Egyptian Defense Minister Abdelfatah al-Sissi on Egyptian state TV delivering a statement on July 3, 2013. The military issued President Morsi an ultimatum before deposing him in a coup.

Egyptian Defense Minister Abdelfatah al-Sissi on Egyptian state TV delivering a statement on July 3, 2013. The military issued President Morsi an ultimatum before deposing him in a coup.

Download this article (PDF)

What is really happening in Egypt? Are the latest developments a progressive step forward or a regressive step backward for the millions of Egyptians seeking political change primarily through prolonged mass mobilizations in the streets?

It’s been over a month since a military coup d’état, with popular support, ousted the country’s first democratically elected government July 3 after only one year in office, following an earlier military coup with popular support that brought down dictator Hosni Mubarak.

There are diametrically opposed interpretations about what is taking place in Egypt. One fact remains certain, however. In 1952 during the overthrow of the monarchy, and in 2011during the overthrow of the dictatorship, and in 2013 during the overthrow of the newly elected government, the military was the ultimate power.  It has no intention to forego that power regardless of the outcome of the next election in 2014.

President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the candidate of the Freedom and Justice Party, remains in jail (or “incommunicado, as the media prefers), along with other imprisoned former government functionaries and MB followers. Most are awaiting trial on a variety of charges, as though it was the Brotherhood that launched the coup.

Some 250 people, almost all of them Morsi supporters have been slain by military and security forces when they demonstrated against the coup. The protests are continuing, and the military crackdown is becoming increasingly fierce.

The 450,000-strong armed forces, led by Gen. Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, dismissed the government just after popular anti-Morsi protests brought many millions of Egyptians into the streets June 30 to demand the president’s ouster. (In terms of the unusually huge crowds, this article just says “millions” because both sides tend to exaggerate their protest numbers.)

Sisi, who was named defense minister by Morsi, selected an interim government until new elections. Not one of the chosen 34 cabinet members belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood, but 11 of them are veterans of the Mubarak regime. It seems doubtful that the MB and its political groups and associates that have produced majorities in five elections (presidential and parliamentary), will be allowed to contend for power.

The return of elements of the Mubarak regime is beginning to draw media attention. Writing in the Washington Post from Cairo July 19, Abigail Hauslohner stated: “Egypt’s new power dynamic following the coup is eerily familiar. Gone are the Islamist rulers from the Muslim Brotherhood. Back are the faces of the old guard, many closely linked to Mubarak’s reign or to the all-powerful generals.”

Professor Joseph Massad, who teaches Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University, was highly critical of the coup in a July 14 article in Counterpunch: “What is clear for now, with the massive increase of police and army repression with the participation of the public, is that what this coalition has done is strengthen the Mubarakists and the army and weakened calls for a future Egyptian democracy, real or just procedural. Egypt is now ruled by an army whose top leadership was appointed and served under Mubarak, and is presided over by a judge appointed by Mubarak (Interim President Adly Mansour) and is policed by the same police used by Mubarak. People are free to call it a coup or not, but what Egypt has now is Mubarakism without Mubarak.”

There is no direct evidence that the U.S. was behind the coup. Of course, Washington has long maintained intimate contact with the leaders of the armed forces and the Cairo government. It seems to have had as close a relationship with Morsi as it did with Mubarak and now with coup leader Gen. Sisi. There is an indirect connection, however, according to journalist Emad Mekay, writing in Aljazeera, July 10:

A review of dozens of U.S. federal government documents shows Washington has quietly funded senior Egyptian opposition figures who called for toppling of the country’s now-deposed president Mohamed Morsi. Documents obtained by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley show the U.S. channeled funding through a State Department program to promote democracy in the Middle East region. This program vigorously supported activists and politicians who have fomented unrest in Egypt, after autocratic president Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising.

The State Department’s program, dubbed by U.S. officials as a “democracy assistance” initiative, is part of a wider Obama administration effort to try to stop the retreat of pro-Washington secularists, and to win back influence in Arab Spring countries that saw the rise of Islamists, who largely oppose U.S. interests in the Middle East. Activists bankrolled by the program include an exiled Egyptian police officer who plotted the violent overthrow of the Morsi government, an anti-Islamist politician who advocated closing mosques and dragging preachers out by force, as well as a coterie of opposition politicians who pushed for the ouster of the country’s first democratically elected leader, government documents show.

President Obama has proclaimed neutrality in this matter and seems to have positions himself above the conflict, but Washington’s every practical deed has been supportive of the military and the military-dominated interim civilian leadership.

President Obama refused to characterize the overthrow as a coup, which of course it was, because to do so would legally terminate the annual bribe of $1.3 billion to the Egyptian armed forces — a token of America’s gratitude for maintaining good relations with Israel. On July 31, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that the Pentagon would participate in mid-September war games with the Egyptian army as its had done throughout the years of dictatorship.

The task of obliquely justifying the putsch fell to Secretary of State John Kerry. On July 17, he opined that before the coup there was “an extraordinary situation in Egypt of life and death, of the potential of civil war and enormous violence and you now have a constitutional process proceeding forward very rapidly. So we have to measure all of those facts against the law, and that’s exactly what we will do.”  On Aug. 1, he went further, alleging that the Egyptian army was “restoring order.” The next day, Egypt Independent reported, that an MB spokesperson “called Kerry’s comments ‘alarming,’ and accused the U.S. administration of being ‘complicit’ in the military coup.”

The U.S. and several countries, mostly western, are leading a very public “reconciliation” campaign essentially aimed at of convincing the leadership of the MB to capitulate, accept the overthrow, end the protests and “swallow the reality” of defeat. It is being portrayed as a peace effort, with no criticism directed toward the military that broke the law and evidently future jail terms for some MB leaders, including Morsi, who didn’t.

Clearly, it is just a matter of time—an “I” to be dotted, a “T” to be crossed—before Obama and Sisi will embrace in public.

A curious anti-Morsi coalition—a seemingly unprincipled amalgam of left, center and right, each with somewhat different agendas that they expect to advance by liquidating the Islamist government—has galvanized behind the military junta and is following its “roadmap” to the next elections.

Included in the coup-supporting coalition are (1) a large portion of the youthful protestors who launched the January 2011 Tahrir Square freedom struggle against the single-party rule of Mubarak’s now disbanded National Democratic Party, including such organizations such as the April 6 Youth Movement and Tamarod; (2) opposition liberal, left, and secularist groups who have combined in the National Salvation Front, plus worker groups who demonstrated in the name of their unions; and (3) the many supporters of the old Mubarak regime joyfully emerging from the shadows to support the military that in 2011 forced their leader’s resignation and imprisonment.

Communist groups, underground for decades, materialized during the 2011 uprising. They all supported the second uprising too, but are not playing a significant role. The Egyptian Communist Party heartily backed Morsi’s overthrow and strongly argued it was a popular revolt, not a military coup. Other Marxist groups, viewing the MB as a reactionary right wing formation, similarly backed the anti-MB rebellion.

Most anti-Morsi organizations, including groups affiliated with the National Salvation Front, joined pro-military demonstrations July 26 called by Gen. Sisi himself to provide an additional popular mandate for increasing the suppression of “violence and terrorism,” primarily to crush continuing Brotherhood demonstrations. The interim cabinet declared: “Based on the mandate given by the people to the state … the cabinet has delegated the interior ministry to proceed with all legal measures to confront acts of terrorism and road-blocking.” The MB has not perpetrated any acts of “terrorism,” so the reference must have been to the Salafi struggle for power in Sinai. Road-blocking refers to two large long-lasting sit-down protests in Cairo by anti-coup forces.