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SPECIAL REPORT: How the Muslim Brotherhood lost Egypt

Edmund Blair, Paul Taylor and Tom Perry published this July 25, 2013 “SPECIAL REPORT: How the Muslim Brotherhood lost Egypt”

CAIRO (Reuters) – When Egyptians poured onto the streets in their millions to demand the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, few thought they would return two years later demonstrating for the overthrow of the man they elected to replace him.

The stunning fall from power of President Mohamed Mursi, and the Muslim Brotherhood which backed him, has upended politics in the volatile Middle East for a second time after the Arab Spring uprisings toppled veteran autocrats.

Some of the principal causes were highlighted a month before the army intervened to remove Mursi, when two of Egypt’s most senior power brokers met for a private dinner at the home of liberal politician Ayman Nour on the island of Zamalek, a lush bourgeois oasis in the midst of Cairo’s seething megalopolis. It was seen by some as a last attempt to avert a showdown.

The two power brokers were Amr Moussa, 76, a long-time foreign minister under Mubarak and now a secular nationalist politician, and Khairat El-Shater, 63, the Brotherhood’s deputy leader and most influential strategist and financier. Moussa suggested that to avoid confrontation, Mursi should heed opposition demands, including a change of government.

“He (Shater) acknowledged what I said about the bad management of Egyptian affairs under their government and that there is a problem,” Moussa told Reuters. “He was talking carefully and listening attentively.”

Shater, a thick-set grizzly bear of a man who is now in detention and cannot tell his side of events, replied that the government’s problems were due to the “non-cooperation of the ‘deep state'” – the entrenched interests in the army, the security services, some of the judiciary and the bureaucracy, according to Moussa’s account.

“The message that I got after one hour was that OK, he would discuss with me, agree with some of my arguments, disagree with the rest, but they were not in the mood of changing,” Moussa said. Nour gave a similar account, saying Shater did not budge. But he added that the talks might have started a process of political compromise had they not been exposed in the media.

“(Shater) is a normal person and his appearance does not do him justice. His appearance gives the impression of mysteriousness and ruthlessness, but he is well-mannered and gentle,” Nour said.

The dinner on a terrace around the swimming pool of Nour’s 8th-floor duplex apartment was cut short when journalists got wind of the meeting. Moussa left convinced that the Brotherhood were over-confident, incompetent in government and had poor intelligence on what was brewing in the streets and the barracks.

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File photo of protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo

Protesters, who are against Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, hold a poster featuring the head of Eg …

Yet many Egyptian and foreign observers still expected the tightly knit Islamist movement, hardened by decades of repression, to dominate Egypt and the region for a prolonged period, after 60 years of rule by army-backed strongmen. Instead, Mursi was bundled out of office and into military detention on July 3 amid huge anti-government protests, barely a year after he became the first democratically elected leader of the Arab world’s most populous nation.

Mursi’s failure sends a powerful message: winning an election is not sufficient to govern Egypt. Post-Mubarak rulers need the acquiescence of the security establishment and of the population at large. Upset either and your position is not secure.

Egypt’s Islamists may draw the bitter lesson that the “deep state” will not let them wield real power, even with a democratic mandate. This report, compiled from interviews with senior Muslim Brotherhood and secular politicians, youth activists, military officers and diplomats, examines four turning points on Egypt’s revolutionary road: the Brotherhood’s decision to seek the presidency; the way Mursi pushed through the constitution; the failures of the secular opposition; and the military’s decision to step in.

Mursi and some senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders, who have been held incommunicado since the coup, could not be reached for comment.

With the Brotherhood angrily resisting its eviction from power, the prospects of Egypt’s second transition to democracy being smoother than the first look slight. This time, the army says it does not wish to exercise power directly as it did in 2011-12 after Mubarak’s fall. But few doubt that armed forces commander General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who planned Mursi’s overthrow and has since been promoted to deputy prime minister as well as minister of defense, is the man now in control.


In the immediate aftermath of Mubarak’s overthrow, the Brotherhood had no intention of ruling. It reassured secular Egyptians and the army by promising publicly not to seek the presidency or an outright parliamentary majority.

“I met Shater three times in 2011/2012 and each time it was clear that the political appetite was growing, but the first time he was extremely explicit that the Brotherhood would not seek political power right away,” said U.S. academic Nathan Brown, a leading expert on Egypt at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “He was very clear to the reasons: the world’s not ready for it, Egypt’s not ready for it, and – the phrase he kept using – the burdens of Egypt are too big for any one political actor. Those turned out to be very sound judgments but he abandoned them.”

Events began to take on a momentum of their own. The Brotherhood won control of parliament in alliance with smaller Islamist and independents, but soon found that was not sufficient to pass or implement legislation. An army council kept the keys to power.

As the frustrations grew, some members of the Brotherhood – particularly the young – began to press for the movement to change its stance and bid for the presidency and the executive power it would bring.

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File photo of an injured supporter of deposed Egyptian …

An injured supporter of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi carries a poster of Mursi as they r …

“The entire council of the Guidance Office of the Muslim Brotherhood was against the presidential nomination,” said Gehad El-Haddad, 31, one of the leading young Islamists. So Haddad and 16 other youth activists exploited Facebook and Twitter to change minds.

