El-Sisi’s Dangerous Gamble

El-Sisi’s Dangerous Gamble

General El-Sisi has called on “honorable Egyptians” to hold massive protests on Friday to give him a popular mandate in the latest “war on terrorism.” This escalation in the conflict between pro- and anti-Morsi groups is a political miscalculation that will backfire on El-Sisi and on Egypt.

When ousted president Morsi was in power, his Muslim Brotherhood (“MB”) group would regularly call for counter-demonstrations against his opponents who were camping out in Tahrir and elsewhere. The opposing camps would meet, inevitably leading to violence and a climbing death toll. Most Egyptians rightly criticized the MB for “placing the matches near the fuel.” Yet, many of those same Egyptians are today cheering for El-Sisi’s repetition of the MB’s mistake.

When the military ousted Morsi, it was in response to millions of Egyptians protesting Morsi’s undemocratic practices and managerial incompetence during his first year in office. Although Morsi was democratically elected, he had worked to systematically dismantle all democratic elements in the state, pack all levels of government exclusively with MB members and supporters, ignore his campaign promises, and place himself above the constitution and the rule of law.

For all intents and purposes, Morsi’s actions rendered unusable the legal mechanisms by which citizens can hold their national leaders accountable in between elections. That left Egyptians with no path towards change other than street demonstrations. And when Morsi responded by loudly declaring that he will defend his presidency “with [his] blood,” and his supporters started amassing in Cairo, the military had no choice but to intervene to prevent a potential bloodbath. That was a legitimate response to the people’s will, to the lack of legal options, and to the imminent danger of the breakout of civil war.

Violence has broken out during the three weeks since Morsi’s ouster, mostly in the lawless Sinai governorate and at a few pro-Morsi sit-ins. Dozens have been killed and a few thousand hurt. But the million or so pro-Morsi demonstrators have remained mostly peaceful. MB leaders and other “Islamists” continue to egg them on, believing that large sit-ins will eventually bring back the MB regime. They have failed to recognize that all they can accomplish is run out the general population’s patience with them and provide an easy excuse for extremists to ratchet up their attacks against the state.

El-Sisi is gambling on receiving another popular mandate through demonstrations, this time to crack down on “violence and terrorism.” This is a dangerous miscalculation for a simple reason: unlike the case of holding the president accountable, there are clear and active laws governing the state’s response to violence. The security forces will find wide support for cracking down on the few armed protesters in Cairo. And the military will be cheered as a national hero if it launches a major campaign to rid Sinai of its festering terrorism camps and pockets of violence. The military can even be called to help secure Cairo against extremist elements by a simple declaration of a state of emergency by the Interim President, Judge Adly Mansour.

El-Sisi’s asking for popular demonstrations prior to taking action implies one thing: he intends to use the military in an extra-judicial crackdown on peaceful protests. That is the only objective for which he has no legal or political cover.

International political entities and donors are already skeptical about the military’s intentions in Egypt. The U.S. has been threatening to withhold over $1B in aid to the Egyptian military. And the IMF has still not approved its $4.8B loan to Egypt, desperately needed to kickstart the economy. However, most international bodies gave El-Sisi the benefit of the doubt in ousting Morsi because of the events that led up to it.

El-Sisi is seeking a similar popular mandate and additional leeway from international observers. He may well receive the former but almost certainly not the latter.

Two developments are likely to happen over the next few days. First, massive pro-military demonstrations will clash with pro-Morsi crowds, potentially leading to widespread bloodshed. And second, the military and security forces will launch an iron fisted campaign to snuff out public support for the MB, perhaps killing hundreds and arresting tens of thousands, many of whom will disappear into military jails, forcing the remaining sympathizers underground.

If El-Sisi’s intention is, as he has stated, to re-establish the rule of law and stability to the nation, this plan will backfire. If his intention is to eradicate opposition, he may succeed in the short term, but will soon have to repeat his actions to deal with the next wave of opposition, likely by the secular youth who still remember the heavy handed rule of the military after Mubarak’s ouster.

In either case, Egypt is about to pay a heavy price for the miscalculations of one very powerful man.

Day one in Cairo: “They Stole the Revolution from the Youth.”

“They Stole the Revolution From the Youth”

By Sarah Eltantawi

Day one in Cairo

I had to wait at the Cairo airport for two hours upon arrival from Morocco because my brother, set to pick me up, was stuck in traffic due to a pro-Morsi demonstration held in the middle of the tariq al-daa’iri, a sprawling road forming a ring around the entire city that goes a long way toward clearing up Cairo’s unbelievably dreadful traffic.  As is ever the case here, a woman looking worriedly into the distant expanse of parking lot will not be left alone for long; several people offered me help – did I want to use their phone?  Did I want them to call someone for me?

