A spy with computer skill takes a job at one of the country's most secretive intelligence agencies with the intent to ferret out secrets and leak them. He then flees with a trove of stolen computer files, first to China and then on to Russia.
He leaks some information to journalists about US domestic surveillance programs as well as efforts targeting both rivals like China and allies in the European Union. But he says he's holding back the really good stuff as insurance against the US doing him harm. An ally of his says that if everything the fugitive knows becomes public it could be the US government's "worst nightmare." The latest disclosure is that he's seeking political asylum – in Russia.
Spy thriller stuff, no?
But to some, media and public interest in the tale of Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who the above paragraphs describe, is a sign of a US media that fawns over and protects the establishment. Chief in pushing this line has been Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter who first broke stories provided by Mr. Snowden about the NSA's data collection program in the US and use of secret warrants to collect vast amounts of metadata surrounding the phone calls of millions of Americans.
Greenwald frequently dismisses other reporters as tools of the US government and has complained that coverage of Snowden has been used as a way to avoid writing about the NSA's spying programs. For instance, on Monday he said, "I knew when I began reporting the (NSA) story, that the technique that the US government uses – and its media allies use – against anybody who discloses what they're doing in the dark is to distract attention away from the contents of the revelations"; and, "If you’re a loyalist of the Obama administration, as most of MSNBC is, you are desperate to distract attention away from these disclosures."
In June, shortly after he and a filmmaker released a video interview with Snowden, he suggested that having concerns about Snowden's actions isn't compatible with being a reporter.
"I don’t think there’s any problem with people who want to criticize what [Snowden] did on the merits, although I think it’s extremely strange that people who call themselves journalists find it more contemptible than almost anything when someone steps forward and brings transparency to what the government is doing,” Greenwald said. “That’s supposed to be their jobs. They should be in the lead cheering for that. But, so be it. If they decide that disclosure and transparency are bad things, I think it’s odd that they call themselves journalists, but they have the right to do that.”
I, like many Americans, am concerned about expanding government surveillance, particularly the practice of gobbling up vast amounts of data on people without a specific warrant. I wrote after Greenwald's first big scoop from Snowden of the "Orwellian overtones" of domestic surveillance, of the potential threat to liberty posed by modern technology coupled with insufficiently scrutinized spy agencies – and of the fact that since 9/11, US citizens have conceded a lot of privacy over their fear of terrorism.
But Snowden himself, his actions and motivations, aren't just interesting from a spy thriller perspective. An NSA employee who violated his privacy agreements is now said to be in possession of documents that allegedly can do great harm to the US government, and he gets to decide whether they're released or not. He's currently in Russia, where today he formally sought termporary asylum, according to Wikileaks, which is acting as his legal adviser.
Snowden's apparent commitment to an anti-secrecy agenda is a reminder of a growing trend among younger, technologically savvy citizens, and has broad implications (Joshua Foust wrote an excellent piece a few weeks ago on "hacker ethics shifting into mainstream politics") for how an outsourced, computer-reliant spying infrastructure will be managed going forward.
And while he may or may not be a whistleblower with his disclosures about NSA domestic surveillance (the ACLU has filed a legal challenge to the NSA's phone record collections on the grounds that it is unconstitutional), his decision to reveal details about NSA spying on other countries indicates a willingness to go far beyond that. While Greenwald and Snowden said the principal reason for the leaks was preserving US liberty, disclosures about intelligence collection methods in China, Brazil, and Europe have nothing to do with that. What might, in the fullness of time, he decide to disclose next?
Then there is what the Guardian's Peter Beaumont calls Snowden's apparently "dangerous moral relativism." In a statement issued on Friday, Snowden said: "Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador have my gratitude and respect for being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless." Beaumont rightly points out that the human rights record of Russia, in particular, is atrocious, and that "in providing a public relations coup for Putin, Snowden has provided cover for a gross and serial human rights-violating state."
Ecuador and Venezuela's own human rights records and attitude toward freedom of speech are nothing to write home about, either. To praise these countries "as first to stand up against human rights violations" against all evidence to the contrary is not reassuring about Snowden's judgment.
And apparently, that judgment is very important for the US government. This is what Greenwald told Argentina's La Nacion daily over the weekend, according to a translation made by Reuters:
"Snowden has enough information to cause harm to the US government in a single minute than any other person has ever had," Greenwald said. "The US government should be on its knees every day begging that nothing happen to Snowden, because if something does happen to him, all the information will be revealed and it could be its worst nightmare."
At around the same time, Greenwald gave an interview with the Associated Press in which he said that Snowden has "literally thousands of documents" that are "basically the instruction manual for how the NSA is built." He also said that in his estimation, while the documents would be harmful to the US government, they would not be harmful to the American people. He hasn't been forthcoming on what, exactly, would be released if something happened to Snowden or who precisely would get to decide. He told the AP:
"It's not just a matter of, if he dies, things get released, it's more nuanced than that. It's really just a way to protect himself against extremely rogue behavior on the part of the United States, by which I mean violent actions toward him, designed to end his life, and it's just a way to ensure that nobody feels incentivized to do that."
Greenwald took sharp issue with Reuters translation of his interview in a column for the Guardian subtitled "the latest effort to distract attention from the NSA revelations is more absurd than most." Greenwald alleges his interview had been "distorted" by Reuters and said that Snowden's plan to have information released if he's killed isn't a form of threat. Greenwald writes:
That Snowden has created some sort of "dead man's switch" – whereby documents get released in the event that he is killed by the US government – was previously reported weeks ago, and Snowden himself has strongly implied much the same thing. That doesn't mean he thinks the US government is attempting to kill him – he doesn't – just that he's taken precautions against all eventualities, including that one (just incidentally, the notion that a government that has spent the last decade invading, bombing, torturing, rendering, kidnapping, imprisoning without charges, droning, partnering with the worst dictators and murderers, and targeting its own citizens for assassination would be above such conduct is charmingly quaint).
