What Happened to Egypt’s Liberals After the Coup?
Army Chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stands next to interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi. (Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)
Khaled Dawoud worked hard to remove Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, from office.
As the spokesperson for the National Salvation Front, a loose coalition of non-Islamist parties and groups formed last November, he was a well-recognized voice of opposition to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. In the weeks leading up to June 30, Dawoud traveled across the country, helping to drum up support and organize logistics for the massive anti-Morsi protests.
After the army ousted Morsi on July 3, Dawoud was a regular guest on local and international news channels, vociferously defending the overthrow and arguing that the president’s removal did not constitute a military coup.
“I do not have any regrets over Morsi’s removal because the Muslim Brotherhood were posing a major threat to the future of this country,” he says. “They betrayed every single principle of the Egyptian revolution.”
Yet now, Dawoud finds himself at odds with the group he once represented, and he is vilified by many of his former political allies.
The turning point came on August 14, when the military and security forces brutally cleared the two mass sit-ins in Cairo that formed the epicenter of support for the ousted president. Hundreds of people were killed in what Human Rights Watch describes as “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history.”
The National Salvation Front leadership, which includes former presidential candidates Hamdeen Sabahi and Amr Moussa, put out a statement applauding the raids. Two days later, Dawoud—who describes himself as a “leftist, not a liberal”—resigned as the group’s spokesperson.
“We wanted a political deal, we wanted Morsi removed, but we didn’t want to suppress [the Muslim Brotherhood] or kill them or consider them an outlawed organization,” he says, sitting on a heavily cracked black leather couch in the offices of Al-Ahram Weekly, the state-owned English-language publication where he has worked as a journalist since 1996. After resigning, he says, “even some close friends called me a Brotherhood sympathizer, a secret cell, a traitor and a US agent.”
Dawoud’s story is emblematic of Egypt’s convoluted political landscape, whose fault lines have shifted and rearranged in the aftermath of Morsi’s overthrow and the subsequent brutal crackdown on the Brotherhood and its allies.
Opposition to Morsi grew throughout his time in office, eventually stretching across nearly every sector of Egyptian society. It also had grassroots support, manifested in more than 9,000 protests and strikes during his year-long rule that culminated in calls for early presidential elections and the unprecedented June 30 mobilization.
His opponents included a broad swath of political and social movements, often characterized by conflicting ideologies and grievances. It included revolutionary activists, labor unions, human rights advocates, the Coptic Church, intransigent state institutions, former Mubarak regime members and sidelined business elites as well as the formal opposition—the flock of non-Islamist political parties and figures routinely lumped together as “liberals,” despite the fact that many of them have rejected any notion of political pluralism, a defining characteristic of liberalism.
The result has been a confusing, and increasingly atomized, political landscape. Of the disparate groups opposed to Morsi, some actively sought military intervention, fewer opposed any military role, while others—like Dawoud—stood by the military as it ousted the president, but eventually broke away in the face of mounting state violence and mass arrests of Islamists under the guise of a “war on terror.”
The military—which formed a coalition of convenience with the Brotherhood for much of 2011 to manage the post-Mubarak landscape and hold revolutionary aspirations and unfettered popular mobilizations in check—successfully co-opted the movement against Morsi and, along with the security establishment, emerged as the clearest winner from his overthrow.
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The opposition to Morsi began to coalesce in early May, when a group of young organizers launched Tamarod (Arabic for “rebel”), a grassroots initiative founded on a simple yet powerful idea: a petition declaring a vote of no confidence in the president and a call for early presidential elections. The campaign quickly gained momentum through a decentralized network of volunteers, spread throughout Egypt’s provinces, who gathered signatures on the streets, on university campuses and even in government offices. Many influential activists and protest groups backed Tamarod, including the April 6 Youth Movement and the Kefaya Movement, both of which had been instrumental in the January 25, 2011, uprising against Mubarak.
