Egyptians clash with security forces in Cairo on July 15, 2013. Demonstrators expressed opposition to the military coup that displaced President Mohamed Morsi., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Egypt: From counter revolution to civil war
By Monte Palmer
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.
The revolution that overthrew Egypt's military regime in January 2011 was an outburst of mass despair. It was not, however, a complete revolution. A complete revolution would have shattered the power centers of the old regime and replaced them with the leadership, cadres and ideology of the revolutionary movement.
The revolutionaries of despair could not complete their revolution because they possessed neither an organization capable of
seizing power, nor a coherent plan for the future other than vague slogans of democracy and equity. With the goal of toppling a despotic military dictatorship achieved, confusion reigned.
The only opposition movement that possessed an organization capable of seizing power was the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, however, did not play a key role in the revolution of despair. Rather, it kibitzed from the sidelines while the revolutionaries and the old regime sorted things out. Once the dust had settled, they would make their move.
With the revolutionaries being unable to seize power and the Brotherhood biding its time, the military filled the vacuum. For all intents and purposes, the old regime was still in power. They intended to stay there. The question was not if, but how?
While incomplete, the 2011 revolution did change the course of Egyptian politics. The masses, once docile, had become a force to be feared. So powerful was the surge of emotions that toppled the Mubarak regime that the generals were forced to allow free elections, the first in 60 years.
The Muslim Brotherhood, buttressed by ultra extremist groups, swept the parliamentary elections with 70% of the popular vote. The presidential elections were more controversial resulting in a showdown between the Brotherhood and the reigning chief of the military. Both sides claimed victory, but as the military were counting the votes, it was within their power to seize the presidency. Fear of the masses dissuaded them from doing so.
As the Brotherhood now ruled, the military possessed two options for retaining a share of power. They could cut a deal with the Brotherhood to live and let live, or they could prepare the way for a comeback by sabotaging the Brotherhood's efforts to rule effectively.
At first, an arrangement between the Brotherhood and the military appeared to have been worked out. Mubarak and few senior generals were sacrificed to the revolution, and Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, a former director of military intelligence reputed to be friendly to the Brotherhood, was named Minister of Defense and head of the military. So cozy was the arrangement that the Brotherhood's government was soon accused of being no better than the Mubarak regime.
The generals, however, wanted a larger share of power. The Brotherhood refused, and the arrangement collapsed. The military, faced with an all or nothing situation, shifted to its backup strategy of overthrowing the Brotherhood's democratically elected government. The counter-revolution was under way.
The military's counter revolutionary strategy was simplicity itself. First, they would sabotage Brotherhood efforts to meet the demands of the masses for food, jobs, security and everything else that had fueled the overthrow of the old regime. This task accomplished, all the generals would allow mass anger to build to the bursting point, and then direct it against the Brotherhood. When chaos reigned, the military would step in to save the country and itself.
The first task of sabotaging the Brotherhood government was relatively easy, for the generals remained in control of the military, police, bureaucracy, judiciary, economy, and religious establishment. Food, fuel, electricity, and law and order suddenly vanished. It was less of a conspiracy than each branch of the old regime doing their thing to scuttle a common enemy.
The second task of focusing mass hysteria on the Brotherhood was also relatively easy. Having blamed the Brotherhood government for the reign of chaos, the generals launched a hate-fear campaign accusing the Brotherhood of attempting to transform Egypt into an Islamic caliphate. Secular-liberal groups led the charge with a smear campaign accusing the Brotherhood of stealing the revolution. Rioters careened through the streets demanding the Brotherhood's resignation. Counter demonstrations kept pace as warnings of civil war soared.
With fear and hate at a fever pitch, Sisi poured fuel on the flames by calling for true democracy and vowing not to spill a drop of sacred Egyptian blood. This was a strange position for a Mubarak general who had spilled considerable blood in attempting to crush the 2011 revolution.
