Having been in Egypt for nearly a week now, but having watched it from afar for several years, I can confirm it is quite an amazing place. The second node of the Arab Spring, it has effected two revolutions now in as many years, the first to get rid of Mubarak who had controlled Egypt for 30 years; the second to get rid of Morsi, the elected president who through a combination of religious nepotism and ideological blindness had started to run the country into the ground. The second revolution saw the military, under the control of Sisi, oust Morsi acting on the demands of 17 million people who took to the street all across the country to reclaim their country.
The “couvolution” which finally saw Morsi thrown out of power was controversial in the West. Many Western news agencies tried to paint a picture of a military coup, which simply didn’t accord with the scenes which were coming out of Egypt of masses of people demanding Morsi’s resignation and appealing to the military to assist them effect this. When the initial 48 hour deadline, set by the military for Morsi to resign passed with no signs of him leaving power, the military stepped in – appointing the head of the constitutional court as president, and later appointing 50 people as an interim government in the form of a constitutional committee.
The military under Tantawi had taken charge of the country after the overthrow of Mubarak. The rule of the Special Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was not without its problems, with several human rights abuses taking place under their watch, including the systematic rapes of female activists and several shootings of protesters, and there was a level of puzzlement in the West that civilians would actively welcome, and indeed demand, what looked from the outside to be a military coup, particularly given the problems and issues which had arisen under Tantawi’s leadership, yet the interim government appointed by the military under Sisi’s supervision enjoys popular support as an interim measure.
The spectre of Syria looms large over the Arab Spring. Syria followed much the same pattern as many of the other countries involved. People gathered in Clock Tower Square in Homs, demanding the resignation of Assad, but unlike Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya the government did not fall, and unlike in Bahrain the government was not able to quell the protesters demands. Instead after the massacre at Clock Tower Square, a bloody and bitter civil war ensued. Initially a clean cut fight between the Free Syrian Army and the forces of Assad, in the two years that the conflict has raged, loyalties have become conflicted, Islamic fundamentalists have seen their chance to gain power in a warzone, lethal chemical weapons have been unleashed against civilians and the threat of intervention from the UK and US, which would have turned Syria into Iraq, has only narrowly been avoided.
People in Egypt are well aware of Syria – they are well aware of what is at stake; they are also well aware of Libya – well aware that the West, and in particular the US is circling, vulture like, to take advantage of weakness and exploit any unrest for their own benefit. Sisi is hailed as a saviour – protecting the country both from the threat of Islamic fundamentalism and Western exploitation. As you wander around, pictures of Sisi are everywhere. The two main forms of imagery are Sisi together with Nasser and Saddat, as a continuation of the pan-Arabic, tolerant socialist form of government which Nasser initiated in similar circumstances to that of the 30th July, 2013; the other is Sisi together with a lion, apparently a reference to his strength and presence. The sheer amount of pictures of Sisi is quite astounding, in cities, towns and villages, Sisi looks down from the walls while many cars, trucks, shops and other workplaces also display his photograph. Coming across one picture where the writing accompanying it had been scribbled out and replaced with something else in Arabic, I thought I had found some dissent, but on asking, it became clear that this was no insult. Beaming at the picture, the shop owner told me that the poster only compared Sisi to an eagle, but Sisi was far greater than this, so he had amended to another bird of prey whom he felt did Sisi more justice.
The sheer amount of admiration for Sisi is quite over-whelming. At a recent engagement party, people demanded that the song “Received Hands“, was played as the engaged couple left the home for photographs, while random children can be heard chanting in the streets “The nation and the military are one hand”. Interestingly, when I went to the celebration outside the Egyptian Embassy in Greece immediately after the second revolution, this chant was quickly drowned out and replaced by “Muslims and Christians are one hand” – possibly reflecting both more skepticism towards the military as well as the higher level of Christian ex-pat Egyptians there. Christians in particular had been targetted and suppressed under the Morsi regime, and indeed at the time that we celebrating, the Brotherhood was on the rampage, burning Coptic churches across Egypt in vengeance. Nevertheless the intervention of the military was welcomed and there is no question that Sisi is being hailed as a saviour of the nation.
