Saving Egypt from civil war was one historic act by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, responding to 35 million voices calling on 30 June 2013 for deliverance. From every public square in Egypt, the chant against then President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to leave power was thunderous. But it needed a protection mechanism. The only mechanism was the national army.
But the chants of irhal (be gone) also had constitutional reasons. The Islamist constitution forced on Egypt in 2012 was drafted by Brotherhood hands. The liberals, including the Copts, were forced out of the drafting process. There was no provision in that document allowing for the recall of a president. This was Brotherhood overreach that was meant to last but was destined to collapse.
Deposing Morsi was not planned. It was the result of the obduracy of an ideologically fossilised organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood. Such a group does not understand the art of political compromise. From 30 June to 3 July 2013, a national conversation was begun by Al-Sisi, then minister of defence, to have the process of choosing a president for the country begun again. But this went nowhere.
The Brotherhood Guidance Bureau, then the actual ruler of Egypt, was determined to fight back and keep a sham process going. Legitimacy (shariyah) for the Islamists was above practicality and the compromise advocated by Al-Sisi to avert civil war.
The Brotherhood’s claims rang hollow. The contest for the presidency between Morsi, the Brotherhood’s second choice, and Ahmed Shafiq had in any case produced a doubtful result — 51 per cent for Morsi and 49 per cent for Shafiq. And the choice of president preceded the drafting of a new constitution. Talk about putting the cart before the horse.
Prior to the plebiscite on that defective constitution, in which Coptic rights to citizenship parity were nowhere to be seen, Morsi had declared himself to be above the constitution. A dictatorship was in the making. Morsi became another name for Mussolini. The fascist formula was then taken one step further when the parliament dissolved by the Supreme Constitutional Court on a technicality was ordered by the president to reconvene.
The agenda of the reconvened parliament was one item to be enacted in 20 minutes giving the executive (the president) legislative powers. This was an anomaly that alarmed a nation that since 1923 had luxuriated, prior to the Gamal Abdel-Nasser-led coup of 1952 in constitutional democracy. It had had 80 years of practice anteceding the Brotherhood’s birth in 1928.
With the collapse of the Al-Sisi-led negotiations, the threat of civil war loomed. Morsi had to go; a road map in which the liberal leadership of Egypt concurred, including the Coptic Church, was at hand; a transitional government was formed; an interim president, Adly Mansour, chief of the harassed Supreme Constitutional Court, was installed; and preparations for the redrafting of a new and secular constitution began in earnest.
In all of this there was no coup by Al-Sisi. The process meant the undoing of the Brotherhood coup that followed installing Morsi as president. The core problems of that Islamist presidency were complex: the Brotherhood regarded Egypt as a springboard to a mythical Islamic State; force was the first option in dealing with Ethiopia; Sinai was to be the hinterland for Hamas; the Copts and the Shias were forced into submission; Turkey and Qatar were eager funders for the new Islamic order in Cairo; and a Wahhabi-like theocracy was seen as the Egypt of the future.
These were all the realities of the one-year rule by the Brotherhood, a year that also saw the Islamic Republic of Iran being set up as a role model. Parallel security forces were formed along the model of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as well as militias patterned along the lines of those created by Ayatollah Khomeini. How could such developments escape the attention of the proud, non-sectarian Egyptian army?
With the corrective revolution of 30 June 2013 came the physical proof of the Brotherhood’s determination to collapse the national will in the occupation by gangs of street toughs trained in urban warfare occupying the Cairo squares of Al-Rabaa and Al-Nahdha.
Weddings were performed, and so was the storing of armaments. Bread was baked, and calls for soldiers and policemen to defect were issued. Foreign intervention was urged, and a mighty propaganda machine was put to work on the Brotherhood’s signal. The two squares in the heart of Cairo were declared Islamic emirates.
Without heeding the lesson of refusing to compromise from 30 June to 3 July 2013, the Brotherhood’s tactic was that the Al-Rabaa and Al-Nahda rebellions would spark a conflagration. The enemy of the Islamists was, and continues to be, the 30 June Revolution. So for six weeks entreaties by the government for peaceful disbanding were responded to with more violence. God was believed to be on the side of collapsing the modern secular state. It was a suicidal belief spun out of the inherent hypocrisy of using faith for the ends of unjust power.
It was not a conflict between two opponents, each of them holding to values common to historic Egypt. It was the onset of a conflagration of existential proportions for the very soul of Egypt with the Brotherhood aiming at the upending of a secular Egypt and the majority of the population aiming at continuity. Egypt’s DNA has never carried theocratic chromosomes. Nor has that DNA ever carried in it the germ of civil war. This has always been a cohesive and inclusive democracy.
