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Case Analysis 28 September, 2013

Egypt: Will Protests against the Coup Cause a Rethink of the Transitional Road-Map?

The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 

Since the ousting of President Mohammed Morsi more than two months ago, Egypt has witnessed a series of measures that have caused democratization to stall. While the situation is heading toward relative stability, the return of the security-solution policy pursued by the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak poses a question as to the ability of protests against the July 3 coup to alter or influence the course of the army’s transitional road-map. These protests are led by the anti-coup National Alliance in Support of Legitimacy, at the heart of which stands the Muslim Brotherhood.

Exclusion and Marginalization

The policy of the new regime rests upon exclusion—incidentally also a feature of President Mohammed Morsi’s term in office.  Morsi’s state policy, however, was based upon a limited form of constitutional “legitimacy,” with clear rules and a timeframe determined by the constitution and the action of institutions. In contrast, the new regime has based itself upon what is termed “the will of the people,” a fuzzy term that, in the absence of monitoring and institutional control, provides a justification for the authorities to work in the name of the people against the people. 

The first sign of the policy of exclusion adopted by the new regime was the constitutional declaration issued by interim president Adli Mansour on July 8, 2013. The declaration was announced without consultation with the political and revolutionary forces, and gave the president absolute powers while claiming that these provisions were temporary until the referendum on the new constitution. Ironically, this constitutional declaration is identical to the one issued by Morsi in November 2012 in terms of method, content, and pretext. At the time, Morsi’s declaration resulted in a serious crisis. Most political forces rejected it, and it destroyed trust between the presidency and those who opposed it.[1]

The weeks following the July 3 coup have proved that the policy of exclusion—operating under the assumption that millions of Egyptians revolted against the policy on June 30—has continued, but in more drastic form, starting with the ousting of the elected president. Egypt’s Committee of Ten, charged with drafting the country’s constitution, was formed without national consensus and without regard to the results of five prior sets of elections. Then, the 50-member general assembly, charged with voting on the constitution’s provisions before the referendum, was established by direct appointment, and excluded the Muslim Brotherhood and most of the revolutionary forces. Furthermore, it has been observed that the assembly includes figures from the Mubarak regime. It comes as no surprise then that the preamble to the constitution makes no mention of the January 25 Revolution.

It is not hard for an observer to see that the institutions of the deep state—the army, security, and judiciary in particular—have exploited the people’s support and wielded state institutions against Brotherhood rule to shore up their positions and reinforce the privileges that were nearly wiped out by the January 25 Revolution. They have disregarded calls for a political resolution and dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, and resorted to a violent security solution. Then, on August 28, interim president Adli Mansour decreed that the phrase “compliance with the orders of the president of the republic” should be removed from the new oath of allegiance sworn by officers in the armed forces after graduating from the military academy. Simple obedience to military orders and the execution of the commands of the military leadership is now sufficient. This change threatens to separate the military completely from the executive apparatus of the state,[2] and lays the legal basis for two authorities within one state.

On another level, the “myth” of the Egyptian judiciary’s independence was shattered right at the start of the new regime, when satellite news channels opposed to the military coup (most prominently, the Al-Jazeera bureau) were shut down by judicial order. In addition, many charges were levelled at political leaders and activists from outside the Brotherhood, who were accused of offences ranging from illegal fund-raising to colluding with foreign groups—this latter charge being the pretext for the imprisonment of President Morsi.

None of the above, however, comes close to the current brutal reality being witnessed in Egypt. The new regime has followed a policy of terrorizing its opponents. When they protest, they are killed or arrested; when they object, they are either prosecuted through legal channels or hounded by media accusations of terrorism and treason. Since the coup, the media has given airtime to songs that praise the army and the state in a fashion that is reminiscent of twentieth-century fascism.[3] It is as though there were an attempt to create a new religion: army worship.

The security-solution  policy, which has gone far beyond the Interior Ministry’s policy under the Mubarak regime, has not just killed, but has conducted mass arrests of political leaders and thousands from the opposition, whatever their political background. This culminated on September 3, 2013 when 52 people were convicted at a military trial, and sentenced to terms ranging from five years to life imprisonment.[4] This has taken place in addition to the media incitement against any opponents of the new regime, including those who supported the removal of Mohammed Morsi, but not the exclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood. Young figureheads of the January 25 Revolution are counted in this group. All of this suggests that the Mubarak regime has not just avoided being held to account, but has once again returned to power.

Nevertheless, it should be stated that these measures would not have been taken or passed were it not for the popular support given to state institutions following the relatively long period of chaos reigning in Egypt, which encouraged people to demand the return of “state authority.” The media’s role at the time, in its pursuit of creating a negative image, also helped turn public opinion against the Brotherhood, who were portrayed as a different “people,” a people whose blood could be legitimately shed.

