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Victor J. Willi Headshot

Update From Cairo

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It is interesting, form a meta-perspective, to observe the debate currently spreading over social networks and the global media as to the definition of the events that unfolded within the last 72 hours here in Cairo. Was it coup or a revolution? Or something in between, a popular uprising, conflating with a coup d'êtat?

Besides the semantic problematic, it is also interesting to see which groups of people take what side in the definitional clash. The MB was quick to point out that this was a military coup against an elected government. Morsi's supporters call this military maneuver, a coup or also sometimes a "plot" (mu'amara). Meanwhile, the secular-liberal side of the spectrum and the opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi call this the continuation of the events of January 25, thus preferring the terminology "revolution."

It is important to note that what is usually called the "supporters of Morsi" or the "Islamist camp" see themselves as the "people" as well -- as does the other side. While they are not as impressive in numbers as the Morsi opponents were the other day at Tahrir square or Itihadeyya palace, their numbers are still large and as we speak, a huge crowd of this section of the Egyptian "people" is gathered at Rabaa al-Adawiyya mosque, were fierce demonstrations should be expected after the Khutba prayers end. This section of the people see themselves as having been betrayed, duped, their votes trampled on by the military and their political rights ignored. They have voted for Morsi one year ago only to now see the military take back control, and they rightly feel themselves screwed over. As I am writing this, "Islamiyya - Islamiyya" shouts are getting louder and louder over the roofs of the city of Cairo. Tension is in the air. I was down just on the streets, where large masses of spontaneous protesters are gathering, coming down form Giza and on their way to Cairo University. Two of them have been killed right before at Sharaa Haram, one eyewitness tells me. When I talk to a couple of them, they tell me that they don't support Morsi nor the Muslim Brotherhood, but simply legality and the constitution. They have stood in line for many hours in the hot sun last year and voted for their man, they say, and now the elected government is sacked by the military. Their argument is a of secular nature and has for many of them little to do with either the Brotherhood nor religion, but simply with the principle of the rule of law -- indeed an important ingredient of any democratic system.

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Shortly before the end of the ultimatum given by the Defense Minister al-Sisi to President Morsi two days ago, the U.S. had warned the military against a coup, pulling out the same old rabbit out of its foreign policy hat, the often repeated and never executed threat that it would "suspend" the $1.3 billion in military aid. Of course, after what had taken place here, the U.S. administration cannot yet really call it a coup anymore since if they did, as Robert Fisk has pointed out, this would mean the permanent suspension (rather than a mere delay) of the military aid to Egypt, which probably wouldn't be in the best interest of the US.

On the other hand, the opposition in Egypt and the liberal-secular elite representing the people (at least that 22 million large section of people who took to the street over the last few days at Tahrir square and Ittihadiyya) claim that this was not a coup, rather a revolt or a revolution, and that, as my friend Rabab Fayad has rightly pointed out, the president was not fired in isolation but as part of a coordinated effort in which a large number of segments of the Egyptian political, cultural and intellectual elite participated, in addition to millions of other average Egyptian citizens from all levels of distribution within the religious, educational and socio-economic spectrum.

"Coup" in the classical sense is certainly not the appropriate terminology, as experts and scholars have pointed out. In a real coup the military, it is said, would take control, which they didn't - at least not directly. Creative political scientists already come up with all sorts of funny terminologies such as "revocuption" to illustrate that neither category is appropriate in order designating events unfolding here, and that the phenomenon is indeed sui generis, un coup à l'égyptienne. There is this sentence I once read: "if it looks like a duck, sounds like a duck and smells like a duck -- it's probably a duck". This is the sense I got from the events here during the past few days. It certainly looked, smelled and sounded like a coup. (I have to add here that I've never experienced a military coup in my life before, but I have read about some of them and this is what I would imagine it to look like). The military took over in a swift and elegant operation. In the night following the end of the ultimatum, al-Sisi held a speech, surrounded by important dignitaries of different state institutions, including al-Azhar, the Coptic Church, the Constitutional Court, the Security apparatus, the police and the national guard. In the night, tanks rolled in towards Cairo University and slowly encircled the people gathering there (I will call this side of the spectrum also the "people" and hope that nobody will confuse them with the other "people" at Tahrir square or Ittihadiyya). Over the course of the last night, the military tanks have disappeared, but I hear that they are in close vicinity and ready to intervene if need be to protect public property and human security.

For the people here at Cairo University, what has happened yesterday was certainly a coup and it was called as such by everyone. It is true that that this coup had a broad support among wide segments of the Egyptian people. It is also true that here was a grassroots campaign called Tamarrud, who collected around 20 million or more signatures for the dismissal of the president. And of course it is true that the current leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood is a hard-line, machiavellist and chauvinist group of people who say whatever they have to stay in power. They suffer psychologically from years and years in gruesome prison cells and cannot but see the world other than engaged in a continuous, evil plot against them and Islam (which they think they represent exclusively). It is also true that Morsi, under tight control of the maktab al-irshad, executed the General Guide's policies rather than governing for the whole people of Egypt and that he, by that token, had misused his powers and lost the legitimacy as the father of the nation.