Greenwald can seek to define this as "not a threat," but not everyone will agree.
The whole question about whether Snowden should be granted asylum, something Greenwald supports, breaks on whether you believe the US has the right to demand its spies keep their secrecy agreements and whether prosecution for breaking that law amounts to "persecution." I'm in the camp that believes secrecy is frequently necessary, and that spying is both a useful and necessary tool for national security. Should there be limits on both? Of course.
But veiled threats from Snowden, via intermediaries, are unsettling. While damaging disclosures are now only threatened in the highly unlikely event of a US assassination of Snowden, he very well may change his mind if a time comes when it looks possible that he might be extradited to the US to stand trial.
He's already shown a willingness to use the information at his fingertips to advance his personal agenda. In June, Snowden provided details of NSA computer spying on China and Hong Kong – something that is squarely in the NSA's job description. Greenwald said then he thought "what motivated that leak [by Snowden] was a need to ingratiate himself to the people of Hong Kong and China." At the time, Snowden was hoping for Hong Kong to grant him political asylum.
So Snowden makes for more than irresistibly great copy. He has information that's vital to the foreign spying programs of the US, and the chances that he can and will use it as bargaining chips with foreign powers are real. And the US government, at least in theory, responds to the will of the people via their elected representatives. Who does Snowden answer to?
When the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was elected president in June 2012, many wondered if it heralded a transformational shift for Egypt, and perhaps for the whole region. After all, Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous country and is home to the Muslim Brotherhood, the granddaddy of the modern Islamist movements that emerged in the early 20th century.
The Brothers' victory, amid a time when old secular dictatorships seemed consigned to extinction, could prove that 'Islam is the solution' (the Brotherhood's slogan) after all, and many articles and commentators predicted their brand of political Islam would come to the fore across the Arab Middle East.
A little more than a year later, of course, Mr. Morsi is under house arrest, senior Brotherhood leaders are being hounded by the Egyptian military and court system, and millions of Egyptians who voted for Morsi appear to have turned on him. The coup was prompted by street protests against the Brotherhood that dwarfed the ones that convinced the top brass to dump President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, and the speed with which support bled from the Brotherhood was indeed stunning.
A headline in the Turkish Newspaper Milliyet (translated by Al-Monitor) last week asked, "With Fall of Political Islam, Are Fault Lines Emerging in Moderate Islam?" The day after the coup, the London Review of Books carried a post titled "The End of Islamism?" and the author answers "yes" to his question:
"It turns out that Morsi’s tenure was a blessing in disguise. If he had lost the presidency, Islamism would have remained the path not taken. But today, millions of Muslims have voted with their feet against Islamist rule. Those who grieve over this affront to ballot box democracy forget that Egypt, like any new democracy, has every right to seek popular consensus on the basic tenets of its future political system. Revolutionary France went through five republics before settling into the present order, and America needed a civil war to adjust its democratic path. It is not uncommon in the history of revolutions for coups to pave the way or seal the fate of popular uprisings. Those who see nothing beyond a military coup are simply blind. I asked the old, bearded man standing next to me in Tahrir Square why he joined the protests. ‘They promised us that Islam is the solution,’ he replied. ‘But under Muslim Brotherhood rule we saw neither Islam nor a solution.’ The country that invented Islamism may well be on its way to undoing the spell."
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has, of course, been overjoyed at Morsi's fall, locked as he is in a war for survival with rebels whom he has consistently sought to paint as Islamist terrorists. "What is happening in Egypt is the fall of so-called political Islam," Assad told a state newspaper on July 3. "This is the fate of anyone in the world who tries to use religion for political or factional interests."
Well, maybe. But is this really the death of political Islam, a modern ideology that has proven itself robust and adaptable over 80 years of frequently violent repression? Or even the death of the Egyptian Brotherhood? Despite a number of articles speculating so, this strikes me as not only a premature but unlikely conclusion.
A fickle mood
In Egypt, the public mood has been fickle. Mass protests in 2011 and 2012 decried military and police abuses, the use of military trials for civilians, and the military's running of the country for 16 months after Mubarak's downfall. Today, millions of Egyptians are singing the military's praises and cursing the Brothers as terrorists, traitors, and worse. All but forgotten was the murder of Khaled Said in 2010 by corrupt cops in Alexandria, an event that became a symbol of abuse and impunity under Egypt's long-running military dictatorship and proved the galvanizing factor in the street protests that drove Mubarak from power.
Who's to say, if Egypt's economy continues to deteriorate in the next year, that whatever amalgam of senior officers and civilian appointees are in charge won't be blamed for the country's troubles, and the crowd will look back toward the Brothers with rose-colored glasses? And while Morsi's year in power was by any measure a failure, it was only a year in power, and he inherited a mess that was decades in the making. It will be easy for the Brotherhood to argue that it failed not because its ideology was wrong, but because it wasn't given enough time.
“This had to play out this way, but it’s frustrating to me, as someone who is not a fan of the Islamist project, for Islamist rule of Egypt not to be allowed to completely fail on its own,” says Will McCants, a scholar of Islamist movements at the Center for Naval Analyses. “I worry that the coup has kind of short-circuited the process of the Islamists kind of hoisting themselves by their own petard and demonstrating that the ideology isn’t really fit for governance.”
And regionally, the impact of Morsi's election was probably always overstated.
While the Syrian brand of the Muslim Brotherhood has struggled, with Qatari support, to rebuild itself during the civil war (it was destroyed by Bashar al-Assad's father Hafez in the 1980s), jihadi groups who favor a much more authoritarian style of political Islam have made enormous inroads.
In Turkey and Tunisia, Islamists aren't going away
Turkey, where the Islamist AKP has faced protests of late, has nevertheless prospered under a decade of Islamist rule, and while Prime Minister Erdogan's party may suffer at the next election, the party isn't going anywhere.
Michael Hanna, a fellow at The Century Foundation in New York who closely follows regional politics, points to how Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda party handled Morsi's fall in Egypt.
