Episode 35: The Egyptian Revolution

Host: Christopher Rose, Outreach Director, Center for Middle Eastern Studies
Guest: Sahar F. Aziz, Associate Professor, Texas A&M School of Law, Fort Worth, TX

walklikeanegyptianThe Egyptian Revolution of 2011 captivated the imagination of pro-democracy activists worldwide and turned the name of Cairo’s Tahrir Square into a buzzword for freedom and popular resistance. However, since the February 11, 2011 deposition of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s road to democracy has been marred by two miitary coups, a decrease in government transparency, and the erratic reign of a democratically elected president-turned-authoritarian who wasn’t even his own party’s first choice nominee for office.

Guest Sahar F. Aziz helps us understand the political earthquakes in Egypt’s bumpy transition from authoritarian rule to what comes next, and sheds light on what it might take for the country to arrive at the democracy its people demanded in the streets.

Editor’s note: this episode is a bit longer than the usual fifteen minutes. Because this episode discusses an event that is current and ongoing, we decided to leave it as a single, longer episode rather than divide it into a two part sequence.

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Today, we’re going to take a little bit of a different bent and not look at things that happened decades or centuries ago, but rather something that’s going on right now, in fact, and that is the Egyptian Revolution. We have covered in previous episodes a lot of the things that led to what is now known as the January 25th uprising, which was the 2011—basically the flooding of Tahrir Square with people and the downfall of longtime president Hosni Mubarak. These factors had to do with things like the population getting younger, unemployment going up, inflation going up, as well as a complete lack of political freedom on the part of the people.

And the military stepped in—famously on February 11th—to depose/take-over the government. One of the questions that has come up a lot, and I’m never quite sure how to respond to it, is Mubarak himself was from the military (in fact, all of Egypt’s presidents, with the exception of Mohamed Morsi, were ex-military) yet there was a lot of celebration in the streets when his own institution stepped in to take power. Why? Why were people so happy when the military deposed one of their own?

So I think that’s an excellent question, and the answer lies heavily in the circumstances surrounding this very unexpected revolution that was long time coming. The first is, the revolution was, in my opinion, not planned. It was not organized or orchestrated in the same way someone could argue, perhaps, July 3rd, 2013 had been. It was the result of a protest that was anti-police-state on January 25th, and many Egyptians thought nothing would come of it. Most of the organizers would eventually be scared away or arrested and detained. But what culminated in those historic eighteen days was something that no one had anticipated. They also did not anticipate what would happen if they succeeded. In some ways they endeavored on a project they assumed would fail. But they had nothing to lose in attempting revolt.

So part of the reason people were accepting of the military taking over was that there was no one else. Nobody had been allowed to have a political party; the National Democratic Party dominated the entire country. Mubarak had structured the country in such a way for the past 30 years there was no alternative, and any time any one was competition he would either exile the individual or detain the individual or you would find them disappeared or dead. And so the Egyptian people found themselves in this very unexpected situation, and they said, “We actually did it, we deposed him, and we don’t know who can take over.” So that’s one factor.

Another factor is, at that point in time, people did associate the military with Mubarak in the same way perhaps we make that association now in terms of who is running the country. At that time, the view was that the National Democratic Party, and the business elites, and the cronies, and the internal security forces were more to blame for the oppressive authoritarianism that had taken control of Egypt. The military was viewed more as a national security organization that protected Egypt’s boarders and protected safety, but really never engaged in the “dirty work” of authoritarianism. They had a lot of credibility. So in light of the fact that there was no alternative, and that the military was not viewed as an integral part of Mubarak’s authoritarian state, they were the best and only alternative.

And the third reason why I think they were more accepted was that people genuinely thought it was temporary. It was revolutionary times, and they were perfectly willing to accept them for three months, six months, until they could get a democratically elected civilian parliament and president.

Well, ok, now we have the military in charge, and one of the first things they wanted to do was basically throw out, and rewrite, the constitution. Now, Egypt was nominally already a constitutional republic, but there were clearly flaws with it. So what were the flaws with the old document that they were hoping to correct in drafting a new document from scratch?

Well, they abolished it, partially, for symbolic reasons. They associated this 1971 constitution with at least two dictators’ regimes. So there was a political statement that was being made: we are going to start new, we are going to start fresh, this is a corrupted document. The irony is that the 2012 constitution, and the one now that is being considered, actually incorporates a significant proportion of the 1971 constitution. So there is a disconnect between perception and reality.

