Egypt, WTF? (A Primer)

This is what’s left of a pro-Morsi camp in Cairo after the military moved in. (AFP, Khaled Desouki)

Egypt, as you’re probably aware, is a mess. Earlier this week the Egyptian military, on its second coup in two years, straight-up massacred members of the Muslim Brotherhood who were engaging in sit-ins to protest the deposal of President Mohamed Morsi. The latest counts have more than 600 dead and 4,200 wounded.

Yesterday President Obama condemned the violence and cancelled planned joint military exercises with the Egyptian military. He did not, however, cut off the $1.3 billion (with a b) the U.S. gives the military in aid, a move that hasn’t gone over all that well. This though the Brotherhood had reportedly accepted an international settlement plan, and though American and Western officials had urged military officials not to use force to dispel the sit-ins.

I spent yesterday afternoon chatting with a guy named David Faris, an associate professor of political science and director of international studies at Roosevelt University in Chicago. I first met Dave back in 2009, when I was news editor at Philadelphia City Paper and he a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania who occasionally wrote for the paper. Dave is, quite simply, an expert on Egypt. It’s his primary research focus. He visited the country frequently both before and after the 2011 revolution. He wrote his dissertation on it. In May, his book, titled Dissent and Revolution in a Digital Age: Social Media, Blogging and Activism in Egypt, was released.

What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited only for clarity. Parts get a bit wonky, but if you want to get up to speed on what’s really happening in Egypt, and understand why the money we send over there is fueling the killing, this is as good a primer as you’ll find.

(You don’t want to be one of those ill-informed jagoffs on Facebook, do you?)

This is what’s left of a pro-Morsi camp in Cairo after the military moved in. (AFP, Khaled Desouki)
This is what’s left of a pro-Morsi camp in Cairo after the military moved in. (AFP, Khaled Desouki)

David Faris in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, 2011.

Orlando Weekly: Let’s begin with the forest and then get into the trees later. Give us a Reader’s Digest version of the current state of things in Egypt.

David Faris: ?Sure. If I could boil it down to its essence it would be this: The largest commercial entity in the country is the Egyptian military. The military made a strategic decision in 2011 to depose Hosni Mubarak and to replace him with some kind of elected civilian apparatus. To no one's surprise—except, I guess, the Egyptian military—the Muslim Brotherhood, which is best thought of as a grassroots Islamist movement, formed a political party and won both parliamentary and presidential elections, under conditions that were widely regarded as free.

Almost immediately the military seemed to have second thoughts about turning over any real power to the Brotherhood and its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Before President Morsi was even elected in June 2012, a Mubarak-era court annulled the parliamentary elections. Morsi was then curiously left standing as essentially the lone elected democratic institution in the country. He pushed through a constitution that was written almost entirely by his allies, which ticked off the opposition enough to bring them out into the streets. This was in November 2012. Leading opposition figures formed something called the National Salvation Front, which plotted the big demonstrations for June 30, 2013.

Why is the military not simpatico with the Brotherhood?

The thing that is most important to understand about the Egyptian military is that it is an enormous and corrupt holding company, not a military. For one thing, Morsi threatened to entangle that holding company in actual conflicts in Syria and Ethiopia. The bigger threat was that by winning both parliament and the presidency, Morsi and the Brotherhood threatened to extend their formal control over the entire state. This would threaten the military's unaccountable economic activities and they can't have that. Morsi was also a fool who governed like one and forsook every opportunity to work with the opposition.

What sort of economic activities are you referring to? 

The Egyptian military has its hands in all kinds of commercial enterprises—tourism, water bottling, you name it. The biggest fish, though, is actually military manufacturing and similar arms in commercial export. Lots of these things are actually produced with army conscript labor and then exported or sold tax-free. It is an enormous, unaccountable profit-generating machine for the military. The generals in charge of this military have no interest in most traditional military concerns. You rise up through the ranks, serve a few years in the hierarchy, and then retire with a lucrative job as the vice president at some factory.

And Morsi posed a threat to this racket because he was a reformer?

?Well it will never be clear exactly what Morsi was or was not because he never really had a chance to govern. By the time he took office, the legislature had been dissolved and he couldn't really do much of anything without in some ways looking tyrannical. It is clear that Morsi wanted to establish civilian control of the military. At the same time he made no move to reform the Ministry of the Interior (MOI), which is probably the most regressive and corrupt institution in the country after the military.

So then, how much of the June 30 protests then was organic, and how much was the military imposing its will?

