The Egyptian Revolution and the “Deep State”
When Mohamed Morsi was democratically elected as the first civilian Head of State of the Arab Republic of Egypt since 1953, the Egyptian Spring gave the hungry and the unemployed many reasons to dream of a bright future.
However, in view of the actual chaos in the land of the Pharaohs, the moment of Morsi’s election will probably remain as the only tangible accomplishment of the Egyptian revolution in the collective memory of the Egyptians. Apart from that, the revolution failed in achieving its objectives and the general feeling is that a certain power pulled the rug out from under the feet of Egypt’s young revolutionaries. Interestingly, the end of the Hosni Mubarak era did not mean the end of its legacies and the existence of a deep state structure—represented by the remnants of the old regime and their allies—that impeded transition to democracy and held back positive change became increasingly visible.
That somebody has been messing with people’s choices and the goals of the revolution is very clear in the Egyptian political scene. Following the toppling of Mubarak, and under the stewardship of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), rulings of the Supreme Constitutional Court—made up of judges appointed by Mubarak—acquitted officers of Egyptian police accused of killing demonstrators and acquitted Mubarak’s sons and the Interior Ministry deputies of wrong-doing, allegedly, owing to shortage of evidence. Mubarak and his especially hated Minister of the Interior Habib el-Adly were sentenced to life imprisonment, a verdict that was overturned in January 2013 to order a retrial of the ousted President and his top aide, thus increasing the risk that Mubarak, 84, may never be finally convicted and sentenced.
The Supreme Court dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament, arguing that the elections law which permitted parties to stand candidates for the one third of parliamentary seats which were filled by individuals was unconstitutional. And just two days before polls opened for the final round of presidential elections, and in a way reminiscent of the Emergency Law which characterized Mubarak’s times, the Justice Minister granted the military rights to arrest civilians and try them in military courts. The Supreme Court also canceled the law on the political isolation of the leaders affiliated to the former regime, allowing Mubarak’s last Prime Minister and a former Air Force General, Ahmed Shafiq, to stay in the race for the presidency. All of this occurred during a transitional phase of legislative turbulence in which the SCAF appeared content with the role of running the country in the fashion of a military dictatorship and perhaps pleased with the favor popular revolution had done it, namely spoiling the scheme of the inheritance of Mubarak’s presidency by his non-military son, Gamal. One observer in Cairo said: “I think they are incapable of understanding the extent to which the revolution wants to change things in the country. To them, removing the President was enough.” Intent on materializing their hopes and wishes, the Egyptian masses re-awoke and voiced out new slogans demanding the end of military rule and an immediate transition to democracy.
However, even after Egypt’s first ever free and competitive presidential elections, the SCAF did not stop its exhibition of authority. Following the handover of power to Morsi, the SCAF decreed the creation of the National Defense Council, whose decisions were meant to be the ultimate authority in matters regarding internal security, defense, economic policy and international relations. The military establishment intended, therefore, to remain independent from the elected civilian government and no single member, including the President, would have had the power to make decisions without a majority approval from the Council. This meant that, while Morsi won his election at the polls, he and the government he appointed lost the instruments needed to confront a very difficult political, economic and social situation, and soon paid for it a high political price in terms of popular support. To many observers, this was just an episode in a series of measures that together amounted to a slow-moving and soft coup d’état by the military and judiciary, both being the fellow or remnants of the old regime. The last episode in the series took place last July 3rd when the military overthrew the freely elected President. According to Egypt's top military officer, General Abdel-Fatah El-Sisi, Morsi could not meet the people’s expectations and failed to share power with his opposition. The Muslim Brotherhood protesters who took to the streets across Egypt over the military's actions were violently cracked down and Egypt turned into a bloody “war zone” with a future on a knife edge.
Surprisingly, immediately after Morsi was deposed, common Egyptians started to notice significant improvements in their daily life: the long queues for gas that were characteristic of Morsi’s days disappeared, electric power became suddenly reliable, and the police resumed their normal roles on the streets. Whereas this can be a clear reflection of Morsi’s incompetence, it is an indication that a certain power was trying to destabilize the overall quality of life under Morsi’s Islamist administration to prove something to the large disenchanted public. Using Ihsan Abdul Quddus’s words in the years after the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, this power is the secret society which he said was governing Egypt or, using a more modern concept, this is the “deep state.”
The term “deep state” has Turkish origins. In 1996, a speeding Mercedes crashed on a Turkish highway. Any one of the victims would have made the local news, but the surprising news was that they were all on the same car. The passengers were a Member of Parliament, the Deputy Chief of the Istanbul police, a beauty queen and her lover, and the leader of the Grey Wolves criminal organization, who was a heroin trafficker and a contract killer on Interpol’s red list since 1978. The incident became more intriguing after the contents of the car were revealed: narcotics, thousands of US dollars, guns and different sets of official identity documents for the murderer, including a special “Green Passport” for public officials signed by the Turkish Minister of the Interior.
