New SCAF v Old Islamists

Daily News Egypt
8 Min Read
Nervana Mahmoud
Nervana Mahmoud
Nervana Mahmoud

By Nervana Mahmoud

It’s hard to absorb all of the events that took place last week in Egypt. Many details have yet to be digested. What is certain, though, is that this was the year’s most crucial week, with far-reaching ramifications. Thus far, we only have disputed assessments from inside and outside of Egypt.

Last year, just before the last presidential election, I wrote a piece asking has Egypt finally broken with the myth of the good autocrats? Now, a year later, I’m still asking the same question because Egypt continues to struggle between two forces – the Islamists and the military. Both have clear autocratic tendencies, and both are claiming to be the true guardians of democracy, despite evidence to the contrary.

In 2012, many Egyptians (almost 52%) chose to trust the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2013, the tide has turned, and many have chosen to place their trust in the military. The core question is how has this happened and what are the implications for the future. Ironically, the answer is very simple – the military leadership has reinvented itself, whereas Brotherhood leaders have not.

There is no doubt that the army commander, General Abdul Fatah Al-Sisi, has been perceived by the public as a man with an abundance of charisma and leadership skills. Al-Sisi’s success stems from various factors.

1) The leaderless revolution: Egypt had resurrected the spirit of 1919, but without a new Saad Zaghloul, and Al-Sisi happily stepped in to fill the vacuum. He portrayed his move to oust Morsi as what Amr Hamzawy described as a “coup de grace,” a description that appeals to many Egyptians.

2) Playing it right:  Al-Sisi struck a chord by using the buzzwords of “democracy and support” because he understood that the public does not and will not accept an explicit military role. This was a key element that helped him to achieve public endorsement.

3) Fulfilling promises (at least for now): Within 24 hours, an interim president was sworn in, cancelling Morsi’s much despised constitution, and ousting the unpopular general prosecutor. It does not matter that the military is now running the show from behind, what matters for the public is that there is a civilian face in front.

4) Mixture of arrests and releases: The arrests of many Brotherhood figures were clearly aimed at disrupting the Brotherhood’s chain of command, and the early release of some (pending further investigations) was likely aimed to feed to their confusion, while aborting any blame.

5) Allowing peaceful protests: The main congregations of pro-Morsi forces in Nasr City and Giza were not emptied, and both the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood and prominent leader El-Erian were allowed to speak freely, even when inciting action against opponents. Their non-reconciliatory speeches, however, have done little to win them the hearts and minds of the wider public. It is true that the military shot dead four unarmed Islamists protestors, a grave mistake that could easily turn the tide against them, but the subsequent march of some Brotherhood supporters to Tahrir Square and the deadly clashes that ensued have again proven fatal to the Brotherhood’s image.

6) No curfew (yet): Despite the violence, Al-Sisi has resisted the temptation to declare any military measures, thereby adding fodder to the dispute over the nature of the “coup.”

Meanwhile, the Brotherhood has continued using the same approach that they have been using for the last 60 years – a victimhood mentality. Highly charged statements, accusations of conspiracies, playing with emotions and claiming to be the representative of Islam are all among the Brotherhood’s favorite cards. This is all without even mentioning the fatwa by their scholar Qaradawi that supports their “legitimacy,” which is a must for every Muslim.

Currently, the Brotherhood has several goals. 1) Prevent fragmentations: it is the Brotherhood’s worst nightmare for their members to start reflecting on events or asking questions; therefore, it is important to keep loyalists saturated with emotion and in a permanent state of anger. 2) They aim to raise the stakes in any behind-the-scenes negotiations. They want fear of bloodshed to be their bargaining power in the negotiations for survival. 3) Underground violent resistance? There is a fear in Egypt of the Brotherhood staging a defection campaign among the army ranks, and creation of a Syrian version of a free Syrian army.  Watching one report from Al-Jazeera Mubasher has convinced me that it is a valid fear. I doubt they will succeed, but the army is now stretched with its forces spread around Egypt, and is vulnerable to potential terrorist attacks.

Thus far, no one from the Brotherhood has posed the important question: why has the Egyptian public chosen to place more trust in the army than in the Islamists? It is easy to label the public as “dumb fools.” It is harder to admit failure. The failure of the Brotherhood to sense how the military has reinvented themselves, and change tactics could cost them a hefty political price.

Other Islamists are not necessarily smarter than the Brotherhood. Yes, some like Nageh Ibrahim, an ex-Jihadi, have openly admitted that the Islamists committed many grave mistakes, however, the Salafi Al-Nour Party, which was praised by many for approving the military move has again shown shortsightedness by rejecting Nobel Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei as interim prime minister. Actually, this is a dead-end job without much influence in writing the future constitution or shaping Egypt’s future. Their rejection reflects a party on the edge, eager to achieve early short-term gains, all the while worrying about the loyalties of their cadres.

As funerals of victims continue around Egypt, it becomes blatantly clear that the country is still being held hostage by many old guards who are neither able to defeat nor capable of reconciling with each other. The “new” army has the upper hand for now, against the “old,” sulky Islamists, but questions remain; for how long and at what price?

Nervana Mahmoud is a doctor, blogger and writer on Middle East issues. You can follow her on Twitter @Nervana_1

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