Egypt’s '2nd Revolution'

Are we looking at another Syria?

2nd revolution 370 (photo credit: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)
2nd revolution 370
(photo credit: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)
After the “Arab Spring” swept Islamist leaders into power across the region, many thought they were around to stay. But the recent dramatic events in Egypt have countered that assumption. The world watched in amazement last month as millions of people took to the streets to demand the removal of president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood after only one year in office. It was quickly touted as the largest political protest in human history and opened the door for the military to depose Morsi in a coup, and install an interim prime minister pending a new election.
In the weeks that followed, Egyptian security forces and elements of the Muslim Brotherhood have been engaging in persistent street clashes in the major cities like Cairo and Alexandria, with the civilian death toll mounting. After troops opened fire on several Islamist demonstrations, some Brotherhood leaders vowed to wage an “intifada” against the military for deposing Morsi, suggesting a resort to arms. Nonetheless, efforts continue to bring all the political parties together in hopes of reaching a consensus formula for getting the democratic process back on track in Egypt.
The security situation in Sinai continues to deteriorate, with well-armed jihadist and Beduin militias brazenly attacking Egyptian security forces throughout the peninsula, including military positions astride the Israeli border. The military has sent in extra troops to try to suppress the rebellion, and especially to prevent any attacks on ships traversing the Suez Canal.
Now, the world is anxiously waiting to see how long the clashes between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and opponents will go on, and if the violence will subside. But what is clear already is that the upheavals of the Arab Spring are far from over. Were the massive protests across Egypt a repudiation of political Islam? Also, what prompted the people to take to the streets once again – the sagging economy or the imposing of Shari’a law? What is next for the Muslim Brotherhood? Will Egypt descend into a brutal civil war like Syria?
For insights into these questions, The Jerusalem Post Christian Edition turned to Prof. Hillel Frisch, who lectures on Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv and is a senior research associate with the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.JPCE: When we talk about this “second revolution” in Egypt, the Arab Spring is getting hard to predict. Everyone thought Syrian President Bashar Assad would be toppled quickly, but he’s still hanging on. Everyone thought that once the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, they would be there to stay. Were you surprised at how the people rose up and the military joined them in deposing Morsi?
Prof. Hillel Frisch: Absolutely. I never believed that the upper middle class in Egypt was so resilient and tough and would manage also to convince people poorer than themselves that the Muslim Brotherhood might have to be removed. And that they were willing to work with the military, but of course this is also problematic.
There were a lot of diverse elements in this latest uprising, the Coptic Christians, the business class, the young Facebook generation, the secularists, the Mubarak loyalists still around in the military and bureaucracy, and even the radical Salafists to the right of the Muslim Brotherhood. What brought them out into the streets?
What brought them to the streets was the feeling that the Muslim Brotherhood was really trying to take control of Egypt in the same way that basically [deposed president Hosni] Mubarak and the military controlled Egypt beforehand. Most perceived it was an almost exclusive monopoly that they were seeking. Evidently, there is a very deep fear about the Muslim Brotherhood, a deep fear that has been promoted for decades by the regime in power, even under the monarchy dating back to the 1940s. So it’s a very powerful fear that is 70 years old. This brought out these very disparate elements to coalesce against the Morsi regime.
So a fear that, once in power, the Brotherhood was determined to consolidate their grip and become a one-party state, an Islamist state?
I take the position that Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood would have been so weak, that they would have bowed under pressure to hold free elections when their first term of office was up. And I think they would have lost in those elections and then we would see the beginnings of true democracy. And I think that there was a missed opportunity. It’s very easy for me, from the relative security of Israel, to predict such an outcome... We’ll never know now. But going back to this idea of this eclectic coalition, it’s really formidable but on the other hand, it’s very, very weak. And we know one thing about coalitions; when the bonding force is only negative, to remove something, but with no consensus about what would replace it, that coalition is inevitably very, very weak. And it means that all these moves we are seeing are only the beginning rather than the end of the process. And already within 24 hours, two of the most important coalition members defected.
Yes, the largest Salafist party, Al Nour – linked to the extremist movement which birthed al-Qaida – has defected already. And outside forces are also coming in and taking sides in this ongoing struggle, just like in Syria.
Right. Like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, who would like America to have problems [with client states] like they have in Syria. He said “this could be a civil war.” And the Saudis backed the Egyptian military council. And we also know that Iran is siding with the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey is essentially aligning with Russia and Iran alongside the Brotherhood.Most media reports claim this youth movement called Tamarod (“rebellion”) really got the ball rolling with a petition for Morsi to resign, and they said they got 22 million signatures on this petition. Then they called for rallies on the first anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration, and managed to get up to 14 million people in the streets of Egypt, making it perhaps the largest political protest in human history. Is that an accurate picture of how this played out?
