How the Egyptian Opposition Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Its New Military Overlords

This is a guest post from Cairo-based journalist Evan Hill. Follow him on Twitter @evanchill. CAIRO — It wasn’t that long ago that Mohamed was protesting against Egypt’s generals. Now he’s welcoming their overthrow of the country’s elected president.  "They [the military] learned from their experience, and we need the military to push Morsy out," ...


This is a guest post from Cairo-based journalist Evan Hill. Follow him on Twitter @evanchill.

CAIRO -- It wasn't that long ago that Mohamed was protesting against Egypt's generals. Now he's welcoming their overthrow of the country's elected president. 

"They [the military] learned from their experience, and we need the military to push Morsy out," said Mohamed Arafat, an organizer for the opposition Social Democrats.

This is a guest post from Cairo-based journalist Evan Hill. Follow him on Twitter @evanchill.

CAIRO — It wasn’t that long ago that Mohamed was protesting against Egypt’s generals. Now he’s welcoming their overthrow of the country’s elected president. 

"They [the military] learned from their experience, and we need the military to push Morsy out," said Mohamed Arafat, an organizer for the opposition Social Democrats.

The role of the Egyptian military in the protest movement — what Morsy and his supporters have described as nothing short of a coup — was almost inevitable. It was an intervention that many who wanted Morsy gone had contemplated, though few were willing to commit the faux pas of demanding it bluntly. Now, finally, they’re speaking their minds.

For months, high-ranking members of the formal opposition made hints and suggestions and uttered flattering praise to the generals, stopping short only of calling for the Egyptian Army to park its tanks outside Morsy’s federal palace in posh Heliopolis and take him away, though something akin to that scenario may have occurred on Wednesday, when Morsy was reportedly held in a Republican Guard facility — incommunicado, according to top aides — after refusing to step down.

After Morsy issued an explosive set of unilateral decrees placing himself above judicial scrutiny in November, the opposition’s suggestions of military intervention increased. In February, after security forces were filmed ruthlessly stripping and beating a man while forcefully breaking up anti-Morsy protests at the palace, the secretary-general of the main opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front (NSF), said that it was the military’s responsibility to protect civilians, though not to play a political role. By March, with many in the NSF convinced that Morsy’s days were numbered and the opposition preparing to boycott parliamentary elections, Free Egyptians Party chief Ahmed Said promised that Morsy "will be forced one day to leave office," suggesting it could easily occur if unrest bred enough chaos to force the Army’s hand. Even Mohamed ElBaradei — for many a beacon of principled, progressive democracy and an opponent of Army intervention — allowed that military rule would be better than Islamist militias.

Privately, Free Egyptian and Social Democrat party operatives mused that if they simply stayed out of the political fray, the Muslim Brotherhood would bear sole responsibility for the country’s post-uprising decline. If that decline caused the military to become involved, so be it.

After months of stalemate and the opposition’s repeated rejection of barely serious dialogue offers from the presidency, a group of low-profile activists appeared to come out of nowhere, launching a nationwide signature-gathering campaign called Tamarod ("Rebel") that managed to mold Egypt’s widespread malaise into one objective: end Morsy and the Brotherhood’s rule.

On July 1, a day after millions of Egyptians rallied by Tamarod took to the streets against Morsy, the opposition’s quiet wishes came true: The military, watching as demonstrations swelled far beyond the size that brought down Hosni Mubarak, offered a 48-hour ultimatum for the two sides to reach consensus. The statement was addressed to "everyone," but it was clearly aimed at Morsy.

"The armed forces warns that if the demands of the people are not met, it will be obligated … out of respect for the demands of the great Egyptian people, to announce a road map and measures for the future that it would oversee," the statement said.

To drive the point home, the military dispatched helicopters to Tahrir Square two days in a row. Some dropped flags on the packed masses to raucous cheering; others trailed them from ropes. The generals took cockpit film showing the massive crowds and dispatched them to CBC, a widely viewed and sympathetic television station. CBC aired the footage, coupled with patriotic music, to acclaim.

The about-face in the military’s reputation on the street was stunning. During the 2011 uprising against Mubarak, the lone military helicopter in near-constant rotation over the square was jeered. Protesters on the ground angrily waved the soles of their shoes in the air, while those who had taken up residence on surrounding rooftops ducked out of sight behind satellite dishes. They watched in anger as soldiers stationed around the city allowed opposing crowds to collide in the massive street fight known as the Camel Battle. Behind the hopeful chants of "the people and the army are one hand" were fear and a strong suspicion that the military never had any of the revolution’s interests in mind.

