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What are your questions about Egypt? No need to feel embarrassed to ask…

Today’s violence in Egypt is claiming hundreds of lives, worsening the country’s already dire political crisis and putting the United States in a quandary.

It’s also another chapter in a years-long story that can be difficult to follow even for those of us glued to it. You might have found yourself wondering what Egypt’s crisis is all about, why there’s a crisis at all, or even where Egypt is located on the map.

Admit it, and fire up your questions: not everyone has the time or energy to keep up with big, complicated foreign stories.

This story is important and critical.  Here are samples of the most basic answers to your most basic questions.

First, a disclaimer: Egypt and its history are really complicated; this is not an exhaustive account of that entire story, just some background, written so that anyone can understand it.

Max Fisher published this August 14, 2013 in The Washington Post World Views (with slight editing):

9 questions about Egypt you were too embarrassed to ask

(Laris Karklis/Washington Post)

(Laris Karklis/The Washington Post)

1. What is Egypt?

Egypt is a country in the northeastern corner of Africa, but it’s considered part of the Middle East. It’s about the size of Texas and New Mexico combined and has a population of 85 million. Egyptians are mostly Arab and mostly Muslim, although about 10% are Christian Copts. Egyptians are very proud of their history and culture; they are among the world’s first great civilizations.

You might have heard of Egypt from its ancient pyramids and Sphinx, but Egyptians are still changing the world today. In the 20th century, they were in the forefront of the founding of two ideological movements that reshaped – are still reshaping, at this moment – the entire Middle East: Arab nationalism and Islamism.

2. Why are people in Egypt killing each other?

There’s been a lot of political instability since early 2011, when you probably saw the footage of a million-plus protesters gathered in Cairo Tahrir Square (Liberation) to demand that the president of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, step down.

Mubarak did and that opened up a big power struggle that hasn’t been anywhere near resolved. It’s not just people at the top of the government fighting among one another, it’s lots of regular people who have very different visions for where they want their country to go.

Today is the latest round in a two-and-a-half-year fight over what kind of country Egypt will be. Regular people tend to express their political will by protesting (keep in mind that democracy is really new and untested in Egypt), and because Egyptian security forces have a long track record of violence against civilians, the “fight for Egypt’s future” isn’t just a metaphor. Often, it’s an actual physical confrontation that happens on the street.

3. Why are they fighting today specifically?

Egyptian security forces assaulted two sprawling sit-in camps (of the ousted Moslem Brotherhood from reigning) in downtown Cairo this morning and tried to disperse the protesters. The protesters fought back.

So far, the casualties are rising every day.  The assault “to clear” the squares left over 560 killed (officially) and 4,000 injured. A lot of them apparently civilians shot by live ammunition rounds used by security forces.

The protesters were there in support of former president Mohamed Morsi, who was deposed in a military coup in early July (the military is still in charge). Morsi hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group to which a number of the protesters in today’s clashes belong. He was also the country’s first democratically elected leader.

4. If the military staged a coup against Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, then all those Egyptians who protested in 2011 for democracy must be furious, right?

Actually, no. A whole lot of Egyptians, especially the liberal groups that led the 2011 revolution, were happy about the coup. A number of them were even calling on the military-led government to break up the largely peaceful pro-Morsi protest camp, even though there were children present and no one thought it would disperse without bloodshed.

There are two things to understand here.

First is that Morsi did not do a good job as president. He had a difficult task, sure, but he really bungled the economy, which was already in free fall.

(Morsi didn’t receive any financial aid from either the rich Arab States or the IMF or the US and European countries. After the military coup, the new government received $12 bn within a week from the rich monarchic Arab States)

Morsi did precious little to include non-Islamists, and took some very serious steps away from democracy, including arresting journalists and pushing through an alarming constitutional change that granted him sweeping powers. (No political parties accepted to join the Morsi government)

The second thing to understand is that Egypt is starkly divided, and has been for decades, between those two very different ideologies I mentioned. Many Egyptians don’t just dislike Morsi’s abuses of power, they dislike the entire Islamist movement he represents.

