NasserSISIMinister of Defense Field Marshal ʿAbd al-Fattah al-Sisi has just announced he met today with the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) to resign his commission. As a civilian, he will now prepare for his campaign for president. By Egyptian law, members of the military may not run for public office.

Thus begins the next phase of the counter-revolution, one far more reminiscent of 1950s immediate postcolonial-era charismatic dictatorship. Even (especially?) the 2012 pro-regime presidential candidate, Ahmad Shafiq, has been caught complaining the state would fix the polls so al-Sisi would receive the proverbial 99.9% acclamation of the masses.

However, it is apparent Sisi’s path has not been straightforward to this point, considering the long delay in the arrival of this event and the roiling rumor mill in Cairo. Al-nizām, the “old regime,” is not as monolithic as the mass protests have made it seem. The material basis of political power in Egypt is divided between the military itself, a range of state and semi-state-run enterprises, and a large and diverse private sector which included until recently a strong contingent of Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Besides his genuine and media-scripted mass popularity, al-Sisi gives confidence both to the leadership of state institutions such as the police, judiciary and military, and to the state enterprises,that their independence and power bases will be respected and even honored. The recent appointment of Ibrahim Mahlab, for 20 years the CEO of Arab Contractors, the biggest state run building contractor, as prime minister is the most prominent symbol of this desire to please.

Now al-Sisi wants to cock it all up by running for president. Here in the United States, we let C-students be president, and the “smartest guys in the room,” aka powerful moneyed interests, usually try to keep their mouths shut. Why doesn’t he make a guy like Mahlab run for president and remain Minister of Defense with a permanent praetorian hand on him and any successors, who could enter and leave office according to constitutional term limits?

If the military wants to preserve its economic and diplomatic privileges, without the prying questions of the media and the accompanying erosion of Egyptian respect, the answer is: don’t run. If the judiciary wants to diffuse criticism of its practices (such as sentencing 529 rioters to death, mostly in absentia) rather than focus them on a single person responsible for appointing supreme court justices, the answer is: don’t run. If the state enterprises want to foster nationalist pride in import-substitution industries that can pretend to provide Egyptian workers with a living wage, and do not want to represent a cesspool of crony capitalism, the answer is: don’t run. If al-Sisi himself doesn’t want instant and escalating protests insulting his name, the answer is: don’t run. These are some of the voices we presume have been speaking behind closed doors at SCAF in the past few months.

Why does he want to run? The only answer is: narcissism. (Credit is due to Juan Cole for this characterization). Ironically enough, the social and political basis of plutocracy is too weak in Egypt for the elite to tell al-Sisi to sit back and be a Koch brother (or play Northrop Grumman) and let a puppet do the hard work of actually being president.

From the Egyptian Armed Forces Spokesperson Facebook page, March 26, 2014.

Ex-Field Marshal ʿAbd al-Fattah Al-Sisi (L), General Sidqi Sobhi (R). From the Egyptian Armed Forces Spokesperson Facebook page, March 26, 2014

Doesn’t he look pleased as punch? But if al-Sisi thinks he is going to be the next Gamal ʿAbd al-Nasir (top right, before he took off his uniform in 1956 to become Egypt’s second president), he should think twice.

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Blast from the Past: Egyptian Interior Ministers are Popular Targets

hi-852-mohamed-ibrahimEgyptian Minister of Interior Muhammad Ibrahim has just survived an assassination attempt by car bomb near his home in Nasr City. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, but government security officials are already decrying “a new wave of terrorism.” This move, unfortunately, affirms their weeks of lambasting the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists and breaking up their mostly peaceful sit-in protests of the military coup that removed ex-President Muhammad Mursi with extreme violence.

The Minister of Interior, as the head of the secret and riot police services that represent the most repressive aspect of the Egyptian security state, were targets of repeated assassination attempts in the 1980s and 1990s (Hassan Abu Basha and Muhammad Nawabi Ismail in 1987, Abdel Halim Moussa in 1990, Hassan Al-Alfi in 1993), by radical Islamist groups Al-Jihad and Al-Gamaʿa Al-Islamiyya. The latter, a much larger group that comes from socioeconomically depressed Upper Egypt, employed the idea of jihad to justify attacking a state it labelled non-Muslim because of President Sadat’s settlement of peace with Israel at Camp David in 1979. However, the political and economic alienation of these groups under Mubarak’s authoritarian regime was the principal cause of their turn to violent measures.