Anti-Brotherhood protesters had been given the green light to storm the streets at will. Brotherhood supporters countered, albeit without police protection. Violence flared and culminated in the June 30th march of 30 million Egyptians pleading for Sisi to save them from civil war and Islamic tyranny. Egypt's new man on horseback had arrived.
The figure of 30 million protesters was described by the BBC as a carefully staged fantasy and even the Saudi press suggested that the figure might be as low as five or six million. Whatever the number, five million people shouting and screaming against the government was a formidable number. When embellished by the Egyptian media, it was more than enough to justify the next step in counter-revolutionary strategy, a coup.
Bowing to what he claimed was popular will, Sisi overthrew a popularly elected government that had reigned for only a year. Its leaders were arrested and an Egyptian media that had been free as it was irresponsible during the two previous years simply became irresponsible. Headlines screamed that the Brotherhood was a terrorist organization that had declared war on Egypt. Egypt's intellectuals rushed in to proclaim that the coup was not a coup because the military had simply bowed to the popular will as the first step in establishing a true democracy.
The next step in the counter-revolution was trickier. The Brotherhood had adopted a democratic strategy in order to prove to the world that it had nothing to fear from moderate Islamic rule in Egypt and beyond. As a result, Sisi was forced to create the illusion of democracy if the counter-revolution were to succeed. Following a path well trod by Arab dictators before him, Sisi proclaimed a road map to democracy and appointed a hand picked transitional government to guide the way to free elections and a revised constitution. The masses cheered. They had been rescued from Islamic rule and democracy was at hand.
The difference between the democratic strategy pursued by the Brotherhood and the illusion of democracy conjured up by the military was staggering. Brotherhood rule featured a free press, freedom of speech, a multitude of political parties, and unfettered demonstrations and protests. Rule by military fiat featured none of the above. Sisi's message was simple, "Trust me while I save you from the Brotherhood."
It was now the Brotherhood that threw the country into political and economic chaos by launching massive protests the length and breadth of Egypt. They had to be stopped or the military's counter-revolution was doomed.
Time was of the essence. When Brotherhood protesters approached the officer's club where they believed the deposed president was being held, the police and military opened fire killing 44 protesters. Sisi remained unrepentant and blamed the Brotherhood for the carnage. Pictures published by the Guardian proved otherwise. International condemnation rained on the head of Sisi. His blatant slaughter of innocent protesters was not leading to democracy, they claimed, but to a revived military dictatorship.
Stung by criticism from abroad and the doubts of his liberal supporters, Sisi called upon the mob to give him the power to crush violence and terrorism. It was not legal democracy that mattered, but the will of the people. Thousands of youth screamed their support for Sisi, while an equal number of Brotherhood supporters called for a return of the elected government.
Violence exploded as the military and Sisi's recently revived secret police opened fire on the demonstrators. Estimates of the death toll ranged from 72 to 130. The figures of the wounded ranged in the thousands.
Sisi, far from expressing remorse, gave the Brotherhood 48 hours to join army sponsored reconciliation talks. The Brotherhood responded to Sisi's call for surrender with new demonstrations. The army could either kill them or return Egypt's elected president to office. Violence was minimal, but with the passing of the deadline, Sisi's puppet government announced that all future Brotherhood demonstrations would be crushed with maximum force.
Just when it appeared that Sisi's counter revolution had succeeded, the sands of Egyptian politics again began to shift.
Mohammed ElBaradi, Nobel laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, openly criticized the army for excessive force. Baradi was the only man in the interim government with international legitimacy, and his criticism was devastating. Amra Musa, a former foreign minister and head of the Arab League, chided Sisi for not clearing his decisions with his self-appointed transitional government.
Tamarod, the organization that had fueled popular emotions against the Brotherhood by claiming 22 million (maybe 30 million) uncertified signatures denouncing Brotherhood rule, launched a new campaign demanding that a democratic constitution be drafted by independent experts rather than a hand picked committee of Sisi supporters.
