Abdullah Al-Arian is assistant professor at Wayne State University. His research interests include Islamic social movements, globalization and the Muslim world, and United States policy toward the Middle East. His writing has appeared in Foreign Policy and Al Jazeera’s websites. Our conversation focuses on what led to Morsi’s fall and the likely results of the military coup.
Paul Gottinger: After Morsi took power in 2012 the Egyptian military generals were allowed to maintain comfortable economic privileges and political autonomy. Would you say the Muslim Brotherhood ever had control of Egypt?
Abdullah Al-Arian: It’s important to understand that it was not always a zero sum game. What you had was an opportunity for the revolutionary forces, which included at one point the Muslim Brotherhood, to try and restrict some of the power and privileges that the military had enjoyed. Now of course, that’s not to say that the military wasn’t on it’s heals at certain points and time. I think you can point to specific moments during the last two years where it was restricted to a certain extent. This is particularly true after Morsi’s election when his popularity was quite high, and when he was able to retire senior level military generals. He was able to easily put to bed the idea of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) actually maintaining an overt role in governance. However, the constitution preserved the military’s immunity from prosecution and the privileges it had enjoyed under the Mubarak regime. That was the arrangement. It wasn’t that the military had maintained overall power to govern; I don’t think they were ever really interested in that. I think they simply wanted to maintain their economic privileges, the lack of civilian over-sight over the military, and also immunity from prosecution for any of the atrocities that were committed when they were in power during the transition from the Mubarak regime.
PG: You say that the military was never interested in direct governance, however the speed with which the Muslim Brotherhood was repressed indicates that the military never lost control of the security apparatus. Would you agree with that?
AA: Well when you look at the revolutionary forces, the Muslim Brotherhood clearly proved to be the most successful in the transition. I mean this in regard to obtaining certain advantages and access to political power. The Muslim Brotherhood won one election after another: the first being the parliamentary elections, then the referendum, and finally the presidential elections. Then the Muslim Brotherhood proved itself to be the most adept at becoming a partner in government. But one thing that Morsi seemed unable or unwilling to do was to take on the power of what’s called the “deep state”. By this I mean the institutions that are deeply rooted enough to weather the storm of accountability, the calls for reform, and a complete overhaul. The most obvious example of this is the security regime: this includes the police, the internal security service of the state, the military, but it also includes things like the state bureaucracy, the state media, and the judiciary. The judiciary blocked a number of attempts at reform that Morsi tried to put through. These reforms would have started to peel back some of the layers of old regime power that continued to exercise itself long after Mubarak had left the scene.
PG: Why was the Muslim Brotherhood never able to wrestle away power from the “deep state”?
AA: I think it goes back to a number of things. The most obvious is the inexperience of the Muslim Brotherhood. Simply put this was an opposition movement that had existed for 80 years within an authoritarian context and had not developed the tools to actually govern, let alone try to change the institutions of governance that exist within Egypt. I think they overestimated their own ability to reach a common ground with elements of the old regime. The Muslim Brotherhood also didn’t attempt to build partnerships with other sectors of Egyptian society. I think that really is what led to them becoming as unpopular as they eventually became. They thought they could go it alone, and of course it has been proven that that couldn’t be accomplished. Once they saw themselves in a position of power they could take one path or the other. They could either continue to maintain a certain degree of solidarity with oppositional forces in Egyptian society, including the revolutionary movement. The other path was to reach some kind of accommodation with the military, they being the leading representative of the old regime. I think they took the last route with the thought that they could slowly try to address some of the issues that led to the revolution. That was a very risky move on their part, and it was a gamble that ultimately failed. I think they also underestimated the extent to which external forces, those both external to the revolution and external to Egypt, were dead set on trying to obstruct the Morsi presidency. This means not only removing Morsi from power, but also counteracting the revolution as a whole. These external forces are people who are devout supporters of the old regime, and we know that they number in the millions in Egypt. Many of these people supported Ahmed Shafik in the presidential election. This also includes the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These governments funneled tremendous amounts of funds into Egypt in order to try to sabotage the Morsi presidency. Of course, he did himself no favors by failing to govern effectively. The oligarch class that exists within Egypt has benefited tremendously from the corruption endemic to the Mubarak era. Many of them withdrew 10s of millions of dollars from the Egyptian currency reserves, which of course caused the economy to plummet. A lot of the problems in Egypt are not a result of Morsi’s incompetence, but also these kinds of factors.