The historical parallels go further back. I find it ironic that today’s botched bombing happened on Mustafa al-Nahhas street. Al-Nahhas, the successor to nationalist Saʿad Zaghlul who led the Wafd Party from 1927 until the Free Officer coup in 1952, was himself the target of four assassination attempts in 1937, 1945 and 1948. The Muslim Brotherhood was probably responsible for the later attempts; the group was unhappy with Al-Nahhas’ cooperation with the British colonial hegemony as prime minister during the Second World War and his equivocation on the issue of Palestine. This brief period (1945-1954) during which the relatively young Brotherhood had a terrorist wing was also one of electoral political exclusion — Brotherhood leader Hassan al-Banna had run for parliament in 1945 but lost because of vote manipulation of the wealthy landowners’ parties that dominated the system.

The Brotherhood of the 1940s was a much different organization than it is today, after years of electoral political participation under Mubarak and its 12-18 months of electoral majority until July, and it is my guess the perpetrators of today’s attack were independent of the group. But the parallels I noted above are worrisome. Groups that the dominant power include in the political system (however it is construed) generally moderate their tactics and participate in pluralistic activities like elections, debate, political publishing, etc. Those groups systematically and unfairly excluded from the political process have fewer options for protest. They radicalize and turn to violence.

Dead ministers aside, I fear this is precisely what the military junta ruling Egypt wants right now to further delegitimize their Islamist enemies.

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A Tactical Reconstruction of the July 8 Security Attack in Cairo

Considering there are so many decisions being made and deals being cut behind closed doors in Egypt right now, and so much nonsense from the talking heads of the domestic Egyptian media and foreign media analysis (see Time’s “World’s Worst Democrats”) it is gratifying to recommend some excellent investigative journalism from The Guardian about an event that occurred in public, but with wildly different partisan claims about it: the July 8 Central Security Forces’ attack on the pro-Morsi protesters on Saleh Salem street in front of the Republican Guards’ club.

Patrick Kingsley has assembled a multimedia presentation using 30 interviews with eyewitnesses (the army and police declined to be interviewed), participant videos and maps, in a careful chronology of that early morning that he uses to test various claims and narratives. He makes it very clear this was a carefully planned and unprovoked attack on a peaceful sit-in.

Check it out here.

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Rule of Photo-Ops and the Divine Right (Hand Side).

I have been waiting to write about the coup in Egypt in the past week, because such an unexpected and confusing event makes for bad snap-punditry. (My word choice here — “coup” — is one of the central, but inane, controversies of this rough-draft-style analysis. I think we can call what has been happening in Egypt since January 2011 an ongoing revolution, which has included many many protests. But the event that concerns us this week is a military coup). Contrary to David Brooks and the WSJ, no this event doesn’t mean Egyptians aren’t democratic or require “a Pinochet.” Nor does this event spell “the end of political Islam.” For those looking for the best of different styles of analysis that deal well with the current ambiguity, please see essays by: Nathan Brown (on institutions and tactics), Ellis Goldberg (on the Muslim Brotherhood), Sarah Carr (on the pro- and anti-Morsi crowds) and Walter Armbrust (on the Egyptian media).

I have merely a brief note today along the line of Armbrust’s interests: the manipulation of the mass media. When protesters complain about the “deep state,” they usually mean the hand of the military or Ministry of Interior in electoral politics. But there is another institution that has not been overthrown since the Mubarak era and before: the presidential photo pool. Take for example:

2013-635089910998087619-808This is brand-new Prime Minister Hazim al-Biblawi (on the left), a finance technocrat and former deputy prime minister under SCAF chairman Muhammad Hussein Tantawi (on the right), meeting today with “acting” President Adli Mansour, head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, who still has not spoken in public.

Morsi Qandil Pres.previewHere we have just-ousted Muslim Brotherhood Freedom and Justice Party President Muhammad Mursi (right) and his Prime Minister Hisham Qandil (left), probably taken around a year ago. It’s the same corner of the President’s office, same bright white flat flash lighting, the same chair and couch (before reupholstering), different tree in the same place, same coffee table, same phone, same kind of flowers, same paunches and same postures (on which more below).

kamal-el-ganzouri-mohamed-hussein-tantawi-2011-11-25-12-10-10Just prior to Mursi’s election, the governing pair were Tantawi (right) as head of state and Kamal al-Ganzouri (left) as prime minister, in the first half of 2012. Al-Ganzouri had been Hosni Mubarak’s prime minister from 1996 to 1999. This is a different part of the room, plus Tantawi gets all the armed forces’ service flags (not to mention a tiny national flag on the table, just in case). Tantawi remains in uniform, as he never became a civilian president.