“We lobbied, the youth of the Muslim Brotherhood, we literally lobbied. We put up a chart of the Shura council members and decided which ones to pressure to change their vote,” the British-educated activist, now the movement’s spokesman, said in a midnight interview at a pro-Mursi protest camp outside a mosque in eastern Cairo. “The Muslim Brotherhood takes its vote from the grass roots up, even that vote.”

Opponents argued that the quest for executive power was premature and would fuel suspicion and hostility towards the Brotherhood, which had long pursued a patient, gradualist strategy.

The issue came to a head at a marathon closed-door meeting of the Brotherhood’s Shura Council at its four-storey headquarters in the hill-top Moqattam district that overlooks Cairo from the south.

“We remained for three days, debating, each team giving the justifications of the opinion it had, whether accepting or rejecting. And when the vote happened, the decision was just by three or four votes,” said Essam Hashish, 63, a university engineering lecturer and Shura member.

It was one of the most closely contested votes in the history of the movement and went to three rounds. Just 56 of the 108 members voted on the decisive ballot to put up a candidate for president, while 52 voted against. After that, support for Shater as the Brotherhood’s candidate for president became overwhelming.

The Islamists had earlier looked at nominating someone outside their movement, approaching respected judges Ahmed Mekky and Hossam Gheriyani, who had stood up to Mubarak. Both declined.

Insiders said Shater’s charisma and ambition were key factors. The furniture and shopping mall magnate was the dominant politician in the movement, described by colleagues and foreign diplomats as a powerful, pragmatic negotiator used to getting his way.

But his candidacy was short-lived. The electoral commission, headed by a Mubarak appointee, disqualified him on the grounds that he had been convicted of a criminal offence in 2007, even if the charges seemed politically motivated.

The mantle of Brotherhood candidate thus fell uncomfortably on the shoulders of Mursi, a provincial engineering professor who had studied in the United States but had less political savvy and public-speaking ability than Shater.

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File photo of a fly-past over protesters against ousted …

A view shows a fly-past over protesters against ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, in Tahrir S …

“When we took the decision to nominate Mursi, after the withdrawal of Khairat El-Shater, he (Mursi) returned home weeping: he had been given a responsibility that he had not sought,” Hashish said. “It was known that whoever took responsibility at this time would not find the road covered in roses. But we also knew that there was nobody at that time who could undertake this the way we could.”

Mursi narrowly won the presidential election on the second round of voting with 51.73 percent of the vote against Ahmed Shafik, a former air force general who was Mubarak’s last prime minister and faithful ally. The chubby, bespectacled Islamist owed his victory partly to the support of liberal and leftist candidates who threw their weight behind him between the two rounds. Their supporters hated Shafik and were given a string of assurances that Mursi would form an inclusive government, and involve them and civil society in drafting a new constitution.

Voters who switched from secular candidates on the first round to Mursi in the run-off were dubbed “lemon squeezers” in reference to the Egyptian tradition of making unpalatable food edible with a splash of lemon juice.


Mursi moved swiftly to shake up the military after his inauguration on June 30, 2012. Within six weeks, he summoned Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, 76, who had served Mubarak for two decades and was interim head of state after him, and told him to retire, along with the U.S.-trained chief of staff, General Sami Enan. Mursi appointed a pious Muslim, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, as commander of the armed forces.

In one of the biggest misunderstandings of his term, the president believed he had stamped his authority on the men in uniform. In reality, the officer corps was willing to see two old retainers put out to pasture, clearing a blocked promotion ladder. “They (the Brotherhood) misread what happened. We allowed it to happen,” said one colonel.

The military still viewed with deep suspicion a head of state who, they believed, saw Egypt as “just part of a bigger (Islamic) Caliphate,” said the colonel.

Mursi believed the military would not act against him, especially if the Brotherhood took care of the army’s economic interests when drafting a new constitution. “He thought Sisi was his guy,” a senior Western diplomat said. “He didn’t understand the power dynamics.”

When Mursi and the Brotherhood pushed for a new constitution they clashed with secular parties and civil society groups angered by the Islamist tinge to the charter, ambiguous wording on freedom of expression, and the absence of explicit guarantees of the rights of women, Christians and non-government organizations.

After weeks of debate, fear that a judiciary packed with Mubarak-era appointees would dissolve the constituent assembly helped prompt Mursi to issue a decree shielding the assembly from legal challenge and putting the president above judicial review. It was a move borne out of the Brotherhood’s deep suspicion that the judiciary was out to undo all its electoral gains. When Mursi rammed the new charter through, the opposition walked out.

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File photo of a soldier asking a supporter of overthrown …

An army soldier asks a supporter of overthrown President Mohamed Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood to …

“The truth is that the declaration (taking supra-legal powers) was a big mistake,” said Nour. It was still possible to rebuild confidence between Mursi and the political forces, he said, “but there was not enough effort from the two sides to rebuild this confidence.”

The constitutional decree was a turning point. Ministers were not consulted. Several of Mursi’s own staff warned that it would set him on a confrontation course with civil society. Five senior advisers quit. But Mursi displayed the same determination and self-confidence that marked his other key decisions.

“One thing we know about this president, he is as stubborn as hell,” said Gehad El-Haddad, a Brotherhood member whose father Essam El-Haddad, a British-trained doctor, was Mursi’s politically moderate top foreign policy adviser and is now in detention with him.


