Abdullah al-Arian is assistant professor of history at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. Flynt Leverett, former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council, has called him “an excellent young historian of the modern Middle East.” His research interests include Islamic social movements, globalization and the Muslim world and US policy toward the Middle East. He is a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English and his forthcoming book is titled Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Egypt. Our conversation focuses on the political and social situation in Egypt and Gaza since the July 3, 2013, coup, which deposed Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, Mohamed Morsi.
PAUL GOTTINGER: Since the coup, there has been a very heavy crackdown on not only the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) – which is now considered a terrorist organization – but also on all progressive forces within Egypt. For example, members of the April 6 movement recently have been sentenced to prison for protesting. Can you talk about the widespread repression?
ABDULLAH AL-ARIAN: I think it’s important to note that this is a textbook example of how military coups operate. Everything about this has gone entirely by the book. So initially, there was vilification of the party that was seen as having warranted this military intervention (the Muslim Brotherhood).
We then saw the return of old party politics. Examples of this are the extreme cronyism of the oligarchic class and early attempts at the resumption of something akin to the National Democratic Party structure, which operated under the Mubarak family and was the only acceptable mode of political mobilization within Egypt for nearly three decades.
Some of the progressive forces that supported the coup or stood by passively as it happened eventually did realize the danger in allowing the military to completely take over this process. The killing, imprisonments and the silencing and shutting down of all political opposition may have begun with the MB, but it was inevitable that it would continue on to silence the more progressive factions. That is because they posed just as much of a threat to the old political order because of their revolutionary demands.
During the Morsi government, there were energy and goods shortages, which is part of the reason there was such support for his ouster in July 2013. Has the interim military government been able to provide any discernable improvement in the quality of life for people of Egypt since the coup?
Whatever improvements may have occurred were quite slight. A lot of the evidence that emerged in the aftermath of the coup demonstrated that Morsi had little to do with the problems in the economy. In fact, we saw this with some of the fuel and electricity shortages that happened in the summer of 2013, which didn’t involve the Morsi government as directly as some people had assumed. So he was overthrown for things that many people believed he was responsible for but, in fact, wasn’t. Many of the economic problems – like shortages – were artificially created by a combination of privatized industries run by Mubarak-era oligarchs and powerful state officials who retained their positions from the Mubarak period. Based on many of the news reports that have since emerged, this was done quite intentionally in order to create popular resentment and opposition to Morsi’s rule.
There was a brief period of relief in the initial weeks after the coup, but since then, we’ve seen the military’s inability to stabilize the country. This is partly because the military faces some degree of popular opposition, as seen in actions by organized labor, supporters of the MB and from ordinary people who are completely opposed to the return to military rule. These actions have placed some amount of pressures on the government for these problems, on which it’s failed to deliver. Economic production has come to a screeching halt, for example, and all the economic indicators over the last seven months show that economically Egypt is in worse trouble than it ever was under Morsi.
I want to touch on the security situation in Egypt. There have been bombings in the Sinai, but there have also been assassination attempts on members of the interim government by Ansar Bayt al Maqdis in Cairo. Do you see the military government possessing the ability to improve the security situation in Egypt, or do you expect the violence to continue?
So far, the government hasn’t been able to stem the violence. This may be because of the widespread opposition to the military within certain segments of the Egyptian population. One should remember that the popular use of political violence was not common during the three-year transition, but has become far more pervasive of a political tool with the return to authoritarianism in Egypt.
As a result, I think it’s unlikely that the military will be able to find a way to clamp down on all forms of political violence. If the military continues to repress any other outlets for political expression, the violence could become an even worse problem. But it’s important to understand that this violence is not coming from mainstream political forces, whether it’s the Islamic movement (the MB or Salafi movement) or some of the more liberal, progressive or leftist groups. The violence is a very unique phenomenon, which has its roots in the resistance within the Sinai and which predates even the 2011 revolution. These Sinai resistance groups have a very specific set of grievances, which are not shared by all of Egypt’s revolutionary political forces. So it’s important to place the political violence within this context.
How has the coup in Egypt affected Gaza? Has there been an increase in tension between Hamas and Fatah?
The coup has had a very immediate and severe impact on the civilian population in Gaza. The Egyptian military government took charge on July 3, and within the first 72 hours of their control, Sisi ordered the closing of the overland border between Egypt and Gaza, which the Morsi government had allowed to operate within certain limitations. But Sisi also aggressively shut down the entire network of tunnels from Egypt to Gaza. These tunnels have been the only lifeline for Gaza’s population of 1.7 million over the last 7 years.
I think this signifies a return to the Mubarak-era foreign policy, in which Egypt was not only an accessory to the siege of Gaza but was an active and willing partner in the Israeli siege. The uproar over the Morsi government and the villainization of the MB by the ultranationalist sentiments which emerged after the coup created broader support for Sisi’s actions towards Gaza. In fact, the entire population of Gaza was conflated with Hamas’ leadership, which was conflated with the MB and with Morsi directly.
In regards to the Fatah/Hamas dynamic, we should remember that one of the things that Mubarak was especially fond of doing was to maintain division within the ranks of the Palestinian leadership. This is because a weakened and divided Palestinian leadership allowed Egyptian intelligence services and the Israelis to maintain a greater degree of leverage and control. It has been well-documented that all attempts to find a unity government – which included both Fatah and Hamas – were constantly spoiled by the Egyptian negotiators like Omar Suleiman – who was the intelligence chief under Mubarak. All signals at this stage are that Egypt under Sisi’s leadership has gone back to trying to keep these divisions within the Palestinian leadership.
In fact, recently, Rachid al-Ghannouchi (who is head of the Ennahda movement in Tunisia) publicly stated that Fatah has approached the Tunisian government for help mediating between the Palestinian factions. I think it’s safe to say that the Egyptians have intentionally failed in their role as mediator between Palestinian factions over the last seven years.
Do you see the deteriorating situation in Gaza leading to an increase of rocket attacks into Israel?
There are a number of indications that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is reaching unprecedented levels. This is a result of not only the siege itself but also [of] the severing of all Gaza’s lifelines in the form of the tunnels into Sinai. Whether or not this is something that could lead to violent expression is a bit of an overreach. That is not how these things necessarily play out. I think it’s true that Hamas has shown that it isn’t always able to control all the other militant factions that exist in Gaza. Hamas has proven time and again that as much as they try to police Gaza, they’re constantly undermined by the Israelis and by Egypt. This leads to a certain breakdown of security within Gaza, and this is done intentionally by external forces.
Gaza has no sovereignty to speak of; it’s essentially an open-air prison with the jailers sitting on the sideline watching on. For this reason, I think it’s important to emphasize the severe humanitarian crisis, rather than the military or security risks that emerge as a side effect or consequence of the humanitarian crisis. This is one of the reasons that the events from July 3 in Egypt are going to have much broader consequences for the rest of the region. The coup in Egypt is doubly tragic, not only for the people of Egypt, but also [for] the people of Palestine.