It also scorched the interim president for appointing several Mubarak generals as governors of Egyptian provinces. So did the leader of a coalition of 26 diverse democratic currents in Alexandria.
Demanding the dismissal of the erring minister, he minced no words in declaring, "The revolution is running the country."  The Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Islam's oldest and most revered institution, openly declared that all Egyptians had the right to peaceful protest.
European Union pressure on Sisi to move quickly toward democracy became intense and was reinforced by the IMF's insistence that it will only negotiate a desperately need loan with Egypt's democratically elected government.
While dissention within his own camp weakened Sisi's claim to legitimacy, other evolving changes are far more ominous and point to civil war. The diverse Islamic currents, once divided and hostile to the Brotherhood, have now began coalescing against Sisi and military rule. Like it or not, Egypt is primed for a war of secularism against Islam.
The Brotherhood and the far more extreme Salafi and jihadist counterparts are well organized, flush with arms, and fired with religious zeal. They have also been forced underground and are well positioned to fight a war of attrition against a military that displayed no zeal at all in protecting the Mubarak regime.
To make matters worse, extremists have taken control of both sides in the conflict. While moderates urge moderation on Sisi, youth groups demand that the Brotherhood be exterminated. Popular Islamic preachers have followed suit by calling on the Islamic resistance forces to attack military outposts and size their arms. They are also calling for military officers to resist Sisi's orders
The recently elected Coptic pope, fearing rule by Islamic law, joined the fray by praising the outpouring of support for Sisi and his call for a free hand in fighting violence. For the ultra-Islamic extremists, this was a declaration of war between Islamic extremism and Christianity that had been festering for generations. Christians, about 15% of Egypt's population who were represented in the Brotherhood dominated government, are now fair game for the ultra-extremists who have a long record of attacking churches.
Class conflict is also deepening as austerity programs being discussed by Sisi's puppet government threaten to cut subsidies of food and other vital essentials. The labor movement has responded by demanding increased salaries and benefits. Strikes have increased apace, many being crushed by military force.
The lack of equity is being compounded by a lack of justice as the police officers that killed protesters during the 2011 revolution are being acquitted. Police brutality and corruption were a key element in igniting the 2011 revolution, and they have again returned to the fore under the Sisi regime. The interim head of the police has acknowledged the hostility toward the Sisi regime caused by Egypt's undisciplined police by promising the masses a new police force that is people friendly, a people's police. In the meantime, the police have been unleashed on the Brotherhood and anyone else who protests against the Sisi regime.
An even more surprising indicator of change are hints that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both intent on destroying democracy and the Brotherhood, may be having doubts about Sisi's usefulness. A recent article in the Saudi sponsored Al-Majalla went so far to describe Sisi's demand for a popular mandate to crush violence as "as an act of pure irrationality or political Machiavellianism at its worst".  The Saudis are nervous about an Egyptian civil war that will destabilize the region by pitting secularism against Islam. Perhaps they also fear mob rule more than they fear the Brotherhood.
Sisi responded to the above challenges with bluff and bluster. Men on horseback can't back down. They do, however, make some very curious decisions.
For example, when the US Secretary of State John Kerry embarrassed himself by proclaiming that Sisi's coup was the first step toward democracy, Sisi responded with a tirade condemning the US for not giving his rule adequate support. This, of itself was an indicator of a nervous dictator, but it paled in comparison to the outrage that followed John McCain's fact-finding mission to Egypt. Sisi, Senator McCain proclaimed, was an illegitimate leader who seized power by a military coup.
The Egyptian press interpreted McCain comments as punishment for Sisi's tirade against Kerry. Far worse, was speculation that the counterpoint between Kerry and McCain was a cruel American conspiracy to keep Egypt in a state of chaos or, perhaps, to return the Brotherhood to power. Why else, the conspiracy mill pondered, would the US support an illegitimate military dictator against the relatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, arm ultra-extremist Sunni groups fighting a Shi'ite dictator in Syria, and put a Shi'ite government beholden to Iran in power in Iraq? Clever people, these Americans, at least in the mind of Egyptian conspiracy theorists and an increasingly paranoid dictator.
