The Egyptian Military, Regional Chaos, and the Three Year Anniversary of the Revolution

By Sarah Eltantawi 


Today, for reasons that many people find exceedingly obvious, the Egyptian military is being subjected to sustained attack by terrorist groups.  Many Egyptian activists and analysts of Egypt, highly critical of military rule in theory and now in practice, point to the massacres at Raba’ this past August and say that an increase in terrorism is a natural reaction of revenge.  However, when the city of Mansoura was bombed on December 24, these same people were quick to say the Muslim Brotherhood had nothing to do with it.

So which is it?  I have been unsettled by people who have denied that the Muslim Brotherhood could have had anything whatsoever to do with the Mansoura bombing, which was a major act of murder on Egyptian soil. Though Ansar al-Maqdis claimed responsibility for the bombing, Islamist groups are using “the coup” as a pretext to destabilize Egypt, and, unless we except what I think is the artifice of an absolute analytic firewall between Islamist groups, the more obvious interpretation is that such groups are political and ideological allies.   Thus it is unclear precisely what role the MB plays privately to encourage terrorism on its “behalf”, or what, if anything, the organization is trying to do to stop it.

“But what about the military!” you are asking, for surely, if we look at Raba’, they are murderers too, as well as vicious jailers of activists and journalists.  I can’t argue with you there, but I can point out a few things that make me very concerned about sustained attacks on military rule **at this particular moment in Egyptian history** without putting forth any viable alternative.

The critique comes from several sectors within the Egypt commentariat.  Much “anti-coup” rhetoric is implicitly premised on a desire to weaken the Egyptian military.  Islamists or sympathizers (who are suddenly the World’s Best Democrats) regularly underplay or deny the fact that that the military are currently dying in the scores to defend Sinai.  Amazingly and tellingly, in some cases (recalling recent discussions I’ve seen on social media), I’ve seen some “anti-coup” folks deny that Sinai is strategically important at all to Egypt, with one “anti-coup” Egyptian opining that Sinai was a “piece of shit” that “no one would want to live in” and one American academic suggesting that Sinai should be “given to Hamas” in a fit of leftist anti-imperialist virtue  (I’d love to see anyone casually suggest the south of France should be given to Italy with a straight face.)

However,  minorities within the anti-coup camp also include outraged leftists, human rights advocates, and revolutionaries, who rightly observe that a counterrevolution has been waged and that hopes of reforming the security state (never done by Morsi) are looking more and more dismal.  Where I feel uncomfortable with their relentless critique is that when I look at the current state of Syria and Iraq, I despair of Egypt’s prospects if it were to lose it’s last major legitimate national institution.  The country would collapse and be rife for Islamist invasion while the revolutionaries would be forced to take up arms (Syria) and/or it would split up into factions controlled by outside powers and patrons to a greater extent than it is today (Iraq and Syria.)

At this point another question needs to be seriously asked and answered:  if not military rule (today, January 12, 2014), then what instead?  If not this constitution, then what instead?

I am not trying to employ scare tactics.  I oppose the brutality and excesses of the Egyptian army.  I oppose military trials for civilians.  I oppose their graft, corruption, and domination of the Egyptian economy.  I oppose their cheap propaganda.  I oppose the massacre at Raba’a (and I also think the MB could have made several different choices in and around that event.)   In fact it is my position, which I think is strongly backed by historical evidence, that the military establishment and the Islamist opposition have grown into a two headed monster that need each other to thrive and survive. June 30 was about Egyptians making a choice between the two, and they made one choice over another. July 3 was about both sides going totally zero sum and screwing everything up as they seem programmed to do.

However, I can not deny certain facts.  Islamist groups are highly organized and are willing to come to each other’s aid in a time of need (again, witness Morsi’s ‘rally for Syria’, which I think was the moment where we really saw how those alliances could shake up in Egypt. Also witness Hamas in Sinai, and the reaction of Hamas supporters to Morsi’s downfall). Given the power of these non-state actors, who certainly have guns as well as powerful patrons, I think we can start to see what fuels Egyptians’ “paranoia” on this topic. While the SWEEP OF FASCISM explanation is tittalating and in some percentage true, this smear masks important decisions taken by people who understand that there come times in life where you have to make a choice.

Now that the third anniversary of the revolution is upon us, you will read many comments that argue:  “this could all have been avoided if those millions of people had just made a different decision on June 30.” But this is absurd in multiple ways. First, they simply didn’t! Second, how do these analysts know? I mean, really know?  Third, in what sense that is not absolutely technical (namely 1.3% at the ballot box against the old regime), were the Muslim Brotherhood “democrats” who were prepared to act democratically and inclusively as opposed to enact a slow policy of total usurpation of Egypt and its institutions?  What would people be saying then, if that project had continued?  I’ll venture a guess, since the loudest voices on the left criticizing the army today tend to be the same voices that never gave Morsi a chance for five minutes:  they would be apoplectic.

Other questions we are left with today in January of 2014, are:  how do we reign in the miltary’s ruling authoritarianism?  This is an especially relevant question given that one such figure seems all but set to win the presidency.   Next, is there a professional class willing to take power in Egypt who prioritize serving the country over their own interests?  Are the revolutionary youth willing and able to assume the responsibilities of state power?  As we hear a lot about the failure of democracy in the next few days (disingenuous) and the military’s authoritarianism and brutality (true, but not the whole story),  what I hope we hear more of is serious thinking about how to move forward and an identification of who is willing to take on the truly thankless task of making sure Egypt does not descend into chaos.


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