Egyptian military wants end of Islamists

A boy runs through the burnt out Rabaah al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo on Aug. 15, 2013. (AP photo)

A boy runs through the burnt out Rabaah al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo on Aug. 15, 2013. (AP photo)

This is a translation from the Portuguese of my O Globo column, which was published on August 23, 2013:

With the crushing of the Brotherhood, a government made up of civilians will be elected, but with the military controlling everything from behind the curtains


The massacre of at least 900 pro-Mursi protesters  and more than 4,000 injured on the 13th and 14th of August, when police forces and the Egyptian army attacked the Rabaa al- Adawiya mosque and Nahda Square in Cairo, the military coup leaders made it clear that they want to end the Muslim Brotherhood. The possibility of a political settlement to bring the country out of its grave impasse was shrinking with every machine gun shot in the head or heart of a protester, who mostly had only stones as weapons.

Several mosques were soon crowded with the bodies of state violence against protesters; all wrapped in white, blood-stained sheets, their relatives putting ice packs on top to try to slow the inevitable decay. These were perhaps the most violent and fatal two days in the modern history of Egypt. Surely a large part of the Egyptian population, tired of the protesters’ camps, celebrated the end of that daily hassle of having to get by the encampments. But at what cost? On August 16 the interim prime minister, Hazem el-Beblawi, proposed that the Brotherhood be banned again, and said the government was studying the possibility.

The interim vice president, Mohammed el-Baradei, who was seen as the most liberal of figures who supported the military coup of June 30, resigned his post on August 14 in protest against the excessive use of force by the military and high number of deaths. “I cannot take responsibility for a drop of blood,” he wrote in his resignation letter.

The military are now doing everything to demoralize the Brothers and their supporters, calling the pro-Mursi supporters “terrorists”, and forcing relatives of protesters killed in clashes with security forces to record their deaths as suicides. The supreme guide of the Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie, was arrested on August 20, and he, Mursi, Khairat Shater and two leaders of the Brotherhood will be tried on charges of murder, incitement to revolt and other equally ridiculous claims.

To further sharpen the polarization, Saudi Arabia announced financial support for the new regime Egyptian military regime to the tune of $ 12 billion, coming from it, the UAE and Kuwait. The U.S. has so far not called the coup a “coup”, U.S. President Barack Obama performing verbal gymnastics not to mention the dreaded word. The reason given is because Americans do not want to be forced to cancel military aid of $ 1.3 billion a year that the US gives to the Egyptians. For now, Americans say that military aid is suspended, although there is no transaction taking place at the moment with Egypt.

Why this billion dollar aid from the Gulf states? The answer is simple: none of the royal families in power in these countries like the discourse of the Brotherhood, which mixes politics with religion in a way – until recently – so successfully. The Saudi royal family, in particular, has ruled Saudi Arabia since its founding in 1932 by an agreement with its religious establishment, and so has seen the Brotherhood for decades with fear and awe. Gulf leaders do not want to have a model Islamic democracy to compete with their autocratic governments, much less in a country so close by, just across the Red Sea.

The errors of the Brotherhood were many. The Economist points as a fatal failure the fact that the Brotherhood only made efforts to reach out to the military during the year in which Mursi ruled as president, completely ignoring the non-Islamist political forces. The military took advantage of that, but never ceased to represent the political and economic forces in the years that Hosni Mubarak ruled as president. In fact, after 30 years of Mubarak in power, the revolution of 2011 that overthrew the dictator left in place thousands of employees in the courts and the Ministry of Interior, faithful to what he represents and deeply opposed to the Brotherhood.

With a court in Cairo authorizing the release of Mubarak, supposedly because there is no legal basis for him to continue in prison, we seem to be having a flashback. Certainly, Mubarak will never rule Egypt again, but it is clear that full democracy will also not be established. With the crushing of the Brotherhood, a government made up of civilians will be elected, but with the military controlling everything from behind the scenes.

