Families have stockpiled food and water, drivers have slept nights in petrol lines that snaked for city block after city block, and power cuts have rippled across the governorates and major cities. Half a dozen people have died in a spasm of violence that threatens to become a full-blown seizure when mass protests against President Mohamed Morsi break out today. Headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party have been attacked and burned throughout the Nile Delta, and his supporters’ rallies assaulted. Brotherhood toughs have banded together outside their offices wearing hard hats and makeshift shields and carrying homemade guns, ready to bludgeon or blow away what they fear is a coming wave of paid street thugs, the very embodiment of the counter-revolution.
Morsi’s opponents, sometimes backed by police, have also taken to the streets with firearms. Longtime revolutionaries uneasy with the violent omens and new, questionable allies have swallowed their hesitation and prepare to march on the presidential palace. As protesters sacked a Brotherhood office in Alexandria on Friday, someone in the crowd stabbed to death a young American teacher filming with his camera. In beleaguered Port Said, already subject to gun battles between citizens and police that killed dozens in March, a gas tank exploded at an anti-Morsi rally, reportedly killing one man and horribly maiming many more. Rumors flew that the protest had been bombed.
The country is gripped by expectant hysteria, like a Twilight Zone version of the hours before a World Cup final: nearly 90 million penned-in bystanders waiting on the opening whistle of a match to be played for keeps with guns and knives by partisans they hardly recognize as their own. One online commentator described the impending movement to oust Morsi on the one-year anniversary of his election as the birth of a new political order that may kill its mother. A journalist said it was as if Egypt’s body politic were rejecting a transplant and killing the nation in the process, a fledgling democracy’s auto-immune system gone haywire.
How did the country get here? How did the January 2011 uprising and its young, made-for-TV activists spin out into another zero-sum game for control? The story is complicated, and the strategic and tactical failures by both the secularist opposition and the Brotherhood so profoundly, majestically short-sighted and self-defeating that some have retreated into that most time-tested of rationales, the conspiracy, to explain how things could have gone so wrong, so fast. In their narrative, the crisis has been stage managed by the military, Egypt’s eminence grise and ultimate power-broker, beginning on the day in February 2011 when the generals opportunistically seized on the mass protests to quietly but forcefully escort Hosni Mubarak, his family and his cronies from the stage.
Like most conspiracy theories, the story has a seed of truth. In the heady days before and after the fall of Mubarak, the generals were taking everyone’s temperature. At one time or another, they chatted with many of the revolution’s most prominent instigators. They met with Ahmed Maher of the April 6th Movement. They met with representatives of the Brotherhood. Mohamed Aboul Ghar, who would soon found one of the only serious non-Islamist political parties in the country, once told me how he, the editor of Al Ahram newspaper, and two other men were called before five generals that March. One kept notes as they spoke; he was Abdelfattah el-Sisi, later promoted to defense minister and commander in chief under Morsi. As the meeting adjourned, one of the generals casually remarked that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces - the military’s governing body - had in 2010 held a meeting without Mubarak, their commander, and decided not to allow the president’s son, Gamal, to complete a widely telegraphed succession during rigged presidential elections then scheduled for 2011.
“The plan [was], when Gamal is going to take over, they are going make a coup,” Aboul Ghar recalled.
The military’s disdain for Gamal and his generation of casually corrupt businessmen was well known, as was their desire not to see him crowned, and the January uprising provided a perfect opportunity to abort the Mubarak family dynasty. But after it became obvious that the masses would not accept a handover to Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s last-minute vice president and longtime intelligence chief, the military needed a placeholder. Picking out a suitable figure from Mubarak’s old National Democratic Party network would be impossible - not in the aftermath of a rebellion that left their headquarters smoldering, their party dissolved, and their leaders facing prosecution. Egypt’s political opposition, meanwhile, had been carefully neutered and co-opted for five decades; it had no base and its leaders no respect on the streets.
