Under pressure from mass protests, the like of which have never before taken place in Egypt, the Egyptian armed forces overthrew President Mohamed Morsi on Wednesday 3 July and appointed Adli Mansour, the head of the supreme constitutional court, as the interim president at the head of a new ‘civilian’ government.
Thirty-five million people across Egypt are believed to have taken to the streets over recent weeks, demanding that Morsi step down, and Mansour has been charged with the task of putting in place an inclusive government to write a new constitution, to be followed by fresh parliamentary and presidential elections early next year.
While the incoming administration was being portrayed as being a civilian one, the power of the armed forces was patently clear as the Egyptian air force flew over a smoggy Cairo minutes before the interim leader was sworn in. Troops and armoured vehicles were deployed in force on the capital’s streets to counter any violent response from Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB).
Senior MB leaders, rounded up within hours of the military’s removal of Morsi, are believed to be being held at the same facility as the ousted president. Hasan Abu Ismail, a hardline islamist preacher, was arrested two days later on 5 July. The army took control of the state media and closed three islamic broadcasters.
The military’s action was preceded by an ultimatum from the army, giving Morsi 48 hours to reach an agreement with the opposition. When there was no attempt by Morsi to come to such an agreement, General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the head of the armed forces, appeared on television. Although expected, his announcement nevertheless came as a bombshell. Morsi, elected only a year earlier, was being deposed by his own commanders.
Enthusiastic mass support
Though doubtless a coup, the removal of the MB regime enjoyed the enthusiastic support of large sections of the Egyptian masses, who had begun to realise over the preceding weeks that only the generals could get the MB off their backs.
Tens of millions of Egyptians celebrated Morsi’s fall – in Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square and elsewhere – hailing it as a second revolution. Jubilant opposition supporters transformed central Cairo into a grand street party, with crowds waving flags and sounding horns – in scenes reminiscent of the fall of Mubarak in February 2011.
As the crowds in Tahrir Square erupted in joy, fireworks lit up the sky and a thousand laser pointers covered the buildings in green light. Across the country, people roared from their balconies and rooftops, waving flags and blowing vuvuzelas by way of celebrating this ‘second revolution’. This time, they were celebrating the removal of an islamist head of state, who had taken it into his head to misinterpret a slim electoral victory as a mandate for the islamisation of the country.
The air force’s fighter planes flew over downtown Cairo on the afternoon of 4 July in a demonstratively triumphant show “in celebration of the victory of the people’s will”. The exhaust fumes, matching the colours of the Egyptian flag, evoked outbursts of delight from the people on the ground.
Brotherhood’s angry reaction
The Muslim Brotherhood reacted angrily to their leader’s dismissal, marking 5 July as a ‘Friday of rage’ and a ‘day of rejection’ against the new regime. Tens of thousands of Morsi’s supporters remained massed in front of a Cairo mosque, with lines of armed vehicles keeping watch.
“We declare our complete rejection of the military coup staged against the elected president and the will of the nation,” the Brotherhood declared in a statement read by cleric Abdel-Rahman el-Barr to the crowd outside the Rabia al-Adawiya mosque.
Tens of thousands of the Brotherhood’s followers staged a rally in Nasr City, the Cairo suburb which has been the focal point of MB supporters, vowing to remain till Morsi is restored to office. “There will be an uprising against the thieves,” said one speaker. Later, wielding clubs, firebombs, helmets and shields, MB supporters confronted those celebrating Morsi’s downfall in Tahrir Square, and hours of fierce fighting only ended when the military intervened with armoured carriers.
Mohamed Badie, head of the MB, who had been reported by the state media to be under detention, turned up at the Nasr City rally, and made a defiant speech expressing his organisation’s resolve to challenge the military. “Millions will remain in the squares,” he said, “until we carry our elected president on our shoulders”, adding that his movement will make no concessions on Mr Morsi’s reinstatement.
The security services were on a state of high alert in Suez and South Sinai, host to many luxury beach resorts, after islamist fighters opened fire at El-Arish airport near the border with Gaza and Israel, killing one soldier and wounding several others.
Brotherhood in crisis
The Muslim Brotherhood is facing one of the gravest crises in its 85-year history. The question now is: has the military’s action stopped the Brotherhood in its tracks, or will it merely prove to be a harbinger of further bloody confrontations?
Doubtless, MB supporters and members feel bewildered and cheated. They say that they played the democratic game so touted by imperialism only to have their president subjected to summary dismissal!
Although in office for only one year and four days, Morsi lost the goodwill and support of the Egyptian people, who had placed much hope in him, believing that he might bring some relief to them after four decades of Sadat/Mubarak autocratic and corrupt rule. During his brief period in office, however, Morsi presided over a worsening economy, with rising unemployment, rocketing food and fuel prices, and shortages of electricity – all of which made the lives of ordinary Egyptians, 40 percent of whom live on less than $2 a day, even more miserable than in the days of Mubarak.