But it is also true that he was democratically elected, and that he still enjoys widespread support among that segment of the Egyptian people, who now march towards Cairo University. So we might call his coup a "post-modern" or "soft" coup, it is certainly no coup in the classical sense, but still a coup. The military toppled a democratically elected government. Weather they have done this to "hand over" power to civilian leaders and bring the revolution "back on track", God only knows. I certainly wouldn't be so naive to believe that they would do that, for when looking at Egyptian history (or any history for that matter), a military leadership handing over power unconditionally to another leadership is the exception rather than the rule.

There are all sorts of explanations of what has happened here and I would like to add my two cents, well aware of the fact that my knowledge is incomplete and that I am most probably wrong. It is obvious that the United States has very little or no clue about what is going on here in Egypt. Myself, after having studied here for one year, get that feeling of having no clue every day. Egypt has a life of its own, and the categories we usually use to analyze political or social situations in more formally organized societies just don't make any sense here. The Obama administration has shown its failure to understand the reality on the ground already during the last revolution. Whatever happens here, the U.S. always seems to trample two steps behind. This is evident also in the behavior of Anne Patterson, "one of he worst U.S. Ambassadors in history", as a friend with intimate knowledge of the matter has told me. So my guess is that, as events of the last Sunday unfolded here and the huge numbers of protesters surprised everyone, the Obama administration tried to hedge its risk by betting on both horses: keep talking to Morsi and support him due to his legal-bureaucratic legitimacy as the elected president, while showing the evil finger to the military, threatening them with a suspension of the military aid if they should make a coup, but not rally by raining in fully in support of Morsi.

On the Egyptian side, things are more complex. As the brilliant historian Hazem Kandil has showed in his recent study, there are three main power centers in Egypt: the military, the political establishment around the presidency, and the State Security Service. Running the risk of being simplistic, during most of the Mubarak era, the military gradually took a subordinate role vis-à-vis the State Security. The ministry of interior, under whose command the State Security functions, was tightly cooped into the political-financial elite of the Mubarak clique. One of the effects of the Revolution of January 25 was to put away with this security elite. A civil president, Mohamed Morsi, since the beginning of his government, reasserted the power of the presidency, and it did so with the full support of the United States, for whom the Morsi government made perfect sense, as they (a) were a group of not very intelligent people, making it easy for the U.S. to control them; (b) were open to American business interests, continuing the neoliberal and pro-market course of its successor, with the adoption of privatization programs, pursuing IMF loans and implementing austerity measures, and (c) were no threat to the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. On the other side, the military saw an opportunity to reassert control over the state apparatus, now that the powerful security establishment had lost control (since the era of Gamal Abdul Nasir, the security and the military establishment have always coexisted in a state of competition and rivalry, a cold peace so to speak, representing different financial and economic interest). I believe that the military now saw a change to take things back under is wing, and after one year of mismanagement by the Morsi government they had the golden opportunity to do so with widespread popular support, disguising what for them was a coup in the classical sense behind the narrative of "defending the goals of the revolution". From the side of the military, it must have been like winning the jackpot.

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After all, when looking at things from some distance, the story is rather ironical. After years of tyranny and corruption by an autocratic government, the people of Egypt, mostly from the secular-liberal but also from the Islamist spectrum, go to the street and make an end to the regime. The military takes over, its aging elite making many mistakes, but trying to hold on to power until the pressure from the street becomes too big and Morsi is able to place who he thought was his candidate, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. Then, the slow but stead decline of Morsi's democratic legitimacy begins, not only because of the food, water, electricity and gas shortages, but because the MB started to adopt policies that would have long lasting impacts beyond that of their 4 year term, such as giving citizenship to 14,000 Hamas members, declaring Sinai no longer a part of Egypt but a spate governorship, selling off or putting in long term rentals for the Suez Canal to foreign governments, mismanaging the negations in Ethiopia about the Nile Dam, not introducing any sort of quarantine for fundamentalist refugees that oppose vaccinations they accepted form Pakistan and therefore reintroducing Polio into Egypt (thanks Rabab). Meanwhile popular pressure against the Morsi government slowly picks up until, on June 30, over 20 millions of Egyptians take it to the street to demand the fall of the Murshid and his puppet, President Morsi. Finally, the military has the perfect opportunity to take down the government, imprison the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, shut down TV stations (Islamist ones and others), all of that with jubilation of the people, and install the next morning a little known judge called Adly Mansour (nobody here in Egypt I talked to has ever heard of him before) in the presidency. So while the military might not rule directly, it is clear that they are the ones on charge now, and the fact that the Obama Administration is keeping silent shows that they pretty much accept the new situation.

However the revolutionary drama here in Egypt will continue, it is important to note that in this struggle for the emerging social contract of the Egyptian people, every word that is uttered (such as "revolution", "coup", "the people", "legitimacy") has different meanings, depending on which side of the ideological-political spectrum you stand on; depending on this, you will try to find a rational explanation of why the army's move should be called a "coup" or not, or weather Morsi's government indeed represents "legitimacy" or not. We are in a situation of revolution, where history is unfolding in front of our eyes. It is in the nature of history that whenever it happens is all new and unprecedented. It is the gruesome-beautiful conflagration of historical forces that are beyond anyone's control. There is no "model" for it takes place in the here and now, and all we can do is to witness silently and with humility as history unfolds.

I am going back to Cairo Uni and will write more later. God bless Egypt.