Siege within

Print edition : February 21, 2014

Supporters of army chief General Abdel Fatah El-Sisi demonstrate with his posters at Tahrir Square in Cairo on January 25, on the third anniversary of Egypt's uprising. Photo: MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/REUTERS

Gen. El-Sisi visits a polling site in the Heliopolis neighbourhood of Cairo, on the first day of voting in the constitutional referendum on January 14. Photo: AP

Anti-military protesters, mostly supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsy, gather on January 25 in Mohandessin, Cairo, before security forces dispersed them. Photo: Sabry Khaled/AP

On the third anniversary of the January 25 revolution, a newly minted Constitution which seeks to keep the Islamists permanently out of politics and further solidify the role of the Army takes Egypt back to the Mubarak era.

EGYPTIANS MARKED THE THIRD ANNIVERSARY of the January 25, 2011, revolution under fraught political circumstances. The country had witnessed volatile events in the last two years, which included the ouster of the long-ruling authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak in 2012 and the controversial overthrow of the first democratically elected President Mohamed Morsy, in 2013. The violence that followed Morsy’s ouster and the concurrent heavy-handed response from the security apparatus have left deep wounds on the national psyche.

In January, the military-backed interim government pushed through a new Constitution. The government claimed that it had got a 98 per cent approval vote in the referendum on the Constitution held on January 14 and 15. The government announced that there was a 38 per cent voter turnout. But there are few takers for the claim that there is overwhelming support for the new Constitution, even after taking into account the high level of abstention. The former ruling party, the Muslim Brotherhood, had called for a boycott of the referendum, and the opposition was not allowed to campaign in the run-up to it. The situation was reminiscent of the decades of authoritarian rule when it was routine for the ruling party to poll 98 per cent of the votes in elections and referendums.

In a referendum on a new Constitution conducted by the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government in 2012, 67 per cent of the electorate had voted in its favour. That Constitution, too, had given a special status to the armed forces. Under its provisions, only the Army could nominate a candidate for the Defence Minister’s post, and the National Defence Council continued to be dominated by generals. The Muslim Brotherhood had bent over backwards to accommodate the military and compromise with the old state apparatus. Its leadership’s sectarian attitude and political missteps during its brief stint in power contributed to its downfall. Secular groups and the minority Coptic Christians were among those most alienated from the Brotherhood.

Red herring

The aim of the 2014 Constitution is to keep the Islamists permanently out of Egyptian politics and further solidify the Army’s role. The Army has been in charge of the country’s affairs since 1952. The newly minted Constitution guarantees the power and privileges long enjoyed by the armed forces. The Army continues to remain a state within a state. Article 204 of the Constitution will permit civilians to be tried in Army courts. “The Constitution will bring us back to the Mubarak regime and his repressive rule in Egypt,” a leader of the left-leaning April 6 movement told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The acclaimed Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif said that the new Constitution was a “red herring” and was a meaningless document given the fact that fundamental rights were being eroded. “The only thing that this Constitution does is that it legitimises the very powerful and unquestioned position of the Army in Egypt today,” she told the BBC. Like many Egyptians, who include liberals and Islamists, Ahdaf Soueif is of the view that the state will indulge in more repression. She said there was a limit to the tolerance of the people and that another “revolution” was inevitable.

A new law prohibits anti-government demonstrations. Amr Moussa, the veteran politician and diplomat who headed the 50-member committee that drafted the new Constitution, said there could not be “100 per cent democracy” as “there are situations to be dealt with bearing in mind the security of the state and the security of the people”. Many secular and left-wing parties continue to back the military junta. The “Tamarod” movement, which was in the forefront of the anti-Morsy agitation, and a new coalition called the “Forces for Democracy and Social Justice” comprising Nasserite and Communist groupings issued a call to Egyptians to come out in millions to vote for the new Constitution and “to deal with the terrorism of the Muslim Brotherhood”. These groups consider the military coup of June 2013 a “second revolution” against the reactionary and backward-looking Muslim Brotherhood. Violence has escalated in the country after the approval of the new Constitution. Security forces have been specifically targeted, and there was a suicide attack on the police central security directorate in the Cairo suburb of Giza. There were bomb attacks in other parts of the capital city. Both the government and the opposition are gearing up for a long-drawn-out confrontation. Many experts on the region fear that a protracted civil war, similar to the one that occurred in Algeria in the 1990s, could take place in Egypt. The Algerian army had staged a coup in 1991 to prevent the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) from taking office. The FIS had overwhelmingly won the first round of the elections in the country. That conflict, which lasted more than a decade, claimed more than 100,000 lives. The Egyptian military government has threatened to wage a similar campaign against the radical Islamists, showing “neither pity nor mercy”.