?It was definitely organic. Morsi was incompetent, and the Brotherhood was a rigid, narrow charity organization that had no idea how to run a state. At the same time, elements of what we called "the deep state" were also clearly at work sabotaging public services and safety to make Morsi look worse. The coalition that brought people out, Tamarod (which translates as “rebellion”), knew what they were doing and were genuinely angry that Morsi had not even tried to govern more inclusively, and wanted him to resign. But the military used these protests as a cover to liquidate the Brotherhood as a political force. This was clear from the moment that Morsi was disappeared. And the Tamarod people should have known better.

Liquidate seems an apt word given recent events.

Absolutely. What's happening in Egypt right now is very ugly. it has also long been a feature of authoritarian rule there. One set of civilians (the Islamists) is set against another (liberals, for lack of a better word, although they aren't), and the state chooses who to include and who to repress. And by setting the civilians against each other the military can just sit back and reap the benefits of chaos and fear.

You spent a lot of time over there in the years leading up to the first revolution. To a lot of outsiders, I think the Egyptian people look fickle—they vote this guy in rather overwhelmingly, then a year later they’re cheering on a military coup. Morsi, meanwhile, never really had a chance to govern. So my question is, what do the Egyptians really want?

Mostly Egyptians just want to be left alone, and to have a chance to improve their lives in a fair fashion. A few points of context: One is that Morsi's victory was not overwhelming. Egypt used a two-round system, and in the first round, Morsi was badly outnumbered by votes split across several more "liberal" candidates. He really only won because members of the opposition held their noses and voted for him over a guy, Ahmed Shafiq, who very clearly represented a return to Mubarak.

And then frankly everything went to shit—gas lines, fuel shortages, a crime spike, you name it. Cash reserves are drying up, the tourists are gone. I mean, it was really kind of an apocalypse for prosperity.

And so people blamed Morsi. And they blamed the Brotherhood. And believe me, there were always a lot of people inside Egypt who regarded the Brotherhood as neofascists, terrorists. We all underestimated the reserve of hatred for these guys. And there's a class element of it, too, which is that the class of Egyptians who have benefited from corrupt neoliberalism regard the Brotherhood as backwards country bumpkins unfit to run a state. But they are all failing to see who the real enemy is here.

The government today is labeling the Brotherhood terrorists. Is there any truth to that charge? Or is that a convenient excuse for massacre?

?It's largely just an excuse for a massacre. There were certainly some people who were armed in the sit-ins. But it some ways you can't really blame them. Now, there are the people going around burning Coptic Christian churches all over Upper Egypt. Those elements are clearly terrorists.

Although you have to ask: Where is the lavishly funded military during all of this? Why aren't churches being protected the day they slaughter hundreds of Islamists protestors? The answer is that they were left unguarded by the same military that wants all blame placed on the Brotherhood so that they can continue to avoid any kind of civilian oversight by anyone.

It's classic rent-seeking. You have an entity (the military) funded by a source of unaccountable external funding (the tax-free corporations, military funding and external aid) who want to protect what they have. Real, democratic institutions are the only real threat to those rents.

So what are the chances the military gives way to a democratic government anytime in the near future?

They are smart enough to know that they have to slap a civilian facade on this thing as soon as possible. They not only have no interest in ruling directly, they know they are actually pretty bad at it. Holding companies are no good at running countries. But they are going to push through another constitution that excludes the military from civilian oversight. And they are out there arresting the Brotherhood's leaders. And who knows if the FJP will be allowed to compete. My guess is that they come up with a "legal" way to exclude Islamist parties from the next election.

?Can there be a government without the Islamist parties?

Sure, there can be a government, but it will be regarded as illegitimate by many Egyptians who supported the FJP. Curiously, the West right now (i.e., us) is being excoriated in the local press for having been lapdogs of the Brotherhood.

This is insane but that's the discourse. So I'm not sure who is going to get blamed for the new government exactly. But as long as we keep sending $1.3 billion in aid directly to the Egyptian military, we will shoulder some blame—and rightly so.

That’s a good segue into the American role in all this. Let’s start with the money. Play devil’s advocate for a second and tell me what benefit the U.S. receives from funding the military. Is it just to keep them peaceful with Israel?

