A year ago today, I was supposed to be on a mountain somewhere in the south of Spain with my family. It was meant to be the first vacation we’d taken throughout the Egyptian revolution – i.e., long overdue. We never left. Instead, we were in Cairo – waiting, anxiously, for the June 30 protests to unfold against then-President Mohammad Mursi’s rule.
In June last year, and for a substantial time before that, I had been writing critical pieces about Mohammad Mursi’s presidency, and the Muslim Brotherhood organization from which he hailed. The Brotherhood’s approach had been characterized with incompetency and exclusivism at a time when Egypt desperately needed inclusive government for its democratic experiment to survive against all manner of challenges and opponents. Tolerance – and even encouragement – of sectarianism and limited vigilantism by the Brotherhood, combined with the aforementioned problems, led me to believe that Egypt was becoming increasingly flammable. Ironically, I thought the spark would be set in July 2013, and I wrote as much months earlier, specifying that month as the time of a likely military intervention against an ineffective government.
In spite of all of that, on the eve of the June 30 protests, I was not clamoring for their success. I’d written critically about the Brotherhood and Mursi – but I’d also written disparagingly about the National Salvation Front, the main umbrella group of Egyptian opponents to the Islamist government, which had signed up to the protests. They struck me as generally ineffectual and futile, and all too willing to engage with elements from Mubarak’s former regime that had no interest in the success of Egypt’s democratic experiment, as part of a broader anti-Islamist alliance. Mursi was insufficiently inclusive, that was true – but a “zero-sum game” view was not limited only to the Brotherhood. It typified the perspective of many, although not all, of their opponents, whose interests were less about the success of Egypt’s revolutionary promise of 2011, and more about simply knocking out the Brotherhood.
Taking Egypt out of its impasse
While I felt that the call for early presidential elections was a good one to take Egypt out of its impasse (incidentally, called for by opposition politicians Amr Hamzawy and Abdel Moneim Abol-Fotouh in early 2013), I was less enthusiastic about the campaign called for precisely that by the Tamarod (“Rebel”) movement. At first, it seemed unlikely to succeed, and would turn out to be another missed opportunity by a disparate and inadequate opposition. Then, it seemed a genuinely grassroots organization that had capitalized on authentic antipathy to the Islamist movement was becoming co-opted – and fairly blatantly. As support for the campaign ensued, I began to become more concerned.
The issue that worried me about the Tamarod movement as we drew closer to June 30 was simple: what would they do if they weren’t successful?H.A. Hellyer
Tamarod’s petition for early presidential elections did not have intrinsically anti-democratic requests. Snap elections are certainly consistent with democratic norms, and many democracies have them inbuilt into their systems. The issue that worried me about the Tamarod movement, as we drew closer to June 30 was simple: what would they do if they weren’t successful? I never had any doubt that Mursi would never voluntarily call for early presidential elections, even if the entire country went out onto the streets (let alone the inflated numbers that were later reported). If Tamarod had been intent on using June 30 as a show of strength against the Brotherhood, to remind the religious right that Egypt’s non-Islamist majority was still alive and kicking, that would have been one thing. But it – and the forces that publicly (and privately) backed it – made one thing very clear: protesters would stay until their demands were met. And that worried me.
Months earlier, as mentioned above, I thought there might be a military intervention in July 2013 – but I didn’t link it to Tamarod, or even political mobilization, at all. Rather, I thought that owing to the increasingly chaotic economic situation and unrest against Mursi’s government, it was entirely likely there would be food riots in July, the hottest month of the year combined with Ramadan, the most expensive month of the year. In such a situation, I reasoned, a repeat of what had happened in Suez earlier in the year, where the national government had lost control of security, and where the military stepped in, could easily take place, this time across the country. If it did, I wondered – would it leave the democratically elected government of Mursi in place? Or would it deem Mursi’s government a liability? This was Egypt, after all – it was not as though Egypt’s military had not been able to successfully pull off political interventions before.
A combination of concerns
As June 30 came upon us, a combination of these concerns came to the forefront. Before the June 30 protests even began, a counter-protest began at the Raba’a al-Adawiya mosque, which evolved into a sit-in that continued for weeks after the anti-Mursi protests ended, coming to a tragic end in mid-August. On the eve of the protests, my concern was focused on one rather mundane issue – would there be blood? Would these two groups of Egyptians, both diametrically opposed to each other, engage each other on the streets – and what would happen if they did?
It struck me that the only way that Tamarod’s campaign could realistically work would be if, indeed, those two groups did engage each other, resulting in bloodshed, which would trigger a military intervention against the then sitting president. That sort of escalation, where Egyptians would fight one another in civil strife, was not one I thought should even be contemplated. I respected friends and colleagues who insisted they had to go to the streets. But I considered their presumption that their movement was likely to win without the military or bloodshed to be naïve. I knew they didn’t want either of those – but as the protests began, it was clear that those who had no such reservations would outnumber cooler, more principled heads.
After the military made its ultimatum to Mursi, which I described in writing as “not quite a coup, but pretty much,” those fears about clashes intensified. As Egypt’s public arena intensified, the seeds of a new “war on terror” narrative found fertile ground among anti-Islamists – and particularly in the private media.
Somewhere along the way, the narrative switched from “we must have early presidential elections” to “the Brotherhood is a terrorist menace,” and demonized all supporters of the president. Simultaneously, Brotherhood leaders made it clear that if they felt Mursi would come under attack in the presidential palace, they would send their supporters to intervene in what was essentially vigilante action.
Of course, it was not only the Brotherhood who were happy to engage in such vigilantism – but the Brotherhood were in power, and insisted on being a genuine political force. The sectarian discourse and the incitement that came from partisans of the Brotherhood, as well as from senior members of the leadership, remained deeply worrying. Against that polarized backdrop, the thought of Brotherhood supporters descending upon the protests outside the presidential palace, and the ensuing violence that would inevitably take place between those forces, was deeply worrying – and those worries intensified until July 3.
On July 3, this two part essay reflecting on the June 30 and July 3 will be continued.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.