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The Background to the July 3, 2013, Military Coup in Egypt According to The New York Times


The greatest illusion about the cataclysmic events shaking Egypt is that, during the truncated one-year presidency of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian military had been forced to accept civilian rule and then vacate the political stage. 

How much did we get from the New York Times (and other mainstream papers) to think otherwise? What information, or misinformation, did the Times pass on to its readers, so that the events since late June of this year would not hit them like a freak summer storm? 

Back in August 2012, less than two months into Morsi's presidency, the media gave wide coverage to the dismissal of the two top military chiefs, Marshall Hussein Tantawi and General Sami Enan.[1] The reassuring assumption was that Morsi had brought the military to heel. What's more, Morsi was soon discovered to be a personable English-speaker, not a religious bigot – or so was the impression of foreign correspondents who interviewed him. Didn't he say “Go, Trojans!” in an interview with two of the Times' reporters,[2] as he reminisced “with a smile” about his happy days at the University of Southern California in the 1980's? And didn't he assure the Times reporters that it was his decision alone, as “commander of the armed forces,” to dismiss Tantawi and Enan, and not that the two latter had decided on their own to exit politics? 

Notwithstanding a few missteps for which he was duly scolded,[3] Morsi soon proved to be someone eager to accommodate the US, Israel, and IMF negotiators. A parade of US and other Western dignitaries called on Morsi in the few months after his election and came back reassured of his commitment to democracy and free-market capitalism – and, not to forget, the 1979 Peace Treaty with Israel. To a Times' reporter, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared:

 

“I was convinced that President Morsi is his own man, and that he is the president of all the Egyptian people and that he is truly committed to implement democracy here in Egypt.” [4]

 

Perhaps that was just polite diplomatic chitchat. Nonetheless, the Times article was gushing over the warm rapport between Morsi and Panetta. 

As for the Brotherhood's democratic intentions, the Times seemed to be going through an amnesiac moment after Morsi's election, ignoring statements by Brotherhood officials in articles it published just  months earlier. In an interview with the Times three months before Morsi's inauguration, the Brotherhood's deputy leader and chief policy architect, Khairat el-Shater, explained the totalitarian vision on which they intended to build the future Egypt: “The Islamic reference point regulates life in its entirety, politically, economically and socially; we don’t have this separation between religion and government.” [5] 

And for at least the first six months of Morsi's tenure, following the Times' coverage, it seemed the generals and their soldiers had returned to the barracks. The first article in the Times suggesting army disquiet appeared at the end of January 2013, well into the seventh month of Morsi's presidency:

 

“As three Egyptian cities defied President Mohamed Morsi’s attempt to quell the anarchy spreading through their streets, the nation’s top general warned Tuesday that the state itself was in danger of collapse … .” [6]

 

Nonetheless, the article concluded that there “was no indication of an imminent coup.” Quoting unnamed “analysts familiar with General Sisi’s thinking,” the article further asserted that “unlike his predecessors, [Sisi] wants to avoid any political entanglements.” 

The illusion that the military had receded into the background gave way to the fallacy that the Morsi government was pursuing an agenda attuned to the demands and expectations of the protest movement that toppled Mubarak in February 2011. Reality was different. During the very first month (July 2012) of Morsi's tenure, there were already massive labor strikes in major industrial centers, which were totally ignored by the Times. [7] Except for a few memorable reports by the late Anthony Shadid in early 2011,[8] not a single Times article reported on the intense ferment and organizing within the labor movement, before and right through Morsi's one-year presidency, and not a single Times article made a connection between the uprising and “economic reforms of the kind mandated by the International Monetary Fund,” which created an ostentatious “class of crony capitalists” for all to see. [9] 

At the end, on reading the Times reports from Egypt, it often seemed like endless and pointless chaos. And by the time of the massive demonstrations of June 30 and the coup of July 3 of this year, for readers unable to connect the events or misled by spurious explanations, Egypt appeared to be caught in a huge storm with very little warning. 

The same illusion that the military had accepted primacy of civilian rule gave way to the fallacy that the coup that toppled Morsi on July 3 was the jump-start of a counter-revolution waiting to assert itself and roll back all post-Mubarak gains. On this view, a subdued military had not reconciled itself to a diminished role: It was only biding its time, waiting for an opportunity to topple Morsi and his Freedom and Justice Party. (The Brotherhood founded the FJP in April 2011 so that it could compete in legislative elections as a registered political party.) 