Now when we go into what was substantially flawed, the primary flaws lied in the separation of powers. The executive branch had tremendous authority to control the state. The Judiciary’s powers were, on paper, relatively independent, but there were ways in which the president could, for example, appoint the head of the judicial council—the judicial supreme council, which was the most powerful institution in the judiciary—so, one flaw that hasn’t been fixed, even in the constitution that is under consideration now, is that the president can appoint the head of the judicial council, which then discipline the entire judiciary, which would find ways to punish (not necessarily expel, but at least punish) and penalize judges who, when they had cases before them that would compromise the authority of the executive branch and they didn’t do what they were supposed to, they could face some serious consequences. So that was one, he had some influence over the judiciary.

The second was how the National Democratic Party was essentially set up to win the elections. That was mainly through the election laws, but the ways in which the constitution could be amended was very amenable to the president being able to manipulate it, which is what he did. And that is what resulted, arguably, in the 2010 most corrupt, most fraudulent elections Egypt had ever seen—the parliamentary elections of 2010. And many people in Egypt will say that was the straw that broke the camel’s back, in terms of some of the established institutions, because the National Democratic Party literally brought in people from Cairo and Alexandria and forced them on to rural areas, when historically that was considered taboo. They would prop people up in certain areas, but at least they would find them from within the regions. But they became so bold and blatant in their corruption.

And the other issue was individual rights. So there were many provisions in the constitution that provided for individual rights like freedom of expression and freedom of association, except that there was always this clause at the end of every provision that said, “As required by law,” or, “As permitted by law,” which was an escape valve. So, yes you had this right to free speech, however there was a caveat—a very large caveat—that said, “If the law, the statutes, allow that.” So then, the president could use his dominance over the National Democratic Party to pass laws through the parliament that did, in effect, violate many of the rights in the constitution.

And then there was the “emergency law,” which had been in place for thirty years, which abrogated most of those individual rights.

Absolutely. And that’s another good point, in terms of the 1971 constitution, which did change in the 2012 constitution, which was that it set some limits as to the president’s authority to extend it beyond 6 months. And after that, it needed to be subjected to a public referendum. So that was a significant improvement from the 1971 to the 2012 constitution.

So walk us through 2011. Mubarak is gone, there were a couple referenda—many of us will remember watching on the news, you know the Egyptians saying they voted for the first time of their lives, and knowing that it actually counted. And so, we had a referendum on the constitution and a parliamentary election, if I’m not mistaken. How then do we get from that to the Muslim Brotherhood taking over politics, specifically in the person of Mohammed Morsi.

So the Muslim Brotherhood was poised to win the parliament. They had been the only political group. Although they had not been an official political party by law until after the revolution, they were the only organized opposition that had managed, miraculously and admirably (in light of these circumstances), to survive the authoritarian state. They operated underground, through social services networks. They were able to manipulate the system so it was very difficult for the state to get rid of them. They was highly, highly disciplined. So once they were able to come out of the closet, and formalize, and become and official political party, they were leagues ahead of the other political stakeholders—particularly the liberals, the seculars, the business elites, the Nasserists, the communists, the socialists, pick your political interest group. And one of the reasons why they pushed for the parliament to be elected before a constitution was drafted was because they were very confident, and rightfully so, that they were going to dominate the parliament. And through their domination of parliament, they could then control who would be on the parliamentary assembly and also who could become president. So then they could be shaping this new document that was, in theory, supposed to be the road map for decades, if not centuries, for Egypt—to the extent that the constitution was going to have some legitimacy.

So it was a very strategic move for them, for them to push on the March of 2011, in that referendum, to have parliamentary and presidential elections before the constitutional drafting process. So, in many ways what happened in the elections of December 2011 and January 2012, with regard to the parliament, are not surprising. The liberals and the secularists and the youth movement spent all of the time bickering and fighting. They had no experience in campaigning, and many of them had such strong classist sentiments (because many were rooted in the cities like Cairo and Alexandria) that they thought it was beneath them, or not worth their time, to go into the rural areas to campaign, when in fact 60% of Egypt’s population is rural, and that was where the Muslim Brotherhood had it’s foothold, through their social services network that had been in existence for decades.

So 2011, in many ways, was not a surprise for those of us who saw the different factors, or viewed them, however it was very shocking to the revolutionary youth and the liberals and the civil society who were not Islamists, who had sacrificed life and limb, and who had taken the risk to start the revolution (and the Brotherhood had not even starting participating in it until about a week into it) to see that it had been hijacked from them as far as they were concerned. They got none of the bounty. They had a miniscule representation in the parliament, and that was a first wake-up call that democracy may not always produce the outcome that you anticipated or that you want. It was a big test for Egyptians to determine can they accept that as a fact of a democratic system, that you will not always win and that it’s about the process, not necessarily the outcome.