Sometimes I have to be careful when traveling that I don’t apply my leave-me-alone-especially-if-you’re-male-I-know-exactly-what-I’m-doing poker face too stringently; in this case it really felt to me that people wanted to help with no strings attached — even those who would normally be all but demanding you get in their taxi.

I soon uncovered part of the reason they were so helpful — they didn’t have anything else to do.  Tourism, according to the gathered gaggle of men in front of the airport who work in the industry drinking third and forth cups of tea after iftaar — had come to a virtual stand still; especially since Morsi took power, but if they were to be honest, since the January 2011 revolution.  But everyone I spoke to, and they were a very jovial group, felt life would be getting better soon, because people who actually knew how to run the country were now running the country.

Near the drivers and tour leaders were a group of police officers, known as one of the most emboldened of Egypt’s work force after June 30.  Under the Muslim Brotherhood government, the word on the street was that they just didn’t have the morale to enforce security, but felt much better now that they could respect their government.  On this evening they were standing around smoking and drinking tea, loudly complaining about their wives and laughing with wide, toothy smiles.  I tried not to eavesdrop too obviously, but Egyptians are nothing if not socially attuned.  Soon the familiar battery of questions began:

“Where are you from?”

“I’m Egyptian”

“No you’re not.”

“My asl (roots) are Egyptian.

”“Mama and baba?”


“But your accent”

“I was born in the US”

Nods.  Then one says, glancing at me, and then to his friends:

“So, can we trade all the Egyptian women for American Egyptian women in a huge airlift?  Egyptian women are zibaaala (trash)!”  Hearty laughter, drags on cigarettes.

Me: “And I take it al-rigaala are miyya miyya?”  (the men are 100%, perfect?)

“No! Ahna willad siteen kalb, wa anyal min al-sitaat!”  (We are the sons of sixty dogs, and much worse than the women!)  Laughter as they slapped each other’s hands.

People were not what I would call in a bad mood.

If you rely primarily on western analysis of the June 30 events, where wise men seem to sit back shaking their heads solemnly, as if to say — “these poor Egyptians think it’s a revolution, but what they tragically do not understand is that this is a coup, heavy, knowing sigh…”, you would think Cairo would be caught in a heavy, palpable ambivalence.  This is very much not my sense.  In fact, in talking to:  waiters, street sweepers, and drivers, I’ve noticed so far that the quick retort when I explain that western analysts mostly understand this as a simple coup is, first, to laugh.  Then they say, look, we know exactly what is going on, and this is the way we want it and the way it has to be.  Of course it’s a revolution, how silly to think otherwise.  The army stood behind us, and of course they don’t like the Muslim Brotherhood either, because, significantly, no one does except their relatively few supporters, and of course everyone has their own interests and agendas, and of course the old regime is involved, but this is the outcome we all want, and we understand Egypt, and they don’t.

I don’t get the sense of a society with its eyes closed.

The next afternoon I left my apartment in Bab al-Luq near Tahrir to try to deal with getting a phone.  No sooner did I walk the 20 steps out of the alleyway than I was stopped by a man who pointed to his right and said, “midaan Tal’at Harb is that way.”  I said thank you.  He said, “What are you looking for?”

Now, ordinarily, I ignore people, or if I feel I need to be a bit gruff, I’m a bit gruff, but I was just not getting that feeling from this person, so I told him:  “I’m looking for a phone line.”  He told me to walk with him.

“Where are you from.”

“I’m Egyptian.”

“I can see that on your face.  But where are you from?”


“How are you?  Are you enjoying yourself in Egypt?”

“Of course I am, I am fine, thank you.  Ramadan Kareem.  Al-balad ‘amla eh?”  (How is the country?)

Two hours later, I was standing in his mosaic-tilled perfume shop near Tahrir, having given up about an hour ago on getting a word in edgewise.  But my silence was worth it, as it often is in a field site.  Why would what I have to say be more important than him?  So I asked questions.  If I have noticed anything striking in the short time I have been here, it is that everyone wants to talk about the political situation at all times.  My brother remarked that he noticed this, and as a result found Egypt in this sense freer than the United States, where there are relatively strict politeness codes against speaking of religion or politics with people you don’t know well.  I can assure you this code does not exist in Cairo today.

His name was Ahmed, and his main point, made through words but also intelligent, sharp eyes, and passionate body language, was this, said many times, including once while pounding on a table that made the unused Ramadan ashtray jingle and shake:

هذا ليس إنقلاب عسكري ولاكن ثورة شعبية أكبر وأهم من 25 يناير!!

“This is NOT a military coup like they say.  This was a popular revolution, and one bigger and more important than January 25!!”