Shock Therapy: The Regime’s Security Strategy for Dealing with the Opposition

Perhaps some people did not take SCAF-head Field-Marshal Tantawi’s statement on March 25, 2012 seriously, when he warned the Muslim Brotherhood to pay heed to “the lessons of history so as to avert a repetition of the mistakes of a past that we do not want to come back to.”[5] At the time, the prevalent opinion was that the January 25 Revolution had inaugurated a new era in which the military would not be able to act according to the logic of the 1950s. The Egyptian scene today, however, has proved that, under the right conditions, the clock can be turned back. The security institutions have succeeded in imposing security. Nightly curfew was declared on August 14 in regions where the state has a concentrated presence, specifically in the centers of Cairo, Suez, and Port Said.[6]

From an up-close observation of events since the dispersal of the sit-ins at Rabaa al-Adawiya and Nahda Square, it appears that the level of violence being employed by the security forces against the mass protests has prevented the creation of an alternative sit-in in Cairo. This is for the following reasons:

  • The exploit the Muslim Brotherhood’s shock over the detention of most of its top- and second-tier leadership has been exploited in order to cut lines of communication between the leadership and the base, which proved decisive for the Brotherhood’s operation since decisions propagate in pyramid fashion from the top to the base, rather than the nodal network fashion adopted by other revolutionary forces.
  • The arrest of large numbers of the on-the-ground leadership responsible for directing demonstrations. Given that the majority of protestors from the Muslim Brotherhood come from other governorates and lack the requisite experience to deal with the back-streets of Cairo, these arrests had a decisive effect in disrupting demonstrations, making them easy prey for security checkpoints. Demonstrations frequently took wrong turns, and clashed with the residents of poor districts, which are considered prime locations for supplying thugs. It is also worth noting that over the course of the transitional period, the Brotherhood lost some of its Cairene members who had acted as on-the-ground activists, been leaders of the January 25 demonstrations, and were better equipped than others to direct demonstrations. These people gradually moved away from the Brotherhood turning to other parties, primarily the Strong Egypt Party of Abdel Moneim Abdou Fotouh, the Egyptian Current, and others.
  • Prior to the breaking up of the sit-ins, the security forces besieged the supporters of the deposed president inside Rabaa al-Adawiya and Nahda Squares. This was done with lethal force used to prevent the sit-ins from spreading to other squares, such as Rameses. When this was occurred on July 15, a number of demonstrators were killed. After the sit-ins at Rabaa al-Adawiya and Nahda were broken up, the security forces fired live ammunition at demonstrators who tried to approach vital facilities, such as the October 6 Bridge. Massacres also took place to clear “alternate sit-ins” at Mustafa Mahmoud in Giza and at Rameses, where hundreds of protestors were killed or injured, and hundreds more took shelter in the al-Fath Mosque, where a stand-off ensued.
  • The army played a decisive role in imposing the curfew in Egypt’s Canal Zone cities. Here, it learned a lesson from the events following the football stadium case verdicts at the end of January 2013, when the people of Port Said took to the streets in disregard of the curfew. In all likelihood, the army, which deployed its forces in the Canal Zone cities from June 30, was aware of the possibility of this being repeated and, for the first time, the army clashed with demonstrators in Suez. Tens of protestors were arrested and brought before the same military court that passed the harsh sentences previously mentioned.
  • The use of disproportionate force, the perpetration of massacres and murder, and long prison sentences play a key role. Even so, the success of the security operation in urban centers would not be feasible without the popular rejection of the Brotherhood and its allies, a result of the poor performance during the transitional period and the term of the ousted president. Media distortion, whereby the Brotherhood and its supporters are portrayed as an isolated group akin to a cult, also figures into the equation.[7] In the period following August 14, this was expressed in the response of citizens to the call to form “popular committees” to defend private property. Despite the fact that the demonstrations as a whole remained non-violent, contrary to what the media was so keen to portray, journalists’ observed many assaults by popular committees and citizens against protestors.

In brief, security practices and a popular atmosphere supportive of the new regime has brought an end to demonstrations against the military coup. The escalation of events also drove protestors to change their demands.  Protests immediately following the coup of July 3 demanded the return of the deposed president, but after the massacre at Rabaa al-Adwiaya, protests focused on the violent suppression, while the fundamental call for the return to legitimacy receded.

There is, nevertheless, no comparison between the limited protests that take place practically every day under the bullets of the security forces and the threat of arrest, and those that took place in past periods when the security forces deliberately avoided confrontation with those demonstrating against the presidency in the context of the disputes between the apparatus of the security state and the regime under Morsi. There is also a world of difference between someone taking to the streets knowing that they are going to meet the challenge on their own and someone going on demonstrations akin to a street carnival.

Will Protests against the Coup Lead to a Rethink of the Road-Map to Transition?