What you’re seeing today is a particularly bloody manifestation of that divide, which goes far deeper than liberals distrusting Morsi because he was a bad president. (The army is a class by itself and enjoys vast privileges, facilities and independent enterprises…)

5. This stuff about ideologies sounds complicated. Can you just tell me why Egypt is such a mess right now?

The thing about today’s crisis is that it has to do with basic stuff like the breakdown of public order and some really ham-fisted governance by the military. But it also has to do with a 60-year-old ideological conflict that’s never really been resolved.

ack in the years just after World War II, Egypt was ruled by a king who was widely seen as a British pawn. Egyptians didn’t like that. They also didn’t like losing the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and they wanted a way out of their long period of national humiliation.

A lot of them were turning to a movement called the Muslim Brotherhood (founded in the 20’s), which argued, and still argues, that Islamic devotion and unity are the ultimate answer. Their ideas, and their campaign for an Islamic government, are called Islamism.

A group of Egyptian military officers had a different idea. In 1952, they led a coup against the king. A charismatic lieutenant colonel named Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power and promoted, as his answer to Egypt’s problems, an ideology called Arab nationalism. It calls for secularism, progress, Arab unity and resistance against Western imperialism.

Both of those movements swept through the Middle East, transforming it.

Arab Nationalists took power in several countries; the Syrian regime today is one of them, and so was the regime headed by Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.

Islamism also expanded in many countries, and sprouted some violent offshoots. But the two movements prescribe very different paths to the Middle East’s salvation, see themselves as mutually exclusive and have competed, at times violently, ever since. That is particularly true of Egypt, and has been since Nasser took power in 1952.

And that’s why you’re seeing many Egyptian liberals so happy about a military coup that displaced the democracy they fought to establish: Those liberals are closely linked to secular Arab nationalism, which means that they both revere the military and hate the Muslim Brotherhood, maybe even more than they crave democracy. Old habits die hard.

6. Getting really complicated? Do you need to take a music break?

Egyptian pop culture dominates the Arab world, in part because Egypt is so populous and in part because it’s really good. Their most celebrated singer is Omm Kalthoum (known as Planet of the Orient), whom Egyptians revere in the way that Italian-Americans do Frank Sinatra. Her recordings can sound a bit dated. Here is a cover by the contemporary singer Amal Maher:

7. Lots of people are upset with the U.S. for not doing more to support democracy in Egypt. What’s the deal?

The United States is a close political and military ally of Egypt and has been since 1979, when President Jimmy Carter engineered an historic peace treaty between Egypt and Israel (Sadat and Begin) that involved, among other things, enormous U.S. payouts to both countries as long as they promised not to fight any more wars. That also required the U.S. to look the other way on Egypt’s military authoritarianism and its bad human rights record. It was the Cold War, and supporting friendly dictatorships was in style. And we’ve basically been stuck there ever since.

The Obama administration most recently drew withering criticism for refusing to call the military’s July 3 ouster of the president a “coup.” Doing so would likely require the U.S. to cut its billion-plus dollars in annual military aid to Egypt. That is also why you’re seeing the White House appearing very hesitant about responding to today’s violence with actual consequences.

Sure, the U.S. wants democracy in Egypt? And it wants leverage with the Egyptian government even more? That has been true of every administration since Carter.

It was not actually until the Obama administration that the U.S. came to accept the idea that Islamists, who have been a big political force in Egypt for almost a century now, should play a role in governing. But they’re sticking with the status quo; no one wants to be the administration that “lost” Egypt.

8. Are you getting depressed. Surely someone wants Egypt to be a peaceful and inclusive democracy?

Not really. Most Egyptians are way too preoccupied with their ideological divide to imagine a government that might bridge it. Self-described liberals seem to prefer a secular nationalist government, even if it’s the military regime in power today, as long as it keeps Islamists out.