“They speak of shariyya, (legitimacy).  But Morsi pushes through a constitution so he can keep himself and his shadowy group sitting on the throne, acting exactly like Mubarak if not worse, and this is legitimate?  There are murders of protesters at the Itahidiyya and Morsi releases them that same night because the thugs are his Muslim Brotherhood cadres, and that is legitimate?  And these same people have the nerve to try Mubarak for killing protesters?

Even Mubarak, in his last speech, said he would step down if it would stop Egyptians’ blood flowing.  But what does Morsi say to Egypt, to his people, in his last speech?  That he will die for his own legitimacy?  Ya salam!!  You come before the Egyptian people, and rather than say one sweet word, you threaten the entire population?  You hold a rally supposedly for Syria full of jihaadis and sectarianism and dare us to go out on June 30 saying you will cut our throats?  This is the legitimate president of Egypt?

Let the Muslim Brotherhood learn the lesson: we are not afraid of their threats.  Look at the 33 million that went on the streets after that speech.  Look at the parties on the streets in sh3bi areas when Morsi was gone.  That is Egypt.  We protect our country.  Our revolution was to protect our country from falling into the abyss of jihadism and terrorism and violence.

“You actually think,” said Ahmed to an invisible Morsi, “that you and your gang of murshids are going to run Egypt against the wishes of the army, the police, and the entire population?  You the only ones who will lose in the end with that insane thinking!

The west tells us this is the return of the old regime?  Did they not notice when the ikhwaan were systematically kissing the bottoms of the shoes of the old regime?  Tell me, how did the Muslim Brotherhood challenge the old regime.  Go on!  Tell me!  Did they do anything rather than entrench their own power?  And there is something deeper than this.  We are all the, “old regime.”  We are the same people and the same society that were were in 2011.  What shall we do, uproot the entire Egyptian population and replace it with another one?  We are a gentle and peaceful people, and we do not want that to change!

Tell me, Sarah.  Can you tell me one thing they did in this year that was positive?  Tell me one thing!”

He paused for effect.  I muttered that I could not thing of anything, which turns out is my honest answer.

“The only thing the ikhwaan did was to create new divisions between us!  Islamists and the rest of the people, between sunni and shi’i, a problem we never had.  Between Christians and Muslims.  This is legitimacy?

It was the same system as Mubarak.  What is the difference?  They don’t like people, they jail and kill them.  But even worse!  Under Mubarak, when they didn’t like a journalist, they removed them quietly, under the table.  Here these guys exploit Islam and use their blasphemy laws to remove journalists, right in front of us!  And they call this legitimacy!  This media that they complain about:  they are the ones that put them where they were, in power.  The liberals they complain about and call kuffar.  They are the ones that stood up for them!  What did they do in return?  Give us a president that doesn’t talk to us?  Fills stadiums with gullible supporters from the provinces and talks only to them?  Takes order from a murshid and foreign powers?  This is legitimacy?

I am very sorry, Mohammed Morsi, with all due respect:  you seem like a nice man.  You pray and fast.  But you are not suitable to be president of Egypt, you or the cowards you answer to (like Mohammed Badei) who walks around in a woman’s niqab!  If he had a clean heart, if they were really Muslims as they claim, would they have to hide like that?  You know Egyptians, how kind hearted and sympathetic we are to the humble man.  Do you think we would have turned against them if they were humble men?

Tell the west we are putting our faith in the interim government.  Tell them the army tried to work with the ikhwaan to play cleaner politics.  Tell them we are not a people who will turn against our army, who defended our country in wars.  Tell them the people they think launched a coup did so after we demanded it and that they are our brothers and our cousins.  Tell them they can say “coup” for 100 years, but that we ourselves wanted this and demanded it, it is a popular revolution, and we have hope now again.

And tell them that if the ikhwaan would decapitate their organization and let their revolutionary youth take power – the one’s who say “ikhwaan bila ‘unf”  (the Brotherhood without violence), then they will be our brothers and they will be in the government!”

I finally told Ahmed I had to go write before his words escaped me.  He kindly handed me his card and told me to keep in touch, and added:

“One more thing:  know this.  If the Brotherhood youth rise to power, and if they denounce violence, and if they are more humble, within one year, this country will move forward.  We have hope now and we are trying.  You watch it.

This country, this land here — he pointed vaguely to the street — is protected by God.  Always.”

“Welcome home to your country.”

I walked back out into the dusty street, passed a row of tables set up for the poor to break their fast, dates floating in water.

As I said, I prefer to let people speak, and in the two weeks I am here, I will try to find more diverse voices.  But the fact is, I have not found one single person so far — not even one — who does not echo Ahmed.  I have not been to pro-Morsi protests, and I will try to go, and report on that when I do.  But as for man on the street — so far,  Ahmed’s sentiment is unanimous.