The constitutional decree triggered weeks of street demonstrations outside Mursi’s Ittihadiya palace, which was regularly attacked with petrol bombs, rocks and metal bolts. Frustrated at the failure of the police and the Republican Guards to protect the presidency, the Brotherhood fielded its own well-drilled security guard outside the palace in pitched battles with anti-Mursi protesters on December 6.

The protests eventually faded, but that single sighting of an organized Brotherhood force in the streets, albeit without visible firearms, further alarmed both the secular opposition and the army.

Another wave of protests rolled over Egypt starting on January 25, the second anniversary of the uprising that overthrew Mubarak, while the main cities in the Suez Canal zone, where passions were running high over deaths in clashes at a soccer match, spun out of government control. Mursi imposed a curfew on Port Said, epicenter of the troubles. But he struggled to command obedience.

“People at night were playing football with the army which was supposed to be imposing the curfew,” said Mekky, who had become justice minister. “So when I (as president) impose a curfew and I see neither my citizens nor my army that are supposed to implement the curfew are listening to me, I should know that I am not really a president.”

On January 29, the army issued the first of a series of solemn warnings that political unrest was pushing Egypt to the brink of collapse and that the armed forces would remain “the solid and cohesive block” on which the state rests. In hindsight, it was a harbinger of military intervention.

With the exception of Nour, the liberal and secular opposition boycotted any contact with Mursi and the Brotherhood’s political wing after the constitution episode.

But the European Union, supported by the United States, launched a discreet diplomatic effort to try to bring the two sides to compromise on a national unity government. The aim was to trigger fresh parliamentary elections and a loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that could have unlocked stalled economic aid and investment.

For months, EU diplomat Bernardino Leon shuttled between the leaders of the six-party opposition National Salvation Front (NSF) alliance, Mursi’s office and the Brotherhood’s political wing, while keeping in touch with the army. By April, Leon had produced a draft deal that would have required both Mursi and his opponents to compromise.

Mursi never explicitly embraced the EU initiative, submitted to him in an email on April 11, although he never rejected it either. Events soon put a deal out of reach.

Haddad, one of the Brotherhood negotiators with Leon, suggested the leaders of the NSF were too divided to deliver on an agreement. Khaled Dawoud, the NSF’s spokesman, acknowledged the coalition was full of “big characters and big egos”, but said they had held together when it mattered.

Perhaps the main reason the deal foundered was that the Islamists considered the NSF politically insignificant. “There are only two players in this playground, the old regime … and the Muslim Brotherhood, and the rest just choose a camp. It is not a reality that everyone likes, but it is the reality, you can’t change that,” Haddad said.

When EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton returned to Cairo with Leon on June 18-19, the situation had deteriorated. “We found President Mursi far from reality,” a member of Leon’s team told Reuters. “The message of the visit was to tell him, ‘Mr President, you are running out of time. The country is running out of time’.”


The Brotherhood had inherited a shattered economy from the military-led interim government. In the 17 months between Mubarak’s fall and Mursi’s inauguration, foreign currency reserves crumpled from $36 billion to $15.5 billion – hardly enough to cover three months’ imports. Cairo owed international energy companies about $8 billion in unpaid bills, prompting gas producers to reduce shipments to Egypt, freeze investment and slow domestic gas output.

Tourists and investors were scared away by images of violent street protests and political instability. The military council had vetoed a first attempt after the revolution to agree a loan with the International Monetary Fund, wanting to avoid piling debt on the country or compromising national sovereignty. Insiders in the early interim governments said the generals were also scared of triggering riots if they accepted IMF demands to curb food and fuel subsidies.

A former senior finance ministry official said Mursi’s constitutional decree effectively ruined any further prospect of an IMF loan. “What happened with the constitution showed the nation was split,” said the official. The risk of instability deterred the IMF.

Financial support from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates dried up because of their hostility to the Brotherhood, seen as a threat to Arab monarchies. Mursi became dependent on the gas-rich emirate of Qatar, which provided some $8 billion in loans, grants and deposits under his rule, with lesser sums from Turkey and Libya, both more sympathetic to the Brotherhood.

The inefficient system of subsidizing bread, cooking gas and diesel fuel became an ever greater burden on government finances, accounting for almost the entire budget deficit. There were shortages of diesel, with long lines at gas stations, sometimes causing fights at the pumps. Power cuts worsened in the run-up to mass protests on June 30, leaving many households without air conditioning for hours as peak summer heat approached. As the Egyptian pound tumbled in value, inflation hit 9.75 percent in June.

Feeling increasingly besieged, the Brotherhood accused saboteurs loyal to the former regime of manipulating fuel and electricity supplies. Many Egyptians blamed government incompetence.

“The biggest form of obstruction was the failure of the Ministry of the Interior to do its job. Imagine a state with no security,” said Bassem Ouda, 43, minister of supply for the last six months and a rising star in the Brotherhood. Interviewed at the pro-Mursi sit-in, he accused the ministry of directing criminal gangs that obstructed fuel distribution in the days that led up to June 30.

