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Letter From Cairo

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This morning I took a walk at Cairo University. The tanks and armored vehicles that have moved in yesterday are there, waiting and ready to move if need be. Meanwhile, the supporters of the deposed president Mohammed Morsi continue their sit-in, though with strongly reduced numbers. About one hour ago, there was a heavy firefight at the Kubri Gamaa, the bridge leading to Cairo university. The shooting lasted sporadically for about 20 minutes, sometimes very intense shooting of semi-automatic guns. As I am writing this, airplanes and helicopters circle over the city.

At around 5:30 pm the night before, the armed forces had closed in on the campus here at Cairo university, as well as at the Raba'a al-Adawiyya mosque in Nasr City, the two main sites of the pro-Morsi camp. Clashes erupted throughout the night, leaving fourteen people dead, according to news agencies .

At Midan Tahrir yesterday, millions of opponents of Mohammed Morsi jubilated, cheered and partied throughout the night. Their key demand was simple and straight forward: "Irhal" -- "Get Out!" Morsi had to leave, since he has failed on every front during his short-lived presidency. It was not primarily about his economic failures, the food, water, electricity and gas shortages across the country, and the complete economic mismanagement of the country he was supposed to lead. It wasn't either about the fact that he borrowed money from Qatar to keep the deficit above water level. Neither was it about the letter he wrote to Shimon Peres at the beginning of his presidency. The primary reason was that the president of Egypt was loyal to his clan, the Muslim Brotherhood, before he was loyal to his country. This became ever more evident throughout the year.

The race to the bottom started in November 22, 2012, when he issued a presidential Constitutional Declaration, putting himself over and above the law. Since then, his regime systematically imprisoned and tortured opposition figures; his flacks repeatedly tried to put a ban on any sort of freedom of speech, such as in the Bassam Yousef case; he and his clan of Brothers pushed a constitution through the Shura Council, a constitution that made the president immune from any sort of criticism; he exerted repeated efforts to undermine the judiciary system; he even included Hamas, a Palestinian national organization, into the Egyptian governmental system; and he tried to undermine the state by replacing national and provincial leaders with Muslim Brotherhood apparatchiks. In all of this, he didn't act independently, but as an executor and implementer of the orders coming out of the Guidance Office, the Maktab Al-Irshad, where the real power brokers run the affairs of the state, the people around Khairat al-Shater and Mahmout Aizzat. If you look at this video, it gives you an indication of the status and role of Morsi within the Muslim Brotherhood.

The clearest indication for the president's failure and total lack of understanding what is happening in his own country was his speech two days ago. Once again it showed the Brotherhood's limited understanding of democracy, which is restricted to the mechanics of voting, elections and ballot boxes, while showing precious little appreciation for the values that make up the essence of a democracy, such as the rule of law, citizenship, equality and human rights. The same faint comprehension also prevails at the base of the Brotherhood supporters. I talked to these kinds of people this morning at Cairo University, asking them what democracy means to them. The only thing they could say was: shara'iyya (legality). Morsi and the Brothers believe that winning an election gives them a carte blanche to run the state as if it was their feudality.

Morsi's speech revealed another point that is crucial to understand the psychology of the Brotherhood's leadership and their miscalculation about the June 30th demonstrations: the complete disconnect with the people, especially the poor. While Morsi had uttered the word "legality" about 30 times during his speech, the poor were not mentioned one single time. What else can you expect of a pyramidal, top-down organization whose leaders have been imprisoned and exiled for the larger part of their lives, and whose core values are strict obedience to an extremely conservative leadership, most of whom are aged over 80 or 90 years old?

The disconnect with the Egyptian people and the ensuing shock vis-à-vis the huge numbers who took to the streets over the last few days led the army to start to implement a plan that has been in the making for quite some time. It is interesting to compare the Western and the Egyptian press on the issue if the intervention of the armed forces. While in the West, people talk of a coup d'état, the Egyptian press insists that this was not a coup, but a continuation of the revolution. I guess the truth is somewhere in between, depending of your position. June 30th was certainly no revolution in terms of a redistribution of resources and means of production. Socio-economically, nothing has changed. It is true that people were on the streets in the millions, and this put pressure on the army to act and side with the people. It is also true that this was a concentrated grassroots effort, a campaign that emerged from a civil society movement called Tamarrod ("rebel") that had been collecting signatures for the last six to eight months, and to whom many actors of the Egyptian political scene subscribed, including the army, prominent opposition figures, representatives form al-Azhar, the Church, the police, the national guard -- and the people of Egypt. For the military, it was quite an easy take, and they are now closer to power again. From their perspective, it was probably a coup, despite them saying otherwise.

