After last week’s violent crackdowns on the Muslim Brotherhood, it appears that Egypt is witnessing a return of the pre-revolutionary security state. There is no doubt that August 14 marked the bloodiest day in recent Egyptian history. And it hardly came as a surprise: since the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, the country has been rapidly moving back into authoritarian waters.
In the aftermath of the military coup on July 3, the generals sought to give the newly appointed transitional government a civilian face and parliamentary elections were scheduled to be held in February 2014, two months after a referendum on the revised constitution. General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and Minister of Defence, also became first deputy prime minister. However, with Mohamed ElBaradei stepping down as vice-president after less than a month in office, the civilian façade is crumbling. In reaction to country-wide unrest, the state of emergency was reinstated, extending the state’s authority and legitimizing the deployment of military units against internal threats. Interestingly, the return to martial law was not met with much resistance. On the contrary, while the disproportionate level of state violence created an international stir, inside the country it was strongly endorsed. While some voiced scepticism as to whether reports about massacres were accurate, others openly blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for the violence. The Tamarrod Movement aligned itself with mainstream media and complimented Al-Sissi for his determination. The National Salvation Front staunchly toed the line. It was particularly striking to witness revolutionary activists relativize police brutality, who had been targeted by the security apparatus not so long ago.
Since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, a new paradigm, fostered by the state media, the interim government and the January 25 movement alike, has taken hold of the country. The crackdown on the brotherhood has been sanctioned by ultranationalist rhetoric that considers it an evil necessary to restore state security. This paradigm has also deepened the military’s agenda by including non-military threats. It has extended the security forces’ room for manoeuvre on the domestic level and renewed their legitimacy in the eyes of the people. The defense of national security has become an ideal pretext for the expansion of their jurisdiction.
This process has been supported by specific linguistic structures that portrayed the Muslim Brotherhood as a national security threat. Security forces in the street sought to establish legitimacy for their actions by controlling the rhetoric surrounding events. To accomplish this task, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Ministry of Interior unleashed a fierce propaganda campaign through state-owned media. Claims about foreign agents in the Islamists’ ranks were followed by allegations that weapons were stored at their protest sites. It was perhaps Al-Sissi’s televised speech on July 24 that marked a turning point: thousands followed the general’s call for mass protests to give him a mandate to confront “violence and terrorism.”
In light of the obvious parallels to the framing strategy pursued by the Mubarak regime vis-a-vis protestors on Tahrir square in January 2011, calling the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group was a bold move for Al-Sissi. However, it certainly proved successful. National defense and the fight against terrorism now seem to have replaced popular aspirations for self-determination and civilian rule in mobilizing public support. Moreover, the terrorism label proved useful for extending the state’s freedom of action. When dealing with a designated terrorist group, and thus a matter of national security, authorities no longer have to limit their reaction to police deployment. Presidential adviser Mostafa Hegazi took the security discourse even further by declaring a full-blown “war against terrorism.” This metaphor has since been uncritically cited by most political camps in Egypt (including the Coptic Patriarch and Tamarrod).
Furthermore, there are discernible attempts to extend the security threat constructed around the Muslim Brotherhood to those actors voicing criticism of the security forces’ handling of the crisis. Dissenting journalists and public figures are systematically attacked as traitors to the nation by state media or threatened with lawsuits. This ultra-nationalist discourse conveys an exclusive notion of Egyptian identity that excludes an integral segment of Egypt’s society, the Brotherhood and its supporters.
This has given rise to a self-fulfilling prophecy: it is the isolation of the Islamists which might now provide fertile ground for extremism. An infringement of civil liberties will always provoke resistance, and resorting to violence becomes all the more likely when institutional channels for expressing dissatisfaction are blocked. For the brotherhood, history seems to repeat itself: its leaders have already begun comparing the recent crackdown with the repressions suffered under the rule of Nasser. It was in the prisons of Egypt’s first military dictatorship that the brotherhood’s Sayyid Qutb developed the ideological groundwork that inspired contemporary jihadist movements. In past weeks, a whole new generation of Islamist activists has been marked by violent experiences. It seems unlikely that they will continue to pursue their goals inside the structural framework of political institutions now that the bloody confrontations have created too many martyrs. Instead, militant factions in and outside the brotherhood will profit from the victimisation. A radicalization of Islamists, in turn, would suit Egypt’s military leadership, as it provides the basis for the extension of emergency law, among other measures.
The one indisputable victim of Rabaa al-Adawiya is therefore the democratic transition. All too easily, the secular camp bought into the security narrative, unconsciously opening the door for an authoritarian comeback. Even now, Egypt’s revolutionaries still seem to be closing their eyes and hoping for the best. As for the few individuals actually facing the encroaching security state, they are finding that when riding the tiger, it’s hard to get off.
Jannis Grimm is a fellow in the project Mediterranean Institute Berlin (MIB) at the Humboldt-University of Berlin and a research assistant at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).