When I heard that an Egyptian court had sentenced 529 people to death for the murder of one policeman in Minya, one question popped into my mind: Why did they stop there?
Why not sentence the vendors who sold them breakfast the morning of the murder last August, or the bus drivers who delivered them to the demonstration that led to the police crack-down and ensuing clashes in which the policeman died? After all, the goal of the sentences is not only to stamp out the Muslim Brotherhood and support for it, but to discourage all Egyptians from even considering an anti-government demonstration ever again.
Many people forget that until late 2010, participating in anti-government demonstrations in the Arab world were a pretty reliable method of committing suicide. In the early days of the Arab Spring, one of the most striking facts about the demonstrations was that there were demonstrations at all. As many said at the time, people had “lost their fear" That's what made it impossible for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to intimidate people back into their homes. Mubarak’s military regime was caught off guard, and no matter what they tried, the people just kept coming.
A few years, an election, a counter-revolution, and many deaths later, it’s possible to interpret the behavior of the Egyptian military during those days as a carefully considered tactical retreat. Now comes the counterassault.
To fully grasp what is happening in Egypt, one must remember that Mubarak was only ever a figurehead. The real power rested with the Armed Forces and their cronies among the rich and upper middle classes that fed off the highly nationalized economy. Estimates of the military’s direct stake in the Egyptian economy range as high as 40 percent. In addition to the military's national and international investments, the Ministry of Military Production manages 14 companies that produce a variety of products ranging from fertilizers to pasta to cars.
Mubarak stepped in as CEO of this military industrial complex after crawling out from underneath the body of Anwar Sadat at the parade ground where he was assassinated by members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad in October 1981. Sadat himself had inherited the job from Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had led the coup against King Farouk (code named by its CIA sponsors in Cairo as Project FF, for “Fat Fucker") that put the military in power in 1952.
The Egyptian military convinced Egyptians that they were separate from Mubarak during the initial stages of the revolution. Their real position, however, was betrayed by their actions — or lack of them. While declaring support for “the people,” the military never actively defended protestors when the police opened fire or plowed through crowds with armored trucks.
The Muslim Brotherhood was, and remains, the pretext for a much wider push by the military and its supporters to not only quell dissent, but ensure that the majority of Egyptians never again forget who owns Egypt.
The scale and relentlessness of the crowds eventually made it clear that Mubarak had to go — he was, after all, the lightning rod for protestors' anger. Defending him was too much of a liability for the military, so he had to be (or at least appear to be) sacrificed. The military set up the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and declared that they, as true patriots and servants of the people, would now help usher in a new era of Egyptian democracy.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC), packed with Mubarak appointees, was responsible for rubber-stamping the prolonged “state of emergency” that kept the military in power. It was the SCC that declared Egypt’s first democratic elections “unconstitutional” in 2012 due to irregularities — namely, that party-affiliated candidates had been allowed to run for the one third of seats reserved for independents. (Historically, the SCC had not been such sticklers about campaign irregularities — it's the same body that presided over the 2005 experimental elections that brought in an extraordinarily healthy majority of 88.6 percent for Mubarak.) The 2012 ruling led the SCAF to order the dissolution of parliament, which paved the way for the escalated anti-Morsi demonstrations that followed.
At that point, the SCAF and SCC now had the pretext they needed to take back control of the country. They're natural partners; while the military had spent decades torturing and murdering political dissidents, it was the SCC that passed the laws necessary to give disappearances and detentions the air of legality. The main target for both had always been the Muslim Brotherhood. Just like old times, the SCC had handed the military the cloak of legality by declaring the 2012 elections invalid on a relative technicality.
Why not wait until the next round of elections? If the Muslim Brotherhood really were attempting to consolidate power, then the Army could have stepped in at that point with complete legitimacy as defenders of the constitution. Pro-military demonstrators in Cairo declared that 30 million people were on the streets last July 30 demanding an end to the Morsi government. (The Cairo metropolitan area's entire population is about 17 million.) If this remarkable claim were true, it would have been easy to simply vote out Morsi.
That, however, would have pulled the rug out from under the Army’s feet. If Morsi could simply be removed through the peaceful application of democracy, then the Muslim Brotherhood would lose public legitimacy and could no longer be portrayed as a looming threat that could only be defended against through the use of emergency laws and military power. The pretext for the very existence of the Egyptian military in its current form would evaporate, as would the economic and political interests of the small constituency of elites that it protected.
The mass arrests and killings of Morsi supporters since the summer of 2013 have been followed by the arbitrary imprisonment of journalists, such as al-Jazeera’s Peter Greste and his team, and secular activists such as Alaa Abd El-Fattah, one of the figureheads of the Egyptian revolution.
In the midst of all this, the hasty release of Mubarak from custody almost as soon as the Army had retaken power in the summer of 2013 strongly suggests that even his initial arrest and trial were not much more than a tactic to placate the masses until the Army could make its move to regain control of the country.
The Muslim Brotherhood was, and remains, the pretext for a much wider push by the military and its supporters to not only quell dissent, but ensure that Egyptians never again forget who owns Egypt. The Egyptian court, by handing down such an unprecedented sentence, is dropping all pretense about its allegiances.
Egyptians may have lost their fear. But the military will help them find it.