Disarming Egypt’s Militarized State

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Egypt’s crisis has been called the worst in its history. In fact, it bears a striking resemblance to a previous episode, almost 60 years ago.

On February 28, 1954, more than a 100,000 protesters besieged Cairo’s Abdin Palace, then being used by Gamal Abdel Nasser and other leaders of the July 1952 coup. The protesters’ main demands were the restoration of Egypt’s fragile democratic institutions, the release of political prisoners, and the army’s return to its barracks.

The two-month crisis of 1954 was sparked by the removal of Egypt’s president, General Mohammed Naguib, by Nasser and his faction. As in 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood was at the center of events, mobilizing on the side of the deposed Naguib. But, following Nasser’s promises to hold elections in June 1954 and to hand over power to civilians, one of the Brotherhood’s leaders, Abd al-Qadr Audeh, dismissed the protesters.

Nasser’s promises were empty, and by November his faction was victorious. Naguib remained under house arrest, leftist workers were executed and liberals terrorized. Audeh was arrested, and, in January 1955, he and five Brotherhood leaders were executed. Egypt lost its basic freedoms and democratic institutions for more than a half-century, until February 11 2011, when Hosni Mubarak was overthrown.

The similarities between February-March 1954 and June-July 2013 are numerous. In both crises, zero-sum behavior and rhetoric, mobilization and counter-mobilization by a divided public, and deception by (and manipulation of) the media were the order of the day. More worrying are the similarities in potential outcomes. In 1954, a junta that regarded itself as being above the state destroyed weak democratic order; that outcome is highly probable now as well.

Differences exist, though. In 1954, the conflict was wider than a power struggle between a president and a junta; it was also a battle over who would determine Egypt’s future and the relationship between civilian and military institutions.

Surprisingly, the army back then was split between officers who wanted a civilian-led democracy and others who wanted a military-led autocracy. In the first camp lay Khaled Mohyiddin, Ahmad Shawky, Yusuf Siddiq, and others. Naguib played along. The second camp was led by Nasser and the majority of the junta represented in the Revolutionary Command Council.

The Brotherhood’s relationship with Egypt’s officers is the result of a few critical events, including the 1954 demonstrations and now the 2013 coup. Bloodshed, particularly Nasser’s execution of Brotherhood leaders, increased the bitterness. In June 1957, moreover, Nasser’s security forces allegedly opened fire on Brotherhood members in their prison cells, killing 21 and wounding hundreds.

A Brotherhood intellectual, Sayyid Qutb, started theorizing about a binary world in which the forces of good (Party of God) would inevitably clash with the forces of evil (Party of Satan). His writings led directly to his execution in August 1966.

The consequences of the events of 2013, like the consequences of that Cairo prison massacre in 1957, may not be recognized quickly. But, once elected officials are removed by force, the outcomes are rarely favorable for democracy. In case after case – for example, Spain in 1936, Iran in 1953, Chile in 1973, Turkey in 1980, Sudan in 1989, and Algeria in 1992 – the results were tragic: military domination of politics with a civilian façade, outright military dictatorship, civil war, or persistent civil unrest.

Moreover, the military in 2013 has gained more power than the 1954 junta: not just arms and control of state institutions, but also crowds and media cheering for more repression. And, unlike in 1954, the army is not divided (at least not yet).

But supporters of the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi, are not without their own sources of power. Their mobilization capacity is high. Last Friday, Cairo was paralyzed, despite an almost-complete lack of coverage by local media outlets.

And Ramadan – now underway – is mobilization-friendly. After sunset, there is a common program. Observant Muslims gather at sundown for iftar (breakfast), followed by evening prayers, tawarih (longer prayers, including a short sermon), social interactions, qiyyam (another late-night prayer), suhur (another collective meal), and then morning prayers.

The last ten days of Ramadan are i‘tikaf (collective seclusion), during which worshippers gather and spend nights in mosques and open areas. Overall, the socio-religious culture of Ramadan can help keep the Brotherhood’s mobilization of its supporters alive for a while.

This brings us to the junta’s tactics to force demobilization. Since 2011, the army’s principal strategy has been to make promises and issue threats, which are enforced by shooting live rounds and/or tear gas. These tactics were used, for example, against Christian demonstrators in October 2011 (28 dead, 212 injured), non-Islamist pro-revolution youth in November 2011 (51 dead, more than 1,000 injured), and again in December 2011 (seven dead).

The July 2013 massacre was by far the worst (103 deaths so far and more than 1,000 injured). The army’s goal was not only to intimidate Morsi’s supporters, but also to disrupt their calculations. The junta wants its responses to remain unpredictable and to demonstrate its willingness to use extreme violence. But such tactics during Ramadan can be problematic, given the potential negative reaction of junior army officers and ordinary soldiers.

Any resolution to the current crisis should aim to save the remnants of the only gains made so far in Egypt’s revolution: basic freedoms and democratic institutions. That will require ceasing violent repression, stopping propaganda and incitement in pro-junta media and pro-Morsi protests, and trust-building measures.

A credible guarantor, possibly the Obama administration, needs to be heavily involved in this process, given the absence of trust among Egypt’s main political actors; indeed, every institution is politicized and willing to cheat if it can. Finally, a referendum on any final deal is essential. In short, the credibility of ballots and democracy must be restored in Egypt (and throughout the region); bullets and violence must not be allowed to rule.