Egypt’s revolution betrayed

Fuel for al-Qaeda fires

During the past few months, dozens of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB) members have been murdered and their offices sacked and burned. The police openly refuse to protect them. Rather than ordering the opposition to drop their demand that Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, resign, and negotiate reasonably with his government, the army gave him a Hobson’s Choice: resign or be ousted. As General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi announced the army’s coup Wednesday, President Mohammed Morsi released a video on the president’s website denouncing the ouster. “I am the elected president of Egypt. The revolution is being stolen from us.” Minutes later, the website was shut down, the video disappeared, and the president and 300 MB leaders were put under arrest, including the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie, a step that not even Mubarak dared to take.

The house cleaning is now in full swing. The Brotherhood’s satellite television network was removed from the air along with two other popular Islamist channels. Their hosts and many coworkers there and at Al-Jazeera considered too pro-Morsi were slapped in jail. State television resumed denouncing the Brotherhood as it once did under Mubarak. Writes Mohamad Elmasry of the American University in Cairo, “Mubarak-era media owners and key members of Egypt’s liberal and secular opposition have teamed up to create arguably one of the most effective propaganda campaigns in recent political history, to demonize Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The new ‘president’, Supreme Constitutional Court Chairman Adly Mansour, installed by the military, hailed the protests as “an expression of the nation’s conscience and an embodiment of its hopes and ambitions”. Mansour swore to protect the republic and constitution, though what republic and what constitution are not clear. The notorious Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud, the Mubarak-era top prosecutor who presided over shame trials of corrupt Mubarak-era officials and whom Morsi removed, was reinstated to his post and immediately announced investigations against Brotherhood officials. The revolution is dead. Long live the revolution.

The Islamic awakening

This counterrevolutionary euphoria is floating on deep waters, which are impossible to quell or drain. Even western analysts such as Geneive Abdo admitted in the waning years of Mubarak’s western-backed, secular dictatorship that “historical, social and economic conditions had laid the groundwork for society’s return to religion.” This culminated in the 2011 uprisings, soft-pedaled by western media as the ‘Arab Spring’, but which is in fact overwhelmingly inspired by Islam, and harks directly to Iran’s 1979 revolution, Algeria’s 1990 revolution, and the Palestinian Intifadas (1987, 2000), where liberals and secularists played no part.

In 1979, on the cusp of the Iranian revolution, a young Egyptian MBer, Essam el-Erian (now Freedom and Justice Party vice-chairman and MP) said, “Young people believe Islam is the solution to the ills in society after the failure of western democracy, socialism and communism to address the political and socio-economic difficulties.” Three decades later, the Muslim Brotherhood is riding a wave of youthful idealism and reaping the rewards of its 84 years of experience both in organization and as the persecuted shadow of Egypt’s march towards modernity, though, as the coup confirmed, it is faced by powerful enemies who reject the new ‘map’ being proposed for society.

Hopes that Egypt would consolidate a new form of Islamic democracy have for the moment been crushed. So far, the only Islamic revolution to succeed is the Iranian one, still going strong, though suffering from western intrigue, including the war with Iraq, economic crisis, subversion and sanctions. Other Islamic revolutions—in Algeria and Afghanistan—were aborted under western pressure. Turkey’s transformation beginning in 2001 with the sweep by Islamists at the polls, but like Egypt’s Islamist triumph, has been deeply compromised by a powerful secular military and close integration with empire.

The overthrow of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt in 2011 recap both Turkey and Iran’s history in the twentieth century—from secular pro-western dictatorship to an independent democracy inspired by Islam. But Egypt is also charting a new course—at least it was, until the July 2013 military coup—re-Islamization of society from below. Sparked by westernized urbanized youth, the 2011 uprising against an oppressive dictator quickly mobilized the overwhelming majority of Egyptians, but as it became clear that the post-revolutionary government would be Islamic, the secular opposition and the Mubarakites teamed up against the government and appealed to the powerful army for support. They were not disappointed.

Replay of Algeria

The military coup in Egypt is a replay of Turkey’s many coups from the 1960s to 1980s against democratically elected Islamists. More ominously, it recalls the 1991 coup in Algeria that brought to an end the first democratic elections in its history, and ushered in a vicious civil war, which left the country devastated and continues to haunt Algerians over two decades later.

A million Algerians had died in the liberation struggle against the French after WWII—Algeria’s first civil war, the opposition dominated by secular socialists and nationalists. To prevent an Islamist revolution then, the beleaguered French authorities had closed down all reformist religious organizations, effectively handing the (French-educated) secular independence movement the reins of power.