The Islamists, for their part, were more than happy to push out anyone who disagreed with them once they took power in 2012 through a democratic process that their leader appeared very willing to corrupt.

Both movements are so big and popular that neither one of them can rule without at least attempting to include the other. But neither appears willing to do that.

When I asked Steven Cook, an Egypt expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, what he made of the liberals’ embrace of the military coup and why he had started referring to them as “alleged liberal groups,” he wrote as part of his response, “I think Amr Hamzawy and Hossam Bahgat are the only true liberals in Egypt.”

9. And What happens next?

No one has any idea, but it looks bad. There are 3 things that most analysts seem to agree on. Any or all of these could prove wrong, but they’re the most common, short-term predictions:

1• The military-led government will keep cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood and stirring up preexisting public animosity toward the group, both of which they’ve been doing since the 1950s.

2• The U.S. will call for a peaceful and inclusive democratic transition, as Secretary of State John Kerry did this afternoon, but will refrain from punishing the Egyptian military for fear of losing leverage.

3• The real, underlying problems — ideological division and a free-falling economy — are only going to get worse.

In the aggregate, these point to more violence and more instability but probably not a significant escalation of either. Medium-term, with some U.S. pressure, there will probably be a military-dominated political process that might stagger in the direction of a troubled democracy. Longer-term, who knows?

As the highly respected Egypt expert and Century Foundation scholar Michael Hanna told me recently, “Egypt might just be ungovernable.”

Note: Before the latest bloody crackdown, a feasible alternative would have been to bring back Morsi for another year, after a parliamentary election. Unless a drastic deal is reached with the Moslem Brotherhood movement, Egypt might be sinking into a civil war within a very populous State.

Black Box of Egypt Military and Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF): A pattern of abuse?

A few examples of what demonstrate the “unhinged” state of  Egypt Supreme Council of Armed Forces:

1. The young Egyptian woman wore a traditional headscarf and shawl, known as an “abaya,” and stood off to the side of the protests before she was knocked down by Egyptian military police. Then she was beaten with batons, stripped to her bra, dragged through the street and stomped by one soldier.  The image was circulated on social platforms and has become iconic in Egypt’s continuing revolution.

Captured on video December 17 and broadcast around the world, the attack on this anonymous woman, known simply as “the girl in the blue bra,” has enraged young Egyptian protesters on the streets, offended old-guard loyalists to the regime and galvanized the international human rights community.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it “shocking.” (What Hillary did to stamp out these recurring behaviors?)

2.  Last week, the military raided the offices of Western non-governmental organizations in a campaign to crack down on what the ruling military body repeatedly refers to as the “hidden hands” behind the pro-democracy movement.  The Egyptian military receives $1.3 billion in annual military assistance from the United States.

3. In November, just days before the first of a three-phase vote for the lower house of parliament, in the first elections since the fall of Mubarak, the military shocked voters by trying to push through constitutional provisions that would have made the military unaccountable to civilian government.  One specific proposal would have shielded the military’s secretive budget and its economic interests from parliamentary scrutiny.

That triggered the protest movement, with the full weight of the Muslim Brotherhood behind it, to hold a massive rally in Tahrir Square on November 19. And that’s when the military showed it was willing to exert all of its force to protect its interests.  The military killed 40 people in six days of clashes around the country and severely injuring thousands and sending hundreds to military courts.

4. In April, the military began mass arrests of protesters. In less than a single year, the military has put some 13,000 civilians before military tribunals.  Human rights investigators say the charges are trumped up:  Long sentences and little to no opportunity for appeal.

5. In round up, female protesters were detained and administered so-called ‘virginity tests’ by uniformed male officers.   Samira Ibrahim filed an administrative case claiming the procedure was tantamount to rape. Last week, the Egyptian courts challenged to the military and heard the case and ordered the military to put an end to the practice of ‘virginity tests.’