Economic grievances fuelled public support for a petition by the “Tamarud – Rebel!” youth movement demanding Mursi’s resignation and an early presidential election. Launched on May 1 by three activists in their twenties armed with little more than mobile phones and laptops, the petitions spread like wildfire.

Khaled Dawoud, the NSF spokesman, recalled attending an early Tamarud news conference on May 12. “They held it in some miserable office … you couldn’t even breathe in that building,” he said. “And then they announced, boom, inside that room, that in a matter of days, weeks, we gathered two million signatures – people saying we want early president elections.”

He said that when he went to his next NSF meeting, he told his leaders: “OK, we can go on the record, these are brilliant people, we have to support them.”

By June 30, the organizers claimed to have 22 million signatures with addresses and national identity numbers. There was no independent verification, but the movement had clearly hit a national nerve. Mahmoud Badr, 28, the young journalist who co-founded the group, told Reuters that Tamarud had succeeded where others failed by dint of shoe-leather campaigning and savvy use of social media.

Brotherhood officials are convinced that Tamarud was bankrolled and abetted by Gulf money, exiled Egyptian oligarchs and the army. The reality appears to have been more spontaneous and less conspiratorial, though some unfamiliar faces with suspected links to the security services began to appear at Tamarud campaign offices in the final days.

Billionaire businessman Naguib Sawiris, who left Egypt shortly after Mursi’s election, told Reuters he threw his full support behind the youth movement.

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File photo of an an anti-Mursi protester running to …

An anti-Mursi protester runs to throw a tear gas canister back during clashes with riot police at Ta …

“The Free Egyptians party, the party that I founded, used all its branches across Egypt to (gather) signatures for Tamarud,” Sawiris said in a telephone interview from his yacht off the Greek island of Mykonos. “Also the TV station that I own and the newspaper, Al-Masry Al-Youm, were supporting the Tamarud movement with their media … It is fair to say that I encouraged all the affiliations I have to support the movement. But there was no financing, because there was no need.”


Exactly when the military decided it would overthrow Mursi is disputed. Senior officers said that General Sisi, up until the last day of his ultimatum for the president to accept a power-sharing agreement, continued to hope Mursi would agree to call a referendum on the continuation of his rule. That would have given a constitutional fig-leaf to his departure.

A senior army colonel said the military had acted to save the country from civil war. “This has nothing to do with the army wanting power, but with the people wanting the army to be involved. They trust us, you know, because we will always be with the Egyptian people, not with a person or a regime,” he said.

The military now faces the same conundrum it failed to solve in 2011-12: how to make Egypt work without taking responsibility, and hence unpopularity, for painful reforms?

In their first temporary stint in power, the generals presided over a period of economic stagnation, unabated human rights abuses and scant reform. They seemed almost relieved to hand the poison chalice to Mursi upon his election, even though they did not trust the Brotherhood with all the levers of power.

This time, it’s different, said the colonel. The army will not govern and there will be a short, sharp transition to elected civilian government. Yet despite a sudden infusion of $12 billion in Saudi, UAE and Kuwaiti aid, the starting conditions look worse than for the previous period of military rule.

The Brotherhood is entrenched in sullen opposition, determined to prevent the new technocratic government succeeding where its own administration failed. The army vacillates between saying it wants to include the Brotherhood in a new political process and cracking down on its leaders, accused of inciting violence and betraying the country. Mursi, his closest aides and the Brotherhood’s most powerful politicians are being held in extra-judicial custody by the army at undisclosed locations.

Those leaders still at large say they have begun a long march of non-violent resistance until the Brotherhood prevails over the army. But a radical fringe of Islamists may revert to armed struggle and assassinations. First signs are visible in the lawless Sinai peninsula. Others may go back to a strategy of Islamizing Egyptian society from the grassroots up, rather than the top down.

Repression will only strengthen the Brotherhood, said Haddad. “This is an organization built for 85 years under oppressive regimes. That is our comfort zone. They just pushed us back into it.

“This is a stand-off. Either we force the military’s head back into their barracks, and they have to be taught a lesson not to pop their head back into the political scene ever again, or we die trying.”

(This story was refiled to fix spelling in 15th pragraph)

(Edmund Blair, Paul Taylor and Tom Perry reported from Cairo; Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh in Cairo; Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing By Richard Woods)

Unpacking Anti-Muslim Brotherhood Discourse

Noam Chomsky’s Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda argues that effectively crafted and controlled media messages can turn otherwise rational people into “hysterical” warmongers.

Chomsky’s analysis focuses on how western governments and elite-led media in democratic societies have successfully employed propaganda campaigns to achieve political aims. Egypt has experienced its own propaganda program in recent months. What is perhaps unique about Egypt’s propaganda campaign is that it is an anti-government campaign initiated by a diverse group of oppositional forces.

Mohamad Elmasri posted this June 28, 2013 on Jadaliyya

“In post-revolution Egypt–or maybe not–Hosni Mubarak-era media owners, Mubarak regime loyalists, 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. In a matter of months, these forces have managed to demonize Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, to the extent that many Egyptians openly call for the overthrow of the democratically elected government and the imprisonment of Moslem Brotherhood members.

Brotherhood members have also been the victims of systematic violence–which has included the live burning of Muslim Brotherhood youth, the killings of Brotherhood members, and the arsons of Muslim Brotherhood buses and offices across Egypt. Government buildings have also been vandalized, and the presidential palace and other government buildings were set ablaze by firebomb-hurling youth in December.