For someone from the UK, this kind of support for military intervention in the domestic political affairs of the nation seems deeply weird. But in the UK, we are used to a murderous and unprincipled military, who maintain weapons of mass destruction on the shores of the Clyde, invade countries to steal their resources and murder civilians with impunity. Having lived in Greece, with the memory of the Junta, which saw mass detentions and torture during the regime of the colonels, again military intervention is something to be feared, however the Egyptian military is a strange animal. Compulsory military service of up to three years for men sees people having a direct link with the army and their victory in the 1973 October War (Yom Kippur War) which kicked Irael out of Senai which they had occupied since the time of the Tripartite Aggression (Suez Crisis) in 1956, gives Egyptians a pride in their armed forces. Their involvement in civilian production and manufacturing, a legacy of Nasser who supported military manufacturing as a means to ensure the self-sufficiency of the country gives the army a strange status as a hybrid of the more traditional military functions and domestic security in a more encompassing sense. The armed forces are seen as the guarantor of security for the nation in all its forms, and as such their intervention to support the people of Egypt to rid themselves of Morsi and Brotherhood rule is seen as a necessary and welcomed part of ensuring that security.
Rabaa is of course a massive stain on the second revolution. There were approximately 800 dead at Rabaa, however there are many tales of bodies being found under the main stages and people going “missing” as they tried to exit the area where the Brotherhood had set up camp. This 800 includes both those deaths, and the deaths of the police in the ensuing conflict. The opinion of most people that I have spoken to is that the Brotherhood deaths at Rabaa were regrettable, but unavoidable, and that if the state did not take action, then the death toll would have been higher … and certainly the murderous rampage that the Brotherhood went on in the aftermath suggests that they were not for leaving peacefully. It is also worth noting that although in the West, the organisation is almost universally known as the Muslim Brotherhood, anyone referring to it in this manner is quickly corrected: it is “The Brotherhood”. In an rather ironic twist on the “Takfereen” movement, who declares that anyone who does not subscribe to their fundamentalist values is not a proper Muslim; a substantial proportion of people object highly to the Brotherhood being described as Muslim, but instead assert that they “play” with the religion to manipulate the people and obtain own objectives and that they are not Muslim in any meaningful sense of the word.
While the desire for strength in ridding the country of the Brotherhood is understandable given the damage that was done during the rule of Morsi (or Morshit as he is frequently referred to), there are dangers in this enthusiasm to stamp them out. Fourteen women were sentenced to 11 years for blocking the road during a protest, while seven girls arrested with them were sentenced to confinement in a youth detention centre until they reach 18. The new law recently passed which demands that people apply in advance for protests rather than holding them spontaneously is also worrying. When the 6th April movement, held an unapproved demonstration against the law in the immediate aftermath of its establishment, an arrest warrant for the leader of the movement was issued immediately and his arrest quickly followed.
So far these breaches of democratic values have met with a muted response domestically. The fear of Brotherhood retaliation coupled with two years of semi-chaotic transition from Mubarak’s iron-handed rule have left people wanting a period of stability and consolidation. A new constitution is currently making its way through the interim constitutional committee currently governing the country until a new government is elected. Publication is due next week, with voting the week afterward, a ridiculously short space of time for such a fundamental element of the governance of the country. So far the only substantive voices being raised on opposition to the snippets of its substance which are released through the media, are those of the Brotherhood, but its overall quality and substance are yet to be seen.
What is for certain is that the people of Egypt have demonstrated – twice – that they are capable of ridding themselves of unwanted and damaging forces. Two revolutions in two years have given them confidence in their own ability to take charge of their nation, yet it has also left them tired of having to, and there appears a sense of relief that Sisi, a remarkably skilled political operator, is steering a steady course for now. The trust and confidence invested in Sisi is immense – this is of course not without precedent, many strong leaders, particularly those who have been seen to embody revolutionary values have been similarly exhausted, Castro, Chavez and Stalin among them. In many cases this has lead people to overlook their shortcomings, in the case of Stalin particularly, dangerously so. Whether Sisi can maintain his reputation as a saviour of the nation in the long term remains to be seen. Egypt still has many problems and issues, but it also has vast natural resources, not least of all in renewable energy and massive potential to effect real change, but for now it seems like a breather is in order, while people take stock of all that has happened and determine in which direction Egypt heads next.