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Government, Politics & Issues

Commentary: Egypt is a battleground for extremist groups

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 26, 2013: Cairo, Egypt - June 30 was Revolution 2.0 in Egypt. The people turned out in larger numbers than ever before in Egypt (and perhaps in human history) to call for the Morsi presidency to go. In the eyes of the majority, the Muslim Brotherhood’s legitimacy was over.

Its rule had grown increasingly authoritarian and its actions were concentrated on implementing its Islamist vision of Egypt. But Egyptian identity is must richer than that. Egyptians see themselves as Egyptian first, then perhaps Arab and especially as a tolerant people. As one taxi driver told me: “I respect the authority of al-Azhar on religion, but I don’t want an Islamic republic, and I don’t trust the Muslim Brotherhood.” In short, the Egyptian people are religious, about 90 percent Muslim and 10 percent Christian, but they don’t want their government to tell them their religious obligations, and they don’t want them imposed from above. Plus, the goals for bread, democracy and social justice of the Jan. 25 Revolution were still unfulfilled. So the people went to the streets to oust the Brotherhood from government.

Unfortunately the Egyptian military was clearly prepared for the opportunity June 30 presented to them. Revolution 2.0 became a coup on July 26 when large numbers of Egyptians responded to Gen. al-Sisi's call for them to demonstrate again, this time in support of the army’s efforts “to eradicate terrorism.”

The Egyptian people love the army, seeing it as their heroes and protectors in the various wars with Israel. Their memory of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) 2011 rule of the country, (most notably its Cairo massacres at Maspero on Oct. 9-10, 2011, and on Mohamed Mahmoud Street on Nov. 19, 2011, as well as thousands of civilian political prisoners tried in military tribunals), had dimmed.

Living in Cairo is now difficult for everyone, with martial law reinstated and nightly curfews imposed. Local citizens’ “security groups” are again organized in our neighborhoods at night, to protect streets from gangs and thieves, as the army and police are busy with the big battles. Everyone is glued to televisions to follow what is where, everyone that is, except the Brotherhood and their supporters, who are moving to the next demonstration/battle sight.

Now the army is shooting “militants” in the Sinai, in the name of fighting terrorism. While there have been attacks on the police and army in the Sinai, I am not so convinced those actions are connected to the Brotherhood. There are longstanding civil rights problems for the Sinai Bedouin.

Overall, we are seeing serious fighting and too much dying. The sides are two extremist groups: the Security Apparatus (the military and police, including secret police) versus the Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters. Many of the Brotherhood are not violent, so labeling them all as terrorists is an excuse for killing them.

The deep state in Egypt, since its 1952 Revolution, has been the military and the secret police. Whoever is in government has to have its support.

Real change and democracy will require the dismantling of this deep state. The army has to become under the control of a civilian, democratically elected government, with a system of check and balances in place. The Morsi government’s hastily written constitution did not do this. It left the military budget secret, with a secret oversight committee, and left veto power over many government decisions in the hands of the military.

I’m not sure anyone knows how to curb the power of the military, because the army is well armed and controls at least 40 percent of the economy. How can such consolidated and violent power be overthrown? How can accountability for the killing of thousands of civilians, before and since Jan. 25, 2011, be implemented—as that is part of what social justice requires? How can the military and police corruption be ended?

I do think that June 30 people’s demonstrations were an important third-step in the Jan. 25 Revolution. Step One was to depose Mubarak in 2011. Step Two pressured SCAF to step down in 2012. Step Three is the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule in July 2013. Step Four will require the military to give up its overt rule again, after the Egyptian people get sick enough of all the violence.

Meanwhile, the struggles to rewrite the Constitution, bring about parliamentary elections and another presidential election are all important, as is the need to put in place a rule of law that has legitimacy, something lacking since the inception of the Egyptian Republic in 1962. The judiciary has to be held accountable and must become a real mechanism for combating corruption and high crimes, not just the crimes committed by the have-nots. And instead of shooting people, law enforcement should arrest alleged “terrorists,” who should be tried in civilian courts, with evidence required for their punishment.

Should the U.S. remove its funding of Egypt? Of course the U.S. should stop funding Egypt’s military. The Obama administration was slow to support each change in government, because it wants to keep its relationship intact with Egypt’s military. In other words, U.S. tax dollars are funding Egypt’s deep state in maintaining its authoritarian power over the Egyptian people.

If the U.S. really wanted the good will of the Egyptian people, it would put the $1.3 billion that goes to the military into development, into building infrastructure, schools and supporting drastically needed education reform, health care, human rights and democracy education, women’s empowerment, microloans for low income entrepreneurs, water, sanitation, electricity, and the many other worthy projects. US AID implements some of this. But think what the $1.3 billion could do. It could create a very solid economy and help move 40 percent of Egypt’s population out of poverty.

The military is committing war crimes in the street, especially using disproportionate force against its citizens, armed and unarmed; while those Muslim Brotherhood supporters who have taken up arms are committing crimes of violence as well.

I hope for the day when all these crimes will end and the perpetrators will be held accountable. I hope for the day when rule of law rests on the will of the Egyptian people. I long for the day when the Jan. 25 Revolution’s dreams of bread, freedom and social justice become reality.

In Egypt, Kathy Kamphoefner has worked in conflict resolution, refugee services, and teaching since 2007.  She is from St. Louis and holds a PhD in Communication Studies from Northwestern University, which focused on Intercultural Communication and Middle East Studies, and is fluent in Egyptian Colloquial Arabic. The above is condensed from a letter sent to friends in the area.

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