Trouble on campus

 

According to the minister of education, if you knew what is going on in Egyptian universities, you would faint. As a frequent university goer, I can assure you that you wouldn't. In all likelihood, you would just lose body moisture and tolerance of others.

His remark was addressed to the “trembling hand” that is the government that is Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, whom talk shows have been taking aim at for not trying hard enough to stop everything from getting worse. (Presumably they are doing this to salvage some pretense of objectivity and because it is probably fun to heroically yell at “them,” the unnamed people who really are in charge, for not removing the people you disapprove of from their posts.)

One of el-Beblawi’s greatest weakness, many think, is his inability to get universities under control. Since most of the Muslim Brothers lucky enough not to be in prison are in universities, so are most of their protests. (The rest materialize in villages and poor neighborhoods that are easier to ignore and tend to disperse as quickly as they have gathered.) Cairo University Brothers, for instance, protest on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, according to MB youth leader Ahmed Badawi (who recently joined his superiors in prison).

The MB protests usually lead to small counter-protests by smirking pro-Sisi students, which culminates in the protrusion of veins, the stretching of many collars, and occasional injuries sustained while scores of unfazed students shuffle by, hugging books or filming videos that manage to show nothing and explain less.

If one were to graph the number of students protests against apathy towards them, one would have a straight line shooting up to the corner of the page and beyond. And it is more or less the same story everywhere. Some angry students protest. Others disagree. Violence erupts. Security doesn’t intervene due to a committed policy of non-participation in real or potential danger. Flushed, a dean strides in somewhere followed by glaring subordinates. He orders an investigation (a synonym for suspending students, a decision that may or may not be renewed at will, and withdrawing their IDs, denying them entry to campus). Some time later comes an announcement of cameras being installed to record spreaders of chaos in the act.


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The new Arab capitals

The new Arab capitals

Earlier this month, Sultan Sooud El Qassemi wrote an op-ed in Al-Monitor that has stirred considerable controversy. El Qassemi, a writer, active Twitter presence, businessman, art patron, member of Sharjah's ruling family and friend, argued that the capitals of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have become

..the nerve center of the contemporary Arab world’s culture, commerce, design, architecture, art and academia, attracting hundreds of thousands of Arab immigrants, including academics, businessmen, journalists, athletes, artists, entrepreneurs and medical professionals. While these Gulf cities may be unable to compete with their Arab peers in terms of political dynamism, in almost every other sense they have far outstripped their sister cities in North Africa and the Levant. 

Needless to say, the claim that Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi have become what Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo once were to the Arab world raised many hackles. The Angry Arab replied: 

What contribution to Arab culture have those cities made, unless you are talking about sleaze, worship of the European, denigration of the Asians, promotion of singers purely based on breast sizes and lip thickness, prostitution mentality (literally and figuratively), gender segregation and repression, the culture of measuring humans by the size of their bank accounts, etc.  Culture, what culture? Cairo and Beirut were known for hosting a culture that allowed (often despite desires of the ruling governments) various political and cultural trends to co-exist and to clash, and for the expression of divergent political viewpoints.  Cairo and Beirut were cities that allowed artists and writers to seek refuge and to express themselves artistically and creatively, and there is none of that in the Gulf.  Yes, academics and journalists are flocking to the Gulf but what have they produced there? What ideas? They go there and they work as assistants and propagandists in the entourage for this prince or that prince.  If anything, the impact of that Gulf oil and gas culture has been quite corrosive on the entire Arab world and its culture.  In that sense alone, yes, Gulf cities do play a role. 

 

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Who was James Henry Lunn?

The blog War in Context has unearthed the most information I've seen anywhere about the middle-aged American man who allegedly killed himself in Egyptian police custody. It's a strange, sad story.  According to someone who says he knew him in Malaysia:

Jim Lund was a retired truck driver from San Diego, living in Malaysia. Some years ago Jim was in a bad car wreck and suffered organic brain damage. For years he has pretended that he is an ‘undercover’ US Army general and had written his name in his passport as ‘Gen. James Lunn’. For some years he has had delusions that he would save the world. Two years ago Jim ‘invented’ a hundred-mile-long seagoing device that could transport water to dry climates. In August he left for Egypt with a small model of the device to ‘give to the Palestinians’. That was the ‘unknown electronic device’ he was carrying. A harmless nut but one who loved to be thought of as a secret agent.

