Morsy past the point of no return: Part 1

The events of 5 December mark an important shift in Egyptian politics in light of the violence that pitted Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters of President Mohamed Morsy against protesters opposed to the president’s recent moves to centralize power and allow the Brotherhood to dictate the terms of Egypt’s new political order.

Dominant narratives in international media have implicitly or explicitly embraced the view that the clashes are the manifestation of an unfortunate cycle of conflict between two sides that are equally responsible for pushing the nation to the brink of civil strife by stubbornly sticking to blind partisanship. After all, each of the “two sides” has alleged that the opposing party employed violence — and in the case of the Brotherhood, systematic torture of anti-Morsy protesters — leaving the observer with the impression that the clashes are part of a “messy battle” in which transgressions have been committed by all sides.

What this perspective misses, however, is that — regardless of how much violence each “side” has committed — the clashes were instigated by a deliberate, conscious decision by Brotherhood leaders to escalate the conflict with its adversaries. One day after thousands of opposition protesters had marched to the presidential palace and staged a sit-in to pressure Morsy into reversing his controversial constitutional declaration, the Brotherhood called on its supporters to march to the palace.

Organizing a march to the same site where Morsy’s opponents are gathered is a tall order, and an inevitable recipe for physical clashes. You do not rally your activists at the same site where your opponents are assembled, expecting a peaceful tailgating picnic — and there is evidence that the Brotherhood was well aware of this.

For example, last week, the Brotherhood backtracked on its decision to organize a rally in support of Morsy in Tahrir Square on 1 December. The Brotherhood changed the location of the gathering to the area surrounding Cairo University in response to warnings that rallying Morsy’s supporters around Tahrir Square would lead to violence with opposition protesters who were already assembled in the square as part of an established sit-in.

Fast forward a few days, the goal of averting physical clashes with adversaries seemed no longer relevant for the Brotherhood, as its leaders pressed members to march to the presidential palace on 5 December to protect the legitimacy of the elected president.

Moreover, the call for the 5 December protests issued by the Brotherhood was anything but an invitation for peaceful expression of political views. Reducing the president’s opponents to a subversive few, Brotherhood spokesperson Mohamed Ghozlan called on supporters to “protect” the legitimacy of the current political order from what he characterized as a minority that is forcefully imposing its own views on the rest of the country.

He stated that the Brotherhood’s protests aimed to “protect [constitutional] legitimacy after the brute transgressions that a certain group has committed Tuesday, thinking that it could destabilize [constitutional] legitimacy or impose its views by force, which has driven popular forces to demonstrate that the Egyptian people are the ones who have chosen this legitimacy and elected it, and that they, God willingly, are able to protect it, and to uphold their constitution and protect their institutions.”

Statements by other Brotherhood leaders demonized Morsy’s adversaries and invited the president’s supporters to protect him from the opposition’s alleged aggression. Prominent Brotherhood figure Essam al-Erian was quoted by Al-Masry Al-Youm saying that the Egyptian people possess the ability to impose their own will, and that they will “flood squares in all governorates, especially [around] the Ettehadiya [presidential] palace to protect [constitutional] legitimacy.”

In a more ominous statement, he threatened, “Those adventurous ones, who want to seize power without respecting referendum and election ballot boxes, must reconsider [their actions] before it is too late” [emphasis my own]. The demonization of the opposition by Brotherhood officials continued even after the violence. For example, Khairat al-Shater, Brotherhood deputy supreme guide, said today that opposition protesters are small minority of thugs and remnants of the Hosni Mubarak regime.

The clashes, in other words, ensued in a context in which the Brotherhood was asking supporters to not simply march to the palace to express support for the president and demonstrate that many Egyptians stand by his decisions, but rather to suppress and crush Morsy’s opposition. The professed objective of Brotherhood protests was made in clear reference to Morsy’s opponents, the need to contain them, and protect the president from their “subversive ways.” Stated simply, to say that the Muslim Brotherhood’s call for protests was designed to incite attacks against the Ettehadiya sit-in is an understatement.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to escalate the conflict with its challengers was not merely aimed at dealing the opposition an unquestionable defeat by forcing an end to its sit-in around the presidential palace and clearing the way for a transition dictated by the Brotherhood and its allies. Through this action, the Brotherhood also sought to send a message to leaders of military and civilian security agencies that the Brothers are ready to take matters into their own hands, should the police and the army continue to show ambivalence in dealing with the opposition.

The events of the past week have highlighted the Brotherhood’s sense of frustration with the Interior Ministry’s failure to contain protests organized in opposition to the president’s constitutional declaration and the Brotherhood-backed draft constitution. For instance, Erian’s statement that called on Brotherhood supporters to march to the presidential palace Wednesday contained a subtle warning to Egypt’s security establishment: “If the state apparatus is weak and marred by the wounds of the past period, the people, led by members of the [Freedom and Justice] Party, are ready to impose their will and to protect [constitutional] legitimacy.”