Brotherhood banned

In December, the Muslim Brotherhood was officially banned for the first time in the 85 years of its existence after the interim government dubbed it a “terrorist organisation”. Property belonging to the party has been confiscated and the assets of its prominent leaders have been frozen. The Brotherhood runs a huge network of charities for the poor, which include hospitals and educational institutions. Most Egyptians live on less than $2 a day and millions of people depend on the services provided by the charitable groups.

Morsy and his associates are being tried for sedition and other “crimes of terrorism” against the state. The charges carry the death penalty. Interestingly, the new military strongman, General Abdel Fatah El-Sisi, was the Defence Minister under Morsy. The current Interior Minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, held the same post in the Morsy government when the alleged acts of repression and terrorism took place. The military-backed government has passed a law which can punish any citizen who expresses support for the Brotherhood with five years of imprisonment. The Brotherhood has been careful to distance itself from the recent acts of terrorism and has focussed on leading the “anti-coup alliance” with parties opposed to the military takeover of power. The party issued a statement condemning the recent acts of violence. The Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (Champions of Jerusalem), a new militant group active in the Sinai region, which is sympathetic to Al Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for the recent attacks on the security forces. Since the removal of Morsy from office, more than 1,400 people, most of them protesters demanding the reinstatement of Morsy, have been killed. The top leadership of the party is in prison along with 21,000 members.

Amnesty International, in a report released three days before the January 25 anniversary, said that the violence unleashed by the state had reached unprecedented proportions after the 2012 coup. “Three years on, the demands of the ‘25 January Revolution’ for dignity and human rights seem further away than ever. Several of its architects are behind bars and repression and impunity are the order of the day,” said Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for North Africa and the Middle East, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

Egyptian society and politics are now sharply polarised. Forty per cent of the population, according to a report, firmly supports the military-backed government. On January 25, more than 50 people were killed and over a 100 injured in Cairo and other cities during protests. Most of those killed were supporters of Morsy. Secular and Left groups have also started opposing the military-backed interim government. The government organised a huge demonstration in Tahrir Square, the venue of the 2011 revolution, to commemorate the event. But instead of slogans commemorating the revolution, the crowds that had gathered there were singing the praises of General El-Sisi and calling for the “execution” of the leadership of the Brotherhood. It is evident that the stage is now set for the Army chief to formally run for the presidency when elections are held later in the year. General El-Sisi is no longer coy about his ambitions. He had recently said that he would contest for the presidency if there was “a popular demand and a mandate from my Army”.

Washington, despite some earlier murmurs of protest, seems now ready to recognise the formal re-emergence of the Army as the de facto power centre in Cairo. After the order banning the Brotherhood was issued, the United States State Department issued a statement voicing its support for an “inclusive political process” and calling for “dialogue and political participation across the political spectrum”.

After initially threatening to withhold the annual $1.525-billion aid package to the Egyptian Army after the ouster of Morsy, the Barack Obama administration is all set to release the money. Washington seems to have distanced itself from the Muslim Brotherhood. The U.S. Congress has approved the Obama administration’s move. The Egyptian economy, at this juncture, is not overly dependent on American financial aid as it is being propped up with bountiful aid from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. The three countries together have pledged more than $12 billion in annual aid.

Many Egyptians had initially accused the U.S. of supporting the Brotherhood after its decision to suspend the supply of F-16 planes and military spares to Egypt immediately after the ouster of the civilian government. Egypt has now been exempted from U.S. laws that bar American financial aid to military dictatorships. The Obama administration and Congress have chosen to interpret the passage of the new Egyptian Constitution as an important step in the transition towards democracy. The European Union (E.U.) has hailed the constitutional referendum as the dawn of a new democratic era. Catherine Ashton, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, said the approval of the new Constitution could open the way for the resumption of political dialogue that would lead “to democratic elections, a fair representation of different political views in the future Parliament”. Her statement came after the banning of the Brotherhood and the institution of draconian media laws.