 

In Translation: Sisi for president

 

This editorial by Ahmed Samir appeared in Al Masry Al Youm on October 12. It is translated, as usual, by the excellent team at Industry Arabic.  

Sisi for President: The Turn, the Turn, the Turn, the Turn

(1)

The Place: The Republican Guard headquarters

The Time: Days after the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi

The Event: The Brotherhood’s sit-in, followed by clashes in which dozens of Morsi supporters are killed.

And those who joined the Brotherhood are astounded.

For an entire year, the organization prepared to crush those whom Mohamed Abdel-Maqsud described as “atheists and hypocrites.” The Brotherhood did not understand why the “Get angry, Morsi!” campaign did not succeed, while the “Grind them to pieces, Sisi” campaign did… when the smartest one of them is a grocer in Zad supermarket. [1]

They didn't understand a simple truth: the security state is loyal only to the security state.

The Guidance Bureau's use of the organization's police dogs to break up the sit-in by Morsi's opponents at the presidential palace was proof that Morsi's continued hypocrisy towards the police and the many changes that he made in the Ministry of Defense, the intelligence apparatus, the Ministry of Interior, and the Republic Guard were not enough – and the organization had to do its own suppressing.

Afterwards, the Brotherhood chose a minister who suited them, and suited what they wanted to do in the country.

After this minister was appointed, the police killed dozens of people in front of Port Said Prison because they were armed (doesn't that accusation remind you of something?) before opening fire on their funeral the following day -- to the cheers of our brothers in God.

Ibrahim is Morsi's choice… but they brought him on for a reason. He did not carry his mission out in full for them, but did so for someone else. The question is, why?

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Podcast #43: Minority Report

A manly president, a bride like the moon -- this is Egypt,  Americans!

A manly president, a bride like the moon -- this is Egypt,  Americans!

The Arabist podcast is back after a long summer break, hosted by regulars Ursula Lindsey and Ashraf Khalil and featuring Lina Attalah, editor of Mada Masr. We discuss terrorism and military operations in the Sinai peninsula; the Egyptian media's cheering of the army; and the shortcomings of Egypt's new constitution. 

Podcast #43  (MP3, 30.1 MB) - or subscribe on iTunes.

Show notes:

Egypt and the f-word

Egypt and the f-word

 

This guest post is written by Bilal Ahmed, a writer and activists who is preparing for graduate research that compares the tribal laws and central governance of the tribal areas of Pakistan, and Yemen.

During their brief tenure in power, the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohammad Morsi were increasingly accused of fascism. Now, as Egypt’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood continues, the accusations of fascism have begun again. Much of this is because popular discourse has a knee-jerk tendency to link any form of authoritarianism with Nazi Germany. It becomes easier to do that in a national context in which we see fierce nationalism, growing xenophobia, assault against domestic minorities, and the gleeful celebration of state violence.

Let us be clear: Egypt hasn’t gone fascist. And saying that constrains how we should think about its politics in the coming years.

When we compare trends in Egyptian politics to something as complicated as the rise of Continental European fascism, we are as much probing the idea of Egypt going fascist as we are the nature of fascism itself. The rise of fascism in Europe was the result of specific political factors that, although currently present in Egypt, have not been rallied in the service of mass politics in a way that invites the word.


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Farewell to Syria, for a while

Syrian writer and dissident Yassin Al Haj Saleh, who after two years in hiding in Damascus fled to his hometown of Raqqa only to find it under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham group. He has now left the country. 

In Raqqa, I spent two months and a half in hiding without succeeding in getting one piece of information about my brother Firas. Nothing could be worse than this. Therefore, instead of celebrating my arrival at Raqqa, I had to keep in hiding in my own liberated city, watching strangers oppress it and rule the fates of its people, confiscating public property, destroying a statue of Haroun Al-Rasheed or desecrating a church; taking people into custody where they disappeared in their prisons. All the prisoners were rebel political activists while none of them was chosen from the regime’s previous loyalists or shabiha. With the exception of this flagrant oppression of the people, their property and symbols, the new rulers have shown no sign of the spirit of public responsibility which is supposed to be the duty of those who are in power.