Oh no, it's not about Israel at all, in my humble opinion. The benefit is that money, almost all of it down to the last penny, gets channeled directly back to U.S. arms contractors. It's like a backdoor subsidy for arms manufacturers who, wouldn't you know it, are largely located in swing states like Ohio. Now, jobs aren't nothing. But the apologists for this aid are going to load all kinds of causal claims onto it, like: 1) it helps stabilize the Egypt-Israel relationship; 2) it helps protect the Suez Canal from terrorism; and 3) it’s this huge important part of regional stability. And you look at the region right now and you have to ask, "What stability?"

That’s interesting. All the justifications I’ve heard center on keeping leverage over the military to keep it in check with regard to Israel.

The military does not need an incentive not to attack Israel. The Israeli military, unlike the Egyptian military, is actually designed to wage war. The Egyptians know it would take the Israelis about 25 minutes to dismantle the entirety of the Egyptian defense infrastructure. And then what? All of those painstakingly constructed industries gone in five minutes, and all of those former generals out of work and no one wins.

Theoretically, we gain "leverage" over the Egyptian military with this aid. The one thing I can say about Israel is that it might help incentivize the Egyptian military to help keep their end of the Gaza blockade. But as recent events demonstrate, extremist elements infiltrating the Sinai through Gaza are just as big a problem for Egypt as it might be for Israel. Even bigger perhaps. Any terrorist acts in Sinai mean huge tourist losses for Egypt and consequently, huge losses for military-aligned industries. So I would argue they don't need the incentive there either.

Speaking of leverage: If the money earned the U.S. leverage, wouldn’t Obama administration officials have been able to get the military to not mow down Brotherhood members in the streets?

That is exactly my point. For a while I didn't know what to think about this. It did seem like U.S. leverage played a role in convincing the military to usher Mubarak aside. But then we seem utterly powerless to 1) prevent the coup, 2) prevent the massacres and 3) convince elites to open up the economy in any meaningful way. So what's the point exactly? All we are really doing is assisting Egyptian rent-seekers in dominating the economy and depriving the state of resources that might be used for health, infrastructure, etc. And of course we are keeping some arms contractors stateside in serious business. So this week has really convinced me: The aid has got to go.

You said earlier the U.S. was seen in the Muslim world as backers of the Brotherhood, even as we now fund the military that is massacring them. Is that right? And how does that make sense?

Well it doesn't, of course. We were seen as supportive of the process which brought Morsi to power. Which we were. But we were never thrilled about it. And I would think that this week's events would throw into stark relief our actual interests in Egypt, as seen by the Obama administration, which is the belief in some kind of Stability Fairy that operates in a mythical way through the Egyptian military.

Let’s make you king for a day. What’s the right play for the Obama administration here?

The first move is to cut the aid and refuse to restore it until an elected civilian government is in place and the senior members of the Brotherhood are out of prison. Beyond that, we have to disentangle ourselves from the Egyptian military-industrial complex.

The problem in Egypt is that no "structural reform" of the economy is ever going to achieve anything there except punishing the poor, because this tiny elite dominates the economy and extracts so much of the potential wealth for itself. What we have to do is once and for all see the Egyptian military as the set of petty, armed gangsters that they are and withdraw our support for them. No broad-based progress or stability will ever be achieved there as long as those guys have both the economy and the guns. It's all a charade.

That said, I have some hope that over the long run, if real civilian institutions are put into place at both the national and local levels, that dedicated civilians can gradually wrest control of the leviathan away from the military. But it's going to take a long time and that's under the most optimistic scenarios. So obviously we should be pushing for as transparent and empowering a political process as possible.

What are the likely scenarios going forward? More mass killings? Or will the military back off given international pressure?

Well, that's not clear exactly. I don't expect more massive street confrontations. The military knows that's no good for business. In fact I'm quite surprised that they unleashed the level of lethality that they did. At the same time, I don't think Egypt is on the precipice of turning into Syria. Egypt lacks most of the elements that have turned Syria into a sectarian battleground.

In the coming months, the military is likely to put into place a process of controlled elections designed to placate investors, get people out of the streets and get back to business as usual. I just don't have a high degree of confidence that it's going to work. The same activists that came out against the Brotherhood on June 30th are eventually going to realize that they've been had. They might re-mobilize.

There are major unresolved problems outside of Cairo and Alexandria—industrial worker unrest largely—and the military has given no sign that it knows how to resolve these problems. So to me we are almost right back where we were the day Mubarak was deposed, with the exception that all trust between civilian factions has been eroded. And the military's role seems even more starkly obvious to me now than it did then.

Follow Jeffrey Billman on Twitter at @jeffreybillman.

Scroll to read more Orlando Area News articles
Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Orlando Weekly Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.