The reality is that the counter-revolutionary movement found its moment not on July 3 of this year, but a year earlier during the first few months of Morsi's presidency. In the late summer and early fall of 2012, the military and the FJP had in effect worked out a compact for dual rule: The FJP would take control of government agencies outside the army and security services, while the military would retain all its prerogatives and economic interests – and the two sides would together marginalize oppositional forces that had emerged in preceding years and eventually brought down the Mubarak regime in February 2011. 

In this grand bargain, Morsi's and his FJP's essential task was to put an end to the unrelenting turmoil, work stoppages and wildcat strikes, and to relaunch the economy. During the interlude of the military government led by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) from February 2011 to June 2012, the generals had miserably failed in controlling all affairs of state. The economy was in a free fall and social unrest was increasing. By the middle of 2012, the generals were more than eager to let a civilian party take responsibility for the mess they were leaving behind. 

So, what went so badly wrong between the two sides that led to the merciless showdown since July 3 of this year? 

Morsi's partnership with the military and security services gradually came undone, even as he tried to salvage it by repeatedly accommodating them and showering them with praise. Not noted by the Times, but by Egyptian commentators:

 

“After Morsi had launched his presidential term by forming a fact-finding committee to investigate human rights violations that took place under the SCAF, he refused to make the results of the report public after finding out that it was strongly critical of the army, […] the flirtatious attitude towards the army culminating with the constitution maintaining all the economic, social and political perks that the army previously enjoyed, and even added some more.” [10]

 

Further, Morsi exempted the army from the necessity of presenting its budget to parliamentary oversight and ruled out the possibility of appointing a civilian as minister of defense. 

At the end and more importantly, however, Morsi and the FJP proved totally incapable of keeping their end of the bargain with the military: On their watch, popular disaffection grew further and the economy went from bad to worse. 

Largely ignored by the Times (and the rest of the mainstream media) was the fact that events moving towards an inevitable showdown were not limited to Cairo, Alexandria, and other large cities, but also included the industrial centers in the north, along the Suez Canal, and elsewhere. Labor strikes more than doubled during Morsi's tenure. There was an average of 185 strikes per month, throughout the country, during the six-month period before Morsi's inauguration (January-June 2012), compared to an average of 452 strikes per month during the six-month period right after (July-December 2012). During the first three months alone of 2013, more than 2,400 strikes took place.[11] While demonstrations in large public spaces in major cities drew most of the Western media's attention, it was the resilient labor movement which, time and again, provided the wider uprising with the energy and crucial support it needed to continue. [12] 

Could Morsi have averted a showdown with the massive popular movement? To keep the military at bay and salvage his presidency, his only option was to mobilize on his side the popular revolt, instead of trying in vain to suppress it, but that would have contradicted the very foundation of his alliance with the military. Even more implausibly, that would have required no less than a metamorphosis of the Brotherhood and the FJP into something they were not – give up a winner-takes-all approach to governing and politics, fully respect minority rights, embrace workers' demands, and abandon free-market economics that impoverished the poorest classes. 

After the July 3 coup, the standoff between the military and the Brotherhood was inexorably building towards a final bloody climax, with both sides accusing the other of “betrayal” in increasingly strident terms.[13]  The culmination was the savage massacre on August 14, when security forces stormed the two sprawling pro-Morsi encampments, in the Rabea al-Adawiya neighborhood and in Nahda Square, leaving more than 1,000 civilians dead in its wake. 

 

                                        ****

 

Over the decades, the relationship between the military and the Brotherhood was never one of permanent implacable enmity. Repeatedly allowed to emerge from under repression and then harshly cut down to size, the Brotherhood was always a convenient bugbear to justify authoritarian rule to foreign governments – and, domestically, to fend off more dangerous enemies on the left. [14] 

When Mohamed Badie, the top Brotherhood leader, was arrested on August 20, the opening paragraph of the Times' front-page article started like this:

 

“Egypt’s authoritarian government has harassed and repressed the Muslim Brotherhood for most of its existence. But for the last three decades the authorities stopped short of touching the group’s revered leader, the supreme guide, […].” [15] 

 

Was fear of a violent backlash, as suggested by the Times article, the reason for the government's reluctance in past years to go after the Brotherhood's head? Or was it something else? There is no indication anywhere in the article of the Brotherhood's historical role of foil for military-backed authoritarian rule. Perhaps Mohamed Badie is a “revered leader,” but how well does this qualification reflect his position in the Brotherhood? Insiders and defectors from the Brotherhood mention instead the central credo of “listen and obey,” in harmony with the leader's unquestioned final authority as “supreme guide.” [16] 

What next from the Times on Egypt? No one expects the Times to change its ways, so the warning for readers remains the same: Don't be duped by the Times' misrepresentations and pretenses of objectivity.