 

Sudan revolts (again)

Sudan revolts (again)

 

"Should we pack?", asks President Omar al-Bashir wife's as protests in Sudan continue. The answer is no - his rule in Sudan is stable enough he doesn't need to keep a toothbrush on his person at all times and Saudia on speed dial. But Sudan's President, who claims he will not seek "re-election" in 2015, cannot exactly trust the men he pays to bug the country's phone lines these days, either. 

He cannot, apparently, even trust his own uncle: Al-Tayeb Mustafa, the paper's owner and a critic of the ruling party, has been ordered to stop publishing the leading Sudanese daily, al-Intibahafor the duration of the protests. The paper's editorial criticism of slashed subsidies and reporting on the country's insurgencies has proven too much for the President, who has ordered other papers to shut down as well.

Closing the daily down is just one of the steps the government is taking to diffuse coverage of the protests. Sky News and Al Arabiya were forced to close their offices, and access to the Internet was also temporarily cut off. It was restored, though: presumably because the security services need it to infiltrate protest circles online to false flag and blackmail people.  Sudan has gone down this route before - preventive detentiontorture of detaineesclosing down newspapers, and forcing foreign correspondents out  - when demonstrators held protests last June on the anniversary of the coup that bought al-Bashir to prominence in 1989. This time around, at least 70 people have been killed, and some 700 arrested (the numbers of dead and detained may be even higher). Once again, al-Bashir has dismissed the protestors (last year, he infamously described them as "elbow lickers"), but unlike past demonstrations where most of the participants were students, "those involved were … middle-class Sudanese from well-to-do areas, and those from the poorest districts of Khartoum and towns across the country," with significant female participation through silent solidarity and other actions.

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The Gulf's faulty gaydar

 

No, the Gulf states do not have gaydar detectors installed at their ports of entry. But if you are a guest worker -  one of the hundreds of thousands of South and Southeast Asians who enter the Gulf annually - you may be (or already are) subjected to an intrusive battery of tests to make sure your "gender" matches your anatomy. 

Critics refer to "tests of shame" because in many cases, police doctors conduct these bodily exams of individuals detained on the grounds that their attitude and clothing don't match their physical appearance. Kuwait's health minister announced a proposal this week to make the screening for a "third sex" mandatory in his country, and perhaps across the GCC economic zone - which has a notoriously hard time coordinating comprehensive migration policies. Kuwait already has a law in place that allows the authorities to detain and fine anyone "imitating the opposite sex."

 

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Look who's talking

 

Can Iran and the US reach a nuclear deal in the coming months, one that preserves Iran's enrichment program yet satisfies the US's sanctions regimen against the Islamic Republic? It is possible, but the pressure for the current negotiations between Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif to fail is immense, and comes from multiple domestic actors in both countries, as well as from American allies in the Middle East.

Obama's biggest stumbling block domestically is Congress, and the myriad lobbying groups opposed to a negotiated solution with Iran as long it remans an Islamic Republic. There are some Iranian associations (like the former terrorist organization MEK), but most of the pressure comes from Israel advocacy organizations like AIPAC, along with neoconservative think tanks such as the FDD or AEI. These groups - except for AIPAC - cannot really push Obama, but they can and have been pushing Congress. Republicans, especially, want to claim credit for sanctions bringing the Iranians to the UN with all this talk of cooperation and hints of nuclear concessions - but then, the issue arises of who is willing to say: "the sanctions have worked, let's talk concessions" instead of "Iran is bleeding white financially, tighten the screws and go for broke." And procedurally, this spider's web - as the International Crisis Group calls it - of sanctions cannot just be overridden by the President. Already, the Senate is mulling whether or not to enact even more sanctions, and this is no bluff. This is a concerted effort to pull Obama away from diplomacy and send Rouhani back empty-handed.

There are also other competing interests on the US side: Israel and the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia. All are united by their fear and animus towards Iran's regional ambitions.  