The only suitable dancing partner was the Muslim Brotherhood, an institution whose organizational, bureaucratic and service-providing experience was deeper than even that of the post-1956 militarized government itself.
And so the transition proceeded under military rule, directed by old, conservative men who learned their craft in a much different Egypt, half of them hoping to protect the old order, the other half pushing their project to usher in a new one. A temporary constitution orchestrated by the military and backed by the Brotherhood and their ultraconservative allies passed easily. Calls from people like Mohamed ElBaradei to create a liberal, progressive and inclusive new constitution from scratch, written by an independent body chosen by consensus, were ignored. As the year dragged on, poor Egyptians remained poor, and Mubarak sat uncharged with any crime in a military hospital. Protests against the SCAF’s reluctance to hand over power grew. They were supported by the Brotherhood, which likely saw in the unrest a useful tactic to keep their prime opponent on the back foot. In November 2011, the protests threatened to get out of control. Security forces stormed Tahrir Square and brutally dispersed a small sit in of a few hundred people - almost all of them relatives of the revolution’s martyrs or those who had been wounded. They had been forgotten by the state, and they were angry. The revolutionaries were infuriated at the attack, and the result was the battle of Mohamed Mahmoud Street, a five-day brawl with the riot police near the Square that left more than 40 civilians dead. The end of the fighting was precipitated by army intervention, a large concrete wall, and the arrival of a human chain of Muslim Brothers who cajoled or forced the protesters off the street.
The revolutionaries and marginalized young men and women who had joined the fight were filled with righteous anger. They felt betrayed. They had shed blood, supposedly on principle: to force police reform, to snatch some justice for those who had lost sons or daughters or their own health during the revolution, to hold the army to account for abuses under its rule. To them, the Brothers had thrown it all away for political gain. The temporary constitution had paved the way for parliamentary elections, due that month, a critical step that would help decide who ruled post-revolution Egypt. The Brotherhood could not let them be delayed. They went on to dominate the vote. Mohamed Mahmoud cleaved a rift between the two sides that never healed.
Over the course of the following months, it became obvious: The Brotherhood was dutifully, purposefully playing for keeps. Under the temporary constitution they helped to pass, the new parliament would be tasked with choosing those who would write a permanent founding document for post-revolution Egypt - the holy grail. The Brotherhood would go to almost any lengths to secure it. But what they saw as predictable hardball and democratic combat - which they were almost guaranteed to win - the opposition saw as a series of betrayals. The Brotherhood ran for more seats in parliament than some of their prominent members had first promised, then dominated the ministries once elected. The opposition hardly contested the second legislative election, for the less-powerful upper house, which was similarly dominated by the Brotherhood and Salafi parties. When the time came to select the constituent assembly, the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc helped gerrymander its 100-member make-up so that if push came to shove, the Brotherhood and its backers would not be outvoted. The Brotherhood pledged not to seek the presidency, then fielded a candidate, and fielded another - Morsi - when the first was disqualified. After Morsi took office, he failed to form - or could not find those willing to join - a cabinet that some had hoped would involve figures from across the political spectrum and prompt a national reconciliation. On the other side, the Brotherhood felt battered by the forces of the old regime. In the days before Morsi’s victory, the Supreme Constitutional Court used an electoral technicality to annul the lower house of parliament, erasing the Brotherhood’s gains and the country’s most crucial elected body. The court docketed a case to rule on the legitimacy of the constituent assembly. Other courts planned to rule on the legality of the Muslim Brotherhood itself. The entire project was now at risk.