A day earlier, Brotherhood leader Essam Hashish expressed his frustration with the fact that the Republican Guard had not stepped up to the plate in protecting the presidential palace Tuesday, when Morsy was forced to evacuate his office after finding himself surrounded by thousands of his opponents in Ettehadiya. Similarly, Brotherhood spokesperson Ghozlan suggested Wednesday that security forces were soft on opposition protesters the night before the clashes, noting that they “withdrew and cleared the way for the opposition to reach the presidential palace.”

These statements coincided with media reports alleging that the president’s office had shared unkind words with Interior Minister Ahmed Gamal Eddin Tuesday night, and was considering replacing him due to the failure of security forces to fend off opposition protesters surrounding the palace.

The Brotherhood’s frustration was not entirely unfounded. After protesters were able to overcome barbed wire set up in the streets leading to the presidential palace Tuesday, security personnel withdrew to the immediate vicinity of Ettehadiya, thereby allowing Morsy’s opponents to surround the palace. Some media reports claim that the protesters applauded security forces for showing some restraint.

In fact, opposition figure Hamdy Qandil commended security forces for allowing protesters to enter the presidential palace area, asserting that this marks the beginning of the “return of the police back into the arms of the people.” Although these reports may have exaggerated the police’s cooperation with the protesters, they appear to have left the Brotherhood with the impression that security agencies stood passively on the sidelines as Morsy and his team were confronting masses of angry demonstrators by themselves.

Reflecting the humiliating state in which Morsy was left, comments circulated on social networking sites that the president had to be quietly smuggled out of the “servants’ entrance” to avoid the angry crowds.

This week was not the first instance in which Brotherhood officials were dismayed by police performance in protecting the group’s figures and interests. Brotherhood leaders were similarly angered at the inability (or perhaps refusal) of police personnel during the past few weeks to stop foes from attacking the offices of the Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party.

The military tried to signal initially that it is not party to this conflict. As observers began speculating that the Armed Forces deployed around the presidential palace Wednesday morning following the end of clashes were an indication that the military had taken Morsy’s side, a military spokesperson eagerly announced that these were Republican Guard units and not regular Armed Forces — Republican Guard forces are not subject to the conventional chain of military command, and their chief takes orders from the president. Reinforcing the perception, immediately after Wednesday’s violence, Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stated that the Armed Forces are “working in complete loyalty to the Egyptian people.”

By Friday night, protesters by the presidential palace were taking pictures with Republican Guard forces and writing on their tanks “down with Morsy” and “down with the rule [Muslim Brotherhood supreme] guide.” The military, in the immediate aftermath of the violence, seemed keen on avoiding any hints of bias toward Morsy and his partisans.

The tensions that this crisis has highlighted in the relationship between the Brotherhood and security agencies speak to the reality that the Brotherhood-controlled presidency remains an uncomfortable guest inside the so-called deep state.

The “deep state,” broadly speaking, refers to a diverse set of longstanding, powerful bureaucratic interests entrenched inside the Egyptian state and inherited from the previous political order, including, but not limited to, military institutions and domestic security agencies. While these various bureaucratic interests do not exhibit any ideological or political cohesion, they are all unified by a commitment to resisting any attempts by outside political forces, particularly elected officials, to undermine the financial and institutional autonomy that these organizations have garnered over the course of decades.

In some sectors of this deep state, this autonomy is reflected through the prevalence of “special private funds” and off-budget spending that are subject to minimal oversight, and that afford these agencies a great deal of discretion in running their own affairs away from formal lines of accountability.

For the security agencies inside the “deep state,” the greatest threat they face is the prospect of having to confront a new class of ruling elite that is determined to advance a security sector reform agenda that could undermine their institutional autonomy, not to mention the anti-democratic privileges that this autonomy has long harbored. The Egyptian military, as many have noted, is known to own and benefit from a variety of revenue generating economic enterprises that are subject to zero accountability and transparency.

The Interior Ministry has long been a hub for a range of corrupt and illicit practices, many of which have continued even after Mubarak’s downfall — most notably, the chronic use of deadly force against unarmed protesters, not to mention police brutality against suspects in non-political contexts.

Since the earliest days of his presidency, Morsy and his group have taken a cautiously accommodationist stance toward powerful sectors of the deep state. The Brotherhood appeared to be well aware of the fact that it cannot promote its policies and programs in a way that allows it to establish an incumbency advantage in the electoral sphere until it makes its peace with the deep state.

