The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

In Translation: Egypt heading outside history

Courtesy Industry Arabic, the latest in our In Translation series, in which Fahmy Howeidy -- a writer with moderate Islamist leanings and a big following --  critiques 

Egypt Heading into the Unknown and Outside of History

Shorouq Newspaper, 22 October, 2013

Egypt’s current problem is that it is moving along a path leading outside of history, and one fears that Egypt will drag the Arab world along with it in the end.


Reading Egyptian newspapers these days and following the statements of politicians -- who have begun to compete with each other to court the military  and outdo one another in praising its role -- it might not occur to you that the newspaper headlines, the comments of the editors, and the statements of the politicians could almost be an exact copy of the discourse in Turkey around half a century ago. However, anyone who has read the history of the militarization of Turkish society notes that the voices calling for the armed forces to intervene to save the country from chaos and collapse reverberated loudly during every political crisis. Given the fragility and weakness of the political situation, everyone considered the military the savior and rescuer. The military had credit with the public that permitted it to play this role, since it saved the country from occupation after the First World War, established the republic and led the process of modernizing the state. This is the background that was repeatedly invoked in order to militarize society from the establishment of the republic in the 1920’s and for 80 years afterwards.

The episodes of this repeated and rehearsed scenario would play out as follows: Weak parties fail in running the state; voices are raised calling for the military to carry out its role as rescuer; the military gives a warning to the government, telling it to carry out its responsibilities; after the warning, the military announces the coup and takes over the administration of the country and the management of the out-of-control conditions. Barely a few years go by (most usually ten) before the crisis recurs and the same voices and calls reverberate again. Then the military would give its warning, followed by intervention to take over power as the only disciplined and cohesive institution, and the one with the force of weapons on the ground. This is a scenario that recurred with the coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980, until the coup of 1997 that was described as a “soft” or “post-modern” coup. The jumping-off point for these coups was the fact that the military considered itself responsible for protecting the principles of the Turkish republic, along with its job of protecting the nation. To fulfill this responsibility, it imposed itself as the guardian of society. The constitution of 1982 codified this guardianship, which was exercised by the National Security Council and which formed advisory offices for the country’s military, political, economic, cultural, and media affairs, etc. The military institution went on alert after the elections of 1995 that were a relative win for the Islamist-oriented Welfare Party. This win led to the formation of a coalition government with the True Path Party. The head of the government at that time was Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of the Welfare Party. The military leadership responded to this by pulling the strings that it had spread out through key posts in the state and the decision-making authority, until it forced Erbakan to resign from office in 1997.


The prevailing winds Egypt since the removal of Dr. Mohamed Morsi are going in this same direction against history, after the military council’s mission came to an end in 2012. The renewal of the hopes pinned on the possibility of democratic change and creating institutions that manage society -- all of that was dashed on the 3rd of July after the removal of the elected president, the freezing of the constitution, and the dissolution of the Shura Council and other councils that had been formed. It became clear that the orientation was towards betting on the military institution and boosting the state's power over society. In this climate, the preparations for issuing a new constitution were carried out by a group that was chosen, not elected, and the military institution became the de facto source of authority and the decision maker in shaping the new situation. In this, the military institution did not force itself upon society. Rather, its steps were supported and welcomed by the elite and the civil forces with their different orientations – liberal, nationalist, and leftist. The media was the strike force that succeeded in “manufacturing consent,” in Chomsky's phrase, using the failures of Mohamed Morsi’s rule to mobilize the public and incite them against his regime, and thus standing with the camp betting on the military institution.

Given the new situation, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Defense Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, became the presidential candidate around which the civil forces coalesced. The presence of the armed forces in the committee tasked with drafting the constitution took on special significance when a clamor was raised over the defense minister’s immunity and the condition that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces approve the minister’s appointment. This action takes this authority away from the president or the prime minister. As a compromise, some proposed applying this just during a transition period of ten to twelve years. Also, the concept of trying civilians in military courts was retained, even though these courts are not even independent, but rather are subject to the minister of defense’s orders.

