LIBERALS–All around us, the walls of his apartment were covered with works of fine art from Egyptian painters. (“They’re very famous,” he told me. “And expensive.”)

August 18, 2013

In Blog

Portrait of a Cairo Liberal as a Military Backer

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In Cairo Friday morning, before the midday call to prayer and an afternoon of protest marches that resolved in violence, chaos, and the overnight siege of a mosque, I jumped into a taxi and slipped across the Nile into the quiet, semi-suburban neighborhood of Dokki. I was there to meet with Mohammed Aboul-Ghar, a seventy-three-year-old academic and politician who has been a leading figure in Egypt’s liberal establishment, and now represents one of the most confounding elements of the country’s current crisis: the wholesale alignment of old-guard liberals with the military.

Aboul-Ghar’s reputation in pro-democracy politics is well earned. In 2004, during the era of Hosni Mubarak, Aboul-Ghar co-founded the March 9th organization, a group of professors who bravely fought against the interference of state-security services into the operations of Egypt’s universities. In the run up to the 2011 revolution, he was an organizer and spokesman for the National Association for Change, an anti-authoritarian organization led by Mohammed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize Winner and Egypt’s most prominent liberal politician. And after Mubarak finally fell, he helped create what many viewed as the most substantial political party for liberals, the Social Democratic Party. That fall, as a temporary military regime ruled Egypt, I had met with Aboul-Ghar, who happily assured me that the military would soon be leaving the management of the country to civilians. “My feeling is that the military wants to have a safe retreat,” he said then. “A safe retreat and all their previous privileges.”

But after a year of the Presidency of Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood politician who won Egypt’s first free Presidential election, in 2012, Aboul-Ghar had soured on the electoral process he had helped to put in place. Last November, after Morsi said in a speech that he was immune from judicial oversight, Aboul-Ghar joined many of his liberal colleagues in outrage. Morsi had also worried many revolutionaries by consolidating power among his Brotherhood allies, expanding religion in public life, and pushing through a referendum on a constitution that seemed too oriented toward the Brotherhood’s agenda. On June 30th, a new activist group called Tamarod, or Rebellion, called for a country-wide day of protest to demand that Morsi resign. The alternative, it was understood, was removal by the military. Aboul-Ghar stayed on the streets until midnight. Three days later, the military detained Morsi and suspended the constitution.

“Would the Americans have been willing to wait four years for Nixon to finish his term?” Aboul-Ghar asked, as we sat in his living room, sipping tea brought to us by his wife. He was dressed casually in a yellow shirt and light-colored slacks; he looked a little like he had just woken up. All around us, the walls of his apartment were covered with works of fine art from Egyptian painters. (“They’re very famous,” he told me. “And expensive.”) On the coffee table in front of him was a draft, written in long hand on printer paper, of his weekly column for the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm. “And remember, Nixon did much less than Morsi did.”

On Wednesday, the military-backed government, which Aboul-Ghar has remained in close contact with through his Social Democratic Party colleagues, had ordered the police to storm a pair of Muslim Brotherhood sit-in camps in Cairo. The move left hundreds dead, the vast majority of them supporters of the Brotherhood, including the teen-age daughter of one of the group’s leaders. Many died from live gunfire directed at them. More violence was clearly coming, and I asked Aboul-Ghar if he was having any misgivings about the military’s coup, now that it had turned out to be so bloody.

“I don’t accept that this is a coup,” he replied firmly. “The military could never have done this alone, without those massive demonstrations by the people. The Army came to prevent a civil war, and to support the people.” He was echoing one of many popular refrains among backers of the military: the takeover in July was not a coup; Morsi was leading Egypt into ruin and the destitution of Islamic law; the Brotherhood is a group of terrorists who should never have been let into public life—and now deserve the punishments coming to them. “The loss of life is tragic,” he said of the sit-in attacks. “But I’m sorry to say that the Muslim Brotherhood invited this. They wanted all of the time for this to happen.” He added, “I don’t accept that there are non-extremist elements to the Muslim Brotherhood.”

One of the most striking developments in Egypt over the past few months has been the apparent transformation of liberals like Aboul-Ghar—those who were supposed to be advocates of free expression and religious tolerance, but also of political pluralism and the restraint of state violence—into something that more closely resembled authoritarians, at least where the Brotherhood was concerned, and believers in the benevolence of military rule. In reality, it’s a phenomenon that has spread across the political spectrum. Egyptians watch state-run television networks that report exclusively on the supposed acts of terrorism, ignoring the disproportionate force of the police and military. Not a single major Egyptian newspaper showed a picture of a Brotherhood victim on its front page on Thursday.

And on the Brotherhood side, the potential for radicalism has also grown. From their perspective, they were the ones committed to democracy, stripped of a properly won Presidency. Now, churches are being burned across the country, police stations have come under attack, and assault weapons, once elusive, seem to be a reality at pro-Morsi protests. On Thursday morning, Gehad El-Haddad, a spokesman for the Brotherhood, told Reuters that the anger of his party’s members was “beyond control.”

They are all hardliners, now—on both sides. In between, there are a few marginalized moderates and some notable exceptions. On Friday, as the latest round of clashes kicked off, Khaled Dawoud, the spokesman for the National Salvation Front, an alliance of anti-Morsi political parties led by ElBaradei and involved in the military cabinet, resigned out of disgust at the ongoing use of force by the police. (On Wednesday night, Dawoud had written a statement praising the police’s conduct at the sit-ins, and, he said, the shame of doing so had finally driven him to quit.) Earlier in the week, ElBaradei himself, who had taken a post as vice-president in the cabinet, resigned, after his attempts to encourage a gentler approach to the sit-in clearings went unheeded.

For this, Aboul-Ghar, like many liberals, now views ElBaradei as something of a turncoat. “What happened with ElBaradei is related to his personality to a great extent,” he said. “Mohamed ElBaradei is a very nice man, but he’s not a politician, he’s not very interested in making decisions, and he’s not a leader.” (An aide to ElBaradei told me that he was not available to respond.)

The time to resign, had ElBaradei wanted to stand for principles, Aboul-Ghar said as I prepared to leave, would have been on Monday, when the national security board, a council of top ministers and security agency chiefs, finally decided to take aggressive action against the Brotherhood sit-in camps. It was clear even then, he said, that the actions would cause a certain number of deaths, perhaps hundreds. “We were calculating this possibility from the start,” he said.

On Saturday, the street fighting dragged on. For hours, hundreds of anti-coup protesters were trapped in a mosque downtown, shielded by the Army while an angry mob surrounded the site. A sense of hopelessness pervaded the country. The death toll for the round of violence that began Friday is already at a hundred and seventy-three. A final tally of Wednesday’s dead remains elusive, as the Ministry of Health is telling reporters to wait for further announcements. Their last count was six hundred and thirty-eight.

Photograph by Hassan Ammar/AP.