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A run-down of terrorism in Egypt

 

Nour Youssef has been trying to compile a comprehensive list of terrorist attacks reported in the Egyptian press. The problem, as she notes, is that "they keep publishing the same story under different titles, sometimes lumping a couple incidents together, throwing in an update (without saying it is an update), picking up a detail and sensationalizing it -- or all of the above. The result is a flood of bad news that overwhelms readers." After the jump, our list of reported attacks, in rough chronological order -- and some jihadist videos set to really annoying music. 

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The Fallacy of Crushing The Brotherhood

Couldn't agree more with this analysis by Amro Ali: 

The late poet Mahmoud Darwish sounded a warning: “Those who spend an era breastfeeding from the milk of cruel despotism can only perceive destruction and evil in freedom.” In this lays the grim inheritance bestowed upon Egypt following decades of authoritarian rule: the public not only perceives destruction and evil in its own freedom, but in the freedom of others and, consequently, any notion of political co-existence. A third route is needed to save it. Instead of crushing the Brotherhood, there needs to be a national inclusive dialogue on the role of religion and politics, a focus on strengthening institutional checks and balances, and the enforcement of rule of law to protect Egypt from political and security violations and excesses, whether by Islamists or otherwise.

 

Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s Sinai campaign

No wonder the army wants to maintain a media black-out and its war on terrorism in Sinai:

Thirty-year-old Naeem, from the village of Muqataa, also appears to be a victim of these rising tensions. (Again, Naeem and his family asked that their surnames not be used.) Naeem and his mother, Hessa, said six army officers entered and ransacked their home on Sept. 22. They took his laptops, legal titles, television, two gas cylinders, his wife’s makeup, gold, and cash. They helped themselves to water in the fridge, and put pillowcases on the heads of Naeem’s 6-month-old twins when they cried. Then they burned his house to the ground. His home and his car repair shop were two of the buildings I saw blackening the sky with smoke the day before. The walls of his family’s home were still smoldering. Others villagers reported similar behavior.

 

Squabbling over religion

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Before Jan 25, mosques had been hunting grounds for the MB. In the post-Jan 25 days, mosques evolved to become a place where they can meet, organize, mobilize, campaign, and more recently, treat fallen followers, count bodies and hide leaders. They also become the scene of political squabbles. At the time of the controversial Islamist-backed constitution, there were dueling campaigns to 1) challenge imams who used their sermons to support Morsi/the constitution (نزله من المنبار, "Get him down off the minbar") or 2) physically restrain worshippers who challenged the imam (ربته في العمود, "Tie him to a column"). 

The last thing the Brothers needed, after the eventful summer they've had, was to have their comfort zone fall back under government control and, now, the perked ears of pro-military residents, who would report an imam faster than he could compare what soldiers did to Muslims protesters in Raba’a al-Adaweya to what they haven’t done to the Jewish soldiers in Israel.

With the Ministry of Awqaf (Religious Endowments) resolved to tighten its grip on mosques by passing a number of laws to substitute the much-criticized MB monopoly over religion with its own, many lips had been chewed and prayers for patience muttered.

Now there is a noticeable change in the khutbah (friday sermon). For the most part, it is  shorter, just like the minister wanted (because the men have other things to tend to) and no longer connected to politics, not even by way of metaphors or anecdotes. A considerable number of imams have been contacted by the ministry and told specifically to stay off politics or else they might be considered a national security threat, inciting violence and possessing illegal weapons. Many imams sense danger and have begun self-censoring in case a  housewife cooking in a nearby building hears the khutbah and doubts their patriotism, or in the not-unlikely-event that one of the new faces in the crowd turns out to be an informant.

Even though the great majority of MB imams have kept fiery sermons to a minimum and seem to have contented themselves with neighborhood night marches against the military in the meantime, some allow themselves a fit of rage and lead a protest out of mosques, three times a week, in areas too densely populated for police officers to be coaxed into visiting, like Ain Shams.

“You can tell (the MB supporters) are unhappy when they hear me preach about patience and generosity rather than comment about the situation,” said licensed Sheikh Emad, who is not Amr Moussa or something and should not be expected to talk politics. In the past month, Sheikh Emad was heckled out of his Ain Shams mosque when he tried to close it between prayers (another ministry rule).

