The Middle East Channel

The Resurgence of the Egyptian State

The Resurgence of the Egyptian State

Whatever you call it, the toppling of President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood was first and foremost about a resurgent Egyptian state. This huge entity is what both the military and millions of anti-Morsi protesters were most afraid of losing. On July 3 Egypt experienced a Sudden Blow by State Actors Seeking to Save the State — precisely what this French term coup d’etat is meant to convey. But whether a reinvigorated Egyptian state will achieve the aims its professed democratic proponents seek remains to be seen. As the escalating violence in Cairo and other cities sadly shows, Egypt now faces a protracted conflict that could usher in a political system far more closed than the one that the January 25, 2011 revolt tried to topple.

I came to appreciate the centrality of the state issue after reviewing an interview that I conducted years ago with Algeria’s former defense minister. The key instigator of the 1992 coup that ended Algeria’s short-lived democratic transition, the retired general recounted his strange meeting with Ali Belhadj, the deputy leader of the Islamic Salvation Front. "Belhadj was dressed in military fatigues and had just returned from a huge demonstration to mobilize Algerians in a ‘Jihad’ against the Western-led coalition confronting Iraqi troops in Kuwait. What was this foolishness?" The conclusion that the minister drew was that the FIS was endangering the very existence of the Algerian state. 

It is now clear that within months of Morsi’s election, Egypt’s generals had reached a similar conclusion about the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The military’s worries were not confined to the hemorrhaging economy or to Morsi’s assertion of nearly unlimited constitutional powers. More fundamentally, the generals saw a security panorama fraught with dangers. The latter included the growing activism of jihadi groups in Sinai, and the associated efforts of religious preachers to impose Islamic law in that vast terrain. Their fears crystallized in early June when, following threats by Egyptian politicians to use Ethiopian rebels to sabotage the building of a Nile damn, Morsi asserted, "all options are open." He then appeared at a rally during which a Salafi preacher called for a jihad or holy war in Syria. Promising that the Egyptian "nation, leadership and army will not abandon the Syrian people," Morsi not only implicitly endorsed the call for crusade — he said nothing after the Salafi preacher branded Shiites "infidels." The subsequent killing of four Shiite worshippers in a town close to Cairo fed the generals’ fears that the MB was stoking the flames of sectarian conflict that could spread throughout Egypt — a country that has some two million Shiites.

That Morsi provoked these concerns with such irresponsible abandon is not surprising. One thing that the MB never fully grasped is the nature of state power. In fact, it has long been an article of faith the state is not a distinctive entity with its own properties, exigencies, and identity. Rejecting this "Western" notion, MB theoreticians see the state as a means toward an end: a vessel that must reflect, teach, and protect the shared religious values of the umma or Muslim community. So long as the state does these things with justice and fairness it is good. When the state fails at these goals, it is illegitimate and must be replaced by leaders dedicated to spreading Islamic morality. This changing of the guard can be achieved in many ways, including democratic elections.

Yet if this particular vision of the state has long guided the MB’s actions, it is another thing all together to suggest that by summer 2013 the "Ikwanization" of the state was approaching a point of no return, thus leaving no alternative other than a bold strike by both the army and by the millions of protesters who worried that a religious cult had seized their homeland. While this "body snatcher" fear was genuine and politically potent, the Egyptian state (not to mention society) was far from being captured by Islamist kidnappers posing as democrats. By July, the Ikwan had largely bungled the state capture project by taking actions (some of which are mentioned above) that manifested their ineptitude.

That incompetence belies the image that some U.S. "experts" painted of a Bolshevik-like mass movement capable of unsurpassed discipline and mental control. While it aspired to such ends, the Ikwan’s single political success was to use the Islamist majority in the newly elected parliament to impose a new and highly authoritarian constitution. But absent an equally successful drive to capture state institutions, this was a pyrrhic victory. Paradoxically, the failure of the Ikwan to achieve the level of state capture that its rivals feared partly stemmed from the movement’s long-standing wedding of ideology to pragmatic tactics. Rather than calling for a suicidal attack on the state, the Ikwan had always preferred practicing accommodation and peaceful coexistence with those state forces most capable of repressing its movement. Egypt’s MB carried this praxis into the era of the 2011 Arab Rebellions through a process of trial and error that allowed it to make some limited headway against the state, but at a substantial cost.

