Whatever happened to the revolution in Egypt?

The military leadership is trying to extinguish protest from both Muslim Brotherhood supporters and the liberals who helped overthrow President Mubarak. Will they succeed?

All summer, Cairo’s morgues overflowed. Over a thousand people were killed in clashes between Egypt’s top generals and the Islamist supporters of Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood president overthrown in July. Now, as winter descends on Egypt, the military-backed government has shifted its attention to secular activists.

Since November liberal protesters have returned to the streets. Many of them had been in the vanguard of the January 2011 revolution to depose the country’s long-standing dictator Hosni Mubarak. Having been crowded out by Egypt’s two main political actors, the Brotherhood and the military, they wanted to reclaim their own political space. But by early December dozens had been jailed under a new law banning rallies that have not received permission from the interior ministry.

The crackdown on secular protesters has not been as far-reaching or as violent as the attack on Morsi loyalists, but the shift of focus is telling. The military justified crushing the Muslim Brotherhood by arguing that it was necessary in a war against Islamic extremism. “The possibility of a non-Islamist opposition delegitimises the claim of the current interim government that it is facing a wave of terrorism,” Amr Abdel Rahman, a lecturer in law at the American University in Cairo, tells me. For many Egyptians, this marks a return to the Mubarak era.

“Everything is déjà vu,” says the activist and psychiatrist Sally Toma, whose arm is in a sling after police fractured her shoulder at an “illegal” Cairo protest a fortnight ago. Fourteen of her female friends were detained that day, beaten, sexually assaulted and dumped in the desert at midnight – a favoured practice of Mubarak’s security services.

Toma’s street cinema project once worked with the “Rebel” campaign, which called the June protests that toppled Morsi and ushered in the junta. Before the rallies they screened footage of abuses under Morsi’s administration. Now he and much of the Brotherhood’s leadership are on trial, but the judicial proceedings are heavily politicised: Morsi was kept in secret detention for months and five members of his presidential team are still missing.

“Is protesting the only way to go? For three years we have just been chasing each other. You chase your friends in jail, in hospital, then the morgue to find those who died,” Toma says. “But nothing has changed.”

Over 25 prominent secular political activists are facing prison, including the blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah. In late November, 21 women, seven of them teenage schoolgirls, were handed 11-year sentences for protesting in support of the Muslim Brotherhood. Under mounting pressure, the government reduced this to one-year suspended sentences for the 14 young women and a three-month probation for each of the seven minors.

Meanwhile, the government is encouraging the population to focus on the referendum on the new national constitution, due on 14 and 15 January. The document has divided opinion.

“I believe this constitution is more advanced than any other in the history of Egypt,” Mohamed Abul-Ghar, the leader of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and one of the authors of the document, told me. “The very heavy religious tint in the 2012 [charter] is not there any more.”

Some of the religious articles drafted under Morsi have been removed or toned down, but for Toma the new code replaces “one fascism with another”. The constitution will bolster the power of Egypt’s generals by preserving important military privileges, such as keeping the armed forces’ budget secret and permitting military courts to try civilians. It also stipulates that, for the next two presidential terms, the military must approve the appointment of Egypt’s defence minister. This safeguards the job of Egypt’s de facto leader, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

A successful referendum will be a stamp of approval for el-Sisi. A personality cult has grown around the general. His image has appeared on posters, chocolates, cupcakes, pyjamas and jewellery. One campaign group called Complete Your Favour says it has gathered seven million signatures calling for him to run for president. El-Sisi has yet to give a definitive answer as to whether he’ll stand in the elections, but with few viable alternatives three years on from the overthrow of Mubarak, Egypt may once again have an army officer as its leader.

The activists are not yet disheartened. Much of the protesting has moved into the universities, with secular and Islamist campaigners holding separate rallies daily. “If we don’t use this wave to make the changes we wanted three years ago, then this is going to eat us all,” Toma says. “They say the revolution eats its children.”

A man stands outside a faculty building at Cairo's Al-Azhar University after student supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood stormed it on December 28, 2013. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Triple Issue

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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”