The numbers and claims are conflicting, but it seems that the Egyptian army has indeed committed a cold-blooded massacre – killing between 30 and 54 people and wounding hundreds more, including children, in the capital, Cairo, according to various media sources. The bloodshed pushes the North African country to the brink of civil war, already roiled by weeks of violence, with dozens dead in street clashes between opposing political factions, that culminated last week in the country’s army deposing the elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi.
Initially, state media gave a version of events in accord with army statements that the Republican Guard headquarters had been attacked early Monday morning by «a terrorist group» and that one soldier was killed, with over 40 injured. However, that account quickly looked unreliable as medical sources and news agencies reported that up to 54 people – mainly Muslim Brotherhood supporters of the ousted president – had been shot dead by Egyptian army personnel. Reports said the army attacked a sit-in protest outside the Republican Guard building with teargas and live fire, where Morsi is believed held incommunicado since his arrest last Wednesday.
Within hours of the killings, the Muslim Brotherhood party called for «an uprising» against the state authorities. Meanwhile, the related Salafist Islamist party, Al Nour, withdrew from political negotiations underway to form a new so-called national unity government. Coming only days after mass arrests of members of the Brotherhood, including its supreme leader Mohamed Badie, and other incidents of army shootings on pro-Morsi supporters, Egypt is facing a potentially explosive sectarian conflict between Islamists and a broad coalition of others. The latter include the Tamarod civic rebellion group, secularists, leftists and labor unions, Christians and Coptics, as well as many Egyptian Muslims who do not subscribe to the fundamentalist Islamism of the Sunni Brotherhood and the Salafist Nour party. The latter had only last week sided with the millions of anti-Morsi protesters to call for Morsi’s resignation. But after the latest bloodshed and the repression against Islamists, Egypt’s second largest party, Al Nour, seems to be closing ranks with the bigger constituency of the Brotherhood.
Other repressive measures against Egypt’s Islamists include the closing down of the official Muslim Brotherhood television channel and other media outlets deemed to be sympathetic. The state authorities have also been shuttered the Brotherhood’s political headquarters in Cairo after it was alleged that a cache of weapons had been found.
In this volatile stand off, the claims by the army top brass – the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) – that it is acting in the collective interests of the nation seem rather threadbare. On taking office last week to replace Morsi, and by appointment by the SCAF, the interim president Adly Mansour, had promised an «inclusive process» to restore civilian rule and made a point of reaching out to the Muslim Brotherhood. However, the massacre in Cairo earlier this week by the armed forces and other incidents of excessive violence applied selectively to pro-Morsi demonstrations, indicate a much greater risk of national polarization and escalating sectarian conflict.
The military crackdown also belies claims that the army move against Morsi was a progressive, popular event. Interim president Mansour declared glowingly that the SCAF had secured for the nation a corrective path for Egypt to continue its «glorious revolution». Mansour was referring to the mass uprisings of the Arab Spring in January-February 2011, which toppled the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. Another opposition figure, Mohamed ElBaradei, who is being touted as the interim vice president, said that the country had lost «two and half years» in its struggle for democracy, but now was on the right path to achieve that. This perspective claims that under the Morsi Islamist presidency, the Egyptian pro-democracy movement had become stalled and this impediment has since been removed in large part thanks to the intervention of the army.
Others are not so sanguine. To be sure, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Morsi supporters claim that he was deposed in a blatantly illegal military coup. «This is a police state back in action,» Brotherhood spokesman Gehad el-Haddad told media.
So, is the recent upheaval in Egypt a revolution or a coup? The answer is neither. It is probably more accurately understood as the Egyptian «deep state» acting to consolidate the status quo. The two pillars of the Egyptian deep state are the military and the judiciary, embodied by the SCAF and the Supreme Constitutional Court. The latter is headed by Adly Mansour, who is now the SCAF-anointed interim president. Both of these powerful institutions were formed over the three decades under the autocratic regime of Mubarak. The top ranks were appointed by the Mubarak regime and remain firmly intact.
Thus, when the former Egyptian dictator was forced to relinquish office in February 2011, it was business as usual for the Mubarak «deep state». The affairs of state were immediately taken over by the SCAF junta, with its all-important tentacles in the Egyptian economy maintaining their grip. Between the ouster of Mubarak and the first supposedly freely elected presidential contest in May-June 2012, the military suspended the parliament and the constituent assemblies under what was de facto martial law. Meanwhile, the equally powerful judiciary had full control over the selection of presidential candidates. The Mubarak-era judges ensured that none of the candidates on the ballot sheet would present a radical, progressive manifesto, never mind a revolutionary one. In the end, the election boiled down to a two-horse race between the politically and economically conservative Muslim Brotherhood ticket of Mohamed Morsi and the former Egyptian prime minister under Mubarak, Ahmed Shafiq. Typical of the «deep state», Shafiq was formerly a commander in the Egyptian armed forces.
While Western governments and media congratulated the eventual winner, Morsi, in Egypt’s «landmark free elections on the road to democracy», it is clear that those elections – conducted under conditions of military rule and heavy vetting – were anything but free. The voter turnout for the presidential election was near 50 per cent, which indicates the dearth of representation and credibility among ordinary Egyptians.
As one Egyptian voter explained during the mass protests last week: «The only reason why he [Morsi] is in power is that we chose him over Ahmed Shafiq, Hosni Mubarak’s alter ego. We now regret it and we will topple him».