In late May, as the campaign was gaining significant momentum, three of the group’s founders gathered in the cramped headquarters of the Revolutionary Socialists in Giza to discuss the campaign and its goals. The Revolutionary Socialists, an established socialist group with a Trotskyist orientation, had announced its backing of the Tamarod campaign. Some thirty people turned up for the talk, gathering in a sparse, neon-lit room. On a side table, stacks of paperback books on anarchism, socialism and Leninism were available for purchase.
In his opening remarks, one of Tamarod’s founders, Mahmoud Badr (previously a coordinator in Kefaya), chose to focus on the role of the army. He recounted various incidents of popular mobilization and resistance against the Supreme Council of Armed Forces—which directly ruled the country following Mubarak’s ouster in 2011—in which the Brotherhood did not take part. He concluded by ruling out a military role in political life. “We insist that the army cannot be involved in politics,” he said emphatically.
Five weeks later, on July 3, with army tanks on the streets and helicopters roaming the skies, Badr would be sitting near the head of the armed forces, General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, as Sisi announced the end of Morsi’s presidency. Since then, the Tamarod campaign has walked in lockstep with the military, extolling its role in toppling Morsi, backing the army-led transition and cheerleading the killing of hundreds of Brotherhood members by security forces and the jailing of thousands of their rank and file. Badr and another Tamarod founder, Mohamed Abdel Aziz, have since been appointed to the fifty-member committee redrafting Egypt’s Constitution.
“The story of Tamarod is the story of the co-optation of a popular movement,” says Mona El-Ghobashy, an Egyptian professor of political science at Barnard College. “It was this grassroots, fragmented, atomized initiative by definition, and the military saw an excellent opportunity and piggybacked on it,” El-Ghobashy says. “Tamarod’s leaders’ comments ever since the late days of June and certainly after June 30 have been more royal than the king.”
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Among the most visible backers of Morsi’s ouster have been non-Islamist parties and politicians. Mohamed ElBaradei, the renowned reform advocate who was supported by many revolutionaries in 2011, was an important figure in the overthrow of Morsi. He appeared next to Sisi on the day of the coup and served as vice president of international affairs in the interim government, his reputation a source of legitimacy for the military-led transition.
While ElBaradei did not condemn the incommunicado detention of Morsi in an undisclosed location, nor the closure of sympathetic Islamist television channels, he was among the few politicians—and certainly the most prominent—calling for a political solution rather than forcible dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-ins in Rabaa al-Adeweya and Nahda squares in Cairo. ElBaradei’s proposals were met with a vicious reaction in the state and private media, with pundits accusing him of being a traitor and a double agent.
Barely an hour after security forces brutally cleared the sit-ins, ElBaradei resigned. “It has become difficult for me to continue bearing responsibility for decisions that I do not agree with and whose consequences I fear,” he wrote in his resignation letter. “I cannot bear the responsibility for one drop of blood.” Four days later, facing a growing demonization campaign against him, he boarded a plane to Vienna and left the country.
“ElBaradei put us in a very, very difficult position,” says Hussein Gohar, the international secretary for the center-left Egyptian Social Democratic Party, commonly viewed as the most substantial political party for liberals. “By ElBaradei being the one who is pro-peace and the one who doesn’t want any Egyptian blood to be spilled, it makes all the others look like blood suckers, vampires who want to kill the Islamists. I think we have to respect his decision, but I don’t agree on the timing or the reasons.”
Gohar, a prominent gynecologist with a successful practice in Manial, an island on the eastern bank of the Nile in Cairo, says his party has experienced a shift toward an increasingly hardline, pro-military, anti-Islamist stance, mirroring the sentiment in much of the country. “I think the army was forced to do what it did on July 3 and on August 14, with the breakup of the sit-ins,” Gohar says. “But I think the whole thing was handled in the wrong way. And if you say you’re against what has happened, you’re branded a traitor.”
A leading member of Gohar’s party, Hazem El-Beblawi, was tapped as prime minister of the military-backed interim government. Beblawi showed no such ambivalence in his public remarks. He strongly defended the violent dispersal of the sit-ins and praised the security forces for what he called their “self-restraint.” It marked a significant turnaround from the position he’d taken less than two years earlier, when he submitted his resignation as finance minister in the army-led government in protest over the killing of twenty-seven demonstrators, mostly Coptic Christians, by the military in what is known as the Maspero massacre of October 2011.