 

Notes 

1. Kareem Fahim, “In Upheaval for Egypt, Morsi Forces Out Military Chiefs,” NY Times, August 12, 2012. 

2. David D. Kirkpatrick and Steven Erlanger, “Egypt’s New Leader Spells Out Terms for U.S.-Arab Ties,” NY Times, September 22, 2012. An on-line follow-up to the interview is also worth reading, which presents Morsi as a confident president, eager for close relations with the US and the West: Steven Erlanger and David D. Kirkpatrick, “Interviewing Egypt’s Islamist President: Answers to Reader Questions,” NY Times, The Lede, September 24, 2012. 

3. In video clips from 2010, Morsi is heard saying in Arabic that Zionists are “descendants of apes and pigs” (David D. Kirkpatrick, “Morsi’s Slurs Against Jews Stir Concern,” NY Times, January 14, 2013). It caused a big flap in Washington and Morsi was quickly taken to task (Editorial, “President Morsi’s Repulsive Comments,” NY Times, January 15, 2013). Just as quickly, Morsi's assistants made muddled excuses to the foreign press that convinced no one, no less Egyptians themselves (David D. Kirkpatrick, “Morsi Says His Slurs of Jews Were Taken Out of Context,” NY Times, January 16, 2013), but which at least showed Morsi was contrite. And here is the disappointment of the Times' star columnist on foreign affairs, as he sought to advise newly-appointed Secretary of State John Kerry on what to expect when he will “call on our longtime ally Egypt, whose president, Mohamed Morsi, we find [sic] out, in 2010 described Jews as 'descendants of apes and pigs.' Who knew?” (Thomas L. Friedman, “Break All the Rules,” NY Times, January 22, 2013). Not in Cairo: Egyptians were accustomed to Morsi's crude and bigoted bombast in Arabic. 

4. Elizabeth Bumiller, “In Cairo, Panetta Declares Support for Egypt’s New President,” NY Times, July 31, 2012. Another one of Panetta's booboos: “President Morsi and Field Marshal Tantawi have a very good relationship and are working together toward the same ends” – less than two weeks before Tantawi's dismissal. The article concluded with this cozy exchange: “'You spent time at the University of Southern California,' Mr. Panetta said to Mr. Morsi, who nodded assent. 'My home is Monterey.'” Altogether, a gem of NY Times smokescreen. 

5. David D. Kirkpatrick, “Keeper of Islamic Flame Rises as Egypt’s New Decisive Voice,” NY Times, March 12, 2012.  A collage of many disparate facts, this is still an interesting article, as much for what it says as for what it omits. Kirkpatrick describes el-Shater as a “former leftist,” which he never was – unless membership between the age of 16 and 18 in the youth branch of the Arab Socialist Union in the 1960's under Nasser merits the qualification of “former leftist.” Elsewhere in the article, Kirkpatrick says that el-Shater is the Brotherhood's “most important internal advocate for moderation and modernization” (presumably because el-Shater enforced on the Brotherhood an understanding of Islam that includes “business-friendly free-market economics,” though he does not make the connection explicitly). Still further in the article, Kirkpatrick describes el-Shater's success in suppressing and excluding all reformist tendencies within the Brotherhood (how does Kirkpatrick conciliate between el-Shater's presumed internal moderation and el-Shater's suppression of internal reforms?). 

6. David D. Kirkpatrick, “Chaos in Egypt Stirs Warning of a Collapse,” NY Times, January 29, 2013. 

7. Shaimaa Fayed, “Labor unrest spreads in Egypt's textile sector, Reuters, July 18, 2012. Wider coverage in Arabic for the same period can be found in the two major independent Cairo dailies, al-Masry al-Youm and al-Shorouk

8. For two remarkable examples, see Anthony Shadid, “Suez Canal Workers Join Broad Strikes in Egypt,” NY Times, February 17, 2011, and Anthony Shadid, "Uncharted Ground After End of Egypt's Regime,” NY Times, February 11, 2011. 