Leaving the semantic questions aside, the Tamarrod campaign called for peaceful protests and, for the first time since the revolution of January 25, 2011, had a real message and clearly defined goals: the deposition of Morsi, a transitional government for the duration of six month, and a new constitution followed by parliamentary elections. After having pushed for a national reconciliation dialogue, which the president refused, the military took up the demands of the millions of Egyptians gathering at Tahrir square and Ittihadeyya, the presidential palace. Shortly before the ultimatum expired, a travel ban was issued against Morsi and the top leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. Nearly 300 members of the Freedom and Justice Party and the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested, and Morsi, along with the Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie, Khariat al-Shater, Mahmout Aizat and some other 30 Brotherhood leaders now are in prison or under house arrest. Ironically, some of them have been sent to Tora prison, where Mubarak is. I am sure they have some stuff to talk about.

About an hour after the expiration of the ultimatum, a statement by the Minister of Defense and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was read out, declaring that the army had taken control, that it would found a technocratic government, and that the head of the High Constitutional Court, Adly Mohamed Mansour, would take over the task of running the state until a new constitution was written that would make early presidential elections possible. For the army, everything went according to plan. It was a ready-made plan that had been long in the making, and they executed it swiftly, professionally and with elegance.

What happened yesterday is phenomenal and unprecedented in Egyptian history. While millions of Egyptians cheered and partied until in the early morning on June 30th, and then again yesterday, following the sacking of Morsi, there is, however, a flip side to the coin.

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Lets keep in mind that just one year ago, millions of Egyptians had supported Morsi. Many of the people who had voted for Morsi -- the large masses of average men and women who are not politically active and desire peace and stability -- have turned against him in a wide swing of the pendulum, à l'égyptienne. But although the demands of the opponents are clearly formulated, the army coup has the effect of weakening the institution of the presidency, which could be the beginning of a new era of military-security cohabitation or even dictatorship. Of course, the Egyptian people assume and hope that al-Sisi is a man of his word. But when it comes to polities, it is probably better to be Machiavellian. It would be naive to assume that the military is just a neutral power-broker in the name of the people. At the moment, the army is loved by the people. But we have seen last year how quickly the political mood can change.

In order to understand the risk arising from the coup, aka counter-revolution, a bit of history may be appropriate. As Hazem Kandil shows in a brilliant new study on Egyptian history since Nasr, there exists traditionally three power centers in Egypt: the army, the state security (amn al-dawla) and the presidency. Under Gamal Abdul Nasir and following the July 1952 revolution, the military emerged as the strongest political force, firmly managing the country during the turbulent years until the early 1970s.

When Anwar al-Sadat succeeded Nasr, he was perceived as weak and easy to manipulate. So the first thing he had to do in order to outplay his competitors was to assert himself against his Nasirist rivals on the left. He achieved this by shifting alliances away from the army and towards the state security, represented by the ministry of interior. Finally, under Mubarak, Egypt developed into a full fledged police state, with the minster of interior exerting huge influence against their traditional rival, the armed forces.

The presidency has now been toppled twice within three years, first with the fall of Hosni Mubarak and now with the sacking of Morsi. At the same time, we have witnessed the emergence of a fourth force on the Egyptian political scene -- the millions of protester who took it to he street. But the rapprochement between the army and the state security, against the presidency, represents an unprecedented and dangerous development. Almost two-and-a-half years after the revolution of January 25, 2011, and after a transition that was moving at least partially in a democratic direction (let's not forget that there were two referenda, as well a presidential election -- all which were accepted by the Egyptian people with just a few claims of electoral fraud), the military, together with other institutions of state and civil society, and with the enormous support of millions of Egyptians staged a counter-revolution of which the end is yet unknown. Their arguments are clear. However, when you look at the argumentation of the other side, the Islamists, their argument is also pretty straightforward. Whatever you might think of these mostly bearded men: within their basic and limited understanding of democracy, they have a point when they argue about constitutional legitimacy (shara'iyya) and (formal) illegality.

For the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, their short romance with power is over. As I am writing this, it seems that the have activated their paramilitary wing, resorting to violent tactics. I expect more firefights and shooting over the coming days. The reason for this is to be found in the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. According to this ideology, which is laid out by the movement's founder Hassan al-Bannah in one of the letters he wrote in the early 1940s to his Brothers (risala al-Ta'lim), seven steps stand in between now and the global rule of Islam: the first and primary focus is on educating the individual according to Islamic values. Once the individual has absorbed Islam in his heart, the next focus is on the Muslim family. After the family comes the Muslim community, then the Islamic government, then the Islamic state, then the Caliphate, and finally the global enlightened rule of Islam, the implementation of God's law for all of humanity. Every step is a precondition for achieving the next step, according to this ideology. Its quite a project. But the Muslim Brotherhood is serious about it.