Meanwhile, groups like the Wafd Party, the standard-bearer of Egyptian liberalism, and Al-Tagammu, founded as a leftist party, have strongly backed the military-led transition and applauded the crackdown. Both parties welcomed a recent harsh court ruling dissolving the Brotherhood and banning all of its activities, as did the Popular Current, the movement founded by Nasserist politician and former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi.
Amr Moussa, another former presidential candidate and the former secretary general of the Arab League, is now chair of the fifty-member constitutional committee that includes just two Islamists and no Brotherhood members. Both Moussa and Sabahi have vocally backed the military and have publicly supported the idea of army chief Sisi running for president, a move that would eradicate even the slightest pretense of civilian democratic rule.
“Strategically in the long-term, pacting with the military is a matter of political survival for the non-Islamists,” says El-Ghobashy. “They can have the military extinguish their political rivals for them because, as they’ve shown over and over again, they can’t compete with them on the electoral playing field.”
Precious few political parties have spoken out forcefully against the military-led transition or the assault on the Brotherhood. The Popular Socialist Alliance—which was formed after the 2011 uprising and has gained traction as a genuine leftist party, despite limited resources and membership—recently accused the interim government of “sabotaging” the transitional period, citing “extralegal security measures, failures to manage the issue of social justice and failure to issue necessary laws of transitional justice,” while blaming the influence of the “old network of interests still controlling the country.”
Meanwhile, Amr Hamzawy, a political scientist and founder of the Egypt Freedom Party, who was elected to Parliament in 2011, has proven himself to be a liberal in the truest sense of the word. In a July 31 column in the daily Al-Shorouk titled “The crisis of Egyptian liberals and its re-establishment,” Hamzawy blasted the so-called “liberal” parties for repeatedly calling on the military to intervene throughout Morsi’s presidency and accused them of applying a double standard with regard to the human and political rights of Islamists. Other figures, including renowned political satirist Bassem Youssef and columnist Belal Fadl, have also criticized the military-led crackdown and the wave of chauvinistic nationalism behind it, though they remain minority voices.
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The labor movement, which helped pave the groundwork for the revolution that toppled Mubarak, enthusiastically supported the June 30 demonstrations against Morsi. The two main independent trade union organizations, the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions and the Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress, collected signatures for the Tamarod campaign. The official Egyptian Trade Union Federation, which has functioned as an arm of the state since its founding in 1957, also backed the anti-Morsi protests.
“The Brotherhood basically failed, especially on the economic and organizational questions that workers care about,” says Joel Beinin, a professor Middle East history at Stanford University who has closely studied the Egyptian labor movement. Beinin points to the Brotherhood’s decision—while it had a plurality in the legislature—to spurn a draft law that would have guaranteed the right to form independent unions; Morsi’s government did the same.
Shortly after the military deposed Morsi on July 3, the presidency of EFITU issued a statement praising the armed forces and their role in what it called the “June 30 revolution.” EFITU’s founding president, veteran unionist Kamal Abu Eita, then urged that “workers who were champions of the strike under the previous regime should now become champions of production.” His statement was harshly criticized as a capitulation to the new military-backed regime, with Fatma Ramadan, a prominent council member of EFITU, insisting that “Egypt’s workers must never sacrifice their right to strike.”
Abu Eita is also a founding member of the Nasserist Karama Party, along with Hamdeen Sabahi, who championed military intervention even before June 30. “It’s as though they are imagining that Sisi is Gamal Abdel Nasser,” Beinin says. “It’s simply bizarre that they have just literally forgotten what the army did in 2011 and 2012, when it was in control.” After Mubarak’s ouster, the military took a harsh stance against organized labor, criminalizing strikes and work stoppages, arresting protesters and labor activists, and even using the military’s own labor force to undermine strikes.