But the fact remains that there are well over a 100 thousand mosques in Egypt and about half of them are manned by state-approved Azhar graduates. The rest are freelancers. The feared anti-military extremists can be either one of them. The new Awqaf minister has suspended the license-to-preach of all freelancers,  said the must re-apply, and that only Azharis -- as representatives of middle-of-the-road, official sanctioned Islam -- will get one. 

The ministry is also trying to limit the activities of zawiyas (unofficial very small neighborhood mosques). This may be why its list of four “conditions”  regarding zawiya operation are closer to requests than rules. Laughable requests, according to Sheikh Gamal, a zawiya imam, shopkeeper, and occasional gas cylinder seller.

The conditions are that there be no (big) nearby mosque, or if there is one that it be full full; one can pray in a zawiya so long as it has a written permission to hold prayers or a licensed imam, as if people are going to walk in and ask for ID and licenses like a traffic cop. Anyway, what happens if people don’t abide by these conditions? What kind of legal consequences, if any, could one face for praying in zawiya?

For all its worth, most people under 45 like to skip the khutbah, if not physically, then mentally, and just wait for the iqaamah (the beginning of the prayer), Sheikh Gamal said with a knowing smile. Youngsters like to loiter by a kiosk and appear the moment the prayer starts in the back rows and the old sit inside and ponder life and prices.

The only people really listening to the khutbah now, Sheikh Gamal suspects, are those who wish they could deliver it and those who are there to make sure they don’t.

Head-butt in Qatar

Qatar has installed a statue of French footballer Zinedine Zidan's infamous head-butt (after Italian player Marco Matterazzi allegedly said something rude about his mother) which may have cost France the World Cup in 2006. Zidan's outburst was criticized and defended at the time. Here is an impressionistic version of the statue (called "Coup de Tete," which in French means both header and whim, impulse) by contributor Paul Mutter, who also notes: "Now if only I could photo-shop something representing the Western left walking off the playing field.."  

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The statue has apparently rankled quite a few Qataris.

Interview with Sonallah Ibrahim

A while back, I expressed some misgivings about the great Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim's seemingly uncritical support for the military leadership. I ended up paying him a visit and conducting a rather distressing interview. Despite my admiration for Ibrahim, and his friendliness to me, we were almost immediately disappointed with each other's grasp of what is going on in Egypt these days, and unable to agree on the meaning of words like "massacre" and "nationalism." I was surprised with Ibrahim's willingness to accept repression in the name of abstract, hard-to-achieve and easy-to-manipulate goals like "fighting terrorism" and "standing up to the West."

MM: I can't help feeling that there will never be security sector reform. It's very good for [the security services] to be fighting terrorism. Nobody is going to push them to change. Do you see what I'm saying?
SI: It takes time. The fundamental thing now is, if the police officer who used to insult me and kick me and beat me under Mubarak, if now he is fighting against terrorism, I am with him.

The full interview is at Mada Masr, which also has lots of coverage of Egypt's celebrations of October 6 and of popular sentiment to the army.  

Only room for one general

 

There has been much media focus lately on the ongoing, growing campaign to get defense minister and commander of the armed forces Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi to run for president -- a bandwagon on which we can expect see many more flatterers and opportunists jump. El-Sisi's candid discussion with other officers on how Egyptian need to get used to paying more for services and talk on the phone less, how the army can get the media to practice some self-censorhip, and how military personnel will never be held responsible for killing protesters were recently leaked, and seen as evidence of his nefarious dictatorial tendencies by Islamists and of his economic genius and straight-talking by army supporters. 

 It is also instructive to see the reaction to another possible military contender. Nour Youssef has this report. 

While it is generally good to be a soldier rather than another weakling civilian in Egypt, it has not been so for former Chief of Staff General, Sami Anan.

After news of Anan’s announcement of his run for president spread, and despite it being followed by a quick denial, the pro-military media began airing his dirty laundry and then tried to suffocate him with the clotheslineSo far Anan, aka  The Bringer of the Brotherhood (or at the very least:  Key Person Who Helped Make Mistakes That Lead To MB Rule), has been accused of having an under-qualified son as head of the Arab Academy for Science, Technology & Maritime Transport, wasting state land (200 acres of it by Cairo-Alexandria desert road on himself and his wife), having grandchildren born in the US for the citizenship, buying a whole floor in a fancy hotel, among other things.