However, the Brothers have failed. After competing for many years in parliamentary elections, the romanticism and worldwide inspiration of the Arab Spring gave them an opportunity to win the majority in the parliament and secure the presidency. Represented by Mohammed Morsi, they were finally running the government. But after one year of mismanaging the country, they were toppled by the military -- once again. The Islamic state was within reach, but the Brothers have done everything wrong. As the key leaders are sitting in prison cells, they will have plenty of time to reckon what went wrong. Having done research on them for the duration of one year, I believe that there are two reasons for their failure. One is to be found within the poverty of political content within the sources of Islam. The entire project of the Muslim Brotherhood is based on the assumption that Islam is a comprehensive and complete system (nizam al-shamil) that governs all aspects of the human life, including the afterlife. As such, Islam covers politics, economics, social and cultural life, psychology and religion. According to this ideology, everything is to be found within the core sources, the Quran and the Sunna and in order to succeed, the Islamic principles have to be implemented in the context of today. The problem, as I mentioned above, that beyond general principles, there are very few concrete ideas to be found in the Quran and the Sunna about how to run a state within the globalized and complex world of the 21st century.

The second reason for the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood is to be found within the psychology of the leadership, all of who have spent many years in prison, first under Nasr, then under Sadat, then under Mubarak. The prison experience may be the reason for why they were so obsessed with power, securing the entire state apparatus by placing Ikhwanis in every post. They thought that winning the elections would give them the right to undermine and manipulate the state as they saw fit. Infected by the arrogance of power, they were completely out of touch not only with Egyptian society, but with reality tout court. It is quite telling that literally all the Brothers I have talked to were convinced that 9/11 was a plot instigated by the Jews (or the Freemasons, which comes down to the same thing, as all Freemasons are of course Jews). While completing my research, I was over and over again suspected of being a spy, preferably from Israel, and that I would "publish my articles in Israel." Furthermore, the Muslim Brotherhood sees enemies everywhere, and indeed it could be argued that the preservation and cultivation of the image of an external enemy, be it the Jews, the Americans, the Freemasons or even the Swiss, is the very reason for the cohesion of the organizational structure of the group. If they hadn't been so incompetent and arrogant in running state affairs, they could have actually made it. In the beginning, they had the goodwill of the Egyptian people. However, they wasted this credibility step by step with phenomenal speed and in the process dragged the state and the economy further down. Morsi's government has been one big catastrophe, and the only achievement he could name in his speech was that he had augmented the retirement benefits from 300 to 400 Egyptian pound -- this in a country with a huge and unemployed youth block. It is just another example of the aloofness of this government.

Thus, the saga of the Muslim Brotherhood -- the story of prions, exile, torture, arrests -- continues. It is likely that they will go back underground, pondering about their mistakes and working out new plans to take the government back. More crucially, however, is the fact that they are unlikely to give up or adapt their ideology to the current circumstances. It is typical for ideological parties and movements that its ideology is existential, giving the group its very raison d'être to exist. Without the ideology, they are nothing. The theory is right according to the Brothers and if reality doesn't fit the theory, it is because of an error in strategy and tactics, not an error in the theory. This is a crucial point, and it is the reason why the Brotherhood militias have received the order to go out an shoot people.

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There is a new force in Egypt: the power of protest.

Finally, beyond the army, the state security, the presidency and the Brothers, the tragic part in the second act of the Egyptian revolutionary drama is the millions of poor people in this country. Of the opponents and supporters of Morsi, there are many normal, average citizens who would like to go after their daily business, hoping for a better future. Over the course of past year, I have met and talked to hundreds of Egyptians, cab and microbus drivers, shop owners, shoe makers, vegetable sellers, guards, bawaabs and so on. They are, for the most part, kind and good hearted people, with quite humble expectations of life -- whether with or without beard. "We don't want to travel or live in luxury, we just want bread, freedom and social justice -- we are a very simple people," Ahmed, a former engineer who was forced to take up a job as a cab driver following the revolution told me two days ago when I was over in Rabaa al-Adawiyya.

It is important to understand that both sides think of themselves as defending legitimate goals. According to the worldview of the Islamists, the shari'a, God's law, represents the best system of governance, both in this life and the next one. They are deeply religious, holding themselves accountable to an ethical and moral framework that doesn't permit them to act in a manner that is against Islam. It is a system that regulates the behavior of the individual believer, making an external force, such as the state with its monopoly of power, unnecessary. This was indeed the case for the largest part of Muslim history, and it is only since the beginning of the last century that Islam has acquired a political connotation, making this great religion prone to exploitation and instrumentalization for whatever megalomaniacal ideology those pursue who are using Islam in a political way. On the level of the individual believer, however, Islam provides meaning and a direction and, most importantly, hope in a country where chances for so many are low that things will ever improve. Who can blame these people?

Ultimately, what we find in the Muslim Brotherhood has been a deeply divided organization over the course of its history, with a ultra-conservative leadership that, because of its cynicism or ideological eccentricity, systematically deceives its followers. The large majority of the people gathering in Rabaa al-Adawiyya or Cairo University are the losers of this chapter of Egyptian history. Once the tension abates, they will go about their simple lives, struggling every day in this sticky, noisy, polluted megalopolis of Cairo, but holding on to their faith, Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. In the absence of any hope for improving their living standards, all they have is the hope to be salvaged in the afterlife, where their hard work and suffering will be finally rewarded.