For example, the MB appointed 10 out of 27 governors but then provoked a backlash when it tried to place a former jihadist as governor of the Luxor Province. The MB attempted to intimidate the media but could not capture it — a point humorously illustrated by (among other things) Bassam Youssef’s relentless castigating of all sacred cows on his TV show. Similarly, the Ikwan made some headway into the Ministry of Culture, but its efforts to influence the monster bureaucracy of social and economic (mis)management only made a dent. Most crucially, it failed to seize the two institutions most critical to its statist mission: the judiciary and the military. In the first case the MB beat a hasty retreat after its clumsy bid to lower the retirement age of judges. In the second, Morsi’s appointment of the relatively young General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi — whose religious and populist sensibilities he assumed to be close to his own — did not secure Sisi’s love or cooperation. Indeed, the limits of the MB’s accommodationist strategy were amply demonstrated by the expanded institutional prerogatives that its new constitution handed to the military. These concessions were not sufficient to produce even a whisker of the "bearded military" that some Egyptian secularists feared. On the contrary, the MB’s stillborn entente with the military was a precondition for the July 3 coup d’etat.

The timing of that coup was closely (although not exclusively) tied to the mass rebellions of June 30 and the days beyond. The return of the state is not something the military alone desires, but something for which millions of Egyptians — and many civil society activists in particular — also yearn. As in all countries, civil society in Egypt not only requires a functioning state, but also laws, institutions, and economic resources, all of which are a precondition for its very existence. 

Still, the assumption of secular leaders that a new entente with the military will eventually yield the legal and constitutional infrastructure for transforming mass politics into organized civic and political institutions may prove a pipe dream. The military may have learned some lessons over the last two years, but risking its uncertainties of democracy is probably not one of them. Indeed, as the MB’s followers respond to their humiliation and the possibility of their exclusion from the political arena — something the Tamarod leaders have in fact demanded — the security apparatus will extend the net of repression, a prospect that bodes very badly for the very forces that supported the June 30 protests.

Despite such bleak prospects, there are many within the ranks of the liberal opposition who believe that giving up on democracy is a price worth paying if it means saving the state. U.S. policy makers should not underestimate just how terrified many Egyptian intellectuals, professionals, and business people are of the MB and their core ideology. They see the MB as nothing more than religious fascists and Morsi as a bumbling stand-in for an Egyptian "Hitler" who controls the Ikwan, and who sees the ballot box as a ticket to seizing state power.

The above analysis of the failures and limitations of the MB’s statist strategy suggests just how overdrawn and misleading this analogy truly is. It does not have anything comparable to the organized mass following, mesmerizing ideology, or tens of thousands of trained shock troops that the Nazis used to capture the German state. Still, the fears generated by the MB’s growing political power are not only real, they have echoes throughout the region, as ongoing conflicts between secularists and Islamists in Turkey and Tunisia amply show.

The good news is efforts by Islamists to conquer state institution face an uphill battle. Indeed, they can be challenged, stymied, or turned back even in a context of democratic governance or in the more volatile arena of unfolding transitions. Turkey’s Taksim Revolt has put Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erodgan and his AKP allies on notice that a form of majoritarian rule that imposes a religious project on Turkey’s secular middle class is unacceptable. In Tunisia, Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouci has pushed his party to embrace the politics of consensus even as its more radical members advocate a hegemonic project.

As for Egypt, state resurgence might have been accomplished without toppling a democratically elected president or shutting out the MB. The advocates of these actions argue that midnight was fast approaching. But had the protesters and military used their leverage to offer a compromise that would have allowed this thoroughly discredited president to hobble along in office one more year, the energy generated by millions of protesters might have been organized to contest parliamentary elections as early as October, 2013 — or to discredit any inept efforts by the MB at electoral fraud. Despite growing security challenges, nothing in the story of the MB’s fumbled state-grabbing effort suggests that the coalition of liberals, leftists, and disgruntled Salafists who demanded Morsi’s head will compel the state to give them the political freedoms they need to translate mass protests into effective (much less democratic) politics, or to prevent Egypt from slipping into the abyss of violent internal conflicts. If such conflict ensues, we can only hope that it does not take Egypt down the path the Algeria once followed.

Daniel Brumberg is Co-Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University. This essay represents the personal views of the author and not the views of any institution.