6. In October,  25 Christian protesters were killed for demonstrating at Maspero, the national television building. The protests were against what the Coptic Christian minority widely perceive as government indifference to attacks on Christians, and specifically over the failure for anyone to be held accountable for the burning of a church. This mass killing was followed by the November demonstrations in Tahrir in which the military “allegedly” killed 40 people over six days and left hundreds wounded.

In mid-December, violence flared again when the military moved in to put down a relatively peaceful sit-in in front of a set of government buildings just off Tahrir Square. Demonstrators there were protesting the steady rise in heavy-handed tactics. In this crackdown the military reportedly killed 13 more people.

Charles M. Sennott of GlobalPost “ witnessed men in uniform on the roof of a parliament building hurling concrete blocks and Molotov cocktails down on civilian protesters in what seemed an extraordinary breakdown of military discipline. Some soldiers made lewd gestures, and one image captured a man in uniform urinating on the protesters from the rooftop.

Is Egyptian military acting out of control?  Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said: “Egypt’s military is becoming the enemy of our revolution.”

Critics say the military is panicking as an emerging civilian democracy poses a threat to its power and to the military hierarchy’s vast economic holdings.  Amr Hamzawy, an outspoken political analyst and a member of the country’s secular elite who recently won a seat in the new parliament, says:  “it is time to unravel the vast economic power the military wields and make it more accountable.”

Hossam Bahgat said:  “We always knew that the military has stakes to protect, that they will not happily espouse the proposal of moving from 100 percent of power in 60 years to zero. We knew they’d want to protect veto power over national security decisions, protect their military budget, funding from the US… But we never expected them to engage in this bloodshed.”

Bahgat explained:  “The damage that is caused will be lasting. It’s going to haunt the army for many years to come. Egypt’s military is becoming the enemy of our revolution. Just like Mubarak was — another hurdle in our road to democracy and justice. The military officers are going to do everything to resist meaningful civilian oversight. They are panicking about this. This panic is causing them to create one crime after another. And their ability to protect their interests is diminishing the longer they stay in power.”

Ambassador in Washington for a decade until 2008, Nabih Fahmy, dean of a new center for global affairs at the American University of Cairo,  said: “I think the military must be extremely disappointed and extremely worried by it,” he said, referring to the image of the young woman being beaten and dragged through the streets. “It left a severe tarnish on the reputation and you saw that in the attempts to clarify what happened in a press conference. The power of the images of even just one person being brutalized is truly devastating. I think there was some excessive force; there is no question about that… And I think no matter what explanation the military offers or who is right and who is wrong, the main point is that we all lost in this.

“The lessons one can draw from that is that the military should not, medium or long term, play the role of the police. That’s not their function… I am not in any way justifying what has happened and will not. But this is not the kind of theatre they are used to. That’s where you see the discipline breaking down,” said Fahmy.

How American power comes into play?

Human rights activists say they can hardly keep up with the civilian complaints about the tide of violence by the military, and the steadily rising death toll it is producing.  Frustration is mounting that the U.S. seems unwilling to exert its considerable influence over the military to put an end to the violence. And for serious reasons:

1. The U.S. has unparalleled access to our army generals. They have spent years receiving training, going on trips. They have a strong rapport with the U.S. military leaders.

2. The U.S has much at stake in its relationship with the Egyptian military: a key ally in a region where the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ has awakened forces for change. The U.S. is a “guarantor” of the 1979 Camp David accord between Israel and Egypt, which is seen by the U.S. as a pillar of regional stability. (Since when US written guarantees have been applied, except when closely related to its interests?)

3. Egypt’s 350,000 strong military has everything at stake in a new Egypt, most pointedly its $1.3 billion in annual assistance from the United States and the sprawling economic enterprise it helps to support.

4. Hamzawy, a newly elected parliamentarian, estimates the military may control up to 30 percent of Egypt’s $180 billion economy.  Mohamed Kadry Said, a retired major general and long-time military analyst for the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, put the figure at an estimated 8 percent of GDP. Western diplomats in Cairo say a safe guess is somewhere in the middle of these estimates.