Although many, like Mahmoud Saad, perfunctorily expressed their respect for Anan's constitutional right to run before all but telling him not to, much of the talk about Anan has been focused on his newly published memoirs and his past.

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A murky battle

My latest Latitude column is on the difficult position of human rights activists in Egypt today -- and of that minority that is equally critical of the Brotherhood and of the military-police state.  

Democracy and human rights activists in Egypt are exhausted and worried. Many of them have spent the two and a half years since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak working nonstop — monitoring elections, submitting reform plans to ministers who have ignored them, counting bodies at the morgue — only to find themselves back at square one. The situation is “the worst it’s been since the 1990s,” a veteran human rights defender told me recently.

At Mada Masr, human right activist Sherif Azer discusses the issue as well. 

In an unprecedented moment, we are currently witnessing public support for human rights violations. The stereotypical idea that only governments are against human rights has been proven wrong, as the majority of Egyptians reveal their open rejection of the concept of human rights. We have seen people calling for sacrificing their own rights and freedoms, just to see their opposition removed. We, the human rights advocacy community, have been called traitors by friends and family members. People began openly calling for abandoning human rights altogether in the name of fighting "terrorism.”

I'm not sure I agree with Azer that the most effective argument for human rights, domestically, is an appeal to international law and treaties. It seems to me that highlighting an issue like torture here is more relevant. But of course when people offer to suspend or sacrifices their rights, they almost always do so in the belief that 1) it is temporary and limited and 2) they're not at risk because they aren't one of the criminals/terrorists/bad guys being targeted.

I've had several people compare the current moment in Egypt to the United States right after 9/11 -- a moment to which we can trace the seemingly irreversible erosion of some key protections and principles. 

 

What Happened to Egypt’s Liberals After the Coup?

Very nice, nuanced analysis of the different and shifting positions towards the Brotherhood, the army and civil liberties of Egypt's various non-Islamist groups and parties by Sharif Abdel Kouddous in The Nation: 

Opposition to Morsi grew throughout his time in office, eventually stretching across nearly every sector of Egyptian society. It also had grassroots support, manifested in more than 9,000 protests and strikes during his year-long rule that culminated in calls for early presidential elections and the unprecedented June 30 mobilization.

His opponents included a broad swath of political and social movements, often characterized by conflicting ideologies and grievances. It included revolutionary activists, labor unions, human rights advocates, the Coptic Church, intransigent state institutions, former Mubarak regime members and sidelined business elites as well as the formal opposition—the flock of non-Islamist political parties and figures routinely lumped together as “liberals,” despite the fact that many of them have rejected any notion of political pluralism, a defining characteristic of liberalism.

The result has been a confusing, and increasingly atomized, political landscape. Of the disparate groups opposed to Morsi, some actively sought military intervention, fewer opposed any military role, while others—like Dawoud—stood by the military as it ousted the president, but eventually broke away in the face of mounting state violence and mass arrests of Islamists under the guise of a “war on terror.”

The military—which formed a coalition of convenience with the Brotherhood for much of 2011 to manage the post-Mubarak landscape and hold revolutionary aspirations and unfettered popular mobilizations in check—successfully co-opted the movement against Morsi and, along with the security establishment, emerged as the clearest winner from his overthrow.

The biggest surprise for me was to read this account of what rabidly pro-military Tamarrod leader Mahmoud Badr said five weeks before Morsi's ouster:  

In his opening remarks, one of Tamarod’s founders, Mahmoud Badr (previously a coordinator in Kefaya), chose to focus on the role of the army. He recounted various incidents of popular mobilization and resistance against the Supreme Council of Armed Forces—which directly ruled the country following Mubarak’s ouster in 2011—in which the Brotherhood did not take part. He concluded by ruling out a military role in political life. “We insist that the army cannot be involved in politics,” he said emphatically. 

Badr supports a Sisi presidency now (and generally giving the army whatever it wants). One of the most frustrating things about following and analyzing politics in Egypt is how utterly irresponsible and inconsistent political actors are, how often they go back on previous positions and statements and break their commitments.