The beginning of the end came in November, almost a year to the day after the Mohamed Mahmoud battle, when Morsi issued a package of sovereign decrees - just four months into his term - that essentially placed himself and assembly above judicial review. He and his allies argued that to stand by and do nothing would leave courts packed with Mubarak appointees free to undermine every step of the transition. The opposition, which may have once been inclined to agree, did not take his side. There had been too many betrayals, trust had evaporated. To the apparent surprise of Morsi’s administration, they were outraged. Protesters took to the streets, calling the president a “new pharaoh.” The remaining liberals, progressives, leftists and Christians in the constituent assembly walked out. Morsi gave them two extra months to resolve their differences, but the assembly rushed the draft constitution through an overnight session and passed it. Opposition politicians increasingly believed that Morsi did not even call his own shots; that decisions of national import were made in the Brotherhood's secretive Guidance Bureau. In Egypt's new constitution, human rights groups and other critics saw gaping loopholes, lax protections for minorities, women and children, and troubling roles for religious oversight from conservative Sunni institutions.
The November crisis awakened the opposition to a harsh reality: they were going to keep losing this game, and the Brotherhood was not going to stop playing. The only solution was to change the rules. They united, for the first time, under the banner of the National Salvation Front. Their faltering effort to boycott and then vote down the new constitution failed, but the unexpectedly tight result convinced them that Morsi’s base was shrinking. Soon after, the NSF declared that it would boycott upcoming parliamentary elections unless many of the rules - written by the nearly wholly Islamist upper house - were changed. Improbably, filled with inflated egos and highly oppositional parties, the NSF held its front.
In December, after Morsi supporters ransacked a small sit-in outside the presidential palace and sparked deadly street battles, a more extreme wing of the opposition began to wield influence inside the coalition. They argued that Morsi had lost all legitimacy. He would have to go, voluntarily or by force. Violent anti-Brotherhood protests became the order of the day. Instability worked in the opposition’s favor. The economy was nose-diving, and security forces - becoming more openly vocal in their disdain for the Brotherhood government - could not or would not do their jobs. They took no pleasure facing the brunt of public ire for protecting a conservative, formerly clandestine movement that had stood against the state for so long. Social media and independent television stations lit up with images of Brotherhood members beating away protesters. Newspapers openly mocked Morsi’s government for its inability to right the ship. Rumors and anonymously sourced news reports spread about the Brotherhood’s ambitions to Islamize the army and police and carve off critical swaths of sovereign assets, such as those along the Suez Canal, to sell to benefactors in Qatar. Morsi - one of the more deeply uncharismatic leaders in modern Arab history - proved incapable of rallying anyone outside his base. Nearly everything he said became gas on the fire of the opposition’s anger.
The Brotherhood’s majoritarian behavior had, by then, convinced many secular-minded Egyptians that Morsi and his administration would not engage in any meaningful negotiation. Promises the president made were broken the next day. His allies - fiery preachers and hardcore Salafis - invoked sectarianism, religious purity and pan-Islamist ambitions on the campaign trail and elsewhere to rally his base, driving away the swing vote that had helped Morsi defeat former Air Force general and prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, and convincing many opponents that their deepest fears of the Brotherhood were justified. Rule-bound parliamentary competition became an almost farcical idea. The goal for many in the opposition became the end of the Brotherhood’s entire project itself.
Ministries were in quiet bureaucratic rebellion. Lower-level employees stalled paperwork. The courts ruled the upper house of parliament’s draft law to elect a new lower house unconstitutional and seemed ready to indefinitely stall the critical elections. Then, they ruled the upper house itself unconstitutional and took up a case to look into the legitimacy of Morsi’s own election victory. Morsi and the Brotherhood had, by now, almost fully retreated to their core supporters. He held a sectarianism-fueled stadium rally where he severed relations with Bashar al-Assad - after his administration encouraged Egyptians to go fight in the war. As the swamp of a long summer and economic decline loomed, the NSF waited. Then came Tamarod.
The Rebel campaign has publicly put into simple terms what many in the political opposition have been thinking for months: Morsi is the target, he must go. And when he goes, the Brotherhood project ends. The constitution is rewritten; the country presses the reset button on the transition. It’s not hard to see the massive demonstrations taking shape in the coming days. Egypt is more polarized than at any point since the revolution. Many simply despise the Brotherhood. When a friend on Facebook lamented a video showing police and civilians working together to fire shotguns and tear gas at Brotherhood supporters in Alexandria, another person wrote: “Where is the sadness if the police [are] finally shooting the right target?”