Since inheriting Egypt’s mess of an economy and myriad environmental, health, transportation, education, and energy crises, Morsi and the Brotherhood have made some progress on several political fronts.

They have also made mistakes, which have included releasing reckless statements about women, failing to share enough political decision making with liberals, and mishandling political crises surrounding the Ethiopian Dam project,

Morsi’s controversial November decree, and the appointment of a hardline Islamist as governor of Luxor, among other things didn’t make matters better.

I would argue, however, that none of their mistakes warrant systematic demonization, terrorism, or overthrow. There is a massive disconnect between the Brotherhood’s mishandlings and the reaction that they instigated, thanks to the propaganda that the Brotherhood’s challengers have spread.

As someone who has studied discourse for 11 years, the anti-Brotherhood, anti-Morsi propaganda is unlike anything I have ever seen, primarily because news reporters and organizations–rather than political figures–seem to spearhead the propaganda efforts.

The lack of objectivity in Egyptian news is perhaps unsurprising, given the reality that many Egyptian journalists perceive themselves more as political activists than as watchdogs, and other research suggesting that Egyptian journalism suffers from an overall lack of professionalism.

The opposition’s propaganda machine–aided by a plethora of private television networks and newspapers owned by Mubarak-friendly businessmen like Ahmad BahgatSalah Diab, and Mohamed al-Amin–has successfully manufactured discourses designed to designate the Brotherhood and Morsi as lacking in basic integrity and unworthy of political participation.

To be sure, Islamist media, having begun in recent years to discuss politics on otherwise exclusively religious satellite television channels, dish out their own fair share of propaganda. Their political impact, however, pales in comparison with independent news outlets that are devoted to political news reportage, have greater reach, can boast well known commentators, and that proclaim the goal of covering political affairs in an objective manner.

Relatively greater levels of professionalism at some news outlets (and by a handful of television news personalities) notwithstanding, the anti-Brotherhood bias in independent Egyptian news media is obvious and overwhelming.

As part of a pre-reading of Egyptian news broadcasts designed to develop a coding scheme for an upcoming research project, I watched the 25 March 2013 episode of OnTv’s From Anew. The program featured 9 consecutive anti-Islamist guests over a period of about 75 minutes. Such blatant imbalance is not uncommon.

Frequently, talk shows–such as OnTv’s Respectable People and From Anew, and CBC’s From the Capital and As Clear as the Sun–invite multiple guests, all of the same anti-Islamist persuasion, for lengthy discussions of political events. Other programs, such as Wael Al-Ibrashi’s The 10 p.m. Show on the Dream Network and Ibrahim Isa’s From Cairo on the al-Qahira wa-al-Nas network, I would argue, have blatantly one-sided slants, as evidenced by their story ideation, guest selection, and interview questioning processes.

One of the few independent news stations in Egypt that consistently tries to provide some balance and debate is Al Jazeera Live Egypt. Because the channel usually features the Brotherhood perspective alongside that of the opposition, critics often call it “Al Jazeera Muslim Brotherhood.”

One consistent discourse that has emerged in recent months in Egypt defines the Muslim Brotherhood as un-Egyptian, and caring more about their own narrow agenda than the country’s national interests. For example, reports routinely claim that Morsi is not a president for all Egyptians, but rather only for his Islamist comrades.

Other reports discuss the Muslim Brotherhood’s relationship with Hamas, and their desire to sell off parts of Egypt to foreign countries. A 30 May 2013 article in online newspaper: 24 summarized novelist and political commentator Gamal al-Ghitani’s views on Brotherhood politics in its headline, which read: “Gamal al-Ghitani: The Brotherhood are a foreign organization and their rule of Egypt constitutes a foreign occupation.”

On 21 June 2013 al-Ghitani appeared on the OnTv program The Complete Picture boasting that he began writing about the “occupation” thesis last summer, immediately after Morsi’s election. For weeks in early 2013, President Morsi’s office and the Qatari government were forced to fend off baseless rumors–given major attention on television news and in newspapers–that deals were in place for Egypt to lease the Pyramids and sell the Suez Canal to Qatar.

This discourse—that the Brotherhood are not true Egyptians and do not have Egypt’s best interests at heart—is used to justify sub-discourses about the Muslim Brotherhood. Those include discourses that the Brotherhood is occupying all state institutions, produced a catastrophically bad constitution that suits only its own interests, and intimidates and kills the opposition with its “militias.”

The next few sections will examine these discursive sub-constructions contributing to the anti-Brotherhood, anti-Morsi fervor in Egypt.

The “Brotherhoodization” of the State

A dominant theme in Egyptian media and political discourse argues that the Muslim Brotherhood is bent on occupying all state institutions and hoarding power. This “brotherhoodization” (“akhwana,” in Arabic) thesis dovetails nicely with other discourses about the Brotherhood’s alleged desire to sell off Egypt and its disloyalty to the nation.

The akhwana (brotherhoodization) thesis is the most damning, and oft repeated, of all anti-Brotherhood discourses. It has become so hegemonic that many Egyptians take it as a given. It is difficult to find an independent talk show that does not regularly obsess over the Brotherhood’s takeover, a topic which opposition figures often use as a political battle cry. Some western news outlets have also reported uncritically about the alleged Brotherhood takeover. I would argue that the “brotherhoodization” thesis holds very little weight, if any at all.