Estimates suggest that 30% of Egyptians still support the Brotherhood. This is not a majority, but it is still a significant proportion. To try to be a new government that represents all Egyptians, the military will have to include representatives of the Brotherhood. It will be difficult after the killing, the imprisonment and the demonization of members of Brotherhood, and I do not think the military are willing to do this.

Link to original column:

Is this the end of political Islam in Egypt?

Pro-Mursi supporters protest in Cairo, calling for the deposed president to be reinstated. (AP photo)

Pro-Mursi supporters protest in Cairo, calling for the deposed president to be reinstated. (AP photo)

This is a translation of my column that appeared in O Globo of 12/07/2013 in Portuguese:

The danger is if the military, despite promising to hold elections, never leave power. If a Brotherhood candidate wins, will he be allowed to govern?


Last week I watched with alarm and sadness on television the events unfolding in Egypt’s military coup against the democratically elected government of Mohamed Mursi. And I was even more amazed at the scenes of liberal and leftist opposition Egyptians in Tahrir Square, celebrating with shouts of joy the return of the military, which they themselves had fought so energetically against in the same square only two years earlier.

Undoubtedly, Mursi proved unable to govern Egypt well, rejecting any accommodation with the opposition, intensifying the sectarian tone of his government, and appointing members of the Muslim Brotherhood to most ministries and provinces. The country’s economy has gone from bad to worse, with the ailing Egyptian pound suffering devaluations, the foreign currency deposits reaching very low levels and power outages becoming a normal thing. Politically, Mursi was also obstinate, derogating to himself constitutional powers and trying to push a new constitution onto the public that didn’t have the support of liberals and leftists.

Despite all these differences, we cannot forget that Mursi was elected with 52% of the popular vote, more than U.S. President Barack Obama got in his last election. With this popular mandate, how could he surrender to the military’s ultimatum? “Over my dead body,” Mursi allegedly told the military officers sent to demand his resignation. And the immediate result of the forced removal of Mursi power was violence, with 51 Brotherhood supporters being killed by soldiers in Cairo this week. This massacre led the group to urge a revolt against the military.

The military quickly appointed civilians to head an interim government with Adli Mansur as interim president, Hazem al-Beblawi as prime minister, and Mohamed el-Baradei as vice president. Mansur has issued a constitutional declaration calling for a constituent assembly in two weeks, a referendum on a new constitution in four months, parliamentary elections in February and presidential elections six months later. Al-Beblawi already said ministerial posts will be offered to members of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Brotherhood, and the Islamist Nour party. But it is unlikely that members of the Brotherhood will accept positions in the interim government responsible for toppling Mursi.

Right now Egypt is a powder keg ready to explode at any provocation. The despair and anguish that millions of Egyptians are feeling upon seeing their leader deposed by the military is understandable, and that is why politicians on both sides will have to work hard to calm people down and try to find an acceptable solution for everyone. Former senator Egyptian Mona Makramebeid said this week to Christiane Amanpour of CNN that a political accommodation would take a while. “It will take time. We have to send out positive messages. The opposition has to stop with the demonization of the Muslim Brotherhood and strive to work together. After all, they worked together in the past to overthrow the Mubarak regime,” she said.

But will the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt mark the end of political Islam? Many would say yes, but I doubt it. The French scholar Olivier Roy, who published the book “The failure of political Islam” in 1992, said in this week’s “Economist” that the Brotherhood government imploded because they did not know how to run a modern state. He said the government was trying to Islamize a society that was already very religious, and that Islam does not have the detailed prescriptions necessary to run a modern state. At this point I agree in part. Mursi was not able to build political alliances with other Islamist parties, and much less with the opposition parties, something that would be essential to the success of his government. In Turkey and Morocco, Islamist parties have had to share power with other political parties in order to stay in power.

The West has to realize that the Egyptian progressives and liberals are a minority in the country, and that most are religious and conservative. The U.S. ambassador in Cairo, Anne Patterson, knows this and built an American policy of trying to get closer to the Brotherhood after decades of neglect. “Anne has since her earliest days in Egypt noted that the liberal Egyptians are the favorite contacts of Washington think tanks, the U.S. Congress and the State Department. Maybe they are talented and creative, but they are not necessarily representative of the 80 million Egyptians,” said an American official to the Daily Beast website.