"If you look at some of the reaction, I think the most instructive one is Ennahda," he says, pointing out that while they opposed the removal of Morsi, they took great pains to distance themselves from the Brotherhood. "You know, 'we decry this usurpation of the democratic process and, by the way, we here in Tunisia are nothing like the Muslim Brotherhood, we are inclusive, we listen to the people.' [Ennahda's] reaction reflected a sense that the Brotherhood had messed up and they’re not the Brotherhood."
Tunisia's leading Islamist party has been having problems of its own, but has also been far better at adaptation and compromise than Egypt's Brotherhood. The Tunisian Islamists don't appear to be going away any time soon.
In Syria, Hanna says members of the local Muslim Brotherhood were privately telling him last year that the arrogant manner in which Morsi and Co. were running Egypt was hurting their cause locally, since it was getting in the way of forming coalitions with religious minorities. But Salafi groups, backed with heaps of cash from donors in Gulf monarchies like Saudi Arabia and a battlefield zeal unmatched by other rebel units, continue to thrive.
In Egypt, too, the Brotherhood is not the only option. The Salafi Nour Party, which won about 7 percent of the seats in the 2012 parliamentary election, was largely cut out of power by the Brotherhood, and when the time came supported the removal of Morsi. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, they remain untarnished by any failings while in power.
"It’s been fascinating to watch particularly in Egypt, but across the region, the Salafis really enjoy playing spoiler and sniping from the wings because they don’t have really any pretense towards a mass political party," says McCants. "My hope is that the Egyptian Broterhood looks at what happens and says 'OK, the big mistake we made was not being inclusive enough.' They didn’t even include Nour, which would have made a good ally if they’d given them some cabinet appointments, and they didn’t."
Mr. McCants says his concern is that the Brothers will go the other way. "What they’re going to do I’m afraid is conclude that what’s better for us is to be much more serious about implementing Islamic law" and perhaps start building alliances with militant groups.
"My worry is that they learn to be far more intransigent, they learn to more strenuously cultivate ties to violent actors so they provide a credible threat to their opponents and state security. I don’t think they go back to grassroots, sort of (preaching and social outreach). I think I worry that it’s going to be a far harder Brotherhood that emerges out of this than the one we've seen in the recent past."
US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns is arriving in Cairo today for a three day visit, as protests over the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi continue to rock Cairo, pledges of financial support from Gulf monarchies uncomfortable with the precedent of Islamists coming to power via elections continue to pour in, and question marks abound over how a new transition plan can work in a country so divided.
In a brief statement, the State Department wrote that Burns will stay in Cairo until July 16 and "will meet with interim government officials as well as civil society and business leaders. In all these meetings, he will underscore US support for the Egyptian people, an end to all violence, and a transition leading to an inclusive, democratically-elected civilian government."
That's a nice sentiment, but getting there will not be easy - particularly with a Muslim Brotherhood that is wounded but still potent, and the way Egypt's current military-backed government is seeking to cut off their avenues for political participation.
Army chief Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi said today in a posting on the military's Facebook page that he'd offered Morsi a way out - a referendum on his rule - that the former president rejected, effectively leaving him and the military little choice but to depose the president on July 3 in "the service of the people." That could well be true - Morsi and the Brotherhood had grown convinced that the military was moving with elements of the old regime to depose them, and probably assumed that any such exercise would be fixed against them.
But if so, they badly miscalculated the depth of antipathy towards the president that had developed on the street. His presidential victory was a narrow one over a former Mubarak minister in June 2012, and in the year since the economy had declined and the government's principle initiatives seemed mostly about entrenching the Brothers in power.
How else to explain his decision in June to appoint a former member of the terrorist group Gamaa al-Islamiyaa to be governor of Luxor? The group murdered 62 people, mostly foreign tourists at one of the Pharoahnic temples in Luxor, in 1997. The attack dealt a blow to tourism in Egypt for years and saw the Egyptian public turn sharply against the group. The group is understandably hated in the Luxor area - but its political party was also a backer of Morsi, and rewards were to be handed out.
It is simultaneously the case that a coalition of people, including officers, who had prospered under Mubarak wanted Morsi out and that millions of average Egyptians were alarmed by Morsi's performance, and the looming reality of a movement in power that ultimately wants Islamic sharia to be the law of the land. Now it is the military pulling the strings, albiet indirectly with its decision to appoint a president, a judge and political neophyte, who in turn has started naming cabinet positions.
And it will be the military, used for decades to box in and harass Muslim Brotherhood leaders, who will decide how much space it will have to operate in the next round of political change. Gen. Sisi insisted today that all parties would be allowed to participate in "political life" but there are signs that he didn't really mean it.
Today, Egypt's public prosecutor froze the assets of some of the Brotherhood's most important leaders, including Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie, key strategist and financial backer Khairat al-Shater, and Saad al-Katani, the leader of the Brotherhood's official political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party. Mr. Morsi remains under house arrest and there are warrants for a number of other senior Brotherhood leaders. The effort to go after Mr. Shater is particularly interesting since he's used his vast wealth and international contacts to finance the group, and was initially the Brotherhood's choice to run for president, though was disqualified for a past conviction for his political activities during the Mubarak era.
The successful coup playbook has neutering the deposed government as the first order of business following their removal from power, and it's hard to see how that isn't what's happening in Egypt now. Yesterday, Reuters reported that Egypt had begun a criminal investigation into Morsi, Badie and 7 other Brotherhood leaders on allegations of spying for foreign powers and inciting violence. The worst violence in the latest round of upheaval has come from the military, with at least 50 Muslim Brotherhood protesters gunned down outside a Republican Guard office in Cairo on July 8.
All of these announcements of investigations, house arrests, and seizing of money could perhaps be a temporary ploy, a public threat combined with private words to Brotherhood leaders that if they'll pull their supporters off the streets, then the army will back off.
