Part-time comedian Bassem Youssef is the kind of Egyptian that liberals in the West can relate to. He was feted in Western media as a cause celebre for freedom of speech after an arrest warrant was issued against him during March in the wake of numerous libel suits brought against him by members of the public (initially from one of his own work colleagues) culminating in a charge that he insulted the president and Islam on his popular television program “El Bernameg” – an Egyptian version of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. His final show filmed and broadcast before the huge demonstrations in Egypt which resulted in the military coup on 3 July was almost entirely a mockfest of then President Morsi and his supporters, with little criticism of the opposition. Listed as one of the World’s top 100 influential personalities by Time magazine earlier this year, he has been credited with helping turn public opinion against the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies.
After the coup which removed Morsi, a number of media channels were immediately closed down under the justification that they were inciting violence, including the branch of Al-Jazeera Egypt as well as numerous other satellite stations connection to Islamic movements and personalities. Given his own recent history and liberal politics, it could be considered surprising that Youssef was supportive of the media clampdown which included the arrests of several employees of the various stations, despite it being carried out by the military with no due process.
His public pronouncements on Twitter (where he has more than 1.7 million followers) since 3 July include stating that “The MB regime was about to close down channels and target media and politicians” (it should be noted that the vast majority of independent Egyptian satellite channels are funded by secular and liberal opposition), “Instead of writing numerous tweets here’s one to sum it all up MB are the new form of Nazis got it? I said it on the show and saying it now” and on 5 July that “MB leadership sending its youths to die at army HQs to victimize themselves against the world. Blood for publicity. Cheap. #not_a_coup.” Having indulged in both apologism and victim-blaming, he made no comment other than “Kifaya” (enough) after the killing of more than 50 protestors in front of the Republican Guard headquarters who were gunned down by the army on the morning of 7 July.
While Youssef was extremely vocal against what he considered as attempts to silence him by the Morsi presidency as well as some of the inflammatory rhetoric emanating from the pro-Morsi camp, he appears to have no public stance against either the independent media clampdown or the killing of protesters. This liberal hypocrisy encapsulated by Youssef is one of the most obvious features of the political events in Egypt at the moment, from both within and outside.
First and foremost among the liberal hypocrites would be Mohammad el-Baradei, the Nobel prize winning former IAEA inspector. In an interview with CNN on 4 July, he claimed that the removal of the president by the military was not a coup but rather the equivalent of a recall (with the recalled candidate and close associates since being held incommunicado by the military), supported the closure of independent media as a necessary step for the immediate future, and made no comment other than “violence begets violence” after the killing of those protesting the continued imprisonment of their “recalled” candidate. Given he had previously stated, presumably with a straight face, that he had “emphasized to all the security authorities here that everything has to be done in due process,” and that “I would be the first one to shout loud and clearly if I see any sign of regression in terms of democracy,” his response could generously be described as underwhelming.
His political party, the National Salvation Front, issued a statement after the deaths which condemned “all acts of violence,” including assaults on military barracks and army officers – a nod to the acceptance of the military’s narrative that the killings were in fact the result of “a terrorist group” trying to storm the building (an assertion not backed by witness statements, but accepted without question at the eerily Mubarak-era style press conference held after the event). This at least was somewhat better than the response of the leftist former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi who stated that the only beneficiaries of the event were those who wanted to drive the country into civil war, and – the Muslim Brotherhood.
While this hypocrisy has become ever more apparent as the events in Egypt unfold, a step back finds that the movement against the former president appears to be predicated on the same type of dishonesty. The Tamarrud campaign built popular support based upon a petition that complained about worsening security and economic conditions, along with prominent complaints that the country was “begging” the IMF for loans and continuing to “follow in the footsteps” of America.
Though there is room for debate as to how much responsibility the Morsi government had given the lack of real control over state institutions and the hangover of more than sixty years of dictatorship, these are all valid grievances that are justifications for widespread discontent and demonstrations. The same points were continuously raised by the spokesperson for the campaign, a young Nasiri activist called Mahmoud Badry, who consistently complained how the country was a “prisoner” to the IMF, an organisation that only wanted ill for the country, and he demanded an independent Egypt – the Egypt of Abdul Nasser (an apt allusion given that he was the first Egyptian dictator to move decisively and harshly against the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1950’s).