The danger now in Egypt is that the military, despite promising elections, may never leave power. They have not said whether they will allow Brotherhood candidates to participate in the parliamentary and presidential elections. And if a Brotherhood candidate is elected president, will the military allow him to take office? We’ve seen what happened in Algeria in 1992, when the military stopped the Islamists from coming to power despite winning democratic elections. We will have to wait at least another six months to see if the Egyptian military will honor their word or not. But I’m not betting a lot on them.

Link to original column in Portuguese:

The dilemma facing Islamists in the Arab world

Khairat al-Shater announced last week he was running for president under the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party.

This is a translation from the Portuguese of my column that appeared in the April 6, 2012, edition of O Globo:


From amid the chaos of the Arab Spring uprisings for over a year now, the Islamists have been emerging victorious in more than one Arab country. From Morocco to Tunisia, and now Egypt, they have won a majority of parliamentary seats in democratic and free elections. But it is at this moment of glory they are also facing an almost existential dilemma: To be conservative and rigid in their Islam, or must they be pragmatic and build alliances with other non-Islamist parties?

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is perhaps the Islamist group that feels this challenge the most. Founded in 1928, the group was banned for the first time in 1948, when it had an estimated half a million members. In 1954 it was banned again by the nationalist President Gamal Abdul Nasser, and for decades after its members were brutally suppressed by the state, arrested and tortured. Islamists of the entire Arab world has also seen with alarm the brutal killing of up to 100,000 people in Algeria after the Islamists won a majority of seats in the first round of parliamentary elections in 1991 and the subsequent cancellation of the results by the Algerian military, which could not accept the victory of the Islamists.

The case of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip since June 2007, also causes doubts in the minds of the Islamists on how much success an Islamist government an achieve in the region due to strong resistance against this type of ideology by Israel and the West. Formed as a branch of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in 1987, Hamas has always been a fundamentalist group of conservative thought and totally against any kind of peace with Israel. This has made life very difficult for Hamas, with economic and political embargoes against the group by the United States and the European Union who have classified the group as a terrorist. In contrast, the West Bank is ruled by Fatah, led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has always been secular and more willing to negotiate with the Israelis and Americans. You can see that despite the many restrictions imposed by Israel in the West Bank, and numerous Jewish settlements, the area is much calmer than the Gaza Strip, and therefore its Palestinian population suffers less than their relatives in Gaza.

The model of Turkey, which has been a secular republic since 1923, but has had an Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the Justice and Development Party, since 2002, is often cited as a good example of how to unite moderate Islam with democracy. But the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, acted brutally against the Islamists, banning the veil for women in his attempt to modernize Turkey at any cost, something that never happened in an Arab country.

The professor of international relations at Tufts University in the US, Malik Mufti, recently wrote a paper on how to transform Syria into a democracy in which the nationalist-secular camp is balanced with the Islamists. For this, he says it would take some sort of agreement between the secular and Islamist forces, as happened in Turkey, with all strongly accepting a diverse and pluralistic political system, holding the people as the source of political authority, and the embracement of democratic political parties and regular elections.

I see this limits to this endeavor because the conditions under which democracy grew in Turkey were due to circumstances specific to that country. Turkey is a NATO member since 1952, made a member so as to be a bulwark against the expansion of Soviet influence in the Middle East during the Cold War. This was crucial for modernizing, training and professionalizing the Turkish armed forces, which are the second largest force in NATO after the United States. Despite having participated in at least four coups against governments that the military thought were straying from the democratic and secular path, Mufti thinks that the Turkish military will ultimately not derail democracy in Turkey.

The problem I see in applying this concept in Egypt is that its armed forces, which are currently in power through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, are unfortunately not as professional as the Turks, and do not have the confidence of a good part of the electorate, who thinks they want to stay on in power behind the scenes after a new president is elected in May.