But in public at least, the Brotherhood shows no signs of wavering - with spokesmen continuing the deride the "illegitimate" coup and calling for protests. And while the organization has lost the presidency for now, it still remains Egypt's largest grass roots organization, with a history of political organization that few if any forces in Egypt can match. Smooth going in Egypt right now without the Brotherhood involved somehow is hard to imagine.
This is the political scene that will greet Secretary Burns as he travels around Cairo tomorrow. With the US keeping military aid off the table for now, its care in never calling the coup a "coup," and an absence of trust for America across the political spectrum, it's unclear what if anything his visit could accomplish.
Al Jazeera carried a long article on its English language website yesterday designed to create the impression that the US bought and paid for the mass street protests that led Egypt's military to kick President Mohamed Morsi from office on July 3.
The piece, "Exclusive: US bankrolled anti-Morsi activists," is filled with breathless prose about what "documents obtained" reveal about how the "US channeled funding through a State Department programme to promote democracy in the Middle East region. This programme vigorously supported activists and politicians who have fomented unrest in Egypt."
The framing of the story is to suggest that the US helped plan and finance the events that led to the military coup in Egypt.
There's just one problem. All of the documents obtained refer to financing to secular groups in Egypt in 2011 and before. That puts the funding before Mr. Morsi even came to power. The piece fails to mention that the offices of NGOs funded by the US government's National Endowment for Democracy (NED) were ordered shut in Egypt in 2011, when Egypt was still run by a military junta.
Before then the US government's democracy promotion program was fairly limited, with groups conducting political party training with all comers, from various secular groups to the Muslim Brotherhood to the Salafi parties.
The Egyptian state has always been hostile to foreign, particularly US democracy funding, no matter who's in charge. The reason for this is fairly straightforward – its ultimate object is to make it harder for the powers that be to stay that way.
The Al Jazeera story goes on to say that "NED has removed public access to its Egyptian grant recipients in 2011 and 2012 from its website. NED officials didn't respond to repeated interview requests."
Looks like they've got something to hide, huh? Well, what the piece fails to mention is that members of Egyptian civil society organizations who received US and other foreign funding were threatened with jail for accepting the cash after the NGO raids in 2011.
Egypt, from the time the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces were in power, put 43 foreign and local NGO employees on trial for the crime of accepting US, German, and other foreign money. Helping grant recipients avoid jail time seems responsible to me. At any rate, President Morsi's government allowed the trials to go forward after he came to power, and the 43 defendants were all given jail sentences at the start of June.
Did some anti-Morsi people get US money in 2011 (when nobody cared about Morsi) and before? You betcha. Have some of the people who got US money engaged in heated, violent rhetoric? Yes (and so has the Muslim Brotherhood and, well, practically every political faction in Egypt). Might some still be getting US money – it's possible. But the article also neglects to mention the Tammarod ("Rebel") group that organized the mass protests against Morsi's rule.
This is not surprising coming from Al Jazeera, which is after all controlled by Qatar, a major Muslim Brotherhood backer that has used the network's Arabic language channel to support the movement. That editorial line has sullied the station's reputation, beloved by Egypt's Tahrir Square revolutionaries during the uprising against Mubarak, among the protesters who supported Morsi's downfall. For Al Jazeera the Muslim Brotherhood is the home team, and it's been as eager to demonize the opposition as the opposition (and the press that favors its views) have been to demonize the Brotherhood.
The US, of course, has managed to alienate everyone in Egypt (or maybe alienating everyone in the Middle East is just inevitable for the US.) Posters attacking US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Paterson were common at the protests that started June 30 and culminated in Morsi's downfall. One popular one showed Ambassador Patterson and President Obama side by side saying the pair "support terrorism in Egypt."
The Brotherhood's opponents, you see, came to the conclusion that the Muslim Brotherhood was in cahoots with the US and that the US had backed Morsi's rise to power over the will of the "people."
The impression was helped along by a tone-deaf speech Patterson delivered on June 18, in which she appeared to call for the anti-Morsi protests to be called off. "Because many in the Egyptian Government are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood or its Freedom and Justice Party, the US Government must work with them," she said then. "Some say that street action will produce better results than elections. To be honest, my government and I are deeply skeptical."
But the conspiracies about US support for the Muslim Brotherhood have been around since their strong showing in parliamentary elections in 2012.
How conspiratorial? al-Dustour, a newspaper close to a secularist party staunchly opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood carried a headline after Morsi's fall that said "Egypt has crushed the Zionist, American and Muslim Brotherhood's lobby with the ouster of Morsi."
This is all a bit of what goes around, comes around. During the 2011 uprising against Mubarak, the protesters in Tahrir Square and elsewhere were angry that the US dragged its feet on abandoning support for Mubarak, just as state TV and Mubarak officials constantly complained of the meddling of "foreign hands" and sought to describe the protesters as disloyal Egyptians whipped up by US and other foreign cash, not by belief.
The US has been fairly consistent in its policy throughout all of this. Keep the money pipeline to Egypt's military, whether they're in charge or not, flowing. The US-supported Mubarak until his fall was inevitable, then dumped him. The US supported SCAF while it ruled Egypt, and it supported President Morsi during his year in power until, like Mubarak, his fall became inevitable. And now the US will back the new promised transitional process. It made that abundantly clear yesterday, when the US said a scheduled delivery of four F-16 fighters would go ahead as promised.
Egyptian journalist and Cairo resident Sarah Carr writes today about how Egyptian's are talking past each other and focused far more on the clearly evil/illegitimate aspirations of their opponents than on healing national wounds. When you keep reading the word "polarization" in articles about Egypt, this is what it means.
Egyptian politics and society in general are currently split along identity lines in a way that they have never been over the last three years. This problem is so chronic that the merits or flaws of an argument are almost entirely determined by who is making the argument, considered through a haze of fury and suspicion.
