Egypt News — Revolution and Aftermath

Egypt News — Revolution and Aftermath

New York Times

12 August 2012

Egypt is the most populous country in the Arab world, and its revolution in February 2011 was the capstone event of the Arab Spring, inspiring demonstrators in Libya, Syria and elsewhere.

But in June 2012, a series of events threw the country’s troubled transition to democracy deeper into confusion as Egypt’s two most powerful forces — the military establishment and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group — moved toward a showdown. A swift series of steps by the military and its allies in the judiciary left many observers in Egypt and the West wondering if they were witnessing a subtle military coup, or even a counterrevolution.

For decades, the Brotherhood had been the primary opposition to the military dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. When the unrest of the Arab Spring came to Egypt in January 2011, it was young liberal activists who ignited the protests, but it was the Brotherhood’s decision to join that gave them critical mass. Yet it was the military that ousted Mr. Mubarak the following month and took direct control.

The generals were hailed initially as the nation’s heroes, a feeling that gradually turned to dismay as questions arose over whether they truly intended to hand over power.

The Brotherhood and the Military in Conflict

The Brotherhood was the clear winner in the parliamentary elections that ended in January 2012, holding roughly half of the seats. In March, the Brotherhood reneged on a promise not to seek the presidency. Its initial candidate was rejected by the courts on the basis of a Mubarak-era conviction, and the party’s back-up candidate, Mohamed Morsi, took his place.

In a first round of voting in May, the winners were Mr. Morsi and Ahmed Shafik, a retired Air Force general who had been Mr. Mubarak’s final prime minister. Mr. Shafik campaigned on promises to bring back law and order and to rein in “dark forces,’' a reference to Islamists. Liberals and secular activists, who had split their votes among two failed candidates, despaired at finding themselves caught between the military and religious conservatives.

On June 24, Mr. Morsi was declared by election regulators as the winner of the presidential elections. According to election officials, Mr. Morsi won 51.7 percent of the runoff vote on June 16 and 17; his opponent, Mr. Shafik, won 48.3 percent.

Judges and the Military Act

In June, days before the presidential runoff, the military and its allies on the judiciary took steps that critics charged amounted to a coup. The military council ordered Parliament dissolved after the court ruled that the law under which it had been elected was partly unconstitutional. In the same stroke, the military assumed legislative power and severely limited the authority of the presidency.

The charter the generals issued gives them control of all laws and the national budget, immunity from any oversight and the power to veto a declaration of war. The generals also seized control of the process of writing a permanent constitution.

When the polls closed on June 17, independent observers said that Mr. Morsi had narrowly won. But it was not until June 24 that the nation’s election commission confirmed that he was the official winner, handing the Brotherhood a symbolic triumph and a new weapon in its struggle for power with the ruling military council. According to the commission, Mr. Morsi won 51.7 percent of the runoff vote and Mr. Shafik won 48.3 percent.

On July 8, Mr. Morsi unexpectedly ordered that Parliament reconvene, in a direct challenge to the military and to the courts, which the next day both reaffirmed their actions in dissolving the body. But the authorities made no move to prevent the legislators from gathering for a brief session on July 10.

In late July, Mr. Morsi named Hesham Kandil as prime minister. Mr. Kandil, who is known as a religious Muslim but is not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was plucked from relative obscurity. The American-educated engineer headed the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation under the interim cabinet appointed by the Egyptian military.

Morsi’s First Crisis: An Attack in the Sinai

On Aug. 5, masked gunmen opened fire on an Egyptian Army checkpoint in the northern Sinai Peninsula, killing 15 soldiers who were preparing to break their Ramadan fast. The gunmen then seized at least one armored vehicle and headed toward Israel, apparently in an attempt to storm the border, witnesses and officials said. An Israeli military spokesman said a vehicle exploded at the border, and another was struck by the Israeli Air Force at the Kerem Shalom border crossing, on the southern tip of the Gaza Strip. It was the deadliest assault on Egyptian soldiers in recent memory.

The Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, said that the attack should serve as “a wake-up call” to Mr. Morsi about the growing danger in the Sinai and the border between the two nations. With the relationship between Egypt’s new Islamist leader and Israel still in its fragile infancy, the terrorist attack presented a critical opportunity — and a crucial test. Several high-ranking officials inside Israel’s government and numerous independent experts on Israel-Egypt relations said that the attack was the best evidence yet that the two countries are both threatened by lawlessness in the Sinai Peninsula.