For 7,000 years, the state has produced the faith in Egypt, not the faith the state. The Pyramids, representing the lofty stability of the state, cast their huge shadows on the temples below. Even the army was a state-creation, unlike in Israel where the army created the state.
Thus was the fight for the soul of Egypt. The views of a noisy minority were no more than an echo chamber within the Guidance Bureau of the Brotherhood, the Islamist politburo, whereas the security forces were reflective of Egypt’s DNA.
With only the megaphones of the Brotherhood globally blaring nonsense about phony legitimacy, the Egyptian street, whose only protection from a fascist putsch was the national army, was asserting its sovereign primacy. Al-Sisi’s assumption of the presidency was not through the Armed Forces. As universally witnessed, it was through the ballot box.
IDEOLOGY OF THE BROTHERHOOD: Let us now peer into Brotherhood ideology. In one word, their “ideology” translates into “hypocrisy”. For it is not about “faith” but about “power” dressed up as “faith”. For evidence, here are some examples.
In 1947, the Brotherhood murdered Egypt’s prime minister, Al-Nokrashi Pasha. This was an act that precipitated the government of Abdel-Hadi Pasha murdering their Supreme Guide and founder Hassan Al-Banna in Cairo. Later, having infiltrated the officer corps of the Egyptian Armed Forces, they played a crucial role in the Nasser coup of 1952.
Nasser had used them, and in return they thought that they could use him. With Nasser having the bigger guns on his side, he outfoxed the Brotherhood in the so-called Alexandria assassination attempt on his life in 1954. This was a golden occasion, whether true or contrived, to ban them.
Treachery, deceit and cunning beget the same. What goes in one end comes out the other. With the hanging of Sayed Qutb, the spiritual father of terrorism in the name of Islam, in the mid-1960s the Brotherhood laid low, focussing on social work. But this was its means for grass-roots infiltration. It never abandoned its core values represented by its logo of two swords framing the Qur’an with the words “and prepare” (wa aedou) written below them. These Qur’anic words come from the verse beginning “And prepare for them with whatever force you can” (Chapter 5, Verse 60).
That combative logo, dividing Muslims into us and them, is a departure from Islamic jurisprudence, a system based on the Qur’an, the Prophet Mohamed’s traditions, and ijtihad (interpretation), with the emphasis on tawheed, or the oneness of God. As the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed Al-Tayyeb, declared in May in Germany, Nigeria and France, “A Muslim means any human being of whatever faith who makes his will subservient to God’s.”
No wonder that the Brotherhood’s celebration in June 2012 of Morsi’s taking the oath of office as president at Cairo University gave Al-Tayyeb a back seat. He walked away from that deliberate humiliation. And no wonder that Muhammad Ali, the great boxing champion and an African-American, was eulogised on 10 June by an array of leaders of every faith on earth. Both Muhammad Ali and Ahmed al-Tayyeb are on the same side of an Islam as the expression of faith in a creator for all of humanity and an Islam that stands on the world stage respected for its tolerance, not feared for its terrorism.
That is the litmus test that the Brotherhood could never pass. Claiming victimhood at both Al-Rabaa and Al-Nahdha in consequence of the rebellion against the Egypt of Adly Mansour reflects only one face — the face of hypocrisy. Both Al-Rabaa and Al-Nahda represented a counter-revolution that sought self-sacrifice, a tenet of the Brotherhood’s charter. That charter proclaims, “Death for the sake of Allah is our most cherished aspiration.” Its secondary mission is an invitation for foreign intervention.
The Qur’an implicates the Brotherhood in bringing that bloodshed upon itself and upon Egypt’s security forces. “Whatever good comes to you, it is from God. And whatever misfortune befalls you, it is your own doing,” it says (Chapter IV, Verse 79).
Now fast forward to Al-Sisi’s rule and a cursory review of its accomplishments in a country saved from civil war. With the secular constitution approved, then promulgated in 2014, presidential elections followed. The result was a first for the New Egypt: Al-Sisi became the first president in the history of modern Egypt to be voted into the highest office through fair, open and scrupulously monitored elections. This is the man who is now embodying the true DNA of his country.
The oldest nation on earth was now ready for rebuilding from the bottom up. This was in spite of an economic decline and two wars on terrorism going on in Sinai and at the Libyan border. It involved a second Suez Canal, rebuilding the naval forces through the purchase of French aircraft carriers while keeping an American excess of armed vehicles flowing at no cost to combat terrorism, and reclaiming 1.5 million acres from the desert, while ensuring an adequate supply of surface and underground water.