In this atmosphere, we read in the Al-Shorouk newspaper (edition of 10/5) important statements from a military source that the newspaper’s editor said is close to the military institution. In his statements, he focused on the following:

- That the experience of the last few years proves that the army is the only real power in Egypt for the foreseeable future, because of the weakness of secular political parties. Thus the army must have the means to guard the country against any organization or group that wishes to change the country's identity.  

- That under the current circumstances, the army can't hand the presidency to anyone it doesn't know. For the people can't lose the only weapon they possess, their national army. We don't want to far the possibility that someone disguised as a secularists gains the presidency, and appoint whoever he wishes as minister of defense, and thus can change the identity of the army. 

The newspaper Al-Shorouk did not say that the military source was speaking in the same of the armed forces, but he at least expresses a school or a trend within the armed forces that considers the military the only force and the highest authority in the Egyptian political arena. Also, he holds a position opposing the Brotherhood experience and is concerned only with avoiding a repeat of this experience, claiming that it could affect the identity of the armed forces. As for the nation’s identity and its greater good, this is a concern of secondary importance.


With the continuing expansion of the military institution in the current political vacuum and the military’s undeniably increasing role, Egypt has begun to move outside the course of history. At the very least, this means that the dream of the democratic civil state that the January 25th revolution aspired to is in a state of decline and retreat. The tangible advancements barely hint at the possibility of achieving a fraction of this dream in the near future.

The structure that is currently being set up in Egypt suffers from a fatal flaw in its balance of power and its vision. That is because it is taking place in the shadow of the strength and dominance of the military institution, and in the shadow of institutions chosen from sectors united only by their rejection of and enmity towards the Brotherhood. They represent fragile political groups without a popular base, to the point that these groups have begun to derive their legitimacy by relying on the military institution and riding on its coattails. This represents the heart of the current political crisis in Egypt. This large country cannot be built on a foundation made of an alliance between liberals and the military, and its program cannot be based simply on the idea of excluding the Brotherhood and continuing the war against terrorism. This is the observation made by numerous Western analyses that keep talking about how Egypt is headed towards the unknown now that its political influence has declined and it no longer has a notable role in regional affairs.

Not only that, but Egypt in its weakness finds itself surrendering to schemes for security and non-security cooperation with Israel, especially since the military institution is considered the most prominent pillar of the Camp David Accords. Perhaps the international predicament facing Egypt pushed it to become closer to Israel and to interact with it more. The current regime is comfortable and reassuring to Israel, contrary to President Mohamed Morsi’s regime, which Israel was uncomfortable with and found worrisome.

This same weakness – which arises from the confusion and perplexity that the strategic vision for the new situation suffers from – has driven Egypt to throw itself into the arms of Arab coalitions antagonistic to the Arab Spring in its entirety. These coalitions have their own ties and loyalties that are incompatible with the revolution’s goals and the desires of the Arab masses. When this happens while the Arab region is facing giant upheavals that could redraw its maps and subject it to plans for fragmentation and division, it reveals the high price that the Arab world could pay because of the upheaval and setback that occurred in Egypt.


The picture is not entirely frustrating, because the shocks and upheavals from which the regimes of the Arab Spring are suffering are almost completely confined to the outward manifestations of this Spring. However, the Arab Spring has another, hidden aspect that has not yet lost its vitality. I was among those who said previously that the Arab Spring, in its actuality, is a historical transformation in the constitution of the Arab person, who has begun to call for change and announce his rejection of the political and social oppression that regimes imposed on him. What I expressed was recorded in a report by the New York Times published on October 18th. This report talked about the manifestations of an unspoken mass movement that all of the Gulf Arab countries are witnessing, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates at their forefront. This report was written by Christopher Davidson, a political science professor at Durham, a British university. He chose an evocative title for this report: "The Last of the Sheikhs?"

Egypt, if it loses itself through its current behavior will take the Arab world along with it as well. However, even if Egypt stands outside the course of history it will not be able to stop the wheel of history from turning. This is one of God’s rules for the universe, which is expressed in the Quranic text that states, {And if you turn away, He will replace you with another people; then they will not be the likes of you.} (Surah Mohammad, Ayah 38).