The killings of the Egyptian soldiers, which represented Mr. Morsi’s first real crisis, have aggravated the political clash between the Muslim Brotherhood, on one side, and its more secular rivals including Egypt’s powerful military leaders.

Mr. Morsi abruptly canceled plans to attend the funeral of the 16 soldiers after protesters shouting anti-Brotherhood slogans chased the country’s prime minister from an earlier prayer service.

Mr. Morsi’s vulnerability stems from his closeness with Hamas, an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood that governs the Gaza Strip. Mr. Morsi had promised to ease restrictions on Gaza by opening the border crossing and allowing goods, now smuggled, to pass through the border.

After the attack, some of Mr. Morsi’s critics cast his relationship with the group as a liability. Officials said that militants based in the Sinai carried out the attack, along with Palestinians who infiltrated the country through smuggling tunnels from the Gaza Strip. Despite the accusations, the Egyptian authorities have provided no information about the identities of the attackers, though they have said that an intense manhunt is under way for them. And though attention has recently been focused on the smuggling tunnels, many analysts here said Sinai itself is a more pressing source of concern as a place where militancy has taken hold after years of neglect by the government and heavy-handed treatment by the security services.

Three days after the attack, Egypt was reported to have launched its first airstrikes in decades in the restive Sinai Peninsula, deploying attack helicopters to strike at gunmen after the shootings of 16 Egyptian soldiers.

Morsi Ousts Military Chief

On August 12, President Morsi forced the retirement of his powerful defense minister, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi; the army chief of staff, Sami Anan; and several senior generals. The stunning purge seemed for the moment to reclaim for civilian leaders much of the political power the Egyptian military had seized since the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

Mr. Morsi also nullified a constitutional declaration, issued by the military before he was elected, that eviscerated the powers of the presidency and arrogated to the military the right to enact laws. It was not immediately clear whether he had the constitutional authority to cancel that decree.

Mr. Morsi also named a senior judge, Mahmoud Mekki, as his vice-president. During the Mubarak era, Mr. Mekki fought for judicial independence and spoke out frequently against voting fraud.

There was no immediate reaction from the military, which traditionally sees itself as the guardian of the Egyptian state and is a fierce defender of its own powers and prerogatives. It remained to be seen whether the shake-up was the result of an understanding between Mr. Morsi and his senior generals or an unexpected maneuver that could draw a sharp response.

While the leadership shuffle was proceeding, the Egyptian military pressed its campaign against the Islamists thought to have carried out the previous week’s attack in the Sinai Peninsula. At least five gunmen were killed in a village in the North Sinai, according to security officials and witnesses cited by Reuters. Strewn about the rubble were chemicals for making explosives, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, the officials said.

U.S. and Egypt Step Up Talks on Security

In the wake of the attack that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers, the United States and Egypt are negotiating a package of assistance to address what administration officials described as a worsening security vacuum in the Sinai Peninsula.

President Morsi balked in July when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta each separately pressed them to act more aggressively against extremists operating in Sinai. But after the attack, Egypt appears to have overcome its sensitivities about sovereignty and accelerated talks over the details of new American assistance, which would include military equipment, police training, and electronic and aerial surveillance, administration officials said.

While the American military has long had ties to its Egyptian counterpart, the deeper, more direct effort now under discussion could bind the United States and Egypt more closely against the shared threat of extremism. It could also overcome reservations among some in Washington about Mr. Morsi’s affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization long reviled by American officials for its anti-Western views and Islamist politics.

The Pentagon is discussing a variety of options for sharing intelligence with Egypt’s military and police in Sinai. They include intercepts of cellphone or radio conversations of militants suspected of plotting attacks and overhead imagery provided by aircraft — both piloted and drones — or satellites, the officials said.

The State Department’s annual terrorism report, released in July, said the northern Sinai had become “a base for smuggling arms and explosives into Gaza, as well as a transit point for Palestinian extremists.”

Compounding American concerns, the officials added, is the presence of an international peacekeeping force in Sinai that includes about 700 American soldiers. The force is not authorized to fight extremists and is not part of the discussions on expanded assistance, but its troops and civilians have encountered the lawlessness in the region, including the threat of kidnappings.

Recent Developments

Aug. 12 President Morsi forced the retirement of his powerful defense minister, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi; the army chief of staff, Sami Anan; and several senior generals. The purge seemed for the moment to reclaim for civilian leaders much of the political power the Egyptian military had seized since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Mr. Morsi also named a senior judge, Mahmoud Mekki, as his vice-president.