It meant returning Egypt to the African Union and to its natural allies and sources of emergency funding in the Gulf, ensuring energy sufficiency through German technology and the return to atomic programmes for peaceful purposes through Russian know-how, and the pursuit of the new religious revolution through Al-Azhar and the banning of the preachers of hate and anti-Coptism through the laws. There was meaningful presidential participation in celebrations at the Coptic Cathedral at Abbasiya in Cairo.
It meant declaring the construction of a new administrative capital east of Cairo; the utilisation of the Tahiya Misr Fund in new zoning for roads, housing, refuse removal, bridges and grain silos; the revamping of the creaky educational and health systems; and presidential visits to newly emerging mega-economies to rebuild tourism and to borrow from the East its new techniques for mass transfer to the 21st century.
It also meant refocussing on Egypt, while avoiding intervention in the affairs of sister Arab states and shunning the old interventionist propaganda line of “Egypt knows best.” It meant involving the Italians and the Americans in developing natural gas discoveries and harnessing the country’s huge demographics in the arduous task of national production.
TWO YEARS AS PRESIDENT: In an interview with Osama Kamal of Egyptian TV, Al-Sisi has set out his own report card. With characteristic humility, he speaks of “we” as a collective leadership.
Here is some of what he said: “The evil-doers are those who intentionally aim at hurting Egypt, whether the Egyptian people or the Egyptian state”; “The Egyptian people know who are the practitioners of evil, both internally and externally”; “For as long as the Egyptian people are united, we experience no fear. We only experience anxiety if the Egyptian public does not act as one”; and “What is going on now is nothing more than futile attempts to destroy the state from within.”
Said Al-Sisi, “I did not agonise over whether to stand for the presidency of Egypt. But there were measures which had to be in place prior to my taking that step.” He continued, “My goal remains to protect the state from collapse. If this is my only achievement, I will see a great mission accomplished. Today we have state institutions, a constitution, and a state in the process of being restored with a renewed spirit.”
This is confidence expressed in an understated manner, a manner that harks back to the early Arab literature, which uses the diminutive as a way of describing the huge.
It should also be noted that the Sinai terrorism, exaggerated in the press internally and externally as a force determining the Egypt of the future, is confined to two or three per cent of the Sinai land mass between Gaza and Al-Arish. There is also a vacuum of power in the Arab region forcing Egypt to act. Al-Sisi said it best in his TV interview: “We must be able to affect a balance, not aiming at either hidden agendas or coveting land or wealth. Our only agenda is to repel those who aim at harming us or our neighbours.”
It should also be noted that much of the Egyptian press of today has a zero role in education. It confuses freedom of expression with freedom to maliciously render the news. It offers daily admonitions to Al-Sisi regarding its perceptions of what should and should not be done.
The depth of its shame is to be measured by its calling the transfer of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir a “territorial Saudi land grab.” No wonder the world press of today has pivoted in a new direction. Its main headlines are “Doom and Gloom Merchants Wrong Again,” in the words of Linda S Heard of the Gulf News after a recent visit to Egypt.
As Egypt enters a phase of accelerated reconstruction, confidence-building trends multiply, for example in the rejection of the neo-imperialism of foreign non-governmental organisations like Amnesty International, which has been trying to measure the status of freedom of expression in Egypt with the same yardstick used for Western states that did not suffer the ravages of the Arab Spring.
There is also the rise of many indigenous NGOs, such as Naebat Qademat (Women Legislators in the Making) headed by Nahid Shaker and the Organisation for Constitutional Protection headed by Amr Moussa.
There is the rise of a movement for local administration, decentralised for quick responses on the ground. There is the responsiveness to the Coptic Church, while calling for revamping the archaic laws impeding church construction and repairs. There is the emphasis on projects where there is a direct relationship between cost and benefits and a time schedule for completion.
There is the bringing up the rear of Egypt’s geographical area, for far too long neglected, like Sinai, Nubia, and the huge Western Desert, and there is the realignment of foreign relations to better serve the parity of sovereignty among states, the possible revision of the charter of the League of Arab States, and adherence to the laws for public demonstrations within their promulgated provisions, the respect for judicial independence, and for women’s empowerment.
This is a challenging process in the rebirth of the oldest state on earth. It is a process that wears proudly and visibly an ankh, a key-like ancient Egyptian cross, as a symbol of enduring life and generative energy. This is a country worth saving from civil war by historic leaders like Al-Sisi, a leader for whom tomorrow starts today. (see pp.6-7)
The writer is a professor of law at New York University.