What we have to bear in mind is the abiding relationship between the Egyptian deep state and the Washington establishment. Since the US-brokered Camp David peace accord between the rulers of Egypt and Israel in 1979, Egypt has perennially been the second biggest foreign recipient of official US financial transfers after Israel – some $1.5 billion annually, most of it in the form of military aid. This official collusion has of course long been a source of resentment and shame for many Egyptians who saw the accord as a historic betrayal of Arab rights with regard to the occupied territories of Palestine, as well as pursuing independent and anti-imperialist foreign policy more generally in the Middle East.
In addition to this long-standing issue, when the crony capitalism of the US-backed Mubarak regime imploded following the 2008 global economic meltdown, the Egyptian masses were sitting on a veritable tinderbox of social grievances. Massive unemployment and a poverty rate of 40 per cent among Egypt’s 85 million-strong population ensured that the political mobilization against the Mubarak regime would prove to be virtually unassailable on the streets.
When mass protests first erupted in Egypt’s Arab Spring on 25 January 2011, following a similar uprising in Tunisia against the Western-backed Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Obama White House initially stood with Mubarak. But, from the scale of popular uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and the country’s second city, Alexandria, as well as Suez, Port Said and many others, Washington knew that it had to jettison its decades-old client in order to appease the masses.
Mubarak’s exit from office was meant to preserve the status quo of the US-backed Egyptian deep state. The essential power structures would remain impregnable. Most importantly, the alignment of Egypt with Washington’s geopolitical interests in the Middle East, in particular in regard to consecrating the Israeli state, would be maintained. Secondly, Egypt’s ruling class would continue to pursue pro-Western neo-liberal economic policies. In other words, the ouster of Mubarak was the political price for thwarting a potential revolutionary overthrow of the Washington orthodoxy, in terms of foreign policy and economics.
Washington’s inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egypt’s post-Mubarak revamp was not perceived by the US has a risky gamble. The West has had long-standing military intelligence liaison with the Brotherhood, ever since the 1950s when the organization was used as a subversive proxy against the Pan-Arab socialist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. It is true that the Brotherhood was severely persecuted during the Mubarak decades, but that was more a localized power struggle, which the Western states felt was of little consequence to their interests. In recent years, the reactionary and conservative nature of the Brotherhood’s Sunni Islam has emerged as a useful proxy force in the Middle East for the US and its Western allies. This is evidenced in the alliance of Washington, London and Paris with the Sunni monarchs of the Persian Gulf and the Muslim Brotherhood of Turkey’s Recep Erdogan government in eliciting a covert policy of regime change in Libya, Syria and the latter’s Shia ally in Iran.
During ferment of 2011-2012, the US planners probably felt that it was prudent to appear to give some concession to the angry Arab Street in Egypt by affording the Muslim Brotherhood a bid at the presidency. Besides senior members of the Brotherhood had already been sounded out by then US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and the top State Department official on Middle East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman during meetings in Cairo and Washington in the months running up to the Egyptian 2012 presidential election.
Two weeks after Mohamed Morsi took up office, in mid-July 2012, he was visited in Cairo by then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Clinton also had back-to-back meetings with the SCAF supreme commander, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, according to the New York Times and other media reports. It was part of an intense diplomatic choreography by Washington to iron out political tensions between the deep state and the relative newcomers of the Muslim Brotherhood, while also spelling out to Morsi the imperative need for him to safeguard the geopolitical interests of the US with respect to the Camp David accord with Israel and implementing neo-liberal economic policies of the Mubarak regime.
Following her July 2012 meeting with president-elect Morsi, Clinton said in somewhat imperious tones: «President Morsi made clear he understands the success of his presidency and Egypt’s transition depends on building consensus across Egypt’s political spectrum; to work on a new constitution to protect civil society; to draft a new constitution that will be respected by all and to assert the full authority of the presidency».
Over the past year, Morsi failed to deliver on the terms of the US-backed Egyptian deep state. His failure resulted in him forfeiting the figurehead position of presidency that was allotted to him by Washington and its traditional Egyptian clients of the military and judiciary. For one thing, Morsi pursued an overtly Islamist program, with changes to the constitution that alienated secularists and Christians. He clumsily bestowed patronage on Brotherhood members, trying to shoehorn them into public positions of governorships, judiciary and the media. Morsi also decreed that his constitutional changes were above the law and judicial review. That was a red line to one of the pillars of the Egyptian deep state. With street protests mounting into the millions to mark his first anniversary in office on 30 June last week, Morsi crossed a second red line of the military by bringing revolutionary disorder to the state.
Morsi made the mistake of thinking that he was a real president instead of a mere puppet-president that he was assigned to by the Washington-backed Egyptian deep state. That assignation was always about giving the impression of democratic change while also stifling the revolutionary potential of Egypt’s Arab Spring.
In that way, the recent deposal of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt is neither a revolution nor a coup. It can hardly be called a coup whenever there was no genuine transfer of power from the rulers to the people in the first place. Rather, it marks another attempt at consolidating the US-backed status quo and the unfinished business of the Arab Spring that erupted in January 2011. Whether this latest maneuver by the US-backed deep state is successful or not remains to be seen.
Strategic Culture Foundation, 10 July, 2013.
Originally from Belfast, Ireland, Finian Cunningham (born 1963) is a prominent expert in international affairs. The author and media commentator was expelled from Bahrain in June 2011 for his critical journalism in which he highlighted human rights violations by the Western-backed regime. He is a Master’s graduate in Agricultural Chemistry and worked as a scientific editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, England.