Until now it is not clear where the political-security path the regime is currently following will lead. On the one hand, the regime still believes that it can follow the exclusionary path to its end. It still has the popular support won on June 30 that empowered it to renew its security incursion into the public political sphere. On the other hand, the regime has not left the political forces under the umbrella of the Brotherhood-led National Alliance in Support of Legitimacy with any opportunity to accept renewed political participation, particularly after the bloodshed and the humiliating way in which President Mohammed Morsi was removed from power. Thus, no possibility of restoring national unity is foreseeable. In light of these facts, three possible outcomes can be envisioned:

Security measures to suppress opposition spreads to other governorates in light of the relative success in pacifying Cairo. This has happened in Kerdassa and Ganoub in Giza and in Dalga in Minya Governorate where the security forces carried out a policy of collective punishment. It should not be ruled out that the coming phase will bring with it prosecutions against activists from the revolutionary forces that took part in the January 25 Revolution, especially in light of the campaign against them in the media and the dominance of the new authorities over the judiciary and public prosecution service. Most likely, exclusion will drive the Muslim Brotherhood, at the very least, to boycott state institutions in the short term, and may, at worst, drive some of its members (or at least a disorganized fraction of its base) to split and declare a campaign of armed struggle against the state.

The protests led by the anti-coup Brotherhood-led National Alliance in Support of Legitimacy will continue, even if in limited form. In fact, over the last two months, new elements joined the protests to produce creative slogans targeting all sections of Egyptian society (e.g., the symbol for Rabaa al-Adawiya has been turned into a logo across the Arab countries.) thanks to the growing ability of Brotherhood supporters. This suggests that, in its ordeal, the Brotherhood is learning how to protest afresh. Nevertheless, the general model of protest remains unable to produce a discourse to unite all Egyptians, particularly as the majority of demonstrations are concentrated in rural areas and the rural pockets within cities.[8] There has, however, been a recent move back to the social media space, with calls for a campaign of non-payment of taxes and water and electricity bills, as well as the withdrawal of deposits from Egyptian banks. Such methods have proved to have a limited effect in the past. There have also been attempts to bring the metro system, which transports millions of citizens every day, to a halt. These have proved unsuccessful since they force protestors into confrontation with the general public most adversely affected by such a move. 

The new regime hurries to approve the new constitution and hold a referendum by exploiting popular support; in so doing, it undermines the democratic legitimacy of previously elected bodies. This provides the new regime with an opportunity to strip the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters of “electoral legitimacy”. In light of the referendum results, the features of the political players on the transitional road-map will become clear. The army will also play a central role in terms of its preferences for presidential candidates.

Each of these possible scenarios illustrates that Egypt’s future course and political life remains unstable. Without a settlement acceptable to all parties, in view of efforts to create winners and losers, and without a historic reconciliation between the Islamic and secularist camps, there is little chance that the Egyptians will be able to achieve the political stability needed to launch the development process and produce the results called for by the citizens of the country.

*This Assessment was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version published on December 4th, 2013 can be found here.

[1] In a statement, the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights condemned the fact that the articles contained in the constitutional declaration were, when compared to the 2012 constitution, a step backwards in terms of guaranteeing the protection of individual rights and freedoms. Examples of this include the lack of a provision on freedom of thought; a censored media; restriction of the right to form parties, associations, and institutions; the regime’s power to dissolve associations, institutions, unions, and professional bodies without recourse to the courts; and the removal of judicial oversight of elections, a matter which may cast doubts over the fairness of forthcoming elections. For the statement, see http://goo.gl/3i3pJ.

[2] The 2012 constitution already granted the military economic independence by placing its budget beyond oversight. This was part of the settlement at that time between the Egyptian presidency and the military establishment in return for the military’s withdrawal from politics. Now, it is clear that the army has won both the concessions of the 2012 constitution and the legislative concessions of 2013.

[3] After more than two months have passed since the ousting of the elected president Mohammed Morsi, the country has witnessed an unprecedented wave of extra-judicial killings, ranging from assassinations to mass executions and armed ambushes. The Wiki Thawra website documents in detail the deaths of more than 1,800 citizens in 24 governorates. More than two-thirds of them were killed on August 14, the day the sit-ins at Rabaa al-Adawiya and Nahda Square were broken up. The list of victims includes doctors, first-aid workers, journalists, and students. Video clips of security men killing non-violent demonstrators, and at times even prisoners, in cold blood have leaked out to the media.

[4] The abolition of military trials for civilians was a main demand of the January 25 Revolution.

[5] “SCAF threatens (a political force): We ask everyone to be aware of the lessons of history,” Al-Shorouk [Egypt], March 25, 2012, http://shorouknews.com/news/view.aspx?cdate=25032012&id=4c513ba8-8c82-450d-9dfe-5ac41b3c841d

[6] The security forces’ behavior over recent weeks has proved it is capable of keeping the peace and protecting public and private property if it so chooses, or, to be more precise, if it agrees with the head of the polity. However, what is happening today, undoubtedly proves that country’s slide into chaos occurred with, at the very least, the complicity of the security establishment.

[7] For more on this, see Azmi Bishara, “Revolution against Revolution, the Street against the People, and Counter-Revolution,” in Siyasat Arabiya (Doha, Beirut: Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies), September 2013,

[8] This also applies to Alexandria, where demonstrators are largely originally from the south.