So, Morsi is elected as head of the Muslim Brotherhood, and then what happens?

Well, Morsi was an unexpected presidential candidate. If you’ll recall, the Muslim Brotherhood originally had put in the field of candidates, among the 18 candidates that ran for the presidency (which speaks volumes about the fractured political landscape in Egypt), it was Khairat al-Shater, but the supreme constitutional court found a way to disqualify him among nine other candidates. I suspect it was because he was quite a formidable candidate and he had a lot of influence in the Brotherhood. So the Brotherhood, at the last moment, put forth Mohammed Morsi, who was an unknown name, at least in the political scene. He had been active internally within the Brotherhood. And he had a fight to the end with Ahmad Shafiq, who also came in in the last minute, and he used to be the Minister of Aviation under Mubarak.

So ultimately, the election of 2012, the presidential election, was this very difficult choice for Egyptians. On the one hand, the Muslim Brotherhood, who they viewed as very unfamiliar/suspect (they had spent an entire generation listening to the vilification of the Brotherhood by the Mubarak regime, as these stealth secret terrorists that hid their agenda), and on the other hand they had Shafiq, who they viewed as the epitome of everything they revolted against. And they had no representative that had any affiliation with the revolutionary youth, or the liberals, or the socialists, or the civil society. And it was a very difficult choice, and many Egyptians (51.7% to be exact) voted for Morsi.

He came into the presidency on June 12th, 2012 with no parliament, because about 10 days before he won, the Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved the parliament on grounds that the parliamentary election law, which had been unilaterally amended under SCAF [under the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (because there had been no parliament to pass it)] had allowed for the political parties to put in their candidates, under the auspices of being independent candidates, they had been gaming the system, which gave a significant advantage to the Muslim Brotherhood. They were already poised to win two-thirds of the political party seats. So the Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved it, and Morsi becomes president, and he has very little left in foreign reserves, it’s been completely spent at that point, the economy was in shatters, tourism was almost nonexistent, and he had no parliament, and a very skeptical public who looked at him with scrutiny.

They thought, “We gave you a chance because you were less-worse than Shafiq,” but he didn’t have the same legitimacy that you would anticipate from a 51.7% victory.

Right, and he was not terribly popular president, even among his own party, is that a fair statement?

Well, he certainly wasn’t the first choice. I think the perception from outside the Brotherhood (I’m not an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood) but the perception was he was a good soldier, and he was a soldier. And that created some problems for him and his own legitimacy and credibility because people questioned whether Morsi was the president of Egypt or if Mohamed Bedia was, or Khairat al-Shater was, and so was Egypt being run by the individual who was elected to run the country or was he simply a puppet? And that created some popularity problems for him. But, I would say that he came in not necessarily unpopular, he just came in with a question mark over his head, but over time he began to exhibit or practice the same authoritarian practices that Mubarak and his regime had conducted, and that caused this already skeptical public to quickly conclude that he was not to be trusted, that the Brotherhood was not to be trusted, and they were going to sabotage the revolution.

The most critical, or I would say fatal decision he made, was when he first assigned primarily Islamists to the constitutional assembly, which made all the other political parties feel that they had been shut out. And the few that had been in that committee, when they attempted to provide their input and feedback, they realized that it was not being listened to, and they were just being co-opted, and it was a public relations effort by the Brotherhood to make it appear that they were being objective, but in fact this was a constitution that was going to be drafted entirely by the Muslim Brotherhood. That was the perception of the other political parties. When they were about to vote on this draft, the 2012 constitutional draft, and everybody had resigned except the Islamists, the Supreme Constitution Court again hit a major blow to the Brotherhood. There was a rumor that in about three or four days they were going to issue a ruling that the entire assembly had been unconstitutional—and they way it had been put together was unconstitutional, which would have brought Morsi back to square one in trying to draft and pass a constitution.

So a few days before that, he decided he would preempt the Supreme Constitutional Court, and he issued a constitutional declaration, unilaterally as the president, and said, “I am above the law and immune from judicial review. I am the executive branch, and the legislative branch, and the judicial branch. And I am going to decree that we are going to have a public referendum on this constitution in two weeks, and no one can challenge me.” Of course there was a huge uproar, and many protests, and protests outside the presidential palace in which many people were killed—and this is one of the many bases for his criminal prosecution. And he backed off a little bit and said, “Ok, this decree is only valid until the constitution is passed, and we have a parliament, but any decision I make in between that is un-appealable. And, at least for this 3 or 4 week period, these decisions I make are irreversible.”