Opposition forces in Egypt claim that, having secured the presidency, the Brotherhood has moved to take over various government ministries, the judiciary, the armed forces, the media, and other aspects of Egyptian society and culture. The opposition points to Morsi’s administrative appointments and the domination of the constitutional assembly.

Lost on those who advance the “brotherhoodization” thesis is the fact that the Brotherhood has won multiple free and fair elections and thus has the political and democratic right to control at least part of the government until their term expires.

Also lost on people is the fact that the new Egypt will experience regular elections, as stipulated by the constitution, and whoever wins elections after the Brotherhood will have the similar chance to hold sway. This is how democratic politics works: groups who win elections have the right to govern for a few years, implementing their political program along the way.

In the United States, it is hardly controversial that the two major parties vie to control both the executive and legislative branches of government. In fact, it is seen as an admirable goal for any given party that believes its program is the most suited to serve the country’s well being. Interestingly, a 2000 Wall Street Journal survey of political science, law, and history professors concluded that–according to respondents–many of the most productive presidents in US history had control of both the executive and legislative branches of government for the entirety of their terms in office.

The United States and arguments about the relative merits of divided versus unified control of government aside, it remains that the Brotherhood does not have, and will not have, a stronghold on the Egyptian state. First, the Brotherhood does not control the army, and it would be impossible for them to do so in the foreseeable future. For starters, it would be unconstitutional and illegal for the president or anyone else to install Muslim Brotherhood members as high-ranking army officers. Even in Egypt, such appointments can only occur naturally and with requisite qualifications and years of experience. Not surprisingly, there has been no indication that anyone inside the presidency or the Brotherhood is attempting to commit such a gross violation.

The situation is similar with respect to the judiciary, which is also subject to a formal system of appointment that depends on qualifications and experience. Brotherhood opponents have, however, criticized the Islamist-dominated Shura Council’s proposal to reduce the retirement age for judges from seventy to sixty. Critics say the judicial authority bill could give the Brotherhood a chance at padding the judiciary with its loyalists, while Shura Council members say that the bill is necessary to purge the judiciary of judges loyal to Mubarak.

The deposed president had gradually increased the retirement age from sixty to 70 in order keep judges loyal to him active. In any case, the argument that the Brotherhood could use the law as a means to “Brotherhoodize” the judiciary is unconvincing for two reasons:

First, the Brotherhood does not have a community of potential loyal judges who are ready for promotion.

Second, the new age limit would apply equally to all judges and not favor Islamists over liberals.

The intimation that the Brotherhood controls the interior ministry is similarly out of place. If it was not initially clear that the interior ministry was, and is, controlled by most of the same faces that controlled it during the Mubarak era, it should be now. There is fervent anti-Brotherhood sentiment within the police and security forces, who in recent months have protested against the Brotherhood, organized strikes against Morsi, and–in spite of repeated anti-Brotherhood arsons–have refused to protect the Brotherhood headquarters from angry protesters.

Morsi and the Brotherhood can be criticized for not doing more to purge the ministry now–indeed, the merits of a gradualist strategy are debatable–but the Brotherhood’s more gradual approach to purging the ministry cannot also be the subject of a “brotherhoodization” argument.

In government, even after recent Morsi appointments, only ten out of a total 27 governors and eleven out of 35 cabinet members hail from the Muslim Brotherhood.

The opposition is up in arms at these ratios, but it is both logical and fair for an elected president faced with repeated attempts to remove him from power to rely on governors and cabinet members who are loyal to him. And, at any rate, 35%  representation is hardly excessive for a ruling party.

Morsi has offered numerous government positions to opposition politicians, but they have declined for various reasons. Some simply have not wanted to affiliate themselves with a Brotherhood government. Others have declined because of fears that it would be difficult to engage in substantive work given the extreme anti-Brotherhood program ongoing in Egypt. Vice President of the liberal Ghad al-Thawra Party, Mohamed Mohie El-Din, confirmed to me in a 23 June telephone interview that Ayman Nour, who heads the Ghad al-Thawra Party, has been offered the position of Prime Minister on several different occasions since the start of the Morsi presidency.

On 4 July 2012, just days after Morsi took over as president, former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi acknowledged on Mahmoud Saad’s talk show Akher al-Nahar that Morsi offered him the position of Vice President. Sabbahi, too, declined.

Prime Minister Hesham Kandil, who is not himself a member of the Muslim Brotherhood or any Islamist party, has said on multiple occasions, including most recently in a televised interview on 21 June 2013, that he has offered numerous ministerial posts to opposition figures. Most have declined, with some indicating they might accept a post when “things calm down.”

Morsi’s 26 June 2013 national address also mentioned that non-Brotherhood ministers from the previous government had been given the chance to stay on the job, but declined. Given that non-Brotherhood politicians have regularly rejected participation in government, it is anything but surprising that President Morsi has found little choice but to tap Brotherhood members for government posts.

The “brotherhoodization” argument picked up steam in mid-November 2012, when liberal members of the constituent assembly withdrew from the assembly citing what they called the Muslim Brotherhood’s inordinate influence on the constitution drafting process.