Two weeks later, Abu Eita was appointed minister of manpower and migration in the transitional government, in what some viewed as a victory for the workers’ movement. However, fears that his appointment was part of an effort to co-opt the movement appeared to be well-founded when he did little to protect workers from harsh security crackdowns against two strikes in mid-August, at the Suez Steel Company and at Scimitar Petroleum Company. The military also deployed armored personnel carriers in an attempt at intimidation in and around the Misr Textile Company in Mahalla, where nearly 20,000 workers were on strike demanding better wages and overdue bonuses.
While EFITU has maintained complete support for the military despite the clearly authoritarian nature of the new regime, a business-friendly cabinet and growing evidence that workers’ rights will remain largely unaddressed, other labor groups, like the Center for Trade Union Worker Services, have begun to speak out, albeit in a tactical manner.
“My read is that they are moving in the direction of being more critical, but they are very cognizant of the fact that they can be smashed,” says Beinin. “It’s a tactical question for them: How much can they come out in opposition and still be safe?”
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Monday traffic honks and snarls around a few dozen protesters gathered in Talaat Harb Square as a hazy, mid-September dusk settles on Cairo. The crowd is small and mostly made up of young men and women. They chant against both the army and the Muslim Brotherhood and rail against the growing spate of random arrests, military trials and the recently extended state of emergency. The protest was called for by the April 6 Youth Movement, along with a number of other groups, including the Revolutionary Socialists.
April 6 played a key role in the 2011 revolution and then went on to support Morsi in the June 2012 runoff election against Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister, who represented a return to the old regime. Yet the group began to turn against Morsi within the first few months of his presidency, amid disagreements over the constitution; the killing of one of its members, Gaber “Jika” Salah, by the police; and Morsi’s fateful November 2012 constitutional declaration, which gave him temporary far-reaching powers and placed his decisions beyond the reach of the courts.
April 6 took part in protests against Morsi in early 2013 and wholeheartedly supported the June 30 demonstrations calling for early presidential elections. Yet after Morsi was toppled, the group quickly began to distance itself from the military and the interim government amid what it saw as greater army control over the state, a flawed constitutional roadmap and a re-empowered security apparatus.
“We are still continuing the January 25 revolution,” says Zizou Abdo, a prominent April 6 member, who takes a break from leading chants to survey the small demonstration. “This turnout is great in terms of the situation we are in, with the nationalistic atmosphere and the current media narrative,” he says, likening the scene to protests before the revolution against Mubarak, which were usually sparsely attended and surrounded by security forces.
A small number of counter-protesters gather near the demonstration and scream at the crowd for daring to protest the military. “Sisi saved us!” yells one woman in a zebra- patterned top. “Why are you helping the Brotherhood?”
Abdo is undeterred. “This is the fourth round of the revolution after Mubarak, the military council and the Brotherhood. We hope this next fight will be the one,” he says.
The political position of April 6 broadly reflects the views of a number of independent revolutionary activists, human rights attorneys, writers and organizers who have consistently spoken out against the authoritarian nature of the state and those running it since Mubarak was forced to step down. Some were more ambivalent about the June 30 protests, as they began to see, in its final weeks, that the rhetoric and goals of the demonstrations were being hijacked by the military and elements tied to the former regime.
For the most part, these figures felt pushed out of the discourse in the period following Morsi’s ouster, as the confrontation between the military and the Brotherhood grew. In recent weeks, some have begun to organize around specific issues, such as calling for a ban on military trials of civilians in the forthcoming constitution or advocating for Syrian and Palestinian refugees who have been increasingly targeted by the authorities and vilified in the media.
On September 24, scores of them held a press conference to announce the formation of a new organization, The Road of the Revolution Front. The group “aims to focus attention on the main aims of January 25: bread, freedom and social justice,” according to its founding statement, and rejects any alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood or the security state, which it sees as two wings of the counterrevolution.
“This is not something new; everyone here has spent a very long time working together,” says Alaa Abdel Fattah, a renowned blogger and activist who was jailed under Mubarak and by the military and received an arrest warrant under Morsi. “We have been building this network for more than ten years. The idea is to make this network into a cohesive entity. We can’t promise we will succeed, but we know for sure that we will stay allied.”
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