Turning-Point/End of the Arab Spring

July 16, 2013

In Blog

Egyptian Liberals Embrace the Military, Brooking No Dissent

Narciso Contreras for The New York Times

At a juice bar in Cairo, two men posed by a photograph of Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi. The general has become a popular figure among many Egyptians.

Published: July 15, 2013

CAIRO — In the square where liberals and Islamists once chanted together for democracy, demonstrators now carry posters hailing as a national hero the general who ousted the country’s first elected president, Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood. Liberal talk-show hosts denounce the Brotherhood as a foreign menace and its members as “sadistic, extremely violent creatures” unfit for political life. A leading human rights advocate blames the Brotherhood’s “filthy” leaders for the deaths of more than 50 of their own supporters in a mass shooting by soldiers and the police.

When Ahmed Maher raised concerns about how much the left could rely on the military after it pushed President Mohamed Morsi out of power, many other liberals denounced him.

A hypernationalist euphoria unleashed in Egypt by the toppling of Mr. Morsi has swept up even liberals and leftists who spent years struggling against the country’s previous military-backed governments.

An unpopular few among them have begun to raise alarms about what they are calling signs of “fascism”: the fervor in the streets, the glorification of the military as it tightens its grip and the enthusiastic cheers for the suppression of the Islamists. But the vast majority of liberals, leftists and intellectuals in Egypt have joined in the jubilation at the defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood, laying into any dissenters.

“We are moving from the bearded chauvinistic right to the clean-shaven chauvinistic right,” said Rabab el-Mahdi, a left-leaning scholar at the American University in Cairo.

Many Egyptians are overwhelmed with dual emotions: relief at the end of an Islamist government that many called arrogant and ineffective, and a thrill at their power to topple presidents. The voices on the left who might be expected to raise alarms about the military’s ouster of a freely elected government are instead reveling in what they see as the country’s escape from the threat that an Islamist majority would steadily push Egypt to the right.

Many on the left are still locked in a battle of semantics, trying to persuade the world — and perhaps one another — that the overthrow of Mr. Morsi was not a “coup” but a “revolution.” The army merely carried out the popular will, they insist. On Sunday, one private satellite network in Egypt was running commercials of citizen testimonials proclaiming as much.

Some have begun to voice doubts. Amr Hamzawy, a political scientist who held a seat in the dissolved Parliament, was among the first to condemn the military’s shutdown of the Islamists’ satellite networks, the arrest of their staff members, and the detention of Mr. Morsi and hundreds of other Islamist leaders.

Mr. Hamzawy objected in a recent newspaper column to “the rhetoric of gloating, hatred, retribution and revenge against the Muslim Brotherhood.” After the mass shooting, he called the celebration of the military takeover “fascism under the false pretense of democracy and liberalism.” Fellow intellectuals who said nothing, he wrote, were “the birds of darkness of this phase.”

But he was almost alone. A chorus of liberals and leftists rushed to denounce Mr. Hamzawy for defending the Islamists.

Khaled Montaser, a liberal columnist, declared that the Islamists were worse than “criminals and psychopaths” because they could never reform. “Their treason, terrorism and conspiracies are an indelible tattoo,” Mr. Montaser wrote. “They do not know the meaning of ‘homeland.’ They only know the meaning of ‘the caliphate’ and their organization first.”

Ahmed Maher, a founder of the left-leaning April 6 group, initially joined a small volunteer team that tried to enlist Western support for the ouster. But after the arrests and shootings of Brotherhood supporters, he began to recall the generals’ long hold on power after mass protests drove President Hosni Mubarak from office two years ago.

Mr. Maher put his worries about the generals in a Twitter message to another activist: “If we assume it’s not a coup, and I tell people it’s not a coup, when they screw us again like they did in 2011, what would I tell people?”

His allies responded by trying to drum him out, not only from the volunteer team but also from the April 6 group. Esraa Abdel Fattah, a prominent activist, campaigned against him in the media and circulated a list of his statements questioning the “coup.” And Ms. Abdel Fattah insisted that the Muslim Brotherhood, whose political party won the post-Mubarak elections, amounted to a foreign-backed terrorist group.

“When terrorism is trying to take hold of Egypt and foreign interference is trying to dig into our domestic affairs, then it’s inevitable for the great Egyptian people to support its armed forces against the foreign danger,” Ms. Abdel Fattah wrote in a newspaper column.

In the turbulent period of military rule after Mr. Mubarak was ousted, many liberals and leftists stood shoulder to shoulder with Islamists to demand that the generals relinquish power to elected civilians. Now the liberals appear to have joined in a public amnesia about the abuses and scandals of that period — the forced virginity tests of female protesters; Coptic Christian demonstrators shot by soldiers or run over with armored vehicles; the videotaped stripping and kicking of a female demonstrator who became known as the Blue Bra Woman.

The activist Hassan Shaheen was captured in the same video, bleeding from the head as a soldier stomped on his chest. But this spring he helped lead the petition drive asking the military to remove Mr. Morsi. And he joined in the rejection of Mr. Maher, saying that by calling the ouster of Mr. Morsi a “coup” he was “following the rhetoric of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

“We will stand together, the people and the military, in the face of terrorism,” Mr. Shaheen wrote in a Twitter message, arguing that the Brotherhood’s political party “must be dissolved and all its leaders must be arrested.”

“No negotiation, no reconciliation, no going back,” he added.

Hossam Bahgat, founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said the liberals’ goal — an Egypt governed by an inclusive civilian democracy — appeared to be further away than when Mr. Mubarak fell. Now, he said, the old institutions and elites from the Mubarak era are emboldened to push for a full return of the old order. “There is a powerful and well-resourced player now trying to push Egypt back to 2010,” he said.

Even those on the left who are critical of the military overthrow fault Mr. Morsi and the Brotherhood for their actions in power, for excluding other groups from decision-making, accusing critics of treason and exploiting religion as a political tool. They say that in recent days some Islamist leaders have told their supporters to prepare to use violence to defend Mr. Morsi, as they did during a crisis in December.

Brotherhood leaders say their organization has not condoned violence in Egypt since the days of British rule. They say private media outlets have worked for months to stir up nationalist sentiment against them, for example by circulating false rumors that they were considering giving away Sinai or selling the Suez Canal. Over the last week, many news outlets have claimed that Brotherhood leaders invited foreign interference by appealing for help from Washington to hold off the military takeover. Television hosts even assert that the crowds at pro-Morsi rallies are actually full of Syrians and Palestinians.

The military has set the mood as well. Before the takeover, it broadcast aerial images of the protests against Mr. Morsi, set to soaring martial music. On Sunday, it released another 30-minute broadcast depicting soldiers protecting the public, set to a similar score.

State and private television channels also broadcast images of Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi in his trademark black beret, explaining to admiring soldiers the military’s obligation to intervene in the national interest. “Egypt is the mother of the world, and Egypt will be as great as the world,” he declared.

Much of the public, fatigued by revolutionary turmoil, has embraced him. “The people had been saying, ‘Down, down with military rule,’ but Sisi completely changed them,” said Mohamed Mofeed, 38, a barber in downtown Cairo. “They love him.”

Mr. Morsi “should have been tougher with the media,” he added. “They were disrespecting him all over the place.”

Osama Mohamed, 20, a student sitting with a group of friends, said they wanted General Sisi to “leave his office and elect himself president.”

Mohamed Abdel Fattah, 24, an advertising manager, agreed. “For Egypt,” he said, “democracy is chaos.”