Hence, it became very clear that the police who officially were hunting this man were in fact using him and his paramilitary organization to commit crimes on behalf of the state. The state that hires criminals cannot show its face to the public. It’s an out of sight state, a hidden structure. One may conceive of it as the condition of a shadow government or a state within a state, or as the back door of the constitutionally established state, giving access to dark forces of wealth, power, manipulation and violence outside the law. In turkey they labeled it the “deep state.”
What I am describing here is not just a neutral power apparatus but a parastatal coalition of forces comprising the military, the police, the judiciary, intelligence networks, public administrators, businessmen, intellectuals, journalists, artists, athletes, and, very often, international collaborators, all working behind the scenes to ensure the longevity of an existing system that grants them political, economic or social benefits. In Egypt, as in many Arab states, the deep state structures are not a new invention. Toby Dodge asserts that ever since independence from colonial rule, long-serving Arab leaders have allowed networks of favorites to occupy powerful positions in the government and economy. Spreading wealth and power to the favored minority has created the type of allegiances that so often have resulted in loyalties used to support dictatorships by “members of the ruling elite [who] flaunted their wealth in the streets of Tunis and Cairo, as standards of living for the majority of the population stagnated.” Such leaders have also deployed hefty militaries and military budgets, which, in addition to national security, have provided military support for the regime that signs checks. As such, even in the absence of the autocratic ruler, the entrenched economic, political, administrative and military elites become natural enemies to democracy, so much so that with the prospects of any real change in the political and social order, they use their witting forces to affect a rapid return to the status quo without questioning the price.
The maneuvers of Egypt’s military, backed by the legions of personnel left in place after Mubarak was overthrown, should be read in this context. The excessive use of force against the revolutionaries during the heyday of the anti-Mubarak demonstrations and against Morsi’s supporters should be approached by the same token. Whereas part of this violence may be affirmatively sanctioned by members of the apparently constitutional power structure as action ostensibly needed to protect peaceful citizens and public property from acts of vandalism, the deep state often engages in another violence that Peter Dale Scott names “deep force violence.” The latter refers to violence from an unexplained or an unauthorized source. In most cases this illegal violence is a task handed off by an established agency to organized groups or even individuals outside the law known as thugs or baltagiyyah. While this violence may be condemned by the public state, it is often passively sanctioned by failure to punish those responsible.
Morsi was of course aware of his and his appointed government’s weak position vis-à-vis the military and the allies of the old regime. Therefore, and following a security crisis in early August 2012, when gunmen killed 16 soldiers at an Egyptian Army checkpoint in the northern Sinai Peninsula, Morsi began to reclaim for civilian leaders the political power the Egyptian military had seized since the fall of Mubarak. Morsi forced the retirement of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who was Egypt’s Defense Minister and Chairman of the SCAF. He also removed the army Chief of Staff, Sami Anan, and several senior generals, and replaced the commanders of the Navy, Air Force and Air Defense.
There was no sharp reaction from the military then. Yet, that was neither the result of an understanding between Morsi and his senior generals nor the beginning of the assimilation of the remnants of the former regime into true democracy and a transparent state. Egypt’s deep state—the SCAF and the powerful old regime network of interests—came to the conviction that “discretion is the better part of valor.” A direct confrontation with a newly elected President and his government would have added to the SCAF’s unpopularity in a nation hungry for democracy and would have caused it unnecessary embarrassment in front of the world. Influencing politics and defending interests in a less visible way was more sensible and more proper of a deep state.
Democracy takes a long time to grow. As noted by Jack Goldstone, “even after a peaceful revolution, it generally takes half a decade for any type of stable regime to consolidate,” which makes the risk of disappointment on the part of the masses very real. D. S. Sorenson adds: “Over time, enthusiasm for democratic rule may wane, as it did in places like Russia, Lithuania, and Ukraine. After years of turbulent democratic governance, those preferring democracy to a strong leader fell from 51 to 29 percent in Russia, 79 to 42 percent in Lithuania, and 57 to 20 percent in Ukraine.”
Moreover, sustainable democracy requires the establishment of a strong economy. But constructing a solid economy on the foundations of an economic system riddled with corruption and favoritism and monopolized by the military was a very difficult task for Morsi. Though 30 of the 35 ministers in Morsi’s government were technocrats, they were not able to implement any reform program against the wishes of the retired army generals, who sometimes held up to 65 key positions in the same ministry, who made up the vast majority of governors and city and district council heads, and who owned major holding companies and factories.
