that “R4BIA is…the grandchildren of [MB founder] Hasan Al Banna…against rotten Western values…the end of capitalists…the end of Zionists,” and “smiling martyrdom,” among other things.
Such sentiments ominously shade the pro-MB militancy expressed at Georgetown. Azzam described a “generation in Egypt…not willing to take this lying down,” a generation that “would rather die” in Haddara’s words rather than accept Sisi’s new order. “I am optimistic that the coup will not stand,” he concluded, “people will fight to bring it down.”
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