Aug. 8 Egypt was reported to have launched its first airstrikes in decades in the restive Sinai Peninsula, deploying attack helicopters to strike at gunmen after the shootings of 16 Egyptian soldiers three days earlier. On the same day, in a major shake-up, Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, fired his intelligence chief and the governor of Northern Sinai. He also asked Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi to replace the commander of the military police.

Aug. 6 The Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, said that a terrorist attack that killed 15 Egyptian soldiers a day earlier should serve as “a wake-up call” to Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, about the growing danger in the Sinai Peninsula and the border between the two nations. There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the attack. An Egyptian security official, speaking on state television, blamed Islamist militants operating in Sinai, along with militants who had crossed into Egypt from the nearby Gaza Strip.

Aug. 5 Masked gunmen opened fire on an Egyptian Army checkpoint in the northern Sinai Peninsula, killing 15 soldiers. The gunmen then seized at least one armored vehicle and headed toward Israel, apparently in an attempt to storm the border, witnesses and officials said. An Israeli military spokesman said a vehicle exploded at the border, and another was struck by the Israeli Air Force at the Kerem Shalom border crossing, on the southern tip of the Gaza Strip. It was the deadliest assault on Egyptian soldiers in recent memory.

Aug. 2 President Morsi swore in members of his first cabinet, which includes longtime state employees and at least six former government ministers. The appointments have lowered expectations of a sweeping change in governance that was the promise of last year’s revolt.

July 31 Leon E. Panetta, the United States defense secretary, visited Cairo on his way to Jerusalem. He met with President Mohamed Morsi and Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi at the presidential palace. Mr. Panetta said Mr. Morsi was “his own man,” which could be interpreted as a declaration of American support.

July 19 Omar Suleiman, the once-powerful head of Egypt’s intelligence service who represented the old regime’s last attempt to hold onto power, died in an American hospital. He had sought to become president, arguing that he could be a buffer between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, but had been knocked off the ballot by an election panel.

July 15 Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the leader of Egypt’s military council that took power after President Hosni Mubarak was deposed last year. The military still retains broad legislative and executive authority, having seized further powers before the June presidential election of Mohamed Morsi. Hours after the meeting, Mr. Tantawi seemed eager to ratchet up the dispute with Mr. Morsi. “Egypt will not fall. It is for all Egyptians, not for a certain group,” he said.

July 14 On a visit to Egypt, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with the country’s newly elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, declaring that the United States “supports the full transition to civilian rule with all that entails.” She became the highest-ranking United States official to meet Mr. Morsi since he was sworn in as Egypt’s first democratically elected president.

July 10 In a raw contest between Egypt’s competing centers of power, legislators defied the country’s highest court and its most senior generals by holding a brief session of the dissolved Parliament. The session lasted only a few minutes, long enough for lawmakers to approve a proposal to refer the matter of Parliament’s dissolution by the military to the Court of Cassation, a high appeals court.

July 9 Egypt’s constitutional court, made up of Mubarak-era judges, insisted that an earlier court decision that led to the dissolving of Parliament must stand, ratcheting up a confrontation with the new president, Mohamed Morsi.

July 8 Newly elected president Mohamed Morsi ordered the return of the dissolved Islamist-led Parliament until a new one could be elected, challenging a decision by generals who had dismissed the assembly based on a court ruling. A parliamentary election will be held within 60 days after a new constitution is approved by the nation. In June, the country’s highest court ordered Parliament dissolved after finding fault with the election process.

June 30 Mohamed Morsi was formally sworn in as the first democratically elected president of Egypt, signaling a new stage in an ever murkier struggle to define the future of the nation after six decades of military-backed autocracy. Mr. Morsi, against his wishes, took the oath before a court of Mubarak-appointed judges; he had vowed to swear in before the democratically elected and Islamist-led Parliament, but the generals dissolved it on the eve of his election under the pretext of a ruling from the very same court.

June 25 A day after being officially recognized as the new president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood moved into the presidential office last occupied by Hosni Mubarak.

June 24 Election regulators named Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood the winner of Egypt’s first competitive presidential elections, handing the Islamist group a symbolic triumph and a new weapon in its struggle for power with the ruling military council. He becomes Egypt’s fifth president and the first from outside the military.