Instead of solving the urgent economic problems faced by the masses, Morsi concentrated on amassing dictatorial powers and promoting his cronies – some of them rather tainted – to high positions. Five months into his presidency, he issued a constitutional declaration that granted him powers to override the judiciary – a move he was later compelled to rescind, but the damage had been done.
He was obsessed with the pursuit of an islamist agenda, which infuriated large sections of the population, including minorities, secular, liberal and left-leaning people – many of whom had voted for him so as to prevent the election of a Mubarak protégé.
Although the Morsi constitution, passed in the December 2012 referendum with a minimal voter turn-out, granted the military an almost autonomous status and preserved its privileges, the relations between Morsi and the army were deteriorating. These strained relations revealed themselves in the form of leaks and counter-leaks concerning Morsi’s intentions to sack the defence minister, who in turn was rumoured to be planning the overthrow of Morsi.
As recently as early May of this year, General al-Sisi attempted to dampen the hopes of those Egyptians who wanted the army to dismiss the president. “With all respect for those who say to the army ‘Go into the street,’ if this happened, we won’t be able to speak of Egypt moving forward for 30 or 40 years,” he said on 11 May. Emphasising that “nobody should think that the army has the solution”, he added that “no one is going to remove anybody”.
Meanwhile, street protests erupted and anti-government demonstrators began to flood the streets on a daily basis. The economy crumbled and the police went on strike. With the attempts to Brotherise Egyptian society, relations with the army continued to go from bad to worse. Concerns within the army about its future status, combined with the increasingly arrogant and authoritarian missteps of the MB, probably pushed the army into action.
For the army, long inclined to oppose the Brotherhood’s islamist ideology and its foreign agenda, the tipping point was reached when Morsi attended a rally packed with hardline fellow islamists calling for holy war in Syria, and endorsed the dispatch of devout young Egyptians to Syria to join the ‘jihad’ against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
At this rally on 15 June, sunni muslim clerics characterised as “infidels” both the shias fighting in defence of the Syrian president and the non-islamists opposing Mr Morsi at home. Morsi’s call for foreign intervention in Syria to overthrow the Assad government drew a veiled rebuke from the army, which issued a statement the next day, stressing that the only role of the army was to guard Egypt’s borders.
For the army, the Syria rally had crossed a ‘national security red line’ by inciting Egyptians to fight abroad, with the consequent risk of creating a new generation of jihadists. Central to the military’s concern is the history of militant Islam in Egypt and Morsi’s deepened ties with the once-armed group of al-Gamma al-Islamiya.
Diverse elements in the rebellion
By the time Tamarrod (rebellion) began gathering steam, the scene had been set, with hard-core activists who had participated in the 2011 uprising to bring down the Mubarak dictatorship joining hands with those who had supported the Mubarak regime.
“The same figures that led the first wave are still leading the revolution,” said Shadi Ghazalil, one of the principal organisers of Tamarrod, adding: “How can anyone call it a counter-revolutionary movement? What we have done is we have widened the circle of the revolution by including people who were not in the original uprising.”
Unquestionably, part of the anti-Morsi campaign has been whipped up by sections in the police, the judiciary and the bureaucracy, who have never embraced the islamists and who would have left no stone unturned to bring about their downfall. It is obviously the case that all those opposed to the MB joined hands in a combined onslaught on Morsi.
No wonder, then, that the protests since Sunday 30 June were the largest seen in Egypt. Whereas in the past anti-Morsi activists could muster a few hundred thousands into the streets, this time tens of millions all over the country joined the protests, demanding Morsi’s resignation.
Reasons for people’s dissatisfaction
The reasons for the masses’ anger are not difficult to fathom. The Brotherhood had annoyed and disappointed many sections of society. Many copts (coptic christians account for 10 percent of Egypt’s population) feel let down by the political chicanery of the MB. Soon after the February revolution that ousted Mubarak, several opinion polls estimated the Brotherhood’s support to be approximately a third of the electorate. Its leaders had asserted that they would not contest more than half of the seats and would not field a presidential candidate. The extremist salafists gave no inkling of participation in electoral politics.
Contrary to these promises, the MB and the salafists did participate in the elections with great enthusiasm, and, being the most organised groups, they trounced the secular young activists who had spearheaded the anti-Mubarak revolution, winning two-thirds of the vote. The rise of the MB upset not only the christian minority but also vast swathes of the population opposed to islamisation of Egyptian society.
In the run-up to the elections last year, the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood’s electoral arm, included calls in its manifesto for the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, the protection of the democratic system and a more equal distribution of wealth, jettisoning the extreme elements of a 2007 version that had demanded a religious council to approve the decisions of parliament and barred females and non-muslims from holding the presidency.