9. A quick search of articles authored or co-authored by David D. Kirpatrick, the Times' Cairo Bureau Chief, during Morsi's one-year presidency (June 30, 2012 – June 30, 2013) reveals less than 10 articles in which the IMF is mentioned, always 2-3 lines in the same vein. Here is a typical such statement:  “United States officials warn of disaster unless Egypt soon carries out a package of tax increases and subsidy cuts tied to a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. That would persuade other lenders that Egypt was credit worthy enough to obtain billions more in additional loans needed to meet its yawning deficit” (David D. Kirkpatrick, “Short of Money, Egypt Sees Crisis on Fuel and Food,” NY Times, March 30, 2013). Not a single Times article during the same period mentions potentially devastating effects of IMF-mandated policies, let alone the strong opposition of left-of-center Egyptian economists (e.g., Wael Gamal, “Sons of Thatcher in the Brotherhood and Salvation Front,” Ahram On Line, April 25, 2013.) 

10. Khaled Fahmy, “On fascism and fascists,” Ahram On Line, July 21, 2013.  Much of the same information appears in: David Hearst and Patrick Kingsley “Egypt's Mohamed Morsi remains defiant as fears of civil war grow,” The Guardian, June 30, 2013. When the damning contents of the fact-finding report were leaked to the press in April, about police and military wrongdoing during and after the 2011 uprising, “Morsi chose to praise the army and police, and promoted three generals.” Selected parts of the fact-finding report are reproduced in English in: Patrick Kingsley and Louisa Loveluck, “Egyptian doctors 'ordered to operate on protesters without anaesthetic',” The Guardian, April 11, 2013. 

11. Ahmed Aboul Enein, “Labour strikes and protests double under Morsi,” Daily News Egypt, April 28, 2013. 

12. Since the beginning of the Egyptian uprising in 2011, the great unsung heroes have been the workers who, for many years before Mubarak's downfall, had practiced wildcat strikes and resistance to government policies. This connection has been nearly totally overlooked by mainstream Western reporters. The very few exceptions have been progressive journalists (for example, back in 2011, Alain Gresh, “L'Egypte en Revolution,” Le Monde Diplomatique, Juillet 2011) and progressive historians of the Middle East (for example, most recently, Joel Beinin, “Egyptian Workers After June 30,” Middle East Research and Information Project, August 23, 2013). As an Egyptian journalist and long-time democracy activist observed in 2011: “The entry of the working class as an independent social force with its independent general strikes, that's what ended the regime of Hosni Mubarak” (Hossam el-Hamalawy, “English Translation of Interview with Hossam El-Hamalawy on the Role of Labor Unions in the Egyptian Revolution,” Jadaliyya, April 30, 2011). 

13. Amr Darrag, “Egypt’s Blood, America’s Complicity,” NY Times, Op-Ed Contributor, August 15, 2013. Amr Darrag, a member of the executive board of the FJP, is a fluent and smooth English speaker. His article is an angry and outraged denunciation of the military's betrayal and volte-face against the FJP and the Brotherhood. Another fluent English speaker and official spokesman for the Brotherhood is Gehad el-Haddad, who was often contacted by David D. Kirpatrick of the Times for the inside view from the Brotherhood. In one of Gehad el-Haddad's indignant denunciations of the military's betrayal after July 3, he explained how the Brotherhood planned to conduct its protest, concluding with an incendiary flourish: “Either we force the military's head back into their barracks, and they have to be taught a lesson not to pop their head back into the political scene ever again, or we die trying” (Edmund Blair, Paul Taylor and Tom Perry, “Special Report: How the Muslim Brotherhood lost Egypt,” Reuters, July 25, 2013). 

14. The worst repression the Brotherhood suffered in the past was after their failed attempt to assassinate Nasser in 1954. But before, in the 1930's and 1940's, the Brotherhood was instrumental in thwarting the labor movement and communist groups. Sometimes in collusion with British colonial authorities, the Brotherhood worked to counter the anti-colonial movement led by the main nationalist party of that time, the Wafd Party. In the 1970's, 1980's and 1990's, the Brotherhood endured repeated cycles of accommodation and repression, but it was again a useful decoy for authoritarian rule. The Brotherhood's early history is recounted in a remarkable book based on declassified documents from the archives of the British government: Mark Curtis, Secret Affairs: Britain's Collusion with Radical Islam, Serpent's Tail, London, 2010. 

15. David D. Kirkpatrick and Mayy el Sheikh, “An Egypt Arrest, and a Brotherhood on the Run,” NY Times, August 20, 2013. 

16. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, “My Uncle, the Brother,” Egypt Independent, April 26, 2012. This is a remarkable article about Mohammed Abdel Kouddous, a prominent columnist and Muslim Brother. Sharif Abdel Kouddous is a correspondent for Democracy Now! and a fellow at the Nation Institute, who happens to be Mohammed's nephew. Egypt Independent is an English-language publication of al-Masry al-Youm, one of the two main independent Arabic-language Egyptian dailies.

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