Background: Before the Revolution

Egypt is a heavyweight in Middle East diplomacy, in part because of its peace treaty with Israel, and as a key ally of the United States. The country, often the fulcrum on which currents in the region turn, also has one of the largest and most sophisticated security forces in the Middle East.

Hosni Mubarak, ousted from office in February 2011, had been president of Egypt since the assassination of Anwar el-Sadat in October 1981. (Mr. Mubarak had served as Sadat’s vice president.) Until the recent unrest, Mr. Mubarak had firmly resisted calls to name a successor. He had also successfully negotiated complicated issues of regional security, solidified a relationship with Washington, maintained cool but correct ties with Israel and sharply suppressed Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism — along with dissent in general.

The litany of complaints against Mr. Mubarak’s autocratic rule was well known to anyone who has spent time in any city in Egypt. The police were brutal. Elections were rigged. Corruption was rampant. Life was getting harder for the masses as the rich grew richer and the poor grew poorer. Even as Egypt’s economy enjoyed record growth in recent years, the number of people living in poverty actually grew.

While Mr. Mubarak’s regime had become increasingly unpopular, the public long seemed mired in apathy. For years, the main opposition to his rule appeared to be the Muslim Brotherhood, which was officially banned but still commanded significant support.

In 2010, speculation rose as to whether Mr. Mubarak, who had undergone gall bladder surgery that year and appeared increasingly frail, would run in the 2011 elections or seek to install his son Gamal as a successor. Mohamed ElBaradei, former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, publicly challenged Mr. Mubarak in the election but drew little support. The Mubarak political machine had steamrolled its way to its regular lopsided victory in a parliamentary vote.

A Police State

Egypt’s police bureaucracy reaches into virtually every aspect of public life. Police officers direct traffic and investigate murders, but also monitor elections and issue birth and death certificates and passports. In a large, impoverished nation, the services the police provide give them wide — and, critics say, unchecked — power.

The police have a long and notorious track record of torture and cruelty to average citizens. The Mubarak government for decades maintained what it called an Emergency Law, passed first in 1981 to combat terrorism after the assassination of Mr. Sadat. The law allows police to arrest people without charge, detain prisoners indefinitely, limit freedom of expression and assembly, and maintain a special security court.

In 2010, the government promised that it would only use the law to combat terrorism and drug trafficking, but terrorism was defined so broadly as to render that promise largely meaningless, according to human rights activists and political prisoners.

Revolution: End of the Mubarak Era

When the uprising, inspired by the revolution in Tunisia, began on Jan. 25, 2011, the anger fueling it was not new. It had been seething beneath the surface for many years, exploding at times, but never before in such widespread, sustained fury. The grievances were economic, social, historic and deeply personal. Egyptians often speak of their dignity, which many said has been wounded by Mr. Mubarak’s monopoly on power, his iron-fisted approach to security and corruption that had been allowed to fester. Even government allies and insiders were quick to acknowledge that the protesters had legitimate grievances that needed to be addressed.

After 18 days of massive public demonstrations against Mr. Mubarak’s rule, more than 800 unarmed people were thought to have been killed by the police. Mr. Mubarak lost the support of his military, which promised to protect the demonstrators. On Feb. 11, 2011, he resigned and turned power over to the military.

In August 2011, Mr. Mubarak was wheeled into a courtroom cage on a hospital bed to stand trial, charged with corruption and complicity in the killing of those protestors. It was a sight that few Egyptians could have imagined as the year began, and that many had doubted they would ever see.

In June 2012, he was found guilty of being an accessory to murder for failing to stop the killing of unarmed demonstrators during the uprising in January 2011 that ended his rule. He was sentenced to life in prison. His sentence was met by several days of angry demonstrations by tens of thousands in Cairo and around Egypt who said it was not harsh enough.

An Ailing Economy

Since the revolution, Egypt’s most important sources of income have remained steady, with tourism the notable exception. The other pillars of the economy — gas and oil sales; Suez Canal revenues and remittances from workers abroad — are either stable or growing, according to Central Bank figures.

But those sources of income accomplished little more than propping up an ailing economy. Over all, economic activity came to a standstill for months, with growth expected to tumble to under 2 percent in 2011 from a robust 7 percent in 2010. Official unemployment rates rose to at least 12 percent from 9 percent. Foreign investment is negligible.