After the revolution, “the Algerian state appeared astonishingly similar to the Pahlavi state, strongly secular … omnipresent in social, cultural, economic spheres, conducting agrarian reform that antagonized Islamic groups,” according to M Moaddel. Just as Iran’s shah tried to chart a secularist capitalist course in the 1960s, Egypt’s Nasser tried to chart a secularist socialist course, imitated by Algeria’s Ben Bella, though the results were in all three cases disappointing and meant suppressing the Islamist opposition.

At the same time, the Islamists were manipulated by western strategists to keep these neocolonial government in line, a strategy that went into high gear with the ‘jihad’ against the Soviet Union in 1979 in Afghanistan, where Algerians, Egyptians, and Islamists from across the world were organized and financed by the US, unleashing a new terrorist dynamic with US-Saudi-supported al-Qaeda at the helm.

After riots in 1988 in Algeria, and with a new constitution allowing political parties other than the ruling FLN, the hastily-formed Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won more than 50% in municipal elections in June 1990 and was poised to take power. The national elections were cancelled and Algeria’s second civil war began.

The army moved in and began a campaign of terror, slaughtering Islamists, provoking retaliation, and even organizing faux Islamist death squads. Some of the most notorious Islamic Armed Groups (IAGs) were in fact creations of the Algerian secret services, as even the French backers of the military were forced to admit. “On the domestic front, their purpose was to commit atrocities in the name of Islam that would discredit the FIS. On the international front, the aim was to convince the West that Islamism needed to be ‘eradicated’”, according to Fouzi Slisli. Between 1992–2002, an estimated 200,000 Algerians died. Today’s secular Egyptians supporting the overthrow of their hard-fought-for legitimate elections should remember Algeria—and shudder.

Algeria updated

The Islamists in Algeria are still being held in check, but Algeria’s trauma is far from over. Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb continues to carry out kidnappings and bombings. With the impending death of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the pressure—as in Egypt today—will be to hold credible elections, where, in both cases, the Islamists will again be the winners.

But it may not be so easy to engineer a replay of the horrors of the Algerian civil war in either Algeria or Egypt today. In any case, predictions of the collapse of the MB come up against the reality of Egypt, where there is little hope of rekindling a Mubarak-style accommodation with the empire. If anything, the coup has rather confirmed to Islamists the insidiousness of trying to make deals with the empire. The only way forward for Egypt today is to cut off the Gorgon’s head, as Iran did when the Islamic awakening was getting under way three decades ago.

Genuine terrorist threats remain in Egypt and will no doubt increase as a result of the coup. Al-Qaeda’s post-Bin Laden leader, (Egyptian) Ayman Zawahiri, has always been focused on combating local regimes and Arab rulers, these days, Assad in Syria. European jihadists come to Cairo to study Islam or Arabic in Nasr City, but then head for al-Qaeda training camps in Egypt, the Sinai or Libya. If the MB is forced underground again, it is inevitable that this terrorism will increase, as frustrated Islamists are forced to defend themselves and to resist the reimposition of the western model, with al-Qaeda-types hovering in the background.

The MB was unable to make a dysfunctional neoliberal economy work, given the sabotage of the secularists and Mubarakites. In the short chaotic year that ended with the coup, the MB tried. They used their own grassroots network to mobilize tens of thousands to help distribute subsidized bread to the very poor, addressing the most pressing problem for most Egyptians. They mobilized brigades to clean up mountains of rubbish. Their attempts were met with only ridicule, their offices trashed and burned, and their activists killed.

Harnessing Egypt’s spiritual legacy and its manpower requires disengaging from the US-dominated world order, transforming Egypt into a more modest, less gaudy, less western society. Perhaps this will fail in the short run, faced with the accumulated imperial rubbish of the past, both physical and spiritual. That is certainly the intention of the imperialists and their acolytes in Egypt and throughout the Arab world.

It is a shame—no, a crime—when nice anti-imperialists like Nasserist Hamdeen Sobahi or Mohamed ElBaradei dismiss the votes of the masses as ill-informed, call for a coup, and blacken the only genuine anti-imperialist opposition. Their Islamophobia is visceral. They are now eagerly awaiting appointments in the junta’s government (as if the junta will condone anything that wreaks of socialism or anti-imperialism), and the Islamists are back in jail. The situation now is worse than under Mubarak, and promises to become even grimmer.

Eric Walberg is a journalist who worked in Uzbekistan and is now writing for Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo. He is the author of From Postmodernism to Postsecularism: Re-Emerging Islamic Civilization and Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics and the Great Games. Read other articles by Eric, or visit Eric's website.