And, by the way, one key decision he made extra-legally replaced the prosecutor general, Abdel Maguid Mahmoud, and he put in Talaat Abdullah. And this was very controversial move for the judiciary because Egypt has a bizarre system in which the prosecutor general, which is the key lawyer for the executive branch, is actually a member of the judiciary.  And so for the president to fire him was viewed as an affront to judicial independence.  The problem was that this prosecutor general, for the past few months, had been obstructing many of Morsi’s efforts to recover stolen assets from the old guard, who had stolen several billions of dollars from the country and hid it abroad.  He had stonewalled some of the investigations against Mubarak and the high level officials who were in jail, but the investigations were not being meaningfully conducted.  Everybody agreed that this Mubarack-era prosecutor general was corrupt, politicized and loathed.  However it was a matter of principle.  “How dare you fire him, he has to finish his term and the judiciary protected.”

So, between that decree, things eventually lead to his ouster on July 3rd. What tipped that scale? What was the point in which the military and the public decided that they just couldn’t deal with this anymore?

It was an accumulation of factors. I think that for the first five months Morsi spent most of his time trying to make the best of a bad situation. He made a deal with a military and said I’m not going to force you to be more transparent in where your money is, because nobody knows the military’s budget. The military has it speculated that 40% of the economy is controlled by the military through factories and different business endeavors. It’s a very important issue for the military to keep that, and to keep the benefits that arise from that. So he made a deal with them and said, I’m not going to intervene or change or reform that. He also attempted to make deals with the judiciary, but that clearly didn’t work because the Supreme Constitutional Court kept pushing back and the other judges were very suspect of him.

Once he realized he had no allies anywhere (he had no allies in the armed security forces, he had not allies in the judiciary, he had no allies among the business elite, and he had no allies within even the bureaucracy) he realized that he was going to have to make significant reforms and shake the system up. The more he tried to do that, the more pushback he got back from these different stakeholders. The only stakeholder that was still in his corner, skeptically, was civil society. They were still willing to give him a chance because of their belief in the project of democracy—and he had been democratically elected. But when he issued that Presidential Constitutional Declaration, and when many of the Muslim Brotherhood operatives killed protestors in front of the Presidential Palace in 2012, that was the turning point, that was when he had no one left in his corner—except the Salafis (who ultimately betrayed him on July 3rd, when they stood next to Sisi and declared that Morsi was no longer the president.)

So what you found in the spring is that he was becoming farther and farther right, trying to appease the Salafis. And he had put into the 2012 constitution some provisions, like article 219 (that established Sharia law and entrenched it further into the legal system) and many other changes that were subtle but that could be very influential where he was pushing the country more into an Islamic identity. And some could argue that that was already the Brotherhood’s agenda, but some could argue that he was trying to appease the only stakeholder left on his side, which were the Salafis, which were much further right that the Brotherhood. So during the spring, what you found was a convergence of interests between the opposition, and when civil society switched it was much easier for those who were already predisposed to oppose him (which was the business elite, Mubarak’s cronies, the judiciary, the police state) and I believe what made the military take keen interest in seriously considering removing Morsi was Sinai.

Sinai was becoming more and more lawless. Weapons were being smuggled from Libya and Sudan. Many “Jihadis,” people who I think are bona-fide violent extremists were coming in from out of the country and congregating within Sinai and starting to openly declare that they were going to create an Islamic Caliphate in Sinai, and they were going to eventually try to “get Israel back.” So with this accumulation of groups, coupled with this military grade weaponry, and police were being shot, soldiers were being shot, I think the military looked at that situation and realized that, in their view, he was not qualified to rule. There were reports that every time they tried to address the situation in a militaristic, violent confrontational way, Morsi would hold them back and say “No, these are Muslims. We’re going to talk to them, we’re going to negotiate, and we’re going to mediate. We cannot take this militaristic approach. You are exaggerating the problem.”

So there was a significant policy disagreement. And for the Egyptian military, of all the priorities it has—it has two priorities in my view: one is national security (i.e. the Sinai); and two is keeping their finical benefits and their shadow economy. And he was willing to give them the first, but the second he wasn’t as cooperative in terms of deferring to them. And what they found was this was the first time they had a truly civilian president who not only was not a president of the military (had never been one), but he also was a member of the Brotherhood, which had been for decades the internal enemy of the state.