Part of the blame for Egypt’s economic malaise rests with its caretaker cabinet, which reports to the ruling military council. The ministers, mindful that several businessmen who served in the Mubarak government sit in jail on corruption convictions, are reluctant to sign off on new projects.

Military Power Play as Morsi Wins the Presidency

After the ouster of Mr. Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood had pledged not to field a presidential candidate. But in March 2012, the Brotherhood reneged on its promise not to seek the presidency. Its initial candidate was rejected by the courts on the basis of a Mubarak-era conviction, and the party’s back-up candidate, Mohamed Morsi, took his place.

In May, in the first round of voting, the winners were Mr. Morsi and Ahmed Shafik, a retired Air Force general who had been Mr. Mubarak’s final prime minister. Mr. Shafik campaigned on promises to bring back law and order and to rein in “dark forces,’' a reference to Islamists.

In June, days before the final presidential runoff, the military and its allies on the judiciary took steps that critics charged amounted to a coup. The military council ordered the Islamist Parliament dissolved after the court ruled that the law under which it had been elected was partly unconstitutional. In the same stroke, the military assumed legislative power and severely limited the authority of the presidency.

The charter the generals issued gives them control of all laws and the national budget, immunity from any oversight and the power to veto a declaration of war. The generals also seized control of the process of writing a permanent constitution.

When the polls closed on June 17, independent observers said that Mr. Morsi had narrowly won. But it was not until June 24 that the nation’s election commission confirmed that he was the official winner, handing the Islamist group a symbolic triumph and a new weapon in its struggle for power with the ruling military council. According to the commission, Mr. Morsi won 51.7 percent of the runoff vote and Mr. Shafik won 48.3 percent.

On July 8, Mr. Morsi unexpectedly ordered that Parliament reconvene, in a direct challenge to the military and to the courts, which the next day both reaffirmed their actions in dissolving the body.

Islamists Tread Lightly, But Skeptics Squirm

On the surface, Mr. Morsi seems to have gone out of his way to allay fears that Islamists would radically change Egyptian society. He promptly fulfilled a campaign promise to resign from the Brotherhood and its political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, and chose a prime minister, Hesham Kandil, who is a religious Muslim but known as a technocrat rather than a hard-liner.

Mr. Morsi met early with the acting Coptic pope, Anba Bakhomious, though during the election campaign he had said he did not believe a Christian or a woman could ever be president of Egypt. He went out of his way to praise the role of the military as guarantors of Egypt’s new democracy.

He has refrained from taking any action on hot-button social or foreign policy issues, or even discussing them. The sale and consumption of alcohol remain legal, a concern of the important tourist industry, which has been on the rocks since the revolution. No one in ruling circles is calling for the government to make wearing head scarves obligatory, ban pop music or review the peace treaty with Israel.

Even so, Mr. Morsi and his Brotherhood allies have had little luck placating secular and other opponents. The Brotherhood remains reviled and feared by secular activists and many Christians, who make up 10 percent of the population.

Many secular and Christian Egyptians, even some who participated in the revolution, now look to the military as a guarantor against Islamist excess. And many express the belief that the only reason the Brotherhood has not taken any action on social issues is because it is biding its time until it is powerful enough to do so.

Morsi’s New Cabinet Includes Many Holdovers

In early August, Mr. Morsi swore in members of his first cabinet, marking another milestone in the country’s difficult transition even as reports of deadly violence complicated the new government’s work.

The makeup of the cabinet, which includes longtime state employees and at least six former government ministers, has lowered expectations of a sweeping change in governance that was the promise of last year’s revolt.

The selection of five ministers from Mr. Morsi’s party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the exclusion of cabinet members from other major political parties seemed likely to revive complaints that the Brotherhood was seeking to dominate Egypt’s new politics. And, despite promises of an inclusive government, only two women were chosen for the cabinet — and one of them was its only Christian member.

In selecting technocrats, rather than high-profile appointees from across the political spectrum, Mr. Morsi and his prime minister, Mr. Kandil, showed a preference for cautious — and incremental — change as they face a series of mounting crises.

One appointment, though, represented a bold stroke. In naming Ahmed Mekky, a longtime activist for judicial independence, as justice minister, Mr. Morsi and his prime minister seemed to be taking on Egypt’s most powerful judges, whose reputation for politicized decisions has emerged as one of the primary challenges to Mr. Morsi’s leadership.

Two of the 35 ministers are women, and only one is a Coptic Christian, state media reported. Christians make up roughly 10 percent of the population.

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