I really don’t think it’s an accurate depiction, as no one has seen this list of 22 million people who joined the petition. I think the numbers, although very impressive, probably the largest demonstrations that have ever taken place... but I don’t really think that we are talking about those kind of numbers – 14 million – in the streets. And we can’t forget that we are talking about a country of 85 million people. There are two large groups out there and there is no way that they will just disappear. The Islamists are there, and I hope that this is the beginning of the negotiation process…
Even with the initial deaths in clashes with the army postcoup, you don’t think that enough elements in the Muslim Brotherhood want to seek revenge, want to bring violence? I know that a couple years ago when the revolution first started, the cry of most Egyptians was not to have what was happening in Libya at the time. They did not want a civil war.The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood has an average age of above 60. Age has a lot to do with moderation. Now they know there are two large groups out there and the army is supporting the other group... So they have two ways to go. They can fight, go underground and into guerrilla warfare and destroy the state, and probably not prevail. Or they can try to negotiate. We know where there is room for negotiation, and I’ll give you an example… You can come to a compromise where Morsi is allowed his full term of office, but where he agrees to modify the constitution... I think that Egyptian society is sufficiently intact to adopt a search for compromise rather than a head-to-head confrontation.
What are the implications for Israel in this latest upheaval in Egypt?
Obviously for Israel, it would be better for this popular uprising, backed by the military, to succeed and the Muslim Brotherhood withers away. But that is not going to happen. And basically, Morsi maintained the peace with Israel... He also compelled Hamas to stop the firing of missiles from Gaza into Israel. So we learned to live with Morsi.But there were no direct dealings between Israel and Morsi’s government, it was mainly through the security and intelligence branches, which was turning out better than under Mubarak.Right. And Morsi played by that game. He knew he needed American financial support, technological knowhow. Thus he gave the military a free hand in dealing with Israel, and they wanted to maintain the peace treaty... So basically the situation was quite good. What he didn’t do was attack the jihadist infrastructure in Sinai. That was left intact... So basically Israel can live with the fallout, except maybe a complete victory by Morsi, where the army and the opposition disintegrate, and Iran decides to provide massive support to the jihadists in Sinai. That is the worst-case scenario for Israel right now.
You say it was a fear of the Muslim Brotherhood consolidating power that brought the people to call for an overthrow, rather than wait an election. How much of a factor was the sagging economy? And what about the fear of imposing Shari’a law?
The sagging economy is not Morsi’s fault. It began after Mubarak’s ouster and the interim military regime didn’t do any better. Morsi also didn’t improve it. But as long as there is contention over Egypt’s identity, as long as you have demonstrations in the street, you are going to have economic problems. Investors run tremendous risks in Egypt even at the best of times. But now, investors would never move into a place where there is no political stability.Foreign investments and tourism are two pillars of their economy. Did both wither away because of the instability?
Actually, Egypt under Mubarak was doing really well. The economy was impressive at 5% average growth rate but the revolution itself changed that. In regard to Shari’a law, I don’t think it’s so much about the Islamization. It was because the Brotherhood was beginning to touch what’s called in Egyptian Arabic “the deep state.” I think the most damaging move Morsi made was that he began changing the provincial governors. The provincial governors are the really powerful people in the Egyptian administration. They have always been former military or security people, and in the first round he just brought in civilians. But in the recent round, out of the 27 provincial governors he brought in seven Islamists... This aroused tremendous fear and also social pressures. To Islamicize the general public created consternation throughout society.
There are Saudi reports claiming Morsi was plotting to replace [Gen. Abdul Fatah] al- Sisi as army chief-of-staff, even though the Brotherhood put him there to replace Gen. [Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi, who was deemed too close to Mubarak. Is that the case?
This is not just rumors. The Muslim Brotherhood debated this and openly claimed they had the presidential prerogative to fire him.
The Saudi reports also claim Sisi learned of this plot and that may have prompted the military to stage this coup.
It’s very hard to know exactly the high drama playing out behind the scenes, but I would say the Saudis want the Arab Spring to fail. They’re not a democratic government and they don’t want to be overthrown themselves. So their message to the region is based on an old Arab expression: “One day of civil war is worse than 40 years of dictatorship.”Could the Egyptian people be watching the bloodbath in Syria and saying we don’t want that sort of trouble? Is that enough to push them to compromise?
Sure. They’re watching Syria, they watched Libya. You see it in the talkbacks and postings on the Web, in newspaper articles, they’re all saying they want to avoid that.Many of the demonstrators in Tahrir Square said they were Muslim, but they were Egyptians first. Was this “second revolution” in Cairo a rejection of political Islam?
It was a rejection of political Islam. These were people for sure who want to enjoy both traditional Islam and globalization, jobs, careers, free press.
They’re nominal Muslims who also like their beer and soap operas, and they don’t want to go back to the 7th century?
Right. It took England 150 years to go through a painful transformation in which religion and state were separated. In a way, this is what’s going on here in the Arab world. Egypt is going through this process where the people respect Islam, but they don’t want to be told how to practice it. In the end it will end up in some kind of compromise, but I think it will be quicker here. The world is more connected and people just learn from experience.
Mideast scholar Daniel Pipes points out that, along with the recent Gezi Park protests in Turkey and the presidential election results in Iran, the events in Cairo are a third sign that the region is rejecting Islamism. Do you agree? Are these signs that the Arab/Muslim world is trying to modernize?
Each of these cases is a little different but it does show that in modern life, you really can never get homogeneity. Society will always be heterogeneous. And the only system that can deal with this in the long term is democracy. It does not need to be a complete separation of religion and state. But this does seem to be the universal message coming out of these events. That’s the bottom line – that we’re not going to be living in an age of theocracy.