PG: To what extend was the dire economic situation in Egypt a major reason for Morsi’s unpopularity?
AA: I would say that was probably a leading cause of the instability that ultimately brought about Morsi’s downfall. I think that most of the people that came to Tahrir Square and other places to protest the Morsi government were people who were really just coming out of the desperation of their own economic and social situations. These were people who had suffered tremendously over the last few years and have had extremely limited income. We’ve seen tourism for instance die away. There have been massive strikes throughout the labor force and throughout Egypt. There has been rising inflation on goods, and as I mentioned before the withdrawal of foreign currency plummeted Egypt’s purchasing power and destroyed Egypt’s ability to provide for its own citizens. These are things that are beyond Morsi’s control, but he didn’t do much to help that situation. There was also an effective media campaign, which placed all of the blame for Egypt’s economic problems on Morsi. This is despite the fact that many of these problems predate Morsi’s presidency. All of the economic indicators demonstrate that all of this really began with the instability that followed Mubarak’s removal from power.
PG: A few newspapers have reported that Chuck Hagel had “lengthy” and “very candid” conversations with head of Egypt’s SCAF, General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi during the coup. I was wondering what you think was the role of the U.S. in the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood?
AA: I think both sides have overplayed that role. On the one hand we see the United States vilified tremendously by the opposition that has been trying to bring about Morsi’s downfall. The U.S. has been blamed for everything from propping up the Muslim Brotherhood, to bringing them to power in the first place, and to giving them diplomatic cover around the world. A lot of things that I think are completely nonsensical. On the other side you see the same thing. This idea that there is a broader conspiracy to bring down the Muslim Brotherhood led by the United States, which I think has also been over blown. I think the U.S. is really interested in a stable Egypt that is going to preserve the U.S. interest: this being the regional security arrangement, which stems back to the Camp David accords with Israel. I think the Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood had proven themselves more than willing to fulfill the terms of that treaty. That was something the U.S. was fine with. If Egyptian’s wanted to demonstrate their democratic rights, the U.S. was ok with that as long as continued to preserve the interests of the U.S. Which they did. So from everything I’m reading it seems the U.S. is really in a position where it has been trying to play catch up. It’s trying to keep up with events after they’ve occurred, rather than trying to dictate terms. Now having said that, we’re also seeing some reports of the fact that the U.S. was consulted in the later stages of the last week’s coup and that the military believed it was operating with some kind of a green light from the U.S. We saw this reported in the New York Times and in other publications as well, where it was stated that the general Sisi was in consultation with the U.S. up to the ultimatum that was given to Morsi in the final hours of his presidency. Historically the U.S.’s closest relationship with any institution in Egypt has been with the military. So there is no reason to assume that wasn’t the case in the final stages of Morsi’s presidency. The U.S. likely gave some kind of endorsement, or at least did not object to removing the democratically elected president. And I think this is something that eventually could come back to haunt the Obama administration.
PG: How dangerous do you see the military’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood after Morsi was removed from power?
AA: The military’s crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood, which started in the first hours after Morsi was overthrown signals a number of very troubling things. On the one hand it certainly signals the fact that this was all premeditated and orchestrated well in advance. We know this because they immediately went to all the media stations that were run by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and shut them down. They even went to Al Jazeera’s offices and detained some of its staff. Then they went to detain a number of high profile Muslim Brotherhood figures, in addition to leading a violent crackdown on the pro-Morsi demonstrators. That situation continued to escalate itself in the days after that including, of course the bloody massacre in which over 50 people were killed and hundreds more injured. All the evidence so far demonstrates it was an unprovoked attack by the Egyptian military on the pro-Morsi demonstrators, which were demonstrating peacefully and have continued to call for peaceful protests. The Muslim Brotherhood now finds itself in the strangely comfortable position where it’s always been: as the opposition to an authoritarian and repressive regime. This was the position it maintained for decades. I don’t think the Muslim Brotherhood’s opinion on the coup will change due to the harsh military response. They think their cause is just and they still support the elected president. This has serious implications for the legitimacy of the next Egyptian president. All indications are that the Muslim Brotherhood will be boycotting the upcoming process. This means boycotting the transition, the writing of the constitution, the referendum, and even the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for next year. Unless there is a serious effort by the military and those who support it to reengage the Muslim Brotherhood, then the Muslim brotherhood will continue to boycott that process. And I don’t think you can have a legitimate process as long as you have a significant segment of the Egyptian population that is disenfranchised. Even with the Muslim Brotherhood boycotting the process the oppression has not ceased. In fact, July 10 there was an indictment for Mohammed Badie, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. He is being charged with the incitement of the events, which led to the massacre of pro-Morsi supporters. This is something that is very troubling. As long as people keep calling for dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood, but the actions on the ground are nothing but repression and violence it’s doubtful that the current transition process will be able to move forward smoothly.
