By Jay Holmes
Today, from the Western point of view, we see continuing strife in Egypt centered on the basic issue of theocracy vs. democracy. The simple interpretation of that strife indicates that Egyptian President Morsi, his Muslim Brotherhood backers, and their sympathizers constitute approximately half of Egypt’s population, and that their secular opposition constitutes the other half. Each side in the theocracy vs. democracy struggle claims to represent more than 50% of the Egyptian people. Given the lack of democratic institutions in Egypt, it may be impossible to know if one side or the other actually has a 50%+ majority. While the question of any majority in Egypt is unanswerable for the present, one thing that remains certain is that Egypt remains divided, and that whichever side is in the minority, it is a very large minority.
Mohamed Morsi, image by Trinitresque, wikimedia commons
Another important factor in the ongoing Egyptian revolution is the identity and personality of Egypt’s President Morsi. While Morsi was marketed as a “reformer” and a “moderate,” he has demonstrated that he is neither. Thus far, Morsi’s only attempts at reforms have focused on reforming Egypt into his own personal dictatorship while trying to consolidate his own personal power. From outside of Egypt, it may appear that Morsi is in charge and running the show in that country. From inside of Morsi’s office, the view might be more complicated.
Morsi needed backing from the Islamic Brotherhood and the religious leaders of Egypt to obtain power. Now that he has succeeded in that goal, he is unable to exercise that power without the direct influence of the Egyptian clergy. If Egypt’s Sunni religious leaders were to turn on Morsi, he would be left with approximately zero percent backing. I assume his family and closest friends would still be in his corner, but it would be a very lonely and dangerous corner. Without the backing of that Sunni leadership, Morsi’s power would evaporate like a droplet of water in the Egyptian Desert. Morsi has no choice but to keep the Egyptian clergy happy.
What Morsi now has to come to terms with is the fact that he is dealing with a group of people who specialize in being unhappy and hard to please. In fact, being unhappy is the second most popular hobby amongst Sunni religious leaders. Their first most popular hobby is being demanding. Have fun with that Mr. President.
The recent, well-publicized torture and murder of Egyptian anti-Morsi activist Mohammed El-Gendy while in police custody has become a clear symbol of the lack of reform in Egyptian government and the lack of human rights that prevail in Egypt. While police brutality in Egypt seemed to be on the decline after Morsi’s election, El-Gendy’s torture and death are by no means an isolated case. Morsi is claiming to be investigating El-Gendy’s death, but the half of Egypt that does not support him is unconvinced that any meaningful investigation will take place.
The Egyptian military and police apparatus are not traditionally Islamic institutions. They have a history of clearly secular leanings. And why wouldn’t they? Who needs a cleric to obey when you have fighter jets and well-made tanks on your side?
The clearly secular history of Egypt’s military and police forces lead us to an obvious question. Why have Egypt’s secular military and police protected Morsi and their old enemies in the Islamic Brotherhood?
We could ask Morsi, the military, or the police, but it’s unlikely that they would answer the question sincerely. My best guess is that Morsi and his religious bosses made a deal with those powerful institutions. That deal would have to center on the police and military maintaining positions of privilege in exchange for protecting Morsi and the Sunni leadership. For that deal to remain in place, Morsi must not attempt to reform the military or police by reducing their power and privilege.
Anyone care to guess on what will happen in the investigation of El-Gendy’s death? At best, a scapegoat will be found and barbecued. We should not expect more than that as long as Morsi remains in power. If he turns against the military or police, no amount of prayers and support from the Sunni leadership will keep him from suffering an untimely accident.
The recent state visit to Egypt by Iran’s least skilled actor, President Ahmadinejad, has provided us with great theater. Unlike the audiences in London’s Cockpit Theater, the audiences in Egypt and Iran are not at all in agreement as to precisely which drama they have enjoyed.
If we ask Ahmadinejad and his masters, or even if we don’t ask, they will quickly tell us that audiences were enthralled by his brilliant and triumphant visit to Egypt, and that it heralds a new day of Sunni cooperation and understanding with the great and wise Shia leaders in Iran. They will tell us that Egypt and Iran are quickly becoming great allies in the struggle against the evils of the non-Islamic world. About all this proves is that the Iranian theocracy is not incapable of comedy, albeit accidental comedy.
If we ask the Egyptian Sunni leadership what drama they watched, they would explain that they didn’t watch, but rather took center stage in the play. That they scolded Ahmadinejad for Iran’s interference in the internal affairs of Gulf states and for their continuing persecution of the Iranian Sunni minority. And that is what they did.
If we ask Morsi what occurred, he will tell us that Iran has promised economic assistance to Egypt, and that the two countries have laid the groundwork for a strong friendship. He would blush as he said those words.
If we ask Morsi’s opponents what occurred, they would tell us that we have seen yet more proof that Morsi is anti-Western, and that the USA is idiotic for sending Morsi F-16 fighters. Many members of Congress are agreeing with that view this week.
F-16 Fighting Falcon. President Obama has sold four of these to Morsi and the
Muslim Brotherhood. He has promised them sixteen more.
image by US Air Force
Morsi might be the dictator of Egypt for the moment, but he is a dictator who stands on a thin-edged wall with crocodiles on one side and angry leopards on the other. One slip, and all his problems in this world will be over.
The Islamic Brotherhood, with the acquiescence of Egypt’s military and state police apparatus, holds a strong position in Egypt. It will not be easy for those Egyptians who seek human rights and democracy to wrestle that power away from Morsi and his theocratic masters. One strategic disadvantage that plagues the reformers is the simple fact that police and judicial reform are an essential part of their agenda. Yet, without those basic goals, as Morsi has proven, any reform would be meaningless.
The cards are stacked against Egypt’s reform movement, but Egyptians have proven to be resilient. As events in Tunisia and Libya have demonstrated, the dictator does not always win.
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‘Jay Holmes’, is an intelligence veteran of the Cold War and remains an anonymous member of the intelligence community. His writing partner, Piper Bayard, is the public face of their partnership.
You may contact them in blog comments, on Twitter at @piperbayard, on Facebook at Piper Bayard, or by email at email@example.com.
© 2013 Jay Holmes. All content on this page is protected by copyright. If you would like to use any part of this, please contact us at the above links to request permission.
I just a while ago read A Concise History of the Middle East.
Egypt’s leaders have been doing the type of thing Morsi is doing before. Issuing edicts to take all power and so on.
Mubarak, like Saddam, was no angel, but I rather think once the cork was off the bottle, the wine isn’t to our taste.
Hi Brendan. Well you may be right. I’m an incurable optimist so I’m not ready to give up on freedom and democracy in Egypt just yet.
Good write up Holmes. I think your “specialize in being unhappy and hard to please” paragraph neatly summarizes so many groups in the middle east. It also makes me wonder if some of our own politicians haven’t hit on the same working principle.
Hi Nigel. Our hard to please politicians don’t worry me too much. It’s the ones that are all too easy to please (with cash) that anger me the most.
Good point. That would be most of them then.
I’m sure the Morsi could tell you that it’s good to be king/dictator – until you’re not. Great post, thanks for sharing.
Thank you Dave
The title pretty well sums it up. (Nice shot of the F-16.)
Always well written and well researched posts here. Thanks
Thank You philosophermouse.