It was, therefore, not surprising that the first government that emerged under Morsy’s leadership came to be publicly perceived as a partnership between the Brotherhood and the deep state, namely between elements that are sympathetic, if not loyal, to the Brotherhood’s leadership, and veteran insiders to the Egyptian bureaucracy. In some ways, Prime Minister Hesham Qandil embodies this partnership, as a longtime technocrat at the Irrigation Ministry, and, at the same time, someone with ties to ranking members of the Brotherhood Guidance Bureau.

Also under Morsy’s presidency, the military and the civilian security establishment continued to enjoy the leadership of traditional bureaucrats and officers committed to the non-democratic autonomy of their agencies from usual standards of accountability and transparency. For his part, Morsy has stayed out of the “business” (quite literally) of the military and the policing establishment, steering clear of any security sector reform initiatives that could undermine their interests.

As the head of the Central Accountability Agency has recently remarked, the military’s economic enterprises remain above the reach of public transparency and accountability.

Article 197 of the constitution that the Brotherhood-backed Constituent Assembly drafted exempts the military from conventional parliamentary oversight and delegates it to a military-dominated National Defense Council, similar to the articles of the controversial “Selmy” document — named after former Prime Minister Ali al-Selmy — that the SCAF-sponsored government presented in November 2011 and that the Brotherhood had (ironically) opposed. Additionally, Article 198 gives the military the discretion to try civilians in military courts, specifically in cases involving “crimes that harm the Armed Forces.”

In other words, the political order that the Brotherhood has been attempting to establish is one that accommodates the interests of the deep state, and, on some level, shields it from revolutionary movements and activists who seem less amenable than the Brotherhood to compromise and accommodation with entrenched bureaucratic interests. Yet these concessions by themselves, as evidenced by recent events, were not enough to institutionalize a durable partnership between the Brothers and the deep state.

In many ways, the ongoing conflict between Morsy and his challengers is putting the delicate relationship between the deep state and the Muslim Brotherhood to the test. Despite the accomodationist gestures that the Brotherhood and Morsy have made to leaders of the domestic and military security establishments over the past months, they appeared anything but eager to come to Morsy’s aid during the early phases of the Brotherhood’s current standoff with the opposition — as evidenced by the Brotherhood’s statements cited above. Their reluctance is not surprising.

While the Morsy presidency and its pragmatic orientation toward the deep state may offer the military and the policing establishments some degree of protection from revolutionary demands for far-reaching reforms, it is clear that their faith in the stability and sustainability of the political order that the Brotherhood is erecting is tenuous. They realize that anti-Morsy popular pressure could limit if not overturn the Brotherhood’s dominance in the political arena, which makes them nervous about putting all their eggs in the Morsy basket by going into a full-scale battle with the opposition on behalf of the president.

Thus, both the Interior Ministry and the military have tried to emphasize in their initial public statements that they are taking a neutral stance in this conflict, even while their actions on the ground veered away from this stated position. Similar to the approach of military leaders to the standoff between Mubarak and his challengers during the 2011 18-day uprising, the security sector of the deep state may be inclined to wait on the sidelines to determine the outcome of the ongoing battle before committing fully to protecting the emergent (and perhaps favorable) political order that the Brotherhood is constructing.

With the escalation of conflict, however, following such a strategy has proven especially difficult for the military, particularly now that it has taken on, at the order of the president, new responsibilities to protect public order and vital installations.

The military’s predicament is deep. On the one hand, it sees safety for its institutional interests in the Brotherhood’s evolving political order, which would leave intact its unusual privileges without having to take on the burden of intervening in day-to-day politics — a task that has proven costly and internally divisive during the recent period of formal military rule.

Yet at the same time, if the military has to take on an active and visible role in order to protect and reap the benefits of the Brotherhood-dictated transition, the reasoning goes, then at what point do the benefits that this new order offers outweigh the costs of maintaining and preserving it?

This dilemma is reflected in the military’s statement today that followed the announcement that it would formally take on new protective powers. Like in many of its previous statements, the military tried to emphasize its neutrality in this conflict, and affirmed that its foremost commitment and loyalty is to the Egyptian people.

At the same time, the statement implicitly rebuffed widespread calls for Morsy’s departure, paying lip service to “legal legitimacy and democratic rules.” It also endorsed (perhaps indirectly) the president’s call for dialogue with the opposition, stating: “Dialogue is the ideal and only way to reaching a consensus that achieves the interests of the nation and citizens.”

Illustrating the military’s fear of being closely associated with the Brotherhood-controlled presidency, shortly after the statement was released, an unidentified military source told Al-Masry Al-Youm that this announcement must not be interpreted as a signal that the military is returning to politics. These tensions and concerns will likely persist, as the Brotherhood continues to call on military leaders for support.

Hesham Sallam is co-editor of Jadaliyya and a PhD candidate in government at Georgetown University. This article was originally published in Jadaliyya. This is the first of a two-part article. The second part will be published Tuesday.

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