For the past week, I have been trundling between the pro- and anti-Morsi protests. It is like traveling between two planets. The pro-camp has significantly more men than woman — although there are women and children there — and it lacks the social diversity of the anti-camp. I have never seen one unveiled woman who is not a journalist there. I have never met a Christian or encountered any other journalist who has met one there (it is important to note that pro-Morsi protesters and pro-Morsi media have often claimed that there are Christians attending their sit-in). At the same time, they also allege that the church was behind the former Mubarak regime-US-Zionist plot to oust Morsi.
The point is that the pro-Morsi crowd is largely homogenous. Their opponents use this homogeneity as evidence that the MB is, at best, an organization that has failed to market itself to non-supporters; and, at worst, a closed group unconcerned with non-members.
While the MB’s opposition might be correct in this assertion, many go one step further. They suggest that Morsi supporters are all members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and all unthinking androids programmed by the Supreme Guide. The popular derogatory term for them is khirfan (sheep). The aim here is to dehumanize and deny agency, much in the same way the Muslim Brotherhood dismiss their opponents as kuffar (infidels) or feloul (Mubarak regime beneficiaries or loyalists).
Carr, who voted for Morsi - reckoning he was a better option than former Mubarak servant Ahmed Shafiq, who came in second - dislikes the Muslim Brotherhood's project for Egypt (she helps run a translation blog, "Muslim Brotherhood in English," that focuses on the groups often outrageous and inflammatory comments) and Morsi's behavior, particularly tolerating extreme sectarian rhetoric, will in power. Nevertheless she worries about the damage done by a resurgent military establishment:
My position on events pre-June 30 has not been changed by events since: The Muslim Brotherhood should have been left to fail as they had not (yet) committed an act justifying Morsi’s removal by the military. The price Egypt has paid and will pay for the consequences of this decision are too high. It has created a generation of Islamists who genuinely believe that democracy does not include them. The post-June 30 fallout reaffirms this belief, especially with Islamist channels and newspapers closed down, as well as leaders detained and held incommunicado, apparently pursuant to an executive decision. For 30 years, Mubarak told them that due process is not for them, and a popular revolution is confirming that. It is Egyptian society that will pay the price of the grievances this causes, and the fact that, with a silenced media and no coverage from independent outlets, they have been left with virtually no channels to get their voice heard.
A clash between members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military that deposed President Mohamed Morsi last week left at least 51 civilians dead in Cairo today and Egypt's so-called democratic transition on the brink of catastrophic failure.
Unfolding events have gone from bad to worse since the massive June 30 protests against Muslim Brotherhood rule prompted the Egyptian military – the most powerful arbiter of the nation's politics since 1952 – to depose the country's first democratically elected leader and take power once more.
Supporters of the action insist that Egypt's army merely acted as an instrument of the will of the "people," who have withdrawn support from Morsi in the year since he won 51 percent of the presidential vote over a longtime aide to the deposed Hosni Mubarak. Though it's hard to say whether a majority of Egyptians support what happened, its clear that vast numbers do and that Morsi's position had become untenable.
But the attempts to portray this all as a harmless Nerf coup – an unfortunately necessary reset of a democratic transition by the Egyptian military – should stop today. The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party called for an intifada (uprising) against the military in response to the killings today. Many of its millions of supporters are likely to heed that call.
The Brotherhood deaths fall into the same category as the two dozen largely Coptic Christian protesters shot and crushed under the treads of army personnel carriers in 2011 or of the army's use of electric shock and sexual assault (so called "virginity tests") against young democracy protesters at Tahrir Square in May of that year. They were all seen as threats to public order, as the military defines it.
That the military takeover is wildly popular in some quarters doesn't make it any less of a military takeover, or lessen the danger of a swelling wave of violence in Egypt. Quite the contrary.
The Egyptian military is a force for the status quo and its officers have a paternalistic and authoritarian vision of how Egyptian society should be governed. It does not seem particularly interested in governing directly, but has remained insistent that its prerogatives should not be infringed upon by any civilian politicians and that it should be left free to run its vast network of factory and property interests, many of which are staffed by conscript labor.
The deposed President Morsi knew this. His inaugural address was fawning in its praise of the military and the police, and the constitution his Muslim Brotherhood passed while in power rewrote the history of Egypt's Jan. 25 uprising by praising the military as leading Egypt's "revolution" (in fact, the military stuck with Mubarak until the weight of protesters on the streets showed he couldn't rule anymore).
The Brotherhood's constitution, suspended by the military last week, also kept the military budget out of civilian oversight and gave the military the power to try civilians in its own courts for "crimes that harm the Armed Forces." They were remarkable concessions from an Islamist movement whose leaders had been jailed and tortured by Egypt's military for decades, but necessary ones if Morsi was to govern. "You get to rule if you leave us alone and you keep the situation calm" was the deal.
Well, the hundreds of thousands that took to the streets in June, crowds that may well have surpassed those that drove Mubarak from power, were all the evidence the military needed that Morsi had failed to live up to his end of the bargain.
While that's analogous to what happened on Feb. 11, 2011, when, with US blessing, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) bowed to the inevitable and removed Mubarak, the context is dramatically different. Then, Egyptians were aware of meaningful differences between Islamist and more secular approaches to government, but insisted that love of country and commitment to democracy would make compromise possible. There were putting decades of military dictatorship behind them and would build a new Egypt together.
Now, Egyptians in various camps are at each others' throats. The anti-Brotherhood crowds were rapturous over an Air Force flyover yesterday and have been fulsome in their praise of the military, who they seem to believe is going to deliver a robust democracy to Egypt (never mind they spent the better part of the last 60 years fighting against that). On social media websites like Twitter and Facebook, over-the-top rhetoric is flying back and forth, as it is on Egyptian television stations.
Ahead of a military press conference this afternoon, a correspondent for Al Jazeera Arabic, which has generally been pro-Brotherhood in its coverage of Egypt, was hounded out of the room by shrieking pro-military Egyptian reporters. CNN had to pull its crew off the streets yesterday after protesters enraged by the network's coverage began issuing threats. That anti-Brotherhood people appear to think the military can do no wrong.
