Reflections on an Egyptian Coup

by Steven Gertz

On January 29, 2014, the Prince Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies co-sponsored at Georgetown a day-long conference titled “Egypt and the Struggle for Democracy.” The conference organizers invited both scholars and activists, and arranged them into four panels, each with a moderator to introduce the panel’s topic as well as choose and present questions from people in the audience.

The first panel, “Critical Stages of the Egyptian Revolution: Was the Coup Inevitable?” was moderated by ACMCU’s Dr. John Voll and featured three panelists, the first of whom was Dr. Michelle Dunne, senior associate of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Dr. Dunne argued that protestors missed opportunities to reach out across the aisle, and that while Morsi’s administration was especially foolish to not work with Egypt’s secular political parties once the Muslim Brotherhood attained power, secular activists were wrong to support the military during the coup. The other panelists agreed with her that Morsi erred in not making a bigger effort to be inclusive.

However, Wael Haddara, a former senior campaign advisor to Morsi, argued that the coup was a pre-planned event intended to restore the status quo ante, and he blasted both the current Egyptian government for its violent repression of the Muslim Brotherhood and the international community for not censuring Egypt’s new government. Dr. Mohamad Elmasry, an assistant professor of journalism at the American University of Cairo, then presented some content analysis of Egyptian state daily newspapers from 2008 and 2013 that clearly demonstrated an anti-Muslim Brotherhood bias—a bias, he said, that has become even more pronounced since the July 2013 coup.

The second panel, “The Current Status of Democracy, Human Rights, and the Rule of Law,” was moderated by Dr. Yvonne Haddad and began with a presentation by Dr. Dalia Fahmy, an assistant professor of political science at Long Island University. Dr. Fahmy posited that under the current government, Egyptians are not living under the rule of law, pointing out that its constitution gives too much autonomy to the judiciary and police and that it does not keep state institutions accountable for their actions. Dr. Maha Azzam, an associate fellow at the think-tank Chatham House, agreed with this view, pointing especially to the government’s massacre of Muslim Brotherhood protestors at Raba‘a al-‘Adawiyya in August 2013, and its continuing abuse of power—what Amnesty International calls a “roadmap to repression.”

Dr. Rachel Scott, an associate professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Tech, considered the issue of human rights through the lens of the Coptic church in Egypt, noting that while its leaders prefer a military government to the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, others within the Church are now criticizing military rule, arguing that Mubarak was actually doing nothing to stop sectarian violence. Dr. Mohammad Fadel, an associate professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto finished the panel by reflecting on the repressive measures that the current government has used against its people, concluding that it has indeed committed crimes that may be prosecuted under international human rights law and that because of this, General Sisi will be even more reluctant to give up power for fear he could be indicted.

The third panel, “The Role of the Youth Movements and NGOs After the Coup,” was moderated by ACMCU’s Dr. Jonathan Brown and featured a group of activists, the first of whom was Mohammed Abbas, a leading member of the Revolution Youth Alliance. Mr. Abbas said that after the initial January 2011 revolution, the youth movement splintered, but he has hopes that it can be reconstituted. He said that the youth who protested Morsi’s rule via the Tamarod movement did not want a military coup but rather an early election, and that youth are now suffering military interrogations in the wake of the protest law, which allows police to incarcerate protestors for three to five years. Maryam Jamshidi, founder of the magazine Muftah, then described the removal of Morsi from power as a revolution, but that for the people to remain influential, government must be inclusive and tolerant, and she fears that Tamarod did not do enough to protest the coup.

Islam Lotfy Shalaby, also a member of the youth movement, then said that since the coup, charitable organizations have not been allowed to do their work, and that the government has shut down 1,055 charities and seized 1.5 billion US dollars. Moreover, he argued that the youth have been marginalized in every government that has come and gone since the revolution, including Morsi’s government. However, he is still optimistic that the youth movement can make an impact, and he noted that since the coup, women especially have been leading movements to call for greater openness and democracy.

The fourth and final panel, “Restoration of Democracy and the Rule of Law in Egypt: The Roles of Pro-Democracy Groups and the International Community,” was moderated by Dr. Tamara Sonn, a professor at the College of William and Mary, and began with a presentation by Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, a member of the Freedom and Justice Party in the Egyptian parliament. He argued that Egypt’s educational system does not encourage critical thinking, and that this hampers the progress of democracy in Egypt. He said that while he thinks the June 30, 2013 protest movement was a good thing, the July 3 coup was not, and he called on Egyptians to form a democratic process and then respect it. Dr. Nathan Brown, a professor of political science at George Washington University, argued that authoritarian practices are so embedded within the political system that when one party comes to power, the very things it decries in the previous party become the tools it uses to exert its own power. He said that the international community needs to encourage Egyptians to dialogue and find peaceful means to address political differences.

Dalia Mogahed, who leads a consulting firm specializing in Muslim societies and the Middle East, then argued that the Egyptian street is the most powerful medium of change, observing that after human rights activists began addressing Egyptians directly (rather than the international community), the Egyptian government started to pay attention. She also said that violence is a symptom of the moral and spiritual polarization in Egyptian society, and that moral leadership is needed to enlarge the center, give platforms for people to rationally debate, and encourage pluralism as an alternative to polarization. Dr. Emad Shahin, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, then spoke about the military’s deep entrenchment in Egyptian society, and said that for democracy to flourish, Egypt needs a civilian-controlled government. The conference concluded with reflections by a young activist who experienced the crackdown at Raba‘a al-‘Adawiyya and who identified five freedoms necessary for change: the freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and the ability to petition government for reform.