Middle East

Egypt: Interview with Zachary Lockman

Three young Egyptians share in the removal of Mohamed Morsi as president in July. (Photo: Edward Gerges,

The current situation in Egypt is one of turmoil, violence and a breakdown of democratic institutions. Part of the problem is that Egypt has never had a chance to develop democratically, with a history of military command that dates back generations. When massive protests in Tahrir Square brought down former President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, Egyptians saw their hopes for a new order crystallized. But what has transpired since has dashed those hopes, as a failed presidency has led to a brute reinstatement of military command. Senior Editor Joshua Pringle spoke with Zachary Lockman, professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies and history at New York University, about the current struggle as well as the history that led to it.

Joshua Pringle: February 2011, when Hosni Mubarak was removed, now feels like a long time ago. What do you think the future looked like to Egyptian citizens—particularly the ones protesting in Tahrir Square—when their choices for president were Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, and Ahmed Shafik, who was Mubarak's last prime minister?

Zachary Lockman: The first thing to keep in mind is that the process of establishing a new political order after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak was in the hands of the military, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. The process that they set in place was in many ways disastrous. It set in motion a sequence of events that have led to the current, very dangerous, very difficult situation. They held presidential elections, but many other pieces of the process were not clearly determined, and in the end it was a choice between Mubarak's last prime minister—a former military officer, seen very much as a candidate of the old order—and the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi. A great many people—a majority of the young revolutionaries, the activists who set in motion the overthrow of Mubarak—ended up voting for Morsi—not because they agreed with the political views of the Muslim Brothers, but because they felt this was a vote against the old order.

Morsi and the Muslim Brothers sought to claim the mantle of the revolution. They talked about inclusiveness. They talked about building a new Egypt. They didn't emphasize the narrow political interests of the Muslim Brothers, but insisted they were trying to consolidate and develop the gains of the revolution and would work together with very broad segments of the Egyptian population. One of the problems that led to the political crisis afterwards was that, once in office, Morsi governed in large measure in the interests of the Muslim Brothers. Many Egyptians came to see his government as trying to turn the state into a state controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, while failing to carry through on the promises to address Egypt's issues. This ended up of course isolating Morsi and the Muslim Brothers to the point where, in July, the military could stage its coup with a fair degree of popular support

JP: Where did Morsi go wrong as president? Did he believe he had more of a mandate than he really did? Was he too power hungry? Did his administration lack a plan to invigorate the economy?

ZL: I think part of it has to do with the character of the political movement that he came out of. The Muslim Brothers are very deeply rooted in Egyptian society. They've been around since 1928. As the presidential and parliamentary elections demonstrated, they have a very solid constituency—a core base plus peripheries that they are able to mobilize very effectively. But they're also a movement that has been basically underground, persecuted, harassed, repressed, for many decades—since the 1940s basically, with brief periods where they were able to function semi-legally or in restricted ways. They were a very enclosed, sealed off, clandestine movement in their operation and character. Once in power, Morsi—who is very much a product of this movement, despite getting his PhD at the University of Southern California—saw himself and his movement as having received the support of the majority—although it was a very slim majority—and with that mandate, as they understood it, he could proceed to consolidate the grip of the Muslim Brothers on the Egyptian state.

He first made a deal with the military. He said I'm not going to touch your privileges. We're going to draft a new constitution, but it will enshrine and make permanent the special status of the Egyptian Armed Forces in the Egyptian state. There will not be civilian oversight. We won't know what's in your budget. A big chunk of the Egyptian economy will still be controlled by the military. So they failed to carry through any serious reform of the military or even of the security apparatus, which was so hated and which many Egyptians hoped would be reformed after the overthrow of Mubarak.

Having won a majority, and with the Muslim Brothers and their allies in control of Parliament, he felt he could rule without consultation, without collaboration with other political forces. The constitutional decrees, which Morsi promulgated in November 2012, which seemed to arrogate power to himself, also roused a great deal of protest. To a lot of people this seemed not like a government that was trying to implement the aspirations of Egyptians as they were manifested in February 2011, but as a narrow government pursuing the enshrinement of the Muslim Brothers' control over Egypt. This led to a lot of popular opposition and provided the military the cover it needed to remove Morsi from power.

JP: Since the military removed Morsi in July, we've seen the military crack down brutally on the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, killing protestors in the streets, apprehending and imprisoning the Brotherhood's leadership, imposing life sentences. The state of emergency has been extended another two months, in part due to the sectarian violence that has broken out in multiple cities. Where does this story go from here?