The Brothers, of course, feel betrayed – their election victory was stolen from them by their old military foes, whose pockets are brimming with US aid. More clashes and even more polarization seem inevitable.
Amid this, a national consensus on a way forward is simply not going to materialize. A profoundly anti-democratic institution is once again running Egypt's transition with the joyful acquiescence of one of the country's two principle political camps.
Such circumstances don't usually end well.
Military-backed dictatorship in Egypt stretched from Hosni Mubarak to Anwar Sadat to Abdel Gamal Nasser, and when it finally ended on Feb. 11, 2011, it was the generals themselves who delivered the coup de grâce.
It was a stunning achievement for street power in Egypt, something unthinkable a few months prior, when the aging Mr. Mubarak had engineered the most crooked election in Egyptian history (no mean feat).
Just two-and-a-half years later, street power has won again – with the generals once more proving decisive. In a national address, Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, Morsi's appointed defense minister and member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, said President Mohamed Morsi had rejected every effort at reconciliation and compromise in recent days – as sometimes violent protests swept the capital – and announced that a new government of technocratic national unity under the supervision of the Supreme Constitutional Court will soon be formed.
Framed by the Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II, Imam of Al Azhar Ahmad al-Tayeb, secular opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei, and a number of fellow generals, General Sissi indicated that the military had been pushed to this decision by Morsi's failings. His words indicate that the military does not want to be front-and-center, as it was for nearly a year after Mubarak was deposed, and reaffirmed the impression that while the military wants substantial power and autonomy in the new Egypt, it is not interested in being on the hook for governing directly.
Much the same was said in Feb. 2011, but the context is starkly different. It's one thing for a military to abandon their dictator and begin to look at opening the political process, an event that was wildly popular across the Egyptian public. It is quite another to depose the only and first democratically elected president of Egypt at a time when the country is sharply divided.
A split screen on Al Jazeera English shortly after his remarks ably illustrates that story. On one side, ecstatic and chanting anti-Morsi protesters in Tahrir Square, dozens of fireworks bursting overhead waving Egyptian flags. The other side depicts somber and edgily silent Muslim Brotherhood supporters elsewhere in Cairo, confused about what to do next.
Is this a military coup? It sure looks like one, and the military's decision was decisive. Many Morsi opponents have been angry at this framing, pointing to the vast crowds in Cairo and elsewhere as evidence that the military's help would merely be to carry out the will of the people.
But the fact remains that a narrow majority of Egypt's 80 million people voted for Morsi a little over a year ago. And while many of those voters have since abandoned him, angry at his heavy-handed governance, a Constitution that doesn't protect basic freedoms, and his failure to turn a collapsing economy around, there are still millions of supporters of both the president and the venerable Islamist movement to which he belongs.
Their will was not done today, and avoiding bloodshed and convincing them that they, too, have a voice in Egypt's future is the crucial and immediate work of the next few days. The danger? Reprisals from anti-Brotherhood protesters or the temptation of the victorious politicians to behave in as high-handed and dismissive way toward the Brotherhood as Morsi did in power.
Right thing for Egypt?
A more interesting question is whether this coup – or managed transition, or whatever you chose to call it – is the right thing for Egypt at this juncture. While Americans and many in the West are conditioned to see all military coups as bad, Egypt's politics had ground to a standstill and the country itself was becoming ungovernable, for anyone.
Did Morsi have a democratic mandate of sorts? Unquestionably. But vast amounts of good will were squandered by him, and every effort to broaden political participation and reach compromises with people who favor a more liberal democracy failed in the past year.
With huge numbers of Egyptians on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Mahallah, and a number of other cities and the prospect of sporadic violence turning into something much uglier, something had to give.
That's what just happened.
Now the job is to do what Egypt writ large has failed to do since 2011: Build a national consensus around a new Constitution and a new political approach, get the legal ducks in a row so that the farce of holding a Parliamentary election only to have its results stricken down by a Mubarak-era court is not repeated, and to build robust protections of civil liberties into the system at the front end so that Egyptians will still feel they have some kind of voice in their nation even when their favored parties and candidates lose elections.
Egypt in the next few days will be on a knife's edge: What Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood's Guidance Council say to their supporters, and how the interim government reaches out to them, will determine whether Egypt transition 2.0 has a chance at succeeding.
If not, we could be seeing a lot more of events like the one today in the coming years. The Muslim Brotherhood had first shot. They failed, both because of their own shortcomings and the enormity of the task, given the legacy of dictatorship and state of the economy. Egypt's so-called liberals now have a second shot – with the board set in a far more difficult position than it was 28 months ago.
Amid unprecedented protests that had begun three days before, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak gave a defiant speech that complained of foreign hands seeking to sow chaos in the country and undermine what he considered to be his own legitimacy as leader.
The tone deaf appeal enraged protesters and in hindsight removed what little hope he had at that point of hanging on to power. As the protests unfolded the US slowly distanced itself from Mr. Mubarak. On Jan. 27, Vice President Joe Biden had insisted that Mubarak wasn't a dictator and that he should remain in power. Two days earlier, on Jan. 25, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had declared Egypt and its government "stable."
But after Mubarak's speech, the US adopted a new tone. Then State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley took to twitter the next day. "The Egyptian government can’t reshuffle the deck and then stand pat. President Mubarak’s words pledging reform must be followed by action."
On Jan. 30, Ms. Clinton said:
"We have made very clear that the concrete steps for democratic and economic reform that President Mubarak mentioned in his speech have to be acted on... there has to be a commitment by whoever is in the government that they will engage in a national dialogue with the people of Egypt, with the aim at taking actions that will meet the legitimate grievances of the Egyptian people for more participation... this is a very serious time for Egypt, and we are going to do all that we can to support an orderly transition."