And yet, Tamarrud’s candidate for Prime Minister was none other than el-Baradei, a supporter of private enterprise and a believer in the austerity that Egypt would have to implement to pay for the IMF loan, a position he has consistently maintained. He is also hardly a figure who would take Egypt away from its position as a close US ally, spending time on the phone with Secretary of State John Kerry the day before the coup took place, apparently in order to convince him of its necessity. A man with little street support in Egypt, he polled in single figures at the time of the presidential elections, and is widely seen as a favourite of the Western media. Whether el-Baradei is manipulating Tamarrud, or Tamarrud is manipulating el-Baradei, or they are both manipulating the public, is a matter up for discussion, but what is clear is that the grievances and demands that gathered the people in Tahrir square appear to have little to do with the machinations taking place.
The hypocrisy is not limited to liberal Egypt, with the statements from the EU, Britain and the United States in wake of the coup effectively accepting the events without much reserve. The Obama administration’s refusal to use the word “coup” due to the financial aid implications involved is further testimony to lack of principle on all sides. Details have since emerged in the New York Times of the extent of the governments knowledge and support of the moves by the Egyptian army in the week leading to the formal removal of Morsi – and while both pro- and anti- Morsi supporters are united in their dislike of America and desire to see Egypt take an independent path, the political leaderships ostensibly representing the two sides clearly rely upon the patronage of the United States, evidence to both its continuing hegemony over the politics of the country and that none of the formal political parties is willing or able to meet public demand.
Of particular interest is a recent article by Eman Makey which claims that a review of dozens of US federal government documents shows an American money trail to Egyptian groups that pressed for president’s removal. One prominent example is the Ibn Khaldun Center in Cairo, one of the largest recipients of American funding. Its founder Saaddin Ibrahim recently stated that “We were told by the Americans that if we see big street protests that sustain themselves for a week, they will reconsider all current US policies towards the Muslim Brotherhood regime.” The director of the Ibn Khaldun Center, Dalia Ziada, has repeatedly backed the military and labelled the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists publicly, with her twitter account full of wild assertions such as Muslim Brotherhood members were refusing to give blood to help the victims of the Republican Guard massacre, itself according to her being a cynical plan to win international support. In one of her most telling tweets in justifying the military actions was that “In its war on terror, the US killed and tortured hundreds. #Egypt is now involved in a similar war on terror.” The Ibn Khaldun Center and its associates is just one of the American backed agencies in Egypt which are politically active – others include members of el-Baradei’s party.
It is clear in the immediate aftermath of events that the military and other remnants of the previous regime have benefitted the most, the military itself being America’s closest ally in Egypt. Adly Mansour – the current president installed by the military – was previously the head of the constitutional court, and led the constitutional hearings in 2012 that scrapped the “political isolation” law which had prohibited members of the old regime from contesting elections. The re-installed attorney general Abdel Meguid Mahmoud was previously removed by Morsi in the wake of the acquittal of those accused of the “camel battle” case related to when Tahrir square was stormed by armed gangs during the revolution in January 25. Since being re-installed he offered his resignation stating that he wanted “all of the public prosecution’s decisions to be free of any doubt or suspicion,” but not before he had issued more than 200 arrest warrants and travel bans for Muslim Brotherhood members.
Along with these stalwarts of the previous Mubarak regime, the hated police force has also taken the opportunity to rebuild its image as a “protector of the people,” a novel re-invention for an institution whose widespread torture and abuse was one of the major grievances leading to the uprising against the Mubarak regime back in 2011. Reports in the Guardian and elsewhere indicate that the plain-clothes Aman al-Dawla (state-security) are now confident enough to reappear upon the streets of Egyptian cities for the first time since the revolution in 2011.
As Egypt slips back into the Mubarak era, which was formerly one of the closest allies of the West and seen as a strong bulwark against Islamic movements, the liberal elements cheer on from the sidelines. Unable to win any open election, presidential, parliamentary or otherwise, they are now riding into government on the back of tanks called out by demonstrations that were gathered upon a platform they themselves do not agree wholeheartedly with but were happy to co-opt and inflame, backed by foreign aid.
Variously applauding and assenting to the clampdown upon their opposition, as Bassem Youssef admitted frankly in his own opinion piece written earlier in June – Egyptian liberals and secularists “have all become fascists.” While he contended (in a quite astonishing show of apologism) that this occurred as a reaction to the Morsi presidency, the events of the last few days suggest that the problem lies much deeper, and indicate that some of the liberal and secular elements of the society appear willing to return to their historic alliance with former dictatorship.
REZA PANKHURST (Twitter: @rezapankhurst) is a political scientist and historian, specialising in the Middle East and Islamic movements. His latest book, The Inevitable Caliphate? A History of the Struggle for Global Islamic Union, 1924 to the Present, is published by Hurst and available now. He was formerly a political prisoner of the Mubarak regime.
An earlier version of this article was first published on Open Democracy