“Perhaps the U.S. realized that this leverage they have is not infinite. They are going to use this leverage wisely on the things that matter to them most. And those are the same things that they prioritized under Mubarak: regional stability, peace with Israel. Unfortunately, we see the U.S. as hostage to this old notion of stability, this idea that brutality is fine as long as it doesn’t upset stability. They seem to fail to realize that it is through violence that the preconditions of instability are established”.

Egypt military economic empire

A  glimpse of the military economic might emerged last week when the government-run media reported that the military had provided $1 billion to the Egyptian government’s central bank to help prop up its faltering currency. How many militaries in the world have revenue that provides capital which exceeds the government’s own coffers? Current and former American and Egyptian government officials all say that the military and its full economic portfolio are very much a “black box”.

GlobalPost has interviewed more than a dozen officials, including retired Egyptian generals as well as former and current diplomats and military attaches, and tried to get a baseline of the Egyptian military’s reach. Here’s what these officials confirm:

The military owns huge tracts of land around Cairo where opulent residential developments are built and officers are given housing. In New Cairo, there is a new national sports stadium being built by the Air Force. The military controls bakeries, farmland and industrial factories that make everything from tanks to toasters as well as hospitals and the toll roads to the highly profitable port of Suez. The economic empire is present at just about every turn in a country where they openly hold claim to gas stations, hotels, shopping complexes and even their own chain of supermarkets.

One of those critics is Mohammed Okasha, who lives in a modest apartment in Cairo and has written several books on the history of the military. He gets by on a military pension that gives him a middle class lifestyle for which he says he is grateful.

A decorated bomber pilot who led raids in the 1967 Six Day War and again in the 1973 conflict with Israel, which in Egypt is commemorated as the ‘October 6’ victory. The retired general was so proud of the military supporting the youth in Tahrir Square that he painted his own banner and marched to the square just a few days after the protests began on January 25.

The banner read, “The fighters of October 6 stand with the fighters of January 25.”

Okasha said he has always been proud of his military background even if he was not so proud of fellow officers enriching themselves through perks which he says eventually became outright greed. Now Okasha says he is increasingly ashamed of the military. He watched in disbelief in recent months as the army descended into violence and brutality and showed the “true face,” as he puts it, of the old regime.

“Of course, they don’t want to give up this power that they enforce with their military equipment. This power comes with other facilities and other profits. … It’s a cash flow for the businesses owned by the military,” says Okasha.

“They will never give it up with out a fight,” he adds.

Former Ambassador Fahmy is more confident that the military will ultimately live up to its promise to relinquish power in six months when a new president takes office. But he concedes that this transfer of authority will mean many challenges for the military as it will struggle to live up to a new and more democratic system of transparency and accountability.

“I think that people actually want to believe in their military … But this will require moving to civilian rule quickly and requires putting together a system based on four basic principles,” he said, listing them as “transparency, accountability, inclusiveness and finally competitiveness.”

These principles of governance will be a direct challenge to the military’s vast economic reach. And undoing the military’s hold on so much economic power may in the end of the day be needed for the much-needed modernization of Egypt’s struggling economy. Right now Egypt’s economic growth is at a precarious zero percent. That is particularly ominous in a country with a surging population that needs to produce 175,000 new jobs every year just to maintain its already very high level of unemployment, particularly for youth.

Several high-level Egyptian and Western officials point out that the military’s economic empire – combined with the vast corruption throughout the regime – has been holding Egypt back economically for decades. So more transparency and better governance over the military may, these officials say, actually be a key to Egypt’s peaceful transition to democracy.” End of report

Note: Charles M. Sennott is GlobalPost’s Executive Editor and co-founder. His reporting in Egypt is part of a ‘Special Report’ titled “The Army, The People …,” which  is examining the role of the military in Egypt’s continuing revolution.




May 2022

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