Western structural analysis and hand wringing seems very far away and very irrelevant.  It is clear to me that, at the very least, democratic legitimacy is a complex field that our current literature has not sufficiently theorized.  Failing to account for what Egyptians themselves have experienced and what they desire is clearly unacceptable, not simply because of the obvious arrogance of that posture, but because of what I am now more sure than before is its obvious inaccuracy.

The Egyptian Revolution in A Democratic Context

The Egyptian Revolution in A Democratic Context

It’s understandable why people who live in a solid democratic system like the U.S. (despite its many shortcomings) think that Egyptians are crazy to support the military’s actions against deposed President Morsi. To help bridge the gap between what Americans expect from their system and what Egyptians are experiencing, consider the following thought experiment:

Imagine one major change in the American electoral process: there are no party primaries. Every candidate (several from each party), instead of running in a primary, run in the same general election against everyone else, and the two top candidates (if no one got a majority outright) have a run-off. Now imagine this: most Americans are somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum. But in the last general election, there were so many candidates in that middle that no one of them got more than 10-15% of the vote. There was also exactly one candidate on each extreme, each of whom got ~20%, because the people towards each end of the spectrum only had the one choice. And so those two extreme candidates are the ones who end up in the run-off.

Now imagine that the people had just overthrown a corrupt leftist government, so when the rightist candidate (think Sarah Palin but far more religiously extreme) promised to be the “revolution’s candidate”, giving people the inclusionary, clean government that they’ve been asking for, some of the revolutionaries decide to give her a chance. Most of the others join a “Hold Your Nose” movement to vote for her in order to keep the other “old regime” out of the White House. And she ends up winning by a 1.7% margin.

Within a few months, President Palin declares that her presidential decisions are above the constitution, “fires” ) 6 of the 9 Supreme Court Justices b/c they’re too leftist or moderate for her, fires all the Governors in the 50 states, replacing them by decree with Tea Partiers, has a bunch of Tea Party members with ZERO political or legal background draft a new constitution in the middle of the night, then terrorize/pay off people to vote on it in a referendum.

She appoints only Tea Party insiders (again, with zero experience in anything outside a church) to every cabinet post, “retires” 80 Generals and Admirals in order to install people loyal to her at the top of the military, closes down CNN, MSNBC, CBS, and NBC when they criticize her, and activists who try to demonstrate against her start getting into fatal “accidents” … en masse. Others are arrested and jailed with little or no legal process.

Within another 6 months, since the nation is being run by inexperienced ideologues, every aspect of government falls apart. There’s no electricity, no water, a quarter of the population is unemployed, civil society organizations are shut down and their leaders are in prison. Career professionals in the State Department, the military, the courts, the FBI, and pretty much every other national institution stop cooperating with her and her incompetent government.

Finally, a third of the population (in the U.S. that would be 100 Million people) hit the streets demanding early elections b/c they’ve had enough of her and her Tea Party. Those numbers had been seen on the streets before, and are 2-3 times the number that had voted for her in the run-off. Most of those who had “held their noses” and voted for her join the demonstrations.

In response, her party mobilizes a couple million of their own hardline supporters (i.e. a small percentage of the opposition demonstrators). Some of them are armed to the teeth and most believe they’ll be doing God’s work by martyring themselves in order to keep her in power. Then she gets on national TV and says, “Screw you all! I have the legitimacy of the ballot box and will defend it with my blood.”

The military sees all this, recognizes that a bloodbath is on the way and gives Palin 48 hours to negotiate an agreement with the opposition. She and her party refuse to attend negotiation meetings and continue the “martyrdom to protect legitimacy” rhetoric.

What should the people do? Say “well, she does have a point about legitimacy, and we don’t like the idea of the military getting involved in politics, or the idea of widespread bloodshed if the military doesn’t get involved, so let’s keep the status quo for another 3 years then vote her out?”

Oh and BTW, there’s no House in congress and she appointed one third of the senate who now have absolute legislative power and have been passing laws right and left that are strictly along Tea Party ideological lines, rolling back decades of progress on women’s rights, etc…

Finally, it should be recognized that the head of the military who led the ousting of Palin was appointed by her. And he immediately installed a civilian interim President: the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, who was also appointed by Palin. Thankfully, both are career professionals in their respective fields.

Disclaimer: This is not a perfect analogy, something that I don’t think would be possible. But I still hope it helps non-Egyptians understand how the country got to this point before preaching democracy to Egyptians. On a personal note, I was opposed to the military getting involved and even to the demonstrators insisting that Egypt’s Palin step down. I wanted them to insist on a national unity government instead… until she got on TV and flipped them the finger. It became obvious at that point that she had to go.