Egypt’s political turmoil took on surreal dimensions this week with the swearing in of the military-backed interim civilian government. The procedure was shown «live» on national television, as if to lend an image of «transparency» and «accountability».
The central figure in the cabinet photo-op, dressed in khaki military uniform, was the head of the Egyptian armed forces, General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. He was the man who led the military arrest of former president Mohamed Morsi on 3 July, and in turn, ushered in his replacement, Adli Mansour, the country’s top judge, who had served under the ancien regime of Hosni Mubarak.
Adding gravitas to the occasion were the visits to Cairo this week by senior US diplomat, deputy secretary of state, William Burns, and the head of the European Union’s foreign office, Lady Catherine Ashton. In separate meetings, Burns and Ashton met with interim president Mansour and the new caretaker prime minister, Hazem Al-Beblawi.
The rhetoric from Burns and Ashton could have been written by the same speechwriter, with both diplomats appearing to stress civic virtues of «inclusivity» and «non-violence».
The US State Department said that Burns would emphasize «an end to all violence and a transition leading to an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government».
For her part, Lady Ashton said she would «reinforce our message that there must be a fully inclusive political process, taking in all groups which support democracy».
However, stripping away the trite rhetoric, the core message in practice is that Washington and the EU are endorsing and legitimizing an unprecedented military intervention in Egypt’s supposedly new democratic era. This era was supposed to have arrived following the popular ouster of the Western-backed Mubarak dictatorship in February 2011, during the heyday of the Arab Spring.
Egypt’s transition to civilian government culminating in the June 2012 presidential election of Mohamed Morsi was far from perfect. Morsi’s tight association with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood left him open to accusations of monopolizing power and not including other parties. During his year in office, street protests mounted into million-man marches that reached a crescendo on 30 June, the anniversary of his inauguration.
Nevertheless, the inescapable fact is that Morsi was legally elected. His deposition under orders from the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) can therefore be defined as a coup – albeit carried out initially with a semblance of popular support. Adding to the anomaly is that the Egyptian constitution has been suspended by the military and a cabinet of 35 unelected ministers, none of whom have a popular mandate. Like ignoring the proverbial elephant in the room, both Washington and Brussels have pointedly refrained from uttering the word «coup». To do so would put them in the invidious public position of openly supporting military coup, which is of course what they are doing in effect, but nevertheless trying to conceal with vacuous verbiage.
The man who led the military ouster of Morsi, defense minister Al-Sisi said at the time of Morsi’s arrest that the SCAF would take a backseat from the affairs of the interim government. The impression given was that the military was acting in a chivalrous manner to facilitate a new phase in civilian politics. But when the new cabinet was unveiled this week the salient position of Al Sisi in the government was underscored by his taking a second portfolio of deputy prime minister – in addition to defense. That is a clear sign that the Egyptian military establishment intends holding sway over the decision-making and policies of a nominally «civilian» administration.
Given that the Egyptian military is estimated to have a controlling stake in up to 40 per cent of the country’s economy, in sectors ranging from energy, tourism and services, it is to be expected that this institution will want to keep a close eye on the cabinet. The very idea that the military would somehow take a nonchalant backseat is rather naive and wishful.
Furthermore other ministers in the 35-member cabinet have strong associations with the military and police. Minister for the interior, Mohamed Ibrahim, is a holdover from Morsi’s government. He has been widely criticized for not introducing any reforms to the country’s powerful security forces, let along bringing any prosecutions over numerous past violations.
Meanwhile, out on the streets, millions of Morsi supporters remain camped out at landmark sites across the capital, Cairo, refusing to move until their leader is reinstated as president. Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Gehad el-Haddad said of the new cabinet this week: «It's an illegitimate government, an illegitimate prime minister, an illegitimate cabinet. We don't recognize anyone in it».
What should be even more disquieting for the new cabinet is that the wave of popular anti-Morsi protests – in whose interest the military claimed to be acting – has since abated. Not out of satisfaction with the recent outcome, but out of a sense of being sidelined by the military and its appointed caretaker administration. Indeed, the Tamarod (rebellion) movement – a lose civic society coalition that claimed to have gathered 22 million signatures in a petition calling for Morsi to stand down – has refused to endorse the cabinet nominally headed up by president Mansour and premier Al-Beblawi.