Those who complain that the Brotherhood dominated the drafting of the new constitution overlook the fact that Egypt’s constituent assembly was formed by a democratically elected parliament, and that twenty-two Egyptian parties—which formed the near entirety of Egypt’s political spectrum (at that time)—signed off on the basic composition of the constituent assembly in June 2012.

Interestingly, current hardline opposition and al-Wafd Party leader al-Sayed al-Badawi led the press conference announcing the agreement on the breakdown of the assembly. The agreement dictated that the assembly would give 39 out of one hundred total assembly seats to members of parliament, with these seats being divided up according to parliamentary proportions. The remaining 61o seats would be divided amongst scholars of constitutional law, al-Azhar University and Church representatives, and various labor and social groups.

Because some of the sixty-one non-parliamentary seats could go to individuals affiliated with political parties and movements, the agreement further outlined the ways in which these seats would be divided up, according to Mohie El-Din, who was a member of the assembly. He said it was agreed that the final one hundred-member assembly was to include thirty-two members of the Muslim Brotherhood, eighteen members of al-Nour Party, eighteen representatives of “the state,” and thirty-two liberal party members. This specific breakdown was designed to give fifty seats to Islamists and fifty seats to non-Islamists, Mohie El-Din told me. However, since some of the eighteen “state” representatives (for example al-Azhar University scholars) could reasonably be considered “Islamists” (depending on how the term is defined), the agreement dictated, in practical terms, that more than fifty percent of committee members would be of “Islamist” persuasion, Mohie El-Din said.

In other words, Islamist currents may have enjoyed a majority inside the Constituent Assembly and its committees, but the important point is that all of this was specified, understood, and agreed to by all twenty-two parties, despite what the opposition now claims.

It is plausible that many of the liberal parties viewed these proportions as relatively favorable, since it is likely that a national referendum would have yielded a much higher number of Brotherhood members. The Brotherhood-led coalition had, after all, won forty-seven percent of parliamentary seats in Egypt’s first post-revolution democratic elections, with an additional twenty-five percent of seats going to the more conservative Salafist coalition.

It is not ideal for popular parties to have significant representational advantages in constitution drafting assemblies, and scholars such as Linz and Stepan have argued that majoritarian rules are unhealthy for constitution building, while also acknowledging that the practice has been prevalent (p. 83). As scholars Patrick Fafard and Darrel Robert Reid note in their Constituent Assemblies: A Comparative Survey, constituent assemblies are usually governed by the rules of “partisan politics.” The researchers posit: “It has generally been assumed and accepted that the political and economic elites who dominate the political process will exercise a similar dominance in the process of drafting or amending the constitution” (p. 22). Discussing the example of the United States, Fafard and Reid note that, “proceedings of the Philadelphia Convention itself were characterized by a remarkable federalist consensus throughout” (p. 26).

The fact that some non-Islamists withdrew from the Egyptian constituent assembly is undeniably problematic. Some of the liberal members of the assembly undoubtedly had legitimate concerns about some of the document’s articles. However, they withdrew before exhausting discussion, and refused to return to the assembly after repeated official invitations to come back for discussion of contentious articles.

Perhaps more damning for non-Islamist claims of an unfair constitution building process is that many of the assembly’s liberals seemed to abandon the process early on, and well before it was exhausted.  For instance, according to Mohie El-Din, some members of the assembly seemed bent on withdrawing from the outset. “We had [non-Islamist] people who withdrew upon entering the assembly. [Their attitude seemed to be,] ‘Good morning, we withdraw,’” said Mohie El-Din, in a 20 December debate held on the campus of the American University in Cairo.

Mohie El-Din also claimed that many of the non-Islamists who withdrew were systematically absent from assembly sessions throughout the process of drafting the document. He said that he was sometimes the only non-Islamist representative in attendance. During other sessions, liberal assembly members would only show up for “ten minutes” before exiting. “Can you, given these circumstances, say that you have had an influence? Of course not,” Mohie El-Din said.

A few of the complaints of inordinate Islamist influence over the document’s content are ill conceived. For example, liberals have criticized Article 4, which gives Al-Azhar oversight on matters pertaining to Islamic law. What many overlook, though, is that this article was a liberal suggestion.

The thinking of liberals inside the assembly may have been that al-Azhar would be a safeguard against the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and more conservative Salafists. Islamists in the Constituent Assembly agreed to Article 4, and other proposals submitted by non-Islamist representatives. For example, an article about religious freedoms specifically requested by the assembly’s four Church representatives was included as is, word for word, said Mohie El-Din at the AUC debate. The article was not removed, and no one suggested it be removed or edited, even after the Church representatives withdrew from the assembly, he said.

An overwhelming majority of voters (sixty-four percent) approved Egypt’s new constitution despite hysterical propaganda against the assembly and the document, which included the distribution of fake constitutional drafts. Importantly, a national dialogue held in January announced that Morsi had agreed to form a pluralistic committee to revise controversial articles in the constitution. Many key members of Egypt’s liberal opposition have rejected dialogue and Morsi’s proposal to revise the constitution, however, and have instead insisted on pursuing their ongoing “rebel” campaign, which aims to remove Morsi from power, select a new constituent assembly, and draft a new constitution.