In the light of the actual state of affairs in Egypt, the reason for the change of tactics by the deep state forces is clear. They were designed not only to better protect the military’s own interests but also to frustrate public patience and tolerance and create a state of emergency that would necessitate a new military intervention in the political life of the country but this time after many millions of Egyptians were persuaded that anything other than a government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood would be better for them. These millions included many of the street demonstrators who had been demanding more jobs, more accessible and better education and health care; leftist, liberal and secular activists; Al-Azhar and Salafist groups; and, of course, members of the old establishment who undermined the infrastructure of the Egyptian government and helped finance advise and organize those hostile to the Islamist leadership.
The New York Times cites “Naguib Sawiris, a billionaire and an outspoken foe of the Brotherhood; Tahani el-Gebali, a former judge on the Supreme Constitutional Court who is close to the ruling generals; and Shawki al-Sayed, a legal adviser to Ahmed Shafik, Mr. Mubarak’s last prime minister” as key players in the anti-Morsi campaign that lead to his ouster. Mr. Sawirirs used the infrastructures of his Free Egyptians Party, Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, and Arabic-language ONTV television network to provide publicity and support to the “Tamarrod” group. Ms. Gebali, the former judge, declared that “she and other legal experts helped tamarrod create its strategy to appeal directly to the military to oust Mr. Morsi and pass the interim presidency to the chief of the constitutional court.”
Besides national aspects, there is clearly an international side to the alliance represented by the Egyptian deep state. The international community has always preferred regime stability to societal stability and human security. It can be easily argued that promoting democracy and a transparent state in Egypt has never been a priority for the US nor for any of the other influential capitals in the world. On the contrary, Western foreign policy invested its power in supporting and protecting unelected Egyptian leaders and their repressive and largely unpopular regimes. The US, which provides the military with an annual 1.3 billion dollars in aid, is most guilty in this regard.
This fact made the United States enter the Egyptian transformation period in a disadvantaged position. With capital already squandered, the US continued to support the same dictator the majority of the Egyptian populace wanted to remove. Even when millions of protesters gathered steam in the main cities of Egypt, and in a manifest failure of imagination, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared the Mubarak regime to be “stable.” After Mubarak left office, and in the midst of what appeared to many to be the beginning of an era of military dictatorship in Egypt, the US still refused to speak out and acted as willing collaborator with the SCAF. In the aftermath of the latest deadly events in Egypt, President Obama finds the situation too “complex” to take any side in it. He criticizes the toppling of a democratically elected government whose members are now in jail or on the run. He condemns the killing of hundreds of Morsi’s supporters. Yet, he stops short of calling the actions of the military a coup, which explains why Washington has not suspended its aid to the Egyptian army yet.
To conclude, the Egyptian masses toppled Mubarak on February 11th, 2011. However, the deep state structures remained strong impediments to sustainable democracy, economic growth and social peace. Last July 3rd, the first democratic government in the history of Egypt was dismantled by the military while at the very beginning of its rule due to its alleged failure to meet the expectations of an impatient public. The way events will turn out under the management of an interim, military-backed government is still uncertain. Despite past and present failures, many observers agree that the US role remains absolutely critical to any positive future developments in the country. If the US assesses the reliability of Egypt as a strategic partner on the basis of human and social security and not on the basis of the strength of its military ties with Egypt’s coercive apparatus, if it uses its influence to stop attempts by the deep state to undermine democracy and post-revolutionary change, if the critical masses of Egypt manage to resist the Stockholm Syndrome that has already plagued many Egyptians , and if on the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood reaches a certain deal with the military establishment and accepts to play some peaceful role in the Egyptian public domain, one may expect to see Egypt as a united nation again.
- Mona el Naggar and Michael Slackman, “Hero of Egypt’s Revolution, Military Now Faces Critics,” The New York Times, April 8, 2011.
- Peter Dale Scott, American War Machine: Deep Politics, the CIA Global Drug Connection, and the Road to Afghanistan (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010) 19.
- Toby Dodge, “From the ‘Arab Awakening’to the Arab Spring; the Post-colonial State in the Middle East,”
- Jack Goldstone, “Understanding the Revolutions of 201: Weakness and Resilience in Middle Eastern Autocracies,” Foreign Affairs, (May-June 2011)10.
- David Sorenson, “Transitions in the Arab World: Spring or Fall?” Strategic Studies Quarterly 5, no. 3 (Fall 2011): 22-49, http://www.au.af.mil/au/ssq/fall11.asp
- Ben Hubbard and David D. Kirkpatrick, “Sudden Improvements in Egypt Suggest a Campaign to Undermine Morsi,” The New York Times, July 11, 2013
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