Yesterday, Egypt President Mohamed Morsi delivered a speech in which he dismissed the throngs of protesters as being manipulated by foreign hands seeking to sow chaos in Egypt, and referred repeatedly to what he regards as his legitimacy as the leader of Egypt. His remarks infuriated protesters, who continue to be out in force in Cairo and other cities.
Today State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, "We feel there was an absence of significant specific steps in Morsi's statement. He must do more to be truly responsive to the concerns of the Eygptian people.... We're on the side of the Egyptian people. We have been in touch with all sides – the opposition, with the government, with the military – and we will continue to be. But to alleviate any concerns or assumptions, we are not – we have not taken sides.
It's been about an hour since the Egyptian military's deadline for President Mohamed Morsi to calm the situation came and went and no word yet from the generals. Meanwhile, there are reports of troops moving in the streets, wild (and unsubstantiated) rumors of arrests of senior Muslim Brotherhood members, and jubilant, full-throated crowds in Tahrir Square and around the country demanding Morsi resign.
Morsi delivered a defiant national address last night in which he repeatedly insisted that only he had the democratic legitimacy to rule Egypt and offered not even a crumb of concession to his opponents – whose numbers on the streets now match, if not surpass, the crowds that led the military to abandon Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
But while Mr. Mubarak's power base largely lay in the support of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the bureaucracy he controlled, the Brotherhood remains the oldest and largest grassroots organization in Egypt. The movement's cadres delivered the presidency to Morsi, and he still has millions of stalwarts behind him.
Today, officials around Morsi and the Brotherhood appear to be gambling that they can face down the military with their own street power and by appealing to the democratic victory of an election held about a year ago. They keep referring to a military coup and hinting at the possibility of horrible bloodshed if events continue to unfold as they are. But any hopes that foreign powers like the US will line up to support them in response to this framing are fading fast.
This afternoon Essam al-Haddad, Morsi's national security adviser, issued a statement in English on his Facebook page that was both alarmist and alarming, framing the Brotherhood's political opponents as hell-bent on supporting a military coup and warning that the results will be global turmoil.
"As I write these lines I am fully aware that these may be the last lines I get to post on this page," he begins. "For the sake of Egypt and for historical accuracy, let’s call what is happening by its real name: Military coup."
His alarm, from the Brotherhood's perspective, is not misplaced. For decades the organization's leaders endured jail and torture at the hands of military-backed regimes, and fear for their own fate if the military once again seizes power is natural. His statement also contains a warning, or perhaps a veiled threat, to both Egyptian opponents and the foreign community; that the very idea of democratic change will be discredited among devout Muslims the world over:
Today only one thing matters. In this day and age no military coup can succeed in the face of sizeable popular force without considerable bloodshed. Who among you is ready to shoulder that blame?
I am fully aware of the Egyptian media that has already attempted to frame (the Brotherhood) for every act of violence that has taken place in Egypt since January 2011. I am sure that you are tempted to believe this. But it will not be easy.
There are still people in Egypt who believe in their right to make a democratic choice. Hundreds of thousands of them have gathered in support of democracy and the Presidency. And they will not leave in the face of this attack. To move them, there will have to be violence. It will either come from the army, the police, or the hired mercenaries. Either way there will be considerable bloodshed. And the message will resonate throughout the Muslim World loud and clear: democracy is not for Muslims.
I do not need to explain in detail the worldwide catastrophic ramifications of this message. In the last week there has been every attempt to issue a counter narrative that this is just scaremongering and that the crushing of Egypt’s nascent democracy can be managed.
Mr. Haddad also took a veiled swipe at the US and others as hypocrites, and insisted the course should be stayed until the next regularly scheduled presidential election (four years from now).
"In the last year we have been castigated by foreign governments, foreign media, and rights groups whenever our reforms in the areas of rights and freedoms did not keep pace with the ambitions of some or adhere exactly to the forms used in other cultures," he writes. "The silence of all of those voices with an impending military coup is hypocritical and that hypocrisy will not be lost on a large swathe of Egyptians, Arabs and Muslims. Many have seen fit in these last months to lecture us on how democracy is more than just the ballot box. That may indeed be true. But what is definitely true is that there is no democracy without the ballot box."
The organized Egyptian opposition, the National Salvation Front among them, are in fact calling for fresh elections, and complain that the way Egypt's flawed constitution was rushed through by Morsi and his allies, with hardly any input from broader Egyptian society, was hardly democratic. They certainly seem to want the military to step in – but that's for what they hope is a stewardship role to fresh elections, a fresh constitutional process, and some way to guide Egypt from its current impasse.
He isn't the only one with those kinds of warnings. This afternoon, Muslim Brotherhood and Freedom and Justice Party spokesman Gehad al-Haddad expressed his own alarm in a series of tweets. After sharing the NSA's Facebook post he wrote
So if the road 2 change thru democracy & the ballot box get shuts by military muscle. What options r we inviting the ppl 2 take 4 change ?— Gehad El-Haddad (@gelhaddad) July 3, 2013
There has been no specific threat of violence, and the Brotherhood insists their counter-protests are and will remain peaceful. But every indication is they're not leaving without a fight, of one kind or another.
Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi is the only politician in the country who has any sort of a democratic mandate, having won a tight presidential race last year. But today, it's hard to imagine him surviving much longer – or to see that so-called mandate as worth much anymore.
The politically powerful army has issued an ultimatum, vast crowds calling for his downfall continue to seethe around the presidential palace in Cairo, and in a year he has gone from a virtual unknown in Egypt's politics to its most divisive figure.
While his election was hailed as a democratic victory in many quarters, the fact is that Egypt has failed so far in its experiment to build a more inclusive brand of governance since the long-standing military dictatorship ended in Feb. 2011. An elected parliament was dissolved by court order, and while Morsi converted the Shura Council – a ceremonial upper house that only 7 percent of Egyptians turned out to vote for – into a legislature, that has fooled no one. The body has no popular support and in practice has been used to do whatever Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood he hails from want.