The National Salvation Front, the largest and most organized opposition bloc, has refused any dialogue with the president until all of their preconditions – the sacking of the Prosecutor General, an independent committee to revise the constitution, and a national unity government – are met.

The Muslim Brotherhood “Militias”

The Mubarak regime consistently propagated talk of “Muslim Brotherhood militias.” Such claims have increased since Morsi took power, as newspaper headlines and television news talk shows have casually and matter-of-factly discussed the “Brotherhood militias.”

When, in isolated instances, individual Brotherhood members have responded in kind to anti-Brotherhood violence (in ways that the Brotherhood has later condemned in official statements), the violence has been immediately attributed to the “Brotherhood militias.” The claim that the Muslim Brotherhood maintains so-called militias, however, is unconvincing. For one, if the Brotherhood really had militias, why did it not deploy them during Mubarak’s rule, or during the violent stages of the 2011 eighteen-day uprising?  Why has the Brotherhood not relied on these “militias” to prevent the burning of thirty of its offices in late 2012?

The events of the past year indicate that the Brotherhood has often been the victim, rather than the instigator, of violence. In all, thirty Muslim Brotherhood offices have been set ablaze or destroyed, and some members of the Brotherhood have been killed or burned alive. Graphic images of anti-Brotherhood violence, and evidence of what has transpired in recent months, has prompted even some liberals to acknowledge, finally, that the Brotherhood “militias” do not exist.

Liberal activist and writer Mahmoud Salem, known as Sandmonkey in the social media world, was one of the first liberals to publicly acknowledge this reality in a 26 March 2013 Daily News Egypt article. He wrote the following about what he called the “myth” of Muslim Brotherhood militias: “From everything we have seen in every major clash with the MB and its members, this myth is also simply false. The MB is organized and can mobilize its members, but its members are mostly educated middle class and are not trained in militant warfare.”

It is worth nothing that Salem’s “myth” article came in the aftermath of violent 22 March protests organized outside the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in al-Muqattam. During these clashes, the Brotherhood, again, suffered major casualtiesone hundred seventy six injuries, twenty six of them serious, and one fatality–as they attempted to protect their headquarters, after police appeared unable or unwilling to do soPlaying a key role in the al-Muqattam protests was political activist Ahmed Douma, who said on multiple occasions prior to the 22 March clashes that burning down Muslim Brotherhood offices is a “revolutionary act.”

What is arguably most troubling about the anti-Brotherhood violence is the callousness with which at least some supporters of the opposition discuss these events, sometimes suggesting that Brotherhood members deserve violent treatment. I recall a widely circulated photo of a Muslim Brotherhood activist set ablaze, his upper body completely on fire.

Many Egyptians praised and joked about the incident in the comment field below the photo on Facebook, and some circulated a “Muslim Brotherhood: before and after” photo mocking the burned activist. It is important to note that the 2011 uprising against the Mubarak regime was, with some rare exceptions, overwhelmingly nonviolent. After Mubarak’s ouster, both liberal and Islamist revolutionaries credited the peaceful nature of the protesters as one mark of the revolution’s greatness. In a short period of time, some in Egypt have become convinced that violence against an elected president and ruling political group is legitimate.


Anti-Muslim Brotherhood propaganda may be the result of a concerted effort by media tycoons unfriendly to the Brotherhood, a consequence of decades of anti-Brotherhood fear mongering, or both. The general lack of professionalism that plagues much of Egyptian journalism–something which I discussed at length in my dissertation research in 2009, and which helps create a systematically imbalanced discussion–almost certainly plays a key role.

In any case, what becomes clear from any serious reading of Egyptian politics is that there are groups in Egypt–Mubarak regime remnants, media figures, and members of the opposition–that refuse to let the Brotherhood rule the country. It is true that anti-Brotherhood sentiment has increased in recent months, and that Morsi’s politics have turned off many Egyptians. It is also true, however, that Morsi’s mistakes have been exaggerated and, importantly, that there were many Egyptians not prepared–from the start–to accept a democratic Egypt ruled by Islamists.

Here, it is important to note that the first arsons of Brotherhood offices occurred well before Morsi’s controversial 22 November decree, which lasted all of eighteen days and has been exaggerated by the opposition. It is also worth noting that calls for a new “revolution” began last August, just two months after Morsi took power and when his approval rating was higher than 70 percent; and that members of Egypt’s opposition, including 2012 presidential candidates Hamdeen Sabbahi and Amr Moussa, have been calling for an early end to Morsi’s term since last summer–just after they lost the presidential race. Indeed, it seems some in Egypt’s opposition were ready to move away from Brotherhood rule almost as soon as it began.

At best, the Muslim Brotherhood is struggling to solve Egypt’s myriad problems, simultaneously battling thugs in the street, a seditious opposition, corruption in the judiciary, and a state that is in shambles at many levels. At worst, they are incompetent rulers. Even if the incompetence theory proves true, the Brotherhood does not deserve violence or overthrow, despite what the propaganda war against them may suggest.

Note: Egypt is divided and for a long time. A reasonable resolution is to reinstate Morsi for another year, after a fresh parliamentary election. Military officers should be excluded from candidacies before they retire for a few years.




May 2023

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