Some members of the Brotherhood in Egypt have admitted being afraid of the dangers that can come with power. They do not want to provoke an unnecessary war with Israel or the United States, fully aware that a fight with one of these powers could cause a huge setback against the Islamists. The US and Israel, for their part, are not stupid, and seeing the size of the popular support that Islamists have garnered across he Arab world, are trying to befriend them. It remains to be seen how each side will play their cards.

The first time for millions of Egyptians

This is a translation from Portuguese of my column that appeared in the March 23, 2012, edition of O Globo:

Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

For the first time in 56 years, millions of Egyptians voters will be able to elect their president in democratic elections on May 24 and 25. Until now, Egyptians could only elect a president not through a multi-candidate election, but in a referendum in which they voted yes or no for a single candidate. Thus, Gamal Abdel Nasser was elected with 99.9 percent of the vote in 1956, and Hosni Mubarak elected five times in similar referendums until his overthrow in a popular revolution last year.

With a population of 85 million, and an electorate of nearly 52 million, Egypt has always been a power in the Arab world, especially in the areas of military strength, culture, education, and movies. It is not for nothing that people call Egypt in Arabic  “Umm Al Dunia” or “Mother of the World.” But with the overthrow of the dictator Mubarak and his secular party, the National Democratic Party, the political landscape was opened fully to the religious parties, previously banned for decades.

In recent parliamentary elections, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Party for Freedom and Justice, banned until last year, and the Salafist parties, which are even more conservative, won an overwhelming majority, leaving the secularists and Christians afraid of what may come in the future. But it is foolish to believe the scaremongers who say that Egypt will ban the consumption of alcoholic beverages, will not let women wear swimsuits on the beaches and break off relations with Israel if the Islamists win the presidency. Several officials of the Muslim Brotherhood have said that despite not liking the Jewish state, they will not break the peace treaty signed by President Anwar Sadat in 1978.

And it is this pragmatism that the Islamists have which should calm the fears of the secularists and Christians. After all, tourism is a major source of income in the country, rendering Egypt a record $11 billion in 2008, when 12.8 million tourists visited the country. The Islamists must take into account that denying a frosty beer to that European or American tourist, after a long day of visiting the pyramids, would cause more damage to the economy than would be gained in moral points.

Egyptian voters will have a wide range of choices for the post of president, with at least 300 people trying to become candidates. Independent candidates will have to collect at least 30,000 signatures of voters from all provinces, or the support of 30 parliamentarians, so that their names appear on the ballot. But with the deadline for signatures only on April 8, there is still much speculation of who will run or not, and the Brotherhood announced that it would not reveal their choice for candidate until the deadline for the registration of candidates.

Still, we know the names of some candidates, like Amr Moussa, a career diplomat who was minister of foreign affairs (1991-2001) and head of the Arab League (2001-2011). He is well known both in Egypt and abroad, but may suffer from being associated with the Mubarak regime. He leads the polls with 26% of respondents choosing him as the future president of Egypt in a 2011 poll.

In the Islamist wing, the candidate who draws the most attention is Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who is a doctor by training. He spent, in total, more than six years in prison for opposing the policies of presidents Sadat and Mubarak, and stood out when he led the union of doctors, traditionally a stronghold of the Brotherhood. He is attracting the support of more traditional voters, as well as the support of younger ones, and even feminists and leftists. He has championed the need for complete civilian control of military and upholding civil rights.

And it is the all-powerful Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which many Egyptians are watching with concern, hoping that they let the people decide who will rule them for the next five years. Many fear that the SCAF wants to have the last word on questions of governance, and that it will help politicians linked to the old Mubarak regime to stay in power.

We cannot emphasize enough how important this election will be not only for Egyptians, but also for the entire Arab world. All Arabs are closely monitoring this election as an important test of the uprisings of the Arab Spring. If the Egyptians manage to elect a president representing the majority of the population, and with full powers to govern, including control over the military, then yes, the Arab world will see that their revolts were worth it. They will also feel that they can see the light at the end of a dark tunnel of more than 50 years of living under dictatorships.

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