Since Morsi's election, the US has been oddly supportive of Morsi, muted in its criticism even when his government has prosecuted American NGO workers dispatched to Egypt to work on democracy promotion. Though the message of the Obama administration this week has been that "democracy" is about far more than elections, for much of the past year it has given the opposite impression.
While the fall of Mubarak and events across the region since late 2010 have made it clear that the old ways of doing business in the Middle East are no longer workable, the US has continued to fall back on old positions and postures as it gropes for something resembling a coherent policy. On Jan. 25, 2011 as Egyptians poured into the streets, signalling the final days for the dictatorship, then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton insisted there was nothing to see. "Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable," she said then.
Below is a timeline of statements and actions from the administration on President Morsi and Egypt's transition, which until very recently have carried the same whistling past the graveyard flavor of Ms. Clinton's 2011 remark.
In "anonymous" remarks senior Obama administration officials began backing away from Morsi, saying that Obama has urged the president to hold new elections "soon."
“Our commitment to Egypt has never been around any particular individual or party,” Obama said on a trip to Tanzania. “Our commitment has been to a process.... The U.S. government’s attitude has been, we would deal with a democratically elected government,” said Obama. “Democracy is not just about elections — it’s also about, how are you working with an opposition.”
June 18: US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson delivered a speech in Cairo to, she said, "set the record straight" on America's relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly the popular conspiracy theory that the US had somehow engineered Morsi's rise to power. But her insistence that the elected president must be respected, dismissal of street protests as useful or appropriate, and failure to offer any criticism of either Morsi or the Brotherhood enraged Morsi's opponents. "This is the government that you and your fellow citizens elected. Even if you voted for others, I don’t think the elected nature of this government is seriously in doubt," she said. The speech also convinced critics that the US was indeed favoring the Brothers. "Some say that street action will produce better results than elections. To be honest, my government and I are deeply skeptical," she said.
Ms. Patterson also put the US firmly in the camp of "stability" over change in her speech, mirroring US policies in Egypt and across the region for decades. "Egypt needs stability to get its economic house in order, and more violence on the streets will do little more than add new names to the lists of martyrs. Instead, I recommend Egyptians get organized. Join or start a political party that reflects your values and aspirations. Egyptians need to know a better path forward. This will take time. You will have to roll up your sleeves and work hard. Progress will be slow and you often will feel frustrated. But there is no other way." She failed to mention the guilty verdicts for democracy NGO workers just a few weeks before.
June 4: Egypt sentenced 43 Egyptians and foreigners, some of them Americans, to jail for the crime of working with democracy promotion NGOs (among them the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, which receive most of their funding from the US government). Secretary of State John Kerry said the US "is deeply concerned by the guilty verdicts and sentences" and that the verdict was "contrary to the universal principle of freedom of association and is incompatible with the transition to democracy." He went on to "urge the Government of Egypt to work with civic groups as they respond to the Egyptian people’s aspirations for democracy as guaranteed in Egypt’s new constitution."
May 10: The Obama administration issues a waiver on military funding to Egypt, sidestepping restrictions imposed by Congress, which had sought to condition delivery of $1.3 billion in military aid on progress on human rights and democracy. Angry legislators said there was no way Egypt could have passed the certification process.
April 3: US comedian Jon Stewart, a friend of Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian comic who has patterned a wildly popular satirical TV show after Stewart's The Daily Show, did a bit on Morsi after the government arrested and questioned Youssef for the crime of "insulting religion" and President Morsi. Stewart's clip included video of Morsi from 2010 describing Jews as descended from apes and pigs and he made the point that the president hadn't been hauled up on "defamation of religion" charges. The US Embassy Cairo Twitter feed shared a link to the Stewart clip, writing "Video @TheDailyShow with Jon Stewart on @DrBassemYoussef." Morsi was furious and Ambassador Patterson responded by having the embassy Twitter account briefly suspended and deleted the offending tweet.
December 6, 2012: Alarmed by mass protests, which led to at least five deaths, over the constitution then being rushed to completion by Morsi and his aides, Obama called Morsi. A White House summary of the call reads:
President Obama called President Morsi today to express his deep concern about the deaths and injuries of protesters in Egypt. The President emphasized that all political leaders in Egypt should make clear to their supporters that violence is unacceptable. He welcomed President Morsi’s call for a dialogue with the opposition but stressed that such a dialogue should occur without preconditions. The President noted that the United States has also urged opposition leaders to join in this dialogue without preconditions. He reiterated the United States’ continued support for the Egyptian people and their transition to a democracy that respects the rights of all Egyptians. The President underscored that it is essential for Egyptian leaders across the political spectrum to put aside their differences and come together to agree on a path that will move Egypt forward.
Sept 13, 2012: In a Telemundo interview a day after a mob stormed the US Embassy in Cairo (at the same time as the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya) Obama said of Egypt: "I don't think that we would consider them an ally, but we don't consider them an enemy ... they were democratically elected. I think we are going to have to see how they respond to this incident, to see how they respond to maintaining the peace treaty with Israel.... What we’ve seen is that in some cases, they’ve said the right things and taken the right steps. In others, how they’ve responded to other events may not be aligned with some of our interests, so I think it’s still a work in progress." A White House spokesman soon clarified: "'Ally’ is a legal term of art. We don’t have a mutual defense treaty with Egypt like we do with our NATO allies. But as the President has said, Egypt is [a] long-standing and close partner of the United States, and we have built on that foundation by supporting Egypt’s transition to democracy and working with the new government."
June 24, 2012: Obama calls to congratulate Morsi on his victory. A White House summary of the conversation said Obama "underscored that the United States will continue to support Egypt’s transition to democracy and stand by the Egyptian people as they fulfill the promise of their revolution.... [Obama] emphasized his interest in working together with President-elect Morsi, on the basis of mutual respect, to advance the many shared interests between Egypt and the United States."