Egypt: Re-erecting the Wall of Fear

By Shafiq Morton

When General Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s military commander-in-chief, appeared on national television on 25 July, I knew that something was brewing. Wearing dark glasses, a heavily braided cap and a full-dress uniform, Sisi had urged mass action to end what he called “terrorism and violence”.

It was the first time in modern Egyptian history that a general – as opposed to a sitting president – had ever made such an extraordinary call. So what was he up to?

Muslim Brotherhood supporters, demanding a re-instatement of President Muhammad Morsi, had refused to disperse from their post-coup sit-ins. Sisi, riding a wave of street populism after Morsi’s ousting, was clearly setting the stage for a showdown with the Islamic Brotherhood.

Citing the bombing of a police station in Mansoura, Egypt’s “deep state” had evidently been given the excuse it needed – the Brotherhood was a “terrorist” organization in need of censure.

The subsequent crackdown on the Brotherhood, resulting in a civilian massacre and the killing of journalists, shocked the world and compromised the US – whose biggest Mid-East client (next to Israel) is the Egyptian military, which receives 1.3 billion dollars from Capitol Hill annually.

For Sisi, what at stake in Egypt right now is the survival of the “deep state”, a core of Mubarak supporters and thugs in the security services and the economic ruling class. It has deep roots in the military, whose stake in the economy is estimated at over 30%.

Flush with over 12 billion dollars in aid from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait – collectively fearing Tahrir-style “Arab Springs” and Shi’ah inroads via Syria – US influence is no longer priority number one.

Professor Abdallah Schleiffer, an associate journalism professor at the American University in Cairo, and Dr Anas Al-Tikriti of the Cordoba Foundation, both concur that the Egyptian military establishment represents a “state-within-state” and is, by far, the most influential player.

There is also a view – shared by Professor Tariq Ramadan of Oxford University – that the Egyptian “deep state” allowed Mubarak to fall, and then cynically bided its time after Tahrir. Bolstered by its Gulf aid package (one that mysteriously appeared as soon as Morsi fell) the generals could act with brutal impunity.

A measure of this is that many of the protestors encamped at Nahda Square and Raba’a al-Adawiya were killed by bullets to the head and the chest. Some were also burnt in their tents, Dutch journalist Rena Netjes confirming to me she’d seen 10 charred corpses in Raba’a al-Adawiya mosque.

Certainly in the general’s favour would have been secular distaste for the Brotherhood and the socio-economic challenges that Morsi inherited: corruption, unemployment, poverty, and a raft of expectations – all needing solutions that could not be addressed in a year.

And whilst Morsi was seen by Egyptians not to perform (Gallup clearly indicated this) some of his executive ineptness was perhaps more the instrumentation of  circumstance. Al-Jazeera editor Ramzy Baroud comments that Morsi was “damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t”. Dr Anas al-Tikriti argues that Morsi was “shackled by the deep state”.

The record does show that Morsi – the only democratically elected civilian president in Egypt’s history – did try. His majority was a slender one, and the country was split on historical Islamist and secular lines from the start, something that immediately engendered distrust.

On paper, Morsi’s attempts to harness the disparate forces in Egyptian politics looked good, but did not translate into the substance needed to transform Egypt into a viable democracy.

I also think that the extent of his powers was exaggerated. His 35-strong cabinet, for instance, had only 11 Brotherhood members and of the 27 provincial governates, only 10 governors were from his Freedom and Justice party. He also appointed 12 Copts into government, as opposed to the three during the Mubarak era.

The judiciary was left almost intact, and the powerful Interior Ministry was still staffed with Mubarak-era officials due to a shortage of technocrats. Morsi did fire some of the generals, but his attempts to draw in opposition leaders were largely spurned.

But whatever the maths, the stark reality is that the military enjoyed the support of millions of Egyptians when it ousted Morsi from power. Why would this be so?

Egypt’s army is the 11th largest in the world and relies upon conscripts from a population of 90 million to fill its ranks. The military has half a million active personnel and nearly half a million reserve forces. The American University’s Professor Schleiffer says that the military reaches every Egyptian family, and is a respected institution.

The other factor is that the Islamic Brotherhood, founded in 1928 as a pan-Islamic movement in response to colonialism, has been demonized by Egypt’s ruling-class and liberal secularists for decades. It did enjoy a brief honeymoon with General Nasser in 1952, but this did not endure.

As it was still officially banned under Mubarak, the Brotherhood used the Freedom and Justice Party platform to contest the 2011 elections. Of curious interest is the ultra-conservative Islamist An-Nour party, a breakaway from the Brotherhood, throwing its weight behind the military.

According to Professor Ebrahim Moosa, a former South African political journalist and academic at Duke University, the Egyptian military (representing the old status-quo) has sought to restore authoritarian secular rule, and to re-erect the wall of fear surrounding the state that disappeared during Tahrir.

The snubbing of an appeal in the Washington Post by Moosa and the South African US ambassador, Ebrahim Rasool, for figures with “moral authority” such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu to broker inclusive talks to take Egypt back from the brink, is sadly indicative of the current situation.

Their fear, and the fear of many – that young Egyptians now disillusioned by the ballot box could prove to be the next generation of extremists –  has now become a dreadfully real one. Indeed, the generals may have won the battle, but it remains doubtful in the long run whether they’ve actually won the war of the hearts and minds of the Egyptian people, a people who will not be satisfied with the old ways once they begin to fail again.

 – Shafiq Morton is an award-winning Cape Town photojournalist and author. He has covered the anti-apartheid struggle, the release of Nelson Mandela and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well as conflict worldwide. He contributed this article to

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