After winning the elections, however, the Brotherhood’s practice was the complete opposite of its election promises.
Response of imperialism
The toppling of Morsi is giving a real headache to Anglo-American imperialism, which supported the Mubarak regime right up to its overthrow, but was obliged to pretend to go along with the revolutionary changes under way.
After the election victories of the Muslim Brotherhood, it struck up a cosy relationship with the Morsi administration – all the more easily because of the essentially reactionary stance of the Morsi government on a whole range of issues, from Syria and cooperation with zionism and imperialism to acceptance of the IMF/World Bank policies of privatisation and austerity.
Barack Obama, the US president, urged the military to hand back full control to a ‘democratic, civilian’ government without delay, but stopped short of calling the overthrow of Morsi a coup d’état.
If he had called it by that name, US law dictates that the $1.5bn a year in military and economic aid that the country provides to Egypt to keep it within the imperialist fold would have to stop forthwith. But the US ruling class does not want to lose its influence among the Egyptian military, and of the $1.55bn US aid earmarked for Egypt for 2014, $1.3bn is set to go to the army.
William Hague, the British foreign secretary, was at sixes and sevens over the developments in Egypt. “I always condemn military interventions in democratic systems,” he said as he warned of the “dangerous precedent” of supporting coups, even if they ousted unpopular regimes. But, he added on BBC radio: “We have to understand it’s a popular intervention, there is no doubt about that.” He continued: “So, while warning of the precedents that it sets for the purpose, of course, we have to work with the Egyptians, with the majority will in Egypt, and that’s what we will do.”
Anglo-American imperialism’s puppets in the Middle East are upset by the overthrow of Morsi and at the failure of the US, EU and Britain to condemn the Egyptian military for its part in bringing down Morsi. The Turkish prime minister has condemned the West’s ambiguity and ambivalence over the events in Egypt and denounced the arrests of several hundred MB members following the coup.
Erdogan’s remarks emphasised the divergence between the Turkish government and the leaders of the West. Expressing his surprise at the West’s failure to denounce Morsi’s ousting, he asked angrily and impotently: “They can’t say this was a coup. What happened to their democratic ideals?” adding “This is a test of sincerity … The [Egyptian] revolution is being killed. There cannot be such a thing as a democratic coup. It is as much a paradox as the living dead.”
What has angered the reactionary Mr Erdogan is not the killing of the Egyptian revolution, as he perceives the events of the first week of July to be, but the upsetting of the reactionary alliance between imperialism and its flunkies in the Middle East, directed against all progressive movements and governments – from Hizbollah to Syria and Iran.
Under the Brotherhood’s rule, Egypt had been a strategic partner in this counter-revolutionary alliance, which had assigned Turkey an increasingly crucial role and had made it possible for Erdogan to assume the airs of a latter-day Ottoman Turkish sultan.
The events in Egypt will serve to bring him and the other, even more insignificant, surrogates of imperialism in the region down to earth. They will have the sobering effect of making it clear that the power they exercised, and which they thought was theirs, was mainly derived from the support given them by imperialism. And they will bring home to them the truth that imperialism has no permanent friends, only permanent interests.
For, if the spokesmen of imperialism do not openly condemn the Egyptian military’s actions in support of the demand of tens of millions of Egyptian people for the toppling of Morsi, such a stance is solely taken by them out of their concern to defend the interests of imperialism; it has nothing to do with defending or not defending democracy.
One step forward
In the light of the foregoing, the overthrow of Morsi is a step in the right direction. What happens from now on will depend on the struggle, not only between the Muslim Brotherhood and the forces opposed to it, but also on the struggle within the anti-Morsi camp, which includes, crucially, the army and the National Salvation Front, itself comprising both bourgeois liberals like Mohamed ElBaradei and sizeable sections much to the left of him.
In addition to all these factors, there is the role of US imperialism, which maintains close ties with both the Egyptian army, the Muslim Brotherhood and ElBaradei! These ties, backed up with vast material resources, give US imperialism considerable room for manoeuvre in its attempts to put in place a pliant regime.
But things cannot go on as before. Egypt has changed over the past two years, and changed profoundly. The Egyptian people no longer fear the might of the state. They are prepared to face, if need be, its batons, bullets, armoured personnel carriers and cavalry charges in order to bring about fundamental changes in their lives.
Authoritarianism in Egypt is gasping. State force has lost its power of deterrence. The more vicious the violence it inflicts, the more resistance it inspires and the more protesters it brings out on to the streets. The coming battles, it is to be hoped, will bring forth the kind of leadership that is capable of freeing the Egyptian masses from the clutches of both the local kleptocratic ruling elites and their imperialist masters.