PG: Do you see any threat of a militant faction of the Muslim Brotherhood forming and sectarian violence breaking out?
AA: Here I think we have to be careful before we jump to that kind of conclusion. So far all indications are that the entire organization has adopted non-violent/peaceful means to protest what they perceive as the illegal overthrow of the elected Egyptian president. This is not to say that certain people will not be disillusioned with the democratic process. I think that is a danger anytime you undermine the democratic process. If the democratic process isn’t respected then you may end up having a rise of militants. We certainly saw this in Algeria in the 1990s, but I don’t know that Egypt can be compared to the Algerian situation. I things have progressed far too much in Egypt for that. The Muslim Brotherhood has maintained non-violence as the cornerstone of its activist mission for the better part of the last 3 decades. And I don’t think that is going to change over night. I do think there are already militant elements that exist throughout different segments of Egyptian society that could flare up into isolated incidents of violence. But I don’t think that is something that can be traced directly back to the Muslim Brotherhood, or even to any elements of the opposition. I think the only side that is focusing on violence, as a means of accomplishing their goals, is the Egyptian military.
PG: The Egyptian Military has destroyed many of the underground tunnels into Gaza bringing the transfer of goods into Gaza at a near standstill. Given the Israeli siege, these tunnels are essential for the economy Gaza and for access to basic food and goods. What affect do you think the military coup will have on the people of Gaza?
AA: This is a very important question considering once again that this military coup received so much support from liberal/progressive and revolutionary/leftist forces in Egypt and even beyond Egypt. I think some of that misguided support is the inability to see the immediate effects. This is just one area where we can see the immediate consequences of what this coup actually means. Here we’re talking about a humanitarian situation, in which the people of Gaza have been sieged for nearly a decade now and have needed all kinds of humanitarian support. Now we know that the Mubarak regime was a chief partner in the siege of Gaza and once the revolution happened one of the bright spots was that the people of Gaza would have a little bit easier access to food, medical attention, goods, as well as an ease in the movement of people in and out of what is essentially an open air prison for 1.7 million people. But let’s not idealize the situation. Even under the Morsi presidency there were still an enormous degree of restrictions on the Palestinians in Gaza. But I think we see that situation ratcheted up tremendously the moment that the military took charge—essentially resuming the siege situation. We’re now reading reports that not only have they destroyed the tunnels they use to deliver goods, but they’ve even closed the overland boarder, which allows the movement of people in and out of Gaza. On top of that the Egyptian government has now said that any Palestinian traveling into Cairo on any airline will be turned back and will not be allowed to continue on. The only route to get into Gaza is to fly into Cairo and take the overland route crossing from Egypt. A lot of these signs are deeply troubling. I think it points to a certain brazen behavior on the part of the Egyptian military, which extends beyond the Egyptian people to also include the treatment of the Palestinian people as well.
PG: Where do you think the revolutionary energy of the youth movement will go from here? Do you see any progressive force gaining political power?
AA: I would say that I’m not very optimistic for the future prospects of the transition. The first reason is what I mentioned before: there has already been a disenfranchisement of the largest political party in Egypt (the Muslim Brotherhood). The Muslim Brotherhood is being completely excluded from the transition process and is being violently repressed. In addition to that we’re also seeing a certain amount of horse-trading and deal making between the remaining so called revolutionary forces. These forces are made up of different revolutionary movements including the youth movement, the leftists, liberal political leaders within Egypt, and others. All of these groups seemed to have made their peace with remnants of the old regime. So we’re seeing even with the temporary makeshift government that’s been installed the appointing of former Mubarak loyalist judges to the heads of the judiciary body. We’re also seeing this within the constitution writing committee. We’re even seeing some of the ministries starting to go to figures whose reputation has been compromised by their behavior during the Mubarak authoritarian era. That in itself is not encouraging because Egypt was expected to rid itself of a lot of these elements. If anything we’re just going to see a resumption of business as usual. Perhaps there will be some slight democratic practices in which people are able to select from amongst these different bad options, but I don’t think Egypt will develop any kind of alternative leadership anytime soon.