In Egypt, lonely voices warn of too much love for the military

Egyptian activists have rallied around the military since it ousted Mohamed Morsi, leaving some of their former comrades isolated and uneasy.

By , Correspondent

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    A supporter of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in front of barbed wire and army soldiers at the Republican Guard headquarters in Nasr City, a suburb of Cairo, Friday, July 19.
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The voices warning about the perils of the national reverence for the Egyptian military that's been held by secular-leaning activists since the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi on July 3 are few, and subject to threats and allegations that they're stooges for "terrorists" from former friends and allies.

But they include a number of prominent Egyptians who have fought harder than most for free speech and individual rights in the country – people who have taken principled stands against the failings of the Muslim Brotherhood, the former regime of Hosni Mubarak, and Egypt's tradition of impunity for human rights abuses committed by soldiers and policemen.

Earlier this week Bassem Youssef, Egypt's answer to Jon Stewart, became perhaps the most prominent Egyptian to express alarm about the climate that has emerged since June 30, the day that mass protests against Morsi began, which convinced the military to depose him on July 3. Self-professed liberals are demonizing the Muslim Brothers as agents of foreign powers, cheering for the military to drive the mass movement from the country's politics, and turning on anyone who dares suggest that Egypt's generals don't have a track record as friends of democracy. 

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"Kudos to those who have not allowed the victory high to rob them of their humanity; to those few who are currently isolated by everyone else and are not welcome in either camp unless they go with the current flow of hatred and gloating," the TV comedian said in an article published in Arabic by the Al-Shoruk newspaper on Tuesday, and in English by the website Tahrir Squared on Wednesday.

“What’s that?” Mr. Youssef imagined a typical conversation in Egypt today, “Some MB members died at the Republican Guard? And why were they there in the first place? Aren’t you glad this happened to them? Why aren’t you gloating? You must be a Brotherhood supporter! You must be an enemy of the military and the state and probably work as a part-time terrorist!”

Wael Abbas, a journalist and human rights activist who made a name for himself in the final years of the Mubarak regime for exposing police torture and other abuses and was briefly arrested by the army during the uprising against Mr. Mubarak in 2011, is another who is speaking out. “They call us traitors now, henchmen for the Muslim Brotherhood and the US,” says Mr. Abbas.

Like Youssef, Abbas is among the few Egyptians who are troubled both by the Muslim Brotherhood's actions while in power and the demonization of the group since Morsi was ousted. 

“Of course, this is not a revolution,” fumes Abbas. “In a revolution, you should expect bullets from the army and the police, not flags and sweets. What happened on June 30 was a celebration of something that had been decided long beforehand, or it would never have been allowed to happen.”

Questioning those events is a courageous act in an Egypt that is riding a wave of military idolization after it deposed Morsi. Even the Revolutionary Socialist party has been accused of supporting the coup that booted him from office and Morsi's supporters are routinely referred to as “terrorists” on TV, including on CBC, the privately owned channel that airs Youssef’s weekly show, El Bernameg. (Editorial note: This story originally stated that the Revolutionary Socialists had supported the coup; the group says this is incorrect and a statement of their position is available here.)

Neither Youssef nor Abbas are friends of Morsi. Youssef relentlessly ridiculed him during his year in power and went to court on charges of insulting the president and religion. But he's also not fond of military political supremacy, which is as threatening to his liberal political values as is rule by the Muslim Brotherhood. 

In the early days after Morsi's ouster, Youssef appeared supportiveimagining in a July 9 column an ugly alternative universe in which Morsi retained power and began a sweeping crackdown on political dissent. But the killing of at least 51 Morsi supporters outside the Republican Guards barracks on July 8, the jailing of Muslim Brotherhood leaders, the silencing of the Islamist media, and the vindictiveness of parts of the public and the media, have him concerned. 

"The fascist nature of those people is no different than that of the Islamists who think that their enemies’ disappearance off this planet would be a victory for the religion of God," he wrote on July 16. "But those on this ‘victory high’ consider themselves to be different; they justify their fascism for the 'good of the country'... We are now repeating the Brotherhood’s same mistakes. It’s as though we have the memory span of a goldfish."

The pro-military fervor and concern about demonization of the Brotherhood is also driving a wedge between activists who played major roles in the uprising that drove Hosni Mubarak from power. 

A very public argument is raging between Ahmed Maher and Esraa Abdel Fattah, the founders of the April 6 Youth Movement, an important player in the street politics of 2011. April 6 enthusiastically supported the June 30 protests and visited with interim president Adly Mansour after Morsi’s ouster, agreeing to travel to Western countries to sell the idea that what happened in Egypt was a second revolution, not a coup.

But shortly afterwards Mr. Maher tweeted to Mr. Abbas: “If we assume it’s not a coup, and I tell people it’s not a coup, when they screw us again like they did in 2011, what would I tell people?” He was referring to the 16 months of military rule after Mubarak's fall, which were marked by the arrest, torture, and military trials of activists.

Maher's tweet created a rift in the April 6 movement, with Ms. Fattah leading the charge against him. She has campaigned to have Maher drummed out of the group and written columns denouncing the Muslim Brothers as terrorists and praising the military for saving Egypt. 

Abbas says the criticism "comes mostly from people who were against us when we were fighting for the overthrow of Mubarak in 2011, and for whom June 30 was the first time they ever came out in the streets."

But it's also coming from former comrades. He says many activists who opposed Mubarak call June 30 a people’s revolution and see the Army, which ruled Egypt in 2011 and 2012, as a positive force in Egyptian politics. “In their hearts, I’m sure they know this is not true. No real democracy can come from this. It has brought the army back on the scene, and it has brought back the remnants of Mubarak’s regime. Maybe they are just hopeful that it will be different this time.”

Morsi’s ouster had also caused a rift over one of the icons of the 2011 revolution, the Facebook page "We Are All Khaled Said." The page, commemorating a young Egyptian beaten to death by police in 2010, focused popular rage around the abuses of the Mubarak years and served as an important precursor to the 2011 uprising.

The administrator of the Arabic version of the page, Wael Ghonim, became a worldwide celebrity after the fall of Mubarak after being being detained for weeks and making an impassioned appeal for Egyptian democracy on national TV after his release. But after praising the military's decision to oust Morsi on July 3, Mr. Ghonim has gone dark, with no further Facebook statements or interviews.

But his counterpart administrator on the English version of the page page has turned against the coup, and has received furious comments and death threats in response.

He asked that his name be withheld because he's worried he could be arrested for his political views. “We are now officially back to 24 January 2011, back into the Mubarak regime. Those activists who may still be unsure will very soon realize this sad reality."

He agrees with Abbas that "this coup was not a response to protests, but it was simply pre-planned and organized by the military, some opposition leaders and supported by different government establishments, including the police. A bit more pressure and peaceful protests in the street could have delivered early elections or any other democratic solution. One day is not enough. Military coup is not a solution. Democracy is.”

Zahraa Said, Khaled Said’s sister, is furious with the English language page. "We have written them many times to stop speaking my brother's name but we have received no reply," she says. "They no longer represent what is happening in the street."

Despite Ghonim’s Arabic page coming out in support of the coup, Ghonim also bears Zahraa Said’s wrath for his silence since July 3. Ghonim "has not been supportive enough of the June 30 revolution," she says. “They should rename the pages, 'We Are All Muslim Brothers.'”

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