31 August 2013

Was the Egyptian Coup a Secular Reaction to an Islamist Administration?

If you have been following the events in Egypt from a distance, you probably have the impression that the army intervened to prevent the Islamists from consolidating their power.

You may recall that, immediately after the coup, they claimed to be on the side of democracy. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi maintained that he was fighting to stop terrorists, which, these days, is a code word for Islamists. Tellingly, in this instance, the fight against terrorists was also a sentiment expressed by non other than King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

Europe and the US have been muted in their criticism (even after the mass slaughter of Brotherhood supporters) and their relative acquiescence seemed to suggest that indeed the army had stopped a terrible regime from taking deeper roots.

But is this impression really accurate?

As the resident contrarian, I am here to dispute this notion.

It is easy to assume that the Egyptian army has been a secular force because of the constant persecution of Muslim Brotherhood under successive military strongmen, like Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. But this is not a correct impression. The Egyptian army has always had a problem with the Brotherhood as they saw them a very powerful rival within the social and political order. But they rarely had a problem with Islamists in general.

In fact, under Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian army turned away from the pan-Arab nationalism of his predecessors (especially Nasser) and allowed conservative Muslim organizations (other than the Brotherhood) to establish a new social order.

If you look at photos of Cairo from the early seventies you will notice the absence of head scarves, let alone niqabs and other Islamist garbs. Mubarak slowly encouraged the Islamists (but not the Brotherhood) to change the Egyptian identity from an Arab nation who was also descendants of Pharaohs to a devoutly Muslim society.

Their goal was to pacify the Egyptian society, stifle discontent and prevent uprisings.

And it worked.

The Egyptian army is not a secular force and its actions against Mursi was not motivated by the perceived dangers of an Islamist social order.

Its primary motivation was to preserve its economic, social and political privileges.

What privileges you may ask. As I noted two years ago:
Its economic activities started under Nasser and expanded hugely after the peace treaty with Israel:
Now, military-run firms hold strong positions in a wide range of key industries, including food (olive oil, milk, bread and water); cement and gasoline; vehicle production (joint ventures with Jeep to produce Cherokees and Wranglers); and construction, in which it benefits being able to deploy conscripts during their last six months of service.
How big is that empire?
Paul Sullivan, a National Defense University professor who has spent years in Egypt, says it is huge, probably accounting for 10% to 15% of Egypt's $210 billion economy.
The low end of that estimate is $20 billion. Plus, the army pays no taxes and it benefits from the free labor of conscripts. On top of that, it has vast land holdings from earlier era that it has recently been converting into valuable real estate plots. The officer corps, especially the generals, enjoy a much better life than the austere and nomadic existence of traditional soldiers.
The army believed that Mursi was following the Turkish example and its goal was to place the army under civilian tutelage and remove all these special entitlements. In fact, Erdogan's support for Mursi and his rather vociferous criticisms of the military intervention tend to lend support to that idea.

But, you may ask, how do we know that they were motivated by self interest and not a desire to stop Islamist encroachment?

There are several reasons.

First off, General al-Sisi is a devout Muslim. So much so that Mursi ignored the warnings of the Obama administration as he was convinced that such a pious man would never work against another Muslim. In that sense, until he got worried, he had no problem with the regime Mursi was trying to establish.

Secondly, as I outlined a few weeks ago, the main force behind the coup was Saudi Arabia. Whatever you may think of Saudi Arabia, the country is hardly a bastion of liberal Islam.
Sisi is well known in Riyadh, where he served as military attaché before being promoted to chief of Egyptian military intelligence. He is said to be a favorite of Prince Muqrin, third in line to the throne. There are widespread rumors in the Middle East that Saudi intelligence provided funding and support for the downfall of Morsi’s government and encouraged the growing popular opposition to his government. The Saudis are also reported to have promised Sisi that they would replace any military or economic aid cut off by Washington in the aftermath of the regime change (they did so in Pakistan in 1998 when it tested nuclear weapons and Washington cut aid).
Thirdly, the coup was supported by the Salafist al-Nour party.You may be aware of the fact that Salafists represent the most radical interpretation of Islam and they consider most Islamist regimes and organizations (including the Muslim Brotherhood) as too liberal, lax and hedonistic.

Fourth, a new draft constitution is being prepared to replace the controversial and deeply Islamist draft hastily put together by the Brotherhood. It is now being re-written by a ten-person committee of experts chosen by the military.

And -this is the clincher- it is hardly different from the previous one.

Here are some of the highlights:
Article 2 and Sharia: The famous Article 2, mainly stating that the “principles of Islamic Sharia” are the main sources of legislation, remains unchanged. (...)

Personal status code: Article 3 retains the 2012 stipulation that Egyptian Christians and Jews should refer to their own religious laws on personal status issues. Some welcomed the article at its inception, while others were concerned it might mean further distance from the potential for a secular civil code, at least as an alternative alongside a religious code. (...)
 Al-Azhar: Article 4 removes the 2012 stipulation that Al-Azhar be consulted on matters pertaining to Sharia and that the state assist Al-Azhar financially. Otherwise, the Al-Azhar article, which initially aimed to establish its independence as an organization, is largely intact, and still remarkably remains at the beginning of the constitution in Article 4. The original article, though essentially formalizing a consultative role that had already been in effect for some time, raised fears that it would herald the move toward a more theocratic approach to legislation, and even the grand imam of Al-Azhar had opposed it. (...)
Gender equality: The updated text in Article 11 features relatively more direct wording on gender equality, but also qualifies that by an adherence to the principles of Sharia. (...)
Syndicates: Article 56 retains the controversial stipulation that there be only one syndicate for each profession. This was the cause of much uproar in the 2012 constitution.
 Military and the defense minister: The military and defense articles remain largely unchanged, including the stipulation that the military budget be entered as a single figure in the national budget. Only the National Defense Council, which also includes the prime minister and the head of parliament, gets to review the budget in detail.
One interesting note: Article 170 now adds upon the 2012 stipulation that the defense minister must be an officer (i.e., not a civilian) by explicitly saying that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces must approve the nominee, further solidifying the army’s independence.
 End of Mubarak-era political isolation: The new draft also controversially removes Article 232 of the original, which stipulated the political isolation (i.e., a ban on running for political office) of the leadership of the former National Democratic Party for a period of 10 years.
As you can see, this is a slightly re-worded version of the previous draft. 

Nothing against Islamist principles. Sharia is still the main legal source of inspiration. Gender equality is conditional upon Sharia. Trade unions still follow the corporatist (not to say fascist) arrangement. 

And finally the status of the military and its budget are very well protected indeed.

All of this suggests that Mursi, who believed that a devout Muslim would not overthrow a fellow Muslim, should have read Machiavelli: in politics, protecting material benefits always trumps piety. 

Regardless of religion.

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