Despite resisting military rule following the revolution, Egypt’s liberal opposition gambled on an alliance with their former foes that may eventually prove detrimental to their own interests.
Though cooperation with the military enabled Egypt’s liberals to defeat their Islamist rivals, at least temporarily, their gamble involved the inherent risk that an empowered security apparatus would reconstitute itself at the expense of the democratic values for which many secular parties and liberal activists claim to be fighting. More than two months after Morsi’s ouster, that risk is becoming reality.
Amid a vicious crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, legal and institutional features of the police state have been revived, including emergency rule, the use of secret police units that were nominally disbanded after the January 2011 uprising, a compliant media, and the appointment of security men as governors. The current draft of constitutional revisions, which is still being amended, proposes further expanding the military’s powers by granting the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) a veto over the president’s choice for minister of defense. The draft would also implement a single-candidate electoral system, which was used by Mubarak’s regime and could strengthen wealthy candidates backed by the state at the expense of nascent political parties, for upcoming parliamentary elections.
Despite their continued support for July 3 and the crackdown against the Brotherhood, a growing number of liberal activists and secular politicians have started to push back, tentatively, against the resurgence of the police state. When Interim President Adly Mansour appointed military, police, and former ruling party figures as governors on August 13, activists were quick to express their disappointment. Tamarrod and the June 30 Front voiced reservations about the selections, while the spokesperson for the Egyptian Popular Current, a secular movement that opposed Morsi and supported Sisi’s intervention, stated that the choices did not “bode well” for positive changes in the government.
On August 14, the security forces perpetrated what Human Rights Watch called the “most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history” when they violently dispersed pro-Morsi protesters in Cairo. Following the violence, Mohamed ElBaradei, vice president for international relations and the government’s most high-profile liberal, resigned. While ElBaradei’s resignation was opposed by most of his political allies, who supported the crackdown on the Brotherhood on August 14, the deaths of more than 30 detained protesters in police custody four days later sparked nationwide outrage. Prominent secular political leaders such as Hamdeen Sabahi, leader of the Egyptian Popular Current, and Amr Moussa, a former presidential candidate and prominent liberal politician, were joined by Tamarrod and the April 6 Movement in their calls for an investigation.
Fears of a resurgent security apparatus grew throughout August as the government’s actions became more egregious and liberals began to worry that the empowerment of the security forces threatened both their political interests and revolutionary goals. On August 26, a number of secular and liberal political forces released a statement that blamed the Brotherhood for violence but also warned against the return of an oppressive police state that Hosni Mubarak’s men were “seeking to rebuild.” The statement was signed by the Constitution Party, the Popular Alliance Party, the Strong Egypt Party, the Tagammu Party, Tamarrod, the April 6 Movement, and a number of political activists. In response to concerns over police practices, the Popular Current has started an initiative to document abuses by the security services. Egyptian human rights organizations have denounced the ongoing military trials of Egyptian citizens, and liberal student activists are up in arms over a decision to give campus guards arrest powers.
Meanwhile, there is rampant speculation that General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s defense minister and since July 3 the most popular man in the country, will run for president, validating fears of a return of the security state. Some secular political leaders have politely pushed back against the idea of General Sisi running for president, fearing the election of a new military strongman but treading lightly due to Sisi’s extensive popularity. Hamdeen Sabahi has approached a Sisi candidacy by attempting to flatter the general out of a presidential run. On August 6, he stated that Sisi had already secured a historic place for himself that was far greater than what the presidency would provide. On August 28, Sabahi followed up by saying that he would support Sisi if he decided to run, since he was a national hero, but that he did not think the general would compete. One week later, Sabahi declared that the Popular Current would not support a military candidate for president.
Farid Zahran, vice president in the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, adopted a similar approach, rejecting the idea of a Sisi candidacy by arguing that his role in protecting the revolution was more important than the presidency. Leaders in the Wafd Party and the Conference Party have also demanded that military men refrain from competing in presidential elections. Even Tamarrod has hesitated about the idea of a Sisi presidency. After Mahmoud Badr, the movement’s co-founder and most prominent spokesperson, claimed that the movement would support Sisi for president if the country’s security situation did not improve, other leaders in the movement distanced themselves from his comments.
Unfortunately for Egypt’s liberals, this pushback is too little, too late. July 3 continues to pull liberals in two contradictory directions. While they might view the reappearance of the police state with alarm, many have also vocally supported the security forces’ targeting of their Islamist opponents. In trying to have their cake and eat it too, the liberals have been effectively co-opted by the military and the police. Criticisms of the security forces lose their potency when many of those same critics continue to praise the July 3 military intervention, support the military-backed interim government, and enjoy the power—though perhaps temporary—that the Brotherhood’s exclusion has brought them. The situation has also produced additional divisions in the already famously fractious liberal and secular groups. Now that several of them have been given power in the government or access to it, they have lost the unity forged by opposition and are pursuing their own parochial interests.
An even greater problem is the severe disparities in power and popularity between liberal activists and secular political parties on one hand and the military and the police on the other. The security forces have already begun to turn their fearsome coercive abilities on their most vocal liberal critics, smearing them in the press, raiding offices, and making arbitrary arrests. With General Sisi far and away the most popular political leader in Egypt and the public swooning over the military, any attempt to challenge these policies by appealing to the street would be unlikely to succeed. As for Sisi’s political ambitions, even if he does not run for president his enormous influence will give him an outsized role in any future Egyptian government.
Since July 3 the security forces have also established precedents that will be difficult to undo. Morsi’s removal by the military legitimizes the idea that the military can intervene against unpopular presidents, while the violent dispersal of pro-Morsi protesters will have a chilling effect on opposition mobilization well into the future. When Egypt’s liberal and secular movements threw the dice on an alliance with the security apparatus, they made a bet they were destined to lose. Their emerging criticisms of the resurgent police state will not produce results due to their disunity and incoherence and the security forces’ strength. Instead, the military and the police are likely to continue to assert their power as they see fit in the new Egyptian political system.
Scott Williamson is a Junior Fellow at Carnegie’s Middle East Program.