“Revolutions revolutionize counter-revolutions,” Régis Debray wrote. We’re seeing this, surely, in the weird and desperate maneuvers that Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF, which sounds remarkably like a fungal disease) is making to sustain its bloody, counter-revolutionary power.
Hosni Mubarak, back in his day, never actually used the militant political Islamists much. He would toss them the occasional concessions when troubled by other opposition (most notably, letting the Muslim Brotherhood contest and, where they contested, win the 2005 parliamentary elections). But at no point did he call on their manpower, allow them to become a public prop for the regime, or use them as shock troops against opponents. This diffidence persisted even though the Brotherhood — of course, the most moderate of the lot, and famous for its opportunism, as if the malleable Mitt Romney had turned in his Mormon underwear for a galabeya — regularly offered itself up for sale in the most shameless way, showing a well-turned thigh to the government’s cruising eye with the urgency of a starving streetwalker on a freezing night. They wanted to be exploited. But no. The Mubarakites understandably could not relinquish the bad example of Sadat, who tried to win over the burgeoning Islamist groups by massive pandering in the mid-Seventies. Uncooperative and unco-optable, they killed him for his pains.
The bones Mubarak threw to the Islamists were cast over electrified barbed wire. He arrested them by the tens of thousands, tortured them, buried them in concentration camps for years. The brutality was appalling. It endeared him to the United States, but from a religious radical’s perspective, it rather stymied any prospects for a rapprochement.
SCAF, in a far less secure position, has tried to play a double game—badly. There’s a widespread suspicion in Egypt that SCAF has tried to sell Western governments on extended army rule, and repression, as the last bulwark keeping the state secular, and the Islamists out of power. Ahmed Seif el-Islam, one of the great heroes of Egypt’s human rights movement, thundered at a meeting I attended in June: “The military want to present themselves as the guardians of security, saving us again from the Salafists, so that they can hold onto power. Such security has nothing to do with democracy.”
At the same time, for internal consumption, SCAF has struck an unmistakeable if informal alliance with the Brotherhood, which makes occasional gestures of demurral but generally is extraordinarily obedient to the military line. This makes a certain sense: as an institution the military is enormously rich, but it has no political constituency except itself. If a potential friendship is up for sale, why not buy? But it sits uneasily with what the army is telling the United States.
Last night’s massacre in Cairo was an act of exceptional brutality–against Copts, who have been increasingly unequivocal in voicing dissatisfaction, but by extension and example against dissent in general. The NY Times reported today:
Witnesses, victims and doctors said Monday that demonstrators were killed when military-led security forces drove armored vehicles over as many as six people and fired live ammunition into the crowds. Doctors at a Coptic hospital showed journalists 17 bodies, including one with a crushed skull and others with mangled limbs.
“Cairo yesterday was a part of Syria,” said Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, a liberal activist who helped set off the revolution, invoking the violent crackdown against that country’s uprising. “This is a threat not just to the Copts, but to all of the people. We saw what would happen if we rose up against the army.”
But one of the most ominous aspects was how the army apparently used and incited crowds of Islamists, to provoke anger and set off violence and and attack the demonstrators. Has the army enlisted Salafists as counter-revolutionary shock troops? An unknown number –hardly all — of political prisoners jailed under Mubarak have been released: mostly political Islamists, because those were the ones Mubarak most abused. Freed into a confusing and unfamiliar world, traumatized by torture, given no assistance to salve re-entry, are they now easy prey for a regime that can exploit them when it needs a little frisson of violence? Plenty of Western commentators (including a significant number of gay activists) have bought into the notion that post-revolutionary Egypt is newly prone to “extremism,” and that a strong hand is needed to keep undesireable elements suppressed. But the hand is evidently using the “extremists” to slap down others. So much for secularism; so much for the bulwark.
Attacking Copts is both monstrous and stupid on the army’s part. An influential body of US opinion, including evangelical Christians, will be outraged. Already, Nick Kristof has tweeted that the US should pull its massive military aid to Egypt.
Since the US’s energies in Egypt for the last forty years were all turned to shoring up the repression, I’ve been very reluctant to suppose it should claim a sudden progressive role for itself now. Even Obama’s final turn against the dictator in February — which democrats in the region derided as too little, too late — struck me as too much, from another perspective. Let the revolutionaries finish the revolution themselves; they were doing fine without him. After four decades of torture, the US was in no position to claim last-minute street cred for freedom.
But there’s that military aid — $2 billion is the usual estimate, but it’s funnelled through so many channels nobody knows. With the military now in charge of murdering Egyptians, the aid looks increasingly obnoxious.
This is, as the Times says in Timespeak, “a turning point for the Revolution”: only no one knows where it will turn. Right now, in the next days and weeks, the US needs to push the generals hard. Not to get them to stop siding with the Salafists and the Brotherhood — that’s not the issue. The US must insist that they hold fair elections speedily for parliament and civilian President, surrender power, step aside: so that the question of who they side with ceases to matter at all.