The polarized vitriol made me think back to November 2010, two years before Morsi’s disastrous power grab and one year before Mohamed Mahmoud, a time when serious political conversation in Egypt revolved around the NDP’s 90-percent landslide parliamentary victory and Gamal’s coming succession. The idea of revolution wasn’t laughable; it wasn’t even considered.
That month, during the election, I went to Mansoura, in the Delta, to report. In those days, the Brotherhood were a journalist’s best friend: efficient, friendly, motivated, and the underdog. They were seen as clean and untainted by the repressive machinery of the NDP. Two Brothers met me the morning of the vote with a list of polling places and drove us around, receiving and making phone calls to determine where fraud was occurring. We pulled up to the Nasseriya Primary School in Mansoura’s central square, where police and civilians (and civilian-looking police) milled about. A man transferred a blurry cell-phone video to my phone. It showed chaos and scuffling outside the school half an hour before. The staged fight was a time-tested NDP tactic: buy a microbus or two of underemployed neighborhood toughs and send them to brandish knives and cause a disturbance at a polling place. When those citizens naive enough to be in the voting queue fled, send your people inside to stuff the ballots. The practice had become so accepted by 2010 that the NDP men at the school had begun the ballot stuffing with no care for who was watching. A Brotherhood poll observer told me he had stood inside quietly for twenty minutes before they realized who he was and roughly escorted him outside.
At another poll not far away - also a school - the local NDP candidate, a square-jawed former policeman named Mohamed Bassiouny, threw his arm around the shoulder of one of our Brotherhood sources, a university computer science professor, and confidently assured us of Egypt’s flourishing democracy.
“The direction of this polling place is well known, and it’s for Mohamed Bassiouny,” he said.
After the sun set and the polls closed, the stuffed ballot boxes were driven by truck - surrounded by plainclothes men - to a stadium to be “counted.” Outside the stadium, at least a thousand protesters had gathered, organized by the Brotherhood. Cordoned on a stretch of the boulevard by police, they chanted for judges to do their job, for “reform and change,” and for God. They stayed hours after we left. Down the road in Mahalla, a similar crowd was beaten away by police batons.
It was this Brotherhood that you could see, at one time, working hand in hand with liberals, leftists and progressives to change and reform the decaying Egyptian security state. Now, cooperation seems impossible. Forces once perceived across the opposition as nefarious and possibly fatal to the revolution and Egypt’s health as a modern democracy - the NDP machine, the military-as-state - have in two short years found themselves called upon to protect that very revolution. Protesters silence others who attempt to chant against the military and paste photographs of camouflaged soldiers cradling infants on their cars. Symbols of the old regime - Omar Suleiman’s aide, the son of one of the Delta’s longtime NDP power brokers - have re-emerged to rally supporters against the Brotherhood. The irony is not lost on many of the most dedicated revolutionaries, who wonder whether their causes have been hijacked and their voices marginalized once again. Others have set aside such concerns, saying the Brotherhood represents the more clear and present danger. The enduring legacy of the Morsi presidency, if he does not survive his four-year term, may be his inadvertent facilitation of the counter-revolution.
If Morsi falls or steps down, millions of Egyptians will view it as a victory. Perhaps he could be succeeded by a salvation government, and some kind of stable progress will ensue, though the Brotherhood can hardly be expected to quietly allow their project to dissolve around them, and it would likely mean the return of the army to a guiding role. Revolutions come with chaos. History teaches us that many years may pass before a country comes out of such upheaval with a working government, satisfactory justice and reconciliation, and a consensus about national identity. But even in such a positive scenario, it is hard not to view the first two and a half years of Egypt’s revolution as a series of squandered promises.