But the message is the same in each image: there IS a government and hierarchy withstands all shocks. The photographer poses the more powerful man on the right, with his hands apart, making a gesture or ready to do so. The less powerful man (the prime minister) is sitting with legs together and hands folded in his lap ready to receive a command. These carefully constructed images are a reflection of the Egyptian constitution, in which a strong president has the unilateral right to choose his prime minister, who merely carries out the president’s plans. In the 2013 scenario, the military has wised up and made a senior judge the nominal president, maintaining a facade of civil government probably while reserving close veto powers over Mansour’s decisions.

I’m not claiming this recent coup has set the revolutionaries back to square one. Nor do I think that this school of propaganda photography is enslaving Egyptians to an anti-democratic political system. But there are institutions of the Egyptian state that run deeper and attract less notice than the usual suspects such as the riot police. These photos are effective tools, in a media environment still dominated by state-owned organs like Al-Gumhuriya, Al-Ahram and Channel 1, for numbing the public to the exercise of power with their placidity and repetitiveness. Whether it works in the long run is another matter.

I was unable to find an image of Mubarak sitting with one of his many PMs like the ones above, but I will leave you with the image below. Yes, that’s Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s the same chairs and same coffee table, and the same bogus message: Mubarak was in control.


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Egyptian Anti-Shiʿa Sentiment on the Rise: 5 Killed in Giza Attack

Egyptian newspaper Al-Dustur (The Constitution) reports that a fifth person has died after a crowd attack on Sunday on a house in the Giza village of Zawyat Abu Musalam where Shiʿa leader Hassan Shahata was conducting religious services. Shahata was one of the victims (warning: graphic photo). Reportedly, local fundamentalist Sunni Salafi clerics provoked the crowd to surround the house and demand Shahata and his followers leave the village. When he refused, they set the house on fire and beat dozens of people in attendance when they fled the fire.

The Shiʿa population of Egypt is small. As with the Christian communities that comprise roughly 10% of Egypt’s population, the state produces no official demographic figures, but estimates of Egyptian Shiʿa range from range from 200,000 to 1 million (0.25 to 1% of the population). However, Egyptian Shiʿa complicate the nationalist image of Egypt as a Sunni Muslim country even more than the Christians do, despite Egypt’s historical association with Shiʿism. Cairo was the seat of the Ismaʿili Shiʿi Fatimid Caliphate between 909 and 1171, named after the prophet Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima, and even Sunni Cairenes revere shrines to Fatima’s children Zaynab and Hussein. The Fatimids founded Al-Azhar, which in a twist of history, has become the most famous seminary of Sunni Islam after the Salah Ad-Din, a Sunni Kurd, established the Ayyubid Dynasty.

A brief Shiʿa recap: Fatima married Muhammad’s cousin ʿAli ibn Abi Talib, who was the fourth successor (khalifa, Caliph) chosen by the early Muslims (the “companions” of the prophet) to lead the Muslim community and political state. ʿAli and his sons Hassan and Husayn faced competition from the Ummayad clan of the third Caliph, ʿUthman, for political leadership of the early Islamic Caliphate that they ultimately lost with the death of Husayn at the Battle of Karbala in 680. However, the concept that religious and political authority belonged to a male descendant of the prophet (Muhammad had no sons that survived to adulthood) survived and re-emerged with different movements and dynasties in Islamic history that eventually evolved into different sects of Shiʿism based on different successions of authority and other factors (Click for more detail). The takeaway point is that both reverence for the prophet’s family, and more formal theological and legal elaboration of Shiʿa beliefs has been polymorphous and does not belong to any particular historical place or time. Most of Iran, today the political leader of the Shiʿa world, converted to Twelver Shiʿism only during the Safavid dynasty starting in the 16th century.