ZL: This is a very distressing period. We had the coup d'état of early July followed by the very brutal crackdown—in many ways unprecedentedly brutal—on largely peaceful protestors. But that coup and—I'm sorry to say—the crackdown had the support of a large number of Egyptians who came to feel that the main enemy was the Muslim Brothers and that they had to be driven from power and even driven from the political scene—eradicated politically, if not physically, at all costs. But what that means is we now have a civilian transitional government that is in effect dominated by the military, dominated by Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. There's talk that General el-Sisi will run for president. And the security forces, the military, are very much in control. These are essentially the same people who were controlling things behind the scenes when Mubarak was president. So one can see this, in a sense, as a counter-revolution.

There are very grave divisions in Egyptian society. The fact that a thousand or so people were largely shot down in cold blood by the military and security forces will have a lasting legacy for years, if not decades, to come. That leaves real scars. And it sends a very dangerous message to the Islamists, who agreed to participate in politics only to be driven out. Some of them may turn to violence as an alternative method to achieve power. Egypt has already suffered from that kind of thing in the past. And it leaves the way forward very unclear. Presumably there will be elections, both for the Parliament and for president, and to endorse the new constitution in the period ahead, but a significant segment of Egyptian opinion has been excluded. There's no process of reconciliation to bring the Muslim Brothers and their allies back into a national dialogue.

It's not clear that the people in charge have a coherent sense of what needs to happen from her on in, either in terms of democratizing Egyptian society or in terms of the social and economic programs that need to be put in place to address Egypt's problems.

JP: General el-Sisi says he wants an Islamic style of democracy. What could we expect from a new Egyptian Constitution, one the Muslim Brotherhood will not have a role in drafting?

ZL: The constitution is currently being drafted by a committee appointed for that purpose. They're revising the previous draft. They seem to be dropping some of the elements that the Muslim Brothers and its allies put in about the role of Islamic law and various other things. We won't know for some time what the final draft will look like. Whatever comes out of it, it's likely to be a far cry from the vision of a new, more participatory and democratic Egypt that motivated many of the people who took to the streets in February 2011.

Unless there is further popular protest, it will likely be the old order in a new guise. That will be true in terms of personnel, but more importantly in terms of the essential structure of the Egyptian state, which is a highly bureaucratized, highly centralized, authoritarian state. It has been since the military coup of 1952, which brought Nasser to power. The people in charge of the military are in a sense Nasser's successors. They use somewhat different language, but they have the same vision of what Egypt is, and that's not a vision that has served the Egyptian people very well.

JP: The situation in the Sinai Peninsula has been heating up in recent weeks, with Egyptian security forces now clashing with Islamic militants on a daily basis. What ramifications could this have for the region, especially if Hamas feels that the Gaza Strip is being further isolated?

ZL: The Sinai has been in a state of semi-insurgency for a very long time. Even in the Mubarak period, the security forces were not in very effective control of chunks of it. It was sort of a no man's land. It was also very badly treated. The people of Sinai—some of them of Bedouin origin—feel neglected. The state failed to provide services. It failed to invest. The little tourist enclaves serve mainly foreigners, while the people of Sinai are often very poor, neglected and badly treated.

In recent months, the situation has heated up. I think the military felt it had lost control of Sinai and now is running a crackdown, sending forces in, arresting people, killing people. There are clashes with well-armed local groups who are not happy with the new regime in Cairo. Egypt very much wants to keep this border with Israel and with Gaza under its control. Then again, it's a military approach to a political problem. As with the crackdown on the Muslim Brothers, where the military used violence on a large scale to deal with a political problem, the same is true in Sinai. It's sending in troops and security agents, arresting and killing people, but I think this is unlikely to seriously address the very genuine grievances of people in Sinai.

The Egyptian government is also blaming Hamas for the problems in Sinai, which is ridiculous because the people in Sinai are Egyptians. They're unhappy with policies of the Egyptian government. But it's always easier to blame outsiders, to blame Palestinians and Hamas in particular, which the new regime sees as an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood.

JP: When you say it's a military approach to a political problem, I'm reminded of a documentary called The Gatekeepers, which is about the Shin Bet, Israel's security agency. In the documentary, one of the former heads of the Shin Bet says of the agency's operations, "There was no strategy, only tactics."

ZL: There's the old saying that to a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The Egyptian military is a very blunt instrument. If you send it into the streets to break up peaceful protestors conducting a sit-in, these people are not trained to deal with situations like that, and they used live ammunition and killed many hundreds of people, the vast majority of whom were peaceful and unarmed. It's similar in Sinai. This is what they know. This is a military that has been trained to fight some external war, and they're not good at dealing with a low-level insurgency or protests by civilians.

What Egypt really needs is people who have some political sense, an ability to compromise, to negotiate, to work out some kind of arrangement, both at home among the various political forces, including the Muslim Brothers, and also in Sinai. Sending in troops is likely only to make things worse and alienate more people.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Joshua Pringle.

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