That indicates that the latest twist in Egypt’s political turmoil is not a people-led democratic transition, as some have argued, but rather it is transpiring to be military maneuver to reassert control over Egyptian politics.
Admittedly, the caretaker government – which is officially to remain in office until elections at some unspecified time next year – contains some liberal, secular and technocratic figures. There are three women ministers for health, environment and information and there are three Christians.
But it is notable that the ministry of finance is overseen by Ahmed Galal, who is US-educated and formerly worked at the World Bank. The prime minister, Hazem Al-Beblawi, was previously the head of Egypt’s Export and Development Bank for 12 years. These key figures can be expected to follow Western economic orthodoxy, which will hew to the interests of American and European dominated international capital and financial markets.
The new foreign minister is Nabil Fahmy, who was Egypt’s ambassador to Washington between 1999 and 2008 during the Mubarak dictatorship. Again, this appointment speaks of consolidating the Mubarak-era deep state that is closely aligned with the Egyptian military and Western foreign policy.
A cynical viewpoint might say that the appointments of women, Christians and a former national football star, Taher Abu Zeid, as youth minister, are simply sops for public relations to bolster an image of democratic transition. That image was certainly given brand endorsement by the American and European senior diplomats arriving in Cairo with their rhetoric of «inclusivity».
Contradicting that progressive-sounding lexicon is the glaring omission of any Islamists from the so-called transition cabinet. None of the 35 positions are occupied by the Muslim Brotherhood or the second biggest Islamist party, Al Nour. Interim president Mansour claims that these parties rejected offers to join the administration. But the Brotherhood and Al Nour deny this claim, both saying that they were not offered any participation. Those parties represent up to half of the Egyptian electorate in a country of 85 million people. Their absence flatly contradicts notions of «inclusiveness».
The arrest of over 200 senior members of the Brotherhood since Morsi was deposed would indeed suggest that Mansour and his new cabinet have little concern about including Islamists. Up to 100 supporters of Morsi have been killed by military and police over the past two weeks. The bloodiest incident was outside the Republican Guard Headquarters in Cairo on 8 July when soldiers opened fire on protesters killing up to 80, including women and children. Within hours of US diplomat William Burns arriving in Cairo at the start of this week, seven pro-Morsi protesters were also killed in clashes with state forces.
While the US and Europe are calling for the release of Morsi and for the halt to repression against the Brotherhood, the facts are that Morsi still remains in unknown detention held by the military, and the junta apparatus is proceeding apace with heavy-handed tactics against the Islamists. Days after the unveiling of the cabinet, interim president Mansour made his first television address to the nation. He spoke with grim warning against ongoing protests, using words that belied a civilian transition government. «We will fight the battle for security until the end,» he said. And he riled against those who «hide behind empty slogans and who are driving the country to the abyss».
One wonders what «empty slogans» Mansour and his military sponsors are referring to? «Reinstate Morsi» or «We do not recognize an unelected illegitimate government». In other words, what we see emerging is not a transitional inclusive civilian government, but rather an authoritarian civilian front for the military deep state.
It seems surreal that while Burns and Ashton were meeting and greeting the civilian placemen of the military junta in Cairo, the only elected leader of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, was being held in secret captivity a few kilometers away in the same city. More than two weeks after his ouster, no one has seen or heard from Morsi, although his military captors assure that he is being held in «a safe place».
The cynicism of the US and Europe is breathtaking. Not a mention of military coup or massacres, but fulsome talk about inclusivity and transition.
Burns told his Egyptian hosts: «I did not come with American solutions, nor did I come to lecture anyone. We will not try to impose our model on Egypt». With these soothing sanguine words, the American diplomat was justifying the military subversion of Egypt’s tentative political process and the ongoing annual subsidy of $1.3 billion in US military aid.
Burns went on to say that the recent events were «a second chance for Egyptians». What he didn’t add but should have was: a second chance for Egyptians to conform to the US-backed deep state of Egypt.