In recent days, the whiplash shift in sentiment left many committed leftists and progressives stunned and worried. Posters of Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a general elevated by Morsy who had once defended the military’s "virginity tests" on female protesters arrested in Tahrir Square, began appearing around Cairo. They were pasted to the back of cars, taped on the walls of fast-food restaurants, and hoisted by protesters in Tahrir Square. Marchers chanted "come down, Sisi," encouraging the military chief to oust the Brotherhood. When the critical moment came on Wednesday night, it was Sisi who took the podium first, backed by four flags of the Egyptian armed forces, to tell the nation that the military had brought down the government.

In the days leading up to the announcement, protesters offered various explanations for the military’s return to politics, but none suggested it was unwelcome. A crowd of a few hundred camped outside the Defense Ministry were ecstatic at Sisi’s 48-hour deadline, marching in long loops around the boulevard outside the barbed wire with low-ranking officers leading chants against the Brotherhood. Elsewhere, those who had protested against the military during the bloody 18 months of post-uprising rule, when it led the country as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), said they hoped the generals would do a better job this time.

"I don’t trust the SCAF, and I will protest them again, but Sisi is a different man than Tantawi," said Arafat, the Social Democrat organizer, referring to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who led the SCAF during the transition. By the time the military oversaw the June 2012 election that delivered Morsy to the presidency, Tantawi had become the target of protesters’ rage, his face spray-painted next to Mubarak’s on Tahrir Square graffiti.

But few shared even Arafat’s conditional skepticism. The Tamarod opposition group blatantly claimed allegiance to the military; leader Mamdouh Badr said Sisi’s ultimatum "crown[ed] our movement." The Egypt of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the former president and army colonel who helped lead the 1952 revolution, would defeat the Egypt of Morsy, Badr said.

Tamarod made it known that it would not allow criticisms of the military, and in rallies leading up to the mass June 30 protest, those who disagreed or shouted the well-used post-uprising slogan, "down, down with military rule," were forcibly removed. Now is not the time, others told them.

At a Tuesday protest outside another of Cairo’s presidential palaces, Haitham Omar and Alaa Farid insisted that Egypt needed the military to be the guarantor of the transition after ousting Morsy and that the generals would only serve as "supervisors," not rule themselves.

"If Mohamed ElBaradei or anyone takes the prime ministership, who will guarantee that the country accepts that? The military," said Omar, a 30-year-old mechanical engineer.

They rejected the idea that the Army had committed crimes during their 18 months in power, such as beating and torturing protesters or bringing thousands of civilians before military trials for crimes ranging from theft to civil disobedience.

"I went down on the 28th [of January 2011] and was against the police," said Farid, a 29-year-old chemist holding a sign bearing a QR code that linked to a website that wrote "leave" in 14 languages. "And by the way, I’ll tell you something: In the period when the Army took over, there wasn’t any propaganda made against the military except by the Muslim Brotherhood. Eighty-three years. They were looking to rule."

Other demonstrators said they were confident that the military was working on their behalf — that the generals were a tool in their hands, rather than the other way around.

"The Army is part of the Egyptian people…. [Sisi] is doing our will," said David Michel, an engineer and Free Egyptians member who was helping coordinate supplies for the sit-in protest at the federal palace. "We don’t have the force to make this president go … and maybe the kind of mechanism is military force."

Michel said only a small number of people had actually protested against the military during the transition and that they lacked vision and an understanding of politics.

"I hate this kind of word, ‘military rule,’" he said. "They are Egyptians. They are not military. They are our sons and friends…. I don’t want the military to rule, but they can be part of this."

He allowed that the generals may have made mistakes when they assumed control of the country but explained that it had been a "critical time" and that the officers had always acted to support the Egyptian people.

"They are from us, Egyptians, not like Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood are not Egyptians; they are always doing things for their group, only."

At the headquarters of the Free Egyptians on Tuesday, just 24 hours before Sisi would announce the end of Morsy’s presidency, Said, the party president, sounded assured and confident. For he and others in the opposition, the goal they had harbored since the Brotherhood began to make serious political gains in late 2011 — restarting the transition period — was about to be achieved.

"I don’t consider this a coup, but it is a response to the Egyptian will," he said, enumerating the post-Morsy "road map" — a technocratic cabinet, the chief justice as interim president, a committee to amend the Constitution — that Sisi would read nearly verbatim the following evening.

He said he was "very hopeful" that the generals would run the transition period successfully and predicted that the mass anti-Morsy protests spelled the retreat of political Islam in Egypt for decades, unless it managed to restructure itself completely.

"We’re starting from the very beginning certain things that went wrong in the past year," he said. "Luckily we found out what the intentions of the Muslim Brotherhood were."

Evan Hill is a former Al Jazeera America staff writer, currently researching and writing on the Middle East.

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