It was at this point that Sisi changed his course and ordered his military spokesman to announce that the protesters were their brothers and had the same rights as all Egyptians. How curious, seeing how he had just ordered his puppet government to crush the Brotherhood demonstrators with maximum force.
It was not a retreat, but Sisi had blinked and the Brotherhood knew that he had blinked. This was a clear sign that their strategy was working and their supporters were energized.
Damage control was immediate. In a fascinating article, General Sarbi Yassin blames the apparent confusion in Sisi's decision making on Baradi, whom he accuses of browbeating a weak temporary government into giving him 72 hours to work things out with foreign diplomats. The result was a spectacular agreement that would free all Brotherhood prisoners and allow their participation in a revived democracy. All the Brotherhood had to do was allow the Sisi regime to save face by allowing the farcical crushing of their demonstrations.
The other culprit, according to the general, was the puppet president who, totally lacking in charisma, was unable to control the events swirling around him. If such claims are true, Sisi had lost control of the hand-picked puppets that he had put in office. One can only wonder how he would cope with democratically elected leaders.
The ultra-left Tagama (communist-Nasserite) party by contrast, attempted to boost Sisi's crumbling charisma by claiming that Sisi's apparent confusion was a stroke of genius designed to save Egyptian lives by confusing Brotherhood protesters.
It was at this point that Sisi's interim government blinked again suggesting that the best way to deal with the Brotherhood was to let the protesters consume themselves.  Pain and boredom were taking their toll, and the masses were blaming Brotherhood for the chaos in Egypt. It would just be matter of time before the demonstrations collapsed of their own weight. Sisi's mobs were having none of it and demanded an immediate crushing of the demonstrations with brutal force.
One way or another, popular support for Sisi's rule had become so fragmented that efforts to maintain a viable illusion of democracy had gone by the wayside. Only force could save the counter-revolution.
And so it was that Sisi's forces stormed the Brotherhood protesters killing hundreds and wounding thousands. Violence flared throughout Egypt as the Brotherhood and their ultra extremist allies stood their ground. Sisi's puppet government declared a state of emergency. The Brotherhood stated that it had been force into a civil war. Baradi resigned. The Sheikh of Al-Azhar claimed to have no prior knowledge of the attacks. The Coptic pope closed all Christian churches during the feast of Mary. The EU and the US denounced the violence. It was too late. Kerry's endorsement of Sisi's coup was blamed for encouraging military violence.
This is not to suggest that the Sisi regime is on the verge of collapse, but merely that it faces an interminable war of attrition. The man on horseback cannot back down, but neither can the Brotherhood. In the meantime, Sisi's efforts to crush the Brotherhood and its ultra extremist supporters will lock down Egypt with such brutality that the conditions that precipitated the 2011 revolution will pale by comparison.
1. "Civil Currents Demand Purging of Biblawi Government With Resignation of Adel Labib", Elgornal, August 13, 2013. (No author, Arabic).
2. "General Sabri Yassin Reveals the Reasons for the Delay in Crushing the Protesters", Sabri Yassin, Elgornal/Istiqlal, August 12, 2013. (Arabic)
3. "Egypt's Need for Common Sense", editors, Majala, August 2013. (Translated from Arabic by Majala)
4."Politicians Differ Over Government Report that the Brotherhood Protesters will Consume Themselves", Elgornal. August 13, 2013. (No author, Arabic)
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Monte Palmer is Professor Emeritus at Florida State University, a former Director of the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut, and a senior fellow at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. His recent books include The Arab Psyche and American Frustrations, The Politics of the Middle East, Islamic Extremism (with Princess Palmer), Political Development: Dilemmas and Challenges, and Egypt and the Game of Terror (a novel). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org and his blog is arabpsyche.wordpress.com
(Copyright Monte Palmer 2013)