The popular war on terror

Today in Egypt, supporters of a deposed president who hasn’t been seen or heard from in 21 days spend some of their time holding “parliamentary” sessions in a small mosque events hall, while the leader of the Armed Forces, in all his medaled glory, calls on the general public to hold protests to authorize the army to fight violence and terrorism.

Slick in sunglasses and full dress uniform, Colonel General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi appeared in front of the nation on Wednesday night,  and in a speech that drove the people wild with delight, casually announced a war on terrorism.

His was a speech of facts and certainties, solid and robust like the tanks that are now lined up in parts of Cairo. Undeniable. At some point between the end of June and today, allegations that the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organization stopped being allegations and became facts. It was a gradual process, like watching a photograph develop — the outlines slowly became clearer, and the picture emerged.

Three years after the heady independent days of January 25, and Egyptians are once again seeking out the army strongman to hold their hand, and an enemy — invented or real, it doesn’t matter — to define and shape their cause. Like all nationalist movements, this is sentiment partly informed by fear and hate.

Two groups laid the groundwork for all this: The Muslim Brotherhood, and the media. The Brotherhood, with its obstinate hubris and desperate attempts for attention, with its traffic-paralyzing marches and the inevitable confrontations they provoke. With every short-sighted and disastrous decision they make, the Brothers prove that, if they ever did anything of benefit to someone outside the sphere of their immediate circle while in power, it was purely by coincidence; and that the general public is mostly an encumbrance, to be fed at Ramadan charity tables, marched through or ignored when it suits them — and used when it doesn’t. Like all politicians; but a particularly acute case.

Most infuriatingly, they are painfully self-unaware, to the point of embarrassment. The Muslim Brotherhood — which for two years courted the army’s favors, failed to condemn its acts of dark violence and bolstered its powers in its precious constitution — is now recycling the same anti-military chants they themselves never chanted when they echoed round Tahrir Square. And the tragedy for the Brotherhood is that it has a good case: Former President Mohamed Morsi was stripped of power illegally in a military coup, even if this decision was backed by a large majority of the general public.  

It was mostly the privately owned satellite media and newspapers that became the army’s court jester, or at least did so with the most gusto. Logos appeared on screens insistently informing viewers that June 30 was a popular revolution, not a coup. Then the terrorism rhetoric began, and the pro-Morsi protesters were no longer just a bunch of skin-disease ridden, cult supporting lunatics, but also terrorists. Again, this happened almost seamlessly. Television presenters indulged themselves in the vilest xenophobia against Palestinians and Syrians, who they claimed were camped out in pro-Morsi sit-ins and meddling in Egyptian affairs.

Only the weakest of evidence was produced to support these claims, including a video of some men dancing dabke to this Palestinian pro-Morsi song. The aim, of course, was twofold: Firstly, to support the claim that the Brotherhood has links with Hamas and other foreign groups involved in acts of insurgency in Sinai, and secondly, to isolate the Brotherhood even further, turn it into a “them” separate from the rest of the population. The fastest and most foolproof way to do this in Egypt is to establish that a group has links with foreign powers. It works every time.

The media campaign has been disastrous for Syrian refugees, whether already in Egypt or seeking to cross its borders. Syrians who want to come to Egypt to flee the devastation in their country must now gain security authorization before doing so. Syrians already in Egypt are quietly being rounded up at army checkpoints and detained — even individuals registered with the United Nations.

The general public was sold. It ran stumbling and screaming into Sisi’s protective arms and nestled in his bosom. Almost overnight, people mutated into barrel-thumping nationalists celebrating a victory against a foreign enemy, when no battle has yet been won and their enemy is one of them. Hot air — lots of hot air — has been blown into former President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s corpse. Perhaps they are trying to blow his spirit into Sisi. Three years after the heady independent days of January 25, and Egyptians are once again seeking out the army strongman to hold their hand, and an enemy — invented or real, it doesn’t matter — to define and shape their cause. Like all nationalist movements, this is sentiment partly informed by fear and hate. There is nothing of real ideological substance here, no long-term goal other than either containing the Brotherhood or crushing the Islamist movement.

The delight with which the general public received Sisi’s speech confirmed this. His speech was essentially nonsense, but delivered with a folksy populism and panache that to me suggests a man in the early days of a presidential campaign. Does it have to be stated out loud that armies don’t take mandates from the general public? Do we have to remind ourselves that a smiling army officer in shades and a uniform telling people to take to the streets against an enemy is nine times out of 10 an individual to be wary of? Should we not be asking ourselves why the interim president didn’t deliver this happy message?

(Aside: Sisi did, however, make one important point about Morsi’s recalcitrance in the lead up to June 30. More importantly, he said that he and Morsi “agreed” that Morsi would make certain points in his June 30 speech, and that Morsi reneged on that “agreement.” Sisi was calling the shots even then).

I find myself in an ever-shrinking minority. I still fail to see how the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organization, where terrorism means terror used systematically as a means of coercion. Yes, the MB has “taken to the mattresses” as they say, and there are weapons in its sit-ins. We see these arms during clashes. The Brothers use them to shoot at the other side, which is also armed. What is also certain is that some sit-in members detain and torture people they capture in specially designated areas of the sit-ins, and that local residents have had enough of them — they marched to Dokki police station on Tuesday to demand that the Nahda Square sit-in be dispersed.

But I don’t think it has been established conclusively yet that the violence during Muslim Brotherhood marches is always initiated by the Brotherhood, and that it amounts to terrorism justifying an army-orchestrated crackdown cheered on by the general public. There was violence at the Nahda sit-in on Monday during which people on both sides were shot and injured. This is usually the case in all the pro- and anti-Morsi clashes. This is not to justify the Brotherhood’s reaction (the use of guns against civilians is not only immoral, but disastrous in PR terms), but merely to question the narrative being shoved down our throats.

It seems clear that in any case, the army and/or the police will use force to break up the Nahda and Rabea al-Adaweya Mosque sit-ins as part of its great war on terror, and there have been calls for security forces to do this even from leftist, vocally anti-police activists. They are correct in their assertion that a sit-in with arms and torture areas should not continue. I cannot, however, agree with a full on police assault.

If there are complaints about arms, then the police have a duty to search anyone going in and out of the camp. If protesters fail to cooperate with this, then the police can escalate. Detainees are being held under the stage at the Nahda protest, and if the police had any imagination, and if they cared, they would go in a small delegation to the sit-in during the day when it is virtually empty and demand to be taken there. Any resistance, any violent response, and an escalation would be justified.

Whatever security bodies do, they are bound by duty to use reasonable force; but this is an alien language to both the police and the army, and the general public is braying for blood. It was always going to end — or perhaps begin — like this.