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Egypt: Why Did the Generals Depose Morsi?

For most of the year of Mohamed Morsi’s presidency, government in Egypt was based on an understanding between the generals (represented by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) and the leadership of the Moslem Brotherhood. The understanding seems to have been in place well before the elections, which the generals helped the Moslem Brotherhood to win – for instance, by tolerating numerous reported irregularities.

Protecting military interests

As president, Morsi made a great effort to return the favour and protect military interests:

- The new constitution sponsored by the Moslem Brotherhood enshrined the position of the armed forces as ‘a state within the state’ by entrusting military affairs to a council dominated by officers and unaccountable to parliament.  

- Morsi gave the military and the police legal immunity. After a presidential commission implicated senior officers in the killing and torture of demonstrators, he described the claims as ‘insults’ and rewarded those concerned with promotions.

- Morsi did nothing that might threaten the interests of the armed forces as a capitalist corporation. This corporation owns an estimated 25-40 per cent of the country’s economy, including vast tracts of land, and exploits conscripts as slave labour. The privatisation of state industry never extended to military property. (For more on these points, see Hesham Sallam and Zeinab Abul-Magd at www.jadaliyya.com.)

However, Morsi did not wholly support the generals’ policy of maintaining the flow of US military aid by fully cooperating with Israel and the United States. According to Brigadier General Ayman Salama of the Cairo Military Academy, the army thought that Morsi was being too helpful to his fellow Islamists in the Hamas regime in Gaza, thereby undermining security in the Sinai (BBC World Service, 5 July). Indeed, no sooner was Morsi deposed than the border with Gaza was sealed off.

Another complaint of the generals against Morsi was that his government was spending $1.5 billion a month too much, rapidly depleting the country’s financial reserves (Guardian Weekly, 12 July).

A means to a goal

Finally, the military were highly dissatisfied with the growing isolation of Morsi’s Moslem Brotherhood-dominated government from all other political forces. The understanding with the Moslem Brotherhood was not an end in itself for the generals. It was a means to their goal of stabilising the social and political situation in Egypt in such a way as to safeguard military interests.

In order to optimise the chance of achieving this goal, they seek to co-opt ‘realistic’ politicians from both the secular and Islamist camps who are prepared to accept military privileges while marginalising political forces committed to ‘continuing the revolution’ until full democratic rights are won for all citizens. But Morsi was alienating the very politicians whom the generals would like to co-opt.

One process that alienated many people was the so-called ‘ikhwanisation’ of government institutions – the replacement of incumbent officials by Moslem Brotherhood activists (‘ikhwan’ means ‘brothers’ in Arabic). This was a way to reward ‘brothers’ for selfless service to the organisation through the long years of persecution, but aroused the resentment of those displaced.

In fact, under different leadership the Moslem Brotherhood might have proven more flexible and managed to stay in government. One leading ‘brother’ – the physician Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh – was forced out of the Moslem Brotherhood together with his followers in 2011, but stood as an independent candidate in the presidential elections. He did quite well, coming fourth in the first round with 17.5 per cent of the vote. In July 2012 he founded the Strong Egypt Party. Fotouh represented a ‘left-liberal’ trend within the Moslem Brotherhood – he is more conciliatory toward the secular section of society and talks about ‘social justice’.

Cross-cutting divisions

The presence of cross-cutting divisions within society makes the political situation in Egypt hard to understand, let alone predict. A ‘left-right’ division on economic issues exists, but – for the time being at least – it is overshadowed by the split between Islamists and secularists.

In 2012 over 35 secularist groups came together to form the National Front for Salvation of the Revolution (also known as the National Salvation Front or National Rescue Front), coordinated by Mohamed El Baradei. These groups include pro-business ‘liberal’ parties as well as a profusion of ‘socialist’ organisations. This apparently strange alliance is held together by fear of the Islamists – not just the Moslem Brotherhood but especially the even more intolerant ‘salafis’ (fundamentalists) who seek immediate implementation of Islamic law.

Trade union activists tend to align themselves with the secularist camp, as do people concerned with the emancipation of women, cultural and intellectual freedom and human rights in general, and also non-Moslem minorities, the largest being the 10 per cent of the population who are Coptic Christians.

The class of private capitalists is also divided between the two camps, ensuring them both a flow of funds. The ‘liberal’ Free Egyptians Party was set up by Naguib Sawiris, one of the world’s richest individuals, while the Moslem Brotherhood has been financially dependent on the wealthy businessman Khairat El-Shater (furniture and textiles). Only the ‘socialist’ groups are less well provided for.

The division between secularists and Islamists partly overlaps with the division between city and countryside. Secularists and especially ‘leftists’ are concentrated in the larger cities. This enables them to stage bigger demonstrations, creating an exaggerated impression of their preponderance at the national level. In the last presidential election, the ‘left-wing’ (Nasserist) presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi won the metropolitan areas of Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said, Suez and Giza (Adel Iskandar, Egypt in Flux: Essays on an Unfinished Revolution, AUC Press 2013, p. 106), while in the country as a whole, however, he finished third with 21.5 per cent of the vote.