So at that point, and one can speculate when that is (perhaps it was some time in the spring, if you don’t believe that was conspired from the very beginning, which there doesn’t seem to be evidence of that yet) then they started to, I think, communicate with the others—and I believe they were lobbied. I suspect many of the opposition to Morsi, because I believe they knew the only way to remove Morsi (literally, physically) was through the military. They knew he wasn’t going to give up powers. I suspect most democratically elected presidents wouldn’t. So ultimately the deal was made, I think, some time in the spring.

So just to bring it full circle: what is the difference between what happened in the June and July of 2013 and what happened in February 2011?

I think there is a significant difference. On June 20th, 2013 (just a few months ago) people went into the square asking for new elections. And there were different intentions and different motives for participating in these mass protests, which some have argued wass a second revolution and others have argued was a military coup. But what I think is important to note is part of the motivation for one group of the protestors, which were the civil society, the revolutionary youth, the die-heart believers in democracy, is that they went in there to express a very strong vocal opposition to what they viewed as a sabotage and a hijacking of their revolution.

And there was no legal mechanism to contest the election?

There was an impeachment provision in the 2012, however you needed a parliament to trigger it.

Which we didn’t have.

Which we didn’t have. And, in fact, I have written a piece recommending how that can be improved or reformed so that doesn’t happen again. So people went into the square wanting new elections, but a significant number of people went in because they wanted to remove Morsi by any means necessary because they had never wanted him to win. And these were the business elites, these were the security forces, these were people who were part of the National Democratic Party. And for them, it was an opportunity to have a counter-revolution. So what you had on June 30th were two very different objectives. Unfortunately, I think those who had well intentions (those who did not want a coup, they simply wanted to correct what they thought was a detour that they believed Morsi and the Brotherhood had brought the country on to—essentially hijacking the revolution) were used and duped by those who’s true motives were to have a coup and to bring back the old system. From the military controlling the country, even if it’s behind the scenes, to the very wealthy business elites who had been literally stealing millions (if not billions) from the public treasury through corrupt means, and through this political class that was a part of the National Democratic Party that wanted to make a comeback. You would return to the old system, but you would have a new leader, you’d have a new party with a different name but same structure. They were able to mobilize the people by vilifying the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi as treasonous, as terrorists, as traitors, which is exactly the same narrative that Mubarak had used in the past. So what you were seeing was truly going full cycle, and going back to January 25th.

Now, one can argue, that that may not necessarily be what will end up happening. We can only tell in six months to a year, but based on right now, it’s been about two or three months since July 3rd, you have General el-Sisi who is the de facto president. Yes, Adly Monsour is the interim president, but they just did a poll that said 44% of Egyptians didn’t even know who Adly Mansour was. And if you ask them who the president of Egypt is, they’ll say el-Sisi, and they want it to be el-Sisi. And they are begging him to run, which I assume he will eventually accept.

And you have many of the political leaders who were originally members of the National Democratic Party starting to now come back into politics again, and they will probably run for parliament. You have many people who should have been prosecuted and held accountable, and they’re not being accountable. And finally, you have the first democratically elected president of Egypt in jail, and Mubarak is free. He is on house arrest, but he is no longer in jail. And the elected president is in jail and being prosecuted, and new charges keep getting filed. There is something tragic, at least facially, about what just happened.

Now some will argue that this does not necessarily mean that a counterrevolution occurred, but unless things change dramatically in terms of how Egypt is run, and who’s ruling Egypt, and the rules of the game, one can certainly reason that there was a counter-revolution on July 3rd.


Resources and Links to further reading

CNN: Six Lessons for Egypt
With every step toward democracy, mistakes were made that provide important lessons as Egyptians develop the political maturity and experience needed to effectively self-govern, and the current political crisis highlights six particularly important lessons at this critical juncture in Egypt’s history.
CNN: Egypt’s Identity Crisis
What started as a political battle for power between the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s liberal parties has become an identity crisis for the country. For many Egyptians, particularly the intelligentsia, the current conflict represents a struggle for the soul of Egypt that goes far beyond the issue of electoral democracy.  Will the nation remain secular in nature, or will it evolve into an Islamist state, even if governed by a democratically elected regime?
Legal article by Dr. Aziz critiquing the election laws discussed above.
The Egyptian-American Rule of Law Web site:  www.earla.org
To be sure, impeachment should remain the option of last resort. But for a state like Egypt experiencing the growing pains of an emerging democracy, an effective impeachment law can serve as an important tool to oust a president who places himself above the law or changes the law to perpetuate his grasp on power indefinitely. Otherwise, military interventions or frequent popular revolts become the only available options.
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