Meet the New Mubarak

Jerusalem Post, 2/8/13

For many Egyptian supporters of the July 3 coup against the Muslim Brotherhood-led government, coup leader General Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi is a figure of veneration. Posters bearing the general’s visage alongside that of Gamal Abd al-Nasser have appeared all over Cairo. Nasser, of course, initiated the officers’ regime which held sway in Egypt from 1952 until the downfall of Hosni Mubarak in early 2011. He also, in 1954, presided over the bloody repression of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Sisi, for those who venerate him, is seen as the inheritor of Nasser’s mantle. For the crowds that he summoned to Tahrir Square in his televised address on July 24th, he is, like his predecessor, a patriotic officer who stepped in to save the day at a moment of supreme national crisis.

No one in Egypt venerates Nasser’s two successors, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. But if the Sisi-Nasser comparison makes sense, it must also be the case that the putschist general is their inheritor too. And it is so. The July 3 coup is a victory for the Egyptian counter revolution. It establishes, at least for now, the status quo pre-2011.

It is important not to be taken in by the crowds in Tahrir Square pledged to Sisi’s defense. These were summoned by the general in a maneuver familiar to other times and places. Nasser, too, knew how to call intoxicated masses of followers onto the streets of Cairo when necessary – usually to ecstatically demand some item of policy which the president had already decided to carry out. So it is with General Sisi.

In Sisi’s case, the crowds in the square are needed to make the coup look like something else. This is not only or mainly for regional or local consumption. In the old days, Arab officers would cloak their rule in slogans exhorting socialism or the Arab nation. Today, democracy and representation are the watchwords. Sisi understands that his patrons in the west, on whom the Egyptian military relies, are upset and frightened by the army’s move.

For he and his followers, this reaction represents the very height of naivete. As far as they are concerned, the July 3 act saved Egypt from the establishment of a Muslim Brotherhood-led autocracy presiding over chaos and probably famine.

A US decision to delay the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets to Egypt indicates a growing American discomfort and concern regarding the de facto military rulers of Egypt. At the same time, the US has not yet openly stated the obvious fact that the ousting of Morsy constituted a coup, since this would require a cessation of US aid in toto, which would plunge Egypt into chaos.

Similarly, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s insistence on visiting deposed and incarcerated former President Mohammed Morsy was meant to signal the EU’s disapproval of the military’s tactics.

The military has indicated that it does not want to rule the country, and has laid down a road map intended to bring about new presidential elections within nine months. But even if new elections take place as scheduled, the coup of July 3rd has irrevocably changed the political landscape that emerged since 2011 in Egypt. It indicates that whoever wins elections, the army is the force that will ultimately decide the direction of the country, stepping in to adjust the situation as and when it sees fit, while leaving the mundane tasks of daily administration to the politicians.

This was not what the Muslim Brotherhood had in mind when they entered the elections. It is also not a reality they intend to accept. As a result, Egypt remains poised on a knife edge.

The Muslim Brotherhood has not accepted the verdict of July 3rd. The movement is reverting back to the role of an insurrectionary opposition movement. Brotherhood demonstrators remain ensconced in the Rabia al-Adawiya mosque, in the Nasr City area of Cairo. Hundreds have already died in violent clashes with the security forces.

There are rumors that guns and explosive devices are being hoarded at Rabia, in the event that the army attempts a violent dispersal of the protestors. The Brotherhood’s demands remain rock-solid: the reinstatement of Morsy and the reimposition of the Islamist constitution that he and his colleagues brought into being.

Violence against soldiers and police in the Sinai area is on the increase. There are reports of the growing presence of Salafi Islamists among the demonstrators at Rabia. Brotherhood preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi has called for a jihad against the new regime in Egypt.

Yet Sisi apparently seeks to avoid a frontal confrontation with the Brotherhood. For the moment, he has what he wants – power, popular legitimacy, and the Muslim Brothers outside of the tent. From his point of view, it is their move. If they seriously intend to convert themselves into an insurgent army – which would be outside of the traditions of the movement in Egypt – then they are inviting an Algerian type situation for Egypt.

Such a scenario would be catastrophic for all Egyptians. But it would almost certainly result in the defeat and destruction of the Muslim Brothers.

And if, as seems more likely, they want to carry on political protests, with the more extreme elements engaging in sporadic acts of violence, then Sisi will seek to contain them, and wait them out, countering their gatherings with mass public demonstrations in his support.

The point to be borne in mind is that there remain two forces of note in Egypt: the army and the Muslim Brothers. Everything else is a decoration. And as of now, the army is winning. This is good for the west, though the west apparently does not see it that way.

In the meantime, the new Nasser/Sadat/Mubarak, supported and financed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, is in control of Egypt. His reign will not bring democracy, nor prosperity to that blighted country. It will, however, prevent the nightmare of an Islamist regime on the Nile – by whatever means the general finds appropriate.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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5 Responses to Meet the New Mubarak

  1. Jonathan Karmi says:

    The Morsi regime was brought down by popular mass protest led by the Tamarod. The Egyptian army supplied the coup de grâce. It wasn’t a coup d’état in the classic sense. Things are unstable in Egypt, so we’ve yet to see what form of government eventually emerges, but as you say, the army holds all the cards. And I agree with your points about misguided Western leaders. It’s getting beyond a joke.

  2. The army’s decision re Morsi is the thing that mattered, as was the case with the removal of Mubarak. In Morsi’s case, the protests were themselves part of the scenario, and formed a cover for the coup. I’ll say it again until it sinks in: there are two powers in Egypt that matter. The army and the Brotherhood. Everything else is a decoration.

  3. Mike says:

    What is the role of the Gulf states in general? Is it a coincidence that shortly after the coup, talks resumed between Israel and the Arabs? Was Obama’s push actually a cover for what the Arabs already wanted – to resume talks with Israel?

  4. Pingback: Meet the New Mubarak | Stand for Israel

  5. zac says:

    Looking for forward to reading extra by you in a while!? Im normally to writing a blog and i really respect your articles.

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