The recent growth in Shiʿa hatred in Egypt, as with most communal conflict, has nothing to do with ancient antipathies, but rather results from a complicated interaction of domestic and international politics. Just as Egypt became politically realigned with the United States under President Sadat in the 1970s, the 1978 Iranian Revolution overthrew the US ally and friend of Sadat, Muhammad Reza Shah. When Egypt granted the deposed Shah refuge, and later recognized Israel in the Camp David Accords, Iran cut its diplomatic ties with Egypt. It later went so far as to name a Tehran street after Khalid al-Islambouli, the assassin of Sadat. Iran’s influence in the region has grown since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, which replaced the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein with a Shiʿa-controlled parliamentary democracy, and it has become the leader of international resistance to Israel with its support of Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. This has been threatening to Egypt, which is a US ally and has a peace treaty with Israel.

The domestic position of the Shiʿa in 20th-21st century Egypt has been varied. It seems the community has grown in recent years: a good number of Shiʿa are descendents of recent Iranian expatriates, such as the wife of Gamal ʿAbd al-Nasser, Taheya Kazem. Others, including many of the most vocal activists like Shahata, have converted from Sunni Islam. During a period of anti-colonial pan-Arab and pan-Islamic associationalism in the mid-20th century, a group of Iranian and Egyptian clerics founded the Association for the Rapprochement between Islamic Schools of Law (jama‘at al-taqrib bayn al-madhahib al-islamiyya) in 1947. ʿAbd al-Nasser continued to promote this organization, and in 1959, the rector of Al-Azhar issued a fatwa to the effect that the Shiʿa Jaʿafari school of law was a fifth legitimate school, alongside the four canonical Sunni schools of law. Rainer Brunner is the expert on this subject; his recent article is available online. Al-Azhar has made abortive attempts to continue this project in recent years, but they all depend on an improvement in relations between Egypt and Iran.

According to Brunner, the rise of independent Shiʿi activism in Egypt has had strange connections to Sunni Islamism. Salih al-Wardani and Ahmad Rasim al-Nafis, who became the leading spokesmen of Shiʿism in the 1990s, both converted from Sunni to Shiʿi Islam in prison for participation in the Sunni Islamist movements of the 1970s. There has been acrimony recently between Shiʿa ashraf of Upper Egypt, who claim descent from the prophet, and recent Shiʿa converts like Muhammad al-Darini, who founded an organization to promote Shiʿism in Egypt: the Supreme Council for the Protection of the Family of the Prophet (al-majlis al-ʿala li-raʿayat ahl al-bayt). When al-Darini resigned his leadership of this group in 2007, he suggested ʿAbbud al-Zomor, a leader of the Sunni Salafi group Al-Gamaʿa Al-Islamiyya which has a strong presence in Upper Egypt, as his replacement!

The Sunni fundamentalists and Shiʿa were both on the social margins and in political opposition until recently, and had little to gain from conflict until 2011. The Mubarak regime imprisoned both al-Darini and Hassan Shahata in the past 10 years for alleged proselytizing activity, which the Egyptian state counted as Iranian infiltration. The regime arrested dozens of Shiʿis in 2009 upon suspicion of a “Hizbullah cell.” Since 2011, however, Salafi politicians have become the far-right provocateurs of the current political mainstream in Egypt, the center-right Muslim Brotherhood. Shiʿa fear-mongering has become an effective tool to burnish their righteousness. An MP from the leading Salafi Party, Nour, said last month that Shiʿis are more dangerous than “naked women,” and held a conference to combat the supposed spread of heretical views in April. Besides seeking to prevent conversion, the political tenor of this Salafi activism highlights Shiʿi insults to the companions of the prophet (some of whom were enemies of ʿAli).

The Muslim Brotherhood has been caught trying to manage its and Egypt’s image on a larger stage: President Morsi recently hosted Iranian President Ahmedinejad in Egypt, the first such visit since the Iranian Revolution, which bolsters Egypt’s anti-imperialist credentials. Egypt and Iran are also trying to establish tourism between their two countries, although the public visit of Shiʿis to shrines in Egypt could raise Sunni sensitivities. More recently, however, Morsi has voiced his support for jihad against the Iranian-backed Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. While Muslim Brotherhood leaders have condemned Sunday’s attack, Nour and other Salafi leaders seem largely unapologetic. Media attention to Shiʿis in Egypt has been increasing (Sarah Carr has a good article from the now-defunct Egypt Independent), but it remains to be seen whether this will translate into defusing the Salafi exploitation over Shiʿism — or stoke the fire.

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